You may have noticed in from the photo that I have a pretty long beard. In the United States it didn’t seem to get too much attention or stares. Here in Iquitos, Peru it’s a different story. I’ve never had so much indirect attention before.
Being in a country where most of the population is hairless, other than the hair on their heads, a person with a beard stands out. There are a couple of other factors that make me stand out here. One is that both young and old all have jet black hair. My hair is blond and my beard is red (rojo in spanish). The second reason is that I am much taller that the average Peruvian which puts my red beard at their eye level.
For me, walking down the street makes it feel as though I am from a different planet.
It’s as if nobody has ever seen a beard before even though they know the word for beard. There are stares, many many stares, there are whispers, groups of people turning their heads to take a look. There are smiles and laughs as people say something to each other about me or my beard. People driving motokars or motorcycles slow down to get a better look as they are driving down the street. Sometimes it’s their passengers craning their necks to get a second look.
It’s interesting to watch people when I am walking around. You can see it in their eyes as they realize they are looking at a tall man with a big red beard.
The small markets are fun to walk through. As I pass by vendors, you can see their eyes change as if there is a short-circuit happening in their brain. Some people just stare in disbelief as I go by. Other vendors have secret words or whistles or some other way to get other vendors attention so that they can all check out my beard. At first I didn’t know what they were saying but now that I’ve been in Iquitos for about 3 weeks I’ve started hearing the words they are using. If they are really blatant they’ll either say “barba” which is beard in Spanish or “barbón” which means a man with a big beard in Spanish. Most of they time they same something that I can’t hear or a word that I do not know yet. Many people speak their native tribal languages so that’s another possibility. Other times you just hear whistles or hear them shouting to get another person’s attention. When I see 4 or more people turn around to look in my direction I know that a signal was given ahead.
Some people look quizzically as if wondering “how is that possible?” or “why would you do that?”, a few people have had looks of disgust.
My favorite is when people just stare. You can see it in their eyes and can tell that all brain activity has turned off. These are the ones that stop and forget whatever it is that they are doing, their head and eyes just following my beard as I walk by. Usually it’s the children under 5 years old that lose their minds the most. If we are being stationary the kids will walk by but they can’t take their eyes off of the beard. They turn their heads first sideways then backwards as their bodies continue walking forward. They just can’t stop staring. I usually wave at them, very few wave back but that could be a cultural thing too.
Walking around on the street is pretty interesting too. You can just see it in people’s eyes when they notice my beard. Some of the older men and women just stare with what seems like disgust but without the facial expressions. The younger kids are quick to get the attention of their parents to make sure everyone has seen me. The older kids and teenagers in groups usually look and will laugh or laugh after we pass each other. The rest of the population has various looks and stares. If we are in the gringos area then there is not so much attention. It’s when we get outside of that area that I get the most looks. Even among the gringos having a huge beard is unique.
Sometimes when we are waking we hear “barba” or “barbón” from the motokar drivers. They say it as if they have no control over the word coming out of their mouth. Other times, it’s shouted from across the street or from groups of men in the back of trucks.
Another thing I’ve heard people say is “Papa Noël” (Santa Claus in English). Usually it’s not directed towards me but if I hear someone say it I’ll tell them “Feliz Navidad” (Merry Christmas in English.)
There have been a few people who wanted to touch my beard. The first one was a drunk man on the street near the port when we were looking for a boat to take to Ecuador. We don’t know what he was saying but he kept wanting to touch my beard but then it seemed like he wanted me to cut it too. The second man who wanted to touch it was also a bit drunk in one of the bodegas. He said it was beautiful and kept running his hands down my beard. The third man who touched my beard had beautiful long maroon hair and some tight skinny jeans. He was not drunk like the other men. He said my beard was so beautiful and ran his hands down my beard several times. When I was leaving, my beard still in his hands I received a wink with pursed lips as he told me again how beautiful my beard was. There was one person that wanted to cut my beard off. I was looking at the snacks a street vendor was selling when the lady next to me was saying something about a girl that was just 20 years old. I got the gist of what she was saying and said no thank you. She paid for whatever she bought and left. I had gotten about 10 steps away when the same lady was saying something to me so I stopped and she came over and said something about an introduction. Her girl (a young escort) followed behind and I continued to say that I was not interested in any company. The girl made a scissors gesture with her fingers near her chin and promptly left. I wasn’t sure what that interaction was about other than them trying to make some money. Perhaps to show the escort how good she had it not being with hairy bearded gringos.
Another interesting thing that we’ve both seen is that some men will unconsciously touch their chins as if stroking an invisible goatee. We don’t think that they even realize that they are doing it. It’s kind of funny. It’s as if they are making sure that they DON’T have a beard.
It’s been interesting having a beard in Iquitos, Peru. I know what it’s like to receive lots of looks, stares or people looking at me wherever I go. Robbyn is usually walking behind me and gets to see everyone’s facial expressions after I walk by. It’s has been an exercise in being myself.