During the first couple of days of our journey through Peru and Ecuador, our trip leaders Hope and Nathan asked me how I felt about my 22nd birthday happening while we were in South America, away from my friends and family. I had to think about the question for a moment. Part of me was excited and open to the new experience of being so removed from my everyday life, being that I am not one for big celebrations to begin with. Another part of me was a bit disappointed because I knew that I wouldn't be able to spend time with the people in my life that care the most about me. Little did I know that my 22nd birthday would turn out to be one of the most unique and memorable days, let alone birthdays, that I have experienced so far.
I was able to spend my birthday in a small village called Agato in Ecuador. Chickens and stray dogs roamed the dirt path that lined the city, corn fields peppered the streets, and everyone knew and greeted each other in their traditional clothing and jewelry as they walked through the small community. I spent my day with 10 new and important friends and I was lucky enough to feel the genuine love and happiness that everyone should feel - for at least a moment - on their birthday.
I woke up on the morning of October 11th with an open mind to what the day would bring. I had come to terms with the fact that my birthday celebration would be pretty unconventional, if there were to be a celebration at all. If there is one thing that this trip has taught me it is to be able to be flexible, to go with the flow, embrace the uncertainty, and to be open to things changing constantly while traveling, because they will and they do.
I started off the day with my homestay family in Agato: Juan, Rosalena and their two sons. We all ate a breakfast that consisted of bread, butter, tea, fruit and a heaping pile of spaghetti and vegetables - quite the hearty meal. We talked about our plans for the day and after a brief acknowledgment that it was my birthday, the conversation continued in a different direction. Later I came to know that yearly birthdays in the Kichwa community are not typically celebrated, rather a ceremony is performed every 7 years to celebrate a person's transition to and from different colors that signify their different life stages. I, for example, as a 21 year old moving into my 22nd year of life, was in between my yellow and green stages. This I learned from Guillermo, one of the community leaders and shaman that guided us through multiple activities and ceremonies during our stay in Agato. He explained how during these ceremonies, a person's life is reflected on while emphasizing the important changes that lie ahead in the next phases of their life. I was definitely intrigued.
As the day continued, we picked up our gardening tools and headed out to clear and plow corn fields. Doing repetitive, strenuous work on a day usually spent doing your favorite activities was a new experience for me. Dedicating my time, effort and hard work to a community of deserving people was both eye-opening and humbling. We all joked, laughed, sweat, and definitely complained on that field, but we came out on the other side of it having gained something new and valuable.
During the afternoon, as we all planned to meet at Pakarinka, the central meeting point in the community, I was told that we would be having a small birthday ceremony. I looked around the room with anticipation and saw Guillermo sitting behind a beautiful display of flowers, mangoes laid out into a semi-circle, two smooth rocks, a mysterious bottled liquid, large feathers, a drum, and a fire pit filled with leaves. I was asked to stand in the middle of this display while the rest of the group sat in chairs around me. I felt like I was on a stage and I tried to stay calm and collected as the surprises unfolded. Then the ceremony began....
Though it was hard to keep a straight face while looking at the smiles of all of my friends, the ceremony in its entirety turned out to be one of the most meaningful, thought-provoking unique and reflective experiences I have ever gone through. To start, Guillermo asked me to state my full name and how old I was turning. He then recited some phrases in Kichwa, told me about my transition between my yellow and green stages of life, and proceeded to tell me how my life from now on would change with my new year of wisdom. He brushed rocks across my body to signify that I was one with the mountains and the earth, did the same with a bouquet of flowers to express that I was one with plants and nature, chanted some more and then simultaneously spit out the mysterious bottled liquid onto each side of my body while fanning me with the large bird feathers. While I was standing up there in front of the group, he told me to place a handful of fragrant leaves to my face and to inhale while he proceeded with the ceremony. We lit a candle, with the help of my friend Sophia, and he explained how we would be letting the candle burn out on its own, as opposed to blowing it out, to signify my continuous light and illumination that would mirror the light of the candle.
As I used my candle to ignite the leaves in the fire pit, he spoke about the light that my life brings to the lives of those around me and how it would continue to shine brightly as I transition into this new year. I thought about my mom and my siblings at home, my extended family in California, my friends from college all around the country, the loved ones I have lost, and I looked around and thought about my new unconventional family here in South America. The ceremony finished by Hope bravely leaping across the fire, tying my hair together with a yellow and green string, cutting off a piece with scissors, and throwing it into the fire to burn. Then everyone in the room came up to me and hugged me, wished me a happy birthday, gave me flowers and fruit, and the ceremony ended. I sat down in my seat, holding my gifts, and felt like I was floating on a cloud of warmth and happiness. I felt the love and care that not only the people I had met a month ago expressed for me, but also the strangers in Agato that had expressed for me as well.
My mind wandered and went to some of the amazing memories spent with the group while we were in Agato. I reflected on our trip to the Peguche waterfall, where we all plunged into the freezing water and smiled together as the icy droplets landed on our heads. I thought about running down the mountain and through an empty field after our hike to the top, filled with juicy berries and cloud-covered views. I remembered my first dinner with my host family, that was followed by a quest to find beetles in the ground with the local children that treated me like a member of their own family, holding my hand and giving me gifts that they had made themselves. I thought about the evening we all made bread together, and waited patiently until the steamy dough came out of the oven so we could smother it in fresh honey. I reflected on my time in Agato and how I felt like a part of a new community, like I had been fully immersed into the way of life of a new place, with a new family, and new rich experiences.
The night finished with an amazing dinner at a cozy restaurant with a wood-fired oven, filled with Italian food, wine, dessert, good conversation, and a genuine aura of happiness that carried me on not only to the next month of the trip but onto the next phase of my life.
The people that I was with on my 22nd birthday were the reason that my experience will forever be engrained in my mind as such a special day. From the biggest to the smallest gestures, like organizing a ceremony for me, writing me a note, sharing a granadilla fruit with me while gardening, or simply giving me a hug - the people I was with made such an amazing effort to make me feel valued and they certainly succeeded. Being with my group of fellow Pacific Discovery travelers in South America on my 22nd birthday was a prime example of how traveling can serve to both unite different types of people into one community and how much new and different experiences can truly enrich your life.
I'll end with this quote by John Krakauer from Into the Wild: "The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun."