Indiana University Overseas Study

Author Archive

Los nevados sagrados pt. 2 – The Sacred Mountains pt. 2

Kaleb McCain

…continued from Part 1

Somewhere along the way my legs transformed themselves into twisted roots, anchoring themselves to the edge of the trail in order to live out their lives in tranquility amongst the silence of the landscape, the whispering of the mountain wind, the power of the peaks, the cows. Despite the fact that I would have well enjoyed spending the remainder of my life in that magnificent wilderness, my determination refused to be subdued so easily, so I uprooted my feet, each step requiring a deliberate and conscious push forward.

Our crew had become separated long ago and as I came closer and closer to my destination I began to wonder whether or not the person carrying lunch would catch up with me – quite the frightening thought at 15,000 feet. Each drop of water left in my bottle became a cherished resource; every nibble of a cracker was a blessing that replenished the fuel of my body. I hiked alongside a few Americans who volunteered with an NGO called Krochet Kids in the neighborhood of Chorrillos, Lima. We shared stories of our lives back home, our pasts, our aspirations, any conversation to occupy the brain and keep it from realizing that my body was nearing its physical limit.

At long last, after what seemed to be an eternity of uphill, we made it. If it had not been for the adrenaline rush sparked by the excitement of such an achievement, I’m fairly sure I would have fallen face first into that icy blue water out of sheer exhaustion. I rushed over to where the lagoon emptied out into a small stream and filled my water bottle to the top with the crystal clear life-giving miracle matter. I returned to the edge of the lagoon, sat down and hoped for the clouds to part so that I could get a glimpse at the towering peaks that surrounded us. I snapped a few photos, despite knowing that no photograph could ever give proper justice to the beauty of the area (I needed proof that I made it to the top after all) and rejoiced as my friend Catherine came bouncing along the trail with all the sandwich supplies in her pack.

out of his element

Out of his element and loving it.

After a gratifying lunch and a few more obligatory photos, we began the descent back to the bus. A couple hours later we were on the bumpy road back to our hotel in Huaraz, followed by supper, preparations for the following day, and some well-deserved rest.

The next morning we awoke at 6am in order to set out on the second great trek of Semana Santa – Laguna Churup. We were a smaller gang of three this time after the other half of our group had opted to choose the less strenuous yet just as exhilarating activity of bridge jumping instead of another mountain trek for the day.

We bumbled into town and met our guide for the day, an older Peruvian caballero curiously enough also named Oscar (are they just fooling with us gringos?). After a short ride in his taxi climbing more rocky roads leading out of town, we parked alongside a weathered fencerow and began climbing old stone staircases, hopping on small footpaths that weaved between old farmhouses and petite fields of corn.

Peaceful morning

The peaceful morning before the grueling trek.

Eventually, the trees and homes subsided along with the cool air of the morning and we found ourselves strolling through a wide open pasture, the mountains lay in front of us, the town behind us, the sun shining bright above. I paused to inhale the crisp, clean air while taking in the surroundings, knowing very well that my lungs would miss this moment once I was back in Lima being choked by the exhaust fumes of a thousand combis.

the mountains

Las montañas me han robado mi alma.

As I surveyed the countryside, my eye was drawn to a black strip of land in the distance that abnormally abutted the otherwise stunning landscape. Amongst the lush green of the mountains and calming blue of the endless skies, this area seemed like a malevolent cancer plaguing the earth –dreadful, foreboding. I’ve played enough Zelda video-games to recognize where the boss intent on destroying the natural harmony of the land sleeps. I asked Oscar what it was. “Minera,” he woefully replied. He told me of the problems that had came about as a result of the mine – contamination, pollution; how the mine brought little revenue to the actual people of Huaraz; how there had been protests against its implementation by the townspeople, yet in the end the mining company won out. “Así son estas cosas.”

The sight of the mine and conversation with Oscar sets off a string of thoughts in my wandering consciousness: the image of a disheveled woman silently begging as she watches us eat breakfast on the sidewalk under the glow of the morning appears then vanishes replaced by an Andean child wrapped in a colorful blanket tied to his mother’s back, staring with its almond-shaped, glowing brown eyes at the strange pale folks sitting on the back of the bus. It’s midday now and somewhere in town travelers like ourselves are handing an old woman a few soles to take a picture with her alpaca that she’s dressed up in sunglasses. I wonder about what I’m going to do for my capstone project; the rights of the people of Huaraz; the (f)utility of protest; the shortcomings of resource-based economies; the power of money; the future of this land in 20 years, 50 years, 100 years; Oscar’s future; my own future; humanity’s future. My thoughts grow as enormous as the mountains around me. I can only see one face of the mountain from where I stand. From the summit I would be able to see everything, but for now I am roaming through the valley and these peaks will remain unconquered.

After an hour or so we are out of the valley and hopping across stones on a small rocky path, each step bringing us closer to the top. Eventually, we arrive to the base of colossal boulders with iron ropes bolted on the sides from the top to the bottom. The word “risk management” surfaces in my mind as my legs throb in exhaustion but I shove the thought away, grabbing a hold of the rope and climbing towards the top.

Rethinking the climb

Katie rethinks her life as Oscar coaxes her up the rope.

At last, after climbing a few more questionable boulders and hopping across a stone in the middle of a rushing stream just a few feet from the edge of an impressive waterfall, we reach Laguna Churup. The absence of any cloud cover gives us a clear view of the immense peak we’d been ambling towards all morning. Compared to Laguna 69, the surrounding area is nearly deserted, save for one family enjoying their mountain picnic on a distant boulder and a couple of Canadians who congratulate us on making it up and direct us to a comfortable spot in which we take our lunch.

14,600 feet

Admiring the view at 14,600 feet.

We carved up a few tomatoes, a block of mozzarella cheese, and a couple avocados, crafting gigantic double-decker sandwiches to replenish our wasted bodies and minds. After lunch, we collapse atop the boulder, basking under the warmth of the afternoon sun and staring up at the peak in front of us. After a short nap, Oscar informs us that it’s time to begin our descent and so we begrudgingly pack up our things, wishing we could spend the rest of our evening, week, or even semester at the base of that great mountain eating tomato, avocado, cheese sandwiches and pondering life’s greatest mysteries.

moutain selfie

The ultimate mountain munchie selfie.

After a much shorter and less strenuous descent we hop into Oscar’s taxi and make our way back into town. Stumbling into a nearby café, we collapse inside the booths and order a few drinks. The serotonin rushing through our brains won’t let us stop smiling, as if some invisible force has fastened fishhooks at the corners of our mouths and is continually pulling the strings above our ears. We’re too frazzled to even speak to each other, but the elation of our adventurous group is silently understood. We eat a fulfilling dinner, grab our things from the hotel, and make our way to the bus station. As I squeeze my way through the crowds of travelers and suitcases in order to get on my bus, the thought of leaving the peaceful pace of Huaraz in order to return to the never-ending noise and movement of Lima depresses me. And yet, I still smile, realizing how right I was to buy that second bus ticket just a few days ago in Lima, how joyous it was to reach the edge of those lagoons on both days after hikes that I thought might kill me, and how wonderful it will be when I return in July to do the 3-night/4-day Santa Cruz trek with the greatest of friends.

View all posts by Kaleb

Los nevados sagrados – The Sacred Mountains (Part 1)

Kaleb McCain

“Oye, gringito! Buscas hospedaje?”

Those golden words sliced through the air, traveling across the street corner to dance inside my ears like a troop of viejitos stomping out salsa steps under city streetlights. It was 7am, we were groggy, a little lost, and had just stepped out of the bus station into the crisp, morning air of the mountain city of Huaraz – the Switzerland of the South.

The previous night had been sheer madness with everyone and their monkey’s uncle attempting to escape Lima as if a zombie virus had just broken out in Miraflores. Amelia – my roommate, novia, and compañera of travel – was just as eager as I was to get away from the bedlam of the city for a well-deserved weekend trip. Unfortunately, the typical ten-minute taxi ride from our neighborhood to the bus station lasted well over an hour due to the crawl of Semana Santa traffic, causing us to miss our bus out of town. Hair turning to canas as we realized we were without a bus ticket, without a hostel reservation, and nearly without sanity, we began to wonder whether or not we were even meant to go anywhere at all. Dazed by the stress of the situation, the thought of abandoning our plans and staying in Lima for the week somehow managed to cross our minds. We weighed our options amidst the baggage-laden crowds of Peruvians and decided that the purpose of this vacation was to escape the very chaos that surrounded us, so we forked up the soles, bought another ticket, and got the hell out of Dodge.

The woman shouting at me was standing in front of a small construction warehouse, stout and smiling, beckoning for me to come and talk with her. After a short conversation, she had us climb into the back of her SUV and drove us down the road to a quaint hotel situated on the outskirts of the city. Since the cost of a single room was well beyond our price range, we opted for the economic option and took a small room with four beds to split amongst our travel pandilla of six chicas and myself.

The next day we roamed the tiny, crowded city-markets flush with wool clothing, jewelry, artisan crafts, and tiny trinkets, trying on chompas that reminded me of grandma’s couch, stuffing personal trash bags full of sweaters, socks, and blankets for cousins, siblings, and parents, counting off family members on our fingers and toes. “Did I buy something for so-and-so?” “Would cousin Jane prefer a hat or socks?” “How do I figure out what my sister would want?”

Outside the crowded corridors of the markets, local artists were spreading buckets of chalk across the asphalt, crafting resplendent murals up and down the main avenue only for them to be swept away hours later by the Good Friday procession of spirited marching bands and suited men carrying thrones clad with colorful bouquets and statues of Santa María. We stood on the side of the road admiring the liveliness of it all then walked over to the plaza de armas to snap a few obligatory tourist photos with a white llama wearing a pair of sporty sunglasses. Afterwards, we scheduled trekking plans for the following days, sucked down a round of chelas brewed by a local gringo-run microbrewery, then headed back to the hotel for the night.

Koala and Llama

Dink spending koalaty time with his new Peruvian friend.

The next morning we begrudgingly pulled ourselves out of bed before daylight, scarfed down a few bananas, passed around a bottle of yogurt, chewed on a couple coca leaves, and hopped on a small bus that would carry us into the snow-capped Cordillera Blanca of Huascarán National Park. We passed tiny pueblos, climbing dusty roads where old women dressed in traditional Andean clothing sat outside of weathered adobe churches overlooking the greater valley as kids played nearby under the morning sun.

Up, up, up went the tiny bus as we traveled further and further into the mountains. I wondered how my body would handle the altitude and if I could actually reach the top of Laguna 69 at 15,000 feet. Further up, up, up, rambling along the bumpy dirt road, our smiles growing ever wider as we approached the towering canyon walls and snow-capped peaks reaching far into the heavens around us. Past the deep blue lake, past the grazing cattle, past the gaggle of elderly people who had stepped out of their bus to take a scenic photo of the road behind them, until finally we arrived at a bend in the road where the trailhead began.

The road behind us.

The road behind us.

Our driver, Oscar, informed our group that we would have until 3pm to make the hike up to the lagoon and return. Without delay, we descended down a rocky slope, crossed a narrow, roaring river, and began to make our away across the valley before us where a plethora of tranquil cattle were grazing upon the tufts of grass and dropping their pungent fertilizer along the trail. Immediately, I could feel how much of a difference hiking at elevation is compared to backpacking around the small, rolling hills of Southern Indiana. The air was thin and even though I only carried a liter of water, a granola bar, and my camera, it felt as if someone had stowed away 30-pound dumbbells in my pack for their afternoon workout. The worst part was that we were only crossing the valley; we hadn’t even begun the actual ascent.

bovine fellow

The park ranger was a bit of a bovine fellow.

My body protested, my legs throbbed, my lungs were in shock. From somewhere inside came a murmur like the gurgling of water flowing in tiny streams between the pebbles under our feet – a skeptical voice questioning whether or not I could really climb this camino. But any doubt, audible or otherwise, was silenced by the sound of the roaring waterfalls that crashed down the canyon walls around us. The pain of fatigue was so easily dwarfed by the euphoria I felt walking through such an immense, powerful, and pure (minus the cows) natural setting. Physical pain triumphed by sensory ecstasy. Wildflowers of purple, yellow, and red lined the tiny streams that we cautiously crossed, hopping from rock to rock, diverting our eyes from the peaks around us only for a moment to secure our footing. As the trail began to steepen, the earth transitioning from a fertile valley to rocky terrain, we looked up to see endless rows of switchback after switchback. “It is a rough road that leads to heights of greatness,” and that rough road only goes in one direction at this point. Up, up, up.

nature-induced euphoria

Nature-induced euphoria.


View all posts by Kaleb

Un Sueño Sin Palabras – A Dream Without Words

Kaleb McCain

It was one in the morning, I was thirsty, and after an entire day of airports, planes, and immigration troubles, my brain was too fried for me to speak any language, much less Spanish. The most I could explain to the driver was that I was a student from the United States as I passed by my first sights, sounds, and smells of Lima from the backseat of a taxi. We flew through neighborhood after neighborhood, barrio after barrio, down highways, avenues, and allies. I could feel the pulse of the city beating around me like the rhythmic thumping of a cajón. Casinos, skyscrapers, houses, gente, all filled the streets as we zipped along to the house I would call mi casa for the next five months.

El Malecón Sunset

The end of my first full day in Lima. Sunset over the Pacific as seen from El Malecón.

It doesn’t seem right, but already a month has passed since that surrealist midnight trip from the airport to my host home in Miraflores. Since then I’ve enrolled in classes (no Monday or Friday classes!), familiarized myself with a few of the combi routes, attended concerts, traveled outside of the city, tasted a variety of Peruvian foods, and met plenty of wonderful people who have helped me adjust to life here in Lima. Being reduced to basic grammar amidst this process in a new megalopolis is a humbling experience that can only be equated to childhood; that first night agua and gracias were the only words I could manage to sputter before passing out. Luckily, I’ve been placed into a house with a wonderfully sweet señora, Laura, whose daughter, Laura (but we’ll call her Laurita) is a professor at the university I’m attending – Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. From the beginning, I’ve been blessed with a kind translator and mentor for a hermanastra, in addition to a caring and friendly host madre. My Spanish, or Castellano, is improving slowly but surely. While I can keep up with the majority of my professors’ lectures, I still have to ask people on the streets to repeat themselves, which generally leads to them talking louder instead of slower (I said I can’t understand, not that I can’t hear). I can order food, buy cellphone minutes, explain directions to taxi cab drivers, and hear which routes the cobradores are yelling from the windows of buses. However, I still lack the confidence to approach Peruvian students and start a conversation, something I’m hoping to improve upon moving forward.

Surviving as a foreigner – as a gringo – within a city of 8 million people in Latin America has led me to rediscover a simple fact of life: every day is a learning experience and every moment, place, and person is an opportunity to learn from. After one month abroad, I feel that I’ve learned more about my own culture, about my own experiences, and about myself than I ever have before.

And yet, how can I truly translate those experiences? How will you understand what I’ve felt after hearing the soulful melodies of a Quechan folk singer and her charango? How can you know what it is to sink your feet into the sand while looking down upon the oasis of Huacachina after a 5am hike to the top of the dune? Will words truly give you a sense of the taste of a pisco sour hitting the back of your throat, or ceviche on your tongue? How many adjectives does it take in order for you to smell the smoked sandwiches of La Lucha drift across the avenue as you sit in Parque Kennedy petting a tabby cat? Can my photos truly place you there on the beach of Huanchaco as you watch the sunset wash the Pacific in a thousand pastels of pink, orange, and red, the outline of surfers and caballitos set amongst the waves? Sure I can write it in a blog, take a picture, maybe even record a video, but the truth is that experience, unlike language, is untranslatable. “Se hace camino al andar.”


My travel companion Dink taking in the early morning view of Huacachina.

Now that I’ve finally fallen into the rhythm of classes, with each passing day, life in Lima is becoming more comfortable. Sure, I miss the sights and smells of springtime in Bloomington. Yes, I’m sad that there is no pizza here that can hold a candle to Mother Bear’s cheesy goodness. Claro, I miss my friends, my family, and my cat. However, the kindness and guidance of my friends, host family, and even strangers, has helped to curb my homesickness by making me feel that my new home is here in Lima.

A fluffy host sister.

A fluffy host sister, Misky, always helps me feel at home.

View all posts by Kaleb

Lining up the Ducks

Kaleb McCain

As the snow melts away in Bloomington, drawing the students out to the grassy fields of Woodlawn for their first game of frisbee, Spring begins to sneak her sunny, blue skies in between the polar vortex days of an Indiana winter. However, at this moment I am not concerned with having a picnic in Dunn meadow or taking a peaceful walk down the B-line trail because I’m too busy scrambling to line up my ducks before departing for a semester abroad in Lima, Perú – moving out of my apartment, receiving all the necessary vaccines, notifying my bank, buying a current converter for appliances, packing my bag, getting to Atlanta to catch our departure flight, finding a host family in Lima, filing my taxes, having that final meal or drink with friends and family, and yes, even writing this blog. But don’t pity me; I’ve had over two months to prepare for these moments.


Never a bad idea to pack extra underwear.

On Tuesday, I vacated “the condo” – a third story flat located in the Villas (Stadium Crossing to the newer generation of students). “The condo” housed a variety of occupants including my two older brothers, a couple of cousins, and plenty of wonderful friends over the last seven years. Yes, there were a few bad apples that brought bedbugs amongst other things, but the end of such a grandiose residential dynasty only adds to the feeling that I’m closing one door (literally) and opening another.

During my final visit with my grandma we played a couple games of Yahtzee – the standard activity anytime someone comes to visit Grandma. As the dice clattered around inside the cup, I found myself thinking about one of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcasts. In the podcast, Mr. Carlin discussed how remarkable and extraordinary a situation must be in order for a population to realize that they themselves are living through a moment of significant change in history. Then a thought struck me – I as an individual am living through a moment of significant change in my own life. Fate is funny. Sometimes these moments are brought about by some minute decision, such as deciding to eat lunch in the Wright food court with a cute girl, which leads to being in a romantic relationship for nearly two years (she’s studying in Lima as well!). But no, this was one of those momentous decisions, like taking a new job or having a child, that can have such a great effect on one’s life that you feel the ripples of consequence stretch back from the future and alter your reality before the event has even transpired. “It’ll be a wonderful experience,” said Grandma as we wrapped up our game of Yahtzee. Wonderful is only the tip of the iceberg.

The parts of my life I didn’t stuff into my backpack now lie stacked in the entrance of my parent’s home. Kitchenware, camping gear, clothes, office supplies, a couple guitars, and random trinkets sit in duct-taped boxes until my return in August. August. Five months. I can’t help but wonder, what all will happen while I’m gone? How much will my sister-in-law’s new kitten grow? Will Tom Crean learn how to coach offense against a zone? Will my little cousin be walking and talking? It seems like a long time, but I know it will fly by before I even have time to grasp it.

Last Meal

The last lunch.

With a little luck and a lot of help, I’ve managed to line up the majority of the aforementioned ducks in the last couple weeks. There were definitely moments of anxiety brought on by the sheer magnitude of the decisions and plans being laid in front of me like a set of trembling dominoes. I didn’t even know where I would be staying in Lima until two weeks ago. Who wouldn’t feel that anxiety? I’m an American student who grew up in rural central Indiana, traveling to a country I’ve never been to where a language I can just barely understand is spoken, to live in an enormous city with a woman I’ve never met. But hey, life’s an adventure. Either the reality of the decision has escaped me or my anxieties have simply subsided, leaving behind a sense of excitement, curiosity, anticipation, and wonder that are smoking inside me like the barbecue ribs that I chowed down on for my final lunch in the United States.

View all posts by Kaleb

%d bloggers like this: