It was raining when Allison and I arrived in MartÃnez CuÃ©, a rural community of 500 people. Paraguay’s lush green landscape with violet mountains and distinctive red dirt was completely deluged in rain, making it almost impossible for the battered bus to move. We were volunteers with Amigos de las AmÃ©ricas, eager to do what the organization advocates: promote community development, youth leadership, and multicultural understanding. We were prepared for the extreme: diarrhea, parasites, slight starvation, moments of extremely awkward miscommunication. I also expected instant popularity—that just by being in the community, I would be surrounded by new friends.
Being Chinese-American and having the same name as Jackie Chan, I thought people would be attracted to how different I was and want to talk to me. People stared—in a nice way, but they didn’t approach us. I tried to play up my cuteness. I waved to everyone and I was jumpy and energetic. I might have even overdone it, because apparently, community members perceived my partner very serious and grim in comparison, and they would sometimes pull me aside and ask me why she was so serious, and if she missed her boyfriend or something. I always had a smile fixed upon my face and I laughed after everything, and I felt like a fool. But I was desperate for people to like us.
It wasn’t until we broke out the UNO cards when we began to make some friends. I owe the success of friendship and UNO to chickens. Disgusting, filthy, and loathsome chickens. They pooped everywhere, they pecked at you, and they were dumb beyond belief. When my host mom just slaughtered a chicken, all of the other chickens went CRAZY trying to consume the falling feathers. My disgust for chickens became very apparent to my host family, and it was turned against me in the game of ¡UNO Extremo! UNO, the once relatively boring card game became competitive, loud, and thrilling. If you have the most cards at the end, then you are subjected to a castigo, a grievous punishment determined by your greatest fear or revulsion to something. Castigos include standing five minutes in the chicken coop (NASTY!), dancing on a table, yelling out that you’re pregnant in the dirt road…and (but not limited to) catching and grabbing a chicken. People thought it was hilarious when I hyperventilated and squealed when I had to touch a chicken for a castigo.
Our daily UNO circle grew, and I got to know people at their most animated point. Arminda, a responsible seventeen year old shrieked and sweared like a sailor. NÃcolas, our quiet sixteen year old host uncle had a penchant for belting out songs without warning. DarÃo, our thirty-five year old host dad and 6th grade teacher who is normally reserved and polite, was cutthroat at UNO, playing aggressively while exclaiming expletives in GuaranÃ, Paraguay’s indigenous language. We would play UNO until 10 PM, ridiculously late by Paraguayan standards. It was during UNO Extremo that I realized that my severe repugnance of chickens was abnormal, and, more profoundly, that people are people, and they need to warm up to you.
Americans and Paraguayans have a countless number of cultural differences, but by living in another country (and of course playing UNO), I learned that we are all connected through what makes us human— our desires, our fears, our emotions—and I learned that it is my life passion to experience such revelations. The path to getting people out of their shells was hard, and sometimes humiliating, but fantastic.
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