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The Birthday Party

Tia Maria turned 47 yesterday. Tia (Aunt) Maria is Feliciana’s sister, and runs a local food-and-lodging establishment and internet café. Unlike the one-year-old birthday party for Maria’s granddaughter, Luciana, that I attended the first weekend I arrived in Ollantaytambo, this party was noticeably lacking in pink decorations and Barbie piñatas. There were no elaborately frosted cakes, either, only crates of Cusqueña beer, stacked in the corner of the dining room. An aunt or godmother cracked the top of a one-liter bottle and passed it to me as I was ushered through the door and seated at the long table slowly filling with friends, neighbors, and family. Sweat beaded and slid down the sides of tall pitchers of pale pink homebrew (chicha) and dotted the shiny blonde wood with circles of moisture. Hands reached through the bonsai forest of frothy beer bottles to shake in greeting. Tipsy faces glowed rosy and silver-rimmed teeth sparked in the soft overhead lights. An uncle slid an empty glass across the table to me. I filled it halfway with beer, and raised the glass to toast with the uncle, cousin, and daughter-in-law within arm’s reach. “Salud!” An elderly aunt held council in one corner, drinking her beer straight from the bottle and wearing a pink cardigan over three more sweaters. Age had smoothed her face of features until her mouth, nose, and eyes were thin, elongated, two dimensional dark shapes. The hand and arm that weren’t holding the beer were draped around the neck of the grandson to her left, and her soft, wide-brimmed hat was tilted back on her head, wobbling gently as she nodded and smiled emphatically to the relatives who greeted her with kisses. A parade of food rushed past me, fresh out of the communal oven on the other side of town: baked noodle casserole, stuffed peppers, pureed potatoes, and roasted slices of pork. A plate appeared in front of me, piled with enough food to feed me for an entire day. Another liter of beer was opened and placed in front of me to go with the food. I’d barely put a dent in the first one, although one of Feliciana’s brothers was doing his best to salud me under the table. No one waited on ceremony. Around me, people dug in with gusto and with fingers. Pork grease joined the rings of moisture on the table and smeared the sides of beer glasses as they were lifted to toast the birthday queen.

Someone turned the music up: waino, the music of the campesinos (a word that translates literally as “peasant”). A male emcee shouts the name of the singer, usually a woman, repeatedly throughout the song. Sometimes shouting directions to the crowd, “Manos arriba, manos arriba, manos arrrrrrrrrrribaaaaaa!” (hands up, hands up!), sometimes calling out names of Andean towns and communities, sometimes repeating the main themes of the song. Harps, drum machines, and high-pitched vocals add a unexpected dash of oriental flavor. The songs are either about tragedies, heartbreak, or about getting drunk. Tonight, at least, there were no tragedies. More chicha, more beer, and soon I was apologizing to the woman who cleared my plate, still half full of potatoes, noodles, and meat. Too loud to talk, people continued raising their glasses, clinking them, mouthing ‘Salud’, then refilling.

I ducked out for a bit, running through the rain to meet up with a few of my fellow volunteers. I told them about the party. They rolled their eyes. “At least you missed the dancing,” one said.
“Oh, no, I’m going back. I promised my host mom.” My friends blinked.
“Really? Have you been to a waino party? This is how they dance – ” one friend grabbed another’s hands and started shaking them. “One time I tried to move to the rhythm of the music with my dance partner, but she shook her head and made me dance like this! Nah, no no no. I just don’t like it, I don’t want to do it.  You know they’re all going to want to dance with you?” I shrugged. This is why I’m here. To dance waino and eat too much starch and drink too-sweet beer and pour the dregs at the bottom of the bottle onto the floor.

An hour or so later, I was back at the closed restaurant, knocking on the window to be let in. The boy who answered was one I hadn’t met yet, and he was confused, thinking I was looking for the internet café, or the restaurant. “No, no, we’re closed,” he said.
“No, no, I’m invited,” I said.
“No, it’s a private party,” he said.
“Yes, yes, I know, Maria invited me. I’m living with her sister, Feliciana,” I said.
“Oh…” he said. Inside, drunkenness had proceeded with abandon. One uncle dozed where he sat. A cousin sat with his face on the table, passed out. Feliciana and my host sisters had left, but Maria recognized me and invited me to have another beer. I sat with Balthasar, Feliciana and Maria’s brother. His wife, Adela was deep in conversation with another woman across the table. The drums and harps were still thudding and chirping away, but I’d evidently arrived at a break in the dancing. “Salud!” Balthasar clinked his bottle against mine. I couldn’t find a clean glass, but Adela pushed hers over to me. “Where are you from?” he shouted. I told him. “Ahhh. And how do you like Peru?” I nodded and smiled, and gave my well-practiced line about how I’d been here three years ago, and fallen in love, and how I was called back by the country’s magic. “Ahhh. Si. And what places have you visited?” More well-practiced lines. “Ahhh. Do you like this music? This is our music, the music of the campesinos. Should we dance? Let’s dance.” We joined Maria, another woman, and the elderly aunt of the pink sweater and soft, wobbly hat. The elderly aunt shouted along with the emcee on the stereo, and others gathered around, clapping a rhythm. We held hands and danced in a circle, stomping our feet, swinging our hands and hips from front to back and side to side. The movement made perfect sense to me, and I relished the trembling of the wooden floor beneath our heavy steps. The elderly aunt drove the whole circle, swinging her arms vigorously, pounding her heels in time to the music until the nylons on one leg began to sag and slip down off of her knee. She let go of the hands next to her and spread her arms like a child pretending to be an airplane, and spun in a circle, kicking with one leg and pivoting on the other. The crowd loved this, and shouted in time with the music, “hay, hay, hay, hay, haaaaaay,” shouting giving way to trilling tongues and cheers. Moving along with the rest, I laughed, and smiled at the strangeness, the unselfconsciousness, the faroucheness of it all.

In the morning, Feliciana and I walked to Balthasar and Adela’s house to hang laundry. Both brother and sister-in-law were outside, nursing hangovers. “Ahhhh, buenos dias, Susana. I was drunk last night. But I remember what we were talking about. Today I, today the cerveza is a bit too much, but there are other interesting places here. Much history. Today I can’t, but next Sunday I will tell you about our customs and show you the places I know.” I worked in the morning, and arrived home for lunch late, but Feliciana wasn’t there, and the stove was cold. An hour later she arrived, bustling in her very Peruvian way, obviously upset. “Oh, Susana,” she tsked. “I’m so sorry I’m late. Ahhh, but what bad children my sister has! Five children she is raising, paying for them to go to university. And they don’t appreciate it. They don’t understand. The oldest daughter left school because she got pregnant. And now Maria is supporting her grandchild and new son-in-law. And now, the second oldest, ahhh.” Feliciana picked up a pot, put it back, picked up another pot and started boiling water. “The second daughter, she’s pregnant, too. Five months! Five months pregnant, and she’s been keeping her belly wrapped up tight so her mama wouldn’t know. What was she thinking? How is she going to finish school with a baby? She just thinks her mother is going to take care of her? And the baby, too?” There had been an intervention this morning, Feliciana told me. Certain family members who knew about the pregnancy had decided that it was time for Maria to be told. Feliciana had walked in expecting to have a drink with her sister and relive the party the night before, and instead had found the entire family gathered, several crying, older brothers furious, other relatives preventing them from taking to the streets and finding their sister’s boyfriend. “My sister was in shock. She fainted. Her brother had to catch her; her husband is in shock, too.” Feliciana was chopping potatoes. Small chunks shimmied off the cutting board and onto the floor. “Five months, without saying anything to her mother! Oh, Susana, what was she thinking? Maria was so happy yesterday! Drinking, dancing, with all of her friends, and today, well.” She sighed, putting both her hands on the edge of the counter and resting her weight against them for a moment. “Poor Tia Maria.”

That’s life, the waino musicians sing. The world can change that quickly. One minute you’re drinking with friends, spinning, soaring, the next, trying to forget the pain of being human. The contract that we sign by default, being born, requires us to live each moment. Opting out means escaping the bad times, but missing out on the good ones, too. But, this is why I’m here. To drink the sweet chicha and the bitter dregs, and to move along with the rest of the circle, squeezing the hands of the people next to me as we swing in tune with all the songs, even the ones I don’t like.

1 comment to The Birthday Party

  • syreena

    Thanks for keeping us updated on your life in Peru- it’s always wonderful to read. love!

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