Birthday Surprises and Getting to Work | Downey First Christian Church

Monday, May 4th was Star Wars day (May the 4th be with you…). It was also my 37th birthday. I didn’t want to make a big deal because school was scheduled to start that day and I don’t like to make a fuss. Someone told… everyone.

My first clue that something was up was the banging on my door at 6 AM. Bleary-eyed. I stepped out to find this:

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Yes, it’s blurry. That’s exactly what I saw. The girls hid from the camera. Pictured left to right: Ronald – Lupe and Jose’s other refugee, Julio – he let both the Downey and Chile teams crash at his house last summer, Fernando – Jose’s best friend visiting with his family from Guayaquil, Jose –,my host dad, and Stalin – he used to teach at Centinela school, but now works at a public school and we were friends until later that night.  They all came by early because many had to leave for work at 6:30 AM.

After skyping with Mom and Dad (yay!) I got ready to hang out with Paola and Samuel.  They had planned something special for me and told me to be ready at 4 PM. They took me out for a cappuccino and gave me a box of local hand-made chocolates. Yum! I hadn’t had chocolate since leaving the States three weeks ago.

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When we finished our coffee Samuel looked at his watch and said, “Paola, we’d better get going. Karen is waiting for us.” We pulled up to a house around the corner from where I’m staying. I hopped out with my backpack ready to head home thinking, “I guess the surprise was the coffee and chocolates.”

Samuel stopped me. “Where are you going? They’re waiting for you inside.” I was lead into a hair salon, not quite shoved into a swivel chair and handed a glass of soda. “What do you want done? Perm, dye, cut, blow-out?” I opted for a trim. The salon was air conditioned! As she was smoothing my hair out with a round brush and then a straightener, I wondered how long it would hold once I stepped outside.

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When we were done, it was dark outside. Once again, Samuel said, “We’d better get going.”

Me: “So what’s next?”

Samuel: “What more do you want? We bought you coffee, gave you chocolates and a haircut. You could at least be grateful, instead you’re asking for more?” (Chilean ribbing at its best.)

Me (a tad embarrassed): “Oh yes, thank you!  Let me get my stuff and I can walk home.” Paola and Samuel exchanged a look.

“No, we’ll take you. Paola needs to change into long pants and socks because of the mosquitoes, anyway.”

We pulled up to the house.  It was dark and I don’t have a key, but I knocked anyway because I could see Ronald moving around inside. No one came to the door for a long time. I kept knocking and yelling at Ronald to open up already.

Finally the door burst open and a multitude of people yelled, “Surprise!” I busted up laughing and may have shed a tear or two because I was so touched that in the midst of their busyness, my new friends took time to celebrate me.

Here are the girls:

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Left to Right: Paola, Katty (Lupe’s sister and a teacher at the school), Yuli (Lupe’s second cousin and a teacher at the school), Ailen (Lupe’s niece), Lupe, Me, Luisa (Chinese girl that Katty babysits), Yessenia (Lupe’s sister), Piedad (Lupe’s sister)

The guys:

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Left to Right: “we used to be friends” Stalin, Jose, Me, Tomas (Chinese boy that Katty babysits), Adrian (Jose and Lupe’s son), Samuel, Ronald.

Samuel and Stalin took off their belts threatening to fulfill an Ecuadorian birthday tradition where they give you a swat on your backside for each year, like birthday spankings. Obviously, I was not going to comply, but some were very insistent.

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At one point, Samuel told me, “Let’s trick them.” We were in the kitchen and he hit the table with his belt and I yelped. Stalin ran in to join the fun, but actually hit me instead of the table. I retaliated with a punch. He decided to not hit me anymore. He kept saying that I owed him 36 more swats. I assured him I could punch him 36 more times, if he really wanted. We made a joke of it and I bet if I wasn’t a foreigner they would not have felt the need to introduce me to their birthday “tradition”. I confess, I have a hard time accepting a tradition where it’s ok for a man to beat a woman with a belt.

On to more pleasant things.


The birthday spread was really good.  And not an egg in sight.

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Clockwise from top left: hotdogs in a tomato sauce, mustard and mayonnaise dip, elephant ear cookies, ritz crackers with tuna dip, chicken wontons, little sandwich cookies with dulce de leche (caramel) filling, tuna sandwiches, ritz crackers, tuna sandwiches, cheese and ham empanadas, more little sandwich cookies. Center: chocolate cake! It was like a chocolate tres leches cake.

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It was so rich I wasn’t able to finish my slice.

In Chile a “churrasco” is a steak sandwich. Samuel heard that Lupe is known to make a mean Ecuadorian “churrasco”. Last Friday, May 1 was Labor Day and Samuel invited us over and sweet talked Lupe into cooking for all of us.

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Churrasco here is a dish with ubiquitous rice, stewed meat, French fries, tomato and carrot salad. Not pictured: the crowning fried egg. I don’t like eggs so my plate didn’t have one. It was delicious!

My favorite food that I’ve had away from home is blended yogurt and yucca bread.

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You pick which fruit pulp they blend into the yogurt. I’ve tried the blackberry and mango. Both were wonderful!  And I look forward to more.

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The adult English class doesn’t start till next week, but the word has spread that I can be bribed with “pan de yuca”.

The weirdest fruit I’ve tried so far is the “granadilla”.

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It looks a bit like an orange till you break it open. The inside fruit is like a squishy pomegranate. It looks a bit gross, but it’s sweet and refreshing.


Ok, this week was much more than good food and fun times. We got to clean the school. There’s no budget for a janitor so the teachers share the load.

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Yuli swept and scrubbed those stairs several times before the water ran clear.

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Ronald took a scrub brush to the floor.

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Alejandra stayed dry by working on her classroom posters.

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I helped too, mostly carrying buckets of water and taking pictures, but when I found an abandoned broom so Ronald could take my picture.

Odds and Ends

There is one Chinese restaurant in Samborondon. The owners are Chinese immigrants. The have a son and a daughter , Tomas and Luisa, who go to the school. It cracks me up to hear them talk Spanish with an Ecuadorian accent. One day Luisa was looking at my camera and said, “What does this button do?”  The result and her answer was this selfie. She didn’t know you could take pictures with something besides a cell phone.

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Tomas is a bit more bashful.

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Last weekend we got to see the Avengers in 3-D in Spanish…  Tony Stark is not as snarky and Jarvis did not sound like Jarvis, but I didn’t have to pay for my ticket and we had fun.

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If this English teacher missions thing doesn’t work out, I’ve spotted a massage place where I’m sure I could find sketchy employment.

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I leave you with this image. It’s not raining. Those are mosquitoes swarming the lights.

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