Last weekend was yet another birthday party! It feels like I’ve been to hundreds in the last five months, but as a lifelong fan of birthday joy, last weekend’s Surprise “Carrette” (party) really got me. I’ve only been involved in a few surprise parties in my life, and this was for the daughter of my host family here in Santiago.
Family Carrettes in Chile are something different, and rather special. I mean big events, with cousins and godparents and also all your friends your age. Parents are often called Tia and Tío by their kid’s lifelong friends, and age group intermingling is encouraged, if not always followed. Like all Chilean events, the custom is to go around and say Hola to everyone, a kiss for every second cousin. You’re lucky if you arrive with the Carrette in full swing – then sometimes you can get away with only greeting ten or fifteen people.
Chilean families go all in for tablecloths, plastic plates, balloons and snacks – the sort you haven’t seen since your fifth birthday. Decoration is everything, with pickled onions in nice bowls, and artfully arranged crisps. Getting ready for the surprise party on Saturday meant that my host mum had to take the birthday girl out for a several hour shopping trip, while we lay tables, hung her 25th Birthday banners, and chopped tomatoes.
The bigger family affairs can provide you with Barbecue as well as crisps, dips, and unlimited salsas. I’ve grilled Burgers, been served slices of asado beef, and helped cook bowls of fried egg and veggies for vegetarians. Even at Friends-only affairs a Choripan (Chorizo Hot-dog) might appear, just as you’re starting to feel hungry. I remember once at age 18 in the UK a friend cooked up a vat of gravy at 3am – but mainly to win a bet, not to provide for his friends and family. This Chilean thing feels very civilised. But that’s what happens if your parties conservatively run from 11pm-6am. You need to refuel.
Food is mostly a savory affair, with American-style liquid cheese or grim dips a feature alongside incredible guacamoles and salsas. The multi-coloured Chis-balls are – be warned – not cheese, but super-sweet, and there may be a few cookies out, but really the only break in the onslaught of crisps and olives is the Cake.
A cake will be brought out – lights off, candles on, just like at home – before the adults retire, or before everyone gets too drunk. After a round of “Cumpleaños Feliz,” you’ll get a slice handed to you on multi-coloured napkins. It all feels very wholesome. Cakes in Chile are incredible, if you have a strong sweet-tooth. Usually, they’re in the traditional layered style. Five to twenty or so little tiny cake layers filled between with Manjar (caramelly Dulce de Leche) or Buttercream or Fruity jelly. The Coconut or Orange ones are my favourite – sometimes a wedge of vanilla butter can be just too much.
This weekend, the birthday girl got two cakes. The first was from the supermarket, a lemon and coconut cake with a Meringue top (a twist on the traditional Chilean lemon-meringue pie). Unfortunately, on the breakneck journey to get the party food home before suspicions were raised, the top got a little squished. So we sang the song to cake number two – a tall tower of crispy tubes filled with Manjar organised like a Fort-cake, or spillikins. It’s called a Torta de Cuchufli, and that I’ve never heard of it, couldn’t pronounce it, and had not even seen one before, blew everyone’s minds. I’ve got to say I rate the ease of sharing, though they were often disappointingly half full, leaving you with mouthfuls of cardboardy tube.
Piscolas! Pisco is the traditional Chilean spirit, usually served with Coke, or Sprite if you fancy a piscola blanca. . Chellas (beers) are often provided by the hosts, handed out liberally in huge rounds. Occasionally someone suggests making Terremottos – which are a wild ride of Ice Cream, sweet white wine and grenadine – but somehow no one ever gets around to it.
There certainly isn’t a skirts and heels culture here – but it is also getting colder and colder, and the layers are increasing over time. Hoodies and jeans, layers and gorros (beanies) is the order of the day. The girls were talking at the party about not being able to remember when they last wore a dress somewhere – they were saying maybe once a summer, or to a beach party.
For this particular surprise party, the birthday girl’s best friends showed up in jackets and ties, drew moustaches on under their mafia hats, and brought tutus and witchy skirts for the boys. The brother wore a princess sash. The boys were more reticent to put on “female” clothes, but soon some were complaining that others looked prettier than them, or had nicer skirts on. It was interesting to have conversations about the new “gender neutral” Spanish that is being introduced while the joke of the night seemed to be the fun of crossing stereotypical gender roles.
Everyone seemed fully in favour of neutralising the language, but the idea seems so new, no one had begun to implement it themselves. In Spanish, you say either “el” or “la” for definite articles (the) – such as “the person” (el/la persona) and under gender neutral Spanish this would change to “le.” This would be a big step for reducing the huge gender binary in many Latin languages, which can alienate people, and reinforce gender stereotypes.
Regaton. Regaton. Regaton.
Every so often, an 80s or 90s anthem will come on, and everyone will blast out the words they know. Or you’ll hear a Spanish cover of a traditional pop ballad – Luis Miguel (the new Netflix sensation) has done a number of a ton of songs, such as ‘Only want to be with You.’
Sometimes at these big parties you get to dancing, depending on the Space, the number of Piscolas, and the general vibe. This weekend was a sitting and Chatting event – a little too cold out to dance on the patio. The week before (at another surprise birthday) we circle danced to Regaton from four in the morning, around a big gas heater, to unfreeze our toes.
I once went to a party to celebrate the anniversary of a friend arriving in Chile (so almost a birthday party), and that was the only time I’ve heard a classic British-style Indie and cheese playlist. Our host was an American, but it still felt very odd, like a little taste of home, and reminders of huge songs that I felt I had almost forgotten.
If you’re lucky you might get to see a traditional dance at one of these parties. I’ve been taught bachata, danced sambas and salsas, and seen parents get fully down on it in their living rooms. But my favourite was being shown the Cueca (pronounced Quaker) Chile’s national dance. The breakdown of the dance I was given was split into several sections – greeting, flirting, spinning, and acceptance. It is traditionally danced with white handkerchiefs, these guys bashed it out with some birthday napkins.
We all hid out on the terrace, behind the tarp we’d put up to block out most of the cold, and, lured out by the chance to have a cigarette, we pounced on her. She screamed, clapped and, eventually, cried with joy. A legitimate surprise party is beautiful, and I think all the more so considering just how much work goes in to putting on a Chilean birthday. Friends came and went, and we talked and joked and continually switched places to be closest to the heaters or the dogs. It was a huge success. Here in Chile they really know how to make a girl feel special.Tags: Asado, Backpacking, Birthday, Birthday Cake, BirthdayParty, Carrette, Chile, Cuchufli, Decorations, FemaleTravel, Party, PartyinginChile, Santiago, Snacks, SoloTravel, South America, SouthAmerica, Travel, TravelBlog, Travelling, What To Drink In Chile, What to eat in Chile, What to wear to a party
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