Photo: Canna Obscura/Shutterstock

Learning Experiences: Making Soap in Paraguay

Paraguay Narrative
by Megan Wood Mar 14, 2011
Megan Wood risks chemical burns and catastrophe in exchange for bonding time with a local in Paraguay.

“All we’ll need is cow fat, cactus, passion fruit leaves and lye!” Blanca exclaims, reading the recipe I brought her and adjusting her husband Antonio’s reading glasses on her nose.

I shiver and push my chair closer to the outdoor fire. The air smells like smoke and cow manure.

“Do you think maybe it’s too cold to make soap today?” I suggest hopefully.

I was enthusiastic about the project until I realized we’d be working with strange ingredients and burn inducing lye. I was hoping she’d forget all about it and I could buy her a bar of Dove instead.

“Today is perfect,” she decides. “We will build a big fire and boil everything to stay warm.”

She picks up her circa 1996 nokia cell phone and yells in Guaraní’ “Maria! Do you have ten pounds of cow fat? Send it over!” Click. There is no way she is going to pay more than one minute of phone time per call.

I resign myself to the fact that I may receive a chemical burn today and give myself a mini pep talk, remembering how much money Blanca will make selling the soap to her neighbors.

Maria’s ten-year-old son appears with a bucket. With a nervous look on his face, he hands over the contents as if I may boil children alive.

I pour the thick, white fat into Blanca’s bubbling pot. As I stir and stir the blended cactus and green leaves with a long stick, I realize Blanca and I resemble a pair of witches. Me, with my tangled hair and foreign, white skin, and Blanca with her ruminations in Guaraní sounding like a magical incantation.

She lists what she is going to wash once the soap sets. “Chairs, laundry, pigs,” she starts and then hesitates.

“We’ll wash the pigs, and if they don’t get burned, I will know it’s safe to wash myself here.” She gestures to her crotch, laughing.

“Or I will wash Antonio with it first!” she cackles, adding my mixed vegetation to the hot cow fat.

“Now add the lye,” she instructs.

I look at her, confused. If not measured exactly and added at the right time, the lye could at least ruin the soap and at worst burn me, her, and the cats and grandchildren running excitedly through our test kitchen.

I may have had more formal education than anyone in the 500-house community of Tavapy Dos, but it was the general consensus not to trust the Americana with anything important like building a fire or wielding a hoe.

“Okay,” I reach for the lye.

As I measure, Blanca ignores me, concentrating on the dense mass of lard and boiled cactus in front of her. I wince as I throw in the dangerous ingredient, but Blanca continues to stir calmly.

“After the soap sets, I will give you the biggest bar,” Blanca decides. “Unless it burns my genitals.”

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