Family Life in Sanber, Paraguay
It has been over three years since my wife and I moved to Paraguay with our son, who was then six years old.
My wife is originally from Paraguay, but moved to the United States and became a naturalized citizen there in the late 1980’s. When I met her years later, it didn’t take long for this confirmed bachelor to trade in his freedom for a life of wedded bliss.
As most of her family was still in Paraguay, I started to accompany her on her more or less annual visits “home.” These visits were my first exposure to South America and I quickly fell in love with the relaxed pace of life, the genuine friendliness and openness of the people, and the focus on family that permeates the society down here.
Fast forward about a dozen plus years and I had retired from the military, was (over)working in private industry as a second career, and we had a son. Living the American dream, but daydreaming of chucking the treadmill and retiring somewhere idyllic to relax and slow down.
Paraguay was obviously choice number one. But we never quite believed we could make that kind of thing happen until we were ready for Social Security and rocking chairs. So we would dream about our “future plans” during our visits to Paraguay, and we thought that was about as far as we could get.
Then, in 2008, on one of our trips here, we discovered that the real estate market, as well as much of the economy, had entered a recession and downturn. The most obvious result we saw was that real estate prices were rock bottom and eye- popping cheap. So we took a deep breath and started looking seriously for our little piece of paradise.
After a few months of looking on line, having family members in the country check places out for us, and taking one or two extra trips down here, we lucked out. We found a great property at a very good price in a town we had grown to love during our many visits, San Bernardino, affectionately called “Sanber” by the locals. Sanber is located just outside of Asuncion, along the shore of the largest lake in Paraguay, Lago Ypacarai. Due to this and some savvy marketing by the German immigrant founders of San Bernardino in the early 1900’s, Sanber is the traditional vacation resort for Paraguayans.
Buying the house was the first really big step in disconnecting from our first world treadmill and moving down here to live as “early retiree expats.” While it was a big step, it wasn’t the hardest or the longest. Actually, preparing for the final move, selling homes, belongings, quitting jobs, getting ready, making plans, and finally JUST DOING IT took a lot of time and effort. Five years in fact. But it has been worth it in every way we look at it.
One of our reasons for making the move and becoming expats here is that we wanted our son, who is now 10 years old, to fully experience his mother’s native culture and, through that, become truly bi-cultural. We feel this will set him up for greater success and opportunity as he grows up. Plus knowing Paraguay as we did, we wanted to raise him in a society that is much closer to what we experienced as kids–me in the United States and my wife here in Paraguay.
By that I mean a safer, more sane lifestyle as a kid (and family) than is now available in most of the U.S.
Here, when we go shopping at a mall or mercado, sometimes even to just window shop, relax or browse, we are totally comfortable in letting him zoom off to browse the bookstore, meet a new friend, etc. I still remember the utter panic that would set in if he left our eyesight or arms reach in a store in the United States. It took a while to get comfortable with this new paradigm, but we are very comfortable with it now.
He can also wander down to the corner bodega or go chase the cows grazing around the neighborhood and we don’t stress out. In the United States, if he ever exited the gated back yard without us in close proximity, it was time to dial 911!
But here in Sanber, it is like old-school small-town living in the U.S. Or I should say how it used to be in the U.S. Many other countries in Latin America, where there are large numbers of expats, don’t experience this. We’ve been to Costa Rica, Brazil, Argentina and Chile, and for the most part they don’t.
And even here there is a tendency by some expats, especially in the capital of Asuncion, or those in a high income bracket, to feel the need to live behind closed gates, high walls and security. I personally just think many times this kind of thing is either out of a misplaced fear or some strange status thing–showing how important you are for instance.
I will say, though, that it’s best to remember that Paraguay is a poor third world country and that common sense precautions are smart to keep in mind. Just like they are in Greensboro, North Carolina, or Las Cruces, New Mexico.
But getting back to Sanber and our situation. We have found that, because we are the oddity as gringo’s, or the fact that my wife is a Paraguayan, married to a gringo, we have no issues with ever feeling threatened or uncomfortable at any time. After nearly four years here we know most of the year-round residents, and they know us by either sight or name. If we go out to a store or shop, they may not know my name, but boy do they know my sons! Not just because of his personality, but because Paraguayans are very kid-focused. Heaven help me, but the old Hillary Clinton campaign slogan of it “takes a village to raise a child” pops into my head.
Restaurants here are another example. There’s a nice modern one a few blocks from our house that caters to the influx of tourists during the summer months, but is open year round. Since this is a small town, we know the head waiter and owner. When we go there, either in the busy summer or the dead of winter, it’s common for the kids who are there with their families to congregate out in the patio where they horse around, share their latest toys, or even their food.
As parents, having lived here for a while, we know from experience that whoever the closest adult is, he or she will provide a bit of supervision if needed, just as we do sometimes with other children nearby. We even went to the big TGI Friday’s restaurant in Asuncion the other day to celebrate my wife’s birthday with a group of her family members. It was a Friday, the place was packed, and lots of kids were present. Our son spent more time with his cousins, cruising around meeting new friends, than he spent at the table.
At one point in the evening, I ended up with someone else’s approximately four-year-old son on my lap, who one of my nephews brought over. Eventually his/a mother came and retrieved him with a smile. Geez I’d be in jail, the mother would be under investigation and the kid would be in foster care if this had happened in the US !
Same thing with school. It is so much more benign and laid back here. Our son went to pre-K, kindergarten and the first semester of first grade in the United States.
While kindergarten and preschool were fairly benign in small town Oklahoma, the big modern public mega school in Alabama was probably more stressful for us as parents than for our son. Walkie-talkie armed guards controlled access points into and out of the school and access was controlled at all times for visitors, including parents. I felt like it was a fire base in Iraq.
The small town private school he is in now here reminds me of my grade school in the 1960’s. There is lots of parental involvement here. Do you remember “room mothers” in the U.S.? Our son’s classroom has basically 14 of them, each mother of every student. On any day, if you stop by, you will probably find one or two (or more) mothers in the classroom or just sitting outside sipping and sharing mate (a popular South American tea), waiting for the teacher to send up an SOS signal. Now if only they would go for a full day instead of the half day they do here, it would be about perfect!
Having said all this, I’ll reiterate for balance that there are more than a few stressed-out, Type A versions of gringo expats living in their walled compounds here who would argue with me. The “rich” here, and yes there are more than a few rich gringo’s–diplomats, industry types, or just tax refugees–are in hyper-vigilant mode against terrorism, kidnapping, crime or whatever their favorite boogyman is. The fact you don’t really see that here, except in some very isolated exceptional cases, doesn’t matter. These folks in their neighborhoods or on their estancias may be surrounded with armed guards, high walls with barbed wire and electrified wire, as well as attack-trained guard dogs. But there is not nearly as much of that kind of thing here as I’ve seen or heard about in other countries we’ve been to. But here in Paraguay, at least to my military/law enforcement trained eye, this kind of thing is mostly all for show. And I’m sure those that have it all think it works, since nothing ever happens to them.
Editor comment: Ever since we moved to South America, we have regretted that we didn’t do the same thing as Brad and and his wife when our children were young. Not only so that they would have the experience of living in a different culture, but also to learn a second language at native level, which we think is now becoming very important as technology and opportunity and trade become more global. But back then we never would have considered it. We knew what we knew! America is the most wonderful country in the world and visions of poverty-stricken people, bamboo houses and dirt floors danced in our heads if we ever considered moving elsewhere.
Brad and his wife were not so limited. They made the move and they’re glad they did.
If you liked this article about Paraguay, you might be interested in other articles by Brad in Paraguay:
We hope you enjoyed this detour into Paraguay. Next week back to Chile. This time we take a close look at Talca. So stay tuned.
Until then . . .