Volunteer stories : Ruthie F., Incan & Wari Archaeology in Peru
I think it's best to begin by stating that I foresee a huge challenge in trying to put my experience in Cusco into only a few pages. Nonetheless, if there is one thing I can express in a sound bite, it is that this experience - a mere duration of three weeks - certainly taught me more than a whole semester of university ever did. It is safe to say I got way more than I bargained for, and I hope you would say the same if you decide on this project.
Arriving in Peru
The minute I stepped out of the airport in Cusco I was instead greeted by a cool breeze, light sunshine, and of course my heroic project advisor; who transported me to my host house. This would be my first journey on the roads of Andean South America, a topic that deserves its own story. Point being, if you are excited for the cultural immersion aspect of the trip, there is no subtlety. Once you arrive, you are in the world of the Andes - the adventure begins with the crowded streets, winding roads, and incredibly picturesque landscape.
That car ride to my host family's house in Larapa near the Universidad Andina revealed perhaps what draws the most people to this country, its incredible and confounding geography. Giant green mountains, called ‘picchu’ in Quechua like our beloved ‘Old Mountain’ or Machu Picchu, line the horizon and are often decorated with remnants of terrace farming from the indigenous empire so many centuries ago.
My Archaeology placement
I am an undergraduate anthropology student with a focus on archaeology at an American university. So naturally, I signed up for the Inca and Wari Archaeology Project in the Sacred Valley, with the intention of getting hands-on experience on a field site, and obviously learning about this particular indigenous culture. Cusco is the archaeology mecca of the world; that is certainly not an exaggeration.
Speaking to all archaeology students out there who are thinking of joining this project, you could not choose a better place to learn what you cannot learn in an indoor course. This is a field of study that requires exactly what this project offers. Although my terminology and general knowledge of how excavations work are limited, the work I did in Cusco illuminated some things for me. Firstly, an archaeologist cannot shy away from physical labour. We worked primarily on Pikillaqta, essentially a massive pre-Inca city centre complete with agricultural storage units, a religious offering area, and an aqueduct.
While my fellow volunteers and I were more than happy to be surrounded by the dizzying and distractingly beautiful ruins, the work to be done there was pretty intense. During the rainy season, we were subject to doing maintenance work—mapping specific samples of the ruins, weeding the rock walls and floors, sanding the wooden ladders, etc. which is vital for the upkeep of this enormous site prior to an excavation. Occasionally, we would have some ground reconnaissance moments if the stars were aligned in our favour; and a shard of ancient pottery or the remains of a human bone caught our eye.
Nevertheless, the labour often got intense, but to offset the hours, our advisor and the crew of volunteers would engage in lengthy discussions and debates about the evolution of the Incan Empire. I think I can call this the highlight of my trip. In the midst of a hard day of fieldwork in the Andean foothills, I got a decent comprehension of the full history of the pre-Inca world to the time of the Spanish conquest solely based on conversion.
Another substantial part of the project was the education we received not based on casual banter. Every week we would have an office day, which would entail a type of lesson, perhaps a video presentation of the topic at hand, and then maybe a hands-on activity for enrichment. I got to experience the osteology presentation, the ceramics one, and the petroglyph analysis lecture, all of which were nothing short of fascinating.
Speaking Spanish and Quechua
Furthermore, possibly the most education I received in Cusco was in the Spanish language. A slight word of advice: if you are anything like I was and your Spanish abilities are not exactly flawless, have no fear. Cultural immersion, good old google translate, and basic survival instinct will start to kick in around the fourth or fifth day, and you will learn that getting comfortable with Spanish is not only doable but enjoyable.
I also choose to do a five hour Quechua lesson over the course of three weeks, which was incredibly illuminating for the archaeology project. Much of the sites and city names in Peru are derivative of the Quechua language, so making those linguistic connections was super valuable. Smiling and being able to connect to the culture in a whole different way by saying, "Imaynalla?" to the old Quechua woman taking a rest on the street corner was priceless.
Free time in Peru
It was not all schooling and weeding though, obviously. We had our weekends off as well as our evenings, which was a wonderful time to get to know the other volunteers, who (from my experience) were equally as enamoured with the place. I spent most afternoons in downtown Cusco, where my friends and I would explore the market places, the gorgeous cathedrals, the museums, and the various shops. I would challenge anyone to get bored in that town square, there is way too much to see, and way too much to do.
The last few days I spent on the project was slightly sad, busy due to packing, and exciting since I was so ready to share my experience with all of my friends back home. After taking my last few deep breaths in the refreshing, high-altitude city I realised that I was going to have to come back for more if I wanted to be an archaeologist. This place captivated me, and I would not have traded those three weeks for the world.
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