The Northern Coast

The Northern Coast
The Northern Coast--photo by Zack Thieman

Thursday, January 5, 2012

El Barbón

One of the most important parts of living and working in a host community in another country is sharing stories and pictures from back home. From the very beginning in training I shared photos with my first host family, and have continued to do so in my site and with my long-term host family. Its always fun to show them pictures and watch their reactions as they look at the people I know and love, but to them are exotic strangers.

One person who I did not realize would get so much attention is my boyfriend, Justin. I knew people would love his blonde hair and freckles, and marvel at his blue eyes, but in the last year Justin has been maintaining another feature that sets him apart—a large red beard. As I began showing pictures of my novio gringo from back home people were making less comments of his skin and eye color, and more exclamations about his thick, curly red beard. “¡Barba!” And as new pictures of him rolled in during the time I’ve been away the comments moved to “¡Barbón!” which means, “big beard.”

Justin and I in Portland, OR, May 2011--just a month before I left for Peace Corps
Peruvians aren’t known for their facial hair, mostly because they have none. In fact, aside from a thick mane of black hair, most have little to no body hair. More than once I have witnessed a full-grown man plucking random hairs off his chin. That’s right. It is so uncommon for a man to have facial hair that he doesn’t even need to employ a razor to have a smooth face.

So, needless to say, Justin’s beard that he has been growing since February 2011 is above and beyond what Peruvians could even imagine to grow (unless they have more Spanish heritage from the days of Pizarro and the Inquisition, or European ancestors in general, but the more “gringo” looking Peruvians generally live in the department of Lima, which brings on a whole new discussion of class and race-- but I digress).

Justin always had intentions to come visit me in Peru, the date of which was uncertain for awhile, but when he found that he was able to come much sooner than either of us expected (Christmas 2011), I realized I had to prepare those around me. He originally began growing out his beard for a beard competition at the upcoming April 2012 Logging Sports Conclave at Oregon State, and shaving, or even trimming, is not an option. (I say “originally,” because he has now decided to go for the “Two-Yeard” as he likes to call it. I am not exactly in full support of this endeavor, because I would like to someday in the next 2 years see my boyfriend’s face again.)

When describing my boyfriend’s beard, I hold my hands out around my face trying to demonstrate the length and volume of such, but have often received reactions of disbelief or confusion. I have showed photos to my host family, counterparts, youth group, and kids at the segundaria, and have received mixed reactions. Many think he is handsome, some think the beard is ugly (they’re not used to it), and all are surprised.

A drawing I made of The Beard for a classroom of girls at the segundaria
I did enough demonstrating before he arrived that many in my town began referring to my boyfriend as “El Barbón,” which is fitting since back home my friend Brian refers to him as, “The Beard.” No matter the language, his reputation for a lumberjack-quality beard precedes him.

Needless to say, I was worried about how people would react to him even with all of my prepping. I figured no one would want to greet him, as people greet each other with a kiss on the cheek. People asked me, “Well, he’s going to shave it before he gets here, right?” My host dad joked about shaving part of his beard in his sleep, forcing him to shave it all off. But many people asked the same question, which was, “Why? Why does your boyfriend have such a big beard?”

The simple answer of, “Because he wants to,” doesn’t exactly work. I have brought up the beard competition, but even that doesn’t suffice for some.

“But, why is there a beard competition? Is that popular in the U.S.?”

There comes a time in answering silly cultural questions when no matter how you respond, it just won’t translate. I could say, “No, not really, just a select group of people are involved in this, and beard competitions actually are held all over the world, not just the U.S.” But that isn’t the answer they want, nor is it an answer that will stick. So, instead I say this:

“Because beards are a sign of masculinity, and the bigger the beard, the more manly the man.”

People really like this answer. Half of the people I know in Peru now think this is part of U.S. culture. They always get the “ah! I get it!” look on their face when I say this. (Also, it makes me look like a super awesome chick because my boyfriend is obviously super manly.)

Still, there was no telling what reactions he might get or what reaction I might get for being associated with him, but I knew he was going to get a lot of attention, maybe even more than he was ready for.

When Justin arrived on Christmas Eve, even I was shocked by the size of his beard. Photos did not prepare me. It is seriously huge. The largest and thickest it has ever been, counting the time he stopped trimming or shaving while he was in Africa for a year. Can you even call Justin “The Beard”? Or is he simply the carrier, the host, of this new entity? Justin and The Beard? When I was with him I couldn’t stop staring at it. It takes on new shapes as the hours pass, it moves and the bristles sway in rhythm with his stories. After four days together Justin stopped mid-sentence to say, “Am I going to have to shave this beard off to have you look me in the eyes again?” Of course, my answer was, “yes.”

The Beard, my host family, and me, just after the stroke of midnight on Christmas morning 2011
But, Peruvian’s responses to Justin’s beard are even better. Here is a list of things I’ve noticed:

  1. No cat calls.
I get a LOT of catcalls in Peru. While I don’t like it, there isn’t a whole lot I can do about it, as it’s a part of the culture. I could be wearing a potato sack and a bag over my head and I’m pretty sure I’d still get whistled at. This includes when I’m with my guy friends. While walking with Justin, I have received zero catcalls. In fact, I don’t think anyone even looks at me—all eyes are on “El Barbón”.

  1. “¡BARBA!”
If we walk by a group of Peruvians, it’s guaranteed at least one of them will say the word, “barba” or “barbón”. In other words, Justin has something said about him at least once every city block. In more touristy areas that are filled with more gringos, looks of awe and envy come from all the men as the only audible words heard are, “…beard!” One scruffy guy even muttered, “beard brother!”  Which brings me to my next observation.

  1. Bearded brotherhood
If men do have any facial hair, they automatically make a knowing nod and gesture to Justin. I feel like it’s the man version of ram horns or Alpha and Omega males in a wolfpack. One night as we walked through the plaza in Chachapoyas we heard a man yelling, “¡Hola! ¡HOLA!” from across the way. The plaza was packed with people, but as we turned to look we saw a man who could only be described as a drunken, bedraggled Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, sporting a large handlebar mustache. He waved at Justin furiously and laughed to himself.
The Beard takes a break after hiking to the 3rd largest waterfall in the world

  1. Fits of giggles
If looks of awe, confusion, or respect are not what Justin is receiving, it is fits of laughter. Children and adults alike know no other reaction than to burst into laughter while pointing and staring. If a group of people are spontaneously and loudly laughing as we walk by them, it only takes a glance in their direction to know why.
While in my site Justin and I were walking back to my host family’s house from the tienda when we ran into one of the kids from my youth group. He invited us into his house where we were immediately introduced to every extended family member. His brother-in-law was a few sheets to the wind and talking to Justin like he spoke Spanish, making jokes about his beard. After a few minutes of me trying to translate drunken slurs and everyone laughing and taking pictures of the two gringos in the house (one of which they had never seen the likes of before) the brother-in-law, who just so happened to have a shiny bald head, requested a picture with Justin—only he wanted to have Justin’s beard sitting on top of his head. Without even saying a word, Justin made a lot of friends that night, and we were invited over for lunch the next day. 

  1. Fear
My PCVL Nicole told me that chances are, no one was going to mess with Justin while he was in Peru with a beard like that. Justin’s first day in Chiclayo I hailed a taxi to get to my site’s colectivo stop. He pulled over and I asked him how much it would cost to get to my stop. He didn’t understand me, so I repeated the question, but as I did he looked past me and saw Justin. The taxi drove off without so much as a word.
Sadly, almost the entire time Justin was at my host family’s house, my host-niece had to be kept in a separate room from him, as the mere site of him brought on screaming and crying.
And, while I don’t believe this response was done in fear, my new favorite response to his beard was when a woman exclaimed, “¡Hombre lobo!” which translates as “Wolfman.”

  1. The meet and greet
Surprisingly, the beard has not kept Peruvians from their cultural manners in greeting with a kiss on the cheek—even if that means rubbing cheeks with something fuzzy. However, on Christmas morning as my slightly tipsy host sister made her rounds of hugs and kisses to everyone, she shivered and rubbed her face as she pulled away from Justin, unable to hide her distaste for the beard.
The Beard enjoys a Southern Hemisphere Pacific Sunset in Huanchaco, La Libertad

And now, Justin has returned to the U.S., just four months away from his competition, but nowhere near the end of his time growing the beard. The next time he comes to visit he will look something closer to Father Time, and the adventures of The Beard in a beardless country will continue on, bringing entertainment for everyone involved. I’m sure the jokes and threats of midnight shavings will continue from my host dad, and the reasoning of “manly men have beards” will only suite them for awhile. In fact, I have a feeling The Beard will still be here in spirit, as my town is bound to bring him up to me over and over again. How often does a beard like that walk through a small town like this? And how often do they get a chance to meet such an unusual stranger face to face? Hopefully, more than once.  

The Beard and I, playing music and waiting for 2012 to begin


  1. Oh Amanda!!! I LOVE it! You made me laugh many times...I had to wipe the tears out of my eyes!
    Keep your chin up and keep busy!!!

  2. you two are so adorbz. i'm super enojada that i didn't time my return back to site so that i could at least see you two in hchaco! but glad y'all had a good time, and next time he's in peru- i def wanna meet up!

  3. Justin and the Beard would be a great name for a band.

  4. I think we should review at what point the beard becomes the person and the person is lost in the context of the Beard. Nice writing Amanda...

  5. I love it!! You are so funny! and I love that something we take for granted (facial hair) is so foreign in another country!