Let me start out by saying that if you include cakes that were either fully or partially in honor of my birthday, but that did not actually get consumed on my birthday, I had at least six birthday cakes to celebrate the completion of my 21st year of life. Not bad considering that seven weeks before my birthday I didn’t know anyone in this country.
The actual day of my cumpleaños was breathtakingly beautiful in all senses of the word—physically, spiritually, weather wise. It was my last day in Chapod and the sky over the campo was completely empty of clouds, plus I finally had a prescription antihistamine to bring some small bit of relief to my approximately 200 flea bites (I lost count). One of the less exciting things I learned in the campo is that I’m allergic to fleas. Angelica came in while Simona and I were packing to say that they’d been waiting for us for breakfast. We went in and sat down, and a cake appeared out of nowhere. Suddenly my week-old family was singing happy birthday and I was miming blowing out candles that weren’t there. Entonces, breakfast was mil hojas cake, my absolute favorite kind of Chilean pastry, made all the more delicious because I knew how big of a deal it must have been for this family to purchase a cake. And I got to serve it.
Later that morning between packing and helping my host mom peel potatoes for the goodbye lunch, I got to sit with Ezequial in the fruit tree orchard near our house and interview him for a project. Since he absolutely fascinates me and I knew it was my last day in Chapod, any time with him was valuable. An excuse to ask him meaningful questions about his life and dreams was all the more amazing. And his answers were as beautiful as I would have expected.
At 12:30 we took some final pictures in front of the house, and the whole family crowded into the car to drive to the school for a farewell barbeque with all of the host families. Rene and Kelly immediately greeted me with a plastic tiara that didn’t actually fit on my head, and a phone to call my parents, or what turned out to be my mom, Matt, Katie Vogel, and Larry Bacow. Not whom I had expected to talk to exactly but all pleasant surprises. The mental disconnect between whom I was talking to and where I was standing (a field behind the school in which pigs were grazing—yes, it turns out pigs graze) was immense, but somehow appropriate.
I spent the whole afternoon outside at this barbeque. Off in a corner, large animals were being cooked over coals. Pato (my other favorite boy from Chapod after Ezequial, and someone worth asking me about) and his band played us beautiful music, and various members of our group also performed everything from Lean on Me to the Solja Boi Dance. We tossed the frisbee until the food was ready, then everyone sat down in the school’s commedor for one of the biggest potluck events I’ve ever attended. Liz and Joanna’s family had baked a cake, and in honor of my birthday I got the first piece (and yes I’m counting that as one of the six, shh).
At the end of the meal a real birthday cake appeared! It was chocolate, raspberry, delicious, and had trick candles. My whole host family had to help me to get them blown out, half because I was laughing and half because they kept re-lighting themselves. As we huffed and puffed together and I soaked up their love, my birthday wish was that I would keep in touch with them forever. The worst part of my birthday came soon after, saying goodbye to them.
Leaving Chapod, ten of the 14 SIT-ers borded a van and drove to Pucón, a tourist city an hour south that acts as a gateway to some incredible national parks and hot springs. We stopped at the grocery store before arriving at a huge house that we were renting for an unbelievable low price for the night. Every one of us had a bed. We made our picnic dinners and headed to a hot spring. I spent the evening of my 21st birthday sipping beer and a surprise bottle of champagne in a volcanic hot spring in southern Chile. When we got back to the house there was, you guessed it, ANOTHER CAKE courtesy of my wonderful friends. We drank tea, attacked the cake with 10 forks, and stayed up until 3am talking. All day they’d been checking in constantly to make sure I felt special and that my birthday was going well. It totally worked. Two months ago I couldn’t even have made up this birthday, and I will never forget it.