Helping with Hands and Feet

2 Mar

us with some of our students at Helping Hands Cusco

Here is the crazy story of three volunteers who decided one day to think of adventurous ways of raising money for the NGO Helping Hands Cusco.

“Let’s climb up and a down a mountain a thousand times and get sponsors for every time we make it up and down!” Kwinten gushed. “Let’s go to Machu Picchu and take a picture of someone’s face with Machu Picchu in the background,” I suggested. Myra, the new volunteer from Washington DC, looked at us both and laughed: “I’m in!” She had just met us that morning.

After a month of giving the neighborhood children of Los Nogales free English, acrobatics and football lessons, we were nothing short of amazed at their fierce intelligence and ridiculous desire to learn. Despite this being their summer holidays, children ranging from the ages of 4 to 14 were punctual every day for our classes and came with intense motivation. In less than 2 weeks, they learnt to translate complicated and intricate sentences from Spanish into English, and when Myra heard them speak, she was impressed and amazed by how quickly they were mastering the language.

We knew that they all came from poor families, we knew most were undernourished and had various health problems – but we only knew because we had been told by other people. You’d never learn it from the children themselves, for they came everyday with sidesplitting humour and heart-wrenching sweetness.

part of the support petition we made

Poor? You don’t know what poor is. As of the age of 4, these children wash their own clothes, take care of their younger siblings, cook, make money for their families, and -simply because they want to… and perhaps because it was fun- attended our classes at the Jardin. Their shoes fell apart as they walked and as they walked, they held our hands. They were constantly hungry and constantly sweet. And I know I’m repeating everything you’ve ever read before about the dance between poverty and children, but goddamnit, listen to me when I tell you they were incredible.

and how we enjoyed teaching them!

singing lessons with Myra

Debatable Dancing: Kwinten turned out to be quite the alpha to the pack of boys

One evening, Mario and Rosita, the founders of Helping Hands Cusco, came to the volunteer apartment to relax and ended up being interviewed by us. We were curious: what had motivated them to found the NGO? Ofcourse they see poverty, everyone sees poverty but unfortunately, hardly anyone sees that as a reason to found an NGO. And how does Helping Hands survive?

Mario founded Helping Handsbecause he sincerely wanted to help. When his teaching job at a Peruvian school took over, Rosita stepped in to organise, coordinate, supervise and teach. Their volunteers teach the children, help Rosita, and build with Mario. The organisation survives from the money Mario and Rosita invest into it, and from international donations.

They have big plans for Helping Hands. They want a better health program that allows them to inspect the children’s’ health regularly, and offer them a nutritious diet as part of the school program. In the building we had helped Mario build over the last month, they are planning a “supervised playroom” in which parents are invited to play with their children for 45 minutes every week, under the supervision of a psychologist. This is to encourage the child-parent relationship because most parents don’t have the time to play with their children and often treat them violently. They want to expand the school to offer education to adolescents who normally would be too poor to go to school.

I know she's terribly cute. That's why I put her picture exactly here.

You don’t see that kind of bare desire to help very often anymore. We were very moved and motivated by Mario and Rosita, and decided we had to do something to support them. But please, let it be crazy.

Machu Picture

“Write all your friends and family, write your parents’ co-workers, write everyone on facebook,” Kwinten commandeered. “Let’s get everyone’s attention!”

The first fundraiser was a sponsor’s name held up on a sign: “Because so-and-so supported Helping Hands Cusco, they were with us at Machu Picchu” . . . and that famous World Wonder trembling victoriously in the background . . .

We worked mostly over email and facebook, and sometimes received overwhelming support – and sometimes not. To these people I say: you don’t know what poor is.

After collecting the support, printing out the signs and writing all the names down in LARGE LETTERS, Kwinten and I planned our journey to Machu Picchu. We were going to do it the Cheap Way: no fancy trains, no expensive tours. “We’ll take three or four buses and it’ll take us 15 to 20 hours,” Kwinten said. “I hope there are chickens on our bus,” I replied. I’ve always wanted to ride with chickens.

If you want to know how to get to Machu Picchu cheaply, pay close attention!

Take a cheap bus from Cusco to Santa Maria for 15 soles. We missed it. (For future information: they leave around 8:30 am and again at 9 pm)

Or take an estrada bus for 30 soles. The difference is that these are small Volkswagen buses that wait until they are full before they leave. In our case, it took 3 hours. The drive goes up into the clouds of the Andes at 4500 meters and then pitches down to almost tropical 1500 meters at Santa Maria. The drive is about 5 hours.

Two minutes into the drive, a man turned around to us and said: “You want to go to Aguas Calientes, the town near Machu Picchu, right? Well the bridge between Santa Maria and Santa Teresa was swept away by the rain. There’s no road past Santa Maria anymore. I was there yesterday, I saw it.”

We replied: “Hell, we’ll gonna try it anyway.”

the estrada bus with everyone's luggage strapped to the roof

Santa Maria caught in the clouds

This road on Santa Maria was full of men offering their cars to drive us to Santa Teresa. We quickly got a deal for 10 soles and were quickly off . . . !

. . . until the driver told us to get out. “It’s too muddy, I can’t drive through it. Get out and walk through the jungle. My friend is on the other side, he’ll take you to Santa Teresa.”

We do what he says: we slide on the mud in the jungle, slip out on the other side, walk for 10 minutes and somehow find his friend.

all aboard!

Into this car for another five minutes . . . and again: “Get out everyone! The road’s been swept away by a waterfall and I can’t get through if you’re in the car. You walk the plank like the other gringos and I’ll drive the car. See you on the other side.”

We helped each other across the planks, over a waterfall river that appeared mysteriously out of the jungle and disappeared into it again, gushing with a ferocity that made the people balancing on the planks nervously reach out to one another and shout: “Help me across, help me!”

And I can’t even begin to tell you how much I loved it.

and we were rewarded by the view

Into the car for another twenty minutes and then: “Everybody out! This is as far as I take you. From here, you have to walk. But watch out when you walk. The rain has loosened the earth and rocks are falling from the mountains, so look up!”

Kwinten and I laugh cheerfully as we pick our way over the rubble of fallen rocks. We are accompanied by gringos who are better equipped and in faster hiking boots, and we laugh good-naturedly as they all overtake us. Little rocks are tumbling slowly down the mountain side but we ignore them and chatter away. A Peruvian man walking in the opposite direction stops to tell me off. “Don’t walk that way!” he shouts.

“What do you mean don’t walk that way? How do you want me to walk?” I demand. He points up at the mountain. “Look up! Stop ambling, can’t you see the mountain is coming down?”

This time we look up with more respect and now larger rocks have begun to fall. Rocks not big enough to squash a man, but big enough to push you over the cliff. The road is a narrow one and over the cliff is a steep fall to the River Urubamba. At this time of the year, Urubamba is a power to be feared.

We begin to run, and the mountain also picks up its speed. Larger and larger rocks fall. The road snakes along the mountain side and at its end, we see a car waiting and people waving at us to run faster . . .

Anti-climax: we made it. We get into the car with a great laugh of life but when we look back, we see large rocks tumbling down and we exchange a quiet under-the-breath look that says: phew.

Santa Maria, here we come!

We find a car to take us to the next town, the last stop before the road ends: Hídroelectrica. The driver won’t leave without a full car so I convince Helmut from Austria and the Brazilian version of Jorge to join us. It’s somewhat under an hour to Hídroelectrica and another 10 soles. (Cash spent so far: 50 soles)

The driver takes us to the end of the town, to old railway tracks overgrown with long grass. Beside it, the roar of the Urubamba. It is almost 6 pm. It will dark soon.

The railway tracks end abruptly before a wall of jungle. We climb through it, a steep climb in twilight, until we find the new train tracks. We begin a walk that was said to be 40 minutes. We walk a fast pace – we walk for 3 hours.

Somewhere through the jungle in the dark. It rains. The only thing that is certain are the train tracks. We’ll get there when we get there.

Sometimes the ground beneath the tracks slips away, and we find ourselves balancing only on the tracks, jumping from one to the next. I carried the headlight on my head and unfortunately for Kwinten, whenever it was his turn to balance across, I was always distracted and shining the light elsewhere and cooing over the mountains, only to be snapped out of it by an indignant shout: “Ritti goddamnit, shine over here!

We listen out for the barking of dogs. Dogs mean people, usually. We look out for places where the sky seems lighter – could a city be causing that glow?

After two hours or more: lights! Lights along the tracks.

when you least expect it... Wall-E!

40 minutes left to the town of Aguas Calientes. But we get there, extremely dirty and extremely happy.

look at those faces and look at those pants!

At the end of the tracks, we found people were waiting for crazy European backpackers. We apologetically told them we already had reservations at a hostel, and then tried to ask them if they could give us directions to the place.

“Oh sorry… your hostel doesn’t exist anymore.”

“But we telephoned with them yesterday. Ofcourse they exist!”

“No, sorry, they left… Come to my hostel. Only 15 soles.”

Verycheap. We went with it. I forgot the name.

Aguas Calientes in the morning

the tracks continue...

Helmut, ever the Austrian, trekked up to Machu Picchu at 5 in the morning. The rest of us, aching from the night’s walk, took a bus. One way: $9 Then there was much trouble at the entry gates to Machu Picchu: they didn’t want us to photograph our signs in front of the Last Inca Citadel, because this was technically propaganda for Helping Hands… According to them, the NGO could pay them for the pictures. After much hassle, we were let through after we promised we’d only take one photograph of our sign. We gave them the Big Puppy Eyes and promised.

“Damn,” Kwinten hissed under his breath. “And we have to take 200 photographs! How are we going to do that without them noticing?!”

Entry fee for Machu Picchu:  $ 40

We have to find a quiet spot where we won’t be too bothered by tourists – or guards. And when we finally meet the guards, we bribe them with chocolate cookies. As it turns out, they don’t really care what we’re up to. They’d rather explain that this is a sacred place. And you know me: I just can’t get over these clouds . . . 

We quickly find a rather quiet spot with what we hope will eventually be a beautiful view of Machu Picchu. The only problem is it’s 6:30 in the bloody morning and if you ever had the idea of watching the sunrise over the ruins of the last Inca citadel – forget it. You won’t see ****

what's that in the fog?

So we wait.

With our 200 signs of names: we wait.

The guard cheerfully eats his chocolate cookie and tells us: “Don’t worry! It always opens up from 10 am to 11 am.” He chuckles. “Tourists always worry and we always tell them, just wait until 10 am. Whoosh!


Three hours of photo session begin! And look a little like this:

The guard checks up on us regularly to chuckle and shake his head at these strange gringos taking 200 pictures of themselves with pieces of paper for three hours, instead of exploring one of the Wonders of the World.

After three hours, exhausted from all that smiling, we pack away our equipment and kick ourselves through the ruins.

you know it's gotta be done

the Incas’ eternal irrigation system

It’s very beautiful, but here’s the truth: the most beautiful thing about Machu Picchu is the landscape around it . . .

And ofcourse, the clouds.

I wonder if my fascination of clouds will end when I finish Munay.

We didn’t get into trouble for taking 200 pictures. We walked back down to Aguas Calientes in the warm rain, feeling victorious and basically great. The chilling thing about Aguas Calientes is that it’s literally the end of the road. There’s nowhere to go beyond it; at least not without a machete and a gun. The next morning, the downpour of rain made us give up our plans of walking back and we took the PeruRail instead. One-way to Ollaytaytambo: $35

From there, it turned out to be easy. A man offered us a ride in his car to Cusco: 1 hour’s drive for 10 soles. We haggled him down to another extra 5 soles and he drove us to our doorstep. At home, we fell into Myra’s arms dirty, smelly and very very happy.


The Mountain of Solidarity

The names of our sponsors on big flags. We get up at 5 in the morning and walk along the Machu Picchu railway tracks in Los Nogales, to Vicky’s shop. This is the starting point. Point Number 2 are the Inca ruins of Wayna Tauqaray, halfway up the mountain. Point Number 3 is the mountain peak.

Our students meet us at 5:30 in the morning at Vicky’s shop. They decided they want to support us and climb up and down as often as they can, too. We distribute them among the Points and give them cameras to take our picture and film us.

In the beginning, it goes very well. Myra, Kwinten and I climb up proudly in the company of children who chatter away happily. We look out for each other and always find each other thanks to the bright, large flags.

Around 10 in the morning, a horrible accident happens: the children mess around with one of the cameras just a little too much and delete! everything! This is unfortunately the camera that recorded us getting up at 5 and that took the morning pictures. We lose it, we tell them off severely, and they take it with great dignity. I take my hat off to them respectfully for that.

After a break to cool the anger and disappointment off, one by one we pick up our flags and continue the climb.

As I climbed, I thought a lot about motivation. Climbs like these make you wonder: why the hell am I doing this? I asked Kwinten and he said: “I’m trying to raise money for the children of Los Nogales.” Yes, that’s why I agreed to this mad plan, that’s why I began this incredible trial. But it takes one hour to climb up and down, and after 5 hours of climbing, dragging yourself over rocks and fighting through cacti, you’re really asking yourself why why why.

What I am doing is going to help them. I know the money I raise will be in honest and competent hands. But that is the outcome, so what is it that is getting me up this mountain? Is it to find out if I can? Am I trying to prove something to someone?

As the hours dragged on, we went through so many emotions: elation, exhilaration, fury, desperation, disillusion, patience, rebuilding of confidence, regaining motivation . . . All in one day. That kind of emotional roller coaster is painful. That mountain really tested us. So often I thought: “This is my last time, I’m not going up again. I’m too exhausted from my anger.” And a little voice replied quietly: Doesn’t that make it the perfect reason to continue? To overcome yourself?

Everytime I went back down, somewhere, I found I had the strength to go back up. So I did. And deep down, I knew I loved it. I loved throwing the flag up and climbing up the rocks after it. I loved losing the path and finding it again. I love knowing I was almost at the top and fighting everything inside me to just keep going. One more step, you can do it, breathe and keep going.

Perhaps I loved it because these are limits you don’t always experience – and on top of it, it’s for a good cause, for children I know I love.

So epic: the sun had set and Myra, Kwinten and I walked up together for the last time. For some reason, Kwinten had his iPod strapped to his head and we listened to Mana as we climbed victoriously. By the light of his torch, he led the way and by now, we knew the route by heart.

There’s a short film coming up for the people who kindly sponsored our mad adventure, including the epic footage of the climb in the dark!

We planted our flags and sat on the peak in quiet victory to look over Cusco glistening in the night, and I thought: what a perfect, perfect goodbye.

Cusco at twilight

In the end, we raised over € 1000.- THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. This was because of you! In the name of Myra, Kwinten, Helping Hands and myself: thank you.

This is it. Almost three months and I said goodbye to my beautiful country, the fountain of my inspiration, and to Cusco, my heart. I’m writing this from Germany and I know I went into great detail and basically wrote a novel for you tonight, but in the words of an crazy friend: “what we do in life echoes in eternity”. I needed to write this to keep it one for eternity. Thank you Myra and Kwinten, you are epic.

As for me, I found a country full of inspiration and a home in Cusco. I also discovered that moving to Cusco to write Munay was among one of the best ideas I have ever had in my life. So to all writers out there: if you want to write, travel. And if you feel the need to stay somewhere in order to finish a sentence, then stay. I know it can be a difficult and frightening-because-it-is-a-out-of-the-norm-type-of-choice and it’s always easier when someone else is doing it – but please, give it a try, because there’s a reason why your writing wants to be written there.

It just might make your writing that much richer. I feel Cusco gave Munay dimensions she could not have had anywhere else. So I’m quite curious to see what I’ll write for her in Germany. As always: you know I’ll let you know.

And I can feel Perú calling me back already. What can I say? It’s my home.

this is all Perú saw of me

Thank you Kwinten for the post title and for the “Mountain of Solidarity” collages! 

I leave you with one of the beautiful songs I heard while on the road in Perú. If you’re in Europe with me, here are some warm South American summer vibes.


3 Responses to “Helping with Hands and Feet”

  1. Bobbie Browning March 4, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

    Wonderful description, pictures and video! I loved experiencing your adventure and hearing about Myra, who I miss terribly. Thank you and hope to meet you someday. Myra’s Mom

    • rittisoncco March 4, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

      Dear Myra’s Mom! Thank you very much for reading about our crazy adventures. I am relieved you approve of your daughter’s new company in Peru! 🙂 You must miss Myra very much… I only knew her for a little over a week, and I miss her too! I’m very happy I met her and now that I am planning my return to South America, I sincerely hope to see her again. If not, well, the world isn’t as dauntingly large as we are sometimes mislead to believe. 🙂 I hope you are well and secretly hope you keep reading… Love, Ritti


  1. The Imaginarium’s Powerstation | Rit'i Sonq'o: A Writer's Journey - April 18, 2012

    […] Some of you may remember a series of adventurous fundraisers we organised while I was working at the NGO Helping Hands in Cusco, Perú. If you missed it, here’s a recap of our adventures: Helping with Hands and Feet […]

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