By Amelia Earnest
Ceilings, chairs, bus seats, doorframes. These are my constant physical reminders that not only do I not “fit in” in Lima—I also don´t fit into Lima. Each morning I wake up, contort my spine to wet my hair in the shower, get dressed, and join my host mother for breakfast. “Sorry!” I say as I sit down gingerly, the old wooden chair below me groaning like a dying cow. “I always feel like I am going to break it!” She tells me not to be ridiculous and serves me some fruit, but the chair appears to disagree, periodically interjecting pitiful whimpers into our conversation.
I then squeeze into a microbus, my neck and back stooped as I attempt to alleviate the rhythmic battering of my head on the peeling green felt of the ceiling. The rosary hanging on the front mirror follows the same lurching motions as I do, back and forth, back again. I catch a glimpse of myself, skin pink and freckled, disorderly yellow hair flying in the face of the old man standing upright next to me, and see the other eyes in the mirror, dark and pointed my way.
Traversing the choked arteries of Lima´s streets, every eye that lingers on me leaves me feeling pinpricked, until my whole body tickles as if covered in ants. A Sesame Street song from childhood reverberates in my ears as I exit one bus, jaywalk, and catch another, “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn´t belong…”
Is it my light hair? It is my tall stature? Either way, I seem to wear some kind of notice, invisible to me, that attracts the hands of pickpockets, the stares of swaddled babies on their mother´s backs, and prices ten soles higher than for everyone else.
I am less and less surprised each time I am called out by my new identity, my new name—Gringa—whether it is whispered behind the leathered hands of a woman at the bus stop or yelled by a precocious fourteen-year-old boy kicking up dust on his moto. After all, in my four weeks here, I have discovered that the largest blonde population in Lima isn’t comprised of tourists, ex-pats, or even the German consulate, but is rather exists in the two-dimensional world of advertising. Although I have yet to meet a fair-headed Peruvian citizen, it seems as though one in every three billboards lining the main avenues features a golden-haired spokesperson or model. Even nationalistic advertising campaigns—Peruvian sporting event promotions or exclusively Peruvian retailer advertisements— appear to be susceptible to this trend. This media presence, in striking contrast to the population, leaves me feeling a bit like I must have just stepped off of a billboard myself. I like to imagine that is what people think when they stop and stare—“Look, one of them finally gained the third dimension!“
Several days ago, while working in the poorest district of Lima, I had an experience that made me feel even more alien, taking me past all levels of “Gringa-ness” I had previously perceived. A desert shanty town lacking proper sewage systems in many areas, this district is hardly a main feature in Peru-Lonely Planet, and as such, is bypassed by the Australian surfers and American backpackers that occasionally make their way to Lima. I was ambling through the barking dogs and trash of the street when I and noticed two small girls, still dressed in their school uniforms, following me closely. They stared and giggled, looking away when I looked back. After several minutes of this, the older of the two approached me, pulling a tidy notepad from in her pink Barbie backpack.
She spoke nervously, looking down at Barbie´s flawless smile on her bag. “Excuse me…. but could we please have your autograph?”she asked.
“But I am not famous,” I said confusedly.”Why would you want my autograph?”
“Where are you from?” she asked, craning her neck to look up at me.
“The United States,” I replied.
“Could we please have your autograph?” she repeated, thrusting out her notepad.
Amelia Earnest is a junior in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.