Chemongaru- They feed me. Mongaru literally means “make eat” and is used more with animals, but it’s joked amongst my favorite neighbors that they keep me alive by selling me food or letting me eat lunch with them.
Oga Ita, Alto Verá, Itapua
You never really understand how easy life is in the Western World until it’s taken away from you. When people ask me what I miss the most about the US, several answers flash through my mind: craft beer……. Thin crust pizza……. Microbrew IPAs…….. Infrastructure…….. Artisanal hefeweizens…….. Dependable public transportation…… Belgians/Stouts/Porters/Ciders/Anything but $2 lagers…… But then I realize that all of this pales in comparison to a very overarching theme of western culture: convenience. In the US, if I so decided that I was craving Pad Thai, I have two options: drive fifteen minutes to the nearest Thai restaurant, OR drive ten minutes to the nearest supermarket and purchase ALL of the necessary ingredients to make it at home. Here in Paraguay, I happen to have three options: Take the 12 hour trip to Asuncion to go to the one and only Thai restaurant in the country to spend more than my Peace Corps living allowance can afford OR take the 12 hour trip to Asuncion to go to several of the country’s most expensive and high priced supermarkets, slowly gathering ingredients, making many substitutions, probably deciding to forgo some ingredients, taking them all back to the hostel kitchen and making it myself, ending up with a subpar product OR sucking it up and going without Pad Thai. The last option tends to be the most prevalent. Convenience dominates in the US. You can buy anything. ANYTHING. All in one place or there’s bound to be a specialty store for everything. And it’s all probably within a half hour radius of where you are right at this very moment. That’s amazing!
Peace Corps is all about adapting. It’s about integrating. It’s about finding ways to overcome lack of convenience and to learn to live without things we’ve grown so accustomed to in the United States so as to become a member of our host communities, living exactly as they do. My nearest supermarket is two hours away by bus. Not exactly accessible by any means. Of course members of my community aren’t going to pay the bus fare or to put gas in their motos to go get groceries every week. That’s absurd. Instead, we have something that I love even more than a big fancy supermarket. Something that I’ve grown to love even more than being able to purchase anything my heart desires all in one place. Something you’re guaranteed to find in almost every community in Paraguay.
It has two names. In Spanish, Almacén means market or grocery store, which I suppose is the correct interpretation, but I prefer Despensa, which translates to ‘pantry’ or ‘larder’. This feels a little closer to the truth. It’s the corner store, which also just happens to be a large room in someone’s house. I’m not entirely sure how despensas function, how often the stock supply truck comes by or where it comes from, if they actually make money or if it’s just a hobby, but I’m grateful for those who decided to allow everyone to just stop by unannounced to pick up a few necessary items. You stop by, chat, drink terere, catch up on the gossip, and then stand at the window, peering into the dim light of the store room, announcing your desired purchases to the Señora who runs this particular ‘pantry’. I have three almacenes in my little town, each of which has it’s own atmosphere and reason for which I go.
Ña Francisca also happens to be my sister-in-law. Her despensa is the closest to my house (just two doors down), but also the one I frequent the least. I can always expect an invitation to sit and share a liter of beer with my brother Abundio, regardless of occasion or time of day, and then also be expected to pay for it, in both Guaranies and some undeserved criticism of my appearance, language, work, existence, whathaveyou. Ña Francisca, on the other hand, is always dependable for some good humor and her lovely laugh, whether it be directed at me, her own jokes, or at her own husband. I don’t frequent their despensa because I will usually show up with a list of fifteen things and as I read off each item, I’m answered with “Ndarekoi…. No tengo…. I don’t have that” for all but one item, which is usually just flour. My mother always goes to their house for groceries and comes back with bags full of things, which leads me to believe that they’re hiding everything from me. They probably have IPAs back there in a corner that they’re not telling me about.
Rosa Estela runs a great almacén. Also married to one of my brothers, Arsenio, she always invites me to sit and watch a telenovela with her. We drink terere while discussing the state of her garden in between scenes of Alejandra’s second wedding to Alberto and Ramón finding out that his deceased wife Floria is not actually dead, but in fact living with his twin brother Juan in the Caribbean. Her grandson Marquito is always running around, trying to pronounce my name, but not quite getting it, and wreaking havoc as only a three-year-old can. There are always other people there to chat with, usually her sister Ursula (also married to one of my brothers, Celso, who would like you to know that he married Ursula before Arsenio married Estela, thank you very much). She has a fantastic selection that includes some small housewares and flip flops and sometimes hardware items like nails or rope. I can usually get huevos caseros, or eggs from her own chickens, from Estela, which I promise are ten times more delicious than whatever those industrial eggs are. She’s always happy to see me stop by and I’ve always enjoyed hanging out with ice cold terere and finding out what the next chapter in the feud between Patricia and Isabela will lead to.
Of the three, I tend to go to Sunilda’s despensa the most, despite it being the farthest, exactly a mile from my house. I go because I enjoy the conversation more and she loves speaking Spanish with me, which breaks the monotony of my strained Guaraní vocabulary. When Suni was 11, her family in the neighboring community of Mbatovi was the host family for a health volunteer named Kathy. I love hearing Suni talk about her excursions with Kathy and how fondly she remembers her. It always makes me wander what my legacy in Oga Ita will be. I always feel so comfortable with Suni and her husband Silvio. They’re younger and are always so relaxed, continuing to do their work around the house as they talk to me, washing clothes or fixing Silvio’s tools. I’ll sit and serve terere and we’ll discuss the happenings of the neighborhood as I look past the house at the amazing vista that the prime location of their home offers, perched high up on the side of the cerro. We’ll chat and then head into the despensa, where she has the best vegetable selection in town. I can get everything food-wise I really need at Suni’s, plus my favorite detergent brand and the choice between chocolate or quince jam cookies. These are the things that make a difference in my life of inconvenience. I also tend to stop by Suni’s more often because she lets me do credit, writing down everything I’ve purchased that month and letting me pay her when I can. Convenient, especially when I’m on a run or on my way to school and happen to think of something I need, but don’t have my wallet. I love their small home and their beautiful patio, surrounded by tall eucalyptus trees and dotted with herbs and remedios. I can always count on leaving with a large branch of burrito to put in my mate or terere or a bag full of rosemary. They’re kind, funny people, who always make me feel like part of the family (I think I actually am, everyone in this town in part of the Baez family).
Despensas are more than just stores. They’re a town center, a place to catch up, a place to buy or sell or trade or give away, a marketplace of gossip and entertainment. It’s where I go when I want to really be seen by my community. It’s where I go to be a part of everything and to buy everything. Yerba, flour, tomatoes, quince jam cookies, eggs, rosemary, and sugar. What more could you need while living in the campo? Besides a good IPA…