I just celebrated my birthday in Cali, Colombia with more than 24 hours of celebration.
Many people around my age prefer to de-emphasize or ignore their birthdays rather than call attention to getting older. It is easy to be filled with anxiety about a new chronological age. I won’t even get into the reasons why: We all know them.
As Bette Davis famously said, getting older is not for sissies. As I get older, I feel like it’s even more important to make a big deal out of the day that I was born to counteract all the negativity around age. I’m a believer in the extended birthday celebration. Why only one day? My friends Sonya and Liz, twins, and I share the same birthday. One year, when they turned 30, we celebrated for a whole week with four separate celebrations, including a piano concert at 7:30 am at a Turkish cafe on our actual birthday before work.
As I get older, I am more and more committed to being happy on my birthday and creating a great experience. I remember turning 29 in Hawaii. I was on a weeklong vacation with my dear friend Ali, who is six years younger than me. I moped about turning 29, how I hadn’t published a book yet, found the love of my life, whatever. Ali was very annoyed with me. I can’t believe that I wasted that birthday in Hawaii whining about nothingness when I could have been appreciating the moment, or created an experience that I would have loved. In this respect, I am starting to believe that people really do get happier as they get older. You learn how to live.
I’m really committed to never lying about my age, and instead being proud of all my experience. I think of my friend Ira in Rio for inspiration here. We celebrated her 40th birthday together with her toting around childlike candles for 4-0 the whole weekend, and she kept saying how happy she was to have made it to age 40. She was so joyful in her gratitude. She didn’t always believe she would survive (and we’re not talking about someone with a fatal disease) til age 40. I never heard an American woman talk about being grateful for making it to 40.
A Colombian friend Yeimmi gave me a great idea for how to answer the frequent question, How old are you? Her aunt Olga (her role model in life, who runs a cleaning business in Florida and sounds like a very feisty, smart woman) taught her how to joke and answer with a smile, “20 with x years of experience.” That way you get to be forever young with layers of sexy wisdom and maturity.
For the last five years I have been celebrating with Liz and Sonya. Part of me would have loved to have been in San Francisco to celebrate with them. But I also wanted this birthday to reflect the spirit of this year’s adventure. Even if it absolutely sucked and I was totally alone in some random shitty hotel, I wanted the chance to see what would happen. I wanted that sense of risk. The feeling of being suspended in air for my birthday in keeping with the rest of 2010. Life is more memorable when you change things up.
So I decided to stay in Cali, though, which has become home over the last three weeks anyway. This hostel is the coziest places where I have stayed and I have become close with several people here. I am having one of the times of my life losing (and finding) myself in Cali’s dance culture, learning Caleno-style salsa and tango. (More to come on these in future blog posts.)
My birthday eve was Sunday night at La Matraca, a magically nostalgic tango (and salsa) club in a dodgy neighborhood that my Belgian friend Griet and I discovered three weeks ago. We have become regulars, fancying ourself “Las Reinas de La Matraca” (The Queens of La Matraca). There are many other Reinas — graceful tango dancers in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who are an absorbing joy to watch.
My birthday eve at La Matraca included four fantastic things:
An out-of-this-world performance by a 74-year-old woman who might be a lunatic but is also a singing and dancing genius. Watch this:
Dancing in a circle with a group of women and men in their 60s and 70s. In my opinion, exuberant dancing in a circle holding hands is one version of heaven.
My first tango in public. Doing tango in public had the barrier-breaking quality of hanggliding or bungee jumping. Survival! I just stared at my tango dancer’s upper left chest the whole time, which is where the woman is supposed to look.
Thanks to my Colombian friend William, I got to live my dream of a birthday dance. In my travels in Brazil, I noticed this tradition at a capoeira class and at a weekly afternoon “baile” dance at the Carioca Cultura Center. A circle forms and the focus is totally on the birthday girl or boy for her or his spin on the dance floor with one partner after another. It’s a euphoric thing to watch, the happiness of the person moving from one partner to the next. I always thought that was a great fusion of birthdays and the dance culture in South America, and I was thrilled to live that moment myself. I really have no idea what this dance is. It’s not paso doble or fox or . . . ? But I played along. Here’s my birthday dance. Unfortunately YouTube doesn’t have a rotate feature so it’s sideways: rotate your head.
On my actual birthday, a new friend and ecology student Oscar led me and my Belgian friends Wouter and Griet on a slippery hike along a river to a spectacular and icy cold waterfall with a natural pool below it. Back at the hostel, Griet and two others at he hostel cooked a tall stack of crepes for a communal birthday dinner. I felt so touched that people whom I met just three weeks ago took the time to create a birthday dinner. And finally in the 24-hour birthday marathon, we went salsa dancing at Las Brisas, where we danced with our salsa teacher and saw salsa world champions from the school Swing Latino perform their superhumanly fast footwork.
Not bad for 28 hours in a country where I knew no one before arriving six weeks ago. This was really a magical birthday and I’m grateful that I took the risk of celebrating while traveling. Now I am resting. Whew! I really have no idea what the next year will bring. But after all, I’m only 20 (with 17 years of experience). I’m not supposed to know yet.