Sunday, July 12, 2009

An American Girl Goes Car Shopping in Paraguay

Wednesday night my host mom asked me if I wanted to go to San Lorenzo for an errand quickly. San Lorenzo is a 30 minute bus ride away and so I figured we could be there and back in an hour since we were taking the car. I also figured we were going to the supermarket, one of the main attractions in San Lorenzo. I was wrong on both accounts.

The family car is tiny and has broken down twice since I have been living here. Cars in Paraguay are generally a luxury for anyone to own and generally shitty. New cars are a fantasy, they are only for the super wealthy, and used cars date back to the dictatorship. Delia, my host mom, doesn’t know how to drive and is surprised that I learned how to drive at 16. She is terrified of driving and never wants to learn. The driving age here is 18, although hardly anyone obeys this law and most people, young or old, drive without a license. I have yet to ask my host dad if he has a license.

So me, Antonio, Delia, Diahana and some other new family friend I had never met before all piled into the car and drove off down the highway to San Lorenzo. I sat in the middle seat in back, the seat of honor, between my little sister and Mr. X. My host family doesn’t introduce me to people for the most part, it is culturally way too forward for Paraguayans to do so, so it is up to me to introduce myself but the last time I introduced myself to a male family friend it backfired and he wouldn’t leave me alone so I have stopped doing so. Therefore, I sat next to this unidentified man who spoke mostly Guarani without knowing why on earth he was accompanying us on our family errand.

We pulled into some kind of car mechanic shop. It was raining and wet outside so we ran for cover. Some men came out and inspected the car under the hood. I figured we were here to get the car fixed since it had broken down over the weekend. However, Delia was dodging my questions and wouldn’t tell me what was exactly going on. It was odd because usually she fills me in on the details. Then a bunch of men, including Mr. X and my host dad all were standing and staring at a truck and talking about it. It seemed like my dad was now interested in buying the car but Delia was still dodging my questions. Then one guy got behind the wheel of the truck and the family all got in, apparently for a test drive. So we were car shopping, apparently. Car shopping in the rain, at night.

The car sales man drove us around the crazy, congested streets of San Lorenzo in the dark and in the rain. He spoke mostly Guarani until he noticed me in the “seat of honor” between my sister and Delia in the back and asked how on earth I could be Delia’s daughter. All of a sudden selling this car to this family no longer became his concern, it was now me. He was asking question after question and Delia and I took turns fielding them. This is pretty common because as a foreigner with white skin and “blonde” hair I stick out and people are fascinated. These conversations seem to be filled with answering questions filled with many stereotypes about Americans. Especially when it is a man they like to make jokes that we should get married and move back to the states because since I am American I am obviously rich. They think they are so hilarious. Like I haven’t heard that one before.
At first I really didn’t like all this attention from Paraguayan men, because once they have started these conversations with me they never end, but I have started to learn how to bend them in my favor. After 10 minutes of the test drive, the car salesman invited me to an asado, a Paraguayan bbq, a very typical invitation from a man to a woman. Being direct and flat out saying “no, I think you are a total asshole” was my first reaction but is not an acceptable answer. Paraguayans avoid confrontation and rudeness at ALL COSTS. Instead they practice the art of the verbal dance which I am just starting to learn and appreciate. Therefore, I told this creep that I would only accept his invitation to the asado if I could bring my whole family. Delia thought this was just hilarious. The salesman said they could come only if they didn’t eat too much. I said “well, my family can eat a lot and they looooove asado, especially my brother, he can eat a whooooole lot.” At this, Delia lost it. Her son Jorge is a giant, disgusting garbage disposable of a teenager and can pack away the mandioca like no other. And, since discussing people’s girth is so normal, she thought my “fat jokes” about her son were fantastic.
Anyway, this conversation carried on for much longer. He asked about my personal finances, am I sure I am not a missionary, what are my mom and dads names, could he marry me and move back to the states with me, why wasn’t I already married, did I know the US has some poor people too (he mentioned this only after he told me I had to be rich because I was American) blah blah blah. Pretty typical. If he had been a kid the conversation might have included what is my favorite color, my favorite animal, my birthday, my favorite food, does the US have mandioca? Etc. etc. etc… the questions never end. The typical questions I field regularly. Sometimes it can be pretty hilarious. But this guy was ridiculous, however, my family found it hysterical and especially found my deflections to his come-ons entertaining. I was glad I could entertain them.
We drove up to the salesman’s other lot of cars where we had to get out in the rain and climb over the fence to open it. We drove in, dashed out of the car to an overhang with chairs and a table and sat there forever and started at the car. I didn’t know if we were going to look at another car because almost right away Delia told me that car was way too expensive and they wouldn’t buy it. It was very nice, I have to say and would have been a HUGE improvement over their current car. I couldn’t imagine how on earth they could afford it, I really don’t know why we ever got in the car to begin with. But we just sat their even longer while the creepy car salesman asked me more ridiculous questions. Then we got back in the truck and drove back to the original lot. The whole way back the windshield was so fogged up the salesman could not see out the front. He had the windshield wipers going, the windows open and was wiping the inside with his sleeve, but it was still fogged over the whole way back. But it still didn’t seem to bother him or warrant pulling over until the windshield cleared up, no one would ever think to do something like that. I thought this wasn’t making a very good sales pitch to my family. But it didn’t matter, they weren’t going to buy it from the second they saw it anyway. They just went through that whole scenario to be polite and not offend the used car salesman by telling him they weren’t interested in that particular car.
So, we got back to the lot, got back in our little car with Mr. X and drove back home.
“Man” I thought, “buying a car in this passive culture is going to be an arduous process”. But Delia was pretty thrilled with the whole experience and was recounting my hilarious comments to the salesman the whole way home.
However, last night when I came home Delia and Antonio were sitting in the car port and looking for a car the most American way I know of, circling adds in the classifieds! I think looking for cars this way might serve them much better, and take a lot less time.


  1. Jenna,
    fantastic descriptions -- I loved it. What an adventure!

  2. That is hilarious. Sounds like you were more entertaining than the weird car-buying experience. Although, I have no doubt that you can hold your own...even in a foreign language. Well done.