Senna, during our first visit to Peru

From the moment Senna’s lips parted to recite a poem for which she took second place in a school-wide competition, Martha and I had a hunch that our writer Marie Arana would find her muse in this 14-year-old wordsmith.

To be perfectly honest, this revelation came as a bit of a surprise. Only minutes before, in a room among her peers, Senna hardly stood out. In fact, she was easy to almost miss. Sitting crumpled in her desk, Senna’s posture suggested a shy girl who wouldn’t reveal much, a girl who had been kicked down—defeated.

Her words suggested otherwise.

Senna is a proud Peruvian who wants to become an engineer and writer—who has faced loss and adversity with resilience. She has spent 13 of her 14 years in the violent mining town of La Rinconada, one of the harshest settings we’ve encountered in our travels. She has seen little beyond its desolate boundaries. Still, no less than five times during our thirty-minute interview did Senna proudly announce, “I am going to succeed in my dreams, I am going to triumph.”

Mountains of La Rinconada

It’s hard to imagine anyone dreaming about triumph in a place like La Rinconada. From afar, nestled under a snowy peak, La Rinconada can fool you into looking idyllic—like if you squint hard enough you might spot the Von Trapps tramping around in curtain dresses, singing “do-rae-mi.” But without sewage or sanitation and with prostitutes outnumbering schoolchildren, I can assure, this is not the place from which fairytales are made.

On top of that, IT’S COLD. So cold and so frequently snowing, in fact, that it’s unreachable past April. And so, with two more production trips between now and then, before I can even catch my breath from our initial 17,500 ft decent, we must return.

<!–more–>As soon as Marie tells us that she selected Senna, I inform the Puno-based CARE team that hosted us in December, and book flights.

I task our on-location fixer León with the enviable chore of sharing the news of our return with Senna. We plan to reconnect in two days time to discuss trip logistics, which we do, but instead of getting right down to business, the conversation starts with a disclaimer: “We don’t know where Senna is.”

I’m speechless.

This report is delivered amid the frantic search for an inspiring girl we met in Egypt. Fortunately, unlike that situation, we are assured that Senna is safe and with her family. We just don’t know where.

“Doesn’t the school have records? An address?" I ask, leaning on my own cultural context and the countless forms I’ve filled out through the years with addresses, phone numbers, emergency contacts. “Ask the principal!”

Leon

Leon is unruffled: “No te preocupes. Give me two days, we’ll find her.”

Senna had started her summer holiday, so tracking her down is not as simple as dropping into her classroom. Contacting the school yields no useful info; León has his work cut out for him. In our hyper-connected world of emails, smart phones, and Facebook, it’s easy to forget that not everyone is just a click or a text away.

Status calls grow to twice daily, and soon the confident tone in León’s voice grows tense. But he has a good tip that Senna might be in Juliaca, a reasonably sized city nearby, with family. He even takes out radio ads, which is apparently not an altogether uncommon practice in Peru, to find our needle in the haystack.

Nada.

After more than a week of searching, our hunt is still fruitless. I had no choice but to cancel flights, cancel hotel rooms, and put my crew on standby until further notice. I put in call to Marie who takes it in stride. Before hanging up, she shares, “we have a phrase for this, you know, a la chicha.” she calls it, “catch as catch can.” This is all “very Peruvian” she says.

For some reason, that eases me.

I’ve learned that it’s a mandate in the hectic nature of international production for things to move fast, and for bumps to occur at points along the way. But for a production centered around a girl, not being able to locate that girl, is more than a bump. It feels like a glacier.

My thoughts turn to Senna herself, and all the potential that lay before her, of which she’s utterly unaware. Of how the community, these girls, will be impacted if we can help bring stable education to them through telling her story. It’s reason enough to want to race up to La Rinconada, knock on every door and, through minced Spanish, find her myself.

Monday. León calls. “Hola, Leon, dime.”

“We found her. She’s expecting us. Get down here, we’re waiting for you.”

León the detective pulls through. And so, just five days later, I am ascending 17,500 feet for the second time in two months, with Marie Arana, to tell the story of a girl from a lawless mining town high in the Andes. A story we hope will one day have a fairytale ending for a girl determined to seize her own future.