Monday, November 28, 2011

Pomp and Strange Circumstances

This year, we were honored to be asked by my work counterpart and close friend to be the padrino and madrina (godparents/witnesses) for her son’s, Arturo’s, high school graduation. To be frank, we were a little shocked by this request since we had barely said two words to her son before, but we happily agreed. We realized it was a chance to take part in something that would teach us more about the culture of graduation.

The whole graduation process from start to finish was a hilarious adventure. The school didn’t confirm the actual dates until a week prior and then scheduled it on Thursday and Friday of Thanksgiving week, which slightly interfered with some other plans we’d already made. But we adjusted our schedules as any Honduran would do at the last minute. I helped Arturo make some invitations for the post-graduation dinner party the family was having. The printer wouldn’t work correctly, the glue on the envelopes dried funny, and it probably cost more than it would have to just buy invites, but it was a bonding experience. Again, the invites were done on Tuesday and sent out Wednesday for a Friday night party and they insisted on giving us both separate invites even though 1) we were coming together and 2) I made the invites so I didn’t really need one.

The first part of the graduation on Thursday was something like an official swearing in. The students had their names called to sign the official book and as the witnesses, we attended to lend our signatures. I guess parents can’t be the witnesses so people pick aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends and mentors, or token gringos, of which we were the only two. Arturo graduated in Information Technology, basically computers, with about 30 other students. An additional 30 or so were graduating in science and arts (general) and social promotion (still not sure exactly what that means, non-profit work?). The swearing in was short and sweet, no parents or family members present.

Signing the official book of some sort

Friday was the actual graduation ceremony held in the gym of a local teacher’s college. It was much like a typical U.S. graduation. The graduates wore robes (called togas) and tasseled caps, walked in with their parents to Pomp and Circumstance and Total Eclipse of the Heart (odd choice we thought…), and then sat through speech after speech before being called up to receive their diplomas. Some students received awards and honors for good grades. One local bank offered medals and a savings account to students at the top of each class, although it wasn’t entirely clear if they were going to actually put some money in the account or if the gift was just the account(?). The students thanked and presented gigantic gifts to their teachers and then read strange biographies of the teachers such as their children’s names and their work histories. At one point, in typical Honduran fashion, a family member in the crowd answered her phone and yelled over the presentation to talk as if she was the only one in the room. Surprisingly, instead of just acting like this was normal, some people tried to shush her, to no avail. As the padrinos, we were awkwardly tasked with walking Arturo up to the stage from his seat, arms linked, and then waiting for him to guide him back to his seat.

Freezing cold gimnasio

Leading Arturo back to his seat

The event “started” at 3 pm, but didn’t actually start until close to 4 pm. The gym we were in was open to the outside and all concrete, so as the sun went down, we started to slowly freeze to death. Of course we hadn’t thought to bring coats and scarves to what we thought would be a mostly indoor event so were left shivering in the cold, our hands and noses like ice cubes by the time we were done. When the ceremony was over, the kids threw their caps into the air and cheered, and so did we! We presented Arturo with gifts afterward. Luckily, because we had been to other graduation earlier in the week, we knew it was customary to bring two gifts (one from each of us) so we labored all week to pick out a nice boxed pen and some knock-off Ray Ban sunglasses for him. Useful and cool gifts. (We heard later the sunglasses were a huge hit). Plus, we threw in a batch of homemade peanut butter cookies just because.

Us with my counterpart and Arturo after the ceremony

After the ceremony we headed home quickly to change into warmer clothes for the graduation dinner. We arrived at the invitation time, 7 pm, and were surprisingly the second people there, not the first as usual. We sat for a good half hour with the other guest until more people began to arrive. Luckily we knew most people at the dinner, but no one was really doing any talking. The waiters brought out some of local apricot wine in little shot glasses as well as some anafres (bean dip with chips) and everyone sort of awkwardly stared at one another, sipped their wine and acted afraid to touch the anafres. Finally, after about 30 minutes of letting them sit on the table, someone decided to dig in and everyone else hungrily followed. By now it was almost 8:30 and we were still waiting for half of the guests to arrive. I’m not sure what my counterpart and Arturo were doing during this time, but they certainly weren’t mingling with the guests as one might expect.

Finally, everyone trickled in and dinner was served, sort of. It took an inordinately long time for the two servers to bring out all 25 or so plates of food. Being polite, everyone of course waited until all the plates were set. Then more people randomly arrived requiring a spontaneous rearrangement of seats and more waiting for additional plates. We had a prayer and a short statement from Arturo and then were finally able to eat the now frigid food. The food was good, but certainly not typical, chicken with mushroom sauce, potato corn salad, pickled carrots and green beans and a lettuce/beet/cucumber salad. It seems like at fancy events like this, people try to impress by picking the strangest meals to serve, when in reality, I’m sure everyone at the table would have been more satisfied with some beans, grilled beef, rice and tortillas. We expected to finish up dinner with some cake and coffee. Hondurans love their sweets after all. But despite the fact that the dinner was held in a BAKERY, there was no dessert to be had.

Non exactly plato tipico

Instead, everyone pushed their chairs to the outside walls of the room, ostensibly to make room for a dance floor, but seemed to forget that there was still a line of large tables in the center of the room which effectively prohibited dancing. Meanwhile, Arturo handed out recuerdos or souvenirs of the event, a plastic image of a Caucasian looking graduate stuck on a doily which we had to pin to our shirts to take a picture with him. As the padrinos, we received an extra gift each, little statues of a boy and girl in graduate attire. It was touching. Then everyone insisted that Nicki try to get Arturo to dance to start the party, which she did, to everyone’s cheers. But only a few people joined them, and when the song ended everyone just sat back down. At that point, people started to trickle out so we said our goodbyes and headed out. My counterpart thanked us repeatedly for attending and being padrinos, but the pleasure was ours. Although the experience was a little awkward at some points, it was a graduation we will never forget.

Tearing up the dance floor

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