By Danielle L. Krautmann

A local celebrity

How did  it get to be this late?  I’m lying on Violeta’s bed in her one-room home in Baños del Inca.  Actually, it’s not just her bed, she shares this queen-sized mattress which sits on cinder blocks with her husband and 11-year-old daughter, Alejandra.  It’s four o’clock in the afternoon; I had planned to be home hours ago.

Outside Violeta's house after lunch

Outside Violeta’s house after lunch

When I agreed to go to church with Violeta, I assumed it would be your typical hour-long service…not three hours.  When I said I’d come for lunch afterwards, I thought we would slam down some sandwiches, and say chau.  Instead, we spent two hours preparing a feast and another hour eating it.  After lunch Violeta taught me how to prepare “fresh” limeade with tap water that spurted out of the faucet cloudy and yellow in color.  But how could I refuse to drink it after watching her cut and squeeze 10 limes all the while explaining to me that it is the most refreshing bebida you can consume after a big meal?

I gulp it down as fast as I can to show my appreciation (and to get it over with).  I’ll leave soon and either throw up or take an antibiotic, I assure myself to ease the nausea that is already setting in.  Violeta, seeing how much I enjoyed her refreshment, proudly refills my glass.  I try to politely refuse, “I should really get home to let Brandy out.”

“You don’t have to go yet!  Stay!  Chat with me!  Just give me one more horita of your time.”  Violeta pleas.  And again, how can I refuse?  My new friend and her family have taken me under their wing, inviting me for large meals, taking me to church, and bringing me with them to weddings and other events as if I’m a member of the family.

My new friend, Violeta, is a 42-year-old Peruvian woman who owns the only laundromat in Baños del Inca with her 52-year-old husband Alejandro.  She met her husband when she was 18 and they tried for 12 years to have children. Not until she was 30 did she realize that all she needed to do was pray and God would grant her one.  So came Alejandra or Lisbeth as we call her.  A plump, happy pre-teen who loves watching pirated DVD’s and can recite every line from Shrek and all four of its sequels.

We have nothing in common.  She has a child, I don’t.  My first language is English, Violeta’s only language is Spanish.  She believes Jesus Christ is her savior while the only God I’ve even known is Pachamama.  My house has four bedrooms, her’s is the size of my bedroom.  Despite all this, we have somehow formed a close connection.  Three or four afternoons a week, I go and visit her at the laundromat, spending hours chatting, and sometimes helping her fold clothes (she fired me from ironing).

Lisbeth and I playing with my camera at a wedding.

I agree to stay for un momentito  and try hard to forget about the mud-water limeade I just consumed.  I’ll leave it up to my stomach to decide whether to begin the digestion process or send it back up.  As we prop ourselves up on the bed with pillows to chat, I feel like I’m at a slumber party.  Violeta explains that she doesn’t have a lot of friends and prefers it that way.  After dealing with people at the laundromat six days a week from 9am until 7pm she likes to spend her free time by herself.

“Well then, por que yo?” I ask her, wondering what makes me special enough to be taken in by this wonderful family.

“Porque eres gringa!  Duh!”  She proclaims, correctly utilizing the English word I taught her this afternoon.  She must notice the naive confusion in my face and begins to explain how fascinating the “gringo culture” is.  “Ever since I was a little girl, I watched you on TV.”  She refers to a show called “La familia Ingalls,” which I realize must be Little House on the Prairie.  From an early age, Violeta watched this show, dreaming that some day she would marry a gringo and move somewhere like Europe or the United States of America.

“And I watch American TV shows every night.  You’re culture is so impressive!”  She went on with wide eyes.  “You gringos are so sophisticated, so rich, so advanced.  Your houses are enormous and you look beautiful all the time with your make-up, nice clothes, perfect hair…”  As she goes on, I peek down at my outfit.  With a hat on my head to hide the fact I didn’t shower today, worn cargo pants, filthy bare feet, and a short sleeved t-shirt over a long sleeved one, I’m afraid I must be a terribly disappointing gringita.

I recall the last show I watched on TV.  After five minutes of My Super Sweet Sixteen, where privileged teenage brats scream at their parents about which convertible they will receive at their million dollar birthday party, I had to turn it off.  This is what impresses her?  The chunks are rising in my throat, but I’m uncertain if it’s due to the limeade or her words.

I try my hardest not to cringe as she continues, “I tell my Alejandra to study her English so that maybe, some day, she can marry a gringo, or at the very least, travel to another country.”  The Peruvian dream.  Really.  If the American dream is to work your way from rags to riches, the Peruvian dream is to marry a gringo and move to the States.  I can’t take any more of this.  I’m going to puke up two hours of cooking, and two glasses of limeade.  I need to get home, and fast.

“Thank you so much for today, it was wonderful.”  I tell her honestly.  I will visit her on Monday at the laundromat.

What have we done to you people?  I think to myself as I run home.  I storm into the house, grab some Ciprofloxacin and a glass of water and plop down on my couch.  Feeling unsettled, I mull over a conversation I once had with a Peruvian friend of mine about Christmas.  “Why,” I asked “Do you Peruvians put plastic snowmen and fake tinsel pine trees everywhere for Christmas when it doesn’t snow in Peru and there are hardly any pine trees?”

“You did this!” He exclaimed as if it was obvious.  Then, after seeing in my face what a blow he had just delivered, he softened his voice.  “Well, your country did…or the country you come from…”

Peruvians are laid back, have strong family values, beautiful folkloric music and bright colors.  It pains me to think that people from a country as culturally rich as Peru would want to be anything else.  They want to be like the “classy” gringos who start wars for money, who shake hands instead of kiss and love to be politically correct.  Ugh.  This realization pains me almost as much as the thought of Peruvians watching our TV shows and thinking that is what our lives are like.

I am overcome by disappointment and guilt.  The fact of the matter is that I haven’t invited Violeta to my house because I once told her it was small.  After seeing that her and her husband share their bed with their daughter and their kitchen, dining room, living room, and bathroom all fit into a room the size of the one in which I sleep, how I can ever show her my four-bedroom home with TV, sofa, refrigerator, coffee pot, closets?  The fact of the matter is that I am gringa and the quality of my life is better than that of many of the Peruvians here in Cajamarca.

And yet…I suppose I do the same thing.  I yearn for “the simple life.”  I admire the rich customs in Peru and want nothing more than to take part in them.  I’ve left my culture behind to immerse myself in another.  Who am I to judge?

Either the antibiotics are kicking in, or my stomach chose digestion.  As I sit on my couch, reviewing this afternoon’s conversation in my head, I recount Violeta saying, “You know, we don’t see gringos here often, and when we do, we think ‘Wow! Look how nice they look!’  We want to listen to them speak their perfect English to be just like them.”  This is true.  When I go running in the countryside, people come out of their houses just to watch.  The other day a woman yelled “gringita, please wait.  I want to show you to my children!”  I kept running.  People honk their horns, follow me, and the brave ones greet me or try to speak the only English they know.   “Hello!”  they call.  “Gringita!” they yell and wave.  Children follow me and ask questions.  “What country are you from?” “What are you doing in Peru?” “Why is your dog on a leash?”

I hate this attention.  I want to say “didn’t your mother teach you it’s rude to stare?”  I usually try my hardest to scoot by as quickly as possible without making eye contact or reacting.

But, aren’t I guilty of the same crime?  I watch when a campesino woman walks by with a heard of animals and marvel at how one person can control five sheep, three cows and two burrows at the same time.  I study their skirts and hats and wonder what their lives are like.  I gawk when they shamelessly whip out a breast in the middle of the street and massage it to squeeze the milk into their infant’s mouth.  They call me gringita, I call them the hat people.

I am a celebrity in the countryside only because few gringos pass through.  If a campesino walked into Concord, NH, hat on head, and baby in blanket on back, we would stare too.  Thank Pachamama we still have diversity.  People will continue to gaze at the weirdo gringa who walks her dog on a leash every morning; I can’t change this.  My only choice is to be the best weirdo-gringita I can be.  I can answer their questions, return their Hello’s, and every now and then wait, so the woman can show me to her kids.  Turns out, I’m representing a culture.  “The gringo culture.”