During the summer of my senior year of college, I decided to do something different. Unlike many of most students who intern to boost their resume, I decided to be a volunteer for Amigos de las Americas. Through this non-profit that focuses on community development in Latin America, I could travel to a foreign country and immerse myself in the language and culture. Even though I was a French major and I had never taken Spanish before, I applied. With a basic Spanish book, I feigned a passable level of Spanish on my phone interview. Before I could even second-guess, I found myself in San Pedro, Paraguay.
It was in this rural community of around 70 people that I built stoves to replace their open-fire kitchens, taught English and Spanish to kids through games, and worked on environmental projects. However, the program's main focus was on cultural exchange. It was mainly an opportunity for my community and I to learn about our similarities and differences. They had never seen an American before. I had never traveled to South America, much less lived in a Spanish-speaking country. Due my lack of formal study, I muddled along daily with terrible Spanish and even worse Guaraní (the local, indigenous language). With a bit of diligent studying on my part and a lot of patience on my host family's part, I was able to communicate fairly well by the end. Some of my fondest memories were waking up daily before dawn and sitting around the fire drinking maté out of a guampa.
(Note: In many parts of South America, maté is a loose-leaf tea made of yerba maté served in a mug called a guampa. It's sipped through a straw-like filter called a bombilla one mouthful at a time. Everyone takes turns sharing the same guampa and bombilla with one person topping off the mug with more water before the start of a someone else's turn.)
The simplicity made me tranquilo, but it would be naïve to say Paraguayans lead an easier life. There were many hardships that the community and particularly, my host family, faced each day. My family had 4 boys—all in their teens. The two eldest were still younger than me, yet they did backbreaking work in the fields to support their father's income. They weren't even paid for my room and board by the program. As cheesy as this sounds, though lacking in monetary wealth, my family was rich in warmth and compassion. After dinner, my host brothers loved to teach me card games, exchange cuss words, talk about girls, and just treat me like one of the guys. My host mom cooked for me and helped me with my laundry (something my own mom stopped a long time ago). My host dad was always quick to laugh and share his fatherly advice. I truly felt like a part of the family. Before I knew it, my two months were already up.
On the last full day, one of the local teachers bought me my own guampa as a going-away gift. It was handcrafted with intricate leatherwork. I took it back to my host family's house to try it out. Before I could even use it, I carelessly broke the leather strap that was connected to side of the guampa. Upset and irritated myself, I started combing the backyard looking for spare leather parts so I could make a new one. Realizing my plight, my host father told me he could fix it and took it inside. He came out a few minutes later with a polished metal chain that fit perfectly on my guampa. Ecstatic, I thanked him profusely and we drank tereré, an iced version of maté, from my newly improved gift.
The next morning, I woke up and packed my bags before heading to the kitchen for my last, daily maté. When it was passed to me, it felt different than usual. I looked in my hand and realized that the chain loop that had been on the family guampa was no longer there. Unable to afford a new replacement, my host father had given me their chain for my guampa and left their own bare.
When I returned home, I urged some of my friends and family to try the yerba maté I had brought with me. No one enjoyed its acquired taste. Nevertheless, for the rest of that summer, I still sipped my tereré when I had the chance. Once I was back in school, though, I quickly adapted to my old drinking regime of energy drinks and coffee to keep me up during the day. But even though my yerba maté has long run out and my guampa sits on my desk unused, I have never forgotten my time in Paraguay and that amazing act of kindness.