Saturday, September 5, 2009

Guarani and Terere

Here are some topics that consume my day to day life in Paraguay that are starting to seem so normal to me I am starting to forget what my blog-reading American audience will find interesting and starting to run out of blog ideas (I am afraid Dale is going to find this blog somewhat or terribly boring)….maybe that’s what happens when you really LIVE in a country for awhile. If anyone is ever interested in a certain topic about Paraguay or Peace Corps from my perspective feel free to suggest a topic for my next blog!

Thinking about Language Learning

I have never considered myself a language person, I never just “picked up” the language with ease and I was never a top performer in my Spanish classes, I was always somewhere comfortably in the middle. I really enjoyed my Spanish classes mostly because I was fortunate enough to have really fabulous Spanish teachers in high school (which I really did not come to realize until the last year or two) and I worked hard in those classes because I was a good student. Also, I firmly believe that an excellent teacher can make any student enjoy any subject material, no matter what it is. For example, I even enjoyed physics class in high school because I had the most charismatic, out-of-this-world teacher. So, I don’t think I was predisposed to become a Spanish speaker (I wanted to take American Sign Language and my dad forbid it and forced me to take Spanish, he said I would thank him later…so Thank You Dad, I think you changed my life!). So I think my ability now to speak Spanish was created from a combination of my great teachers, my endless brown-nosing desire to please them, and a general growing enthusiasm for the language after I realized I had a minor aptitude for it…nowhere compared to my terrible math skills. Part nature part nurture. I know not all my classmates from San Dieguito felt the same way about our Spanish classes and maybe some just hate language or just don’t have the capacity to learn another language. But I know I was extremely lucky to have Spanish class at that institution. Who knows, I may not be in Paraguay today if it weren’t for them (So thank you Mrs. McClusky and Co!) I always said language class was the most beneficial thing anyone could ever get out of high school…look where it took me.
I have been thinking a lot lately about my Spanish education career as I try to undertake the daunting task of cramming another language into my brain. I have realized learning a language is all about learning style. I have always known I am not a “language person”, I could never listen to people speaking a foreign language and eventually learn to speak it myself. I know these people exist, they are some of my fellow trainees and Peace Corps Volunteers, some who came to Paraguay without a lick of Spanish or Guarani and now speak both without a hitch. Although I did not really learn to speak Spanish in my ten years of sitting in a classroom, those countless hours of drills, repetition activities, videos, homework, and textbook reading were the way I learned the foundation of the language I needed to be able to speak it. Of course, there is no other way to become fluent in a language than being completely immersed in it, this is obvious, but those ten years of classroom lessons are also invaluable to my understanding of the Spanish language. Now, I am trying to learn a new language in a totally different style. I had three months of formal language class but three months worth of lessons covers a pathetic amount of material when it comes to an entire language. So, I am almost starting from scratch and sitting and listening to foreign conversations everyday and wondering how people just “pick up” a language this way. I am a formal language learner, there is no other way around it. I need the classes everyday: the drills, the homework, the worksheets, the stupid dramas, and textbook passages. I never thought I would have a craving for a fill-in-the-blank worksheet in my life, but now I certainly do. Or maybe I am just a big nerd. These things do not exist outside of PC training. There are no textbooks or classes for Jopara, the mix of Spanish and Guarani Paraguayans speak. Paraguayan children learn pure Guarani in schools and so many of these textbooks exist. But considering a very small portion of the population actually speaks pure Guarani, these texts are really useless to me. I have also have never been very good at self induced study. So making myself study this language all on my own is not so appetizing when I don’t have to turn in an assignment for a grade or show a teacher what a shining student I am. I would rather take a nap.
People are constantly trying to teach me words in Guarani, but Guarani is different from Spanish in that the words don’t stick with me. Spanish is similar enough in its sound structure and lexicon to English that I can hear a word, ask its meaning, and easily hold on to it and use it in conversation the next day. This is not the case for Guarani. Guarani’s sound structure is so completely different than English and Spanish that words just sound like mumbo jumbo and they go in one ear and out the other. Sometimes I want to reply, “How can that possibly be a word? You are just spitting out a bunch of vowels and grunting like a caveman, that can’t possibly be a word!” Sometimes I think Guarani words are beautiful and sometimes they are nothing but maddening. I usually try to repeat the word out loud several times to try and hang on to it, but alas, I will have forgotten 5 minutes later. I have to hear and possibly see, and be retold the meaning of a Guarani word 10-15 times before I am really going to get it.
But people do learn this language. I have heard many of my fellow countrymen speak it with ease and I am nothing but green with envy when they do. Of course, I don’t have to learn Guarani. My brother Reuben, the secretary of the city council, says I speak better Spanish than some of the city council members (I like him!). I could get by just fine and live a content life here in Paraguay without speaking Guarani, and a lot of volunteers do just that. But, Guarani is the language of the people, it’s the language in their hearts and sometimes I think it pains them to have to only speak Spanish to me. Guarani is a very malleable language, its traditionally a spoken language and therefore doesn’t have a lot of structure or rules and Paraguayans twist and turn it to fit their moods. It’s the language they joke in, the language they cry in, the language they celebrate in. Guarani is their language of expression. Spanish is their language of textbooks, official documents, and politicians. Guarani is the people, Guarani is the culture. So if I really want to start to understand Paraguay and Paraguayans….its Guarani or go home
Terere: “It’s like Crack to These People”
-Fellow PCV

How have I written 10 blogs and not written about terere? If a Paraguayan ever read this they might think it was a crime. If you have ever traveled to the Southern Cone than no doubt you are familiar with the infamous yerba mate South Americans are additcted to. It is ubiquitous in Paraguay, Argentina, Urugauay and apparently some parts of Brazil. But just like they speak their Spanish, every country drinks their yerba mate just a little differently. And just like their Spanish, it is an intimately important part of the culture, and you never leave home without it.
I am sure you can google terere or mate and get a perfectly good definition on wikipedia, which you should do if my explanation doesn’t satisfy you. I have tried to explain it to my dad over the phone several times and I still think he doesn’t get it. I don’t know if its because he is getting old or because my descriptive skills fail me but each time the conversation ends with, “you’ll just see when you get here.”
Yerba mate is a plant similar to plants grown for tea. In fact, I think of terere as a very different spin on tea. You can buy yerba mate tea from organic supermarkets in the states and drink it how we Americans/Europeans like to drink tea, with a tea bag immersed in a cup of hot water. Paraguayans do it differently. First, there are no cups and there are no tea bags. Terere is drunk from a gourd. The gourd can be made of wood or metal and they come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes the gourd looks like half a ram’s horn. You fill the gourd almost to the top with the leafy yerba mate plant. Then you pour water into the yerba until it reaches the top and drink the water through a filtered straw. This is your basic mate all around the Southern Cone, but of course every country has its own spin. Mate means you pour steamy hot water into your gourd and Terere means you pour ice cold water into your gourd. That is the only difference. Argentineans only drink mate and Paraguayans drink both because of the drastic climate change. Since I arrived in the winter I didn’t understand what all this terere talk was about, I fully enjoyed the hot mate everyone was drinking. But now that the temperature has taken a sudden swing into the scalding summer with no warning all I want is that ice cold terere.
Paraguayans drink their terere and mate all day everyday everywhere they go. Ask anyone who has been to Paraguay, I am not exaggerating in the least. A girl from my training group said, “Its like crack to these people”. I think she summed up their addiction perfectly. Instead of purses, women walk around with their thermoses and guampas (gourd). They have specially designed purses, fashionable ones at that, to fit their thermos, guampa and cell phone. Thermoses and guampas come in all kinds of feminine colors and sizes and can be bought absolutely anywhere in Paraguay. Thermoses are a more common sale item at any bus stop/newsstand/roadside fruit stand etc… than the actual item being sold. Thermoses are ubiquitous throughout Paraguay. I strongly believe that if the thermos was never invented Paraguay probably would not be a country, just an empty wasteland. Men are equally addicted to their terere/mate and walk around with their specialized thermoses and guampas with their favorite soccer team logo blazed into the side of the macho leather carrying case. Sometimes I think Paraguayans are willing to spend more money on their thermoses then their houses or children’s education. Even city bus drivers have a secure location for their thermoses, with an easy press spout, so they can drink their terere and constantly refill with one hand on the wheel and one hand on their guampa….and one hand to open the door and one hand to collect the bus fare and count change???
Drinking terere is the national pastime of Paraguay. If nothing is going on you can always go over to your neighbor’s house and bet the family will want to drink terere with you morning, noon or night. My friend will say, “Come over tomorrow and we will drink terere” like there was an option to do anything else. But you don’t have to ever be invited to drink terere. You can just sit down with a group of Paraguayans and you can guarantee a gourd will eventually end up in your hands. Terere is a social experience and there are several unwritten rules, norms and taboos if you will, every visitor to Paraguay must know about terere drinking. In a group of terere drinkers, there is one gourd, one thermos and one server. The server will fill the guampa and hand it to the person next to them. When they have sucked all the water out of it they will hand it back to the server who refills it and hands it to the next person, and around and around it goes, for hours upon hours it can last. After an hour of drinking terere I get very full and feel I have had enough. I can take a brake and then start up again with another group later, who will be sure to offer it to me, but Paraguayans never seem to need a break. If you want to stop drinking just tell your server, “Gracias” and they know you are done and will skip you the next time the gourd comes your way. The fact that “Gracias” in Paraguay actually means “No Gracias” is a Paraguayan cultural quirk that we Americans have a hard time grappling with because there is no other clear way to say thank you, because Paraguayans don’t expressly say thank you for everything how we do. I have now become overly aware of how often in one day I feel the need to say thank you, I never realized this was a cultural attribute, I just thought I was being polite. I now have to stop myself from saying thank you all the time, it makes me look weird and makes them feel awkward because they don’t really have a way to say your welcome…..but that was a tanget….back to terere.
So everyone in the group shares the same gourd and the same straw. No care in the world for germs, it’s a germ free for all! Yeah, pretty much. And if the idea of sucking on a straw with a group of strangers freaks you out then you don’t have to drink the terere. Paraguayans have come up with a bunch of fabulous passive phrases to get out of terere drinking in order not to offend anyone such as, “I just drank some milk” or “I just had a mandarin” because combining any of these items in your stomach would certainly lead to death. But I have never considered myself a germ-aphobe and I thoroughly enjoy the terere/mate and the whole terere drinking cultural/social experience and so I think it is a risk worth taking. Some volunteers totally opt out of drinking terere the whole time they are here because of the germ sharing phobia but I would equate this on the same level as not trying to learn Guarani. Just a bunch of leaves in a gourd may not seem like a lot but Paraguay is a poor country and they don’t have a lot to offer, but they can offer you their terere and they are sure damn proud of it. Guarani and Terere ARE Paraguay. So….what is today’s lesson? Drink your terere and speak your Guarani (as pitiful as it may be) and love your fellow Paraguayan.


  1. Jenners - I would also be lost without fill in the blank worksheets! That is too funny, but such an interesting observation about the different ways to learn a language. Thanks for entertaining me on a Sunday when I'm at work :( (but not for much longer!) I love you!

  2. Jenna,

    Thank you bunches for your commentary on learning a second language in school and how it is impacting your life now.

    I'm a MS Spanish teacher and PC applicant, and it warms my heart to read how you speak of your experiences.

    I agree completely that a teacher can make/break a student's interest in a subject. It's not an easy job, but reading comments like yours (just before school starts) helps and reinforces all that you do.

    Best Wishes with your PC journey and life!