We were pre-warned, but even so it comes as a shock. In countries further north, cries of “¡Gringo!” or in my case “¡Gringa!” did happen, but only occasionally – oh, maybe once or twice a week.
As soon as we cross the border into Perú, the frequency of this cry increases exponentially, and, depending on the population density, we now hear it 10 or 20 times per day. It comes even (or perhaps I should say especially) from the tiniest toddlers, who for inexplicable reasons seem to be taught this word soon after Mum, Dad, yes and no.
To us this is an offensive and derogatory term, used to refer to North Americans. But here in Perú, it seems to apply to any foreigner, or at any rate, any cycle tourist! Joe, who is of Puerto Rican extraction and physically blends in relatively well around here, gets it just as much as we do. “At home, we call other people Gringos!” he complains.
A very dark-skinned Brazilian cyclist we met in Cusco, is simply bewildered by it.
Eugenio – a blonde, blue-eyed Argentinian – sees red at what he considers to be offensive and racist, and refuses to speak to anyone who greets him this way.
Like Eugenio, for the first few days in Perú I find myself experiencing a little spurt of rage every time I hear this cry. I am so inexpressibly relieved and happy when a small child calls out “¡Hola!” instead of “¡Gringa!” that I could stop and hug her.
But you can’t stay angry all the time; at any rate I can’t. As time goes by I realise that the only person affected by my anger is me, and that the Peruanos do not mean it to be offensive. Most of the time, it is just a way of greeting me or attracting my attention. After all, they don’t know my name, and there certainly aren’t many other gringas around here. So I try to take it in the spirit in which it is meant, and shout back “¡Hola!” and wave.
I am surprised when, several weeks into our time in Perú, I actually experience a warm glow inside instead of rage when an old man calls out in a friendly welcoming tone “¡Hola Gringa! ¡Bienvenidos!”.
Now, on leaving Perú, I have to be honest and say that my reaction is still somewhat mixed, and depends entirely on the tone of voice in which the shout comes. Sometimes, it still feels like a taunt, pointing out to me and anyone else within earshot that I am a stranger in this place and do not belong here. Other times, it sounds like a friendly greeting, even a term of affection, particularly when used as the diminutive “Gringita”.
Tom’s favourite was “¡Hola, Señor Gringo!”.
Remains to be seen how Bolivia compares in this regard!