Life in Community

Journey to Paraguay and Purpose

October 23, 2020 by

“Would you be willing to go to a small urban community in Paraguay to help them with their air conditioning business?”

“Sure,” I said. “Why not?” South America sounded like an adventure, and to be honest, I wasn’t entirely happy with how my life was going in New York. I had dropped out of college after only one semester, scuttling my high school dream of becoming an architect. I had hurt people that I loved by my behavior, and I felt like a failure. Maybe it would be best to get out of the country for a few months, and dust off my language skills.

My rude awakening to my lack of language skills came on the trip to South America. While traveling with Diego, a guy about my age, I discovered just how important being able to communicate with people is. Except for “I am hungry,” he spoke only Spanish – and, even after a month in New Mexico, “tengo hambre” was about as much as I could say en español. Despite this we got along famously. From simply seeking a change, I really began to warm to the idea of living south of the border.

ParaguayA common sight on the Paraguay River. Photo by Carl Thomson.

I spent most of my childhood in Australia, so when I arrived in Paraguay I immediately noticed many similarities – the climate and the rugged beauty of the land had me from the beginning. Australia, like Paraguay, is a land of extremes, described by the poet Dorothea Mackellar: “I love a sunburnt country, / A land of sweeping plains, / Of ragged mountain ranges, / Of droughts and flooding rains.” Growing up “down under” I found Australian people to be generally unpresuming, humble, and self-deprecating with a wry sense of humor. I remember distinctly the summer day my mother gave a glass of cold water to our landlord, a typical cattle rancher. Turned out the “water” was really pure vinegar, placed inadvertently in the fridge by my sister where the water jug usually sat.

“Did you put a bit of lemon in it?” our landlord asked, calmly, after a full swig. My dad, hearing the story from my mortified Mom, thought it was hilarious, and told our landlord that some people are just too picky. “Can’t get a drink of water in my own house,” he mumbled, grinning back. Much to my mother’s horror, it became a running joke between our families. We knew immediately what the jar of vinegar was doing in the Christmas basket our landlord sent toward the end of the year.

But it was only after many days in Paraguay that I realized how this country was different. It is the only truly bilingual South American country, with Spanish and Guarani as its official languages. The culture of the country is very tied to language. I started hearing Latin music, noticing acceptable forms of dress and running into the interesting social traditions of everyday life. Everything from the normal greeting for friends (a kiss on both cheeks) to the way you address someone formally or informally, was new to me. I loved the traditional food, the ice-cold herbal infusion tereré, and the idea of taking a nap in the hot noon hour. But I still felt like a tourist. I come from a diverse background and have enjoyed the privilege of living on three continents. I’ve always thought I had a broad view of life. But after a few weeks in Paraguay my slow brain began to realize that I was very “first world” in all my ways and thinking.

Sarah A. Lanier’s book Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot – and Cold – Climate Cultures shed some light on why I think the way I do. In this fascinating read, the well-traveled author divides the world into two general cultural groups. She shows the differences between a relationship orientation and a task-based orientation, direct versus indirect communication, and most importantly, group identity versus individualism. After reading this book, I slowly began to embrace a very different perspective of life. I stopped beating myself up about my failures in New York and began focusing on the present. I started taking language classes and became fascinated with learning more about air conditioning, which was part of my work around the city of Asuncion. I began reaching out to others and in spite of my poor language skills, I found that life was fun and enjoyable.

Then one of my closest friends died in a rock climbing accident that shattered my world.

In the following months, I began to reflect on my life and think about things that matter. I had been attending a church called Casa de Cristo (House of Christ). Through the accident I became incredibly close to the small group, and the family of my friend. I began to see how a relationship-based community rallies to show love to those in pain. While spending time singing and praying at the hospital, our youth group was amazed by the love we felt from other people with family members in critical condition. From the boy who wept while he sang and played guitar, to the woman whose husband was cancer-ridden from years of spraying chemicals, to the many who just sat with us in the chapel, I learned that trusting in a greater power and being part of a whole is much stronger than being just one individual. From the many visitors and friends who took time out of work to come and encourage us, I began to see how efficiency and time are not more important than people. I began to question why suffering happens and what the point of life is. I saw that I needed to give my life to something greater than myself, something that would help me truly make sense of death and suffering. I needed repentance and forgiveness and a group of people that cared about the real me. I needed the gospel.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl writes, “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.” The meaning of suffering is determined by the response to it. For me, it was clear I needed to respond to this tragedy by allowing it speak to me. Just a few months after arriving in South America, I was baptized and found a totally new life. I joined the Bruderhof, gave up my earnings to a shared bank account, and promised to go wherever the church might need me. Six months later, in the middle of the pandemic, I am studying air conditioning systems and Spanish at a community college in Pittsburgh. The best part of my day is learning from some great people as part of an EMT training, so I can help people in tragic situations. Hopefully one day I’ll return to Paraguay but as I’ve learned, whatever happens isn't really about me. It's about finding purpose in life when faced with death, and loving the person right next to me.

Tyler Maendel lives at a Bruderhof house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


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