by Becky Wandell (Ecuador 2018 –20)
One afternoon, I overheard Margarita, my host-mom, talking on the phone. I usually didn’t understand much of what she said — or much of what anybody said during my first weeks living in Ecuador — but on this day, I clearly heard “Becky is a good baker, she can make the cakes.” Ummm… Margarita? What am I going to do?
After finishing her conversation, she pulled me over to the table and patiently explained that her husband Jose’s Dad, Victor, was having a birthday this weekend and they needed some cakes for the celebration. I had been around long enough to know that usually the family just goes to Tio Sam’s bakery for saccharine sweet gelatinous cakes, so if they were asking me to bake them, this was a big deal! And besides, I would do anything for Victor who had welcomed me to the family with so much kindness.
I started counting on my fingers. Jose, the father of the family I was living with, had a lot of brothers and sisters with partners and children. We predicted that 26 people would come to the party and we agreed on two cakes, a vanilla and orange both with white frosting. I was so honored to be tasked with this job. As the new Gringa of the family I felt the significant weight bestowed upon my shoulders to provide the featured dessert for this grand celebration.
“What time do I need to have them ready on Saturday?”
“The party will start at 5:30pm.”
And with that, Margarita left me in my glow of new-found purpose!
I fretted all week about those cakes, and on the following Saturday I started baking early because I had understood that the oven was needed for cooking a turkey also. It ended up that I burnt one of the cakes, so in a tizzy, I had to run down the dirt road to the corner tienda (grocery) .and buy some more ingredients to bake a third cake all before noon.
Then I waited to help prepare the rest of the meal. No turkey. Margarita did start the gas grill on the patio and set some rice to boil in a 20-gallon pot. It always astounded me how much rice Ecuadorians eat! However, when I asked about the turkey, she explained that she had given the turkey to someone else to cook in their oven, and all that we were responsible for was the cakes, the rice and the wine. And we needed to leave at 5:00pm to go where the party was being held.
Excellent. I felt so excited because for once, I fully understood the plan.
At 4:00pm Jose, and my younger Ecuadorian brother Pablo, left with the truck for a soccer game. That was nothing new, soccer always took precedence in this family.
At 5:00pm, I had the cakes all wrapped up and I was in the kitchen ready to leave. Margarita and her son Alex came downstairs announcing “Vamos!” I watched them walk out the door leaving the cakes, the rice and the wine behind.
“But . . . Margarita, where are we going? Don’t we have to take the food?” I asked running after them.
Shutting the front gate behind us, Margarita explained that we needed to go to the store to get some mushrooms.
“We need mushrooms for the sauce for the turkey,” she offered.
Knowing that mushrooms were not sold anywhere in our small little country shops, I continued my line of questioning. “So, we’re going to a grocery store now? Without the car? That will take over an hour by bus to get to the center of town and back. Doesn’t the party start at 5:30?”
“Sí,” she agreed, nodding her “complicado” — “ That is a problem.”
“But we need to get the mushrooms.”
So, Margarita, Alex and I walked the three blocks out to the main road to catch the bus. Almost instantly, one was grinding up the hill towards us, but going in the opposite direction from town. It suddenly slammed on its breaks, and Alex grabbed me by the arm to pull me on board just as it sped off again.
But now we were going the wrong way. My mind raced in confusion.
Over the blaring beat of traditional tunes, I shouted the obvious question, “Margarita, where are we going, now?”
While sidestepping between the other standing passengers, she shouted back an explanation which I could not discern, but gave me a few words to cling to. “Jose,” “Soccer Game,” “Truck.”
The bus continued up the mountainside toward the indigenous community of Esperanza and fifteen minutes later I recognized the soccer field that we had been to before. We found Pablo, and then Jose on the bench changing his shoes, all smiles after having won his game. After a quick congratulation and a conversation which I didn’t even try to keep up with, the five of us piled in their truck.
Before we got too far, I wanted to confirm our plans, after all, I had a responsibility to uphold at the party which we had to get to. So I inquired, “Where are we going now?”
They all shouted in chorus, “To a soccer game!”
I gasp. “Another soccer game? Really?”
Jose accelerated and flashed his always-up-for-fun grin, “We have to win a borrego!”
“What’s a borrego and why do we need to win it?”
They all seemed surprised that I obviously had no idea what was going on!
Margarita laughed, and tried again, speaking slowly toward the backseat. “An oveja!” “A sheep.”
I registered a protest, “But, what about the mushrooms?”
What I really wanted to scream was based on years of a linear middle-class upbringing, People, we had a plan! Don’t you ever follow the plan? The party is starting now!
Jose laughed. “We can get the mushrooms later. But if I play in this soccer game now, and we win, we win a borrego!”
Knowing that winning a borrego would be grounds for a feast and an all-night blow-out for a family and their soccer team — which is really la raison de vivre in Ecuador — I threw my hands to the sky. “Vamos,” I said, “Let’s win a borrego!”
“Vamos!” they all shouted, happy that their Gringa was finally on board!
So we drove on, far out into the deep foothills aglow in the setting sun. We parked the truck in a ditch and joined throngs of other people gathering to watch the game. I wondered why this tournament was more popular than others we’d been to before, until Margarita explained patiently that today was January 6th, the Festival of the Kings. From all around the hillsides, locals were descending to the party to celebrate this last day of Christmas. Off to the side of the soccer field, a large stage had been constructed and a loud band was warming up for the night. Crowds were lining the field ready to use the space as a dance floor, but first, they’d cheer on the match for the borrego!
The game was intense. Players passionately fought for the ball, with headers and shots on goal delighting the mass of onlookers. The makeshift lights shone through the cold and fog gathering on the field, while the band continued their sound checks. After 90 minutes, the score was tied. Each team chose their five players in hopes of making several goal-kicks to victory. It was down to the final player from our team, and his kick went wide.
I turned to Margarita. “No borrego for us?”
After collecting Jose, we piled back into the truck, and drove toward home. As they recounted different parts of the game I thought about the state of my cakes sitting all this time on the kitchen counter. I had wanted so badly to show my worthiness to the task and now it was so late, I wondered if we’d even get to the party before it was all over. Then Jose took a turn away from home.
I wondered if I should even ask, but since I was still trying to adjust to life with this wonderfully crazy and spontaneous family, I dove in. “Where are we going now?”
Margarita turned around to smile at me in the darkness, “To get the mushrooms, of course!”
So, we drove the few miles to the big grocery store in town to buy the mushrooms. We returned home, and they loaded the rice and the wine in the back of the pickup while I retrieved my lonely cakes from the house and balanced them carefully on my knees.
A few minutes later we were driving down the road again and there, waiting for us in front of their house was our friends, a family of 4, holding the giant roasting pan with the turkey. It was now 8:30pm. Three hours late to a party! How did they know when we were coming? I stared at them amazed at how much of this life I never understood. They piled in and we carried on.
When we finally arrived at the house of the party, Victor met us with a huge smile across his tan and grooved face. He took my cakes gingerly, and glowed with anticipation. Josefina, Jose’s mom, appeared from the chicken coop, today wearing her long grey hair in two braids down her back. I bent over to give her a hug while she patted my arm and gave me the traditional blessing offered to all of her kin. I tried to find the words to apologize for being so late to their party, but then I looked around the small, quiet concrete house and dirt farmyard and realized that we were the first people to arrive!
Within the next hour, all of the others had joined the party with buckets of potatoes, bread, rolls and huge bottles of Coke and Sprite. Plastic chairs were brought in from somewhere and all of us crowded in the kitchen, eating mounded plates of food from our laps or leaning against the tiled counter. The turkey and the mushroom sauce Margarita had made in the last moments was easily the best I’ve ever had. We sang, Victor blew out his candle and everyone complimented me on the cakes, filling me with pride for my contribution.
As our feast came to an end, Josefina put on her shall and bowler hat and headed out into the night. I figured she was bringing her cow in from pasture, but she showed up at the door minutes later with a huge armload of dried corn stalks. We pushed back the chairs, and there, in the middle of the kitchen floor, she started a bonfire to warm up her guests.
As we sat in the wafting smoke, relating the story of the lost borrego, and all of my confusion, I reveled in this moment of contentment. Living abroad when you don’t have full control of the language can be really frustrating and hard. I spent so much time desperately trying to understand, and cling to cultural norms that I do know. Moments like this reminded me to let go of my own expectations, be open, trust and follow the cultural norms being modeled. This family knew I spent a tremendous amount of days in confusion, but the language of laughter was truly universal between us all. There, at the center of their ribbings, whether I had baked a cake or not — I realized I was truly loved and would be part of this family forever.