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Red sand in Paraguay, Photo: aramolara

After some initial resistance to learning the language, Peace Corps volunteer Megan Wood gives in to the draw of Guaraní’s dirty words.

The Peace Corps is not a travel agency.

I sat nervously in the recruiter’s office, exhausted from the two-hour interview, when I was asked the golden question. “What part of the world would you like to serve? Remember, we assign volunteers where their skills are most needed, not because they want to be tourists.”

I desperately wanted to live in Central America. The climate! The food! The beach!

But I was better prepared than that. “I would like to serve in Central America so I can improve my Spanish and work with the Latino population in the United States when my service is over,” I replied, confidently.

Nailed it! I walked out of the interview feeling exhilarated, knowing that any day I could be sent to Costa Rica with an assignment to train social workers. And hey, if that left me time for yoga on the beach, I could teach yoga too.

One year later I received a letter signed by George W. Bush himself inviting me to join the United States Peace Corps. My home for the next two years would be landlocked Paraguay in the heart of South America. I wouldn’t have chosen Paraguay myself, but I was excited about my work assignment, Youth Development, and I really did want to become fluent in Spanish.

Then I read on, “While Paraguayans do speak Spanish, the national language is indigenous Guaraní. Volunteers who are interested in perfecting their Spanish would be advised to wait for another placement.”

Damn. Wait for another placement? It had taken a year for me to get this one. I was going. Screw Guaraní. I would learn Spanish just fine.

Photo: Jetheriot

I immediately looked up my new enemy online to see what I was up against. It did not look good for me. I read a lot about nasal harmony and the glottal stop before I overwhelmed myself and gave up.

Thirty other Peace Corps trainees and I milled around a conference room at the Radisson in Miami. We had two days to receive a crash course in all things Peace Corps and Paraguay before we got on a plane to begin our two-year service.

The rumors ran wild: “I heard they are not even training in Spanish anymore. It’s going to be all Guaraní,” announced a trainee from Washington.

“That’s great! I’m already comfortable in Spanish, and I think it is so important to respect a nation’s first language. I mean, we’re going to help them, so we should communicate their way,” came a smug reply.

“I’ve been studying for weeks, I found a great tutorial online. Did you know that after Latin, Guaraní contributes the most names to the natural world? Jaguar is actually a Guaraní word!” one-upped the Washington trainee.

I gulped. I had not realized how competitive training would be. Study? I had spent the last few weeks visiting friends and buying conservative clothing. I was beginning to feel uneasy about the enormous task ahead of me.

Naturally, I needed a whipping post for this uncomfortable feeling, and I chose Guaraní. The more I heard about it, the more I unfairly disliked it.

Was she trying to tempt me into learning dirty words? I doubted it. But I suddenly had a new respect for my old enemy.

I lucked out. When we got to Paraguay it was announced that Youth Development volunteers, while encouraged to learn Guaraní, would be given very little formal training in the language. The rationale was that Youth Development volunteers would live in larger cities where Guaraní had less of an influence.

The rural volunteers in Health and Education, fully versed in their new, indigenous language, walked around chirping at each other and showing off, trying to convince me I was missing out on Paraguay’s culture by speaking so little Guaraní.

I could say, “My name is Megan,” “I am from the United States,” little, hello, you and water. Water was my favorite, as the word was really a guttural grunt.

When someone would try to teach me, I would joke that I didn’t have enough brain space left for anything new, which wasn’t really true. I was in my element. Living in this new country everyday and learning a completely different lifestyle that included working in a prison and removing parasites from my feet. I was constantly learning – just not in Guaraní.

My host mother sensed my obstinacy against her mother tongue. Knowing that living in Paraguay without speaking Guaraní would handicap me, she took out a dictionary, looked up the verb “struggle” and advised me to memorize it.

I had to hide my stubbornness from my boss, Juanita, a Paraguayan woman who could speak Spanish, English, and Guaraní fluently. A tri-cultural genius, she simply could not understand why I hadn’t caught on.

“And how is your Guaraní coming along?” she began our monthly meeting.

Paraguay flag: Vibracobra23

I sidestepped her inquiry by replying in Guaraní, “Little.” This joke went over well in Paraguay, and I used it to hide the fact that I zoned out anytime Guaraní was being spoken.

She smiled patiently, “And what about the vulgarities of the language? Some volunteers can find it off-putting.”

Off-putting? Vulgarities? What was I missing out on?

I am a woman who enjoys a good swear word, having been raised in a home where I was reprimanded for saying “sucks.” Swearing shocks and titillates me; I feel like a fifteen-year-old boy in the presence of cursing.

“We Paraguayans are mostly bilingual and sometimes I think we switch personalities when we change languages. Spanish is the language of business and work. Guaraní is the language of the home and family. In Spanish, we speak like poets with sweeping adjectives and rich descriptions. When we switch over to Guaraní, it can be a bit crude,” Juanita explained.

Was she trying to tempt me into learning dirty words? I doubted it, but I suddenly had a new respect for my old enemy.

I phoned one of those self-righteous, Guaraní speaking volunteers for verification. “Do you know how to swear in Guaraní?” I asked her, getting right down to it.

“Obviously,” she replied, “my host mother calls me a slut almost daily. Lovingly of course.”

“I need you to teach me everything you know,” I demanded. She rattled off a list, and I was in awe, fully inspired to start zoning in whenever I heard Guaraní.

Over the next few days, this is what I learned: “Go jerk off on a cactus” is used freely between siblings. “Devil’s crotch!” is the “Shoot!” of Paraguay.

In America we say, “I don’t believe it.” In Paraguay they say, “About your vagina.” Teachers affectionately call their pupils “devil’s children,” and a mother reprimanding her child sounds like a scene from The Exorcist.

Nde rasóre! Devil’s crotch! Shoot! I had been missing out because of my own stubbornness. As soon as I began dropping Guaraní into conversation, I saw a whole new side of my host family and Paraguay.

Learning to embrace Guaraní was a lesson I had to learn the hard way. Little did I know that would be a theme for the rest of my service.

Community Connection

Have you ever studied a language that initially you weren’t excited about? What motivated you to keep learning?

Language Learning


 

About The Author

Megan Wood

Megan Wood is a freelance travel writer and full-time free spirit. She has visited five continents and is currently writing a travel memoir about her time in the Peace Corps. Read her blog, My Bohemian Life, for her thoughts on travel, culture, and living without fear.

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  • Ludmilla Lima

    I cannot swear at your text and experience Megan, cuzz it has really touched me. Being trilingual (and monedas… =P) and a lover of languages, I know exactly what happens inside of me when a language I don’t like becomes fun, all of a sudden. I just cannot explain how that turning point happens, but the important thing is that IT HAPPENS!

    I wish Brazil had also remained a huge Guaraní speaking country, like we once were (and what I’m saying is that we were this still under Portuguese rule – it took centuries before Portuguese language became “the” speaking rule. Tupi/Guaraní was the home and family language, but also the real language everyone needed to speak in matter to “conquer” – uhh, shame).

    We still have from 150-200 native languages left to care about (including Guaraní, of course, perhaps with the largest number of speakers).

    Thanks a lot for sharing it =) Salut!

    • Megan Wood

      Ludmilla, thanks for sharing your insights on Brazil’s language history. It seems like Brazil and paraguay have a lot in common, though both sides aren’t always ready to admit that. Have you been to Ciudad del Este?

  • Méli

    OMG. This article could not have come at a better time!

    I am currently getting ready to volunteer in Paraguay with the PC and let me tell you, I was NOT happy when I learned I would have to learn Guaraní.

    I sooo wanted to be placed in a country with a coastline, for quick beach getaway if need be and Paraguay is landlocked in the middle of SA. Though I am fluent in Spanish, I wanted to be able to speak as well as my mother does, no hesitations on grammar, fluid. Needless to say when i found out of my assignment, I was not terribly excited.

    Slowly I’m getting used to the idea. Thanks so much for this article!

    • Megan Wood

      Congratulations Méli! I am so excited for you, you are going to love paraguay. It gets under your skin, I’ve been home for 10 months and I still think about paraguay everyday. I could talk about it for hours, so if you have any questions feel free to email me and I will give you the straight scoop!

  • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/candicew86 Candice Walsh

    I adore this story! Gives me hope I’ll get over my own language-learning qualms. Glad you found a way.

    • Megan Wood

      Thanks for the support Candice. What language are you working on?

  • Melissa

    This was a great article! I´m currently doing service in Paraguay and I def know the struggle and the zoning out when you first arrive and don´t know the language. Learning the curse words was a great way to begin to learn the language and even make the people you work with laugh. Awesome to know I´m not the only one that felt this way =)

    • Megan Wood

      Mba’eichapa Melissa. What kind of service are you doing? Are you addicted to tereré yet?

  • http://www.sweeneysays.com Nicole

    This is hilarious — probably my favorite of the “How I learned ____” series. I had to re-read it out loud to my mom and sister because it was too good not to share.

    • Megan Wood

      Nicole, you made my day! I’m glad you found the humor in it.

    • Heather Carreiro

      So glad you liked it Nicole! Megan had me hooked when she sent it in as a submission. I love how the people in her narrative seem so alive through the description and dialogue.

  • Your Baby Bro

    Hahaha. Loved the article! Hilarious. ohhhh devils crotch!

  • Katie

    Hey awesome article. I am doing a project on Paraguay for my class. Its due on april first, i am also going to Paraguay during the summer on a mission trip we will be doing riverboat ministering? Do you have any suggestions on what i can do for my project? i was really wanting to get some currency but not sure where to get some. Also, is there anything I can bring to Paraguay that might help reach out to the community?

    • Megan Wood

      Hi Katie,

      How exciting! I wish I were going with you. Definitely bring something for the community, it’s considered rude to not bring a gift for your host. I would say something from your hometown, I’m not sure where you’re from, but if your city is famous for anything, that could be a good icebreaker. Also, art supplies for the kids, but make sure you actually use the materials with them or there’s a good chance mom and dad will hide them away so they don’t get “ruined.” Another good idea is if you have an old digital camera to donate. You’d be surprised by how many people have old ones sitting around they would be willing to give.

      Also bring photos of your family and hometown. They will be looked over with actual excitement and curiosity, probably several times. Get ready to look at a lot of quincenera photos.

      As for your project, I feel for you, because there is not a lot of information out there on paraguay outside of World Cup stats. The country had a dictator for many years, Stroessner, and he used torture tactics on people. That could be a good lead. Also, yerba mate is indigenous to paraguay. There is a lot of info on the web about it. And the Guarani language is pretty interesting, if you want to research that.

      Let me know if you need anything more specific. I am always happy to talk about paraguay (sometimes too much, according to my family). Best of luck!

      Megan

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  • http://twitter.com/_eroy Agus Garcia Estrada.

    sorry, wrong user, please delete

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=682061965 Noe Invernizzi

    tereho ejapiró túnare – go fuck a cactus
    que tembó – what a dick
    ndé rakóre – your vagina! (used as ‘shit!’)
    tembo forro (condom, regular insult)
    eiko nde revikuápe (get inside your ass)
    tavycha/o (crazy, retarded)
    akãne (bad smelling head, also ‘retarded’)
    aña memby (devil’s son)
    mbóre (not sure what it means but it’s used as ‘no way!’)
    añarakópe guaré (something about a vagina, swearing when something goes wrong)

    and many many more…. (you can follow the hashtag I created to make this list #insultosenguarani on Twitter for more!)

  • SpencerSchaff

    Hi! I really enjoyed reading about your experience in Paraguay. I just received an invitation to serve in Paraguay and am having the same concerns with the language as you did. I really want to perfect my Spanish and my assignment is rural health…….what would you say my chances are?

    • Mynanajujusfoodrocks

      I was in Paraguay years ago.  Rural Paraguayans speak jopara, which is the mix of Spanish and Guarani.  My PC friends who did rural health spoke the language of the folks.  Spanish was used to speak to people “of note” (ie agr engineers, doctors), but to get into the heart of the folk, speak Guarani.  I married a Paraguayan and our kids speak Guarani, which is unusual for PC-native marriages.  I wanted our kids to speak a language that is unique in the world, and that ties them to my husband’s culture directly.

  • Vintagemarshmallows

    Guys, I’m from Paraguay. You might have some problems with Guaraní but there will always be people around you who speak Spanish. Those people will help you to improve your Spanish! 

  • Ariana Galeano

    lol I loved this. I actually grew up in Asuncion, and I’m one of those few Paraguayans that speak little to no Guarani. I can say “mba’eichapa nde koe” (hello, how are you?) and “che koe pora ha nde” (I’m fine, and you?), but mostly my knowledge and use of Guarani is the occasional word or two mixed with my Spanish. LOL I particularly love swear words in Guarani too, and then there are the words that I can’t translate to either Spanish or English such as “guau” or “kaigue”. It’s a shame really that I didn’t learn it when I had the chance because is such a pretty language. It sounds beautiful in poetry and songs. Although one of the things I always found confusing about it is that blue and green are referred by the same word: “hovy” (also it is incredible hard to write in guarani in a keyboard because of all the different symbols that you need @.@) and the two pronouns used for “we” messes up with my mind. Where were you in Paraguay? l

  • Marcos Codas

    What a fantastic article. I’m really glad you tried and embraced Guarani after all. It’s really rather beautiful, and not only for swearing. Guarania and Polka are really rich in verse.

    I’m happy to see you had a good time in Paraguay.

  • Sandra Gimenez

    Excellent!! I am from Paraguay and you make me feel proud of my Guarani!!
    thank you!!

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