I remember the first time I killed a pig. It was my 23rd birthday and I had been living in Portrero Ybate for 10 months. Portrero Ybate is a small village in Paraguay where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer. When I killed the pig, I was not only celebrating my birthday Paraguayan style, I was also celebrating a turning point in my service. I finally felt as though I was succeeding in my struggle to become fluent in an indigenous language, accepted in the community I was assigned, and a valued technical resource in subtropical forestry and agriculture. I had never been so challenged as I had those first ten months and I had never felt so satisfied as I had that night, as I shared beer and barbecued pig with my Paraguayan friends and neighbors.
Joining the corps">Peace Corps was a chance for me to explore a lifestyle completely different from the urban, academic experience in which I had spent the previous four years. I remember discussing issues of third world deforestation and resource exploitation in a graduate seminar. I was in a room representing the standard of living of less than one percent of the world's population and we were debating problems that affected people living in a cycle of poverty of which we had no comprehension. I didn't want to talk about people, I wanted to talk with them. I needed a new perspective. I wanted something real. I wanted to work in the fields with a hoe and a machete, to read Ulysses by candlelight, to throw myself in a situation so unfamiliar it would be sink or swim. Learn and adapt, or be miserable for two years in a hut 2,000 miles away from home with no TV.
The first several months were as difficult as I expected. Living without electricity quickly lost its romanticism. My biggest frustration, however, was my inability to communicate with the people I wanted to get to know. Regardless of what the Encyclopedia Britannica might say, rural Paraguayans do not speak Spanish. They speak Guarani, an indigenous language with 12 vowels that bears no resemblance to English. I was challenged and intrigued. In the mornings I went into the field with farmers, talking and honing my skills with a hoe, all the while synthesizing what I had learned about sustainable agriculture with the traditional slash and burn farming that was currently practiced. During the 110? siesta, while every other living thing slept, I sweated away in my hut, studying the Guarani dictionary and grammar book provided by Peace Corps. In the evenings I would practice my new vocabulary, visiting farmers, talking about whatever I could think of. Each day brought something new, and as the months passed, I found myself participating in conversations in a language that had only three months before sounded like a series of grunts.
Communication led to understanding. Problems arose and I found solutions. As I became fluent, I realized that language was not the only barrier I had to cross. Even though I could speak Guarani, no one would believe anything I had to say about agriculture because I didn't know the difference between spring and summer corn. Ultimately, a gringo cannot tell someone who has been farming their whole life anything about how to improve the sustainability of their fields. A farmer needs to talk to a farmer. So I took field trips. I found progressive farmers in the area and linked them with interested farmers in my…