A year after starting life over in Nicaragua I feel confident and comfortable in my relationships that I’ve been able to form with Nicaraguan friends, Peace Corps Volunteer colleagues, the students and the teachers that I work with. Of course, this has been a gradual process, but it’s encouraging to realize that I have developed a sense of grounding here in our web of relationships. While I can’t pinpoint any one instance as the moment when I became “integrated”, my first birthday in Nicaragua a few months back was certainly one of my strongest experiences of connection to date.
My birthday fell on a Sunday this year, and honestly, snuck up on me a bit. On Thursday we sent out texts to PCVs in the area, inviting them to meet up for dinner and go out dancing on the town. With the last minute invitation I wasn’t sure if anyone would be able to join us. I was honored that a few of the TEFL volunteers in our cohort joined Emily and I and one of our sitemates for dinner at the delicious Rincon Pinareño, a somewhat fancy Cuban restaurant in town that we’d never tried. One of our TEFL colleagues that came to dinner is Cuban, and gave the meal his official Cuban seal of approval! This isn’t too surprising, as Estelí has a very strong Cuban influence due to the amount of cubanos that immigrated to the region and helped found the thriving cigar industry that defines the region to this day. Although the dancing locales we went to after dinner were either closed or empty, the evening was full of delicious food and delightful conversation with good friends.
After a relaxing Saturday, which included a trip to the mall, to treat myself to a birthday Subway sandwich, the real fun started on Sunday morning. Emily had arranged for us to spend the entire day with the family of one of her counterparts, Ana Cecilia Vásquez. Her family welcomed us into their fold from day one, and we’ve already made some pretty great memories: a trip with her younger brother William to visit the finca of his good friends in the Miraflor Reserve, and the near 30 mile trek to El Sauce to participate in their patron saint festivities, to name a few. They agreed to host an afternoon birthday party at their place, on the condition that we come over early and help prepare for the festivities. We love spending time with their family, so it was a win-win for us!
We arrived at their house around 8am, where they immediately fed us a delicious breakfast of gallo pinto, cheese, and avocado with tortilla. Yum! They know how to make a birthday boy feel at home 🙂 After breakfast they took me to the kitchen and walked me through the preparation process for the Nicaraguan tacos, which was to be the food for the party that afternoon. We chopped onions, peppers, tomatoes, and garlic, while we boiled meat of a whole chicken that we’d later desmenuzar (shred/pull apart). With the beginning of the prep done, I was whisked away to help with some errands while Emily and the ladies decorated the living room.
Upon returning from our errands, we finished up the taco making process. Lorenzo, Ana Cecilia’s oldest brother, taught me how to chop kindling with a machete (turns out it’s easier if you use the sharp edge…) and how to use a specific sappy wood to start the fire in their outside, wood-powered stove. We sauteed the vegetables and added in the shredded chicken and various sauces and spices. After the taco filling had cooled, they taught me how to roll up the taco in preparation for frying it in hot oil over the stove. By the end we had made over fifty delicious, golden, crispy Nicaraguan tacos!
The afternoon was filled with eating the delicious tacos, dancing, a mix of Nicaraguan and Nilsen games, a piñata, and presents. Along with the entire Vásquez family, four of our counterparts came, as well as our close friend Alina, who is the delegate at the departmental level Ministry of Education. We shared many laughs, especially at my dancing and piñata demolition attempts, and had a wonderful time bonding with our Nicaraguan friends.
The cherry on top of this wonderful experience was what awaited me at Guillermo Cano Institute on Tuesday afternoon at 2pm. When I walked into school I was immediately directed over to the principal’s office, which was the first time this had every happened. I sat there awkwardly for a minute or two, when my counterpart showed up at the office to escort me to our English class with 11th grade Section A. We arrived to a closed door (also very strange), and my counterpart, Mariela, motioned for me to go in first.
As I opened the door, I was immediately greeted by a hearty “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!” from our class of about 45 students. They had spent the last 30 minutes decorating the class with streamers and birthday decorations, set up an entire sound system complete with a DJ program on a student’s laptop, and cooked two cakes and enough Arroz a la Valenciana to feed the entire class. They all sang me Las Mañanitas (the latino equivalent of Happy Birthday); shared some heartfelt, teary-eye inducing words of appreciation with me; and presented me with a class photo, some candies, and a mug as presents. Here is the English translation of the note they wrote for me on the back of their class picture:
Andrew, the students of 11th grade Section A wish you all the happiness on your birthday. Thank you very much for making learning fun in our English class! The students of 11A and all of the students at Guillermo Cano wish from the bottom of our hearts that God blesses, keeps, and protects you. Thank you for leaving your country and for coming all the way to our country, Nicaragua, and for sharing your time and experience 🙂 11A appreciates all of this very much.
With much love for our beloved English teacher, Andrew,
11th Grade A students of Guillermo Cano Institute and teacher Mariela Sobalvarro
For the rest of class we danced (or rather I tried to coax self-conscious teenagers to dance with me), ate food and cake, and (of course) took lots of pictures and selfies!
What an way to spend a birthday in a new home 🙂