For this special updating on Relocating with children, we are happy to read again an article that Kirsten(expat) wrote when she was living in Lima. Today Kirsten lives in Ukraine, and though she does no longer collaborate regularly with the anglophone section of Expatclic.com, she constantly keeps in touch. Relocating to a new country with a child also means to expose him/her to uses and customs of that country. Birthday parties in Peru are an amazingly challenging event!
The Expatclic Team
Before I moved with my family to Peru three years ago, I happened to meet a very nice lady from Lima. She told me quite a lot about what to expect in her native country. And for some reason, which I found very strange at the time, she kept talking about birthday parties in Peru. When I meet someone moving to my home country, I might mention things like traffic, schools, shopping, etc. as ‘important to know’ details about a foreign place. But birthday parties??
I have now lived in Lima, Peru for the past three years. As I have 4 small children (all under the age of 7), I have been to countless Peruvian birthdays during that time. In fact, as I write this, there are invitations to the next three ‘fiestas’ currently stuck on my refrigerator with magnets. Basically, the party never ends. And what a party it is!
Almost every fast-food restaurant here offers a ‘birthday package’ with a small show, lots of fried food, and always, always loud music. In the name of keeping your kids ‘in’ with their little amigos, it’s an amazing experience to find yourself dancing the Macarena early on a Saturday morning at a Bembos restaurant (the local equivalent of McDonalds). And then even worse to be disappointed when you don’t get the prize for The Best Dancing Parent. It does make me stop and think ‘…and this is what I got a Masters Degree in Economics for’.
The alternative to restaurant-based parties is to ensure your extravaganza takes place in a private club or large back yard. Don’t have a garden big enough for your dear ones’ fiesta? Don’t worry, there are families in Lima that make most of their income from renting out their large gardens just so other people can host parties there. You then hire a company to set up a ‘toldo’ (tent), along with the chairs, music and entertainment. There are event planners here who for work exclusively for the 6-and-under set.
The invitation list
Birthday parties in Peru are big. Really big. Bigger than you can imagine. Never mind that old rule of thumb my mother used where you invite ‘one child per year plus one’ so that a 5-year-old could invite his 6 best friends and no more. Normally, here the whole class gets invited. It is also not unusual to invite the entire school YEAR, even though this may mean up to 120 kids.
And there is no need to wait until your child is in school to start this madness. Some of the biggest birthdays we have gone to were for one-year-olds. And the parties just get more and more lavish: the ‘quinceañeros’ birthday when your daughter turns 15 can easily be mistaken for a wedding: long gowns, waltz with the father, evening reception, etc. Although in the past few years I have been informed that this is now sometimes being replaced by a 2-week cruise through the Caribbean islands with your mother, 20 of your closest friends, and their mothers too. Not bad, either…
Back to the real world here in Lima. Of course, it’s not only the invitees who join in the celebrations. There are also several mothers, a handful of fathers and grandparents, and literally dozens of nannies at these functions. And bringing all the brothers and sisters along is also perfectly acceptable – which, as a mother of so many, I do appreciate.
Luckily, with so many invitations being sent out, it is not at all necessary to RSVP and if for same reason (party fatigue??) you decide not to go, trust me, no one will notice your kid is missing out on the fun. So party invitations are a perfect bribe tool: ‘no vegetables for lunch, no Diego Alonso birthday party this afternoon’, that kind of thing.
There will ALWAYS be a theme, either Disney Princesses, of Barney, or Power Ranges, or Dora the Explorer, etc, etc, etc. Basically, whatever your little dear desires, s/he will get. So from the napkins to the giant ‘toldo’ (marquee or tent), from the huge box to put the presents in when you arrive to the jello cups, from the balloons and banners to the gift bags: absolutely everything will be colour-coordinated and printed with images from your chosen theme. There are entire streets of shops in Lima that sell only birthday party supplies (a hint: never go shopping here with the birthday child himself as you can quickly spend the equivalent of the GDP of a small country on plastic tat).
I realised we might be going to too many birthday parties in Peru when my 2-year-old’s favourite game became ‘The Show’. She would pick up any stick or jump rope and pretend it was her microphone while she was the MC, asking questions of the audience, awarding prizes, and doing little song-and-dance routines. Sometimes the show is just two young girls with lots of loud music. But I have been to party where the show included ten different Disney princesses, the prince, and various other real-life characters. The singing, dancing and very bad acting can easily go on for almost two hours. Small ‘premios’ (prizes) are awarded for various silly games. And all this is accompanied by very loud salsa music. I usually find ‘The Show’ a low point of the Lima Birthday Experience. But my daughters have a very different opinion, so go figure.
The party at a club will boast at least one huge inflatable slide, guaranteed to give all mothers a heart attack as their little dears merrily climb to the top of some gigantic whale and then come hurtling down the ‘tongue’, along with 10 other little kids absolutely out of control. It is NOT for the faint of heart to watch. There will also be someone hired to paint the kids’ faces (which can be real works of art) and do special hairstyles for the girls, all glitter and coloured strands. Various characters in costume will wander around, sometimes a miniature train does the rounds of the garden, and we have had the occasional pony rides on offer. It all sometimes looks like what I imagine an afternoon at Michael Jackson’s ‘Neverland’ to be.
Usually there will be two buffets set up at all birthday parties in Peru, with the largest selection of sweet, coloured, sticky stuff you can imagine. While both buffets will have the same food, one will be at knee height, perfect for the unlimited grazing that your child will do throughout the whole party. The favourite drink here is a bright yellow concoction called Inka Cola. Think liquid chewing gum; obviously the kids love it. The birthday cake is often the size of a small child, covered again in the theme characters and with a sugar content high enough to induce type-2 diabetes by just standing near it.
The Piñata: a mad scramble where the smallest kids get half trampled to death, usually by the nannies who are desperately stuffing candies and cheap toys in their copious pockets.
Happy Birthday: first the song is sung in English very slowly, more like a funeral dirge but with a heavy South American accent. Then the music picks up, hands are clapped and the song is sung again – this time in Spanish and with a definite Latin lilt. This two-part performance always appeals to the multicultural foreigner in me.
I think from reading the above you can tell I have a true love-hate relationship with birthday parties in Peru. I have to admit that last year we ‘went native’ and had the party at our children’s daycare, complete with 50 small guests, a troupe of clowns, and 2 large store-bought cakes. The children had a blast (apart from our 2-year-old who was terrified of the clowns that were supposed to be entertaining her) and they were not happy with our return this year to a small, only-family-and-five-friends-style party.
What I find difficult to accept here is that even poorer families try to out-do each other with the fiestas they lay on for their children. It can be a real financial burden. And, unlike large-scale weddings in other cultures, these things happen every year…
In conclusion, I feel I have now become somewhat an expert on this topic, so here are some of my tips on surviving (and probably even enjoying) typical birthday parties in Peru for a five-year-old:
- Stock up on birthday presents for boys and girls in the same age range as your children. I have a small cupboard upstairs with literally dozens of ‘goodies’ suitable for any of my kids’ playmates. Impersonal but efficient.
- Do not bother cooking dinner the day your child is going to a party.
- Take your nanny to the party, let her follow your child around while you chit-chat with the other mothers, and then demand your fair share of her pinata haul.
- Do not try and control your kids’ intake of sweets, Inka Cola, fried food or candies. When you get home, just make sure they throw up all the stuff BEFORE you put them to bed.
- Give all the candies and cheap toys your kids come home with to the nanny. Her children will appreciate the stuff much more than yours will.
- Don’t eat the food at Bembos.
Enjoy your birthday parties in Peru!