How did I end up crammed in the back of a pickup truck with fourteen other people, traversing the mountainous Guatemalan countryside?  Or miles deep in the forest, following locals to a natural spring?  Or how about the market of Momostenango – overwhelmed by vibrant colors, food, and aromas? 

Last February, the team and I found ourselves on a wild adventure with just one goal in mind: to capture a story.  All we had was the gear on our backs and the attitude to “get sh*t done.”  

I have to tell you…it’s a journey I never imagined experiencing.  

So – why exactly did we go to Guatemala?  

Since it was founded, Upstream has thrived on a constant influx of creative projects requested by our clients. Last year, however, Upstream was inspired to do something different – to give back to both to the community at large and to its employees. Each of us was given the opportunity to nominate a non-profit that we believed was deserving of a pro-bono video project. 

This really hit home for me – it’s amazing that we were encouraged to shine a light on our individual passions while coming together to help an organization that would benefit from our work. Needless to say, I was thrilled when Upstream narrowed down the list of prospects to ultimately choose my nominee: First Things Foundation.

FTF is a non-profit organization with a simple mission to support local visionaries in their quest for a better life. Here’s how it works: field workers are sent overseas for a year of “immersionship.” This is a time to learn the language, work in the fields, and get to know this new culture intimately. The following year, the field workers get together with local visionaries, called “Impresarios”, to identify the projects to move forward with. Together, they work to bring the Impresario’s vision to life, without the locals ever once feeling like they have been told what to do by an outsider.

Learn more about FTF here.  

Before we know it, the team and I are on a plane heading to Guatemala.  Our specific assignment is to capture the essence of a “Keipi Journey”- a weeklong excursion funded by donors that takes you to incredible places filled with incredible people.  This shared value donation is a major source of FTF’s funding.

After a 7-hour flight, we finally land in Guatemala City. We’re greeted by my old college roommate, Andrew Schwark, who works for FTF.  We immediately hop on a bus with FTF leader John, two other field workers, and seven high school students embarking on their Keipi Journey.  Our first destination is Lake Atitlán, which, according to the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt, is the “most beautiful lake in the world.” 

It better be. We add six hours to our travel time – an unpleasant trip thanks to countless speed bumps, pot holes, wrong turns, and our bus driver’s lead foot. We arrive late at night, exhausted and famished, but the FTF staff doesn’t skip a beat. They spring into action to cook a delicious meal consisting of steak, vegetables and fresh guacamole. They even have to add small amounts of bleach to the water to kill dangerous bacteria. 

The next morning, we wake up to discover that this beautiful lake absolutely does live up to its reputation. We spend the day boating, eating lunch, and boarding the bus once again to travel to our destination for the rest of the week – Momostenango.

The Keipi Journey we’re here to document is centered here, and it’s the village that FTF primarily works in.  Situated in the North-West of Totonicapán, in the Western highlands of Guatemala, Momostenango is extremely impoverished and seems forgotten by the rest of the world.  Before we even hop off the bus, I take note of some striking images: droves of homeless dogs treated like rodents, overrunning the streets; piles of trash in the forests due to lack of waste removal services; hitchhikers jumping into the back of pick-up trucks; women who walk countless miles on mountain roads carrying heavy baskets on their heads.

Our time in Momostenango is educational, exhausting, and eye-opening. Every day, we visit various parts of the village to meet different people. The key individuals we are there to see are a handful of amazing Impresarios that FTF works with closely. Abraham is a teacher who runs a free school for the local kids. Dario is a local baker who has his own storefront after humble beginnings selling bread out of his carIxim is a company run by two men and a woman who provide accountable, fair loans to the surrounding villages. These individuals make an incredibly positive impact on the community, and the stories they share with us illustrate the profound importance of FTF.  

We also meet the folks at Health&Help, a Russian medical clinic that FTF helped build to supply free medical care to the surrounding community. Located thirty minutes outside the city, we bounce around in the back of a pick-up truck to get there. Our tour of the facility gives us first-hand confirmation of its level of care – people often travel up to an hour just to come here because they trust it more than the clinics closer to home. 

There’s a school next door – with only two classrooms – where FTF field workers spend time teaching children English. School is in session, and giggling children swarm around us as we enter the building, goofing around and trying to converse with us “gringos”.  They’re particularly excited to see our drone in action, and are awestruck when I show them aerial shots of their school in real time.

Our last stop is to a village 45 minutes away from Momostenango. Piled in the back of yet another pickup truck, we wind through the mountains and forests to meet with a group of people who have been trying to get the green light for a project for over a decade. Their mission: to pipe running water twelve miles from a natural spring to a village. We hike two miles through dense forest to find the spring, and we watch them perform a ritual over the water. They’re eager to describe the project and ask for FTF’s assistance. I realize that we’re witnessing the potential beginning of a new Impresario project.  Afterwards, we return to the village where they cook a delicious lunch for our group.  It’s mind-blowing to witness the generosity of our new friends that have very little, but still find so much joy in serving a meal to others.  This is the type of humility you don’t get to witness every day.

Above everything, my favorite experience in Guatemala is the traditional “Keipi Dinner” – a tradition from the Georgia Republic centering around a feast that involves toasts and deep conversation. Our crew joins twenty locals, workers from the Russian clinic, and other travelers on top of our hotel. I look around at this melting pot of American, Guatemalan, Russian, Chinese, and Portuguese people coming together. Our language barriers don’t matter; we connect using broken English, Spanish, and even charades. This is truly the essence of a Keipi Dinner – go to a foreign place, share new experiences, and form new relationships despite our cultural differences.

After a long week of documenting, we put our cameras away to simply enjoy our last night with our new friends in Antigua. I reflect on the culture shock I feel from being in Guatemala and the overwhelming sights, sounds, and smells I’ve experienced here. After everything, however, I realize that I wasn’t just learning about the city and its people – I learned how the industry I work in can have a profound effect on the world around me. My team has the ability to produce a pro-bono project that makes a positive impact on a non-profit, a village of incredible people, and ourselves as Upstream employees.  I am grateful to see creative freedom used for this purpose.

Now we’re home, and the hours of interviews and footage await us in the edit suite.  We’re all very excited to finish this project – one that we chose to put our hard work in and that captures the essence of First Things Foundation.  

Be on the lookout for the video soon. Look below to see more pictures!