How to have real birthday parties when traveling.
When we were in Suchitoto, El Salvador, we were walking around one day and stumbled upon a child’s birthday party. It seemed like a typical affair. A crowd of neighborhood kids joyfully yelling while taking turns hitting a pinata that had been strung up in front of a house. Parents were sitting in chairs encouraging them, chatting, sipping sodas. A table with a cake in a box and paper plates and forks. We stood and watched them for awhile, enjoying the action.
Ten month old Petra loved watching the older kids play. Wade tried to guess which kid was going to break the pinata. But I felt melancholy. I turned to Wade and asked “Who’s going to hit the pinata at Petra’s birthday parties?”
This is one of the challenges of traveling: you don’t have a continuous community around you to celebrate birthdays and holidays with. There is something ingrained in us which wants to celebrate holidays, life changing events, and birthdays with people who love us and care about us. I’ve met plenty of depressed travelers on Christmas and Thanksgiving around the world. For me to spend Passover away from home always makes me feel lonely. Petra’s first birthday seemed like a pretty big mile stone in her little life, and the thought of just the three of us celebrating it like every other day seemed pretty sad.
Luckily, we found our community in Guatemala. We had been working at the Finca Tatin for three months when Petra’s birthday came around. It hadn’t taken to long for the owner’s family, the staff and their families to become enamored with Petra. Petra had even attended the birthday party of a cook’s son the month before. This is one of the benefits of traveling slow: you are provided with ample time to make friends and construct little impromptu communities as you move through the world.
In addition to our Finca family, my mom and my brother agreed to fly to Guatemala City, take a seven hour bus ride, and two half hour boat rides out to the Finca to celebrate Petra’s first birthday with us.
We woke up early on Petra’s birthday and took care of all the hotel work in the morning before heading out to Puerto Barrios to pick up my mom and brother from the bus station. First, we went to the market in Puerto Barrios to buy a pinata, candy, and Petra’s birthday present — a flotation device shaped like an airplane for her to swim with in the river.
When my family arrived off the bus, Petra felt a little overwhelmed, but it didn’t take her long to warm up to her grandma and uncle she hadn’t seen in many months. Wade drove the boat back through the canyon to the Finca.
There we dressed Petra in a special birthday dress, hung the pinata, and waited for the Finca staff to come back with their families to the party. The cooks at the Finca surprised us with a strawberry birthday cake, and we all sang together. The kids, including Petra, took turns hitting the pinata, and Petra opened all her presents. It was a true birthday party.
I know we won’t always be so lucky as to have family visit for Petra’s birthday parties, and it might not always work out that we have such a community of friends, but at least for her first one there were plenty of people to hit the pinata.