photos from the collection of melynda thorpe burt, peru 2012

A Never-before-told Story

Follow journalist/cinematographer Melynda Thorpe Burt as she travels to the Andes Mountains to document the remarkable story of survival, triumph, and a people perfectly preserved from the time they fled to the mountains for safety from the Spanish Invasion 500 years ago. Follow her journey behind the scenes, and experience the script of the film “Heart of the Andes” as it takes shape and form from her heartfelt interactions and adventures.

September 18

It’s surreal, really.

The idea of traveling to the Andes Mountains to tell a story that has never been told about a people so remote, so simple and so far removed from modern culture seems a little large for a writer whose assignments have been limited until now to stories within the continental United States. I hear myself telling my sons about my itinerary, my colleagues, my friends and family, and I realize that, yes, this is big, and also very real. It is not only comprehensible, amazing, the opportunity of a lifetime, it is also something that I cannot keep to myself.

The chief and leader of a people so pure

In a nutshell, the story I will be searching out in Peru is that of the survival of the Q’ero tribes — a people that fled high into the Andes Mountains more than 500 years ago and remained hidden and separated from cultural and technological evolution. Surviving solely on potato crops, the Q’ero people lived simply and happily until about 15 years ago when tribe leaders reached out for help. Their potatoes were failing; their people were dying.

Ten years ago, Heart Walk Foundation co-founders Tim and Penelope Eicher discovered the Q’ero tribes on the brink of starvation

Humanitarians Tim and Penelope Eicher learned of the plight of the Q’ero while vacationing Peru more than a decade ago. After returning home, Tim, a professor at Dixie State College, and Penelope, a mental health therapist, decided to gather individuals with a common interest in helping alleviate suffering people of the Andes Mountains.

Since then, the Eichers have established an international effort under the umbrella of the Heart Walk Foundation that is boasting results that are nothing less than incredible.

Q’ero families who once lived on small potatoes now receive seeds to plant full vegetable gardens in greenhouses built and funded by Heart Walk supporters. As families, they catch and prepare fish from trout ponds that have been built and maintained and seeded by Heart Walk donors. Children now have schoolhouses to attend. And though their education is simple and basic, it is preparing them for opportunities to learn and grow and to move beyond the harsh living conditions and limitations their ancestors faced if they choose.

Only a select few are ever welcomed into the villages of the Q’ero. And it is hard to find. It is a tightly knit, hidden community protected by the mountains and its elders. But the Eichers and Heart Walk volunteers make their way to the villages at least twice a year bringing donations, supplies (including garden seeds and trout eggs), and offering things like hair cuts and nail trimming. On their last visit in May 2011, Tim and Penelope delivered a chainsaw to the more than grateful men of the village. On this trip, Penelope is delivering a sewing machine donated by a St. George resident. Soon, Q’ero women and children will learn to sew their own clothing and possibly make clothing to sell in cities in the valley.

Ten years ago, there was very little music. Today, the Eichers notice happy, hopeful, playful children. Much different from the frail, ailing community they met in 2003.

In my overfilled backpack, I made room for 3 notebooks, 6 pens, my SLR camera, filming equipment and an iPad. For the documentary, I’ve packed a compact HD camera, a collapsable monopod, sound and lighting gear, fold-out reflectors and loads of extra batteries. Helping me prepare for the trip are two very talented southern Utah film producers, Keith R. Owen and Myke Bush. Keith will serve as sound engineer on the film, and Myke film editor. That makes me writer, director and cinematographer, and also a little nervous about arriving home with quality material we can work with to produce a documentary short film.

Hundreds of years in the making, this is a story I feel honored to share and I want to be ready. This is the story of the plight of a protected, uninterupted indigenous culture and community, and how Heart Walk Foundation stepped in ten years ago to help them survive a devastating crop failure. After helping them recover, Heart Walk Foundation has been helping the Q’ero tribes prepare and plan for the future, move away from a state of survival, and to plan for the future of their people while respectfully preserving the native culture and traditions and mountain home these people hold so dear.

Through the limited Internet access the Eichers have managed to help me secure, I look forward to sending stories home to the local newspaper editor who will publish as I travel deep into the Heart of the Andes to experience the story of the Q’ero people. It is an amazing story of survival, hardship, hope, resiliency and help, and one I am thrilled to experience first-hand.

Each day that I have internet access, I will send stories, photos and updates. Our 12-day itinerary includes opportunities for me to interview those who know of the story and have seen the transformation take place since Heart Walk became involved in helping the tribes survive. As we travel through various villages along our way, Heart Walk leaders will be negotiating to build a small medical clinic for the Q’ero tribes. This is both an exciting and historical, but getting the project approved, coordinated and organized will be a tremendous task.

With the help of a personal translator, Vidal Rodriguez a guide on the Inca Trail, and Heart Walk in-country ambassador to the Q’ero people, Bertha, I hope to fill my notebooks, digital audio recorders, camera cards, run my six pens dry, and wear out the keys of my iPad keyboard. I am a story teller. I’ve been publishing in magazines since my first feature gained national reach in a Florida print publication in 1994. Since then, I have been chasing interviews through the streets of New York City, interviewing on the steps and in the tunnels of the nation’s Capitol Building in Washington D.C., and on the backlots of Hollywood studios. I’ve been guided through the trenches at stadiums, taken to the tops of high rise buildings, and into secret rooms of the auto design industry in Detroit, Mich. I’ve interviewed celebrities, executives, actors, survivors of 9/11. I have a rich and diverse writer’s portfolio.

But this story, I am keenly aware, may very well be the most important story I will ever tell.


Read next in this series: Arrival

https://medium.com/heart-of-the-andes/c38bca5c7485

For more information about the film, go to heartoftheandes.org
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