Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Pictures of my house. I´ve also put a bunch on my Facebook page and you can view those at

One of my friends here has also posted a ton of pictures on her blog which you can check out at

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Quick Lesson in Guaraní and Guaranís

That title might not make any sense so let me explain it. Guaraní is the indigenous language spoken in Paraguay, while the Guaraní is the currency. Before Spanish rule, Paraguay was inhabited by a number of indigenous peoples each speaking different languages. The Guaraní cooperated with the Spanish conquistadors in order to survive. Ironically, this led to the virtual extinction of their race. The conquistadors fathered numerous children with the Guaraní leading to the mestizo race that calls themselves Paraguayans. Like their mixed blood, their language is also a mix called Jopara, a mix of Guaraní of Spanish. You might ask, if I know Spanish why do I have to learn Guaraní? While some people in Asunción do not speak a word of Guaraní, the majority of Paraguayans mix it into their everyday conversation. The farther into the campo you go, the more Guaraní the people speak. They say that Spanish is the language of the head, but Guaraní is the language of the heart. So in order to truly know Paraguay, I have to know Guaraní. Luckily for me, the language isn’t too difficult and I’ve been picking it up quickly. Some key phrases:

Mba’éichapa? (How are you?)

Iporã, nde? (I’m fine. And you?)

Iporã avei. (I’m fine also.)

Che heterei la tembi’u (¡Qué rico la comida!)

And of course, the “who I am” spiel:

Che cherera Pooja. Che aspirante Cuerpo de Pazpegua. Che Estado Unidogua. Che proyecto Desarrollo Económico Ruralpe. (My name is Pooja. I am a Peace Corps trainee. I am from the United States. My project is Rural Economic Development.)

Now for a lesson in the Guaraní, or rather, how much money I make. The 4,000 Gs is equivalent to the dollar (it’s a sign of how much the U.S. dollar has depreciated when I learned that only three years ago it was worth 7,000 Gs). That might sound like a lot but let me put it in perspective. A pack of cookies is roughly 2,500 Gs, a bus trip 2,200 Gs, a bottle of shampoo 20,000+ Gs. When I go to the main training center in Guarambaré, I have to take two buses to get there and two to return (plus walk 35 minutes each way). That’s 8,8000 Gs. I have to pay 5,000 Gs to use the Internet for an hour (with service that makes a snail look like Speedy Gonzalez). To put this further into perspective, I get paid a stipend of 15,000 Gs per day. That’s less than $4 a day. I have to use 1/3 of my salary to use the Internet for an hour. I have to use for than a day’s worth to buy a bottle of shampoo. How’s that for Living Poor?

Mi Nueva Familia

I love my host family. I don’t know who briefed them about crazy American ways, but they did a really good job. Unlike the other families, mine gives me my privacy. They let me sit in my room for hours to study (since training is like attending school 9 hours a day, 6 days a week and I always have a ton of homework/readings), which I often use as alone time and instead read or write in my journal. In fact, my host father often gives me a thumbs-up when I head off to study. This is very atypical of most traditional Paraguayan families. The concept of “alone time” or privacy doesn’t really exist in Paraguay. Everyone knows everything about everybody. The fellow volunteers and I are the chisme (gossip) of the town. When one of us makes a mistake or says something stupid to our host families, everyone knows about it. Today in fact, two of my friends couldn’t make it to a barbeque at another volunteer’s house. When I ran into them later at a fútbol game, I asked them what happened. I told them that sy (Guaraní for mother) had seen one of them walking to the hospital with her hermanita….maybe they had gone to see her aunt’s new baby. Another volunteer had heard from her mom, who had heard my friend’s mom talking, that they were planning on renting a car. We all our surmises about where she was from the different pieces of gossip we had heard (It turns out she was just spending some time with her family). Anyways, back to my host family. They give me alone time, but they also love to spend time with me. I’m surprised by how much they want to spend time with me. The little time that I’m not at home (and not at training), they include me in every part of their daily routines, from eating to drinking mate. Often, even when we’re not drinking mate or terrere, we sit outside and chat. We discuss different cultural aspects – how things are like in Paraguay, how they are in the U.S.; politics, economics, and development; Paraguayan crops and vegetables, especially those that túva (Guaraní for father) grows on his farm; Guaraní and Spanish; and what I learned at school. My parents take their job to teach me Guaraní very seriously. Most other host parents think that just by living with them their volunteers will learn the language, but my papá and hermanito make a conscious effort to teach me vocabulary in Guaraní. Whenever I’m sitting with túva, he’ll start teaching me a type of vocabulary, such as vegetables and fruits, parts of the body, weather words. My sy and my hermanito often help me with my homework, and my hermanito even created a Guaraní for me. My hermanito is so cute: every night he tells me how the next day we’ll practice Guaraní together. I feel bad because I can’t spend as much time with my host family as I’d like because I’m at training, and when I return I need to study. But my hermanito has so much patience with me; even when I don’t get time to spend with him, he tells me every night, “Tomorrow we’ll practice Guaraní and the computer” (I’m teaching him how to type properly, after which I’ll teach him how to use Word, etc.).

I love how my family takes care of me. In many ways, it’s like being a 5 year-old again. Not only do I not do any work in the house (though I’d like to and when I have time, sy has been showing me how to wash my clothes by hand), but they treat me like their child; this despite the fact that my mom is only 5 years older than I am (she’s 27 and túva is 37). In the mornings, they walk me to our gate and wish me good luck. I always give sy kisses on both cheeks before taking off. I return home for lunch, and if I have training in Guarambare, she packs me lunch. When I return home in the evenings, they ask me what I learned. It’s like I’ve regressed to the state of a kindergartener, but honestly I love it. After a year of never being at home (which I’m sure my mom can tell you plenty about), it’s nice to be at home in the evenings and sleep at 9 or 9:30.

I’ve been talking to some of the other volunteers about their host families, and I really think I lucked out (actually, all 6 of us in my community have great families). The Muni volunteers have super nice houses, but their families have completely different lifestyles. One of my friends, with whom I ate lunch the other day and who is also vegetarian, was complaining that her family doesn’t give her enough vegetarian food, specifically vegetables. They usually just her one of the side dishes, and she never feels like there’s enough variety. My host mom specially prepares vegetarian food for me. On most nights, that’s all we eat. Even when there’s not meat, the main meal is vegetarian. Most of the Muni volunteers complained about how much time their families spend in front of the TV. They want more quality family time. In contrast, I always have quality family time. More than I can handle in fact. My parents spend hardly any time in front of the TV; they always have plenty of time for me and are always ready to and enthusiastic about spending (I prefer the Spanish word compartir…you don’t spend time with people, you share time with them) time with me. In a way, the Muni families are much more like the modern American families, each member is independent and leading his or her own life. But my family, and the families of the other RED volunteers, is a much more traditional Paraguayan family. That’s what I came to Paraguay to experience, not the comforts of home.

What do you mean you shower inside?!

I am amazed at how easily impressed I am here. We saw the houses of the Muni volunteers on Saturday and I was blown away. One of the volunteers had a house with a garage! There were pictures hanging on the walls, a wooden cabinet in the dining room with two Ming vases, a large couch in the living room encircling the TV, and a nice patio. Another house had actual sofa chairs in the living room. From the front, it looked like a Spanish villa. In another house, I was amazed by how big the kitchen was. It had two types of ovens and looked kind of like the typical American kitchen. The bathroom actually had a shower curtain and a padded toilet seat. The final house I saw had three bedrooms. Three!

None of these descriptions may sound particularly astounding, but here they are. Some of them are not much better than houses in India. Others resembled a lower middle-class home in the U.S. Yet, I was completely shocked by how luxurious they were. It’s amazing how much we take for granted. As the other RED volunteers and I walked through these houses we exclaimed, “You have a sofa?! And a shower curtain! And a kitchen inside the house with a sink!!” We thought that the house owners must be millionaires! In less than two weeks, my mentality has completely changed. I honestly can’t remember what a shower indoors, with endless hot water, in a tiled-floor bathroom, feels like. All I know now are showers outside, in a brick bathroom, with hot and cold water mixed in a bucket, and a window through which the cold air and wind enter. But, I don’t mind. I might even like the feeling of not having as many luxuries as I’m used to. It makes me appreciate what I have in the U.S.

An interesting thing I’ve noticed about Paraguay is the persistence of inequalities. The Muni volunteers live hardly half-an-hour from my house, yet they have these luxurious houses. They have tiled bathrooms with flushing toilets, sofas or couches, decorations, wall hangings and paintings. On the other hand, my house is completely utilitarian. It doesn’t have decorations. The bathroom is outside. There are few lights and are naked light bulbs that hang from the ceiling or are placed next to the stove, not embedded in light sockets. Even within my community, there are significant differences among houses. Two of the RED volunteers have much nicer houses because their parents are professionals are relatively well off. One hardly has a house, just a bunch of rooms in the vicinity of each other. He doesn’t even have a proper stove, just a charcoal pot outside. Yet, we, the RED volunteers living practically in the campo, are having experiences the other volunteers aren’t. We may have more rustic living conditions, but many of our parents have acres of farms. For the most part, we eat what we grow from the tierra. I wake up everyday thinking that I’m in a postcard. The clouds are also perfect; they seem to go on forever. And the sky is always the perfect shade of blue. Watching the sunrise over our chacra the other day, was one of the most incredible views of my life. The sky appeared to be on fire. It was filled with pinks and yellows and oranges. We’re having a different experience, in a way I feel more real, than anything we’d ever have in the U.S.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

La Oscuridad

I am slowly learning what it means to live outside. You might think, “Oh, winter in Paraguay. How bad could that be?” There´s a definite difference between 50 degrees in the U.S. and living your life at 50 degrees. In the U.S. we spend a few minutes outside and then return to our 70 degree houses. But when you spend your life at 50, even less than 40 degrees (which it has been), it´s awful. It´s like a raw cold that gnaws at your bones and which you can never shake. It’s so cold inside that we, the newly arrived American volunteers, find ourselves yearning to be outside all of the time, even though it’s winter! Like a cat taking a nap, we find our own rays of sunshine to bathe in and provide us with some warmth. And like a cat, I find myself purring with pleasure at this little piece of happiness I have found.

We think of life lived in developing countries as one lived in the dark, both literally and with all the accompanying connotations. It is one lived without electricity, but also removed from modernity, backwards. Living in this place, where I have to walk past the chickens and pigs in the dark to use the toilet, I can understand those sentiments. I brush my teeth outside in the freezing cold and in the dark, and I shower in those same conditions. Even much of my life inside takes place in the dark. My host father likes “la oscuridad,” as he was raised in houses with little light. The kitchen doesn’t have a light, so my host mom cooks with the light streaming in through the window (from the light outside the house) and we eat dinner in the dark. My family lives its life in the dark and the cold, but they are not backwards.

During meals, I get to enjoy the fresh tomatoes, bananas, mandarin oranges, grapefruit, and mandioca grown by my father, and drink homemade juice (vegetables and fruits which put our genetically-modified ones to shame). The milk comes fresh from his cows. Before this starts to seem like an essay of homage to the simple life, I want to say that my family is not backwards in the way in which they have welcomes me in their home and their lives. They share with me their small home; I am the only one with my own room. My host mother has been specially cooking vegetarian food for me. In the evenings, I drink mate with my family (which I never liked while I was in Argentina but now am quickly becoming a fan of…probably because it is hot and warms me up) and we share our cultures and languages. The other day we shared photos: our stories, our histories. The way my family has welcomed me is overwhelming, and far exceeds the hospitality I have received in “more developed” parts of the world. I have begun to say that Paraguay is a country that has “open arms.” My family might literally live in the dark, but the hospitality with which they have received me is illuminating.

My New Home

I have arrived in my new home, Paraguay. After talking about the Peace Corps for almost a year, I’m finally beginning my assignment. For the next three months I will be attending pre-service training in Guarambaré, the location of Peace Corps Paraguay’s training headquarters and a city about 45 minutes from Asunción. There are 18 of us in our program, 12 Municipal Development (urban) volunteers and 6 Rural Economic Development Volunteers (RED). We, the RED volunteers, live outside of the city and for 5 out of our 6 days of training each week, train separately.

I’ve only been here since Thursday, yet it seems like a lifetime separating me from this life and everything familiar. I arrived at my new home and was immediately aghast. There is no bathroom inside the house. I shower and brush my teeth outside. To be more specific, I shower outside amongst the pigs and chickens and ducks. Well, not exactly with them; the shower and toilet are located right behind the chicken coop and next to the pigs. I was absolutely distraught the first time I took a bucket shower outside in the freezing cold (it’s winter here). As my body shivered violently from the cold, I kept telling myself how much of an idiot I was for signing up to do this, and the title of the book “Living Poor” – a book written in the 1970s by a former Peace Corps volunteer – came to mind. I decided that for me the title meant being crazy enough to give up the privileges I have been lucky enough to be born with, in order that I may become a better person. This was confirmed in my mind when some of the other RED volunteers visited my house and exclaimed in both delight and horror. As to why they were delighted, I will get to that. They were horrified by my bathroom and told me that I was very brave for not turning and fleeing immediately. Yes, that’s right: I am the only one in the entire group of 18 to have a bathroom outside. But, I know it will be rewarding in the end, learning to live like so many around the world do, without indoor plumbing. At least I can say I’m lucky enough to have electricity and running water.

Now for the good news: the beauty of the country and my host family. Paraguay is an incredibly beautiful country, full of greenery and naturaleza. Even in the winter, everything is green. I am living with a host family that is incredibly nice and takes very good care of me. My father, 37, is a farmer and also works at a hospital; my mother, 27, is a housewife; and my brother, 9, is a third-grader and also incredibly adorable. They specifically requested a girl and wanted one so badly that they didn’t even mind me being vegetarian. I eat a lot of mandioca (a root very much like a potato or yucca…possibly another name for yucca) and a lot of other carbohydrates (my mother promised me that she would bring more vegetables for me to eat). In the mornings I eat bread with butter and marmalade and dulce de leche (yum!) and drink café con leche, which I especially relish because of the cold.

My father is a pretty big farmer; he grows corn, mandioca, tomatoes, bananas, sugarcane, mandarin oranges, grapefruit, and more. You have to walk for 30 minutes to reach the end of his chacras (farm). He also raises chickens, roosters, pigs, and cows, and has rabbits, four dogs, and a cat. One of the puppies thinks she’s a big dog and jumps all over me. The other is an adorable baby who broke his leg. I named him Alfajorcito because he’s sweet like an alfajor. For being not too far from a reasonably-sized city, I am truly “in it,” meaning practically in the campo. And while I may not have all of the modern conveniences, I can wake up surrounded by miles of natural beauty and an incredible view and look at a star filled with stars before I go to bed.

If anyone would like to send me snail mail or a care package, you can send it to:

Pooja Virani, PCT

Cuerpo de Paz, CHP

162 Chaco Boreal c/Mcal. López

Asunción 1580, Paraguay (South America)