The city of Mazatenango, on the other hand, is not a beautiful place. At all. Lonely Planet has all of four sentences on the city – it’s the capital of the Suchitepéquez department, something about it being a hub for trading Pacific Slope agricultural produce, it has a few serviceable hotels if you have to stop in an emergency, “otherwise just keep on keeping on.” Seriously, that’s all the Lonely Planet writers could come up with, and I quickly saw why. It’s a relatively large, miserably hot and sticky city full of cars, dogs, bikes, people, and lots and lots of concrete. Definitely not the most beautiful place in Guatemala.
After one sleepless night in the oppressive heat, I headed to the Friendship Bridge branch office and was asked if I would prefer to stay with one of the loan officers and her family in a rural area outside of the city. Of course I promptly and enthusiastically accepted, and headed to the tiny little town of Siete Vueltas, Chicacao. Still hot and humid, but beautiful, lush countryside and with much fresher air out there. The rural lowlands definitely have a different feel than the highlands – and not just in terms of weather. The people are a bit more open, a little less shy. A gringa is an extremely rare sighting in these parts, and to be living with a family way out there was quite an experience. I stayed with a loan officer named Maria Elena, her seven children, and her 83 year old mother-in-law. It was a very simple house with cement floors, cinderblock walls, and a somewhat leaky tin roof that gives the feeling of being in an oven when the sun is shining on it, and gives off an angry roar as the afternoon/evening rain pours down on it. There were essentially three rooms – one kitchen/dining room, one room with a bed and a desk, and then one very large room with four beds and some chairs. I passed the night in the room with one bed, and as I got up the next morning I passed by the other room. What a sight to see seven children, a mother, and a grandmother all piled together in four small beds. And this is a family doing relatively well. Both Maria Elena and her husband have good, formal sector jobs with steady income. I find it so fascinating to see how people live and how unbelievably relative needs and wants really are. The first night I didn’t sleep very well – it’s hot, there are no pillows anywhere to be found, the rain thunders down on the roof. But by the end of my time there, I was sleeping like a baby and feeling so privileged to have the opportunity to spend some time with this amazing family. The kids were so entertaining and welcoming, and the oldest daughter actually spent a day with me, helping me find a bunch of the women I needed to interview. What a great experience.
While I was definitely sad to say goodbye to Maria Elena and her family, it was wonderful to escape the heat and return to the beautiful, cool highlands. I’ve spent the last week and half since then hanging out in Panajachel, working out of the office to write up the journals and helping Friendship Bridge document some of their policies and procedures for utilizing Kiva, putting together a master database of their Kiva clients, etc. While working in the office is certainly not nearly as exciting as getting out in the field, I am so glad to be able to get to know the people working here a bit better, and will hopefully be able to leave a little bit of lasting value for the organization from the projects that I’m working on. I can’t believe I only have one week left with Friendship Bridge before I head to Guatemala City to work with another microfinance institution, FAPE. I’ve been in touch with the director of FAPE and he has been extremely helpful and welcoming. It’s going to be fascinating to see how another MFI works. I’ll definitely be sad to say goodbye to Friendship Bridge and Panajachel, but it’s really exciting to be going to a smaller MFI that hasn’t been working with Kiva all that long. I really hope to be able to add a lot of value to their organization in terms of learning about Kiva and how to best utilize this resource. No doubt, the adventure continues!