I had the opportunity to work for the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging in mid-January, documenting the president of their organization on his walk through Central and South America. Oscar Durand and I spent two days with the team as they walked along Lake Titicaca and crossed the Bolivian border.
Bob Hentzen loves to walk. He started walking in December 2009 and hasn’t stopped, except for sleep, food and an occasional day of rest. His journey began in Guatemala. Now he’s somewhere in Bolivia. And he hasn’t had one blister yet.
Hentzen is the president of the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging (CFCA), a North American NGO that helps families living in poverty. The organization sponsors 182,000 families in Latin America. Bob’s goal is to meet many of them while letting others in Latin America know of the work CFCA is doing in their communities. They call the pilgrimage Walk2gether.
“One of the things that I have tried to understand over the years is that the most vulnerable people in our world today feel isolated,” Hentzen said. “The first message in this walk is that you are not alone, that we are walking with you.”
Bring on Perú
September 14 the voices of 11 children welcomed Hentzen to Perú at the border in Tumbes. Métete en el rollo de Jesús, they sang. The kids came from CFCA projects in Lima and walked with Hentzen for three days. A handful of CFCA staff and volunteers from Perú also took the reigns from Ecuadorian staff and volunteers.
After the joyous welcome, the reality and immensity of Perú set in. In front of Hentzen was the longest – and hardest – walk yet. Four months and six days. The deserts and high altitudes of Perú awaited Hentzen and his small support team – the smallest of the entire trip.
Hentzen’s response? “Bring it on. I want Perú.”
In the desserts of the north, the wind blew dirt into his teeth. Hentzen joked that it cleaned his teeth. Outside of Arequipa two vicious dogs came at Hentzen fast on a curvy, narrow and traffic-filled road.
“They were killers,” Hentzen said.
Hentzen instinctually jumped out of the way and found himself in the middle of the road.
“Now had their been a vehicle coming at that moment, I would have been dead,” said Hentzen.
Bob and his team are up at 1 a.m. It’s the last day he’ll wake up in Perú. In addition to the Perú CFCA staff and volunteers that have accompanied Bob since day one in Perú, three special guests have arrived, Sister Cristina Alvarado and two young women from Lima. The women live at a CFCA-sponsored home for girls – Nuestra Señora de Misericordia – and have come to walk with Bob for his last 26 kilometers in their country.
Bob leads the walk. He usually walks a few meters in front of the group, but Vilma Esteban Yauri and Marleni Ilarico Soza from Hogar de Niñas are on his heels today, almost matching his pace. On his back he wears a pack filled with water and mate de coca. On his feet he wears two pairs of socks and a pair of sandals. With sandals, he can move his toes, and by wearing multiple pairs of socks, Bob says he avoids blister-causing friction between the foot and the shoe.
Behind Bob, Yauri and Marleni a group of about a dozen volunteers and CFCA workers walk in a line holding scarves, hats and eucalyptus leaves plucked from the countryside. With their spare hands they wave at people in the fields, woman passing on the road with guano on their backs, tractors, buses and taxis. Support vehicles stick close to the group – a 15-passenger van and a truck pulling a port-a-potty named Consuelo, the Spanish word for “comfort” or “relief”.
CFCA only sponsors about 1600 families in Perú. The number is small compared to neighboring Bolivia where the organization sponsors 11,000 and even smaller compared to Guatemala, where there are 100,000 families helped by CFCA.
Hentzen says he hopes to see CFCA expand in Perú. Plans have been made to open two zonal centers in Lima’s northern and southern outskirts, closer to the people the organization serves.
“We need to be more accessible to the people,” Hentzen says. “We cannot have an office operation. Our offices must be centers…beehives of thought, creativity, acceptance and love.”
As Bob and the crew near the Bolivian border, the emotions are mixed. The Peruvian CFCA staff and volunteers will return to their homes and lives, most by multiple day bus rides, tracking back through the land they’ve crossed on foot.
The Bolivian team waits eagerly to begin their month and a half journey with Hentzen through their country. Dozens of sponsored families, an Andean band dressed in ponchos, banners and confetti await Hentzen on the Bolivian side of the border. The start of a journey for some, the end for others.
For Hentzen, it’s another day on the road, but after conquering the largest country on his agenda, he says, “If you can do Perú, you can do anything.”