Sunday, August 30, 2009

One weekend, three Colombian birthday parties

Our dear friends who have served in Latin America before us assured us that our children would be the first to make friends, and that we would get "hooked in" through these friendships as well. This weekend, our children were invited to three different birthday parties. While it would have been easy for us to decline the invitations, we knew it would be good for us to branch out and try to connect with other folks. Incidentally, our children go to school far away from where we live, so this posed some complications when it came to the logistics of finding these parties. Not only did we have to navigate our way through a Spanish R.S.V.P., but we also had to ask the parents, our language tutor, and sometimes others how in the world to get to the correct locations. The following post describes some of our experiences.

Party #1
Abigail was invited to a party for her friend Maria Angelica. The party was at a private club way north of Bogota. We first asked our friend the cab driver if he would be able to take us there (knowing he knows the northern part of town pretty well). He said that he could not because technically this location was beyond the city limits, and his cab was not allowed to drive there. So then we resorted to looking up Transmilenio maps and consulting with others to try and figure out how to find this place. Finally, our dear friends Oscar and Lilianna (Colombian MCCers who are waiting to start a term in Brasil and also live in the north) agreed to meet me at a northern Transmilenio stop and help me navigate a cab driver to the correct location.

For those that know me (Jen) well, you will know that it is extremely easy for me to get lost. I will admit that I got lost in Akron, which is incredibly hard. And navigating around a city by myself causes me a great deal of anxiety and stress. Incidentally, Aaron had another party at the same time and we could not go together. So I loaded up Lydia, Abby, and myself and we crammed (literally, there was no room) ourselves into the train, hoping that we had written down the right stop to meet Oscar and Lilianna. We only got (a little) lost, and were grateful to find them. We were on the train for probably 20-30 minutes, and then in the cab with them for another 25 minutes.

We walked into this VERY fancy country club. There were flowers everywhere, and it looked like the fanciest hotel we had ever seen. There was lush grass and an amazing view of the mountains. After asking several staff people where the party was, we were directed to a side area for "los ninos." There was a beautiful playground, a miniature ice cream/refreshment hut, and several elaborate play structures. We were 1/2 hour late, but only one other family had arrived (not even the birthday girl). We waited for about an hour, awkwardly playing around this other family. Gradually, others started to arrive...dressed in very fancy clothes.

This party was staffed. There were people there in uniform, just to facilitate games and activities for the children. There were blow-up games, kareoke, and an elaborate pirate treasure hunt (all with costumes for the kids). There were waiters and waitresses walking around with trays of Coke, Colombiana, Scotch, and water, swooping up any extra dishes along the way. We were served a lunch of cheeseburgers and french fries, and all the adults ate them with a knife and fork. The staff handled everything, and the parents just sat around and visited. There was a big display box for all of the gifts, and beautiful kid-sized place settings with folded napkins and candy on every table.

The hardest part about this party is that Abby and Lydia did not play with the other kids. Sure, they were speaking Spanish, but they did not go out of their way to play with Lydia and Abby. In fact, in was incredibly painful to see the other children AVOID them....whispering and going to sit elsewhere (for a long time Abby and Lydia sat alone). Needless to say, my girls did not join in the group games, and tended to go off and play somewhere else as well. I had a similar experience. Two people tried to make conversation with me, which only went so far because of language difficulties, so for most of the time I sat alone, not knowing how to connect with this crowd of fancily dressed elite.

After the cake and party favors (all the children who attended got character slippers to take home) we took off. Another long cab ride (this one ripped me off). Another long train ride, and we finally got home. We were gone from 8 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon. Exhausted, I fell into bed and listened to "Prairie Home Companion," trying to recover.

Party #2
This was Andy's first party invitation. We had to travel by Transmilenio (the newest form of public transportation in is quite nice and pretty easy) to the northern most stop and then take a taxi for about 20minutes. We arrived at "Multiparque" (Multipark) 35 minutes late and to our surprise the birthday boy had not arrived nor most of the other guests. Multiparque was a fantastic party place. They have go-carts (los carts) and a harnessed trampoline jumping game (jumpin), which allows the kids to jump about 10 ft in the air safely. Besides those thrilling attractions the kids get to take advantage of about 200 square yards of green space filled with every play ground structure you can imagine...including zip-lines. Yes, Andy was in heaven, even though he was the only kid there who crashed the go-cart. It was a spectacular crash. He actually went headlong into and over the railing and landed on top of a two-foot embankment, only to be smashed by another car. Lest you think he was severely injured; he was wearing a very protective helmet and visor, with a neck brace, and five-point harness. He is sore today but perfectly fine. Besides, he already survived falling of a horse in the rainforest!

Andy has been amazing to observe this weekend. His friends really like him and he has no inhibitions about interacting with his peers. His physicallity allows him to get by without much need for a lot of clear verbal communication. Right now it is a gift that is serving him very well.

This party had its paid staff attending to the kids too. However, the families were certainly more engaged with me, each other, and the kids than they were at Abby's party. Several people tried a bit of english with me. Mostly, however, they were very intentional about speaking clearly and slowly to me and including me when possible. I spent a significant amount of time talking with one of the father's about the kids' school, hockey (Andy starts hockey with his son on Tuesday at school) and the world of soccer--that went on for a while...surprise, surprise. In general, I found everyone to be very welcoming, genuine, and interested in helping us in any way possible. I took advantage of this and got a ride back to the train station.

Party #3
This was another friend of Andy's from school. His family sent an invitation home for a "family baseball party." This one was a lot closer to our apartment, so we did not have worries about transportation. It was a simple cab ride away. The family called us before hand to explain that the party was for the whole family, and we should all wear tennis shoes to play "beisbol." They called again, this afternoon to see if we needed a ride, or help finding the place.

When we arrived, we were greeted warmly by all the families there. It was a smallish party, with 4-5 family friends together and a Grandma and Grandpa. The offered us chips and coke as we waited for the beautiful field to open up. Andy ran off immediately with his friends and several of the parents gathered around us and tried their best at English,** asking us about our jobs, our involvement in church, our families, etc. They enthusiastically organized us into teams to play on the field. Then they "warmed us up" with stretches and passing exercises, shared whatever gloves and bats they had with us.

The game started, and those that were not playing got to watch in the dugout. There was a lot of laughter, including Abby who played with ferver in her skirt and bare feet. After the game, there were ham and cheese sandwiches, chips and more soda, followed by a pan of jello with candles in it.

When the party was over, they insisted on driving us home, and on the way asked us how we found the school, how we were finding ingredients for cooking, more about our family, etc etc. They were warm and caring, and insisted on giving us their phone numbers for future ball games, doctor referrals, questions about school, or whatever.

It was great to connect again with some people I had met the previous evening. We enjoyed more conversation and a nice ball game. We now have several standing invitations to call people if we need rides to hockey games, school activities, or the regular friday evening "beisbol" games.

We arrived home dusty from the game, full of good food, and hopeful for future friendships.

**When I was in the states, I knew a bit of Spanish, but was too timid to use it. Now that I am here, I realize what a gift it is when people even try to speak a little bit of English to me...and I wish I would have done that too. So I urge you, if you know a little bit of Spanish to try and talk to someone who does not know English. It is an amazing gesture of love (even if you sound foolish).


  1. you. are. so. brave.

    okay, yo hablo espanol a las personas en mi ciudad que no habla ingles muy bien.

    are you sure that's love?

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  3. Good idea for a post, Jen. It told us much about both the culture and your experience in it.

    I agree -- you are so brave. And getting more and more so!

  4. Thanks for this post, Jen. I am hopeful for your new friendships! I, too, promise to try and speak more Spanish to the children and families I work with. I am glad I just test 0 - 3 year olds because I can usually keep up with their Spanish.

  5. Ya and she draged me lydia along and I was sick!