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Dragons students hand-carving a dugout canoe. Photo by Micah LeMasters, Indonesia Semester.

A Guatemalan Birthday

Yesterday, a few minutes before 8 am, I walked to the front door of my house to go to my Spanish class, like every other day since I’ve been here. Unlike every other day, however, just as I reached the threshold, my host mother Doña Rossi burst through the door from the other side and held me back so I couldn’t walk any further. Before I had a second to process, I heard what sounded like several loud explosions, followed by a massive cloud of smoke. “¡Feliz cumpleaños!” she shouted, although it took a few seconds for my ringing ears to get the message that the firecrackers she set off across the street were a birthday celebration and not the start of the apocalypse.

I turned 19 on February 3rd, and hands down, it was one of the best days of my life. It was the first birthday that I’ve celebrated away from home, and I was worried I would feel homesick. But from the moment Doña Rossi’s eyes lit up in delight at watching my reaction to the Guatemalan tradition of setting off fire-crackers for a friend or family member’s birthday, I could not have felt more at home.

Before the firecrackers, I came to breakfast and was immediately greeted by the family’s abuela, Doña Benita, giving me a massive hug and a bowl of black beans, sausages, and arroz con leche. A few seconds later, Sofia and Diana, the youngest siblings in the family, ran into the kitchen and hugged me as well, before presenting me with a clay birthday cake they had made for me.

Then I went to Spanish class, where my teacher and I talked non-stop for three hours and 15 minutes, totally losing track of time in the easy conversation we’ve recently been falling into. Next, I went into Antigua where I was able to call to a friend from home for a long time. Unfortunately, my afternoon took a turn when I unexpectedly got some mild food poisoning and spent the next several hours in bed, but by 7 pm, I was back to normal and able to come down to the kitchen where my very concerned host family had changed our dinner plans so that we all just ate a very light dinner. Before sitting down to eat, they gave me two huge packages with pink ribbons on them, and started chanting “Open them!” They had bought me a beautifully embroidered purse to replace the grocery bag I’ve been carrying around, and a locally-made shirt that my host sister also has, and that one time I said I really liked. I could not have asked for anything more perfect.

Besides this being my first birthday away from home, it was also my first birthday in several years without social media since at the start of my gap year, I decided to delete Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook from my phone. All throughout high school, how much I enjoyed my birthday was directly connected to the number of friends who congratulated me online. Did this friend add a photo to my wall? Did that friend post a message on their Instagram page, or just on their story? This year, instead, my family and friends sent me texts and emails directly. Inevitably, without social media, fewer people wished me happy birthday than usual, but the quality and meaning of the birthday wishes I received made me cry.

I’d take a birthday filled with firecrackers and bread for dinner over birthday posts and elaborate parties any day of the week.