Sunday, June 21, 2009

Shopping, Mistress days of the Week, Opama

I tried to have these pictures dispursed throughout my blog with subtitles but I am technologically incapable. Therefore, the first picture is a page of my Guarani homework and the second two are of me and my host mom in the store in my house.

Having a store in my house has been a very interesting introduction to the idiosyncrasies of Paraguayan culture. Dehlia has run the store for six years and knows her business backwards and forwards. Nothing has a price tag because she knows how much everything costs by heart. She greets every customer by first name and knows all their life stories. She loves to talk and caries on conversations with all her customers when they enter the store. It’s not just a business, it’s a social experience. Her office supplies include a scale which she uses to measure amounts of corn, bread, cuts of meat etc, a small record book where she records credit, and a calculator.

Little kids often come into the store by themselves sent by their parents on an errand. One little boy came in the other night, he must have been about 5, and gave Dehlia a list of things he was supposed to buy for his parents. The list included milk, diapers, bread, and cigarettes. Dehlia put it all in a bag for him and then he waddled out the door. The bag was bigger than he was. An 11-year-old boy came in and bought one big bottle of beer. Another little boy bought 2 cigarettes. I told Dehila that in my country you have to be 21 to buy alcohol and 18 to buy cigarettes and watching her sell big bottles of beer to little boys was pretty shocking to me. She said they were just buying it for their parents and didn’t see the harm in it. No big deal.
Also, Dehlia keeps several big bags of opened diapers behind the counter which she sells individually. People come in and buy 1, 2 or 3 diapers at a time. At first I was really confused by this. I mean who only needs 2 diapers? But I thought about it some more and I figure that many families probably do not have the money to buy diapers in bulk. Actually, many families in this neighborhood don’t have money to buy anything in great quantity. Dehlia sells tons of bags of charcoal which she explains wont save anyone money over cooking from a stove but most people don’t have the money to fill up a whole tank of gas for their stove at 70,000 guaranis which is about 14 dollars.
My family owns three cows. I had no idea we owned cows until one day I walked out into the backyard and there they were. During the day they graze on the volleyball court and eat the grass in front of the house. At night and in the morning they stay in the backyard to be milked. Dehlia sells the fresh cow milk in her store and customers bring in empty liter soda bottles to serve as milk containers. Im just glad we own cows instead of roosters.
Dehlia’s little record book is a credit book. The book has a bunch of little colored tabs with first names written on them and each section represents an individual client’s credit. Clients that have credit with Dehlia each have a little piece of cardboard to also keep track of their credit. Every time a customer buys something on credit Dehlia writes the amount under their tab in the book and on the piece of cardboard. Some clients will pay off their accounts once a week, once a month and some have to be harassed to pay. Sometimes Dehlia has to go to a neighbor’s house and ask them to pay up.
Having a store in my house has its advantages. Last Friday was a national holiday to celebrate the signing of the treaty that ended the Chaco war between Paraguay and Bolivia in 1935. For my homework assignment over the weekend I am supposed to find a history teacher, an ex-combatant or a descendant of a veteran of the war and ask them questions about the war’s history. This is a pretty impossible assignment since 1/3 of the population died in the war and any veterans still alive are in their late 80’s. Dehila told me I should just look it up in a book, “my teacher will never know”, which is exactly what I am not supposed to do. I am supposed to mingle with the people and practice my Spanish. So this morning Dehlia decided to ask every customer who she thought was smart what they knew about the Chaco war. I then started asking my own questions and everyone seemed to have their own versions of what happened during the war. It turned into quite a discussion as new customers came into the store and added their two cents to the story. I already know a few things about the war from books I read on Paraguay before I came and I have a general idea of Paraguayan history. I also know that it is very Paraguayan for Paraguayans to all have their own versions of history. However, everyone seemed to agree that Paraguay was a much wealthier country before the Chaco war and now they are very poor as a result. However, they all agree that Paraguay won the war. I do know that Paraguay and Bolivia went to war over the region of the country called the Chaco, a barren and inhospitable wasteland where only 3% of the population lives, although it does have some valuable oilfields. Bolivia claimed the region with the oilfields and Paraguay got the rest. But according to most Paraguayans, Paraguay still won the war. According to Dehlia, before the Chaco war the country’s currency was all gold coins, therefore Paraguay was very wealthy, and during the war everyone was so concerned they would be robbed that they buried their money in the ground. When the war was over they were never able to find where they buried their gold, hence the government had to start minting a currency and the country is now. One customer chimed in and confirmed that before the Chaco war Paraguay was one the wealthiest countries in the world. If it weren’t for that damned Chaco war they would still be on top. Maybe this explains why gold is considered so valuable here. You cannot wear a gold necklace in a public place without it most likely getting ripped off your neck. Silver necklaces will be left alone. So, Dehlia’s customers had a lot to say about the war but some things they couldn’t answer at all. When I asked what they thought were the lasting affects of the war they couldn’t answer. I also asked what the agreements of the treaty were and how they came to sign the treaty and I only got blank stares in return. So, the mystery of the Chaco war continues. Luckily, I still have a few more days to complete my assignment.

The traditional dating culture in Paraguay is kind of unique and if you weren’t directly informed about it you may never pick up on it. Peace Corps decided it was necessary to spend an hour of training on the subject. First off it is acceptable in this culture for men to date several women at a time. Therefore, the seven day week in Paraguay is divided up into dating days and mistress days. Dating days are Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Mistress days are Monday, Wednesday and Friday. If a man wants to officially court a woman he will visit her at her house on the official dating days. It would be an insult/send the wrong message to visit her on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday. Apparently, foreigners accidentally and unknowingly get caught up in this cultural eccentricity that everyone knows about but doesn’t necessarily talk about. Volunteers in the past have made some really big faux-paus and have risked their reputations in their communities which has inhibited their professional relationships as well. After this lesson my fellow trainee realized he had stopped by my house the other morning to see if I was home yet from our 4 day long volunteer visits around Paraguay. It was a Tuesday. Hopefully my host mom doesn’t think I’m his mistress. Oops. Oh well, we had a good laugh.

Guarani is a crazy language. The pronunciation is just insane. My vocal chords are required to make sounds I have never made before. Often my Guarani teacher assigns homework assignments where I am required to interview a family member or neighbor in Guarani. However, when I try to speak to people in Guarani they cannot understand me because my pronunciation is so awful so I am forced to translate for myself into Spanish. Then, my pupil will respond to the question in Guarani and I will have no idea what they said and they will be forced to translate their answer back into Spanish. Its an arduous process to say the least. One reason the pronunciation is so hard is because of the “y” sound. The “y” sound requires the speaker to make a guttural, manly grunt in the back of the throat. Now throw in a few ys and vs with some nasaly vowels in the same word and you have a typical Guarani word. My fellow trainees and I have been making a lot of analogies to what this language sounds like, all of which are not politically correct and totally insulting, so I won’t mention it. But hands down the best Guarani word I have learned to date is ‘Opáma’. It means “it’s over”. As in, this blog = opáma.


  1. Jenna - it sounds like you're having a great time out there! Have fun and keep up the posts!


  2. Yo no se Guarani, pero yo se que los idiomas de la gente indigena aqui en Norteamerica tambien son muy dificiles. !Excelente, m'ija!

  3. Jenna,
    Your Paraguayan adventures are great fun to read about. I love your stories about local culture. How many people speak Guarani? Is it a dialect or a totally separate lanuage from Spanish?
    We think of you often and wish you good health, good friends, and interesting experiences. Much love, Aunt Pris

  4. Oh brave woman. Your blogs are incredible. I feel like I am right there with you. I really like the one where you speak about the volunteer who teaches the kids how to plant seeds. How inspirational. I can't believe the dating/mistress schedule...oh my. I was laughing my head off during your yoga ball introduction to your host family.
    Thank you for the blogs :)
    Thinking of you,