Tales from abroad: Peru

Joshua Debner playing with children during his time volunteering with One Laptop Per Child in Peru. (credit: Courtesy of Joshua Debner ) Joshua Debner playing with children during his time volunteering with One Laptop Per Child in Peru. (credit: Courtesy of Joshua Debner )

“Hope Krista” is the name on my birth certificate. My grandfather was a pastor, and my mom got the idea from a passage in the New Testament that refers to “hope in Christ.” But when I went to study abroad in Buenos Aires, I changed my name. It wasn’t something I did on a whim; for some reason, the “p” is difficult to pronounce for Spanish speakers, and I was just tired of being called “Ho” all the time. So I became Esperanza instead. When my boyfriend Josh Debner and I decided to take off the fall semester to volunteer in rural Peru, I was curious if he would play the name game too.

He did. Josh was already used to nicknames, though. His sister calls him Joshey. Sometimes, embarrassingly enough, I call him Smoshua. His mom is the only one who actually calls him Joshua James, and she adds the Debner if he leaves too many dirty clothes strewn about on the bedroom floor. Sometimes people call him J-debs or J-dizzle, from his first AIM screen name and first e-mail address. And the Carnegie Mellon Ultimate team just calls him Debner. So he’s had many names over the years, but here in the mountains of northern Peru, he’s become Joven Yosh. And I became Señorita Esperanza.

We are both volunteering in the Ancash region of Peru as pedagogical (teaching) interns with the nonprofit organization One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). OLPC deploys innovative laptops called XO laptops to rural areas in developing countries, and the laptops are specifically designed for children. They are loaded with educational programs. Our job is to run computer workshops with the students and teachers in five different elementary schools, spending two weeks at each school. All of the schools have electricity, but accommodations in each place are minimal. This week, we’re working in a small town called Quishuar.

I usually just introduce myself as Esperanza. It’s easier that way. But Josh’s name would translate to Josue. It just doesn’t work for him. The J sound doesn’t really exist in Spanish anyway, so instead of Josh, he settled on Yosh. And the Peruvians add the “joven” since there’s no “señorita” version of “señor.” The students just call me Señorita Esperanza, in the same way that English speaking students would call me Miss Hope.

It would be an understatement to say we stand out. We’re the only foreigners to ever step foot in the village. I stand out because I don’t dress in indigenous clothing. Most of the women wear colorful knee-length skirts with handmade hats and tucked in white blouses. I wear jeans and sweatshirts. Women also wear their hair in braided pigtails — even the grannies. Mine is usually loose, and much shorter than the braids that reach down the length of their backs.

And Josh is the town giant. At 6'2", he towers above the kids and all of the townspeople. He instinctively ducks his head when entering buildings, usually to avoid hitting the ceiling. Luckily, we’re living in a hut with a tarp ceiling, so when he wakes up in the morning and forgets we’re in Quishuar, bumping his head is a little more forgiving. In a rural village with a population of 200, I can confidently say he’s the tallest guy in town. The farmers stop him on the street to inquire about his shoe size. 45, he tells them. Their eyes grow wide, “*Ay, gringito*!” they say.

Gringo isn’t necessarily a derogatory word. I’m told it refers to tourists from the United States, although I’m not sure how anyone could distinguish them from an English-speaking Canadian with a similar skin tone. Depending on who you ask, Canadians are gringos too. So are the Swiss, or anyone else who has light features. Gringo can also be interpreted as a term for white people, but even that is open to interpretation. Strangely enough, I don’t usually feel insulted when people call us gringos. Although I’d never greet them with a high five and a “Hey Latino!” or “How’s it going, native indigenous man?” I know that we’re the only gringos they’ve ever seen (they’ve told us this) and thus acknowledge us as such. But I do wish we could just skip the labels and learn each other’s names.

Anyway, the first day we started working with the school in Quishuar, the head teacher introduced us while 40 little pairs of brown eyes stared and giggled. “I know you have another name for these two,” she said, gesturing toward Josh and me, as the kids pointed and whispered “gringos” to each other. “But they have names… What are your names?” she asked, turning to us.

“*Me llamo* Josh,” he said. “Yosh,” the kids repeated, unsure of this strange new sound. I just started with Esperanza to save time. We spent the days teaching computer skills, the afternoons teaching Frisbee, and the nights teaching card games. Little by little, Josh and I became “señor and señorita” among the villagers, “profe” among the students, and “*Yoooosh y Esperanzaaaaa!* ” among the preschoolers who liked to play with us.

One day, however, after Josh did a photo shoot with the kids, we were showing them the photos on his MacBook, and a group of teenagers came in to check it out. “*Qué tal, gringos?* ” one of them asked us with a head nod. The room went silent. We knew it was meant to be a friendly greeting. How should we react? I was about to brush it off and say hi when the little voice of Nicol piped up. Nicol, one of the smartest fourth graders in the school, announced with crossed arms, “They’re not gringos.” The teenager’s smug smile quickly faded. “His name is Joven Yosh and her name is Señorita Esperanza.” Josh and I smiled at each other. I guess we’re not gringos anymore.