What's polite in Peru?

“Pucha, Cam, estás gordita!”

It wasn’t really news that I’d put on a little weight in my month in Australia. It was a month of good cheese – very good, rich, fattening cheese, blue and brie and goats’, the kind I’d missed terribly in Peru. A month of wine and all those Aussie beers I love so much. Dinners out, desserts, birthday cake, Tim Tams. And a distinct lack of the exercise I get in Cusco simply by walking across town at 3,300 metres above sea level.

Image: vvaiting via flickr

Image: vvaiting via flickr

But I certainly didn’t need it pointed out so bluntly. “Geez, Cam, you’re a little fat!” And I really, really didn’t need it pointed out over, and over, and over again, until I finally told the boys that in Australia you don’t dare comment on a woman’s weight, and that I wasn’t seeing the funny.

It was one of the first things I noticed about Peruvian conversation when I arrived – its distinct lack of the niceties and political correctness of English-language chat. My best friend is always referred to, even to her face, as “negra” (black) or “gorda” (fat). A very close, male, gay friend is greeted with effusive shouts of “fea!!!” (ugly, in the feminine). And nicknames such as “cerdo” (pig) and “mono” (monkey, for his ever-so-slightly ape-like features) are common.

People here say what they think, and tell you the occasionally-ugly truth.

Until I was on the receiving end, I always thought it was healthy. And really, I suppose it is. Perhaps body image issues, with your flaws confronted so bluntly and as such a normal part of social life from a young age, become less of a problem. Learning to laugh about it is a positive way to deal with things.

It also streamlines those impersonal social interactions you have every day. Accustomed to the avalanche of “thank-yous” that accompanies every transaction in Australia (thanks for serving me now! Thanks for handing me your cash! Here’s your change! Thanks! Bye! Thanks!), I used to get some funny looks with the stream of superfluous gracias that I was handing over in the market. Here, you save your breath. Just one gracias will do, thanks, on either side. And if they haven’t actually helped you, they often don’t get one at all.

Read more:
School Days Around the World
Kumusta? and Other Filipino Greetings
Superstitions Around the World

About the author

Camden Luxford
Camden lives for long, uncomfortable journeys and dreams of the Trans-Siberian Railway. From hitch-hiking in Europe, through Asia by bus and boat, she has found herself in the Peruvian Andes, where she relishes the colours of the festivals, the warmth of the people and the hearty flavours of the soups. When she's not exploring her new home, she's studying politics by distance or writing for her blog, The Brink of Something Else, or as a regular contributor to Matador Abroad.
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  • Wonderful insights,Camden!

  • Great post Cam! It made me remember my Spanish class… our teacher once explained that in Spain it’s ok to call someone ‘gordita’, but ‘gorda’, now that would be rude.

    I guess saying thank you repeatedly is a British trait too. I get funny looks for that sometimes. I’m trying to tone it down a bit, but it’s hard to shake the habit!

  • I’ve been recently introduce to Tim Tams (in Canada, of all places) and I could easily become addicted to them! Luckily for me, they don’t sell them here in Dallas.

    I have the reverse experience: I’m overwhelmed with so many thank yous and sorrys. Why say it so many times when one will do? I’m with the Peruvians on that one :)

    Back home in Argentina, “gordita/o” “gordi” are terms of endearment. We refer to babies as “el gordito” or “la gordita”

    Mind you, terms like “negro/a” or “gordo/a” are double-edged swords. It’s more the tone (and facial gestures) with which you utter them than the word itself.

    “People here say what they think, and tell you the occasionally-ugly truth.” Oh yes, definitely. It goes both ways: they will also tell you how good you look or if you’ve lost weight, etc. Men compliment coworkers without fear of a sexual harassment lawsuit, like they would in other cultures. I kind of miss that :)

  • Thanks Sanjay and Liz… I’m trying to train the excessive gratitude out of myself, but hoping people don’t find me too rude when I go on visits home!

  • Ana, I’m sorry your comment went into moderation for some reason.

    I’ve never tried Tim Tams, but when you have alfajores I don’t know how you could want anything else!

  • Oh Tim Tams. They are the best things in the world – thank heavens my mother´s finally realised it´s NOT worth the ridiculous cost of postage to be sending me regular care packages.

    And you’re right, I’m definitely flooded with plenty of compliments every day, as well. It’s nice. I could get used to it!

  • Kari Luehring

    Cam this cracked me up! I have never been to Peru, and want to even more now to experience this brutal honesty. I think I may like this! I get told on the regular that I am a little to blunt. I have never been good with sensitivities, so this could really suit my razor sharp tongue. Oh Peru only one more year and I will be free from the torturous grip of Graphics schooling.

  • Nice post Cam,

    Yeah, the PC thing is slow to catch on in Cusco.

    I recall hearing gay jokes any time the topic of homosexuality came up while in Cusco. It was if the joke-teller was saying “YOU brought up the subject, therefore we need to share any and all crude and inapropriate gay jokes that we know.”

    Thanks for the perspective and if it’s any consolation, the internet makes you look slimmer.


  • Kari! What a surprise! You MUST come and visit in a year, I would love to see you (this is Portland Kari with whom I passed some excellent parties in SE Asia, right, not some poor internet stranger I’ve just terrified with my over-exuberant greeting?)

    Thanks Jason. Funny how telly adds 10 kg but the internet takes them away :)

  • Nuria

    Very nice post Camden!
    It’s kind of similar here in Costa Rica, we use a lot of nicknames but it’s just like Ana says, it all depends on the tone of voice and facial expression ;) jiji

    Nicknames are especially common in high school, kids always call each other funny names..Some ex-classmates are called “Lobo” (Wolf) because he’s very hairy! Another one is called “Gallo” (Rooster) due to his voice!

  • Nuria

    Something important I forgot: All these nicknames don’t offend people, it’s the other way around, they are a way to show affection ;) Oh, and they are also very common in couples!

  • Oh definitely, everybody laughs them off and I’m a little offended I haven’t been christened with one yet!