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Yale SOM International Experience trip to Peru

Learning on Assignment: Student Dispatch from Peru

Kaitlyn Gilliland ’20 reflects on her International Experience trip to Peru.

It’s our last day together in Peru. After days of meetings with government officials, visits to a steel plant and a water treatment company, a workshop with the team of gastronomic visionaries behind Peru’s famed Central and Mil restaurants, and a weekend in between packed with cultural tours of Lima and Cusco, we are a group well-practiced with early wake-up calls. At 4:30 a.m. several of us sit at breakfast slowly sipping orange juice and taking our first tentative bites of the very early morning as we compare notes on our continued adjustment to the altitude (in Cusco: approximately 11,000 feet). Today we will board our final bus and mark the end of our whirlwind International Experience Peru tour with a trip to Machu Picchu, the 15th-century ruins of the Inca Empire well-known as one of the new Wonders of the World.

At this point in our travels, we’re all digesting a thorough tour of Peru unavailable to the typical tourist: our passionate speakers throughout the week—which have included presidential candidates, ministers of economy and finance and housing and sanitation, the CEO of Intercorp, young entrepreneurs, and world-famous chefs—have painted for us a nuanced picture of their answers to Peru’s most pressing challenges, including political corruption and large informal economy, the distribution of clean water to the country’s poorest communities, access to quality healthcare and education, and social inequality stemming from a colonialist legacy that many argue survives today in the form of discrimination against the country’s indigenous populations. As we continue to process all that we’ve learned in our short time together, the group has gelled—with this shared experience, many of us have become much closer than we were when we first arrived.

This becomes immediately evident in the way we slump onto each other’s shoulders as we nap our way from bus to train; once on the scenic Peru Rail, where we follow the Urubamba River to Aguas Calientes, we quickly break out cards and other games to pass the time. Finally, we board one more bus, enjoying breathtakingly steep views into the valley below as we approach the entrance to Machu Picchu.

We’ve lucked out on weather today. As we enter the site and begin our climb, mountain peaks reveal themselves from behind clouds, and the sun quickly warms our walk. Despite my silent complaints about tourists (it is still a slower month for a park limited to 2,500 visitors per day), there is a mystical quiet that permeates the elevation. Even our short breath as we climb stairs and hills—now we are at approximately 8,000 feet—dissipates quickly into the biting early afternoon air.

There is no narrative that can properly capture all the mystery that Machu Picchu offers to the observer keen on fully understanding its purpose. After our climb to the site’s best vantage point of the sprawling citadel and surrounding mountains (“Take pictures,” our tour guide orders, and we oblige), we weave downward through ruins rediscovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham and originally misunderstood to be the lost Incan city of Vilcabamba. Our tour guide proposes one theory that Machu Picchu was a retreat for the Inca ruler Pachacuti, pointing out along our walk agricultural terraces used for farming, an Intihuana stone corresponding to the Incan calendar and a Sacred Rock for mediation, a stone aligned with four points of a compass and surrounding mountain peaks, and structures designed to hold water in order to mirror the angle of the constellations captured in their reflection. Along the way we marvel at the precision of the mortar-less construction, laid atop strong foundations and resilient to local earthquakes, and visit Machu Picchu’s remaining residents following its abandonment: llamas, who reportedly double as lawnmowers.

After the tour, we file into lunch, comparing stories from our guides and sharing our post-IE plans at our last official meal together. Some will stay and further explore Peru and others will depart immediately for home. Already some of our watchful classmates have notified us of the arrival of last quarter’s grades, ushering in the inevitability of our forward march into the second half of spring at SOM.

On the train back to Cusco we’re tired again, only momentarily roused by a bizarre alpaca-inspired fashion show orchestrated by the train’s staff. Much to our amusement, our Yale SOM colleagues join the show, displaying their purchases from our trip so far: sweaters (alpaca, of course), a wrap, a hat, and other cute llama paraphernalia. 

I’m tired at the end of the day and decide on an early bedtime, experiencing slight “FOMO” as I see my colleagues make plans to meet at a nearby restaurant to celebrate our last night as a group. In the morning, I have only a brief moment to thank my peers, our two stellar TAs, and a once-in-a-master’s-degree kind of professor who has gone out of his way to keep us fully engaged along an adventure I’ll no doubt remember for years to come as the highlight of my time at SOM.