It can get pretty cold in Paraguay during the winter. (Michiganders and New Englanders are not allowed to lecture me on cold…I’m from a Georgian swamp. I say 45 and raining is pretty cold) But today, it’s unseasonably warm – in the 80’s. That’s not too hot, but the heat index is always greater while riding one of Asuncion’s many city buses. This afternoon the sweat is dripping off of me and all the other packed-in-there-like-sardines-passengers of bus #18. Added to this delightful 45-minute one-way bus ride is the purpose of my trip: I’m going to the dentist for a root canal.
Please, don’t feel sorry for me. Years of poor dental choices have led to this glorious moment. I had told the dentist to just pull it, but she said it could still be saved. As I walk the 7 blocks from the bus stop to the dental office, I mull over whether it’s actually going to be worth it. I may be a grown man, but I’m still terrified of the dentist.
I approach her office. No turning back now. I man up and let her know I’m at her door in the customary way: by clapping my hands as loud as I can. When she comes to the door I’m slightly confused. She’s not dressed in her normal dentist garb. “Please forgive me Jon. My dentist drill broke, and they were supposed to fix it this morning, but didn’t show up until after lunch. I tried to call you but was out of minutes and the store where I buy minutes was also out.” Well, I’m sure you can imagine my feeling of absolute…
What would you feel in this situation? Anger? Frustration? Go find a new dentist? Just imagine it for a moment. You are a missionary with a million things to do. You have 3 kids and a wife at home. It’s hot. You’ve already spent an hour (ONE WHOLE HOUR)(!) to get down to the office. And now, after all this, she wants to know if you can come back tomorrow. Oh no no no. But would it surprise you if I said that my first emotion in this situation was absolute…empathy?
One of the things we value is getting an insider’s perspective on life wherever we are. Understanding what life is like for people helps us build relationships better. After 2 years in the capital city, we have experienced a lot of life. We’ve learned what is fun and what is frustrating. At times we have even gone through culture shock. I can now completely relate with what my dentist is saying.
I know what it’s like to wait all morning for the handyman to show up. Once we waited all morning for an AC repairman to show up. I cleared my schedule all morning so I could be at home. No one showed. When lunch time came we began cooking. As we sat down to eat, he showed up. Now, not only could I not enjoy lunch since I was supervising, but it was the baby’s naptime. Guess which room the AC was in.
I know what it’s like to run out of cell phone minutes. The majority of people – ourselves included – aren’t on plans. We have to buy minutes as we need them. You never run out at a convenient time. I ran out during a trip once and couldn’t let Jen know that I had arrived safely. Woops.
I know what it’s like to for the store to not have minutes to sell you. I once spent hours going from store to store in search of minutes. This store was out. That store only had minutes for a different cell phone company. This store owner is sick today and didn’t come. That store owner doesn’t have change for my larger bill.
As the dentist tells me what happened, I can’t help but smile. “Tranquilo nomas. Todo esto me ha pasado a mi también.” Don’t worry about it. All of this has happened to me too. It was nice to say it and actually mean it.
While my neighbor and I chat about 2 weeks of continuous rain he says, “None of my clothes can dry on the line.” Yup, I’m right there with you buddy.
“Sorry I’m late, but at a major intersection the bulbs in the traffic light burned out. Now people are just driving how they please. Two lanes in each direction turned into five lanes in each direction, and traffic is now backed up twenty blocks.” I know what that’s like too.
“Dengue fever comes with a headache unlike any headache you’ve ever had before.” Don’t remind me, I’ve had dengue fever.
We’ll never be completely Paraguayan, nor are we trying to be. We are who we are and that’s ok. But we do want to have good relationships. That doesn’t just happen. It only comes about when we share a lot in common. We ask ourselves “What do people in this culture like? What do they hate? What motivates them, and what discourages them?” Most importantly “What do they believe?”
We’ve come a long ways in two years, and we continue to learn every day. We’ll have to do this all over again in a tribal village one day. Until then, we keep growing in our relationships with our Paraguayan friends. More and more we are able to say “Hey, I’ve been there!”
“I’m going to poke your tooth’s nerve with my metal spiked hook now. Raise your hand if this hurts.” Yes…I’ve even been there.