Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Caitlin Garcia-Ahern is a Southern girl with a wanderlust soul.  Her love for travel has taken her all around the world and even inspired her to start her own tour company. Thread Caravan combines Caitlin’s passion for travel, design, fair trade and social justice, while offering her clients a meaningful way to see the world.  Beyond providing a unique experience for travelers, Thread Caravan supports local artisan communities by bringing new opportunities to generate income and a sustainable platform to share their craft with others.  We recently had the chance to catch up with Caitlin and find out more about her company, favorite travel spots and adventures of living abroad.

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Full Name & Hometown:
Caitlin Garcia-Ahern // Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Astrology Sign: Gemini

Nauhal: Ix

How did you end up living in Guatemala?
I first came down to Guatemala 7 years ago on a Spring Break trip with friends. When I had the idea to start Thread Caravan, I knew it had to be here for multiple reasons: I had contacts here, it’s close enough to the US that it’s easy for travelers to come, and the weaving is absolutely stunning! I also knew that if I was launching the first Thread Caravan trips here, I would need to be here full-time myself, not just passing through. So I decided to make the move.

Tell us more about your company Thread Caravan.
Thread Caravan is a travel company that offers artisan adventurers around the world. Our trips connect travelers to indigenous artisans. Through this connection they are able to learn about traditional craft practices firsthand and gain an appreciation and understanding for the handmade process. We hope that both travelers and artisans are able to gain a greater sense of empathy and understanding through cross-cultural connections. Also, by employing artisans in marginalized communities, we work to preserve cultural art forms and thus some of the world’s authentic diversity.

What inspired you to start a tourism company?
I never imagined myself owning a tour company. The idea of Thread Caravan really just came together as a merging of my interests and skills.

I initially had the idea while chatting with a friend Alex, fresh from an environmental film project in Alaska where he’d been working with a group of Native American Indians who were facing economic pressures and looking for new sources of income that wouldn’t exploit their land or culture. Thus the idea was born: craft/cultural tourism, a way to empower artisans, providing them a livelihood in exchange for them teaching their craft to travelers.

Prior to having this a-ha idea moment, I’d been working with fairtrade companies, but felt there was something lacking – I was finding a gap between maker and consumer. Thread Caravan provided a solution to this as well, bridging the gap between maker and consumer through education, so that people feel more inclined to opt for quality over quantity and buy fairtrade. And so that when they buy fairtrade, they aren’t buying blindly just to “do good”, but instead they have a real understanding of the actual process of making the item, where the materials come from, who made it, how it supports the community. etc.

As an artist and a teacher, this is a way for me to use those skills in a way that provides solutions and empowers other artisans.

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Where do you hope to see Thread Caravan in the next 5 years?
My first goal is to offer consistent livelihood support to the artisans we work with. To do this, our trips need to be more frequent (once a month or once a season), which is something we’re building up to. I’d also like to work with more artisans, offering our travelers a diverse trip selection. I’d like destinations to span all continents and art forms to span all mediums – textiles, dance, cooking, making musical instruments, etc.

Aside from more trips, I’d like to partner with a non-profit organization in creating a scholarship program so people from marginalized communities who cannot afford the trips can be sponsored to attend.

Also, I’m working on creating a library of videos that goes deeper into the crafts — offering more insight into the handmade process, the makers behind the craft, the source of the materials and the impact the craft has on its community. Our trips are a great way for people to learn about arts, but with these videos, we’ll be able to offer even more insight.

What are the biggest challenges of living abroad?
This varies from place to place. For me in Guatemala, my biggest challenge is dealing with the machismo culture. Although women are starting to earn more respect here, it’s a slow and complicated process. It’s difficult to live in a place where I feel uncomfortable being stared at and objectified every time I leave the house. (During the photos for this very blog post, it was two police officers making the sexual facial expressions). How can you feel protected in a place where the police are just as guilty as the ones they’re supposed to be protecting you from? What’s even more difficult is that I know Guatemalan women have it way worse.

There are plenty of ways Guatemalans and foreigners can work to chip away at this problem, making it a safer, more comfortable place for women to live, but it is a long process to change something deeply ingrained in the culture.

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You’ve obviously been to many places, do you have a favorite city? Favorite country?

Every country I’ve been to has it’s own unique qualities, and I sort my favorites more by specific category than overall favorite. For nature, Iceland was a favorite. My friend and I travelled there for a month, exploring the landscape, camping along the way. For art and textiles, I love Guatemala. For exploring the ocean, I love Hawaii. For the people, Cambodia is my favorite. The list goes on…

But my favorite city is hands-down New Orleans. It’s an incredible place to live (I lived there for 4.5 years) and also to visit (as long as you do more than just Bourbon Street). My favorite thing about New Orleans is being able to see funky live music any night of the week, with folks playing real instruments, not just playing music from their computer. I also love how spontaneous the city can be. If you’re walking down the street casually, it’s not uncommon to be invited to hang out on someone’s porch for a beer and/or BBQ.

How many stamps do you currently have in your passport?
37 (including entry + exit stamps)

What’s the next country you plan to visit?
Mexico. I’ll be heading up at the beginning of April for Thread Caravan’s mezcal and mole-making workshop in Oaxaca.

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Any travel advice for people planning a trip abroad?
So much advice, but a few things that stand out immediately:

  1. Do more with your trip: Gone are the days when it’s commonplace to travel to faraway lands and stay at a resort the entire time. If you’re traveling to a foreign place, take the chance to experience it. Connect with the locals. Try the food. Learn a new skill. This is what Thread Caravan is all about. One of our main goals is to help travelers go deeper into their travel experiences. It can be hard to get off the tourist track if you only have a week in a place. With Thread Caravan trips, we skip right to the good stuff and connect you with the locals who you work with hands-on to learn a craft specific to the local culture.
  2. Just go: Sure everyone has different circumstances that allow (or don’t allow) them to travel. But if the chance arises for you, just go! So many times I’ve spent all my savings to make a trip happen, and every time it’s been worth it. Travel alone. Be spontaneous. Traveling is a great opportunity to challenge yourself in new ways.
  3. Be empathetic: The culture and customs of wherever you’re going will likely be different than your home. That’s the point. Don’t try to change other customs by forcing your own upon others. Go at it with an open mind, and accept the different ways of life. Some things you see may be sad and others may be inspiring. Learn from your experiences and bring that newfound knowledge and perspective back with you to your home after your trip.