Sophia, Outbound to Paraguay

What a heck of a beginning to my adventures abroad. I thought I was fully prepared to go but what I wasn't (and couldn't) prepared for, was a storm delaying my first flight from Atlanta to Miami, which made me miss my flight to Santiago, Chile. I was sent to American Airlines (since that was the plane I had just got off) and tried to get myself on a different flight, but they told me that I would have to go through LATAM because that's the airline of the flight I missed. However, LATAM was in the South Terminal, and I was in the North Terminal. Already stressed, I walk for 25 minutes until I find LATAM and I start talking to an agent and they tell me that the only flight they have room on is at 5:20pm the NEXT DAY (Keep in mind is was 11:00pm and this would mean I had to sleep in the airport or find another arrangement). So I ended up calling my travel agent and there was some bits and bobs of drama because of full flights and all that, but finally I asked if I could just stay in a hotel.

Turns out, minors can't stay in hotels alone.

At this point I can honestly tell you I was CRYING. Like, not just a few tear drops, like, full on sobbing. Not fun in an airport at 11:00pm. So I called my mom to update her and lo and behold, her motherly knowledge comes in handy. Apparently, I have family in Miami I could stay with. Bless. I called and Uber and ended up getting to their house around midnight. My abuela helped me get situated and then went to bed while I got ready for bed as well.

The next day my uncle drove me to the airport really early. I was so early that I ended up not being able to check in for 2 more hours. The rest of my travels were pretty uneventful except for one plane "dinner" that was a plate of brie cheese, three crackers, a sandwich with turkey, spinach, tomato and olives (why olives of all things?), And something sweet that tasted vaguely lemony. I did like that flight though. It was a red eye from 12:30am to 5:20am and it was a clear night so all the stars were out. Being a city girl I haven't seen stars very much. There were times when we were flying over a more rural area where the pinpricks of light on the ground mimicked the stars above them and it was difficult to tell where the earth stopped and the sky began. I'm really not looking forward to customs and immigration and visa stuff, especially cause my Spanish is WAY worse than I thought.

Okay so immigration was super easy thank God. I got my visa and went through in 5 minutes, tops. Customs was literally me putting my bag on a machine that looked inside it and the people running it were NOT paying attention. At all. I forgot I had my backpack on and none of them noticed, or cared. To be fair, it was 5:00am.

My entire family was there to greet me when I arrived. Literally. All of them. Or so I thought. There were 50 people waiting for me in the airport, but turns out that's just a small portion of my family. Wow. This was when I found out my 3 host families are all one family, and my 3 host dads are brothers!

After the airport we went to the gas station/restaurant/cafe thing and I got coffee and a GORGEOUS empanada con pollo. So good. We chatted for a while and headed home.

My family had to go to work so I took a long nap and relaxed because I was tired from restlessly sleeping on the plane.

Week 1: Oh God week 1 was hectic. I clearly did not understand much and needing my host sisters Carmi and Celsi to act as a translator most of the time. I went shopping and explored my neighborhood with my sister Carmi (who is one year younger than me and also an exchange student going to Canada). One of the things I had to buy was my school uniforms. My Rotary program put me in a Catholic school and having not identified with any religion for quite some time now, it's a bit strange to be praying every day. I love the people in my school but the teachers are very strict and VERY Catholic. I have a few classes I've never taken before such as Lógica and Guaraní and I'm always excited to learn new things so I appreciate it all.

The first week had a lot of firsts. Foods being most of them. My favorite foods are Chipa and chorizo but I also really like sopa paraguaya, corazón de pollo, and a few others. I even tried yakare (crocodile)!

I also had my first Interact meeting which was cool because I got to see how kids contribute to the community here. At the first meeting we were raising money for a charity we had picked.

The first week was also my first Friday teaching English to kids at the school my Host mom works at. I love working with the kids because they're always eager to learn and they soak up all this new information like a sponge. (More about this later).

I went into the city for the first time and got an empanada and walked around during a small festival with music. This was fun because my host family got to show me the historic bits and bobs of their city, as well as the more modern parts. Turns out, Paraguay had the first train in South America.

My Spanish comprehension improved a lot my first week but I still struggled to speak anything coherent. I took the 30 day challenge so I haven't had any contact with home but Luque is really starting to feel like home anyway.

Week 2: The second week flew by like a dream. Rotary meetings, family dinners and even a new edition to the family being born. I became even closer to my family here and my host sister Carmi prepared to leave.

Week two was really cold. It was so cold that there was one day we didn't go to school because it was too cold to move. I forget sometimes that this is technically winter in this country.

I helped my friend with a photography project by being a bit of a model for his photos, along with Carmi and my other sister Romi. I continued to help at my Mom's school teaching English to kids and also continued learning more Spanish as it went along.

Weeks 3 + 4: My Spanish is a lot better and I understand about 80% of what's being said and I can reply with relative decency. God bless life has slowed down a little. I still have lots of random dinners and spontaneous going out with friends for random things. I joined a hip hop group with my friends and while I'm not very good at dancing, I'm having a lot of fun. We spent a day in a country house my family owns, relaxing and eating delicious foods. We managed to take some really good photos and enjoyed the last bit of time before Carmi left.

The day that Carmi did leave, the entire family went to the airport for a send off and took so many pictures. Carmi will be well missed but she's gonna have so much fun in Canada!

Cool things that I did:

Student Exchange Orientation!: This was one of the most fun things I have ever been able to do. We played lots of games and I met people from all over the world! There were a lot of people from Germany and Denmark but I think the students from the United States out numbered the other countries! My district (4845) is also bi-national so we had students from Argentina and Paraguay all together at this camp. It was really interesting to see the difference between the two cultures, even though the countries are so close. (For example, in Paraguay we use two kisses to say hello, in Argentina, you only do one.) I learned quite a bit from this camp, mostly about how to be confident enough to talk to people you don't know in a language that is not your first language! I also got so many pins! My jacket is looking pretty spiffy now!

Teaching English to Children: Oh boy this is an interesting one. Kids are willing to learn but not always willing to sit still so teaching them English is like teaching 2 month old golden retriever puppies. With my younger group (aged 3 and 4) we teach numbers and colors in any way we can. There was one day where we had them tell us a number and we had to jump that many times while counting each jump in English. I don't know if it helped but I definitely got in my exercise for the day! With my older group, (ages 6 and 7) it's a bit easier to teach and to have them retain the information. Along with numbers and colors, we can teach them things like "Hello!" And "My name is..." And "I'm hungry". But they're still kids and they still want to run around so we come up with crazy things for them to do as well. One of the class favorites is a game where we call out a color in English and they have to find something in the classroom that's that color and run to touch it. I work with some really cool people that are native Spanish speakers but are really good at English, as well as another exchange student from New York.

Tips and tricks for future exchange students based on my first month:

1: Wifi is rare and data is expensive. Keep a Notes app on your phone to help you remember tricky parts of the language.

2: Stay hydrated! There's nothing worse than feeling dehydrated in the middle of school, knowing your break isn't for another hour.

3: My school starts at 7am and goes until Noon, and that's really early for me, but sometimes things happen and you cannot get to bed until late at night or really early in the morning. Mints are great for this, they wake you up and help you focus.

4: DO NOT BE AFRAID TO ASK QUESTIONS. You're in a whole different world, but you'll survive as long as you can ask for help. No one will judge you.

5: Make friends! Then make more friends! You can literally not have enough friends! Spread the love!

6: Make your host family food but bring an English recipe translated into Spanish to the grocery store! You probably won't have WiFi and determining the difference between baking power and baking soda is hard when they literally look exactly alike and you can't read Spanish.

7: Stand up for what you believe in, but be willing to listen to both sides. Currently there are a few political issues going on in Argentina that are leaking into Paraguay about topics such as abortions and other things. This can lead to some pretty personal questions about your beliefs. My advice to you is to answer honestly, but respect the other opinion.

8: If the food is good, eat it. Don't care about gaining weight, it's just a part of exchange.

Final thoughts of month one: This is my home now and I think when I go home I'll have to leave a part of me here. I haven't experienced much culture shock but that also means I'm extremely comfortable here. My family feels like family and for the first time I genuinely feel at home. I love it here and I think it's going to be very difficult to leave.

Many kisses and love from Luque, Paraguay! Chau!

-Sophia Gómez.

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