Are you German? Are you Hitler?

I’m fascinated with national stereotypes. Not so much observing or listening to racist Americans, as attempting to decode what people from other countries think about Americans, whether and how quickly they can identify my nationality, and how I’ll be treated once they do. When people ask, I tend to lead with “I’m from California” as I feel like that affords some wiggle room. People hear California and they know that, politically at least, I don’t fall in line with whomever happens to be Supreme Leader of this Nation of Allegedly Free Peoples. (Not to suggest that people from other states fall neatly into line, either, but we’re speaking in generalities and stereotypes and internationally, California is, I think, held in higher esteem than the United States in general.)

In our entire three weeks in Peru, I don’t recall meeting a single fellow American. I overheard one–someone from Kansas–at the Cusco Planetarium, but was sufficiently disgusted by his smug traveler routine that I didn’t bother to approach him. We crossed paths with an altitude-sick American just outside the Sun Gate on the path to Machu Picchu; the kid looked completely miserable and embarrassed as we offered him coca candy and leaves, and our guide advised him to take it nice and slow. We met plenty of kids from the UK, almost all of them on months-long adventures across South America, who would note, “oh, you’re just on a little holiday then” when they heard we had a meager three weeks of travel around Peru. (Three weeks we had been very proud to squirrel away, until they were dismissed by a 19-year-old with a backpack the size of my car strapped to her back.) We almost met plenty of Australians. And two Canadians with whom we plotted our escape from Arequipa should a miner’s strike in Juliaca prevent us from catching the bus to Puno (more later).

It’s difficult for me to untangle the relationships amongst the other nationalities (and a bit silly to imagine they’d be something simplistic like “Kids from the UK despite tourists from France”). But that doesn’t change the fact that lines had been drawn, in certain circumstances. At dinner, in the pouring Cusco rain, a very rude group of English travelers trashed a German girl named Olga. Her crime seemed to have been borrowing too much “sun cream” and lording her years of travel experience over the others. I wondered: To what extent did they hate Olga because she was Olga, and to what extent did their distaste stem from her nationality? And when you meet someone, and all you have to go off is their nationality, how can you avoid the well-worn pitfalls of national stereotypes?

I didn’t want to be known as the American tourist. And, at the end of the day, in the entire three weeks, I never heard anyone make a negative reference to my nationality. I heard the word “gringo” in passing, and knew they meant me, or possibly myself and Colin. But that wasn’t about my nationality, so much as  my race. And maybe that should have bothered me more, but the reality was it was just a fact. I am a gringo, and in almost every city we visited–all 13 or so–I stood out like a sore, pasty, sun-deprived thumb. Oh well. There’s something to be said for the discomfort of knowing you don’t fit in, not even a little, for working that much harder to grasp the right words, which you never really will because you’re simply not fluent and lack the cultural currency to understand the words that really matter anyhow.

We were mistaken for Germans on the second day of our trip, and it was one of my favorite moments of the entire trip, so I’ll recount the comedic tale:

We were walking through the streets of Iquitos, being hounded by Peruvians trying to sell us boat tours of the Amazon. One man was particularly persistent and after Colin and I passed him on the street for the third time in less than an hour, and he asked us, for the third time in less than an hour, whether we wanted a tour of the Amazon, Colin politely but firmly, told him, “Gracias, no.”

I couldn’t see his face because we had walked past him at that point, but a sad voice demanded, “Why do you despise me?” Which seemed like a bit of an overreaction  considering our very polite refusal to buy the tour. But it got better. Because a second later, he persisted.

“Are you German?”

At this point, we were starting to giggle. We couldn’t connect “gracias, no” to despising someone, and couldn’t figure out what any of it had to do with possibly being German. But the Peruvian had not yet finished his lament.

“Are you Hitler?”

And now we were just walking down the streets of Iquitos, nearly doubled over laughing at this bizarre chain of logic. I had to wonder whether Germans weren’t perhaps the most despised of travelers, or whether he really did mistake us for Germans. But not a single day went by without Colin and I asking each other, mournfully: “Why do you despise me? Are you German? Are you Hitler?”

For a quick video of all the photographs Colin took on the trip, click here.



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