Cumpleanos en Independencia

As with many cities in both the global north and south, the snarling metropolis of Lima, Peru, has many different sides. Between the gleaming modernity of Miraflores and San Isidro and the destitute unserviced shanty towns that spill up the desert hills in Comas and Carabayllo, there exists a jaw-dropping disparity in material wealth. While real estate prices in the prosperous neighborhoods are similar to those in any northern city, in the sandy foothills, people don’t buy land, they simply move onto it. Population growth in these pueblo jovenes (“young towns”) exploded throughout the 80’s and 90’s, when swaths of the country’s rural campesino population effectively became domestic refugees. They fled not only persecution by a Maoist terrorist movement known as the Shining Path, but also extrajudicial slaughters (failed attempts to quash the revolution) carried out by the corrupt national government at the time.

Today, while Lima’s peripheral neighborhoods are becoming a little safer and more prosperous, most foreigners and tourists stick to the richer parts of the city. Even more monied limenos don’t go to the peripheral neighborhoods often… they have no reason to. But they will be the first to admit that the wealthy, safer, and gringo-navigable districts are bubbles, havens. Havens that don’t accurately represent the majority “real Peru.” I live in one of these havens. So naturally, I’m finding it a little surreal to be sitting on a chair at the edge of a party at 3am, in Independencia, one of Lima’s poorer and rougher barrios, a little liquored up and lucidly typing away these notes on my phone.

The story begins earlier this week, when Brain, a bright 17 year-old participant in the social program I work for, handed me an envelope with my name on it. Well, it said “Collins,” (pronounced coyeens), which is a popular brand of Tea in south america, and has become the way I am known to most of my Peruvian friends here. In the envelope was a handwritten invitation to Brian’s 18th birthday. I gave him a weak-ass maybe, “si, quizas puedo venir pero no se…” and immediately felt like a limp dick party pooper as he walked away. But, tut-tut-head-shake, I knew it was not safe to be in this part of town at night. I work here during the days, and even then there are robberies and shenanigans on the streets.

However, flash forward a few days, and I was on the bus north from my safe gringo-navigable hipster-haven of Barranco, ready to meet my co-worker Natalia and her fiance Marx, who was born and raised in Lima Norte. Marx (yes, like the philosopher), is also a Marine in the Peruvian Navy and enjoys competing in CrossFit during his time off work. Probably a decent dude to travel around with if I’m going to be up in these hoods after dark.

"Get ready for a cultural experience," Natalia said to me as we made our way off the main artery, Avenida Tupac Amaru. (Your favourite West Coast rapper is named after the last ruler of the Incas who stood up for his people and was martyred by the Spanish). The three of us waded through the dark yellow light of aging streetlights, over cracked concrete. We passed abandoned cars dressed in dust, resting on their rims, flat tires spilling onto the broken pavement. We side-stepped garbage and dogshit, to which Marx jokingly referred to as “landmines.” I guess as a marine, he’s got the license to use such terminology. On the sidewalks, beneath the flickering bodega lights, groups of guys eyed us unreservedly over their beers. Streets up here are not really marked, but Marx and Natalia seemed to know the address on the card.

Now at this point I was still expecting some sort of house party, so when Marx pointed at a shabby looking Chicken restaurant with a few people in it, I was a little confused. But then my gaze floated up to the second floor, where I could see coloured party lights on the ceiling. Raggaeton pulsed from open windows. So they’d rented a party room. “A little more formal than I expected,” I muttered to Natalia, before climbing up the stairs. At the top we were greeted by Brian and his father, both wearing suits. “Okay, a lot more formal than I expected,” I added, somewhat breathlessly. I removed my faded trucker hat only to realize that my year-strong mop of curly light brown hair was probably an even less formal option. Not like blending in was really feasible here anyways.

The room was done up wedding-style, with coloured fabric wrapped around the columns and draped along the tresses of the ceiling. Chairs, neatly dressed in alternating white and baby-blue skirts, lined three walls. An altar-like glass table at the front of the room held plates of food and a cake. On the wall behind it, the words “Feliz Cumpleanos Brain” formed a semi-circle above an inflatable electric guitar. At the time, I remember thinking how it all seemed a little PG, but it was organized by his parents after all. The next few hours would prove how wrong I was. I thought we’d arrived fashionably late, around 11. At the time, there were probably only 20 people in a room that was set up to hold about 100. Poor Bryan, I thought, it’s already late and none of his friends really came. The only people here seem to be his family and maybe a couple of best friends. Again, how naive, Colin.

The party had formally started around midnight, which seemed insane to me considering that it was a family event with grandparents aunts and uncles in attendance. And when I say “formally started” I mean Bryan walked down the centre of the room flanked by his grandparents, aunts, uncles, and parents, while the the room, now full of at least 100 friends and family members, clapped. The hall was a mix of girls in heels and party dresses, guys in suits, guys in stereotypical cholo uniform of plaid shirts with the top button done up and skinny jeans, girls in skirts and sneakers, and about everything in between. Over the next 180 minutes, they would become, for me, the characters of a bildungsroman set in peripheral Lima; the cast in play about coming-of-age in Independencia. But, over the three hours traffic that crossed the stage, it become decreasingly clear whether this was a play about Brian's coming of age, or mine. And it would become decreasingly clear whether I was an audience member, or an actor. 

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It’s now 3 am and I’m sitting low, legs outstretched onto the dancefloor at the edge of one of the most bumpin’ parties I’ve ever been to. The heat from warm dancing bodies and the smell of cigarette smoke are in the air. I’m eyeballs deep in what I think might actually be “real Peru,” in the heart of lower-middle class Lima, and I’m typing boozey stream-of-consciousness style notes into my phone. I’m trying to capture the energy of the room, trying to capture the feeling of having so many of my assumptions, small and large, turned upside-down. Trying to capture a night that is simultaneously one of the most real and surreal experiences since arriving in this country. So please, dear reader, I invite you to dive into my iPhone’s notes application, where perhaps I’ve captured a little of the hot magic in the room right now.

11:05pm Bryan's party. Damn dude. Quiet when arrived, sketchy hood. Awkward family party vibe. Lots of awkward waiting. Lots of receiving “what on earth is that funny white guy doing here” glances.

12:05 Not a drop of alcohol and it is already after midnight. Pretty PG. Suits, party dresses, plaid cholos.

12:15 am Structured part- speeches, formal dances, Brain and his mom, while everyone watched, how cute! Then Brian and his grandma, then sister, then friend… wtf is this, he’s taking a 20 second dance with every damn girl in the room, while they whisper happy birthday and stuff in his ear!

12: 45 am Wait but what’s this, now a borderline stripper is coming into the room. And giving Brian a borderline lapdance!!! With everyone in the room watching, including his freaky grandparents and parents! And they’re all laughing like “hahah our skinny awkward teenage son is becoming a man now” We just went from 0-60 in seconds flat, from PG to “what even is this”...

1:02 am Okay now the almost-stripper has a co-worker, a male party dancer dressed up like a clown, big goofy shoes and all! He is dancing maybe even more sexily than she is, and he’s going around to all the older ladies sitting on the edge of the room making them stand up and join the dance floor with him! Oh god the almost-stripper is coming over to me and taking my hand! Shaaaa I’m on the dance floor in front of everyone. I need a beer but there’s no goddamn beer at this party! Girl beside me saying this is what they call “crazy hour”. Christ. I can’t hear shit in here the music is so loud.

1:10 am There are some sketchy looking old guys milling around by the door with beers. I think they just walked in off the street cuz I think this is a dry party. Oh man I hope they’re not up to no good. Don’t want things to get sketch.

1:12 am Shit one of the sketchy old beer guys is walking over to me. Please don’t give me trouble. Oh, what’s this, he’s giving me two beers. Hmm, not gonna say no. I must look like I need one or something.

1:15 am Okay so these beer guys are actually just Brian’s drunken uncles who finally tapped into the beer supply. Now the beer is being passed around the room. There’s a lot of it. Jesus they had to wait until quarter after one to start drinking? Guess they wanted to wait till the formal part was over.

1:20 am Now Brian is up at the front with his parents and grandparents raising plastic goblets of bubbly. Everyone including me also has a bubbly in hand. His dad is saying some words about this being Brian’s first legal drink. Everyone is cheersing and saying “Salud”. So rad.

1:19 am Yup the grandmas beside me are drinking beer and dancing. It’s the middle of the freaking night! What’s your grandma doing right now??

1:25 am Lotta nice legs here. Okay everyone’s dancing now.

1:35 am More dancing... Man these 18 year olds can really dance... It's a whole realm of physical, artistic, human expression that I have never really been able to access, it seems kinda transcendent. Even watching it is kinda taking me. Or maybe it’s the beer.

1:36 am Remembering I didn’t eat dinner or drink any water this evening. Whatever, balls to the wall man!!

1:45 am There’s this rad androgynous looking homie here. Tall, skinny, half shaved head, baggy sweater, scarf, headband, who is cruuuuushing it despite the machismo culture here and somewhat machismo nature of the party (Brian dancing with all the women, the almost-stripper, the lapdance). Yeah man this peer acceptance of someone different is rad. Androgynous homie dancing with all the guys AND girls, kinda like the life of the party. Viiiiiiiibes.

1:53 am Seeing the high school lovers doing their thing… like being social and fun but seeing that they really just wanna escape the party together. I love that feeling of newness, of raw kinda innocence in a relationship. Maybe I’m just imposing what I think they’re feeling onto them.

2:01 am Remember the drunken uncles who brought in the beer a little while ago? They must have started earlier because they’re already asleep on chairs, arms all folded, in the back of the room.

2:10 am Some of the plaid 17 year old cholos bring a case of beer and put it front of the sleeping drunken uncles, then nudge them. The uncles wake up and see the beer, then both take one and start dancing again. This is too good man ahahaha.

2:15 am This is so awesome. I’m getting a little tuned. Surfing is gonna be a struggle tomorrow but I must. Then I must hang out, snuggle and take care of Giuliana. I hope so anyways.

2:17 am Man I kinda have to take a number. Let’s walk to the washroom.

2:18 am WOooooooOOOoooaaahhhh absolutely not. I don’t want to be that hero taking a dump at the party anyways. This washroom is a disaster. Not even a toilet seat. I’m glad I have my blundstones on.

2:30 am Now I’m chilling with Rosa age 22 and her husband Christian. He is a marine too. Works hard AF. Like Marx. They’ve both killed at least 10 people. That’s weird to think about eh? Natalia and Marx are here too and we’re all vibing. Am I a 5th wheel? Nah broooo I'm not even gonna let myself think like that. Sucking back beer hard with Christian Natalia. They just keep bringing them to us. And I thought this was a dry party haaahhhhhh. Just like the dancing, this went from 0-60 so fast. Christian is opening bottles with his teeth when rosa isn’t looking.

2:41 am Now I found out she is looking and almost admirably at him doing that. So badass. The realnesss here is insane. Quality of life and dance and party. What more could you really want? What is life really about?

2:45 am Realizing it would be so stupid to not learn how to dance while I am here and resolving to take a salsa course. Realizing that I have basically just been watching this party happen on the dance floor making up characters for everyone in my head. Maybe I have no real right to fully participate in it. This is their space. The feeling that I should have been participating in it. The realization that I am probably closer to the drunken uncles than the young folks sexily and youthfully throwing down on on the dance floor. Realizing that I’m just typing this story out on my phone in a lucid stream of consciousness style while chair dancing in a party I couldn't less belong to. Realizing that I’m gonna publish this shit on Tread Slowly! Co-worker Natalia wants to go dance more with her fiance.

2:50 am Wishing I could dance with my new hot cool smart alternative chica here. This would been a sickkkkk date, especially for a gringo to offer to a Peruvian girl. I look up from my phone and they are still all crushing it. I wonder what they think of me. Sitting here in my army jacket nodding away to the sick music. I realize I am looking around at the party typing and not even looking at my phone. Muscle memory is a crazy thing.

2:55 am The older aunt throwing it down on the floor with the male party clown. The older uncle dancing up a storm uncreepily with the younger girls.  Man in the clubs at university all people knew how to do was grind and make out. I haven’t even seen a single make-out all night here. But some-how the dancing is more sexy here, even though people aren’t even touching each other.

2:59 Man dance is this thing I have been missing out on my whole life, and it is an old part of human nature. Dance is very much a thing in Latin America. These kids learn to dance in school. Right fucking on.

3:04 am There’s this chunky but put-together guy in the bow tie who has been crushing it at dancing all night. He makes all the girls look awesome. And himself look awesome. I bet he is an awesome guy. I wanna be able to dance like him.

3:05 am Man this is a sexy party with so much great dancing unfortunately most of the sexiness is like 18-20 probably. Why does sexiness have to come into play? Why am I focusing on the concept of sexy in this crazy situation when there are so many other interesting concepts to focus on. But interestingly, like I said, I haven’t even seen a dance floor make out all night. And there are parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents, all throwing down too. DANCING - AN EXPRESSION OF HUMANITY!!!  

3:06 am Brian is now dancing with the girl he told me likes. She is the girl in the green dress. Probs popular and smart and a lot of guys probably like her. Gaddamn I just said “probs.”  I saw another young guy trying to put the moves on her earlier tonight. But most girls here get pregnant really early and face just about every barrier imaginable when pursuing a career.

3: 13 am All through the night Brian's dad just working so hard bringing everyone drinks and making sure and everything is managed and everyone is happy. But now I catch him dancing like a fucking boss just working it with his wife. Shoulders are rolling feet are stepping hips are moving it’s salsa time. Enjoy the fruits of your labour you awesome dad you!

3:15 am Even though I was invited I feel this isn't my party to crash. This is someone else's space... I am not participating but I guess I probably could if I really want to. But my dancing and realnesss are lacking and I’m just sitting here in awe of it all. In awe of the fact this happens every month with every new 18th birthday. This type of collectivism and closeness probably happens all over the world I think. Poorness? Yeah they’re poor for sure. This lifestyle though seems to offer a different kinda richness. But who am I to be able to say. The more time I have spent away the more I realize the limitations in my own perspective, even though I actually know more and more.

So to the person whose world is so tiny that they know everything, about what’s right and wrong, about what is and isn’t, about what should and shouldn’t be, think again.

3:22 Okay Colin buddy boy your phone is about to die! Put that shit away and go join the dance floor. You know you’re super welcome to. Stop saying this isn’t your party, this isn’t your place. The birthday boy freaking invited you. And your favourite shameless Marc Anthony song just came on. It’s time to stop being an audience member. It’s time to go join the cast on stage.

3:23 - POWER OFF -