19 Candles

by Teagan, Civic Semester Participant

A few weeks ago, I celebrated my first birthday away from my family in all 19 years of my life. However, even thousands of miles from home, I had felt as loved as ever—loved by my cohort, loved by my host family, loved through the texts and calls by my family and friends at home, loved by the new place I called home.

On November 10th, my alarm went off at 7:15 am, and on the rare occasion, I didn’t hit the snooze button. I felt wide awake with nervous excitement as the breeze floated into my room. I walked down the balcony to the kitchen where all my nerves immediately melted away. My two little brothers cried “¡Feliz cumpleaños!”, and my host parents embraced me in a hug.

After my day with Zhiyi at our volunteer placement, I walked home—happy but also a little tired after spending hours with little kids and reading “Franklin” at least four times. At the door, my 6-year-old brother Gabriel urgently stopped me from looking out the window to our yard where my family was blowing up gold balloons for the party with my cohort. It was such a surprise and lovely gesture.

At the party, we played “chapa” (tag) and “escondidas” (hide and seek) as requested by my brothers. Over Inka Cola and “bocadito’s” (snacks), we shared stories and danced to salsa music. I wore a crown and birthday sash decorated in glitter flowers and colorful ribbons made by Ella. It was the perfect night.

Of course, we sang “happy birthday” followed by a rendition of “feliz cumpleaños” over a cake that had both of my names—Teagan and Snacks. In Peru, it is a tradition to bite the cake while everyone chants “mordida!” What I didn’t expect was my brother pushing my face into it from his tippy toes. When I lifted my head up, chocolate frosting blurred my vision and all I could hear was the chorus of laughter. Even though I had frosting in my nose for at least a week, there was also so much joy and love surrounding us that I didn’t mind.

After a few more games, we sat in a circle (my host brothers climbing over us), and I eagerly opened the cards and gift bags in front of me. I was given chocolate and markers from the lovely Veena, and two marble elephants from my host family. My mom, Yaki, explained that they mean “family” and bring good luck.

Not to give anything away, but I had never cried so much in Peru as I did that night. Emma, one of my longest friends, made a slideshow to celebrate my birthday—a tradition dating back to seventh grade. We laughed at photos from Middle School and reminisced about all our memories in Peru. I started to tear up thinking about how far Emma and I had both come from Medford when Emma suddenly handed Nica the laptop.

One by one, everyone in our cohort shared anecdotes and kind words. From my and Nica’s plan to live at a vineyard in Peru after retirement to walking around Cusco with Pikachu hats with Tziavi, there were so many small moments that we had shared that meant so much to me. Sophia showed photos where we would joyfully study together in silence in our separate beds, and Elaine had a lot of inside jokes to share. I was crying so much by the end because I just could not believe how lucky I was to have these people as my family.

That night, as I hugged everyone goodbye and walked my friends to the door one by one, there were so many emotions going through my head. I felt grateful. I felt happy. I felt content. I felt loved. I felt in awe of my life and where I was.

I love my Civic Semester family. And I love my Peruvian family. I love my family-family. And I am surrounded by people who love me just as much, too.