I spent two Thanksgivings living with our host family in Chivay, Perú. We made our first Thanksgiving into an opportunity to “live out” our Peace Corps Second Goal, that of representing the U.S. and its traditions to our host country. My wife, Jean, and I bought a frozen turkey in Arequipa, hauled it back to Chivay on the bus, and got it thawed just in time to start cooking. Enrique, our host “dad,” had fished an old gas range out of a dump – er, his “storage area” – and installed it on the rooftop where we lived. After testing the connections to make sure we wouldn’t detonate West Central Chivay when we lit the burners, we set about assembling an epic feast.
Another nearby Peace Corps volunteer, Chris Heather, came up from his home in Maca to celebrate with us. We baked potatoes and sweet potatoes, made turkey and stuffing, prepared salad, green beans, and a cranberry relish improvised from craisins, chopped whole orange, and cooked up with some wine. We finished it off with pecan and apple pies, and served the whole glorious mess to our extended host family, along with 3 liters of Peruvian wine that cost us a bit more than US $3 a bottle. You can imagine. . .
Net result: Enrique said it was the best meal of his life, in spite of my frantic signals not to continue in that vein while sitting next to his wife, Amanda, who had been making his meals for 21 years. No fuss ensued, though, and maybe Amanda even agreed, as we gorged on apple and pecan pies a la mode.
The gravy, in particular, had been a revelation. He’d never seen or tasted anything like it. About two months later, Enrique began dropping hints, asking “when is that holiday? How long ‘til it comes again?”
In explaining the holiday, I had translated Thanksgiving literally, as “el día de dar gracias,” or “the day to give thanks.” I learned later that it is more traditionally referred to in Spanish as “el día de acción de gracias,” or “the day of putting thanks into action.”
That made me hit the “pause” button. “Putting thanks into action?” What might that mean? To us, it meant more than simply giving thanks for a good meal, it meant preparing and sharing that meal. In our lives, it meant being of service to those around us (even if never as much as our conscience would have us do). It meant engaging in the Andean custom of offering the first drops of any festive beverage to Pachamama, and using that moment mindfully to thank her (“Mother Earth”) for her gifts, and for all that we had in our lives; to appreciate the awesome living landscape that surrounded us, and the deep, living culture in which we lived, and to be inspired by it all.
I have tried to carry that tradition forward, of making “thanks” an action, rather than just a sentiment.
“El día de acción de gracias” – isn’t it wonderful how a simple difference in translation can shift your whole frame of reference?