Taking in majestic, breathtaking views of Lake Atitlan and surrounding volcanoes. Riding in tuk-tuks (open air taxis) and lanchas (water taxis) to get from point A to point B. Admiring Day of the Dead decor. Shopping in bustling, colorful markets. Indulging in delicious Guatemalan foods. And, most notably, visiting Friendship Bridge clients and seeing first-hand how they are building better lives for themselves, their families, and their communities.
These are just a few of the memorable moments shared between the participants of this year’s Insight Trip a few weeks ago. Insight Trips are hosted by Friendship Bridge to give our supporters the opportunity to meet the women we serve and see the impact of our Microcredit Plus programs. The experience never fails to leave a lasting impression on those fortunate enough to attend. The culture, beauty, and uniqueness of Guatemala are unforgettable.
Caroline Rodriguez, who has served on Friendship Bridge’s Board of Directors for six years, documented her trip, recounting the details of the sights she saw and the moving stories she heard each day. We invite you to read the documentation of her journey. She kindly has given us permission to use her content for this piece. Slight edits have been made for clarity.
Day 1: Oct. 25, 2021
Six years serving on the Board of Directors of Friendship Bridge, making annual visits to Guatemala. But this is the first time I have spent quality time in Guatemala City, visiting museums, mercados, and textile shops. Things that impressed me: every place we’ve been, from the Grand Central Market to the upscale Oakland Mall, has had a consistent protocol in place for using hand sanitizer and performing temperature checks before admitting people to public places. Even Uber drivers are following the safety protocols and almost all businesses are open, some even thriving, contrary to the belief that businesses were closing due to the pandemic. Restaurants give you bags in which to store your mask while you eat. There seems to be a consistent behavior of sanitizing hands, mask-wearing, and maintaining a physical distance. Cleanliness standards are high and restrooms for handwashing are easily accessible. Great job, Guatemala for encouraging these great hygiene and safety habits!
Day 2: Oct. 26, 2021
Last day in Guatemala City: We visited the zoo, garment district, the National Palace, the Cathedral, and enjoyed delicious typical Guatemalan foods. Our Insight Group is now complete. Everyone arrived, and we are ready for our journey to Panajachel and Lake Atitlan.
Day 3: Oct. 27, 2021
The trip to Panajachel from Guatemala City is always a long one. Photos always help capture the amazing experiences and sights from the day’s journey. Our first stop was at a tiny village named Vuelta Grande, located in between Guatemala City and Antigua. We visited Maria, a Friendship Bridge agriculture client who grows a variety of flowers and fruits. She and her two sisters manage the family farm and travel to Antigua to sell in markets there. The ladies were eager to show us their crops and expressed gratitude for the training and support of Friendship Bridge that they receive in addition to the loans for their agricultural activities.
Maria speaks K’iche’ (a Mayan language of Guatemala); that doesn’t stop her from proudly explaining how she operates her business. Friendship Bridge Communications Coordinator Marta Julia Ixtuc Cuc translates from K’iche’ to Spanish and from Spanish to English for the Insight Group.
We visited Maria, a Friendship Bridge agriculture client who grows a variety of flowers and fruits. She and her two sisters manage the family farm and travel to Antigua to sell in markets there. The ladies were eager to show us their crops, and expressed gratitude for the training and support of Friendship Bridge that they receive in addition to the loans for their agricultural activities.
Maria wanted to show us her corn crops. She said it was, “just right down there.” What a trek it was to get to this crop from the flower and fruit trees. Look at the height of these corn stalks!
Maria brought us flowers just as we were asking if we could buy flowers for our hotel rooms in Panajachel. Win-win! She was going to give them to us out of the goodness of her heart, but we had been planning to pay for the flowers, regardless.
These flowers did not look real from afar. I had to hold one in my hand to believe it. It’s alive!
Water is also a commodity in Guatemala for farmers. Although the country experiences a decent rainy season, there are months of dryness as well. Farmers get creative with ways to catch rainwater.
Next stop: Xeatzon, another tiny mountain village near Lake Atitlan. Here we witnessed a Trust Bank meeting. This is a monthly gathering of a group of local women clients in which they get trained on various topics and make their loan payments. Our Friendship Bridge staff Facilitator does a fantastic job of teaching subjects that are relevant to the women’s business and economic conditions. This month’s lesson: the concept of budgets. With the help of visuals and interactive facilitation, clients learned about income versus expenses, the importance of saving for emergencies, and the evaluation of the impact of cost reduction. The meeting was efficient. The lesson and loan payments took less than an hour total. Great job Friendship Bridge Operations teams!
Above: Seven clients make up this Trust Bank; they co-guarantee each others’ loans as a form of social capital.
Trust Bank Meeting. Together they borrow, together they learn, together they repay loans, together they grow independent.
Friendship Bridge Facilitator teaching the concept of budgeting.
There’s a toddler in that wrap, but he’s not stopping mama from completing her personal budget exercise.
This mom is learning how to use her smart phone calculator feature while holding her baby.
Day 4: Oct. 28, 2021
Waking up to Lake Atitlan and volcano views is truly magical. Our group is bonding, sharing meals and personal stories. Today’s highlight was our trip from Panajachel to Quiche to visit client Fermina. Fermina is a 29-year-old single mom who found herself in need of additional income during the pandemic, as her main business took a dip. She told us about her experience, and about how she took advantage of an online training offered through Friendship Bridge on new businesses. Fermina learned how to make special decorations and thus started another small business focused on popular home goods and decor for the various cultural holidays, rituals, and celebrations in Guatemala. We met her mother, Gregoria, and 7-year-old daughter, Diana. Three generations working together on the core business of spooling natural dyed thread and weaving.
I visited Fermina in 2018. She talked about a little Tienda (shop) dream she had. This Tienda was essential to her village during the peak of pandemic lockdowns.
These ladies were so proud to show us their kitchen.
I had to be the first to walk my fellow Board Member Ledy Garcia-Eckstein to the magnificent Lake Atitlan.
These ladies were so proud to show us their kitchen, and little Diana demonstrated the spooling technique. Fermina told us that Diana attends school, which is on break at the moment. They graciously served us the seasonal drink of corn atole as well as corn cakes! Such warm, hospitable ladies. After this filling snack, we had the energy to shop in the famous Chichicastenango Marketplace. The market was busy, not to mention challenging for the first-timers among us when it came to responding to the aggressive vendors trying to sell their products. We survived and left with stories to tell and memories to cherish from extraordinary experiences in the Quiche and Chichicastenango departments.
Day 5: Oct. 29, 2021
Friday! First, we traveled to rural Solola to visit an artisan client, Ruth. Ruth is in her 16th loan cycle with Friendship Bridge. The first things one notices upon entering her home are the slab floors and cinder-block walls. It is a home much larger than average. There is enough space for a sewing room, pattern room, and supply room. She is truly an entrepreneur, supported in her business by both her entire family, as well as others. She makes clothes for local Mayan women, combining traditional corte and huipil pieces with modern beads, embroidery, and other trims.
Ruth has established a business that is large, in comparison to the average business of our 22,000 clients. Her husband, daughter, and son are all very proud of Ruth and the very impressive workspace they have in their home. Ruth spoke to us with such poise about her personal journey. She is a member of Handmade by Friendship Bridge and develops and sews beautiful products through this Microcredit Plus service of Friendship Bridge. Our group took great joy in purchasing items directly from her! And so can you! Read her story here and discover her products at the online store.
Left: This is Miriam. She’s amazing! A rising star artisan and businesswoman. Two years ago I saw these Frida beaded earrings while on a trip in another country. I sent a pic to Maya, our Handmade by Friendship Bridge Manager, who showed the picture to Miriam. About two weeks later, Miriam found me on Facebook and showed me a prototype… and the rest is history!
We returned to Panajachel to visit our office. There, we reunited with some clients I had known from years past: Miriam, Lidia, and Angelina. I love their artisan work, and so did our Insight Trip group. Lots of purchases from these artisans! TukTuk rides up and down Calle Santander, the main drag in Panajachel, gave our group a taste of this treasure of a tourist spot. Our evening ended with a fabulous dinner at Hotel Atitlan. Beyond the delicious food we laid our eyes on our first Ofrenda (an ofrenda is the offering placed in a home altar during the annual Day of the Dead celebration). The hotel staff were busy putting the finishing touches on it. Dia de los Muertos is upon us.
Ruth set up a little display and store for our home visit! Smart lady, because this Insight Trip group sure came ready to shop!
Lidia and Angelina make very beautiful products that can also be found at the online store.
Everywhere in Pana, the flora amazes us… we all wish we had a patio filled with gorgeous plants like these.
Thank you, Marta, for having Maco, our driver stop at this favorite vista point! The lake was excellent today.
Day 6: Oct. 30, 2021
The Lake has been teasing us for days. Finally, we get to take a water taxi across this magical body of water to San Juan La Laguna.
We were given a presentation from the daughter of one of our clients who was practicing her English. We learned the whole process, from planting, to harvest, to fermentation, to roasting, and finally the many ways a cacao bean can be used in products.
Next stop: more learning, as we visited a client, Elena, who gave the group a presentation of natural dyes. After the presentation, she walked us down to a storefront where she and her Trust Bank of 12 women weavers sell their products. These women fill the store with a variety of products they make themselves by spinning cotton, dying thread, and weaving the threads. You really can appreciate the time, many steps, and the precision of designs these artisans dedicate to each product. They each take turns operating the store. Very impressive group. And of course we shopped ‘til we dropped!
As I reflect on all the women we met this week on this Insight Trip, my perception is that they have made it through this global pandemic resiliently. They vocalized gratitude for the support they received, enabling them to conquer a tough year. Despite it all, they are optimistic, continuing to dream for themselves and their children. It’s been wonderful to spend time with Marta Julia, Friendship Bridge Communications and Public Relations Coordinator, who has helped us see and understand how our staff has weathered these last 18 months, supporting our clients in rural Guatemala. They are my superheroes. Amazing work, Friendship Bridge staff.
Day 7: Oct. 31, 2021
Happy Halloween! We said goodbye to the magical Lake Atitlan and the town of Panajachel and made our way to Antigua. We broke up the long drive with a visit to Iximche, the first Guatemalan City and a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican archeological site in the western highlands, now known as Tecpan. It was the capital of the late post-classic Kaqchikel Mayan Kingdom. It’s always a mind-blowing experience for me to realize a civilization of people who once lived on these grounds 600+ years ago.
We made it to beautiful, calm Antigua. It was good to see this gorgeous city again, although COVID restrictions have definitely prevented the usual All Souls Day, All Saints Day, and Dia de los Muertos festivities. Despite the restrictions, this charming Spanish colonial town surrounded by volcanoes never disappoints.
Day 8: Nov. 1, 2021
Our final day as an Insight Trip group in the beautiful city of Antigua. Our Historico Hotel Eterna Primavera and the delicious Bistros embody the charm this town is known for. A little more education was on the itinerary today: a visit to the old textile museum in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, not far outside of Antigua. What a great museum and demo of weaving techniques. Great way to spend our morning, sharpening our groups’ eye for the mass textile shopping back in Antigua’s artisan markets!
Thank you again to Caroline for allowing us to accompany her and the others on this Insight Trip. We are incredibly thankful for your generosity.