Kieran Keel - Incan & Wari Archaeology in Peru
Honestly, I booked Peru on a whim, a vague desire to travel, a need to do something independently, an A Level in Spanish and the thought of four more years of formal education ahead of me. But it’s probably one of the best decisions I ever made. People were jealous before I’d even left; when I returned to my friends to find that they’d done very little other than drink, sail and waste time on Facebook while I’d been gone, I started to realise just how great my Inca Project experience was. And not just because I’m now studying History and Spanish at university.
The chance to pick up new skills, interact with completely new people, spend a bit of time away from the restrictions of living at home and immerse yourself in a truly fascinating and unique culture is something that I would recommend to anybody, whatever their interests. I was only meant to be there for the 2 Week Special, but ended up staying on for a month, only coming home in order to receive my exam results!
Flying from England was lengthy, pretty comfortable and largely uneventful; aside from being shown just how friendly South American people can be, while in conversation with the person next to me, who put up with my tired and uncertain attempts at Spanish and gave me a great introduction to how my trip was going to be.
Three of us arrived from England and were met at Cusco airport by Projects Abroad member of staff, Jorge, whose equally friendly attitude instantly put us at ease as we relaxed in the hotel. Pretty soon all of us in the 2 Week Special group got to know each other, and bonded particularly over our – positive – first experiences of Peruvian cooking. And radio football commentary (well worth a listen).
Settling into Peru
Over the next few days we managed to acclimatise to the altitude, with the help of the ever-reliable coca tea, and were shown round the city, from cathedrals to Inca walls, gradually realising just how much we had to discover. Visiting the archaeological sites at Saqsayhuaman, and PukaPukara gave us our first real taste of Inca ingenuity and whetted our appetites for the digs to come. And if this all seems a bit intense, there was plenty of time to by the semi-compulsory artisan bracelets and, of course, the unforgettable experience of petting and feeding the llamas.
After this introduction, we were taken by combi (mini bus) on the stunning journey from Cusco to Huyro, the village where the volunteer house is located, passing through Ollantaytambo, a place steeped in myth and legend, and the AbraMálaga, offering unbeatable views of the valley below. We were lucky enough to pass through at night and were treated to the most beautiful night sky any of us had ever seen. Arriving, tired, anxious but definitely excited, in El Establo, the volunteer house, we were greeted by the volunteers already there, who made a real effort, including overcoming the language barrier at times, to make us feel welcome.
My Peruvian family and the placement work
Living in Establo pretty soon became like living with a massive family. After waking up for breakfast every morning and sharing the inescapable flatbread and jam, we would head part way up the mountain in the bus. Adjusting to the altitude and the trek up the rest of the mountain to get to the archaeological sites was certainly tough in the first few days, but we were all surprised how quickly we gained the fitness we needed. After a few days I personally was keeping up with Dan, our Project Leader and current holder of the Projects Abroad all-time record for climbing Huayna Picchu – the mountain in the background of the famous Machu Picchu photo.
Then we would spend a few hours excavating or clearing the sites punctuated by frequent bursts of excitement as someone found yet another fragment of ceramic. Lunch, prepared in the volunteer house by the incomparably talented Isa and Pati, was always a welcome, tasty and filling break, and after an afternoon session of excavation, we would head back to the volunteer house to nap, or even sometimes cool off in the river, with the inevitable water fights that followed.
In the evenings we often went into the village, Huyro, to sit outside Julio’s shop and sample local delicacies from ‘mystery meat’ to picarones, both of which are a must! Speaking Spanish, I found myself in constant demand from the locals, and the recipient of many offers of free drinks, and was soon christened “Shakira” after a failed attempt to teach them how to pronounce my name!
In some ways, it was sitting in Julio’s and chatting with the Peruvians about everything under the sun that was one of the best parts of the trip, and certainly offered the greatest insight into how they live. A little Spanish, whilst not a must, certainly goes a long way, and the Peruvians are so happy to find other hispanohablantes that no matter how basic your level is, they’ll help you to understand them and go to every effort to understand you.
Other than archaeology, we had the opportunity to visit Machu Picchu. Watching the sun rise there is an experience which will exhaust your stock of clichés quicker than you can say “once in a lifetime”. There is simply nothing quite like it, and Tebowing on Macchu Picchu is a must! At other times, we got to go into the village and help read to the children, an experience which opened our eyes to the state of poverty and education in Peru and was as rewarding as it was fun.
Even just hanging at the volunteer house with the other volunteers was brilliant. Everyone was friendly, jokes and nicknames spread fast, and the fact that people from all over the world are gathered in one place makes for some interesting conversations, and competitive (multilingual) evening quizzes!
Sitting round the fire whilst the archaeologists showed us Inca rituals and swapping stories until the early hours was again, simply unforgettable. Trips to Cusco on the weekends for a spot of relaxation and culture were a welcome break, even if the £2.50 a night hostel is not one I’d recommend!
A great opportunity
Honestly, I could spend hours talking about my trip and relating anecdotes, and that’s pretty much what I did, much to the annoyance of friends and family, for months afterwards. Even now the sound of pan-pipes makes me slightly misty-eyed… But no, seriously, the opportunity offered on any of the trips to Peru is a truly unique one, and whilst I’m not going to wheel out all the clichés about how it will change you, it certainly gives you a great time away from the pressures of home, and in a completely new and fascinating environment, to pick up a new skill, meet new friends, sample new foods, embrace a new culture, and visit possibly the most amazing place in the entire world.
My only regret was not staying longer. Being ‘adopted’ as a little brother by our guide, getting Peruvian banter from Pati, Isa and Américo, becoming the Project Leader’s son’s new best friend to play dinosaurs with, getting called Shakira by everyone, without exception, celebrating independence day, chatting to the residents of Huyro, discovering an axe head on one dig… All unforgettable experiences, what more can I say? Just book it!