How Does One Spell Happiness in Paraguay? Che Avy'a
- South America, Paraguay
All Peace Corps Volunteers who come to serve in Paraguay arrive thinking that, by the end of their service, they will achieve their dreams of speaking fluent Spanish at the drop of a sombrero—or hat. Why wouldn't they, after living two years in a South American country? Because Paraguay, a small developing nation nestled between gigantic Brazil and Argentina, speaks in two official tongues: Spanish and, more importantly, the indigenous Guaraní.
I had hoped to be sent to a Spanish-speaking nation and was pleased when the Peace Corps placement officer told me that a trip to Paraguay was in my near future. The booklet that headquarters sent me talked about this "Guaraní" thing, but I didn't pay too much attention to it. I looked it up on the Internet, and Guaraní ran something to the tune of "Mba'éichapa? Ipora, ha nde? Che amba'apota kokuepe kueste día." They had to be joking. I had just taken some night classes in Spanish so I figured—hoped—I'd get up to speed in that language in no time, too.
The Peace Corps wasn't joking. People speak Guaraní in Paraguay. Without a doubt, my hardest challenge as a Peace Corps Volunteer has been the languages. Paraguayans speak Spanish in the few big cities here, but in the pueblos—small towns—and in the campo—the countryside—Guaraní is spoken. I was assigned to the campo, where people understand Spanish, more or less, but don't speak it at all. When I got to my site, I didn't know how to ask in Guaraní where the latrine was or where food came from. I asked in Spanish, but the campesinos—the country folk—answered in Guaraní.
I cried. I studied. I cried. I listened. I cried. I talked. I cried. I was trying to get the hang of it. One night, I attended a birthday party with my Paraguayan work friends. They all spoke in Guaraní and no one translated. A person can tell when she is being talked about, even if she doesn't understand the words. They were saying something about me and laughing uproariously. One of the guys put his arm around me. My face burned and I started to cry into the guy's breast pocket. The only phrase I did understand the whole night was "Ndopukavy'i" (She's not laughing).
With time, things got better. Fortunately, my next-door neighbors embraced me and patiently taught me Guaraní. Doña Zunilda gave up her evenings for two months to sit in front of the fire with me and my notebooks. Her niece Marlene seems to be able to read my mind and still gives me the exact phrase I want to learn. After a few months, I finally got the knack and now speak great Guaraní. I don't understand everything, but can mix Spanish and Guaraní like a champ.
Guaraní is a fun and rhythmic language. It's a true pleasure to speak it and see people's faces light up when I do. Paraguay is such an "underdog" of a country that they find it amazing that a "Norte"—a North American—like me would dedicate herself to learning their language. Paraguayans also enjoy the poetry of their language, even though they wouldn't conceptualize it in those terms. For example, here we would say "Ipo pinda" to indicate that someone is a thief. Literally translated, it means, "His hand is a fishhook." Technological terms in English would not translate into Guaraní, as the campesinos have very limited technology and, hence, no words for it. My time here has shown me how differently people think, by virtue of their language.
Through the once impossible Guaraní language—that is, impossible for me—I learned that anything is possible. I learned the importance of communicating with others in the language in which they are comfortable. The poorer one is in Paraguay, the more likely one is to speak Guaraní, so the more Guaraní I learned, the more effective I became as a Volunteer. Learning Guaraní lessened the barriers between us, and people accepted me as a friend.
The Peace Corps isn't about going to touristy places; it's about people. The experience of the Guaraní language changed my experience of Peace Corps service and brought me closer to the people I came to help and learn from. As I now tell other Volunteers, if you want to learn Spanish, buy a TV. If you want to be happy, learn Guaraní.