This Christmas definitely had a theme song: Happy Christmas by John Lennon. So let me explain how that came to be.
During the holiday season this year, I was feeling a little down. I tried to ignore Thanksgiving so that I wouldn’t have to think about all of the amazing food that my mom was preparing at home. I sat in my site and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t help but miss home.
My plan was to stay in site for Christmas, as well, but then Jorge and I received an invitation to come visit Father Fabio in a town just 3 hours away from Chacas. I met Father Fabio last year and found him completely interesting. He came to Peru from Italy 25 years ago as a young electronic engineer with big career prospects in Milan, Italy. After spending time volunteering with Father Ugo in Peru, he decided to become a Catholic priest. He returned to Italy to go to seminary, and upon completion of school returned to Peru to help the impoverished people of the Andes mountains. He has dedicated his life to the people of Peru and even identifies as South American now. When he talks of the Peruvian people, he always says “we” and told me that he even feels a connection with the ancient culture of Peru. He can sum up his work in two words: education and water. He is dedicated to teaching children and always has new innovative projects. He opened a vocational school for electricians and has helped hundreds of children grow to be professionals, including my Jorge. His newest idea is teaching how to build solar powered wells to students. Overall, he is an inspiration to me.
Christmas is basically high time for a priest, so he asked Jorge and I to help with some of the community activities that he had planned. It was more than I ever could have expected.
Even though Uco (where Father Fabio serves) is just 3 hours away, it is rainy season and the roads to get there were in very bad shape. Because of this, Jorge and I had to travel 3 hours to the capital city of Huaraz, take a 3 hour bus to Pomachaca, then Father Fabio sent two young Italian guys to meet us there with their truck and take us another 2 hours to the town of Uco. We arrived exhausted and sat down for an espresso with the young Italian volunteers. Next, Father Fabio walked in and got straight to business. He looked at me, told me he had a surprise for me, and asked me to meet him in the church at 7 pm.
I walked into the church at 7 pm sharp and was amazed to see that there were children filling the pews. Father Fabio handed me the microphone and we had an impromptu English lesson on how to say words like, “Merry Christmas,” and “Happy New Year.” Then, to my surprise, Father Fabio pulled out his guitar and handed me the words to sing John Lennon’s, “Happy Christmas.” Luckily, I was familiar enough with the song to make it work. When we got to the chorus, all of the children chimed in and sang to their fullest. Father Fabio had taught them how to sing in English to surprise me for my arrival.
That wasn’t the only surprise. Father Fabio then told me that I would be singing this song with the children at the Christmas Eve mass the next day. I haven’t sung in front of a crowd in 10 years, but last year, when I met Father Fabio, we had sat around his table and he played guitar while I sang English songs with Jorge, my Peace Corps friend Jessica, and Italian volunteers. He had liked my singing voice and thought about that when planning my visit. He recognized something in me that I was too terrified to recognize myself, but once I got in front of the church to sing, it felt just like it did when I performed in the past. I was filled with so much happiness and fearlessness that I surprised myself.
The next morning, we woke up early to travel to Huacachi, which is a district near Uco. Jorge and I helped distribute víveres to the community members. This included 2 kilos of sugar, 2 kilos of rice, 2 kilos of flour, 2 bags of pasta noodles, 1 bottle of vegetable oil, and 1 panetone for each person in need. We got to sing with the kids and had such a blast meeting community members in the Christmas spirit. For lunch, one of the Italians made a real spaghetti carbonara, which I learned means that every person gets one full egg in their serving. After lunch, we helped Father Fabio with a few other tasks and watched the community perform the traditional Christmas Negritos dance around the Plaza de Armas.
We headed back to Uco where we had rehearsal for the Christmas song with the children. We ate a quick dinner and then it was show time. We were the second to last performance of the mass and everyone loved the song. The Uco English teacher ended up joining me in singing and we had a great time. After our performance, the children performed a 30 minute long Quechua song about giving offerings to the baby Jesus.
The mass ended around 10 pm and was immediately followed by a chocolatada, which is hot chocolate and panetone. After the panentone we had a gift raffle, and guess who was the host…me! I spent about an hour and a half reading off numbers of community members anxiously awaiting their number to be called. The gifts ranged from shoes to light bulbs and everything in between. At midnight, Father Fabio came out and announced Christmas and then fireworks created the backdrop of hundreds of hugging and cheering community members.
After the crowds of community members cleared away, the Italians, Jorge, and I went inside of the parish to enjoy a beer and listen to Father Fabio play songs on the guitar. We talked, sang, and laughed until about 2 am, when we had to convince Father Fabio it was time to go to bed.
We woke up Christmas morning to more Christmas hugs and a huge fruit breakfast. Then, everyone immediately got started on a big Italian lunch. There were Italians making kilos upon kilos of fresh pasta and I helped to prepare a traditional fried steak and pork dish. It took all morning to prepare and we had a long, leisurely lunch served with Italian wine and everything.
After lunch, we decided to have a quiet Christmas afternoon. Father Fabio asked if I had any classic American Christmas movies and we watched White Christmas. I looked over and both Father Fabio and Jorge had teary eyes by the end of the movie and they both absolutely loved it. We had a light, Italian dinner of mushroom soup and then went to bed early. Before going to bed, Father Fabio asked if I would make an American style breakfast for the parish and all of the impoverished community members that eat at the parish every day. I was so excited and planned out the menu.
Jorge and I woke up at 5 am to cook for the almost 30 expected breakfast guests. We made pancakes with maple syrup (I had brought it from my last trip to Lima), scrambled eggs, and a pineapple, ginger juice. Father Fabio even whipped out a jar of peanut butter he had gotten for me and I shared it with the table. We started the breakfast with a little lesson on how to eat pancakes with maple syrup and everyone closely watched my every move to see how it was done. I then explained to them how to eat peanut butter. The kids and adults loved pancakes and I spent about an hour writing out the recipe for every one who asked. Luckily, I made a ton of pancakes because everyone wanted seconds, thirds, and even sixths.
At breakfast, the children asked me if I could teach an English class for them in the afternoon. I prepared a class, and they all showed up to learn some new vocabulary and a new English song. They were enthusiastic students and left the classroom singing. I got back to the parish and the Italians wanted to watch a movie in Spanish. They chose The Grand Budapest Hotel and they found it very strange.
The next morning, we woke up early to say goodbye to everyone and Father Fabio took us on a road trip back to the capital city of Huaraz so that we could get a car back to Chacas. On the way back, Father Fabio and I talked about religion, service, politics, and more. We got a flat tire and had to drive to a mechanic’s, which ended up being a blessing because we were right by the Chavin National Museum. Father Fabio is very knowledgeable about the Chavin culture, which existed 1,000 years before Christ. He served as a guide to Jorge and me and helped us imagine life in the ancient temples of Chavin. We finished our trip off with a traditional Peruvian lunch of fried trout and then Father Fabio sent us on our way.
Of course I still missed home, but this experience helped keep me busy and distracted by holiday cheer. Father Fabio also did everything possible for me to feel at home, even at the possible annoyance of others. He speaks English very well, so he made all of the Italians and Peruvians speak in just broken English so that I would feel amongst family. It was an unforgettable trip and a very Happy Christmas.