Saturday, December 17, 2016

A Tale of Two Birthdays

First, I should explain that I try not to publicly announce my birthday. When you get to be my age, birthdays are not nearly the exciting event they were during my youth. After you hit the quarter of a century mark, you start realizing that birthdays are only acknowledging how old you are getting, and bringing you nearer to your ultimate demise.

Plus, with all the identity thieves and other ne'er-do-wells, I avoid posting my birthday as much as possible, including on Facebook. I realize lots of you enjoy getting a flood of birthday wishes from your Facebook friends, but ever since I joined Facebook about a decade ago, I kept my birth date hidden for security reasons. I choose not to acknowledge the birthdays of my friends, because I just think everyone would be safer if we kept that essential identifier hidden.

Thus, it is with some trepidation that I embark on this story. By discussing birthdays in this blog post, I am acknowledging that I had one recently—but I won't state how recently. Hopefully that will provide enough cover (although a determined hacker can find out just about anything on all of us). I just request that my friends refrain from plastering my Facebook wall with belated birthday wishes. I appreciate your good intentions, but the less said about how old I'm getting, the better.

I bring up the topic of birthdays to discuss my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and how things progress from the first year to the second year. Last year, I pretty much kept my birthday a secret, but I wanted to do something special to celebrate my birthday. I decided that if I left school as soon as it was dismissed, I could probably catch a bus to take me to Portsmouth, Dominica's second largest city. Once there, I could go to the pizza shop in town and get a large carry-out pizza to bring home and enjoy. A large pizza would be something that I had not had since leaving the states, and could provide me with a couple of meals. It would be a way to do something special to privately observe my birthday.

It took awhile, but I was able to catch a bus to town that day. Then I waited in the pizza shop for my delicious pizza to be baked. I paid the $45 (Eastern Caribbean dollars), even though it was a bit of a “sticker shock” for someone accustomed to using coupons to buy take-out pizza for less than $10. I carried that aromatic big flat box home with me on another bus, and walked through my village before finally getting to my house. I opened it up and enjoyed a grand birthday meal right out of the box (and enjoyed leftovers for a couple of days).

I still have that pizza box in my kitchen over a year later. One doesn't throw something like that away here, because you never know when you might need a good flat cardboard box for some other purpose. However, it is a reminder that in one full year, I've only had one pizza box, whereas in America I might have had one per month.

During my second year here, I've got to know a lot of the people here better. I'm much more ensconced in my school and my community. I wanted to do something different to celebrate my latest birthday rather than making another hectic pizza run at the end of the day.

This year, our school started a fledgling lunch program. The children are encouraged (but it isn't an ironclad requirement, because we don't want a child to go hungry) to bring a dollar a day (or to bring some sort of in-kind food donation). Two of our parents cook a lunch for the whole school each day. The menu varies depending on what food is brought in, but usually a satisfying meal is produced. However, there is never any desserts with our “barely break even” lunch program.

I decided that this year, I would celebrate my birthday at school, by arranging for a huge birthday cake to share with the staff and children. I paid our cook $60 to make a nice large cake. Given the upcoming Christmas holiday, she chose to bake a fruitcake (which tasted to me not so much like one of those Claxton fruitcakes, but more like an applesauce cake with raisins and maraschino cherries). She also covered it with delicious frosting.

Needless to say, this was a HUGE hit with all our students. They eagerly finished their cheese bakes (fried dough with cheese slices placed inside, a popular lunch item) that day so that they could have dessert. Everyone gathered around as the cake was cut into 40 pieces. There had been talk of birthday candles, but no one down here had any, so I was spared from trying to blow out all those candles.

The children were so excited to get birthday cake at school! It was the most satisfying present I could have received, to see them enjoying this rare treat. Even though I spent more money, and got less food, it was well worth it! I got lots of birthday hugs from all the children, and they enjoyed singing happy birthday to me.

At the end of the school day, we had a special assembly, where a student came forward to present me with a gift bag (as shown above). Some of the teachers had purchased a Dominica hat, Dominica coffee cup, and a Dominica key chain for me. While they didn't need to give my any presents at all, I was grateful for the sentiment that these small Dominican gifts represented.

However, the best birthday gift this year was seeing the kids enjoy their dessert. It is part of a life lesson that I am learning during my Peace Corps experience—it is truly better to give than to receive. Unlike last year's birthday, I will long remember this birthday!

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