LIKE MANY OTHERS in the 1960s, President Kennedy challenged us to make a positive contribution to our country by joining the Peace Corps. After completing training in Puerto Rico, my wife and I went to a small village in the mountains of El Salvador. One of the places we worked was at a rural settlement in the surrounding countryside that wanted to raise money for their one-room school. We offered to help by baking a two-layer, chocolate cake for which the people would sell raffle tickets. No one there had ever seen a two-layer chocolate cake; nevertheless, tickets sold well. Over the next few weeks, we heard a lot of speculation about the cake. Making it turned out to be more complicated than we had anticipated, but it was a good cross-cultural lesson for us: peasants in El Salvador do no necessarily understand things the way we do. But before we learned that we had to make the cake.
First, of course, we had to make an oven. We made one out of a large, rectangular tin with a crude lid that became its door when the tin was placed on its side. The oven was only big enough for one cake pan at a time and we had to use two low cans with their tops and bottoms cut out to hold the cake pan off the floor of the oven. Then the whole thing was carefully balanced on our two-burner propane stove. Setting the temperature without a thermometer was done by placing a measured amount of flour in a cake pan and counting how long the flour took to brown. Of course, it took several adjustments to the burners to get the temperature right. Now the oven was ready.
A few days before the raffle, we took the only bus (it left at 3:30 a.m.) to the nearest big town to buy ingredients. The day before the raffle, we baked the two layers of the cake and iced it. Early on the day of the raffle, we boxed it up and made the two-hour hike to the settlement, carrying the cake as level as possible over a trail too rough even for the local donkeys. On arrival, a quick peek assured us the cake had arrived fine.
Of course, before the raffle could begin, eloquent and lengthy speeches had to be given by the teacher, the head of the local PTA, and several others. Finally, it was time to draw the winning number. A school girl did it and called out the number. WE, along with everyone else, were disappointed the winner was not actually there, but a member of the family accepted the box with the cake in it. But then everyones curiosity was too much to bear, so they insisted that the box be opened.
When it was opened and the cake held up so everyone could see it, there was a long, awkward silence finally ended by a childs voice, But its so small!
After a moment we realized that their idea of a two-layer chocolate cake was substantially larger than ours and we burst out laughing. Seeing us laugh released the tension and everyone joined in. Two months into our two years we had learned a valuable lesson about assuming our understanding of something agreed with theirs. After that we always inquired discreetly before plunging in. Thank you President Kennedy for helping us with that lesson.