1 mayo 2013 miércoles
Given that this is my last year in Guatemala, I decided to spread news widely of my upcoming birthday…and I was justly rewarded!
5:20am on April 16th (D-Day or actual B-day)…. in the midst of my deep slumber, CRACKLE!!! POP!! POP!! exploded outside my door. The infamous cohuetes or firecrackers to announce a special occasion. “That’s sweet” I murmur, appreciating the sentiment and roll back over for some more zzzs.
5:30am…a SECOND round!!! More CRACKLE!!! POP!! POP!! POP!! for a minute or more. Now I am truly awake and contemplating my next move when I hear the serenata (serenading). Voices are singing unknown birthday songs. “Okay, I’m up” and I approach my door with sleepy curiosity. Cranking open the window, I see my work companion, Sonia, her older son, Alva and husband (strumming a guitar) and their two small children. All are wrapped in scarves and coats against the morning cold and singing heartily, when I spy Alva’s basket with cups. “Oh, *%!# they are going to want to come in! ” I realize with slight alarm. I applaud as they sing their last note, then announce to their expectant faces “just let me throw on some clothes”. A mini robe barely covers my pjs and I let the troubadours stream in…well, it’s too early for modesty, so I attempt to be gracias hostess at this hour of dawn. Thankfully my room is still cluttered with half a dozen little wooden chairs for the library, so everyone perches on those and we breakfast on the tea and chicken sandwiches they had brought. I even gobble down a 2nd sandwich, “hey, I’m already awake” I figure. After an hour of conversation. they announce their departure with hugs. I give a heartfelt gracias and slip back into bed for a half hour.
Whoa! I finally got the infamous firecrackers that other volunteers had boasted of…so I felt both blessed and tired. At the more normal 7:15am waking, I rose to wrap the Mayan corte (skirt) around my waist, attempt a tight knot with faja (belt) and slip the Coban-style huipil (white embroidered blouse) over my head. My bag bulged with baking supplies for a banana cake, a surprise activity for the women’s group so that THEY will make my birthday cake. Far-flung Chuiaj was our destination, and I splurge on paying combustible (gas) for a car so that we could avoid the long trek of walking, catching rides with pickup trucks, etc. I assure my driver friend, Rigo, that we would be there for about 90 minutes for the cake-baking and then depart.
9:30am…we bump along the dirt roads and arrive in the small village of Chuiaj. A short walk down a small dirt path to the tidy adobe house of Doña Dominga and family, next to the elementary school, we greet the assembled women in their colorful traje with taps on the arms and kisses to their cheeks. We defer to Rigo who gives his talk about “medicos americanos” coming next month for a 2-day medical mission nearby and all treatment is gratis (free). Women line up to list their names and medical needs. I wander into the kitchen where a giant pot is bubbling with chicken stew. Sorpresa!! Sonia shows me the surprise lunch underway. She is so tickled and proud to have pulled this off without me suspecting, sharing that she talked on the phone in K’iche’ while I was nearby so that I wouldn’t understand….tricky! I feel honored by Sonia’s generosity and friendship to organize this lunch, pay for the ingredients and enlist the women’s help and cooperation.
11am- A sweet smell of bananas wafts from the aluminum pot as we remove the banana cake. Dessert FIRST is the decision, so everyone holds out a hand to be rewarded with a sweet appetizer….serenading me with the usual birthday song, “Queremos pastel, queremos pastel, aunque sea un pedacito, queremos pastel” (We would like cake, we would like cake, even if it’s just a little piece, we would like cake).
12pm- Caldo de pollo (chicken stew) with chow mein noodles and guisquil ( a starchy vegetable) is ladled into bowls and everyone settles into the aroma and taste. We guests are served at a table in a dining room and the women contentedly sit apart from us in the kitchen, corte tucked under them on the concrete floor. This physical separation of guests and cooks feels both very typical but lamentable. Guatemalans frequently sit on the bare ground whereas most Americans have neither the agility nor willingness to do so. At one point I whisper to Rigo that we apparently would be staying awhile, and he shrugs good naturedly, “no problema” while also benefitting from a free lunch.
1pm- The women assemble in the patio after collecting our dirty dishes…something is afoot. A woman steps forward and presents me with a black and white corte or Mayan skirt (8yds long) which I recognize is no small cost. Otra vez I am very touched again by their rich generosity despite their limited economic means …I know that this came from their hearts without prompting from Sonia. A truly blessed moment of my Peace Corps service!
The afternoon passes in a blur of everyone in the muni wishing me “feliz cumpleaños” with warm abrazos (hugs). Work? Not today really.
7pm-Sonia and I head to Alva’s house for dinner with her family….sweet! I do not have to cook ANY meals today! June bugs are invading Alva’s patio and trying to enter the house. We hold off their siege and eat beans and chorizo (pork sausage) and tortillas. Alva is a bit stressed because just prior to dinner she had rushed her youngest to the health center with a bleeding nose from a fall. A quick recovery and all was well, and finally she can sit and relax with us.
Phone calls with loved ones in the USA put a sweet end to my special day…I feel truly beloved!! A funny footnote. The following day Yamilet, daughter of my neighbor, asks me with indignation, “Why did you let Sonia and Alva come into your house and not us? We serenaded you too, and even had coffee ready!” I showed my surprise. “You sang, too?” “Yes, right after the cohuetes.” I profusely apologized for the perceived slight and admitted that I must have briefly fallen asleep, and that it took 2 rounds of firecrackers to truly wake me up! I was forgiven…Wow, that would have indeed been quite the crowd in my room at 5:30am!!
So yes, it was a true Guatemalan birthday celebration this year. Hmmm…just wondering, does anyone else want firecrackers at dawn for their birthday next year? I am quite willing and ready to share this delightful Guatemalan tradition…..just you wait and see!!!