Dear Wellesley: Kalei Oliver ’20 Writes from the Mountains of Peru

July 16, 2019
A hand out of frame holds a postcard of a woman sitting at a dig site. It reads, "Greetings from Hualcáyan, Peru."

This week’s Dear Wellesley postcard comes from Kalei Oliver ’20, who is working on an archeological excavation with Proyecto de Investigación Arqueológico Regional Ancash in Hualcáyan, Peru through a grant from Wellesley Career Education. Check out the Wellesley College Instagram account to follow along on her journey. 

Greetings from 10,500 feet up in the Andes!

Right now I am living and working in the highland village of Hualcayán in the Ancash region of Peru. Hualcayán is in the Callejon de Huaylas, flanked on either side by the beautiful mountain ranges of the Cordillera Negra and the Cordillera Blanca. The village has about 400 inhabitants, and they are welcoming and lovely enough to let us live in the village and conduct our research. I am here working as a student dig-site participant on an archaeological excavation with the Proyecto de Investigación Arqueológico Regional Ancash. 

We live in a little adobe situated at the base of the mountain where our archaeological site sits. Every morning at 8 a.m. we hike about half a mile through scraggly foothills and agricultural fields to arrive at our site. When we get there, the sun is still nestled behind the towering peaks, and even though the air at this elevation is thin, it is crisp and beautiful. After catching our breaths and writing our daily journal entries, we set off to work wearing our boots, bandanas, and wide-brimmed hats. Under the Andean sun, we excavate the site that shows evidence of occupation for nearly 3,000 years. 

I feel so grateful as I cough away the dust kicked up by my trowel. Grateful to be here, in this village where the people have been gracious enough to let us begin understanding their history. Grateful to be gaining hands-on experience in archaeology. Grateful to be privy to a place and a culture some may only read about in books. Every day we work in the sun and the soil, with a break in between for tuna-fish sandwiches that sometimes have a little crunch of dirt in them. We pet the 3-month-old site puppy, Floppy, that comes every day and tries to steal our lunches or sit on top of the area we need to excavate. We listen to music and laugh when someone screams because of a tarantula they have unearthed. We crowd around when someone finds a piece of pottery or a bone in their one-meter-by-one-meter unit. 

After our day, we head back down the hill with huge smiles on our faces, buzzing from all the hard work and learning. When we return to our adobe, the village kids are usually there to greet us with some sort of pelota (ball) in their hands. We play soccer and volleyball with them, and we run frantically around the circle when we are picked as gonzo in pato, pato, gonzo. Playing with the kids and walking to the tienda (store) with them at the end of the day have been some of my favorite activities here. They braid my hair, take out my earrings, try on my glasses, and call the tall boys gigantes while giggling. My Spanish is less than perfect, but they are patient and only laugh a little when I say that I’m going on a walk solo instead of sola.

When we aren’t playing with the kids, we attend lectures by the crew chiefs and directors. Whether we are walking around our little lab space eagerly viewing the artifacts found in past seasons, taking notes on a PowerPoint about the pre-Inca periods of Andean prehistory, or attending labs on handling human remains found at the site, I am constantly learning and discovering. 

At the end of the night, we all enjoy a hot meal and a bubbly drink together and play cards or read more about our research. I love working up here in this little village, where the culture is so rich it feels like I’m being let in on a little secret tucked way up high in the mountains. After the excavation season, I’m going to take a little time to go to Cusco, Peru, and Machu Picchu. As someone who dreamed as a little girl of being Dr. Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park and who would rather spend a day at the museum than anywhere else, all of this has been a dream come true. In the few weeks that I will be back in the States before my senior year at Wellesley, I will be working on post-processing of digital/3D models made while here at Hualcayán and organizing all of my research to begin working on my senior thesis in anthropology.

I am constantly grateful for the opportunities I have been awarded in this life and always keep these words from my dad with me: “Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Kalei Oliver