Where up is down and down is up

Bajo el Mango is back! The last few months of living in Paraguay have been such a great learning experience. Many of my preconceptions about how things do and/or should work have been challenged as I tried to make sense of what is up and what is down in Paraguay. But what I’ve learned is that things don’t necessarily follow a linear pattern here, and everyday one is faced with a host of contradictions, which in a way is both the beauty and frustration of life here. I will try to illustrate what I mean with one of my favourite anecdotes so far.

Back in November, my husband and I went to one of our favourite newly discovered sports bars in town to grab a bite to eat. We were one of the first ones there (Paraguayans usually don’t show up until after 9.30pm). As more people started trickling in, a shady van pulled up with an overweight, grimy looking middle-aged man rolling a cart with alcohol, followed by two beautiful, scantily dressed young women in high heels. I was about to experience my first direct encounter with the famous ‘promotoras’ of Paraguay, a.k.a women whose beauty and sex-appeal is used to market products directly at bars, restaurants or other venues. The girls looked glamorous and had clearly spent hours on hair and makeup.

After they were done setting up their drink cart, they came around to each table, offering their cocktail – Mix Tail – for free, followed by an obligatory picture with the two women. While I was sitting in the back bewildered at what was happening, my husband and I decided to go along with it – first, because we thought it was hilarious, and second, because I wouldn’t want to turn down a free drink! Sure enough it was our turn and we were rewarded with the drink and the priceless photo. Without fail, everyone in that bar had their turn and no one declined the offer.

One week later, we went back to the same bar, this time a bit earlier. We were having our meal, when I noticed red roses appearing on people’s tables. Two very conservatively dressed, natural young girls in their late-teens were going around the bar offering roses to people for a small monetary contribution. Sure enough it was our turn. Rose in hand, the girl explained that they were part of a group of youth organizing talks for teenagers about faith and the importance of family. Sceptical and interested as I was, I asked her to go on and explain the initiative a bit further. It soon became clear that they were part of a faith-based initiative promoting abstinence to teenagers. To the utter shock of the girl, I kindly turned down the rose and thanked her for her explanation. We were the only ones in the restaurant without a rose on our table. Everyone else contributed.

See what I mean about contradictions? I couldn’t believe that just a week earlier in the same place, sex and alcohol was being promoted. It just didn’t seem to make sense. And no one questioned it! On the one hand I found this extremely infuriating, knowing that sex education for teenagers is very much a taboo topic here, where the teenage pregnancy rate is shockingly high and abortion is illegal. It just didn’t add up for me, how can the culture be so openly sexual, promote promiscuity and at the same time be conservatively Catholic and promote abstinence? This anecdote has replicated itself in so many instances with other aspects of daily life. In a way, it’s the charm of a country where nothing is challenged and people go on leading fairly happy lives. But it’s also a country with extreme injustice and social inequalities. It’s a culture I’m still grappling to understand. Welcome to the idiosyncrasies of Paraguay!

Mango Moment

Enjoying a cafe con leche and alfajor (dulce de leche cookie covered in chocolate) while studying Spanish at Cafe Martinez

2 comments on “Where up is down and down is up

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