Providing Some Basics to Understand the Guatemalan School System

I have talked quite a bit lately about some of the specifics of pandemic education here in Guatemala and the struggles that students are facing both because of the pandemic restrictions and pre-existent to those restrictions. But it’s made me realize that I never wrote a post I had intended to write long ago, giving an overview of the Guatemalan education system. This post is obviously designed with my Canadian friends in mind (or readers from other countries – hi!) to help you understand some of the differences from the education system you’re used to. 

Let’s start at the very beginning (because it’s a very good place to start). Primary school contains grades 1 to 6. Many students in Guatemala begin school in grade 1 at approximately seven years of age. Our school has two grades before that, kinder (think junior kindergarten) and prepa (think kindergarten). Students in kinder and prepa have a shorter school day than the rest of the elementary classes. They arrive at the same time in the morning, but they leave earlier. (Of course, you’ll remember that students just aren’t coming to school right now because of Covid. But that would be the pattern if they were attending school in person.)

Primaria is very much like elementary school in Canada. Students have a homeroom teacher. They learn how to read and write. They learn basic math skills. They have subjects like social studies, science, and art. Students also take an indigenous Mayan language. In our region, that means students are learning Kaqchikel. And of course, students at Global Shore are learning English, too. Right from kinder and prepa

Once students graduate from primaria, they enter básicos. This is sort of like your Canadian middle school or junior high. At Global Shore, our básicos students have a homeroom teacher and then have different teachers for each subject so that a teacher can specialize in one subject area. “Básicos” means (surprise, surprise) “basics”, and is so named because students are learning the basics of each subject area and not specializing. (That’ll make more sense in a minute once you learn about high school.) There are three grades of básicos, named primero básico (first básico), segundo básico (second), and tercero básico (third). 

Every once in a while I’ll receive a text from a student who obviously used Google Translate to assist in making the text English, and it’ll say something great like, “Good morning, Miss Pasma! It is [NAME] from the rank of third basic writing to you!” I love those texts, and I don’t correct them, because I don’t want to get into the cultural explanation of grades, and also, who wouldn’t want to receive a text that starts like that!

Our primaria and básicos classes use the same school building, and there are three of us English teachers covering the classes from grade 1 through grade 9. If students were here in person, they’d get two English classes a week in their primaria classes, and three a week in básicos. There is one class per grade in the primaria age range, but básicos grades are split into two classes per grade. (Any middle school teacher is nodding their head already… they know why!) I teach segundo básico and tercero básico English classes, and I think of them as being just two classes (because they’re just big groups of students on Facebook), but I would actually have four classes in person if students were actually here. 

Once students graduate from básicos, they enter carreras (careers), sometimes called diversificados (diversified). Students choose a stream to study and take classes with a cohort of students studying the same thing. One of the carreras is secretariado, for example. These students learn typing and shorthand skills along with their other subjects. Global Shore has several different carreras streams – secretary, graphic design, early childhood education, bachillerato. (I am very hazy on these streams – both the options and what they exactly study or prepare for, because I don’t teach any carreras classes (except for some Zoom classes that I’ve been the substitute for!) and because they’re located in the building next to us. The majority of my knowledge comes from the fact that my Spanish teacher is a secretary teacher, so I have quite a good idea of what those students are learning! We talk about it often in our Spanish classes!

A lot of Guatemalan students don’t go to university, and many of the students who do go on to university either work first or work and take university classes part time, so carreras really is job preparation. Several of our carreras streams are bilingual, meaning students graduate from them with a high level of English fluency. This also means students have a skill that serves them well in a very difficult and competitive job market. 

Of course, this also means that you need to find a carreras program for your area of work, so the high school has a considerably smaller population than the primaria and básicos classes, because even students and families who love the school sometimes go elsewhere in order to attend the carreras classes they would like to or need to. For example, the twins that I met on my home visit would like to study engineering and pre-med (to become a civil engineer and a doctor), and that will mean leaving Global Shore since we don’t offer those streams.

While school attendance is technically mandatory up to the end of básicos in Guatemala, it is not uncommon for students to attend only through primaria. The end of básicos is another high drop out moment, as students and families figure that’s all the education they need or can afford, or as they need their child to join the workforce, or take care of siblings, or whatever the case may be. 

This does, of course, make me quite concerned for my tercero básicos students who have not been AT school in a year and a half, and especially for ones who have started working with parents while they’re out of school anyway. And I’m very worried about tercero básicos students who are struggling in their classes. If students don’t pass their classes, they need to redo the grade. What are the chances of students just dropping out instead of returning and redoing a grade? 

In the end, although I worry for my students, I remind myself, as I said last week, about what is within my control and about what is mine to do. I am glad that our principals are the ones making decisions about students progressing to the next grade or redoing work. I am glad that the principals know the families and their various factors. I’m glad that God knows these families and cares for them even more than I do. 

One Student’s Story: Obstacles to Education

Last week I mentioned doubling the number of students that I’ve met, from two to a whopping four. I want to talk a little bit about one of the other students that I’ve met in person. I want to respect her privacy and honour her as a person, so I’ll be talking in a little bit of vague generalities instead of telling specific details. But I’ve decided that I can tell her story in a way that honours her but allows for you readers to have a better idea of some of the struggles that my students face here. 

My student – I’m going to refer to her as S, for student – is new to the school this year. She’s older than her classmates, meaning she probably had to repeat one or two grades previously. From the beginning of the year, she was obviously struggling. Sometimes she just wouldn’t turn in her homework, and homework that she did turn in was often done completely incorrectly. I wondered if she was even watching my teaching videos on Facebook, or if she was just randomly filling in answers on her homework sheets. Because we have a Facebook group set up for each class, I could see that she was, in fact, watching each video. I talked with my principal about her, and that was when I learned that she was a new student. Coming from another school can often mean a transition period for students as they adjust to our specific school expectations as well as just higher expectations than public schools. Plus our students have much more English instruction than the average Guatemalan public school to give them a higher level of fluency by their graduation and to improve their future prospects. 

So, S was at a major disadvantage and was already starting the year behind her classmates. I began leaving notes of explanation on her work, writing grammar rules and vocabulary in (my broken) Spanish to help her understand. But I also left a note at the top of almost every piece of paper. “S, please text me if you have any questions. It would be a pleasure to help you if you don’t understand your work.” Her work did not improve. 

By the end of the second quarter, S’s grades had dropped even further. I have a large repertoire of techniques to draw upon to help students, but all of them rely on actually seeing my student in person. Not even having video calls with this student meant I had no ideas of how to help her. 

Shortly after report cards went home, I was sitting in church at the end of the service, waiting to be dismissed by the usher (Covid protocols mean we wait and dismiss a few rows at a time). I turned to see a student and her mother. They introduced themselves – it was, of course, S and her mom. We spoke for a few minutes in general before the conversation turned to the inevitable topic, her classwork. 

“We really want her to do well; we know how important that is,” Mom told me. 

“I know. I know how hard it is to learn a language,” I empathized. (Honestly, could I be better prepared to empathize on that point?) “I know how hard it is to learn from videos, too.” 

“It’s just…” Mom said. “S doesn’t have a phone to use for her homework.”

“Oh,” was all I could say, brain whirling. My Spanish is coming along, but conversation with Spanish speakers can be challenging. Throw a mask over everyone’s faces, and sometimes I wonder if I understand anything correctly. Did I understand Mom correctly? How was S doing any schoolwork without a phone? How was it helpful that I wrote on every week’s homework, “Just text me if you have questions!”?

“I want to help S,” I said. “But I need to talk to the principal. We can brainstorm ideas for how we can help S in her Spanish classes. Can I talk to you about those after the principal and I talk?” (Okay, I didn’t say brainstorm because I don’t know how to say that in Spanish!)

I left shortly thereafter and went to my regular Sunday afternoon location, the cafe down the street. And then I cried. I cried for S, who wants to learn and be at school and can’t. I cried because she couldn’t afford even the cheapest phone, while I went to a cafe and bought lunch for approximately $8 CAD each week. I cried because even the way that I had tried to help had just been rubbing salt in the wound. I cried in frustration for all of the students here and around the world who have been out of school for so long. 

A later conversation with the principal confirmed the problem. S does have occasional access to a phone – after all, that’s how she’s watching the teaching videos that I’m posting. But she shares that phone with her step-brother, and he uses the phone for his classes for most of the week (he attends a different school). S gets to use the phone on Thursdays, doing the week’s worth of lessons in one day. She’s behind in most of her classes, and she probably has no parent supervision, both parents being away working all day. The principal and her husband were trying to work out a solution, hoping to lend the family a tablet to use so each child could access their lessons as needed. But the tablet is old enough that it doesn’t have a SIM card for data use, and the family doesn’t have wifi. 

The principal and I brainstormed a couple of ideas for how to support S. I had hoped that she could come to the school for an hour a week to have an in-person tutorial with me. That wouldn’t break any Covid rules, and it would provide a really good opportunity for her to get one-on-one help. But the reality is that, with parents working and the distance from home to school, it’s not going to happen. So right now, I’ve been writing up a personalized lesson in addition to the work for the rest of the class. We’re going over the basics of English. I’m not making any assumptions about what S may or may not have learned in previous schools. I’m also sending a voice message each week to go along with the paper, going over pronunciation of the words or concepts we’re learning. 

I’ve seen S a couple more times at church since our original meeting, and each time I ask how she is and how her English work is going. She’s so grateful for my help, but I wish I could do more. The biggest difference has actually just been that her work is now being done carefully and attentively. She clearly cares about it again. I think just meeting me in person has made a big difference. If I were taking a class and not passing a single assignment, I would definitely assume the teacher hated me. Even before I started sending the extra lessons, S’s work had already changed. Sometimes students just need to know that their teachers care about them. 

And in the end, that’s really all I can do. I can’t change the systems that are unfairly disadvantageous to S and so many students here. I can’t change the family dynamics that are prioritizing her step-brother’s education at the cost of hers. I can’t change the Covid protocols that means that students are entering their 17th month being away from school in person. That’s not the work that God has called me to, and that’s not my responsibility as a guest in this country. 

All I can do is teach the best that I can given the tools that I have and the resources that my students have access to. And I can love them and care about them. That is the work that God has called me to do. And I will do it with joy. 

Home Visit: In Which I Double the Number of Students I’ve Met!!!

This week, I had an amazing opportunity. I got to accompany our school pastor on a house visit, and I doubled the number of my online students that I’ve now met! 

You’ll remember that the vast majority of our students are not allowed to come to school and only receive lessons by video through Facebook (elementary students – high school students are fortunate enough to have Zoom classes). So besides the three in-person students that I teach (children of my colleagues who are allowed to come to school), prior to this week, I had met a grand total of two students. 

My boss Beth texted me on Monday and said, “Hey! I have a great opportunity for you! What about going on a home visit?!” Pastor Jervin was heading to a family with students in segundo básico (grade 8) on Tuesday, and I was invited. Lexi would come with as my official translator. 

We left the school pretty early on Tuesday morning because there have been some protests and lots of traffic lately. We made it to the other side of Antigua without too much traffic, and found our way to a quiet village beside the highway connecting Antigua to Guatemala City. 

As soon as we entered the house, I was introduced to Mom, Dad, and Little Brother. Boy Twin and Girl Twin soon joined us. 

[Side note but very important: families agree that photos and stories of their children can be used online and in other media the share the story of Global Shore. I am allowed to share this story – and I’m allowed to use student names and pictures. I’ve thought a lot about this, and I’ve decided not to use names. I have thought a lot about being a teenager and having my teacher write about me online. So I’ve decided to share the story and not any details that feel too personal.]

I actually didn’t know about Little Brother – because I teach students by recording videos and then receiving homework papers at the end of the week. There is only so much sharing about personal life one can do that way. But as soon as I entered the dining room where we sat, Dad announced me to the rest of the family as “The famosa Miss Pasma!” Why am I famosa? Because even Little Brother watches the English videos with his big brother and sister, practicing his English with them!

Little Brother is quite the student in other ways, too. He is four years old, not attending school yet, but he sat quietly at the table, and in between smiling shyly at us visitors, he was practicing his writing in a lined paper notebook. He has already mastered manuscript (printing), so now he’s developing his cursive skills. At four years old. 

He’s not the only very capable student in the family. Both the twins are excellent English speakers, so we got to know each other using a lot of English and the occasional translation from Lexi. Girl Twin told about starting ballet lessons from the age of four, and I got to watch some videos of dance recitals at various ages. Boy Twin told us about learning the marimba (Guatemala’s national instrument) from about the same age. I was shocked, and joked about him not being tall enough to play but having to reach above his head in order to play. Dad said that was why they had turned him away the first year he’d tried to take lessons, so the next year, when he’d grown one more centimetre, they brought him back – along with a stool for him to stand on. Sure enough, in watching the videos of him playing in marimba groups, in the earliest years, he’s standing on the stool in order to reach the marimba. 

As we sat and talked, looking at photos and watching videos, Mom made some horchata for us to enjoy. Everyone’s horchata recipe is a little different, and Mom made hers with sesame in addition to the traditional rice and nuts. Yum! 

Lexi eventually asked the twins to head outside with her in order to film short videos to send to their sponsors. (Each student at the school can be sponsored – this helps to defray the cost of their education. Some of my students still need sponsors! If you’d like to sponsor one of them, head to the Global Shore website and look for students in Grade 8 or Grade 9! There are two Grade 8 girls available as I’m writing this!) While Lexi had the twins outside, I moved around the table to sit right next to Little Brother. I asked him if he could read, too, or just write. He happily flipped to earlier pages in his notebook and read to me the sentences that he had written in previous weeks. That is a kid who is very ready for kindergarten!

Eventually it was time for us to say goodbye. Pastor Jervin asked me if I would pray for the students and family. My Spanish teacher here at the school has been telling me that this time would come – that when we have students in person again eventually, I’ll pray for students regularly, and sure, I can do it in English, but how meaningful is it if I can do it in Spanish and the student can understand me too? So she has been assigning me homework like writing out a prayer in Spanish – one to do in prayer meetings with the staff, one to pray over students. She’s been challenging me to pray in Spanish in my own prayer time. I agreed to pray… but chickened out on the Spanish front and asked Lexi if she would translate from my English. I’ll get there eventually, Marielos!

Before leaving, I asked if we could take some pictures first – with the whole family and then with the twins and me. Little Brother was sad about us leaving, so he got his own picture with me. [As I said above, I have decided not to post these photos here, but since my social media settings are private and not public, if you’re friends with me, you can see photos there!]

Thus ends the story of the house visit – but our day was not quite over. 

Since we were on the other side of Antigua, Lexi and I headed out for an errand a little ways down the highway. Contrary to what we had expected – given the protests, we had no issues with traffic. We returned through Antigua and came back towards the school and home. As we approached our village along the highway, we suddenly ran into completely stopped traffic. The intersection where two highways sort of… cross each other? (it’s complicated) was at a standstill. Apparently the roads to Chimaltenango are where protests were happening, and the road on either sides of a Y, both of which head north-northwest to Chimaltenango, were totally stopped. We waited for a bit, with traffic edging forward ever so slightly. Eventually one of the guys who stands in the door of a bus and yells at people got out and directed traffic, and that moved things enough that we could slip by on the shoulder of the road. We wouldn’t take the route through the village of Tizate anyway, always choosing to loop around the back way for a much less insane ascent, but the bridge at the bottom of the village has been closed for the last two weeks anyway, so you can’t take that route. As we started climbing up the back way, we came upon a chicken bus backing its way down the hill. This road is not really designed for two-way traffic at the best of times, and it’s certainly not designed for chicken buses or trucks – but that hasn’t stopped them. So when a truck coming down met a bus going up, one of them had to back up out of the way. We backed all the way down to the highway and waited, eventually heading up behind another truck. About halfway up, our line of vehicles was stopped when we ran into another truck trying to come down. We put the car in park and waited, not really able to see what was happening around the curve of the road, but trusting that we would eventually see traffic heading one way or the other. And sure enough, eventually, traffic started creeping forward again. The truck had been moved off the road onto a driveway, but behind it was a pickup that had basically driven halfway up onto the shoulder at a pretty steep angle. Since the truck in front of us could squeak past it, we knew we could, too. And we did. As we finally made it up to the top, back to school and home, Lexi looked at her phone and told me she had texted someone as we first stopped in traffic at the bottom of the hill… 25 minutes earlier. I could have walked home up the hill twice in the amount of time it took us to drive up. Fun times. 

This road is not really built for two-way traffic!

Throughout the rest of Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday, each time I looked out from our porch, I could see a line of traffic snaking down the highway from Parramos to Pastores, that Chimaltenango route still apparently slowed down by protests. However, there were also police stationed at the bottom of the hill (and apparently at the other end of the road), preventing people from taking our teeny little road as a “shortcut”. 

A Few Quick Dallas Highlights

Last week’s blog was pretty heavy. Writing it also reminded me of a couple more topics that I want to write about, but my mom reminded me last weekend that I did promise an eventual blog about my Dallas vacation. So here we are – some quick stories and reflections about my four days away during June. 

So, Dallas. I knew basically nothing about Dallas when I began planning my trip. I quickly found out that it was the location where JFK was assassinated. (Pardon me, but I’m a Canadian millennial, so that happened long before I was born and I didn’t have to learn the details in high school history classes.) As I began researching and recording ideas of things I could do or needed to do or hoped to do while I was in the US, I focused a lot on outdoor options. I didn’t want to do a whole lot that required indoor spaces, because, you know, Covid. Not to mention that I knew I would need a negative Covid test in order to return to Guatemala. And ending up contracting Covid and having to quarantine in a city where I didn’t live and couldn’t afford to spend an extra 10 to 14 days was a pretty big nightmare hypothetical situation. 

Over the course of the half year I have been here, I have figured out where to get a lot of things that are not immediately easy to find in Guatemala. A lot of that has been thanks to the other ex-pats who have been here much longer than me. (Special shout-out to Lexi who included orders for us when she placed an order from the Asian food store/restaurant in town. I got fish sauce and curry paste – hooray for Thai chicken soup!) Very occasionally, we’ll end up visiting Paíz for various reasons – that’s the Guatemalan… Walmart grocery store? (Like, it’s a grocery store that has the Great Value brand stuff.) (And I do mean occasionally, because we have gone twice.) But sometimes a person just wants to be able to shop at Target and a real Walmart, especially if this person can’t shop at Target in Canada any more. So Target and Walmart visits were high up on my list. 

And I know I am probably making myself sound like the lamest tourist in the world with an announcement like that, but maybe you have not lived in another country for six months without all the things you take for granted easily accessible. I’m happy to report that I picked up some flip flops (lots available here, but good gravy, not in my impossibly-large-by-Guatemalan-standards foot size), a three-ring binder (Guatemalans LOVE their folders with those metal clip things – like literally the kind of filing system a hospital would use? or used to use before going digital?), dividers (I’m really hoping we get students in school in person, and then I will actually need to have some better organizational systems for papers!), and some Polident tabs (there is no better way to clean a coffee cup!). I know. I am really. Living. It. Up. 

The one thing these Target and Walmart visits convinced me of, though, was that I was right in my decision otherwise to avoid indoor spaces at all costs. Texas had never been too keen on their Covid protocols, and by the time I arrived, they were whooping it up maskless everywhere. Seriously – almost every place of business I walked past had signs saying that if you were fully vaccinated, you no longer needed to wear a mask inside. In Target, I was in a serious minority of people wearing a mask. I would estimate somewhere between 10 and 20% of people were wearing masks. 80-90% of people were living their best lives without masks. At the time, Texas’ vaccination rate was around 35%. Recall my worst possible nightmare and understand why I only went into locations after that to pick up to-go food and eat it in my hotel room or in outdoor spaces! (Also because it was Texas, lots of businesses had signs on the front door saying you couldn’t bring a concealed or open-carry weapon inside. Okay then.)

Side story here, but one more Covid tale: Even in the medical clinic where I got my Covid test before returning to Guatemala, no one was wearing a mask. In a medical clinic. The person who took my nasal swab put on gloves before taking the swab and did not put on a mask. He did not know why I was getting a test. My mind is still boggled at that one. Like, to each their own, but really, buddy? 

Okay, no more Covid talk! 

Dallas has a lot of outdoor art in their historic downtown, and it was cool walking around to see it – enjoying some of it while on my way walking to Target or Walmart, enjoying others while out for runs (how nice to run at such a low elevation after months of living and training in 1600-1700 metres!), and others enjoyed while just walking around to be outside and see the city. 

Giant cute street art
These guys were across an intersection from each other. Note the little birds around them both.

My hotel was right across from Thanks-Giving Square, a very interesting space with a beautiful chapel. Since no one was ever in said chapel, I would often stop in on my way home from wherever and just lie down on the floor, enjoying the stained glass ceiling. 

The chapel in Thanks-Giving Square
The stained glass spirals up the ceiling of the chapel. It’s the second largest horizontal stained glass arrangement in the world, apparently. Pretty great place to just lie and pray after a hot day.

Of course, I walked over to the JFK memorial and assassination site. After reading up on the assassination, I was very tempted by the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, but I didn’t have to weigh the risks since it didn’t end up being open on the days I had available post Target and vaccination / test appointments. There’s an X on the street that marks JFK’s location when he was shot, and it’s a pretty busy location for traffic exiting the historic downtown. I wondered about how long the idea could hold significance, knowing you’re driving over the spot where a US president was assassinated, before it just becomes something you don’t even think about as you drive to work every morning. 

JFK memorial

And I saw homeless people. A lot of homeless people. I have not seen that many homeless people in a downtown core ever. I don’t know if the problem existed before Covid and has just been exacerbated by the pandemic, or what, but it was impossible to ignore or overlook. I have a lot more thoughts about that, but they will have to wait for another day to be more thought out and written down. 

Okay, that pretty much hits the highlights, and as I write this I am really reflecting on how lame this trip might sound, but may I remind you again of the limitations of a four day trip from someone on a missionary stipend and not a regular salary, of four days with all important Target trips and vaccination appointments squeezed in, and of the necessity to stay out of contagion zones! Whatever. I enjoyed my trip, and I don’t need your approval of it to still enjoy it in retrospect! 😆😇

One last public art photo: My hotel was right next to this – The Giant Eyeball. You can’t actually enter the grounds – it’s private. Why someone would feel the need to buy this and then not let people come close to enjoy it, I don’t know. That’s one great thing about art – to each their own.

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.