Laura Inkpen - Incan & Wari Archaeology in Peru
After working in the National Health Service for the past eight years here in Wales, I made the decision to do something crazy – I basically handed in my notice, gave up my flat, and headed feet first into a career break year. My plan? (In as much as I had a plan) – to get outside of my bubble, outside of the echo chamber I had been living in pretty much my whole life, and experience something totally different – new cultures and new people. To volunteer and help some people who might need it, and broaden my mind too if I was really lucky.
After spending a month each in Kruger National Park, South Africa and Kathmandu City, Nepal, I finally found myself flying to one of the highest cities in the world, Cusco in Peru, in September 2017. I was nervous, I can’t lie. I was anxious about the dreaded altitude sickness everyone talks about, about not knowing much Spanish beyond basic greetings, and worried that my complete absence of expertise in Archaeology would mean I was going to be more of a hindrance than a help on the Incan & Wari Archaeology Project I had signed up for.
I should have known better though, because my time spent in Cusco and working at the Pikillaqta dig site was one of the warmest and most enjoyable experiences of my life. The Volunteer Coordinator, Dan, a previous volunteer turned staff member who met me at the airport was just wonderful, putting me at ease as we explored the streets and important landmarks of the gorgeous town centre. He then took me directly to my host family.
My host family
Given previous experiences, I was prepared to be sharing a room with a large group of other volunteers when I got there, expecting to trip over chargers and shoes on a daily basis. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that I would be the only volunteer staying in the apartment with Jen, her daughter, and her housekeeper Lidia. I even had my own bathroom, which was an amazing bonus!
And I have to say, the family were just lovely from the moment I arrived; with every interaction they made me feel like I’d always been a part of their home, even if the little girl, Killiari, spent most of the time peeking at me around corners, apparently fascinated by my strange language and clothes! By the time I left, we had become firm friends though, so not to worry.
Some of the things you’ll learn about Cusco on your first day will probably include:
- There seem to be almost as many street dogs as people and they are exceptionally friendly.
- You will never see so many pharmacies or chicken restaurants in such close proximity to one another.
- Copyright law isn’t a thing here. They have buses called the Batman and pictures of celebrities outside every hairdresser.
Spending time with other volunteers
The other volunteers that I met during the project were a fantastic and eclectic bunch. Hailing from every part of the world including the US, Luxembourg, Germany and Denmark and covering ages from early twenties to late sixties, we all formed a bond incredibly quickly and enjoyed hanging out with each other outside of work hours, finding new places to eat and visit. It makes such an impact to be around curious and open-minded individuals while trying to situate yourself in a new country, and I really can’t thank them enough for their company and willingness to share their own stories with me while I was there. I’m happy to say that some of us are still in contact now that we’ve flown home, which says a lot, I think, about the relationships you develop on these projects.
My Archaeology placement
I’m happy to say that the archaeological work on the project was varied and super interesting too. On some days, we were out at the dig site, digging, mapping and measuring. With my portable speaker, I even got to play DJ for the group so that we had some background music to keep us entertained. On other days, we catalogued the ceramics we had found, helped out with creating archaeological drawings of the pieces for the end of dig report, and attended lectures on subjects like human sacrifice, The Lady of Cao, and Qorikancha, the spiritual home of the Incas.
There really was no way you could ever get bored, because every day was totally different to the last. The fact that we were always encouraged to ask questions throughout our time at the project was a big plus too, and the in-depth knowledge of the archaeologists and staff members made certain that we always got intelligent and thought-provoking answers to our questions.
We also took part in some community work while there. On one particular day, we were taken to a home for the elderly where we all helped by sweeping the outside areas, chopping up vegetables for lunch, and helping the less mobile residents to get some exercise. You might think that would be a difficult situation for somebody with limited Spanish, but truthfully, the warm-hearted nature of the staff and residents made up for any language barriers, and a smile and a ‘gracias’ meant more on that day than anything that could have been said in my native language.
My free time
Of course, we also had time for trips and adventures; all work and no play’s no good for anyone, after all. On my first weekend, I made it up the famous Machu Picchu, which was absolutely stunning and well worth the hours of travelling time to get there. Some of the other volunteers and I also managed to head to the Urubamba River to enjoy a day of white-water rafting (top tip: always pay the extra 15 sol for wetsuit boots, the water is very cold even when the sun is shining). We also went to the Sacred Valley for some mid-morning zip lining.
My absolute favourite place to visit, however, would be Awana Kancha, a living museum that allows you to see first-hand how Incan weaving practices are being kept alive while providing a means of income for local families. The place showed exactly how important heritage is to locals, you could practically feel their connection to the ancestors in the air. This area also gave more chances than you could ever wish for to feed and hang out with llamas, alpacas, and vicuna. Everything about it was fantastic and I can’t recommend it enough. Our favourite llama was one we nicknamed Cruella Deville. She had white wool with a black streak in her fringe like the Disney villain, and definitely had the attitude to match!
For those who don’t wish to go so far afield though, the number of museums in Cusco itself could keep you busy for days, even weeks, if your brain doesn’t go into information overload at all you can learn there.
Adjusting to a different culture
None of this is to say that there wasn’t a small element of culture shock for the first week or so. I didn’t get altitude sickness luckily; apart from a slight sense of breathlessness, my health was perfect the whole time I was in Cusco. But I’m still not sure that marinating trout in lime juice really counts as cooking it (it’s called ceviche, if that idea takes your fancy) and the local delicacy cuy (guinea pig for non-Spanish speakers) definitely isn’t for everyone.
The concept that dinner isn’t really a thing here also threw me for a loop, at least initially! But once you get used to large lunches that keep you going for the rest of the day, it begins to make sense. And these culinary things aside, I thoroughly enjoyed every moment I spent in Peru.
My overall experience
I’m so beyond grateful to everyone who made my time so memorable. It’s hard to put it all into words, in all honesty. I’m definitely hoping to go back at some point, to visit the parts that I didn’t get around to seeing and I wouldn’t hesitate to get back in contact with the staff from Projects Abroad when I do, just to see how they all are.
I know one thing though – everything about my month in Cusco will stay with me forever. Those memories are priceless. And to anyone considering going, I would say do it without even the smallest hesitation because you’ll end up with a once in a lifetime experience to keep, just like me.