My personal belief is that we are one race, the human race, and we are all so incredibly and beautifully unique that it’s silly to try and group people into categories based on physical attributes. Physical attributes that have begun to meld and blur more and more as love defies all and every social boundary that attempts to tether it. That being said, when I am seen through other’s eyes I am a black female, and I am damn proud of that, but it doesn’t always make traveling easy… especially traveling alone. I want to share just a few things I have experienced being a black traveler, that guidebooks written for the general public are never going to cover.
When foreigners travel to new places sometimes they can face discrimination, having assumptions made about their intentions in that country or being called names like gringo or worse. I personally have not experienced much in terms of these hardships of travel, but I have been called other things that when lost in translation seem horribly derogatory. To make this clear I have to explain a little bit about the Spanish language for those not familiar with it. It is common practice in Spanish to make a word more affectionate by adding “ita/ito” to the end of the word, this is usually used to say something is small or cute. For example gato+ito = gatito for a little kitten, or “que linda es tu pelito” for how cute is your hair, the ending simply emphasizes the cuteness of something. Here in Peru I have experienced tons of catcalling, which having grown up in the Caribbean doesn’t phase me at all, but being referred to as negrita and crespita did throw me for a spin. Those words translated literally to English mean little back one and little curly one, but literal isn’t the way languages work. After discussing it with many friends here in Peru, a few of them saying that their nickname in their family is also negrita because they are the darkest of their siblings, I was able to get a better understanding of these words. In the U.S. there is something we assume when people refer to you by the color of your skin, that they are attaching to those words some discriminatory stereotype… and often times this is correct. Learning more about the Peruvian culture, I came to the beautiful understanding that there are no stereotypes attached to these words, they are said honestly with pure intent. Calling someone negrita or black girl is not a comment on anything other than the beautiful darkness of her skin tone. Once I truly understood the comments as they were meant in this culture, it was such a refreshing moment, realizing that being brown or black or having kinky hair had nothing to do with anything else other than having a beautiful physical attribute. I have since reveled in the fact that my brown skin and curly hair are so celebrated by this community!
Being a foreigner in a new place you also must get used to a certain amount of attention… especially being a black female alone, which just might be the rarest of all traveling types. That being said, I had to get used to a whole new level of attention in the more remote areas of Peru I have visited on this trip, places where they have never seen anyone… not on a TV, not in a book… with hair like mine. This was especially true in the jungle where my presence was met with the stares of every adult and the tiny hands of children in my locs when they thought I wasn’t looking. It was quite the culture shock that swiftly blossomed into a learning experience for all involved!
I can’t say that I am particularly tolerant of anyone putting their hands in my hair. I am not a petting zoo, and I did not grow my locs for 8 years for your entertainment. In the U.S. I have been in plenty situations where someone has, without asking, come up to me and touched my hair (FYI… That’s really not ok) I am not one to be confrontational and so I typically do nothing more than let them know it’s an invasion of personal space to do what they just did. Then there are people who ask to touch my hair… with almost a frightened look in their face, like they are afraid of what might jump out. These people are not interested in my hair for what it is… an extension of my vibrant energy… They want to see if some crap they heard from a friend about locs being dirty or smelly or itchy is true. I could really rant at length about the ignorant things I have dealt with in the U.S. when it comes to my hair, but this is just a little background so you as a reader can understand where I am coming from when I discuss my time in Peru.
Naturally I was looking at the situation of my hair being ogled at and touched through the lens created by personal experience, but none those scenarios were in play here. There was a genuine and honest curiosity of the complete unknown, which is something I love and is one of the main reasons I travel. I quickly became a lot more tolerant of fingers in my hair, reminding them kindly that it isn’t polite to touch someone without asking, but then allowing them to continue their exploration… which usually resulted in them calling their parents over to join them. I also got used to addressing adults who were staring in a way that made me uncomfortable, asking if they liked my hair… which always resulted in a smile and a nod… telling them it is indeed real, that my hair is curly, and no i can’t take it out and make it straight… and inviting them to touch it if they like. No my hair does not bite!
People fear what they don’t know. So know me. Know me in all my glory. Familiarize yourself with my dark brown skin, my full lips and wide grin, my curly brown hair that flows nearly to my waist. See yourself in the kindness of my face, so it’s crystal clear there is nothing to fear.