Category Archives: south america

Coming Home

About a week before I came home from Huanchaco, Peru, my mom called to finalize some travel plans. She said she missed me and couldn’t wait to see me. I felt terrible when I couldn’t say it back. Of course it would be wonderful to see her again, but I was enjoying myself and learning so many wonderful things in Peru. I wasn’t ready to come home yet. It felt strange calling the U.S. “home” when I also felt perfectly at home in Huanchaco. My heart was divided between two places.

I never thought I could feel out of place in the United States. Nor did I think it possible that I could forget, after only a short time, the social constructs I have known all my life. Yet being back in the U.S., I have to constantly remind myself that I have the right of way as a pedestrian, that used toilet paper goes in the toilet and not a waste basket, and that it isn’t appropriate to kiss strangers on the cheek after only a brief conversation.

Aside from those few hiccups, my journey home has been full of reflection and introspection. I am realizing that there are many things I desperately love and miss about Peru. I miss the relaxed time-tables, the delicious locally-grown foods, taking siestas, the constant music playing in the streets, and the rich culture. The hardest adjustment is being away from the people I grew close to.  My peers and professor became my family. A group of kind, generous locals became my dear friends. I value the relationships I formed, so it is strange living without them. Before coming home, I recommend gathering contact information for anyone you wish to stay in contact with. And take pictures with the new people in your life so you can relive the amazing experiences.


michelle and mckinley in el milagro

My professor, Dr. Michelle Grocke, and I on our last day of work in El Milagro, the town devastated by flooding. The people in El Milagro are so special to me, and Dr. Grocke became my dear friend during this field school. (Photo courtesy of classmate Gavin Whaley.)


Being back in the United States, I have become consciously aware of certain amenities that I sorely missed in Peru. It is really nice having garbage cans readily available in public spaces. It is also nice that bathrooms come stocked with their own toilet paper. Knowing that drinking water is filtered, safe, and free of disease is also a great comfort. Drinking fountains, too, are a pleasant feature. I also never realized how much I appreciate enforced traffic laws.

Now that I’ve returned home, I’ve been able to recognize some major differences between the U.S. and Peru. In Peru (currently) prices are very low and reasonable for foods, clothing, transportation, and artisan goods. The majority of foods and goods are locally produced. Coming back to the U.S., I have been frustrated by the comparatively high costs for the same items. I miss having organic foods, handmade products, and locally produced goods available at a reasonable market value.

Another difference is the state of security and the role of the police. Many Peruvian cities have a high crime rate. I learned to be hyper-aware of my surroundings at all times in order to keep myself safe. I don’t have to do that to the same degree in the U.S. The police have limited authority in Peru compared to the U.S.: in many instances, they are not permitted to intervene in violent crime or even make a traffic stop. I witnessed many crimes take place right in front of police officers, and they legally could not do anything about it. It made me appreciate the justice system we have in the United States.

Gender equality is quite different in Peru and the U.S. Peru is still a very patriarchal society, in which many women are oppressed and expected to maintain traditional gender roles. During my time in Peru, many men on the streets (or even in restaurants) would cat-call and make unwanted advances. I learned very quickly how to defend myself and how to avoid such situations. Of course there were also many men who were incredibly respectful to women, but they did not appear to be the larger norm. As a woman, I feel safer being back in the United States, knowing there are social and legal statutes to help protect me.

Access for people with disabilities is also quite different. I spent a lot of my time studying access as the topic of my ethnographic research. As someone with a disability, I was able to assess how accessible different spaces are (buildings, walkways, modes of transportation), as well as how feasible it is for people with disabilities to find employment. Access in Peru is not to the same level as in the United States, and the government has only recently begun to offer assistance. But there is an interesting cultural factor which makes life with a disability more manageable. Peruvians value the family unit, and are incredibly invested in caring for loved ones. When a person has a disability, they are cared for by family members and nearly always accompanied by a loved one to help fill in the gaps where places are inaccessible.


asiento reservado

A sign found in most buses, saying “seats reserved” for pregnant women, people with disabilities, people with groceries or large bags, and the elderly. Ironically, and sadly, there is no possible way for someone in a wheelchair to get onto a bus, and the buses don’t stop long enough for anyone with limited mobility to slowly climb aboard.


Reverse culture shock is a strange phenomenon. I sometimes feel frustrated that I am back in the United States, missing the host culture I left behind. It gets lonely knowing that my family and friends don’t share the amazing experiences I had in Peru. I do my best to share the stories, but there will always be a disconnect. It’s strange returning to my regular routine. I almost feel out of touch with myself. I feel as though a piece of my heart is still in Peru. Thankfully I can easily keep in touch with my Huanchaco family, which makes this transition much easier.

Something to keep in mind is that “home” can mean anything. Home can be the house you were raised in, or where your parents live. It can be your hometown, your college town, or where you currently live. Home can be a person or a group of the most important people in your life. You can have more than one home. Your definition of home can change at any time. I am redefining my concept of home constantly. My home simply expanded to a little corner of Peru. My home called Huanchaco. And maybe someday, I go home to Huanchaco again.


mckinley at the huaca del brujo archaeological site near magdelena de cao peru

On an excursion to an archaeological site called the Huaca del Brujo. The scenery in this part of the country is so beautiful, I had to take a picture with it! (Photo courtesy of classmate Gavin Whaley.)

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Then and Now

Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully you leave something good behind.       –Anthony Bordain

I never realized how little I knew until I studied abroad. My mind and my heart have been opened to a world I was only superficially aware of. It’s an entirely different reality to read about Peru and Peruvian culture and to actually live it day by day. A beautifully complex and exciting reality.

I have become intimately involved in the everyday moments of people’s lives here, that I feel as though I’ve known them forever. I eat every meal in Marita’s café and she makes jokes with me. Miguel, the night guard at the hostel, makes fun of me every morning as I stumble down the stairs to breakfast with my messy hair, and he makes his way to run his bodega across the plaza. Daisy, one of the adorable house cleaners, laughs as she tries to teach me Spanish. Carmen, a traditional healer, brings so much happiness into the hostel when she visits, always smiling and giggling about her latest adventures, always bringing bags of herbs to fix our latest maladies.

I’ve seen a lot of sad things, too, which made me incredibly aware of the harsh realities of the world and my place in them. I witnessed the painful effects of climate change. There is an ecological reserve on the northern end of Huanchaco beach, trying to preserve the totora reeds used in making the traditional reed boats (caballitos de totora). The rising ocean levels during the past several years have limited the places where the reeds can grow. This limits the resources and threatens to minimize and potentially eliminate a several thousand-year-old tradition and livelihood.


totora reserve

A family plot of land on an ecological reserve that is trying to preserve the totora reeds.


I witnessed the travesties of living through a natural disaster. The site for my field school was a town which had been hit hardest by El Nino flooding earlier this year. The first time we visited, it was so somber. My heart felt like it weighed a thousand pounds as I saw rubble where homes used to be, shards of glass and unsafe debris where children were playing, tarps and tents now the only property demarcating a home. One woman pointed out the flood path saying, “it just took everything.”


remains of a home in el milagro

The remains of an adobe home in El Milagro after the El Nino flooding. Children like to play inside the structure, which unfortunately is covered in shards of glass, trash, and dangerously uneven concrete and rocks.


Thankfully, we were able to do something to help. We learned how to do a needs assessment and an asset/skills assessment. By talking with everyone in the community, we found out what the most pressing needs were on a community and individual level. We then talked to each person about what their skills were, and what they could do to get back up on their feet, to help their family, their community. We talked about their hopes and dreams, what they would like to do and become. We compiled the data and gave it to our in-country coordinator who is trying to get government help based on the needs assessment. We had raised money through a fundraiser before coming, so we applied that money to buying food, water, and supplies each week for the community. We also donated our own clothes and supplies to help fill the needs we were seeing.

I feel incredibly motivated to continue on my educational and career path. I feel like an anthropologist now. My ethnographic field school has taught so many skills, both in class and in “the field.” I’ve learned interview techniques, writing skills, how to do unobtrusive observations and engage in participant observations. I’ve drawn ethnographic maps, sketched, and photographed areas and people we’ve encountered. I have increased my skills in understanding and speaking Spanish and am excited to continue practicing. I am writing my own ethnography which will be published on a website. I learned how to do a needs assessment in a resource-poor area, such as one struck by a natural disaster. I now have the toolkit to go work for any variety of NGOs and humanitarian aid organizations. I have the drive to continue to graduate school and complete my MPH/PhD program and become a medical anthropologist!

Studying abroad in this ethnographic field school in Huanchaco, Peru is the best academic and personal decision I could have made. It still feels surreal to me to say that I am living in Peru. It is a dream waking up and realizing that I’m here. Every bit of me – my disability, my education, my family, my dreams and goals – are why I’m here. My family, the Gilman team, and my incredible professor/program leader/mentor, and a lot of hard work are how I’m here.

That has been motivating me every day of this journey: realizing that I am not doing any of this on my own. I think that is one of the ways I have changed the most is learning that I can always have a support network, and accepting that it is a beautiful thing to accept help. I have also learned that I can always make time to help someone else (even if I feel pressed for time). I am learning to balance my needs with the needs of others.

This has been the most incredible experience. I don’t want it to be over! But the skills I have learned and the connections I’ve made are invaluable. My study abroad will always be a part of me, and a part of my heart will always be in Peru!

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Top 7 Things To Do in Peru

I have been in Peru for three weeks, and feel as though I have lived a lifetime of experiences. I have surfed the longest wave in the world. I have been to the archaeological site of the most ancient people in the Americas. I have held ancient human remains which were desecrated by grave robbers. I have seen sacred mountains and valleys. I have heard ghost tales passed down a millennia. I have danced with Peruvians and joined in the music which always wafts through the streets. I have found sea glass washed ashore by the Pacific Ocean. I have had my heart broken as my peers and I meet with natural disaster victims each week, and had it lifted again at their hope and love and strength. I have learned from traditional healers and shopped for medicinal herbs. And I want everyone to be able to experience life in this beautiful country!

Of course, not everyone can live in Peru long enough to experience everything, so I’ve put together a list of must-sees and must-dos (including some must-eats!) in La Libertad, Peru.

Top 7 things to do in Trujillo and Huanchaco:

  1. Visit the Plaza de Armas in Trujillo. This historic town square was the center of Spanish colonialism, as seen in the incredibly well-preserved architecture and art. It is also the site where Peru declared its independence from Spain (giving the region its name “La Libertad”). The shops, artisans, and cafes will not disappoint. 

    cathedral plaza de armas trujillo

    This is the original cathedral built by the Spanish in the late 15th century. It is located in the Plaza de Armas in Trujillo and is open a few times each day for mass, confession, other church functions, and tours.

  2. Visit the archaeological site Chan Chan. Chan Chan is a site of the Chimu people (the civilization just before the Incas). There are nine palaces across this 14 square km city, each with original engravings, art, ceramics, and rich histories. Here you will learn about the importance of the ocean in Chimu religion: the water provided everything (food, transportation, protection, etc.). Waves, fish, and pelicans (which showed fisherman where the fish were) are engraved in nearly every room. Duality is also an important element of Chimu religion: male and female, sun and moon, sea and sky.
    • A bonus feature of Chan Chan is most (if not all) of the site of wheelchair accessible! This is because the governor of the city was not supposed to have his feet touch the ground. He was carried everywhere by 4-6 men. If he were carried up or down stairs, he would have fallen off, so the palaces are constructed with flat paths and ramps. 
      original engravings chan chan

      A famous wall in Chan Chan showing the original engravings. It depicts some of the most important symbols in the Chimu culture and religion: horizontal lines represent the ocean waves; the fish are important because they were the largest food supply; and the birds at the bottom are pelicans, which helped fisherman locate where the fish were swimming.

      system of rooms in chan chan

      A large system of rooms in Chan Chan with original artwork engraved in the adobe. The holes in the walls were meant to give light in an otherwise dark space, and are designed to look like fishing nets.

  3. Visit Huaca de la LunaHuaca means temple. This is the temple of the moon, which lies on one side of an ancient city, while the temple of the sun (Huaca del Sol) lies on the other side. This archaeological site was once inhabited by the Moche people (the civilization which pre-dates the Chimu). Huaca de la Luna is full of incredible murals and tombs with the original paint still on the adobe. 

    original mural huaca de la luna

    A mural in the Huaca de la Luna spanning the length of an enormous room. The paint and engravings are the originals made by the Moche people. The face depicted on the mural is that of the greatest Mochica god, Ai Apaec. He has owl eyes (representing the sky or heavens), the teeth of a feline (representing the earth), hair like waves (representing the ocean), and is surrounded by serpents.

  4. Go to El Brujo/Museo de Cao. This is another archaeological Moche site, but with an exciting twist! Most of the archaeological record in Peru shows male rulers and healers. However, at this site, a powerful woman was found! Señora de Cao was either a Moche ruler or a high-ranking priestess, which challenged the idea that only Moche men could hold such positions. She passed away at age 25, possibly due to complications in childbirth. Her body was so well-preserved that her skin and hair remain in-tact, so much so that her extensive tattoos are still clearly visible.
    • Buying souvenirs at the gift shop on site is pretty expensive. However, souvenirs of equal quality can be found at the nearby city of Magdalena de Cao. 
      senora de cao tomb and mossoleum

      The mummy of Senora de Cao was found buried here (marked by logs over a rectangle in the ground) beside a grand, painted mausoleum. An adolescent girl was found buried in the same tomb, a high priest was buried with a another adolescent near the tomb, as well as a fisherman buried very near Senora de Cao’s.

      senora de cao replica

      A replica of what Senora de Cao may have looked like and the clothing and ceremonial dress she wore.

  5. Spend some time on the beach in Huanchaco. Huanchaco has been a settlement for thousands of years, originally by the Moche, or Mochica. As such, it has an incredibly rich history. Huanchaco is famous for having the longest surf in the world (more than a mile long!) There are plenty of excellent surf shops which can provide lessons, boards, and wet suits for a VERY low price! While on the beach, you’ll also be able to see the traditional (2,500-3,000 year old) caballitos de totoro or “reed horses” which are long slim boats made of dried reeds Fisherman use them as wave riders, and these boats are likely the earliest form of surfing. 
    my friend walking on the beach at sunset

    A picture of my friend walking along Huanchaco beach at sunset. We were collecting sea glass brought in by the ocean on the northern shore.

    reed boat on traditional fisherman house

    This is a smaller version of the traditional caballito de totorro. The house is sticks, adobe, and thatched reeds and grasses- a traditional home of a fisherman along the coast (because it is quick and simple to rebuild if the tides flood it). The boat is being dried after heavy use in the water.

  6. Eat Ceviche.  This famous Latin American dish has its origins in Peru nearly 2,000 years ago! It is a meal of fresh raw fish cured in lime juice and spiced with aji (a peppery hot sauce). Order some chicha morada (a sweet beverage made from purple corn) to wash it all down. It’s a must!
  7. While you’re here, don’t forget to enjoy the incredible street art! Peruvians have found a way to turn graffiti into absolute masterpieces. Take some time to go on a walk during siesta and look at the paintings decorating nearly every wall and building in the country.

These things are just the beginning. The possibilities for your adventures and your studies are endless in Peru! If you’re interested in archaeology, you’re in luck: La Libertad region is rich with as-yet undiscovered evidences of ancient civilizations. If you are passionate about art, the entire coast is filled with artisan shops. If cooking is your path, there are incredible chefs everywhere. If you are going into medicine, you might be interested in learning from traditional healers about medicinal herbs and healing practices. I hope if you come to Peru you’ll find it as thrilling as I have. There is so much to learn and so much wonder to see!

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The Return Home

I’ve been back in the United States for about a week now. It didn’t really hit me that I was leaving Chile until a few days after I got home. I felt as if I was just going on another trip as part of my program. Even stranger though was the fact that I felt as though I had barely left the U.S. when I got back to Dallas. It didn’t feel as if I had been away for around four months. The time went by much quicker than I thought it would.

I still feel like I’m adjusting but it’s gotten easier. Probably one of the hardest things to adjust to at first was all the English I was hearing. I had been so used to having to focus on a conversation to really understand what was going on. I was so overwhelmed by being able to understand everything people were saying. I couldn’t tune out all the conversations going on around me for a few days. Also, I kept responding to questions asked in English in Spanish. This was especially apparent on my flight from Santiago to Dallas. The flight attendants would ask me something in English and I would almost always respond in Spanish. I am still saying ‘permiso‘  instead of excuse me and ‘gracias‘ instead of thank you. I often find myself not being able to think of the English word I want to use in conversations. I also have started using strangely translated English phrases. This means that when trying to say “a lack of something,” I have said “a fault of something” instead because in Spanish the phrase is falta de algo.



My greeting when I got off the plane.


My sentiments after 33 hours of travel with only 3 hours of sleep.


Other that this, I don’t feel like I’ve experienced a ton of reverse culture shock. One of the things I was not expecting was how my body would react to eating food that I was accustom to eating in the U.S. before leaving. After four months of almost only bread, meat, potatoes, and avocado, my stomach is not up to the task of processing spicier food or even large amounts of vegetables.

Also, it’s been interesting getting back into working and being on my feet for long hours. The last month and a half of my time in Chile I was inside talking to people or working on my paper. I had been doing a lot of work but it was mostly on my own time. Being on a strict schedule has been a change and I’m still getting used to that. Additionally, I have been used to spending almost all my time with the same 23 other people who have similar schedules to me. Most of my friends from Whitman College live in other areas of the country than I do and many of my friends from high school are spending the summer elsewhere or have since moved away. I keep thinking that I should text other students from my program before remembering that they are all around the world at the moment. I also keep thinking that I see people from my program when I’m out, even though I know that none of them are close to my town.

I am so thankful for all of the experiences that I had in Chile during my time there. I am even more thankful for the people that I met. My Putre and Arica host families were amazing and I am so lucky to still be in contact with them. I hope that I stay in contact with them for the rest of my life. I also hope to remain in contact with the people I met on my program. It was so amazing to talk to people with so many different perspectives. Almost all of my classes in college have very like-minded people and many are majoring in the same subject with similar career interests as me. On my program in Chile, there were anthropology majors, biology majors, chemistry majors, public health majors and sociology majors. There were people who also wanted to go to medical school, as well as people wanting to go to nursing school, work in public health or who wanted to pursue careers in anthropology. Overall, I think the people that I met, both Chileans and other study abroad students, were what really made my experience in Chile what it was and it has been the hardest to adjust to being away from these people after returning to the United States.

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Then and Now

Today marks my last day in Putre. I took the bus, La Paloma, to Arica for the last time. As I approach the last week of my time here in Chile and finish tackling my Independent Study Project (ISP) paper, it’s a good time to stop and reflect on my time here.

Most prominently, I have grown significantly in my own self-awareness and my own shortcomings in knowledge. My time in Chile has shown me how little I know about my own understanding of the U.S. and the programs available to help our citizens. I have realized my lack of understanding of just how the U.S. health insurance system works. Beyond that, I have had the ability to truly think about my personal prejudices. I’ve always considered myself open minded and tolerant but that was challenged during my time here. One of the best examples of this was after talking with a Machi (the traditional healer of the Mapuche people) in Makewe. On the bus back to our houses, I had a conversation with another girl in my study abroad program. The conversation was about how we could not personally believe that some form of traditional medicine would work to help cure cancer or other chronic, often deadly, illnesses. It was a moment when I realized just how much I believe in conventional medicine. I am open to believing that medicinal plants can help with colds, cases of flu, muscle aches, headaches, and altitude sickness, but I am not able to convince myself that the same types of remedies could work for what are traditionally thought of as grave or chronic illnesses. How is it possible to believe that something might work for minor health problems but not major ones?

Additionally, being in Chile has opened me up to handling uncomfortable situations much better than I previous had. There were very few people that I met in Chile who did not ask me about the current U.S. government and political climate. I have never talked so much politics in my life as I have here in Chile. I learned to be able to have an open dialogue about the political climate in the U.S.

Also, last week I was at lunch with my host family in Putre and a pastor of an Evangelical church in Putre (my host mom is also a pastor of an Evangelical church in Putre). It was the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. The other pastor who was having lunch with us was talking about gay pride flags being put up at municipalities across Chile and even rumored to have been flying in front of the Moneda (Chile’s equivalent to the White House). It took me until he asked me if I was okay with someone being able to legally change their name and gender to fit their identity to realize that he was talking about the flags as a negative action. He proceeded to explain to me that he was not homophobic because he did not have an issue with the gay people (as the Bible says you should not have fights with others) but that he and the church were against the actions of gay people. He used the example of going to a park with his son and seeing two men kissing as violating nature. Personally, I find it hard to comprehend how someone can separate a person from something that they include as part of their identity. Furthermore, how someone can be convinced that they are not saying homophobic statements when stating that they disagree with and disapprove of homosexual acts with such a strong disdain. I tried to explain in this conversation that it is part of their identity and that it is a right everyone has to be able to love who they love without fear of discrimination or violence. It is also the right of each person to be able to publicly display this love in actions such as kissing, hand holding, hugging, etc without fear of retaliation. Whether or not my ideas got through, I do not know. But I do know that had I been confronted with this type of conversation previously, I would have become too angry to be able to hold a rational conversation.

Probably the most obvious ways that I have grown as a person are in my Spanish language abilities. When I first arrived in Chile, I was overwhelmed when spoken to in Spanish. I could not understand half of the words said to me and with the infinite number of Chileanismos that exist it was even harder to comprehend what was going on around me. I am now able to communicate the vast majority of the thoughts that I have (although not always successfully) and I am more comfortable with the idea that I might fail to communicate what it is I am trying to get across. When I arrived, I often refrained from engaging in more challenging conversation topics because I might not be able to express myself adequately. Now, the majority of my conversations are political, deeply personal, or full of words that I don’t understand but it doesn’t matter because I am willing to ask instead of just pretend like I know what’s going on.

And lastly, nothing helps improve your flexibility like vague directions and non-existent guidance. While the majority of the time I have been in Chile I have felt babied by my study abroad program, there was the occasional moment when we were given a task with minimal explanation of what we were doing or how we were to accomplish it. The most extreme of these situations was the Estudio de Pueblos. Essentially, my program drove me and some fellow students to the bus station in Temuco and set us loose to go to a town we had been assigned to learn about over two days. After two days, we were to take a bus back to Temuco where we would take another bus back to Makewe. There wasn’t much in the way of tips, guidance, or preparation. We were told about a day and a half beforehand what this project was and what it entailed. This starkly contrasted what I had come to expect from SIT after a month and a half of closely planned programs. This was, however, a little more of what I had been wanting from studying abroad. We got another opportunity to be completely in control of our schedules during this past month of ISP research.

Overall, I have grown as a person but mostly I have grown to understand myself more. I have learned what I do not fully comprehend and I have realized that sometimes I need to dig a little deeper than the first answer given.

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