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Reflections from El Arenal, V

By Sarah Luke

Yesterday at El Arenal the smell of three burnt cakes traveled to the upstairs comedor where we had made half our kitchen: a sink, a refrigerator, a ceramic tile countertop. I had peeled shrimp over that sink before for a snack. We had chopped peppers to put in rice for a side.

Downstairs was where things got a little funky. At the end of the hallway sat a giant iron stove, the kind that you turn a knob to get a gas fire going up underneath the pots before you steam the yuccas. For a moment, the flames engulf the whole pot when you turn the eye off. A long trough with four faucets serves as a dish and hand washing station, and at the end of the trough, behind the wire clothesline where we hang towels that we use as both drying rags and oven mitts, looms the oven. It is a great iron beast, with only one temperature setting (super-hot), and it is what burned all three of our cakes in three and a half minutes.

The German volunteer looked like she could cry. Now we had to sell the burnt cakes to earn the money we needed to buy ingredients for new ones. The director had said that the people at the event tomorrow would like the German desserts, and the volunteers had spent the morning padding dough into tin pans, shaving apples and mixing them with raisins.

While we stood over the iron trough, scraping the black parts off the edges and the sides with a knife, one of the students from the classroom of older kids propped himself on the railing next to us. He was maybe thirteen, the oldest of at least four that I’d seen, had run off into the sun with my umbrella earlier and fifteen minutes later brought it back. It was the last day of school, the day when, in the States, parents brought cupcakes to classrooms and the cheerleaders signed little kids’ backpacks. Here, the children kicked a soccer ball across the cement, slapped plastic coins on the ground to see whose would flip first. “What are we going to do today?” they almost whined. “Señorita, tell me.”

The room was so quiet you could hear barely more than the knife on the sides of the pan.

“The cakes burned?” the child said.

The volunteer nodded her head.

“All of them?”

She nodded again.

She brought the cake tin over to the trashcan to scrape out the black parts and promptly scraped the whole cake into the bin, right on top of the soured yuccas and eggshells.

“Why,” she asked herself, “why, why, why.”

The child went to the trashcan where the fragmented cake was sitting in layers, some pieces still untouched and propped, shining, on the top of the pile. This he took and put in his mouth. I almost said something about not eating out of the trashcan and then put a piece in my own mouth. It was delicious, this fresh baked cake, pristine and unharmed, sitting atop the trashcan. When the volunteer brought the last tin to the stove, we all stared at the black top of the burnt cake being shaved away, saying nothing. It dawned on me that the child may never have seen someone bake a cake before.

I went upstairs for my phone, the only good camera I’ve ever had.

“Can I take a picture?” I asked the volunteer.

“Of my burnt cake?”

“No,” I said. “To remember.”

“This I don’t really want to remember,” she said.

I almost said something back but wasn’t sure I could say it in Spanish. It wasn’t about the cake at all. It was about a child who had never before been quiet, watching the steady work of a hand purge a white cake of the bad parts. It was about the fingers that were touching a just-baked cake for the first time. It was about the golden pieces that were sitting atop the burnt ones, still clean, in the trashcan; it was about the novelty. We were standing over the trashcan eating cake together, silently, on the last day of school.

Sarah Luke is a Hearts of Gold Intern and Volunteer at the El Arenal Foundation. Sarah is a visiting scholar from Furman University in South Carolina where she studies Spanish and Poverty Studies. Read more of Sarah’s series on El Arenal here.

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