Now I get involved in some fairly crazy things here in Africa. From the Amazing Race to being dropped off in the middle of the jungle with no tent – but this weekend I am fairly confident that all of those were topped with my friend’s birthday celebration. This kid you see below? That’s his reaction to how great the surprise was.
The whole thing started for me a week ago. I was heading out of my office to lunch when I was cornered by Carol, the kind but firm post office/office supply lady here on the ship. She told me that she had to tell me something of the greatest importance, that it was so secret that she was loath to breath it into life. I hesitantly said okay and followed her and she led me to a dark, secluded corner where she made me swear to secrecy.
Once I’d gained her trust she leaned in and told me that she had been planning something for two months. The facts of the matter were these:
– My friend Mitch’s birthday was that sunday
– Carol had made Mitch promise to go for a late lunch with her. He had agreed.
– Mitch’s Grandmother (henceforth referred to as Carole as that is her name) was arriving to Congo on that same Sunday. Mitch didn’t know this as Carol (from the post office) had kept it secret.
– Carol wanted us (his friends) to have a surprise party at a local cafe/bakery where we would reveal to Mitch that his Grandmother was here in Congo much to his delight and surprise.
– Carol wanted Carole to jump out of a giant box that we were to wrap up as a present.
– We were then to photograph Mitch looking very happy and surprised and whatnot.
It seemed like a fairly straightforward plan, albiet a tad crazy, but if anyone could pull it off it was Carol so I agreed to help! She then swore me to secrecy again on pain of death and went on her way with a smile.
The next week was one of deathly silence for us. We didn’t even think of our plan to loudly in fear that Carol or Mitch would find out. There were a few slip ups (not by us) but finally sunday arrived with Mitch none the wiser.
Everyone was in position. Jonathan was keeping eyes on Mitch, making sure that he didn’t wander the ship and stumble upon us coming and going. I was part of the advance team, sent to the cafe, La Citronelle, to secure our position and get the giant box in place. Another team (led by Carol) went to the airport to fetch the package (Carole). Everything was going swimmingly.
Until I arrived at La Citronelle. This cafe is super nice and honestly I was a bit surprised to stumble upon it in Pointe Noire. It has great air conditioning and the display windows are full of baguettes and tiny cakes that delight the eyes and the taste buds! Because it is so awesome it’s always full of people and I immediately got stopped at the door when I tried to bring in this box the size of a volkswagon beetle. I tried to explain in broken french that I needed it for a plan and that everything was cleared but the security guy was having none of it. Finally I left in exasperation and tried to explain to a different outside security guy exactly why I needed this Grandmother sized box.
We sat in a corner and I explained to him in a mix of slow-motion english with a few french words thrown in. “This box, inside will be a Grandmother. A Mama. For a birthday. She will jump out! Big surprise!” The guy looked at me for a few quiet moments and then furrowed his eyebrows – “Je ne comprend pas.” So he waves over a passing waitress and I explain the whole thing to her. She chatters to the guy for a moment and then they both turn to me with no comprehension on their face. The waitress points to the box “Inside a enfant? A baby?”. No. I try to start again.
Ten minutes later they are laughing at my horrible french and the security guard has a great idea. Could I write down what i’m trying to say! He says he can read english fairly well. I think this is a great idea!
I write down the basic story on a paper and he examines it for a minute before passing it to the waitress. She looks at it, talks quickly with the guy then they both turn to me with the most puzzled looks on their faces. I know they are getting the idea now! However the plan is so crazy that they don’t think that they are understanding it correctly. I encourage them; yes yes this is what you think it is! The guy looks at me suspiciously then hands me back the paper “Je ne comprend pas”. I sigh in discouragement.
One more try. This time with pictures. I work on my masterpiece for a moment and then finally present this:
They look at it for a moment and then burst out laughing. They finally understand why I need the box. The guy turns to me “This box for your grandmother.” He points to the boy. “This your brother!” Close enough! The guy laughs and says that he will guard the box for us. I sigh in relief and head inside, where I immediately see two of my friends who have been watching me this whole time laughing their heads off! Good grief.
So anyways, Carole and Carol arrive and we decorate a whole corner of the cafe with streamers and balloons while the staff laughs at us. Eventually I bring the box inside and we wrap it up all nice and put Carole inside, covering her with balloons so it’s even more of a surprise. Then Carol goes to pick up Mitch.
The entire cafe is waiting in anticipation. Finally the car drives up and I run inside, telling everyone to get into position. We seal Mitch’s Grandmother into the box and hide in the corner with our cameras ready.
We hear the door open and Mitch turns the corner, stopping in suspicious surprise when he sees everyone poised with cameras. We all yell surprise and he looks very surprised indeed. He then sees the box and asks “Is there someone in there?”. He hestitantly walks over and opens the box. “There is someone in there!” He peers into the box. “Grandma?” A balloon flies out in response because for some reason Carole has decided to remain seated, blanketed in balloons rather than to emerge like a victorious orca. “Grandma??” Mitch backs up and looks around in shock then returns to the box. “It is my Grandma! Grandma what are you doing here?!”
By this time everyone is laughing and pictures are snapping and Carole finally emerges from the box to hug Mitch. Poor Mitch looks shell-shocked; this is the last thing he expected. However the present finally catches up with him and he laughs and hugs her back.
The rest of the afternoon goes swimmingly. The owners bring in a delicious cake at one point with a candle that would qualify as a firework back home shooting sparks to the ceiling. The whole cafe sings to Mitch. We eat and laugh and have a good time. Carol’s plan went off without a hitch.
So now Mitch’s Grandma is here working with him on the Africa Mercy. No doubt that will be a change for him but I’m sure it will be an okay one, especially considering that by the end of the evening she was more popular than any of us will ever dream of being. She seems an outgoing lady and I’m excited to get to know her. But no matter what happens I’ll always remember this birthday celebration as the most elaborate caper that I’ve ever been involved in and I’m sure that it will be one that Mitch won’t forget anytime soon either.
And now here are some pictures of my photogenic friends.