The Birthday Party
January 22, 2005
It was at Alba Ligia’s sixth birthday celebration, where I learned the meaning of compassionate immersion, creative ingenuity, and peaceful understanding in our troubled world of terrorist threats, struggles for power, and greed beyond the imagination of ordinary folks. Francisco invited Ron and I to his cousin’s birthday party in Los Ramos, a remote village on Ometepe Island lacking running water, refrigeration, and in most houses, electricity. “Oh, by the way,” he stated nonchalantly before leaving, “My mother wants you to make the birthday cake.” “But, Francisco,” I whined, “Ron and I haven’t made the horno commitment, yet. We have no oven.” “Don’t worry,” he added, “We have an adobe oven behind our house.”
So began our search for the illusive ingredients such as, powdered sugar, cream cheese, and baking powder to whip up a carrot cake with cream cheese icing for Alba Ligia’s sixth birthday. Toting plastic bags full of everything except the powdered sugar; we walked along the rutted black sand beach to catch the 7:30am chicken bus to Los Ramos.
Los Ramos is located at the base of Vulcan Concepcion. From the bus stop, it’s a steep and rocky, mile long walk downhill to the family pueblo. Passing horses hauling plastic water buckets and bicycles bumping down a road only maneuverable by surefooted mules, we wondered why Los Ramos was located in such an isolated area.
When we finally arrived, we were welcomed with hot nacatamales, fresh coffee, and fried plantains for breakfast. Francisco had walked to the beach for his daily bath leaving us in the care of his mother and grandfather until he could return and translate for us. The families in Los Ramos walk another mile to the beach to bathe and get water from a hand pumped well. We wondered how difficult it was for Francisco to return clean after a dusty uphill walk.
I handed my bag of granulated sugar to his mother so she could grind it on the ancient grinding stone passed down through generations. I told her she could get a lot of money for it if she sold it on E-Bay, but she just smiled at me with polite indifference, and probably no understanding of my consumerism world. I imagined her thinking, “Why would I want to sell my grinding stone? How would I prepare masa harina without it? Surely your people have a kitchen appliance that could grind corn and sugar much faster than this.”
In the little parts of conversation that I could understand, she explained to me that her family pueblo used to be located on the beach near the hand dug well. Five hundred years ago, during the time of the Spanish conquistador invasion, they moved their town a mile uphill to avoid the plundering. With a shrug of her shoulders, she laughed and said that no one had the energy to move it back to the beach. “Besides,” she said, “We are content and happy here.”
Grandpapa showed us his painted bull horn used to gather the family members together, since they lacked any other form of communication. Passed down through many generations, I could see the pride in his weathered eyes as he demonstrated its loud, deep, resonating call. While waiting for Francisco, he told us many stories of his days as a child on the island. He sprinkled them with humor and from what I could tell; their lives weren’t much different from now. With the exception of electricity in their home, they still carried on the traditions of the old ways.
When Francisco returned, he and Ron gathered the wood for the adobe oven, while I carted my ingredients to his aunt’s house next door to begin the arduous task of preparing the carrot cake. Francisco led me into a dark, dirt- floored cubicle in which a large fat pig was rooting for food under the wooden table. He neglected to tell me that his aunt was the professional cake baker in the community, and she humorously watched me trying to settle into a rhythm of mixing and stirring in a primitive, totally alien environment.
Her husband was peddling an old, cast iron sewing machine in the corner of the room. I paid no attention to what he was sewing because I was too engrossed in searching for water, a clean spoon, and shooing away the snorting pig licking drips of batter from the dirt floor. When the cake batter was settling into two cloth- covered dented pans, I ran outside to announce that I was ready to put it in the oven, where I was met with roars of laughter. “What is so funny?” I asked unaware of my appearance. “You’re covered in red cake dye,” they hooted. Sure enough, my hands, once white t-shirt, and legs were smeared in homemade red grenadine juice. Since there was no mirror available this side of the island, and water was valuable and scarce, I had to spit clean my war painted face and body. How that stuff got all over my body was a mystery to me. The only thing I can figure is that the grenadine spilled all over the table and in wiping the sweat and flies off my body, I began to resemble an ancient Nahuatl warrior painted for battle.
Francisco showed us how to rake the embers to the side of the adobe oven and his aunt threw a big handful of flour into the oven testing its temperature. Too hot and the flour would burn, too cold and it would blanket the bottom of the oven like snow. It turned a cocoa brown, perfect for the cake and Ron’s experiment with an eggplant pizza nestled in a bed of masa harina.
During the 40-minute cooking period, I constructed a paper-Mache face for La Cucaracha, the piñata stuffed with candy and the heart of a Latin American birthday celebration. The women were in the kitchen preparing lunch and the men were hauling in bunches of green plantains from their morning harvest. Francisco’s mother once again prepared a feast of fried chicken, fried rice, and lemonade made with bottled water for us. She said that she was afraid we might get sick from their well water, so she bought several liters of bottled water just for us. I didn’t tell her that her thoughtful concern for our health wasn’t necessary because we had just completed our three day regimen of pills to kill the parasites already growing in our gringo intestines.
Forty minutes later, our bellies stuffed again, our birthday treats were removed from the adobe oven and cooling on the table above the fat pig. I mixed the powdered sugar, melted butter, and cream cheese together to make the icing, while Francisco’s aunt cut a paper funnel to decorate the cake. She excitedly showed me an old 1977 cake-decorating magazine from the states, its pages aged and dog-eared from decades of use. Since my area of expertise was completed and I was no professional in the art of sweet roses and trailing vines, I gladly handed her my icing knife. It didn’t take her long to discover that a soft, cream cheese icing wasn’t made for the tropics. With no means of refrigerating the masterpiece, she did her best to keep the sweet, melting goop in place. She thanked me numerous times for teaching her how to make carrot cake and I in turn, hugged her for teaching me the art of cooking in an adobe oven. We exchanged a few recipes, just in time, too, because Grandpapa’s bull horn echoed through the valley signaling the family to the birthday party.
She found a large plastic bucket, wiped out the flies and nesting ants with a dirty rag, and covered the two layered birthday cake with it. Then Ron and Francisco gently carried the protected cake to the wooden table near La Cucaracha. We carried plastic chairs to the backyard and set them in a circle awaiting the arrival of the guests. Just minutes later, the niños appeared, dressed in their frilly party dresses, and bleached white school shirts. They smelled of shampoo and baby powder. They gathered around my camera begging for pictures and a glimpse of their finery. Alba Ligia was seated near the door to the kitchen, like a queen awaiting the arrival of her loyal surfs. Each of the invited guests handed her a present, kissed her cheek, and ran for the best plastic chair, the new one that hadn’t been mended, yet. While the children were playing musical chairs, Ron and I were dispensing paper party hats and masks. One frightened three year old began to cry when he noticed my white skin helping him don his mask. I scooped him up in my lap and rocked his fears of a strange white woman into a dull whimper with a lollipop.
When all the guests had arrived, approximately 50 members of the Los Ramos community, Francisco’s mother led us into the bare living room for a prayer service. Again, Alba Ligia was seated in front of the crowd near the TV, which had been draped with a towel and decorated as a shrine. A little plastic figurine of Jesus shone near the lighted candles and vase of fresh flowers, and we were guided in prayers and songs of gratefulness for the birth of Alba Ligia. Francisco told us that a prayer service was not usually combined with a birthday party, but it was part of their family tradition.
After the prayers, Grandpapa grabbed his bullhorn and his brother to begin the piñata competition. Grandpapa blew the bullhorn, his brother dangled the piñata in front of the blindfolded niños, and such wild gyrations, swings, and dancing, we had never witnessed before. It was a spinning blur of paper-Mache, loud music, shrill voices shouting foreign directions, polyester party dresses blowing in the wind, and near misses of La Cucaracha. When one timid swing burst open a few flying candies from the bowels of the battered piñata, we watched in horror as one boy dove into the dusty circle, only to receive a nasty blow to the head from the blindfolded party girl. A few more swings with mothers’ shouts of caution, and the intestines of the dead La Cucaracha were scattered all over the black ground. Once nicely pressed shirts and pastel party dresses, were now stained with dirt as all the kids dove and tackled the candy spewing from the piñata.
But, the party was not over yet. In fact, in the dusk, with the shadow of Vulcan Concepcion looming above us, the party was just beginning. I was recruited to serve the endless bowls of food that the women folk had spent the day preparing. First, cabbage salad with vinegar sauce topped with fried pork rinds, then, thinly sliced fried plantains topped with barbecued chicken nuggets, and countless glasses of fruit punch for the niños and homemade moonshine, guaron, for the adult men. There was a dancing contest for the kids, but several drunken Nicas had limbered their bones from the moonshine and they joined in on the fun, too.
At the same time as twilight slid off the Vulcan, the plastic bucket slid off my birthday cake. The family announced that Ron and Deborah had prepared something special for Alba Ligia. They ceremoniously carried Ron’s pizza to the table and unveiled my birthday cake to the cheers and hugs of all the family members. I held my breath, praying that the icing hadn’t dripped off the cake in the tropical heat. To my surprise, and with a little help from the Catholic saint of birthday parties, it looked intact. We sang happy birthday, first in Spanish, then, to our surprise, in English, although only Francisco and Ron, and I could sing the words. Francisco’s aunt cut little pieces of the moist carrot cake, Alba Ligia wrapped the foreign treats in little napkins, and I lovingly served my first carrot cake made with third world ingredients to a huge family into which we had been accepted as members. As for Ron’s experimental pizza, the family graciously nibbled at it and Francisco’s sister came right out and said it was as hard as a petroglyph, but we laughed together without any hurt feelings. Life couldn’t get any better than this.
Well for all the dancing, melted ice-cream soup, and camaraderie that followed, Ron and I had missed the last bus home. Francisco’s mother said that we could spend the night, but Grandpapa had already walked to the neighbors, the only family that possessed a vehicle in Los Ramos, and they owed him a favor. After pushing the truck down the rocky road, it finally started, and we jumped into the back for the long ride home to La Paloma. We returned exhausted partygoers to their little jungle homes along the way, whiffed exhaust fumes from the rusted out pick-up, and prayed to the Catholic saints of birthday parties that we would have enough gas and no flat tires to make it back to La Paloma.
Francisco’s mother had filled a plastic bag full of food for us to take home. When we finally reached our little casa on the shore, we stuffed it into the refrigerator because we assumed it contained the rest of Ron’s petroglyphic pizza, and fell into bed exhausted and grateful for our experience. The next morning, Ron opened the bag and to our surprise, it contained delicious nacatamales, two stuffed rolls of pig meat sewn together with string, and a thank you note with our 100 cordobas we had given them for gas money. The hand written note said, “We want to thank you for enriching our lives, for the delicious birthday cake, and pizza, and for all you have done to help our family. Our hearts and home are open to you anytime.”
Ron and I were at a loss for words because it was their love and acceptance of us as a part of their family for which we were grateful. For through a child’s birthday party in a foreign land, we were beginning to understand the meaning of compassionate immersion, creative ingenuity, and peaceful understanding in our troubled world. We should give thanks to this loving family for enriching our lives. I think the next time we’re invited to a birthday party in Los Ramos, and with the size of his family there are many more to come, I’ll grind the sugar.