The Moment You Become a Different Person Abroad

By Kayla (Keyla? Keila? Teila? Kebar?) Washko

                Identity seems to become more fluid when you live abroad. The exact moment that you begin to change is hard to pinpoint—perhaps it’s when you learn to barter at the local market, or finally decide to face your fear and go bungee jumping or white water rafting for the first time. Or perhaps it isn’t so tough to pinpoint after all. Maybe it happens the first time (or many times) someone says or spells your name incorrectly.

My given name, Kayla, is a relatively popular name for American girls born in the late 1980’s and beyond, popularized by the Days of Our Lives soap opera character of the same name. (Or, at least, that is how my parents picked my name!) I know plenty of Kaylas in the States: my best friend is named Kayla, in fact, and so are many girls who went to my high school. But here in Peru, the name Kayla seems as exotic to the locals as the name Josué (not to be confused with Jose) or Romina would be in the States.

The trouble starts with the fact that the first “a” in Kayla has a long “a” sound. In Spanish, the long “a” is written as an “e.” Thus the closest spelling I’ve ever seen of my name is “K-E-Y-L-A,” but more often it is spelled by receptionists and baristas as “K-E-I-L-A.”

What is the Peruvian Keila like compared to the American Kayla? Well, Keila knows how to barter for a taxi (and just about anything else you can think of) and ride a local combi bus, while Kayla is content to pay fixed prices and drives a car when she is in the States. Keila stays out dancing until 5am and then cures Saturday hangovers with a plate of ceviche, while Kayla is more prone to attend a literary reading on a Friday night and maybe have a glass of wine, then wake up to have Saturday morning brunch with a close friend the next day. Keila habitually arrives fifteen minutes late, whereas Kayla habitually arrives fifteen minutes late. Okay, so maybe I’m not that different abroad.

guest post blog Traveling Marla South Africa move
Perhaps Teila? (Photo credit: Kayla Washko)

But what happens to my identity when my name becomes altogether unrecognizable? At coffee shops, I’ve occasionally had my name written as “T-E-I-L-A,” and once, at a particularly chaotic bus station in Bogotá, a cashier wrote my name as “Kebar,” followed by a jumble of unpronounceable letters. What are these versions of myself like? Well, Teila apparently orders muffins de naranja y chocolate (orange and chocolate), something Kayla has never done before but has since decided is a rather tasty combination, while Kebar buys bus tickets to one of the formerly most violent cities in the world—Medellín, the old stomping grounds of drug lord Pablo Escobar.

guest post blog Traveling Marla South Africa move
Keebar Huaashk? (Photo credit: Kayla Washko)

I’m not the only one whose identity changes while abroad. I have a friend, Maureen, whose name is consistently pronounced and sometimes written as “Marine,” and a friend, Kristy, who was once identified as “Crust” on the side of a coffee cup. Interestingly, Marine has been pink dolphin spotting on the Amazon, and Crust has been known to eat her fair share of homemade empanadas.

And then there are the days when I avoid drawing attention to my name altogether. On these days, I take on an easily pronounceable Spanish name as an alias—Carolina, Camila, Claudia. I like to think that each of these versions of myself know how to roll their r’s (I can’t), make a tasty causa casserole (I don’t), and impress the locals with intricate salsa steps (something I can only dream about).

I guess what I’m trying to say is that my untranslatable name is an excuse to be anybody I want while abroad. Which leads me to wonder: who have you been? And, who will Marla be?


guest post blog Traveling Marla South Africa move
Kayla Washko (Photo credit: Kayla Washko)

About Kayla, aka Yakalita, of Encounter Peru’s Expat Life:

Kayla grew up in western Pennsylvania and earned her M.F.A. degree in Creative Writing from Chatham University in Pittsburgh. As soon as her thesis was signed and stamped for approval by her board, she went in search of words and wanderlust. She moved to Lima in July 2011 for a copywriting position and has been living there ever since. Her travel writing about Peru has been featured on the Encounter Peru blog, BootsnAll, The San Diego Reader, and Travelhoppers.”


I’ve been lucky enough to read Kayla’s material offline as well, and I’m excited she has a blog for her travels. She’s going to have a great book one of these days, so read her now, so you can say you read her when… Expat Life, on Encounter Peru.


Traveling Marla is unplugged for three weeks while she prepares for her move to South Africa. She put out a call for guest posts (see original request here), and is grateful to receive so much support! Please see the full list below.

Please support these writers by reading each of their guest posts and checking out their own blogs!

Thanks, as always for taking time to read my blog and comment. Although I’m offline right now, I will return in a few short weeks when we’re settled in South Africa and I promise to read all of your comments!

Love, Marla

P.S. I am most likely quite nervous by now. I’m scheduling this blog to post on the day we fly direct from Atlanta to Johannesburg on a Boeing 777, changing life as we know it for the next “few years.” Reading each of these posts as I format and schedule them in preparation to unplug has made me a wreck. I don’t know that one person deserves so much love, but I’m grateful for it. 

By the time you read this, I will be either at the airport or on my way.  I don’t have anyone scheduled to post for me tomorrow, counting on adrenaline to override jet lag so that I can tell you about the flight, or my first impression of South Africa, or something amazeballs like that. Or, maybe I’ll just roll over and go back to sleep. (Stay awake, Marla. It’s time to be awake from now on…)

Dakota Garilli
Trophos, of The Dancing Professor
Leo, of Doggy’s Style
Kayla, of Encounter Peru
Benjamin Prewitt – Expression of my life – An evolution of art
Kriscinda, of Heavy Metal Homesteading
Lynne, of Home Free Adventures
Jeff: my witty and hilarious ebberlubbinbrudder
Jody, of Human Triumphant
Julie of
Ingrid, of Live Laugh RV
Ned Hickson of Ned’s Blog
Rose, of On the Go Fitness
Pierr Morgan
Leslie and Amanda, of Survival is Relative
Colin of Uber Beast Mode
Robyn, of You Think Too Much
Baz – The Landy (Out and About and Having Fun)
Brandon: my quirky, brilliant, dashing nephew
Dallas, of Crazy Train to Tinky Town
Caroline, of Currer and the Bells

4 thoughts on “The Moment You Become a Different Person Abroad

  1. Love this article… my name is Sreerupa… imagine the horrors that I faced out of India. I have already been to USA and now I am in South Africa… can totally relate to the post… 🙂 🙂

  2. Yet another great post! I’m so envious of you world traveler types!

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