Sinead Carney is a Global Liberal Studies senior who spent last year at NYU Buenos Aires. She writes:
I first visited Tamanduá in October of 2011 as a participant in an NYU BA Alternative Break trip. Tamanduá is a small Guaraní indigenous community in the province of Misiones, a thousand kilometers north of Buenos Aires. The community consists of about 300 members but it is common for families and individuals to move freely between communities within both the Argentine province and the neighbouring countries of Brazil and Paraguay.
The 14 kilometers of rugged dirt road that connects Tamanduá to the nearest cell signal does little to affect the semi-nomadic lifestyle commonly considered an archaic relic of the Guaraní’s Pre-Columbian ancestors. Nor did the remote location deter my return for “summer” recess during the months of December and January or my most recent visit in June. It was during this succession of visits that I finally came to realize how relevant nomadic life remains in the post-Columbian present of the Guaraní.
My initial interest in Tamanduá was the apparent egalitarian status of the mother tongue-Guaraní- within a modest bilingual school. At first glance, it seemed that I had found a textbook example of the “Bilingual and Intercultural” policies being implemented by Ministries of Education in indigenous communities across the continent: a mix of Spanish-speaking and Guaraní teachers and a conscientious effort to cultivate a Guaraní perspective in a “white” school system.
I also delved into other quotidian details of life in Tamanduá. I was quickly required to renounce my privacy in the face of a more dominant sense of community. Technology was nearly non-existent: a stream served as my washing machine. My rigid adherence to schedules and agendas were of little consequence in the absence of clocks. The most challenging part of my integration was communication. This was not predicated on learning Guaraní, but rather learning just to “shut up.” There is a good-natured saying within the region that “white people have long tongues and ‘Indians’ have short tongues.”
I found this saying to be frustratingly true in the case of Ariel, an indigenous friend of mine who assumed responsibility for teaching me the ways of the community. My occidental education found his lessons challenging. I was irritated by an obvious lack of verbal explanations and he was, at times, visibly burdened by my chatter. Communication, communication, communication!
In the months following this second trip I gradually found my self at ease with “awkward silences.” I had learned to “shut up” and, in doing so, I realized that the manner in which one teaches and learns—whether it be verbal, active, etc.—is, in itself, an important cultural marker. As I approached the time of my return trip in June, I was prepared to apologize to Ariel and to thank him for his patience with me. I was prepared to concede that the laconic nature of Guaraní communities had merit. Before I could do so, however, he happily told me that he now understood this communication thing. He had started sharing his ideas, thoughts, and opinions with others and he liked it. He apologized and thanked me.
Our cultures had clashed head on and we ended up becoming our own opposites.