School Update

The week before our vacation, we suddenly heard about the potential for students to return to school. Our students have not been present in school in person since March of 2020. That’s 2020, y’all, not this most recent March. They have now spent 16 months out of school, mostly learning through videos at home. I haven’t even met the vast majority of my students. (I have met two students at church. Two. And I’m pretty sure that one of my students sat across the aisle from me in the bus one time when I was going into town to buy groceries because I got stared at more than the usual level of “You’re a white person in Guatemala, what are you doing on the bus?” It seems strange to me that students may feel like they know me since they see me in videos every week, but I literally don’t know what they look like.) So it was with great excitement that we learned that the government was maybe, possibly going to allow students to return to school. There were just a whole bunch of hoops we had to jump through. 

The first thing was a questionnaire sent home to parents so that they could indicate whether they would want their children to attend in person or whether they would want to continue their learning at home. Parents needed to send that questionnaire back the first week after vacation. (Parents come and pick up/drop off a packet of homework weekly, so that was to be included in the packet that week.)

Parents were pretty divided on the issue, with some parents wanting kids to be back in school but others wanting them to be in the safety of their homes. However, the point has become moot with recent Covid 19 case counts rising rapidly in the country. Our department (region) is very solidly in the red, and restrictions have increased again. Rumours of full hospitals abound, and we will not likely be seeing students in person any time soon. 

While this is a wise safety measure in a country with a struggling health system at the best of times, it’s also frustrating and devastating to not have had students in school for the last sixteen months. Many of you, my dear readers, are parents or teachers. You have seen the effects of at-home learning in your own lives. Many of you have felt the effects of working from home. I’m sure that you can imagine the devastation of those effects compounded over such a long time. 

Those effects are even more devastating with even more compounding factors – students living in homes where parents are dealing with unemployment or underemployment and a very minimal social safety net, parents struggling with alcoholism, parents who both have to go to work meaning older siblings are responsible for younger siblings while trying to make sure everyone gets their school work done, too. 

It’s frustrating to be able to see from the outside how broken the system is and yet to feel so powerless to do anything to change the system.

We do have some students in person – 23, to be exact. The children of staff members come with their parents to school on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. They have in-person classes, and in between teaching those students, we complete all our other duties – filming videos, editing videos, grading papers that came in on the latest Friday, and preparing lessons and homework packets for the upcoming week. 

I love, love, love having students in person. I teach a total of three students in person (bringing the total number of students I actually know to five!), and it brings me a lot of joy to actually build relationships with them, to see them growing in their English skills, to get to know them in a way I just cannot get to know students who are learning from Facebook videos. But what I love most is the way I see the blessing they receive from being here at school, the impact that being in person has on them. I see the impact of them being in class, being able to ask questions and participate, being able to get to know their teachers. More importantly, I see the impact of them being in devotions together at the start of every school day, spending time in worship and prayer, being ministered to and prayed for by staff members. And yet, seeing them impacted in this way, my heart breaks for all of the students who CANNOT be with us, who are missing out on these experiences. 

But every time that I am tempted to despair, God reminds me that God is not limited by students’ presence (or absence). God can work in students’ and families’ lives in the interactions that we do have with students, in whatever medium that happens. 

If you’re not following Global Shore on social media, you should be! But if you aren’t, then you missed a story that reminded me of exactly this fact (posted on July 26 if you’d like to find it to read for yourself). Let me paraphrase for you here. Leo, the school librarian and substitute teacher, told about a new student who was having a hard time. The student wasn’t a Christian and didn’t want to be in a Christian school. But his parents insisted on him attending. As he heard teachers begin class with prayer and explain Bible passages, his heart began to change. When he was invited to attend the every-other-week pre-teen services, he accepted the invitation. His parents are seeing a change in his attitude and life just from these experiences.

This story was a reminder to me that we often don’t know how God is moving, but we can trust that God is. We will move forward in faith and in faithfulness, doing what God is calling us to do in this season. And if you’d like, you can join me in praying for students’ hearts to be receptive to what God is doing, and pray for students to be able to return to school in person. 

Meet My Roommate: Tegan!

Dear readers, please meet my friend, colleague, and roommate, Tegan.

Tegan and I went to lunch one Saturday at a nursery/restaurant. After enjoying our meal, we wandered around enjoying the plants – including these absolutely gigantic cacti.

Tegan is one of my fellow TEFL (English) teachers here in Guatemala. Today you’ll get to know her a little bit, find out a bit of her story, and get another glimpse into life here through her perspective. 

Before coming to Guatemala, Tegan was working as a middle school math teacher in Dayton, Ohio. Teaching middle school can be difficult at the best of times, but when you’re doing it in the inner city as a beginner teacher, it can be downright draining. Tegan loved her students, but the teaching wasn’t what she had imagined it to be. She had also reached the extent of what the public school administration would let her do as a Christian teaching in their midst. Tegan has a heart very much focused on bringing people into the Kingdom of God, and her work at the middle school wasn’t giving her the opportunity to do this. Eventually, Tegan made up her mind to leave her school at the Christmas break of 2020 and look for what God might have in store for her next. 

During the week of American Thanksgiving, Dayton made the unique decision to close their public schools due to the most recent wave of Covid spreading through Ohio. They didn’t move to online classes; they just took a month of vacation. This was essentially summer break, taken early. (I know. It’s a mind-boggling decision.) Since Tegan had already been planning to leave the school, this felt like fortuitous timing. She did something she otherwise wouldn’t normally have done: she scrolled through her numerous unread emails. And there, waiting for her in God’s timing, was an email from Beth at Global Shore. (Not me – our boss, Beth, the TEFL director here!)

Tegan had sent an inquiry email via a missions website some time earlier and had more or less forgotten about Global Shore. But God was working out the details behind the scenes. 

Within days, Tegan had interviewed with Beth, been hired, and began the process of planning to move to another country. 

Having a very English name in a non-English country means sometimes you look at your Starbucks cup and just laugh. Tegan = Steven?

So now, Tegan works here at GSO with me! We live in the ministry house in the school compound. We go for a 5k run through the hills together each Saturday morning. And while I teach middle school English classes here, Tegan has discovered a love for the primary grades. She’s responsible for the JK through grade 3 classes. 

I wish pictures did a better job of depicting how steep hills are… the second half of this run is no joke!

Tegan refers to her new work as being a “part time Dora the Explorer”. We joke that with our newfound video-editing skills, we will be able to have part-time side hustles as YouTubers. Like me, Tegan has the students of staff members in person three days a week, and around those classes and on the days without students, she’s busily writing lesson plans for both in-person and at home students, recording videos with her cohost Mr. Monkey, editing videos (complete with a lot of clip art for those primary students), grading student work, and all of the host of other things that make up a teacher’s life. Tegan is a wonderful primary teacher, playing games with her students, engaging them in different learning experiences, figuring out how they best learn, and discovering all of the things that work differently in primary classes. I am so glad for Tegan – and I also wish her all the best. I will stick happily with my middle school classes, thank you very much! 

Tegan’s Spanish is much more advanced than mine, which has given her the desire and opportunity to jump wholeheartedly into a connection group (or small group) from the church. She loves to worship, loves to serve, and loves to see Christ glorified. 

I’m so glad we’re here together, colleagues, roommates, and now friends. 

On our way to church

Tegan is also finishing up her fundraising for this year. If you have even $10 or $20 extra that you can donate to her costs here, I know she would appreciate it! (And no, she didn’t ask me to say that!) 

Catching Up: Vacations and Vaccinations

Sorry, friends! It’s been a little while! When I went to my blog to post this, I was actually a little shocked at just how long! I was taking an AQ course online from mid-April through mid-June, and as the workload ramped up toward the end of the course, all of my free time outside of school was dedicated to homework and projects, and not to blog writing. Then we had our mid-year break from school here, and I took the opportunity to rest and relax, but now I have a lot to catch you up on!

Let’s start with that reference to a mid-year break. Remember that our school year in Guatemala runs from January through October. We had a week off for semana santa (holy week) – sort of like March break in its timing and length. We have two weeks off mid-year – sort of like Christmas break in its length and in its relative timing, but obviously corresponding with the start of summer break in North America. And then kids will have two months off in November and December. 

Normally, mid-year break would be a time to go back to Canada. I can imagine that in a normal year, I would have excitedly been setting up times to meet and hang out with as many people as I could, as well as carefully considering what supplies I needed here to get me through the rest of the year – things that are pretty hard to find in Guatemala. 

My roommates and me in the airport waiting for our flights. Since they are both American, a negative Covid test was the only protocol they needed to get back home for vacation.

But 2020 and 2021 have not been normal, have they? Canada’s entry rules have changed recently, but let me remind you that until they did, any Canadian coming home to Canada needed to stay in a hotel quarantine for 3 days at an expense of upwards of $1500. And then, as long as a Covid test came back negative, the rest of the 14 day quarantine could be carried out at home. 

Well, a two week vacation with a 14 day quarantine wouldn’t actually allow me enough time to be quarantined at home before needing to leave the house to get a Covid test to be able to return to Guatemala. And for obvious reasons, I could not afford the $1500 hotel stay. 

As a side note, I have to say that I’m so grateful to live in a country that has taken the pandemic seriously. I think these rules are important (even if I disagree with needing to quarantine in a hotel). I just wish they didn’t apply to ME in this PARTICULAR SITUATION. 

Meanwhile, I had to leave Guatemala. I’m here on a tourist visa. I get paid in Canada, which makes everything CRA- and OHIP-related much easier, and also avoids the need for lots of paperwork to work in Guatemala. And that 90 day tourist visa is why we had to go to the city in March to renew our visas. But after 180 days, you really do need to get out of the country for 72 hours or start paying a fine that accrues daily. 

So I needed to leave the country, but I wouldn’t be able to go to Canada. (Thankfully, if you remember, the regulations were put in place at the end of January, so I’d had a lot of time to anticipate not being able to go home. It would have been a lot harder if it had been a surprise.) If Canadian teachers here at GSO decide not to go to Canada during their mid-year break, they will usually opt for a short flight over to Costa Rica for three days (can’t be Honduras, El Salvador, or Nicaragua due to country agreements) and then a return flight, just long enough to be out of the country for the mandated 72 hours. That’s what I was counting on for a long time. But then my director Beth and I started talking about details, and we hatched a new plan. 

There are direct flights to the US from Guatemala City, and some of the cities where you can fly to are in states that don’t have residency requirements in order to get a vaccine. So… what if I went somewhere in the US for these 72 hours, got vaccinated, and then returned, and could make my eventual return to Canada a lot easier (in addition to obviously being better protected against Covid here in the meantime anyway?!)

If you do some googling about getting a Covid vaccine in the US, it won’t be long before you come across vaccine tourism websites. I clearly was not the only person with this idea. A flight to Miami was out, because Florida required residency in order to receive a vaccine. One of my roommates invited me to come to her place, but her state also had residency requirements. But Houston or Dallas? Texas doesn’t require proof of residency to receive a vaccine! (Probably a wise public health choice if you’re hoping to get a population of undocumented immigrants vaccinated.) I booked a flight and hotel and started researching vaccine appointments. 

Going to the US actually made my break significantly easier in some ways. I had to navigate some extra steps – Covid protocols, procuring a Covid test to re-enter Guatemala, and of course, getting vaccinated, and it was so convenient to be able to do that in English. It was also really nice to go to Target and get some of those things that are hard to find here. And let’s be real, it was also pretty great to go to Starbucks every day!

Actually getting vaccinated was pretty easy. I booked an appointment at a pharmacy (booking ahead of time gave me the peace of mind that I would really be able to accomplish a key objective of my trip). I requested the Johnson and Johnson vaccine – maybe not my first choice if I’d been able to choose anything else, but getting a one-dose vaccine was my only way to end up fully vaccinated. I showed up at the pharmacy, they took my Canadian passport as my official ID without any comment, vaccinated me, and sent me on my way, no questions asked. 

Hooray! I wondered so much about the details of getting vaccinated in a foreign country that just being done with it all was such a relief!

I’ve thought and wondered a lot about the ethical side of getting vaccinated in a country where I’m not a resident, don’t pay taxes, and don’t contribute to the vaccination rate since I got vaccinated and promptly left. I’ve thought a lot about talking about it too. I considered my privilege in being able to get vaccinated before anyone I know here – the privilege of being able to fly into the US (you need a visa if you’re Guatemalan), the privilege of being able to afford the trip even on my stipend. In the end, any doubts I had were far outweighed by the reassurance that I am so much less likely to get Covid, meaning I can be a firebreak in the transmission of Covid. In a country with so few vaccinations so far, I can be one more vaccinated person. It helps a whole lot that with Canada’s most recent regulation changes, I can also be hopeful about not paying for a hotel quarantine when I return. 

Okay. I feel like this is a long enough blog for today. Catching up is going to be a several week long endeavour after two months (😬😬) away. I’ve got a couple of future blog topics planned, including regaling you with stories and pictures of Dallas.

Enjoy your weekend, and if you are an Ontario friend, I look forward to catching up with you in person in November when I really will be able to come back home!

La Bodegona: A Guatemalan Grocery Store Experience

Imagine your usual grocery trip in Canada. You grab a cart and head into a big, spacious, clean, well lit grocery store. Sure, sure – nowadays with Covid protocols, you might need to stop for a temperature check and hand sanitizer first, and the aisles are now designated as one way. But you can easily pop in, find what you need, read aisle labels if you need to find anything new, and have an enjoyable experience. 

Well, my friends, that is not my average grocery shopping experience. You’ve already read about the market experience here, but today I’m going to talk about the grocery store itself. La Bodegona

It’s a grocery store chain here in Guatemala, and to be fair to the Bodegona, I’ve only gone to the Antigua location, which – by virtue of the fact that it’s in a historic colonial city with limits on construction and renovation, might be a unique experience even within Guatemala. 

The Bodegona stretches an entire city block from north to south. We usually enter on the north side, do a temperature scan, get hand sanitizer, and grab a cart. There’s a security guard posted at the entrance, and very occasionally he’ll tell me to put my backpack in a locker instead of allowing me to take it into the store. But my backpack only ever has reusable grocery bags in it if I’m going grocery shopping, and it’s part of my strategy to be able to use my backpack in addition to these bags to get all of my groceries home. The last time that this happened, this past week, I stared at the guard for several seconds, trying desperately to think of the word empty in Spanish, to defend me taking it into the store. When I finally remembered and explained that my backpack was empty, he waved me on. Unclear whether that was actual capitulation or just not wanting to have to bother insisting on it. 

So then we enter into the Bodegona proper. The first half is sort of open warehouse with… some sort of semblance of general organization. It’s mostly household goods, not food. There are no signs on aisles, so you just sort of have to wander to find what you want. Also, if goods are being unpacked, there’s going to be a whole ton of stuff on the floor, and you just need to wind your way through the maze. Yes, having an actual cart might make this harder. (Because I’m only shopping for one person, I’ve started using the smaller cart that’s more like a basket with wheels. It’s a helpful strategy here because I can just lift the basket and step over or around things when I’m intent on moving forward instead of backtracking through the maze.)

Then you’ll need to pass through a small doorway into the next section, and congratulations, we’ve made it into the food section of the store. Oh, did you want pasta noodles? Sorry, you’ll have to go back to the household goods. I don’t know why pasta noodles are there. I don’t make the rules. I didn’t organize this place. There’s a bunch of produce in this narrow space in between, but I usually skip past that (market produce is fresher and cheaper). You can buy butter as long as you’re willing to cry over the price (approximately $10 for a 2 cup block). Cheese? Even worse. Are you looking for milk? Why are you looking in the refrigerated section? Everyone knows that milk is pasteurized and shelf-stable until you open the carton! 

Now make your way into the next warehouse space. Aisles are even narrower, so good luck if you need to pass someone. Also good luck if you are looking for something and your intuitive understanding of where to look for it turns up nothing. It’s very possible that the Bodegona carries what you’re looking for, and maybe you’ll find it on a subsequent visit, but you can’t look at any signs to help you out! 

One of the most classic things the Bodegona is known for is taping items together. If you’re buying that bottle of pop, wouldn’t you like this smaller bottle of pop for free? Or with that set of tomato sauce, a free plastic container? Or with that bag of chips, a free pencil case? When you’re buying ketchup, you certainly want a free hand sanitizer, right? There’s actually a Facebook group called (and pardon the language, I didn’t name it!) “Shit Taped Together at the Bodegona”.

Ketchup and hand sanitizer… why not?

Very occasionally, these items actually make a certain logic. When we first arrived, we obviously needed to buy toilet paper and hand soap to supply our house. I couldn’t find the hand soap anywhere in the store. I was sure they had some, just for the life of me, I could not locate it. But what I could find was packs of toilet paper with hand soap taped onto them. Yes, please and thank you. 

Pancake mix (banana nut flavoured, no less) with some complimentary spaghetti… 🤷🏻‍♀️

I also didn’t think too much about how this stuff gets put together, until one time I was grocery shopping and came across an employee taping chip bags onto bottles of pop (another great combo). Imagine if your job is just taping stuff together at the grocery store….

And then one day your boss tells you to tape cans of refried beans onto cereal???

Another thing I can’t make sense of at the grocery store is the supply chain. Sometimes they have things, and sometimes they don’t. One week you can easily find and buy the paper liners for your muffin tins and then for the next three weeks, sorry, unavailable. Any food staples are reliable, but if you want anything at all out of the ordinary, well… may God be with you.

One final note in defense of the chaos that is the Bodegona: because they are in Antigua, there is no storage in the store. They store all of their extra goods across the street, and if you’re ever walking down that street and not really paying attention, you may be in danger of being run over by some guys pushing a pallet over on a cart in order to bring new goods into the grocery store. 

In comparison to the Bodegona experience, most Sundays after church, we go to La Torre, a fancy grocery store right down the street from the church. If you want to see all the white people that Antigua and Jocotenango have to offer, just go to La Torre on a Sunday. It’s clean, with wide, well-labelled aisles. It’s a delight of order and organization and cleanliness and good lighting after the Bodegona. You also have to pay for those , so as someone on a strict budget, I don’t do more than pick up the one or two items that the Bodegona doesn’t carry (looking at you, Nature Valley granola bars!) and occasionally an item or two I realize that I’ve forgotten in my regular grocery trip. 

In general, I have nothing to complain about (except the price of butter. Seriously.) Almost anything I want – let alone need – is easily available, and I am happy to have such a well stocked, diverse supply of food easily accessible to where I live. Just trying to convey the full Bodegona experience!

Why Going to the Mall Makes for an Incredibly Exciting Weekend

I used to live in a pretty big city. If I needed to run an errand on the way home from work, I might occasionally complain about the traffic, but I could pick up or do what I needed to. I had a lot of independence, being able to drive where I needed to, and a lot of access to stores and all that they held. Stuff was close by, and there was a lot of stuff to be had. 

To a large extent, that changed with the onset of the Covid pandemic. I didn’t mind the lack of a commute, especially because for the first time EVER in my teaching career, I legitimately put my work away at the end of the school day and didn’t work on it until the next day. Literally – I had a school computer that I turned off at 4 o’clock each afternoon, and I after powering it down, I didn’t think any more about school work. It was great. I wasn’t running errands, but I also had all that I needed. I enjoyed the additional time to get outside and go for a run (especially as my health improved post-surgery), and I also read a LOT of the books that had been sitting unread on my bookshelves for so long. 

Here in Guatemala, I live at the top of a giant hill outside of a tiny village. It’s at least a 10 minute walk plus 20 minute bus ride into Antigua. We don’t go out at night for our safety – if we’re going anywhere in the dark, it’s to church and it’s with someone in a car. One time a week, my roommates and I go into town for groceries. The actual day might vary – if we go with Fred (who has a car, and therefore can make it a significantly shorter trip), it’s worth going on a weekday afternoon. We can leave shortly after school and easily make it back before dark and before supper. If we go on our own, we need to manage our time quite carefully, and we usually take an Uber back because #1) who wants to hike up a giant hill with a week’s worth of groceries in one’s arms and #2) it does get one back home faster than the bus and #3) it’s $7. $7 CAD with a healthy tip. I don’t know how Uber drivers can possibly make a living here. 

So. We go out for groceries, and we leave the compound for church. Otherwise, the only time I’m outside of the school compound (which is also, of course, where I live) is if I walk down the hill in the afternoon just to turn around and walk back up (“It’s such great exercise!” I sometimes have to tell myself when I’m asking myself why I do that willingly and “for fun” and not when I’m going somewhere) or when Tegan and I go for a longer run on Saturday morning (and then our reward for finishing a 5k run on a hilly course through the mountains is having to hike back up the giant hill to get home. It’s great. I love it every time. 😐😐)

And that, my friends, is why driving to a mall on a Sunday afternoon that’s all the way across Guatemala City is the best excitement one could have all month. It’s an outdoor mall, so it felt very Covid safe, with lots of social distancing and everyone required to wear masks even outside. It is easily the most beautiful place I’ve been to here so far. I am sure some of my friends are thinking to themselves, “But Bethany hates malls.” I do. And I hate long drives. But it was worth it because we went somewhere and did something. That’s really saying something! 😆😇

This week, Fred is talking about going to a different grocery store and offered to take us along. That’s literally our most exciting thing for this week – a different grocery store. Yep, I am living large here, up on a hilltop in rural Guatemala in the middle of a pandemic. 😂🤣

It really is an incredibly beautiful mall though! Apparently its architecture is styled after Spain?
It has this statue which, besides the oddly provocative pose, is very beautiful
This double decker bus is a restaurant – they make the food in the downstairs part and you can eat upstairs or outside

Life in Guatemala Volume 12: In Which a Foreigner Tries to Explain Guatemalan Covid Protocols with a Minimal Amount of Knowledge

Okay, look. One of the purposes of my blog is to give you a sense of what my daily life is like here. I think that – especially given the current global situation (you know… the pandemic) and even more specifically the current situation for a big portion of my readership (friends and families in Ontario… in yet another lockdown), I think this topic is very timely and will be very interesting. 

But I am not an expert. I’m just a foreigner, a white person who doesn’t speak Spanish all that well, and who doesn’t know all the ins and outs of Covid protocols in this country I currently call home. I’m just writing about my own experiences, and all of this is anecdotal. This is not an official reporting.

Okay, let’s get on with it. 

Guatemala had very strict lockdown measures for quite a long period of time in 2020. For quite obvious reasons, these were challenging for many Guatemalans, especially those who count on the day’s work to provide the day’s food. Many Guatemalans do not have work that can be done from home. 

As lockdown measures lifted last fall, cases stayed more or less steady at around 400 or 500 cases a day (in a country of some 16.6 million people). Daily case counts rose a bit shortly after Christmas to 800 a day, but they dropped back down again to around 500. That number slowly crept up over the next few months, though, and it saw a drastic rise in April. I have a suspicion that the timing – and cultural and religious importance – of Easter has a lot to do with that (even with no Holy Week celebrations here in a city that has the biggest Holy Week celebrations in the world outside of the Vatican – that’s a major indication of the government’s attempt to prevent Covid spread!). Daily case counts peaked around 1350, and they’re slowly dropping again – but still at around 1100 a day, quite far above the earlier 400 or 500 a day. 

Thank you, worldometers.info for these graphs!

So what is actually happening to prevent the spread of Covid? Here are a couple of the factors that most heavily affect my life. 

Mask wearing is mandated in any public space. That means that if you’re not inside your house (or I guess some other private space – although it really matters what that is), then you’re wearing a mask. Yes, that can be hot. You just have to suck it up. Yes, most of the photos that I have of me out and about are me in a mask. It’s okay – really just part of Covid life, right? I will immediately know when those photos were taken when I look back at them in the future. 

Basically every picture of me outside of the school compound where I live – always wearing a mask.

Capacity is reduced for anything where capacity can be restricted. Church is currently meeting at reduced capacity, with all of the chairs spread out across the floor, two metres apart from the nearest neighbour. Doesn’t matter if you’ve come with your spouse or roommates – you’re going to sit two metres apart! Restaurants, buses, stores, basically anything with an indoor space has a reduced capacity. I can’t think of the last time that I entered a place that didn’t have a temperature check (either machine or person) at the entrance along with hand sanitizer.  Buses have signs (or sometimes paint) on the seat indicating where you’re allowed to have two people in a seat and where you’re not – spacing across the aisle. 

Now, do all of these protocols get followed strictly? In some places, absolutely. The church is very strict about protocols, including ensuring we stay distanced as we exit – and we are already dismissed by row to avoid a big crowd as we head to the door. And of course a major benefit is that so much of life happens outside. It’s almost impossible to find a restaurant in Antigua that doesn’t have a courtyard or some kind of outdoor seating. In other situations… I’m skeptical. My roommates and I have joked that often the guy taking temperatures as you get on the bus doesn’t even seem to be looking at the thermometer. I’ve never seen anyone turned away, and not everyone actually pays attention to the signs on the bus seats. And while the bus hypothetically has a capacity limit, I have a feeling that the opportunity to make the bus fare money would win over telling someone the bus is full. 

The bus and the market are definitely the two most dangerous things I do on a weekly basis. There is no social distancing in either space, so I just ensure my mask is in place and remind myself that open windows and open air ventilation (for the market) are helpful, and anything else is beyond my control. 

Of course, students aren’t at school. Parents come every Friday to drop off work from the week and pick up the next week’s work. Every once in a while we’ll get a text from the principal telling us that such and such a student or family has been diagnosed with Covid, so they won’t be coming to school to turn in work for the next two weeks. For Guatemalans, a test is free if they have symptoms. And of course, as with most countries, Covid tests aren’t easy or practical to get for all citizens, so the actual Covid case is certainly higher than the official reported data. If being diagnosed with Covid means having to take time off work and lose income and maybe not be able to buy food for your family, you’re definitely going to pretend you’re feeling fine if you can. 

I read on Reuters that approximately 168,000 doses of Covid vaccines have been given out here. That’s 0.5% of the population. It’ll take a while to get enough vaccines and get enough Guatemalans vaccinated. I will also not be vaccinated myself until I return to Canada in early November. (I need to leave the country for 72 hours  in June for visa purposes, but it looks like I won’t be going to Canada given the current hotel quarantine which is totally out of my budget.) In the meantime, we continue to wait, put our hope in the Lord, and act wisely and with common sense in following Covid protocols and reducing our risk factors. 

Life in Guatemala Volume 11: The Market

The market is a central hub for every village and town across much of the world, but it’s an experience unfamiliar to many North Americans unless they’ve experienced the hustle and bustle of the market in another country. 

Imagine a maze of aisles and stalls, partially indoors and partially outdoors. The outdoor section tends to have slightly wider pathways, but they are almost always crowded with people. Unbelievably, every once in a while, cars will traverse the path. It is technically wide enough for a car to pass through, but the car has to travel so slowly because there are so many people who have to realize that the car is there and squish themselves onto either side to make room. In my last trip to the market, a police pick-up truck passed through, and as it rounded the corner where I was standing, I was very sure that – even with my back plastered against the stall – I was about to have my toes run over. Thankfully my toes were spared, and as soon as the pick-up passed, the path flooded full of people behind it, as if it had never passed through. I don’t know that it helps at all that vehicles can’t enter the “indoor” section of the market (indoor meaning there’s a roof). The aisles are so narrow that sometimes you cannot pass someone coming in the opposite direction without leaning over someone’s wares. That also means that if someone stops at a stall, you might need to wait for oncoming traffic in order to pass around them. 

A rare view: almost empty market aisles

The market sells everything imaginable. It might be easier to list what I have not seen for sale in the market. Here’s a partial list of the things I noticed on my last trip:

  • All manners of food, both fresh and dry goods (like so much packaged noodles)
  • Any kind of meat… just hanging and waiting for you to pick it up
  • Fresh flowers
  • Household cleaning goods
  • Small appliances like blenders
  • Pet supplies – dog leashes, food, etc
  • Umbrellas
  • Knives
  • Clothing (complete with mannequins)
  • Lingerie
  • Shoes
  • Small power tools (like drills)
  • Materials for home repair (plastic piping?)
  • Wallets
  • either wallet organizational systems or fake IDs… I couldn’t quite tell from the rapid-fire Spanish being yelled at me
Anything plastic that you could need or want

As you walk down the aisles, you will hear the sounds of vendors hawking their goods. They’ll call out what they have, yelling prices. In addition to the stalls with vendors, though, there are a lot of people just wandering through the market, selling things they’re carrying. They might range from packaged cotton candy to kitchen knives to SIM cards. Bubble blowers for kids are super popular too – maybe because you can demonstrate what your product does and get a lot of attention that way. I don’t even know how you would attempt to find your way to a vendor like this that wanders. Do you just wander until you find them? Do they stay in the same general area? I have no idea. 

One of the outdoor sections of the market

Our original routine was heading into Antigua and going grocery shopping and then stopping by the market on Saturdays. Saturday morning is definitely a popular time at the market, and it was BUSY. For a while, rumour had it that the market was going to close earlier on Saturdays – like by 1 in the afternoon – because of pandemic measures. I don’t know in what world it helps to have shorter times available to reduce the risk of Covid being spread in a market, because of course, everyone still comes, just in a shorter window of time. So there are more people. That was an insane time. Thankfully, that rule was dropped very quickly.

I don’t buy flowers, but the flower section of the market is gorgeous and worth it to walk through just to enjoy all the colours…
So. Many. Flowers.

Eventually we tried out a weeknight. This also frees up Saturdays for other things. (I personally have been using that time for my coursework now that my class has started again.) An evening trip mid-week is so blessedly calm in the market. I love the hustle and bustle, but I also love being able to walk places, you know? 

Finally, I leave you with my favourite little mannequins. As you walk down the aisle towards these little guys, they always look like they’re ready to start a fight with you. Why are they always posed with their fists up???

Bethany’s Life in Guatemala Volume 10: All Done Homeschooling

I’m all done with my stint in homeschooling. 

I sent the boys off with a whole sheet of stickers to enjoy at home (with apologies to their mother! But they have strict instructions to share with their siblings and not stick them onto anything that shouldn’t have a sticker!) and with some sadness in my heart. I know I’ll still see the boys here at school, but it’s been so great to have classes with them almost daily. I never want to teach a whole class of grade 1 or grade 3 students, but it’s really nice just having two kids, and since almost all of my students are online (and I don’t even get to interact with them – it’s all asynchronous learning), it was really, really nice to have in person classes. 

Plus they’re really funny! They’re seven and nine, so there was a lot of joking and play fighting (sometimes some moments of actual fighting), lots of solar-powered robot demonstrations, rocks brought from home to show me, compass explorations, lots of playing with my Apple watch, and lots and lots of love. 

I’m happy to have a little bit more flexibility in my schedule, but otherwise I’m very sad to pass them off to Eden who will be taking over the homeschooling. She told me that she’ll invite me as a guest speaker and/or guest audience any time they need one! 😆

The extra flexibility in my schedule will be very helpful since I’m starting an AQ course on Monday (Ontario teachers, you know what I’m talking about!), so it’ll be nice not having to take little bits of work home with me to finish at work. I should be back to finishing everything during the school day. Here’s hoping!

Bethany’s Life in Guatemala, Volume 9: Today’s Reflection

Vacation. Sweet, sweet vacation. 

I’m so used to having a March break, a glorious week off of school in mid-March. This isn’t technically March break – it’s semana santa, our Holy Week break. So it actually starts in March this year, but of course, timing varies from year to year based on the actual date of Easter. 

Regardless: I am happy to have a holiday. No days at all off of school – except for last week’s exciting trip to Migración to renew our visas – has been strange for me. 

This is good work. Good, but hard. It’s hard to be teaching students I’ve never met. (Side story: Two weeks ago as we walked through the plaza in front of the Catholic church in Jocotenango on our way to church, a little girl ran up and hugged Tegan and then ran off. We speculated that it was one of her students, but she didn’t say anything, not a “hi”, not a “Miss Reschke”, nothing. Later Tegan got a text saying it had in fact been one of her students. At church, Eden had two different students come up to her and talk, and then outside of the grocery store, another student waved and said hi as he went past with his dad. I had no one. Not a single student greeting me. Poor me!)

It’s hard not knowing students personally. I’m sure it’s incredibly hard for students to be learning only through a video. Probably hard enough for their other subjects anyway, but especially so for English. They would normally be doing so much talking and listening and more talking in class, but who do they get to talk to now? (I had them send me an audio message for their final test of the first quarter. It was so great to hear actual voices and to ensure that my students were doing a little bit of talking, but it’s nothing like what it would be in class.)

When students drop off their work at school every Friday, some of them create these fancy title pages for their work. I’ve never asked them to. They just do it. Small signs that tell me they really care about their work.

If my students are struggling, I just have no way of knowing why. In class, there are lots of hints you can pick up on. Are they just having a bad day? Are they struggling in general with English? Is a particular unit hard? Is one skill particularly hard? I feel like I have no idea right now. Is it because they aren’t watching my teaching videos before they do the homework? Are the instructions unclear? Is there no parent at home ensuring that they do their homework? Are they helping out in a family business for a significant number of hours a day, leaving little time for school work? Who knows?! Certainly not me!

My heart aches for students who can’t be at school and who really need to be. It’s so hard. It’s so, so hard. 

At least now we have a week off to enjoy, guilt-free. 

Bethany’s Life in Guatemala, Volume 8: The Joys (and Pains) of Living Mostly Outside

I love how much outdoor time I get here in Guatemala. While mornings can be a little chilly, the day warms up beautifully almost every single day. Depending on the classroom – the direction its windows face, what side of the building it’s on – sometimes during the day I need to keep my cardigan or blazer on, but lately I’ve been losing that part way through the day. If I’m chilly, I only need to go sit in the beautiful sunshine in the middle of the courtyard, and in a few minutes, I won’t just be warmed up, I’ll be blazingly hot and feeling like I’m getting a sunburn. (Don’t worry, Mom – I don’t stay out in the sun for more than ten minutes at a time! No sunburns here yet!)

Our dining room table is on the porch. We’ve got a roof over our heads for the upcoming rainier months, but otherwise, we always eat outside. Even now, as I write this, I’m sitting inside my “home office”, but I have both windows wide open and it feels like I’m more or less outside. 

I love my home office!

Tangent – but related story: 

This week, in class with one of my in-person students, I read a short picture book and we discussed it. One of her unknown words was picnic. Yes, what is a picnic? You know when you eat outside instead of inside, I told her. That’s a picnic. We went on to the next page until I suddenly realized that that was a horrible description to give to someone in a tropical country. Wait – let’s go back to picnic, I told her. Do you eat outside every day? Yes, she does. Okay. In Canada and a lot of the United States, it’s way too cold to eat outside for most of the year. So people eat inside. A dining room has to be inside. A picnic means taking food to a park and sitting on a blanket to eat. That’s when and where people eat outside in Canada. (It was too complicated to get into patio sets that get set up in backyards during the summer.) It made me realize again how intertwined culture and language are. 

Back to living outside: 

I really enjoy so much outdoor time, but it’s not all a joy. You’ve already seen how allergic I am to things that live outside, so that’s great fun. Another thing that we experience is the invasion of those critters into living spaces very easily. Critters and dust. When you don’t have doors that seal at the bottom and you have screenless windows that you leave open all day, you really just have to sweep almost every day, and you have to be vigilant about food and food storage. Just today, Tegan found a giant praying mantis in her room. Better her than me! Still, I wouldn’t trade those things for the colder climate of Canada!

This week, another unforgettable event occurred that I feel occurred mostly because of the indoor/outdoor factor. Eden and I had just gotten to school and were getting our materials ready in the staff room. (The staff room is a classroom that has long tables set up in a rectangle. Each teacher has a permanent location where one can store one’s stuff, sit to mark and plan, etc.) From the corner of my eye, I thought I saw movement head right under our chairs, but when I looked, I didn’t see anything, so I shrugged it off. Until Eden turned to me and said, “Did you see that?” Okay, not a coincidence. I wasn’t about to search for whatever thing had just run underneath us – I didn’t want to find whatever it was. But Eden looked around the room, searching the corners, catching a few odd glances from the other teachers. Eventually, she got up and started looking around. That garnered enough attention to have the other teachers ask her what it was. She told them that something had run under our chairs. Probably a mouse. 

Of course, that was not welcome news to most of the female teachers in the room. There were some immediate protests and gasps of horror, and then some help searching (mostly from the one male teacher in the room at the time). Of course, there was also some immediate teasing. One teacher was quite horrified by the thought of a mouse, and her nearest seat neighbour around the corner of the rectangle of desks picked up her motorcycle helmet and rubbed the strap against the head of the poor terrified teacher. Shrieking ensued, naturally. But in the midst of the teasing, screaming, and good-natured ribbing, the mouse was located in the corner. Calls were made to bring a broom. A teacher went downstairs to get a broom from the janitor’s closet, got distracted and had a conversation with another teacher, finally brought said broom upstairs, the mouse was trapped in a corner and attacked with a broom, and finally the mouse was put out of its misery. 

We gathered our students and headed over to devotions a little bit late (but with a very good reason for being late, I felt). When we returned, I came back to the staff room to find two female teachers standing outside of the door, not going in. “Still? No!” I said in Spanish. They told me that they thought it was probably safe, but they didn’t want to be the first ones into the room. I steeled my nerves and bravely entered, peering around piles of student work into the dark corners while my colleagues stood at the door, occasionally letting out little gasps and shrieks that, it turned out, were for my benefit in hopes of scaring me. Thankfully, I had steeled my nerves better than that. Also thankfully, I didn’t encounter any mice because that would have led to some of my own screaming and probably jumping on a chair. 

Once we were settled and actually working again, my colleagues felt the need to regale me with stories of former school years when other colleagues had encountered various mice in various classroom situations. Worst was the story of a poor primary teacher whose students told her, “Seño, there’s a snake under that ball.” She picked up the ball, and sure enough… a snake. Of pretty decent size… although the snake got bigger in subsequent retellings when my American roommates returned to the staff room and also had to hear that story, so who knows the actual truth of the size of the snake? 

All things told, though, as long as no one requires me to do the mouse killing, I’m going to be okay with the painful side of the outdoors and I’m going to keep glorying in the joyful side.