Just Your Typical Guatemalan Bus Ride

I have already written about what it’s like to take the bus in Guatemala, but sometimes when you’re living in a foreign country, you just need to write about an experience twice because it’s so different from what you experience in your home country. Last time was very informational. This time it’ll be a story. 

Today, as usual on a Saturday, I took the bus into Antigua. I completed some errands, enjoyed a chai latte in a cafe off of Central Park (especially enjoyable because yesterday was our last day of a three week Daniel Fast). Then, as usual, I went to the grocery store and market. I didn’t have too much that I was carrying home, so instead of splurging and taking an Uber home, I decided to hop on a bus. Just as I got to the busy street behind the market, a bus came by. It didn’t actually have a sign indicating where it was going, but the assistant (the guy who leans out the door and yells the destination) came along behind it pretty soon and said, “Chimaltenango, Parramos!” to those of us waiting at the bus stop. 

Now, I was warned away from taking a Chimaltenango bus during my orientation last year. They’re not actually the most convenient bus, because I am not going to Chimaltenango when I get on a bus – my destination is Tizate. But if you catch a Chimal bus and get off about 200 metres before you would on a “regular” bus, you can make it work. The other problem is that Chimal buses are often very full. But it was hot. I was sweaty from walking through a market full of people. I didn’t want to wait for another bus while standing in the full sun. So I got on the bus. 

When I got on, I discovered that every seat already had two people sitting in it. I should have just turned around and gotten back off. But I’m living in Guatemala, so it’s time to do things the Guatemalan way, right? Plus, I didn’t know how long I would have to wait for the next bus (it’s not like there’s a schedule!), so I decided to tough it out. 

Everyone studiously avoided eye contact with me, because they didn’t want to give me any indication that they would be willing to slide over and make a miniscule amount of room for me to sit with them, three adults in a school bus seat. Now, if I really had done things the Guatemalan way, I would have just chosen a location, asked for them to move in Spanish, and sat down. And they would have squeezed over and I could have sat down. But it was hot and I was very sweaty, and I didn’t really want to enter into other people’s personal space quite that desperately. Most buses are outfitted with overhead racks and railings, so I put my backpack and my shopping bag, both full of my groceries, up on the rack and held onto the railing overhead, balancing myself in the aisle as we bumped down the cobblestone streets of Antigua. 

By the time we left Antigua proper and were heading into Jocotenango, the bus stopped and picked up a bunch more people. The assistant came down into the bus and asked people to move back, telling some people beside me to shove over and telling me to sit down. I ended up sitting next to two sweet little old ladies, but the seat across the aisle (I mean… hypothetically across the aisle. I was already sitting in the aisle, pretty much) also had three people in it. Hard to tell if this was an advantage or disadvantage. One obvious drawback was that the third person in that seat and I were sitting pretty much right against each other. On the plus side, it kind of held us in place and I couldn’t really fall off the bus seat. 

I’ve been in buses in Canada occasionally at rush hour that got so full that the bus driver basically said, “Sorry, we’re full,” when we stopped at bus stops, and we didn’t pick up more people. That is not the Guatemalan method. You just keep shoving more people into the bus – after all, that’s more money in rides. As we drove down the road, every time we stopped to pick someone up, I cringed internally. Soon every seat had three people in it. Every time someone got on, all of the “third” seat people had to stand up to let them squeeze through to the back of the bus. Still, we picked up more people. Soon there were people standing in the aisle. One of the little old ladies sharing the seat with me got up to leave the bus, and I watched her struggle through the hoards to get to the front. (Again, if you are picturing a Canadian transit bus with wide aisles and lots of people standing up, you are picturing the wrong thing. Remember, this is a school bus. The aisles are barely wide enough to walk down as it is!)

I planned my own exit carefully, getting up with lots of time to spare, grabbing my backpack and grocery bag and excusing my way to the front of the bus so I would make it to the front before I wanted to get off. (Remember, I did NOT want to accidentally miss my stop – the bus was ultimately heading farther away from home!) 

With the added bulk of my backpack and grocery bag, it was very difficult to get through people, and by the time the bus actually stopped in San Luis and I had to get off, I still had to get past two more seats. I had trouble squeezing through, and ultimately just had to shove past some people who were standing up, leaning over the other occupants of the seats. Sorry to everyone! By that time, the assistant was already asking me for money, because unlike a regular bus ride, if you’re taking the bus to Chimaltenango, the assistant won’t collect it until later in the ride. Maybe when people get off? I don’t know… I never take the bus all the way to Chimal. But I was like, “Sir, I will give you your money when I successfully get off this bus!” I did have the money ready to hand to him, and passed it over when I finally made it off the bus. Unbelievably, three more people got on the bus at that stop!!!

After being packed in with so many people, getting off the bus was a relief. Of course, then I had the joy of hiking up the 100 metre climb in altitude to get home, and my lungs have not yet made a full recovery from my bout with Covid. I should have just taken the Uber home!

I have learned my lesson – don’t take the Chimal bus. Just wait for a better, less full bus. On the other hand, these are the experiences you don’t often get as a tourist in a country. I really am living the typical Guatemalan experience in many ways!

A Week of Observations

If you’re familiar with the teaching world, you might already know what kind of observations I am talking about from my title. If you’re not, you might think I’m going to tell you about some things I noticed over the last week. That’s not exactly wrong, but it’s not precisely correct, either. 

As part of my new role as TEFL co-ordinator, I spent the last week observing my teachers in their English classes, sending them documents with notes about their observations, and then meeting with them one-on-one to talk about their teaching. 

Besides working with students, this is one aspect of teaching that I LOVE doing! Thinking about how to refine one’s teaching, continually learning, looking into research, honing one’s skills… Yes, please! To all of that!!!

Over the last week, I’ve visited a grade 12 class, a grade 3 class, and a grade 9 class. It’s so fun just to see such a variety of classes and students. And my TEFL team this year? We are small but mighty. I have very experienced and capable teachers that I am working with, and it is a pleasure to encourage and challenge and support them in their work. 

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that visiting a primary class means getting hugged by practically every student. They don’t care that I’m not their teacher and they don’t really know who I am or why I’m in their class… they’re just warm and welcoming and all wanted to hug me when I said goodbye at the end of class! (insert melting heart emoji)

My COVID Experience

Almost two years into the pandemic, it finally happened: I got Covid. 

The day I tested positive, I did all of my regular things – walked down the hill, caught the bus into church, picked up a few things at the grocery store, went to Cafe Barista for a chai latte after church. (In retrospect, it’s hard not to cringe at the amount of contact with others that I had, but I didn’t know at the time!) I talked to my parents via video chat as I usually do in the afternoon. I felt absolutely fine. 

About an hour after the phone call, I started to feel a tickle in my throat, which quickly transformed into an actual sore throat. I was concerned. At all previous times when I had wondered if I possibly had Covid, I didn’t know anyone else who was positive. But this time, I knew a few too many people in my circles in Guatemala who were Covid positive themselves. I knew I needed to take one of the antigen tests that I’d brought with me from Canada – and I needed the results before Monday morning, when I was supposed to be at school for a full day of teaching. I also didn’t want to take the test too early and have a false negative. I waited for another hour, and then I used the technique I’d heard about just that week on a CBC podcast – I swabbed my throat, and then swabbed my nose. And then I prayed for an accurate result. 

No doubt about it… that’s a positive result.

And indeed, once the 15 minute of developing time had passed, the test was clearly positive. And then, even while I was thankful for a result that meant not having to question whether it was actually a false negative, I sat in disbelief for a good 10 minutes before actually figuring out what I needed to do. Which was, of course, to let people know and figure out what to do about all of my classes for the week. 

I called some family members and notified others. I texted the school director, and then I went to my office to look at school stuff. I teach a lot of classes a week, and our English department already doesn’t have enough staff to have subs. Thankfully, Max, the Communications Director here, could cover some of my classes, even though it meant taking him away from his Comms work for the length of my absence. Our teaching assistant Ella covered some of the classes – she was basically my proctor for the tests that we had scheduled. And I actually still taught my online classes – sitting out on my porch, at our dining table. It was both hard and helpful to still teach my online classes – super helpful, since I had to give those tests, and it meant not just handing things over to a sub and hoping for the best. I could still see students, review and practice with them, and ensure they were well prepared for the test. And hard – I was tired, and it really wore me out. There were definitely some moments that I caught myself staring off into space, glassy-eyed, and had to regather my mental faculties to continue with class. 

As far as Covid symptoms, I’m so very thankful to have been thrice vaccinated and to have had a very mild case. In week 1, I was very tired. I slept more than 10 hours every night. After the first full day with a headache and a sore throat, the fatigue was my only symptom. In week 2, I suddenly got some nasal congestion, and that meant I kept waking up at night, gasping for air. Now, 3 weeks past my positive test, I’m feeling good again… until I walk up a set of stairs with my mask on and really notice the effects on my lungs. This morning I went for my first run post-Covid, and it was the hardest run I’ve done in a long time. I ran my usual Saturday morning route out through Pastores, but when I got to my turn around point, with the downhill running all behind me, and the prospect of running back uphill the whole way home, I stopped running and walked back. I’m not that intense about running! 

My phone giving me this super helpful notification that my energy expenditure, steps, and walking distance had been lower than usual. 😂

At the end of all of this, I’m so thankful to have a team that pulled together in my absence and made things work. I’m thankful to have had lots of Guatemalan colleagues who texted while I was away, asking if I needed anything, telling me they were praying for me, and who greeted me enthusiastically when I returned to school. I’m thankful that I was well vaccinated and had a mild case, and so thankful that I didn’t need any medical attention. 

I was also feeling great about not needing to worry for the next little while about getting Covid until the next variant comes around. Then I listened to another CBC podcast that explained that if you get one variant of Omicron, it offers you no protection against this other very similar variant of Omicron. And doesn’t that just feel like the most Covid thing. 

I’m so happy to be back with students, and to feel more clear-headed when I teach them, whether in person three days a week or online the other two days of the week.

The Learning Curve

Hello, and welcome back to my blog! Yes, it definitely has been far too long!

I’ve been back in Guatemala for more than a month, and each weekend, I have intended to sit down to write a new blog post, but I’ve been very busy. I have drafted several, but they also weren’t quite what I wanted to say. Now as I sit down to write a new draft, I think we’re at the point that, happy with it or not, I’m just going to have to let it go and post whatever gets written here today. 

I’ve settled on “The Learning Curve” for the blog, because it encapsulates quite well my experience and that of the students for January, I think. 

Students first. After one year and 10 months away from school, students have finally been able to attend classes in person once again! Students are attending in person on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. It’s quite the adjustment for them. Just today I was talking with the school director, and she said she’s reminding teachers that they should think of their students as being two years younger. Do you expect grade five students to be able to do this, but they’re struggling? Well, would you expect grade three students to be able to do this? Students (and teachers! and parents!!!) did the best they could over the last almost two years of learning via videos at home, but it wasn’t the same. Thankfully, now that they’re back at school, we’ll better be able to help them!

Then there is the learning curve for online classes. High school students receive their classes by Zoom/Google Meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays, since they need to cover material or acquire skills, etc, and M/W/F is just not going to cut it the number of hours they need to attend. I taught online in Canada back in the spring of 2020, but it was a learning curve for me to figure out how to teach ESL classes online effectively and to remember how to use Google Meet effectively. (It’s been a while!) But… my learning curve was nothing compared to my poor grade 10 classes. Remember that high school here is really grade 10, 11, and 12, so this year’s grade 10 students did not take any online classes last year. Instead, I posted teaching videos to Facebook for them. I taught this poor class their very first online class on their first day of online classes. It… was… painful. Most students couldn’t figure out how to unmute if they were called on, or they couldn’t figure out the chat, or they didn’t understand what I was saying or asking them to do. Thankfully, by the time I taught the students again, they’d already had 5 different online classes, and their teachers had walked them through the rules of online classes and they’d had some time to figure out unmuting, using the chat, and raising their hand virtually. We’ve gone from an entire hour-long class that was pretty much 15 students staring at me like deer in the headlights to being able to participate more or less effectively. I still wish we were at school for those days, but at least we get that class time together and students can do more than watch a video of me talking at them. 

The third learning curve is my own. After two months away, I was happy to be able to find opportunities to converse in Spanish and to feel like I could find my way. Then I ended up moving to high school classes, and knew I’d have a big challenge ahead of me, teaching new grades and a totally different curriculum this year. And then school began, and I had so much to do as TEFL coordinator and not enough time to do it! Plus any time that one of my team members asked me a question, I’d say, “I’ll find out and get back to you.” And then I would wonder, Why am I in charge, when I don’t know anything???!!! Thankfully, the school director Karina has been incredibly helpful, and I have a team of experienced teachers who are not new to Guatemala and who know a lot more than I did last year. This learning curve has really pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me to grow, though! Just last week, a colleague told me that he noticed a big difference in my Spanish – even from the end of last year. I have an excellent Spanish teacher this year, but I’d only had one class up to that point, so she can’t take credit quite yet. I told him that the real difference, I think, is that last year, if I had a question, I asked my TEFL coordinator, Beth. This year, I’m the TEFL coordinator, so I just have to go and ask teachers, secretaries, or principals myself. I have had to use a lot more Spanish and figure out a lot more than I ever imagined! But it’s good!

We are already done with one month of school here. We’re almost halfway done our first quarter, and we’ve more or less settled into a rhythm. Hopefully, in the midst of that rhythm, I’ll find time to update my blog more regularly!