Monday, March 19, 2012

Happy Birthday from South America with Love

March 19, 2012 – Dad’s Birthday

“I have to ask you something,” my grandmother says.
On the other side of the line, on a different hemisphere, I freeze. These conversational beginnings never bode well.

“Okay,” I say. Trepidation swells. An odd guilt builds and I wonder where this feeling comes from. I’ve done nothing wrong. That I remember. I brace myself and wait.
My grandmother takes a breath. “What should we do about your dad’s birthday?”

Relief nearly drowns me. Silly kid, I think, scared of your own shadow. Then a fresh guilt forms. Since I left the States I’ve given myself the excuse that I’m too far away to really do anything extra special for birthdays. That used to be my thing. I’d send packages weeks in advance to make sure they arrived on time and mark them in black, bold ink with warnings like Do not open until 3/19/10 or else! and other such things. But, suddenly, the hassle with customs, the chance that a gift might not arrive, and my dwindling cache of available funds give me (self-justified) license to turn into a sloth. I’m not sure these are good enough reasons.
Year of the Water Dragon
“It’s his sixtieth birthday,” my grandmother says.

I think something that rhymes with “spit” and sit slack-jawed and numb. “No!” I exclaim. Then I do the math. Yes. Oh man. I’ve been a little self-absorbed. I can’t just gloss over this birthday. But if I pay attention to one person’s birthday, I’ll have to pay attention to all. Distance is no excuse. “Spit,” I think again. I assure Grandmama I’ll ask my mom about it and then ring off. I go to bed depressed. I’ve got three weeks until my dad’s birthday and what can I do? It’s the thought that counts, right? But my thoughts are running around in circles like Uncle Jeff’s old dog Hannah Banana. They’re no help to me at all.

What can I do? I’m tossing ideas out left and right as I toss myself around the bed. Then I go still. An idea whispers itself at me. No way, I tell it. That’s crazy. But it’s good. It’s a really good idea. It’s a scary idea. The idea catches and grips at me. I can’t just let it go. What the heck? What have I got to lose?

What if I got sixty people to say Happy Birthday on camera and then made a video? Sixty happy birthdays for sixty years of life and one to grow on. That might be special, right?
The next day I try to talk myself out of it. I feel schizophrenic as I argue with myself. I’m an introvert, I say. Sixty people is a lot of people. What if they all say no? How many days will it take to find sixty people to cooperate? It’d be easier if I were in the States. It’d be easier if I hadn’t thought this up at all. Where would I go? Out to the bus stop at the corner of our street? This is a city of nine million people. Sixty is a tiny percent of that. And besides, Lima is chock full of tourists and backpackers. Tourists and backpackers are generally more receptive to crazy things than “normal” people are.

That’s true.
Maybe this is the perfect place to be to pull off this idea after all. To test out the craziness factor I tell my roommate my plan.

“That’s a really great idea!” she says.

Yeah! I think, it is. My fears get squashed and I start to view every person I see as a number out of that sixty. My roommate and a friend she has over for lunch become people one and two. I eye the kids in our apartment playground and wonder about permission and rights and parents. How hard will this project be? Sixty people isn’t so many people. Alright, I’ll do it.  

Friday morning I pack my bag and head into Miraflores. I’ve decided I’ll start at Café Zeta and work my way down to Larco Mar, waltz around the Park of Love and then, if I have to, head over to Madre Natura for their lunch rush crowd. I have no idea how long this project will take. I figure it’ll be days.
I practice my speech in Spanish the whole bus ride over. I almost solicit my co-riders in the full combi, but I’m too shy. What if I have to take this bus again sometime with this same driver and same cobrador? Sixty people is a lot of people. An awful lot.

When I get to Café Zeta it’s practically empty. Oh no. The breakfast backpacker crowd I’d expected isn’t here. Maybe it’s too early. Maybe it’s no longer traveling season. Maybe Friday is the wrong day to be here. So I order a coffee and pancakes and think maybe this idea will be a wash. It was stupid. But I’m not one to give up when something feels just a little too hard. Maybe. I cut into my pancakes and spy on people. I judge each passerby as a possibility or impossibility. Some really cute kids walk by, hand in hand with their adults and I want them all in my video. Desperately. Maybe after the caffeine kicks in I’ll go beg their parents for their children’s beautiful, creative innocence and joy.

I watch a girl at the table next to me order and eat and leave. That’s one lost. She looked like she would have been open to helping. Two, then three traveling paired customers leave. I feel like they’re slipping through my fingers.

Fortified by my breakfast, I gather up my resolve and go to the check out. I give my spiel in Spanish to the girl behind the counter. Then I give it again when she calls her coworker over.

“Sure,” they say. “We’ll do it. But can you come back in like an hour?” They both glance over their shoulders at the lady busy with a cell phone and laptop behind them. “The owner is here and we don’t want to do it while she’s around.”

“Oh, yeah, I see,” I say, thinking that this will be harder than I thought. “An hour?”
I pay my tab and thank them, tell them I’ll see them later and walk out.

I walk all the way down to the ocean. Several times I pause with the words to stop a couple, a single soul on the edge of my tongue, but before the words leave my mouth, I chicken out. It’s a long mile down. When I get to the Park of Love I see two guys. They’re obviously travelers. They look American. They’re approachable.

“Excuse me,” I say. “Do you guys speak English?”

They admit they do and I give my speech. “My dad’s birthday is the nineteenth of this month. He’s turning sixty and I’m not going to be there to celebrate it with him. I’m wanting to make a video with sixty people saying happy birthday. Would you guys mind being part of that sixty?”
“Of course not,” they say.

I pull out my video camera and say, “Whenever you’re ready.”

“What’s your dad’s name?”

“John or Johnny,” I reply.

The first guy looks into the camera and starts to sing Happy Birthday. It’s awful. It’s wonderful.

When he’s finished his friend laughs at him.
“I’m not singing,” the friend says. “I’m just saying happy birthday and that’s it.” He does.

I’m up to four out of sixty with my roommate and her friend. Bolstered by my success, I go on. Another couple is taking pictures at the edge overlooking the ocean. I pull in close and hear them speaking English so I know what language to address them in.

“Sorry to bug you,” I say, edging in closer, getting their attention. “I’ve got a strange request.” I give them my speech. They gush. They think it’s the best thing they’ve heard. They tell me all about their travels and their friends and their life. They’re from New York and defy all the stereotypes of New Yorkian rudeness. On film they personalize their messages to my dad. They’re numbers five and six and I’m already one tenth of the way into my project when they bid me a friendly farewell and good luck.

I’m buzzed off this enthusiasm. I’m sparked and I’m enjoying myself. The daunting fear of this endeavor melts into a happy contentment. I knew people were friendly. I knew people were helpful. But sometimes I forget in the business of big city life how that is. We’re all willing to help
someone else out if it doesn’t take too much out of us and especially if it’s fun.

I walk from the Park of Love toward the shopping mall of Larco Mar on the Malecon being passed by many people who don’t look approachable until a shirtless man nears. “Do you speak English?” I ask him, pausing with my hand out so that he stops.

“Yes. I’m white,” he says, stopping and wiping the sweat from his face. “It’s only to be expected, right?”

His words are free of bitterness over the skin color assumptions. He’s from France and is both friendly and has a sense of humor. He sings happy birthday and in his message to my dad says, “Stay cool with your daughter. Bye, mate.” He’s number seven.

I wipe the sweat from my own face as I turn the corner that leads to the plaza above the shops of Larco Mar. The policemen at Larco Mar watch me approach. Their mannerisms become more official as they can tell I’m in need of something. “Un favor (a favor),” I start.
“Dime (tell me),” one of them says.

I give my speech. They look at each other and shrug. They’re eight and nine.

I only get turned down a handful of times, mostly by people who either misunderstand my request—perhaps thinking I want them to come someplace later on to be a giant happy birthday shouting group of sixty—or are just too shy to be recorded.

I get a group of eight Peruvian youths to say their happy birthdays together. And then a group of six. I meet some French Canadians, a girl from Holland named Ezra, three wild Peruvian drivers, a guy from Denmark, and a smattering of Americans.

I make my way back up the road and circle back to Café Zeta. The girls there have me explain what I’m doing again and then with a modicum of shyness and laughing embarrassment join in my video. “Feliz cumpleaños,” they say.

I don’t know how many I have at this point. At least thirty. I count my interactions up in my mind. I can’t have that many already. I can’t have that few after all this time. Several of the Café Z patrons are kind enough to join my fun. An American couple each say happy birthday, a green-shirted guy and a grumpy guy from Minnesota do as well.

I’m feeling a little flagged. My face is flushed with sunburn over the sunscreen I’m wearing. I’m hot and the breakfast is wearing off.

I head once more to Larco Mar where I meet up with Ezra, the Holland girl, again. She gets directions to the Love Park from me and asks me how I’m doing on my quest. We stand gazing out at the ocean for a moment, two strangers like friends in that place. Then we bid each other good lucks and take our leaves.
I sit on a ledge at the front of Larco Mar and count up my videos. Then I count them all again. I’m only eight short. It seems impossible and magical.

I snag a couple nuns who, though a bit reluctant, both participate and lower my quota by two. A group of five starts past me and I jump into their space with my over-spoken spiel. They’re drunk off life and willing to play along. They’re French Canadian and they review the words to the birthday well-wishing song in French as I ready my camera.
“I don’t know it,” one of the ladies tells me. “I’ll just stand over here out of the way.”

“Would you mind saying happy birthday anyway?” I ask her.

She does more than that, she sings in English. And then her group with their arms slung across their shoulders, start their singing, gathering enthusiasm as they progress through the song.

“Bonne fête, John,” they say. They sway off together, carried off on happiness, joyful under the sun.

I smile after them. I sway on my feet from four hours of requesting and walking, held together by happiness, myself joyful under the sun, with a camera full of strangers’ love for my dad.

This is Lima. This is me in South America. This is my answer to my grandmother’s question of what to do for my dad’s birthday. At least on my end of things. For now.

This is a day in my life in celebration of a day in another’s life.

Happy Birthday, Dad!


  1. That is a FANTASTIC idea, Amanda! You are so creative and wonderful. Your dad is lucky to have you in his life. From what I hear, you're pretty lucky, too. I fully expect a video here in 22 years when I turn 60. :)

    Oh man... Only 22 years to 60. I'm SO far behind! I have SO much to do before I get ready to retire (if that's even an option when I get to that age.)

  2. Amanda, this was supercalafragalistic! It gave me a ton of smiles and a happy heart. I can't wait for the next one on my 120th birthday!