I fell in love today. It started out as an innocent crush, evolved into a dangerous infatuation, and today turned into full-blown, head-over-heels in love…with Guatemala, that is! What an amazing place this is. I’ve spent quite a bit of time traveling throughout Latin America, but I’ve never been so taken by a place and its people. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what has swept me off my feet, but it’s some wonderful combination of the breathtaking countryside, the extreme warmth of the people, the crazy packed buses and terrible roads, the conversations with random kids trying to sell me things, getting drenched in a rainstorm and feeling like a little kid again, and most of all, seeing first hand how incredibly strong women combine ingenuity, drive, and a small loan to improve the lives of their families.

I’ve spent the past week working out of the Friendship Bridge Quetzaltenango branch office, and have travelled around to small, rural villages in the beautiful highlands of Guatemala. The experience has been wonderful on so many levels. I’ve had the pleasure of running around rural Guatemala with various loan officers, all of whom have been an excellent resource for finding where I need to go and helping with translating for the many indigenous women who don’t speak Spanish. They’ve also been great fun to chat with on all the many, many long and bumpy bus rides. Additionally, I’ve been able to stay with a Friendship Bridge employee and her family out here, which has been a great way to get a glimpse of real day-to-day life in Guatemala. They have treated me like a queen and I don’t think I’ve stopped eating since I arrived! The best part of all, though, has been going to people’s homes/places of business and getting to hear their stories. There have certainly been some challenges, which I think I’m learning to overcome a little more with each interview.

Some of the ladies are very shy, and simply say their business is good and repayment is good and their families are good. There’s definitely a skill to getting them to open up, and hopefully I’ll continue to learn how to do that better. Some ladies, on the other hand, get really excited to talk about their families and their businesses. They are often very appreciative of their loans and very proud of what they have done with it. My favorite part is seeing the pride in their faces when they talk about being able to send their children to school. And for those that can’t, they repeatedly emphasize how giving their children an education and better opportunities for the future is their top priority.

Fortunately, most of the women I’ve talked with so far (approximately 35) have had pretty positive stories to tell. Their businesses are going relatively well, many of them are able to send their children to school, loan repayment has been going well, etc. But there certainly have been a few in situations that I can’t even fathom. A story of taking out a loan to purchase inventory for a little store a woman just opened up to try to support her family, only to have all the inventory stolen. “Fighting” just to pay back the loan and feed her 8 children while her husband drinks away any money he earns. And yet this woman smiles a sad smile, graciously thanks me for what I’m doing, and focuses on the dream that someday her children will have a better life. It’s so unbelievably humbling to realize the real issues people face everyday all over the world. And it makes me feel ashamed and ridiculous for many of my “needs” back in the U.S. What a privilege it is to get a glimpse of these women’s lives, hear of their struggles, be in awe of their successes.

A friend recently made a comment about balancing life’s moments with life’s big picture. The more I think about this, the more I realize how easy it is to be wrapped up in life’s long-term goals and plans, often letting day-to-day moments slide by without notice. At the same time, so many people around the world don’t have the privilege to think much beyond getting food on the table each day and keeping a roof over their heads. Yet the women seeking these loans have made a point to work to improve their lives overall, and it’s unbelievably inspiring to see the perseverance that drives them each day. Since I’ve been in Guatemala, each day has been an adventure, full of rich experiences. I can’t stop thinking about how amazing it is to live in each moment, soaking it all in. Life is so pure, so simple, so real, and I’m absolutely in love with it!

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