The Nepalese celebrate occasions according to a lunar calendar, and so, each year, the date of my so-called ‘birthday’ changes. On any given day in September or October (has it ever happened in November?), in accordance with the position of the moon and stars, my parents surprise me with birthday greetings, at which point I’ll realize that today happens the lunar anniversary of the morning I came kicking and screaming into the world.
2009, however, is fabled to be a hallmark year: for the first time (at least, I think it’s the first time), my lunar birthday and my American calendar birthday – you know, my ‘normal’ birthday -- fell on the same date. I wondered if that meant that this was the year that is supposed to usher in strange luck; perhaps the stars are signaling that this year is bound for fortune, fame and glory.
If that’s what the stars meant, they have a funny way of showing it. For precisely the evening before my birthday, just as dawn was beginning to set, we found that the clutch no longer worked.
It happened mid-drive; we were at an intersection, trying to turn right, when suddenly we discovered we couldn’t shift into First Gear. As the line of cars behind us blared their horns, we tried, and tried, and tried, and tried, and eventually coaxed the clutch into First. But then we stayed in First, gradually working our way up to Second, carefully avoiding all traffic lights and disobeying stop signs, until eventually, we rolled into a Woolworth’s parking lot, where our car summarily died.
It was a Sunday night, and in the great Australian tradition, every shop had closed at 5 pm. But we noted, with glee, that we happened to break down in a shopping plaza that hosts not only a grocery store, but also an auto parts store, a hardware store, a mechanic’s shop, and a pet store (for cuddly entertainment while we wait; though we later discovered that, in the great Australian tradition, this pet store had zero cats and dogs, but plenty of bearded lizards).
So we did what any traveler would do: we began eating dinner in the parking lot next to our broken-down Nissan.
We'd just found our forks when a security car pulled up.
“Get the F&%$&(&%#* out of here!” he bellowed; the first words out of his mouth. No ‘hello,’ no ‘are you okay?’, not even a ‘I’m going to have to ask you to leave.’ No, he started out cursing, and picked up speed from there.
“You F&*^$* backpackers, you’re all the same! Well, you F*^$#*(*& better F%&^$@* get the F%$#^&()^% away from here before I call the F*^$& cops!”
All of us were too shocked to speak. We sat silently for a minute. Then Sara, the most diplomatic of the group, ventured, “Sir, we’re broken down.”
“I don’t give a F&^$*(! That’s not my problem! Now get the F&^$#* out of here, you filthy backpackers, before you leave your rubbish everywhere and crap in our gardens!”
“We have our own trash bag in the car,” I piped up. “And there are public toilets right there.” I pointed.
“Did I tell you to F&^%% talk? No! Get the FO()&*(&^% away!”
“Um, we can’t go anywhere. Our car is broken.”
“I don’t F(&(*^*&% care! Get out of my face!”
So we abandoned the car, jumped the concrete fence separating the parking lot from the street, and ate our dinner, in sulky silence, sitting on the street curb. It seemed like more of a public nuisance than eating in a parking lot. At least in the parking lot, we weren’t a traffic hazard.
Then we sent two delegates back to the parking lot (better that all four of us aren’t there, lest Mr. Dirty-Mouth decides to pop a blood vessel in his forehead in our honor) to retrieve the tents from the roof rack. We walked for five or ten minutes deep into the bowels of a construction site, and when we were satisfied that we were far enough from the road that we couldn’t be spotted by passing traffic, we fell asleep.
When we awoke at 5:30 a.m. we could hear construction cranes at work; because of the daytime heat, workmen begin their shifts quite early. Soundlessly, we packed our tents and zoomed out of the construction site in record time. Returning to our car, I hung out in the passenger’s seat reading back issues of Vogue until the auto-parts store opened at 8 a.m.
From that point forward, the car-savvy travelers in our crew effectively lived on their backs underneath the car, tinkering with cables and hoses and whatnot, while I passed my time at Big W, the local Walmart.
By 9 a.m., my friends surprised me with a discount birthday cake from Woolworth’s. Mmmm, breakfast.
By 10 a.m., I had read most of the celebrity gossip magazines in the check-out lanes, and by noon, I had bonded with the bearded lizards in the pet shop.
By 2 p.m. I had so thoroughly raided the free samples at the makeup counters that my face was caked with at least a dozen foundations, powders, and concealers, half a dozen shades of eyeshadow, and a blend of no less than four each of lipsticks, lipliners, eyeliners, bronzers, primers, and blush shades. I raided the “tester” nail polish display and painted each fingernail a different color. And I was finally starting to get bored.
Finally I decided to do something productive with my time and complain to the shopping center management about their foul-mouthed security guard. “A simple ‘could you please leave the premises’ would have been fine,” I told them. “There was no reason to swear like a drunken sailor.” The kindly management apologized profusely, and were polite enough not to comment on the fact that I was wearing enough makeup to make Bozo the Clown cringe.
Coming out of that meeting, I encountered the German girl with whom we’re traveling, Theresa, who told us that she had shared our hard-luck story with two locals who were running some errands. Then she introduced us to the locals.
“Eh, I feel sorry for ya guys,” said the man, who had a sun-wrinkled face and spoke with such a heavy south Irish accent that it took all my concentration to understand him. “Wouldja like to come to our place for dinner?” His wife, a thin, toothy woman with curly hair and a consistent smile, nodded.
The four of us travelers looked at each other and had the same thought: wow, real home-cooked food. Maybe even something that requires an oven.
When we reached the house, we were greeted by piles of dust, loose gravel, planks of wood, cement slabs, and enough saws and drills to supply a small-town hardware store.
“We’re renovating the place,” the man explained. “I own a company that builds and moves homes; we’re hoping to finish this project by Thursday so we can get it on the market and then we can all go home.”
He ushered us down an expansive, freshly-painted hall which were lined with large, bare rooms.
“If ya got sleeping bags, ya kin sleep on the floors,” he said. “We just put in carpet.”
By now we were all grinning. Our luck had changed! For the first time since August – since August, for Christ’s sake -- we could sleep indoors. We could stretch and stand up and move about freely during the night. We didn’t have to hunch under the low roof of a car, or cram into a tent, and we didn’t have to pack up our mobile sleeping units at the first sound of cranes at daybreak.
“Sounds great!,” Ollie, the 20-year-old German, said. “We’d love to.”
It was then that the Irish-Australian stranger turned Good into Great.
He smiled and handed Ollie a $50 bill. “Do me a favor,” he said. “Go down to the bottle shop and turn that $50 into a pack of Pure Blonde beers. We’ll start the lasagna while you’re away.”
Lasagna! Made in an oven!
I don’t have to describe the rest of the night, and I didn’t have to spend too much time studying the moon and the stars on that particular evening. All the strange luck of the day played out on earth, and I knew it was going to be a good year.