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 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. 

Bethany’s Life in Guatemala, Volume 7: Homeschooling

One of the things that I have really been enjoying about my work, as petty and small as it makes me sound, is that I can do all of it during the school day and I don’t take school stuff home with me here in Guatemala. If you read my earlier post about my routine of school work, you might be a little surprised by that. Preparing and teaching both online classes and in-person classes and then marking all of that work – it is a lot of time. But our jobs are designed to be done during the school day. And this isn’t “our” as in just the TEFL staff – this is “our” as in all the teachers here. We leave at 2:30, and we do not generally take work home with us. This is particularly helpful when a not insignificant number of the staff are also pastors in the church network and can do their pastor work outside of school hours. It also allows teachers to spend time with their families and have real lives. (I have to say, after the gift of such a manageable workload for a year here, heading back to a Certain School in Ontario will be a difficult transition! 😭)

If you read my last blog, you are now familiar with Julianna, the director of Global Shore Opportunities. Julianna is Canadian by birth, but she’s lived in Guatemala since 2004. As my TEFL director Beth put it to me, Julianna would say that she’s here by choice, but what about her kids? They don’t have a choice about whether to live in Guatemala or Canada. They’re all very happy to be living in Guatemala… but what about if they want to go to university in Canada in the future? So in addition to attending the school here and taking their classes in Spanish, these kids also do some homeschooling curriculum that ensures that they will be prepared for a Canadian university if they so choose.

This past weekend, the former homeschooling teacher returned to Canada. At the end of this month, our one Guatemalan TEFL teacher will return from her maternity leave and my roommate and colleague Eden will take over as the homeschooling teacher. But for the month of March, Beth and I have divided up homeschooling responsibilities as a sort of stop-gap measure. For the past week and for the next three weeks, I’ve taken over the homeschooling of two young boys. I’m only seeing them for a total of four hours a week – it’s not like actual full homeschooling would be, given the aforementioned stop-gap nature and, you know, the fact that I already have a job to do here. 

So, homeschooling. It’s quite fun! I have two young boys, grade 1 and grade 3, and we do a lot of reading together. We do Bible work and history work and language arts, and we always take a movement break. Otherwise it would be a lot of sitting! We race around the soccer field or have a jumping jack competition. I usually lose, but in the end when we go back to class and we’ve gained the ability to sit and listen again, I’m the real winner in the end. 

The homeschooling adds some more hours of work to my already busy week, but I feel like it does use my skill set very well. Seriously – taking a pre-planned curriculum that’s reading based and making it relevant and accessible to two kids? Easy. Coming up with comprehension questions on the fly (since the pages for our particular book are missing from the binder)? I feel like I could do that in my sleep after 15 years of prior teaching. Sprinkling in little mini-lessons to teach reading strategies and vocabulary? I’m a natural. 

On the workload front, it was a squeeze to fit in the extra responsibilities, but with a lot of very intentional focus and continuing to work while eating instead of taking actual breaks for food (teachers, I know many of you know what I’m talking about!), I did manage to fit almost all the work into my work day. I did head into school 10 to 15 minutes early most days, but that didn’t really feel like giving up much. The real challenge will be this upcoming week: we are heading to the city on Friday to renew our visas*. We still need to get all of the same work done… just in four days instead of five. We’ll see! 

*Visa renewal allows us to stay in the country for more than our allotted 90 days that the visa we entered with permitted. We’re already in March – how have two months already gone by?!

Bethany’s Life in Guatemala, Volume 6: The Director’s Message and Some Outtakes

For your heartfelt, very meaningful content today:

I have tried to share some of the importance of school here and what it means not to have students in school. In the Spring 2021 newsletter from Global Shore, the director, Julianna Konrad de Pelaez, does a much better job than I ever could. (That only makes sense – although we are from very similar farming family backgrounds in southwestern Ontario – even to the point of going to the same church, although not at overlapping times, Guatemala is now her home permanently. She lives and breathes this work that God is doing here. I get a glimpse into things; she sees things much more fully.) So to give you a much better glimpse, I offer you this link to the spring newsletter and encourage you to read Julianna’s words for yourself.

And on the much more lighthearted side:

Look. Sometimes you feel on top of your teaching game, and sometimes you wonder just how many mistakes you can make. It’s especially bad when you have to rewatch yourself make all of those mistakes and edit them out of your teaching videos. I’ve compiled several of them into a short video for your viewing enjoyment, should you so desire… I promise that I’m a better teacher than this in real life. (I hope!)

Nothing like watching all the mistakes you can make in a short time and thinking, “What is my in-class teaching actually like?!”

Bethany’s Life in Guatemala, Volume 5: Extreme Allergic Reactions

Look, some of my blog topics are going to be very serious, and some are going to be a lot more light-hearted. We will run the whole gamut of the human experience here. Today’s topic is definitely going to be on the more light-hearted side…

So as my family can attest, I have a history of reacting to bug bites. I remember that as a kid I would get huge lumps of mosquito bites. We’re talking reactions that were swollen, hot, hard, several inches in diameter. If I was unfortunate enough to be bitten right on the back of my knee, I wouldn’t be able to fully bend my knee for a couple of days. 

Thankfully that reaction has died down to a more tolerable “still react badly but no longer look diseased” kind. 

Well, naturally there are delightful things to react to here. There are teeny tiny little ants under our clothesline, and inevitably, every single weekend, when I do laundry, I get bitten. I immediately get a big swollen reaction about the size of a quarter, that after a couple of days fades away into a blister, that after about a week in total disappears just in time for me to do my laundry and get bitten again.

Then last week Wednesday afternoon, I discovered what I thought was a mosquito bite on my arm, up near my shoulder. It was itchy. I tried my best to ignore it and not to scratch it. 

Hours later, when I was lying in bed, I suddenly thought, wow, my arm hurts. I looked at the bite. It was a big red swollen reaction, much bigger than the usual quarter-sized ant reaction, but also way more than my typical mosquito bite. I revised my premise from mosquito bite to ant bite – after all, I had first noticed the bite when I was working out, and there are always ants crawling around on the floor in my workout location. (This kind of comes with the territory when most things are outside and inside spaces don’t really have doors that bugs can’t easily get through or screens on windows.) So, an ant bite… but definitely bigger than my typical “clothesline ant” reaction. I grabbed the tube of hydrocortisone cream that I just leave out on my night table here (no point in putting it away!), slathered it on the bite, and went to sleep. 

Wednesday night: “It’s not that big!”

On Thursday morning, my bite hadn’t decreased in size at all. I showed it to several people because it was quite impressive in size. But over the day, the swelling spread… and spread… and spread. By Thursday afternoon, my arm was swollen from armpit to elbow – literally. It was hot, obviously red, and noticeably swollen. I went home to get some Benadryl, and on the way stopped to show people how much it had grown over the day. They (very reasonably) suggested that maybe it was time to see a doctor. And yeah… that’s probably good advice. Except I am used to reacting to bug bites. And what is a doctor going to do? Give me antihistamines? I have some here, and I took some. Administer an epipen? If you catch up on my medical history, you will immediately understand why unless I actually think I’m dying, I don’t want to experience additional epinephrine running through my body. I took the Benadryl, took a regular antihistamine, slathered on some more hydrocortisone cream, went back to school, and tried desperately to stay awake for the last hour of work. (Thanks, Benadryl! You always make life so fun!) After school, I took a shower and finally drew a line around my reaction so that I could track the swelling and growth. 

It’s too bad that I didn’t turn my arm just a little more in this photo – the swelling goes even further, all the way down to my elbow, on the bottom side of my arm. You can *just* see the line curving out at the very bottom from this angle…

The swelling did seem to stop then. I think gravity was actually exerting its influence, since the only place that the reaction was outgrowing its line was around the bottom, by my elbow. Around 7:30, I deemed it late enough to take some more Benadryl. I took two and pretty much immediately fell asleep. When I woke up, the swelling still hadn’t grown any more. 

Thankfully by Friday afternoon, my arm was looking impressively better. The swelling had really gone down, and while it was still red, it wasn’t so hot any more. It took until Saturday afternoon for all the swelling and redness to actually go away. It also took another week (!) for the itchiness to go down.

Once the swelling had disappeared, you could finally see the location of the bite again. It wasn’t just one bite – it was actually three. I’m not sure if that’s what caused the extremeness of the reaction, or if it was also the type of bite. When I showed her my arm and described things, my very wise sister hypothesized that it had been a spider bite. 

“Don’t you think you should have an epipen just in case?” my mom asked when I talked to my parents that weekend. Again… I’m going to do anything I can to avoid the feeling of extra epinephrine. I also really don’t think I’m in danger unless I get bitten near on my face or neck. But also, in an abundance of caution, I do think I’ll go to a doctor much earlier in the reaction timeline next time! (And praying there ISN’T a next time!)

Bethany’s Life in Guatemala, Volume 4: Chicken Buses

Picture this: you’re in a school bus that’s painted garish colours, crammed in on all sides by other people and their purchases. There’s music blasting on a radio, and the driver seems to be driving like he’s making up for lost time, speeding around curves and over speed bumps and potholes alike. The driver is honking his horn as if it’s the only thing keeping the bus running, and his coworker is leaning out the door bellowing the name of a city at anyone, whether they look like they care or not. 

Where is this chaotic scene taking place? Guatemala, of course! You’re riding a chicken bus to get from one place to another, just like any other Guatemalan who doesn’t have a car or a moto. 

The famous chicken bus in its native habitat

Once a school bus has lived out its life in North America, it’s driven down to Central America where it gets to live a second life. It typically has some work done – I’ve heard that most buses get a manual transmission put into them, although I haven’t paid enough attention to know whether or not that’s true. Buses also get racks put overhead – key, because a lot of people riding the bus have a lot of stuff with them. They generally get a metal railing installed on the ceiling the length of the aisle. This is important because the bus will often start driving as soon as everyone is on, not once everyone is in their seat, and it’s helpful to be able to hang on while you head to your seat or while you get up to move to the front in advance of where you want to disembark. Additionally, some buses seem to have new seats installed – the seats are wider, meaning you can squeeze a third person in (and I do mean squeeze – have you been on a bus in a while?), although this means really squeezing your way down the aisle. And the seats are then also installed closer together, a key factor in being able to fit more people in your bus and maximize your income if you’re running the bus (although it makes it difficult for a taller-than-the-average-Guatemalan Canadian woman to fit her legs into the space comfortably. Especially given the bumps over potholes and speed bumps – sometimes the kneecaps take quite a beating!)

And, if you’ve ever seen any photos of a chicken bus in Guatemala, you know that the other drastic change to the bus is decorating the outside. Red, white, yellow, green, blue – buses are painted vibrant colour combinations. They can also then have fancy chrome added or sometimes decals added to the windshield (enough that sometimes one wonders how well the driver can really see the road!) The colours matter when you have an adult population with a relatively low literacy rate – even though the bus will say what route it is taking, that doesn’t matter much if people can’t read the sign. So the colours also indicate where the bus will go, and this way people know which bus to take. 

These chicken buses are the equivalent of public transit in North America, with a few key differences. Have you ridden a city bus lately? Even if you haven’t, I’m sure you know that they have route maps and schedules. And if you wanted or needed to ride one, you would check ahead of time to see where the stops are that you need in order to get on and in order to get off. And then you would check to see what time the bus would come by, and you would be at the stop a couple of minutes before the bus’s scheduled time, expecting it to arrive at that time. 

Meanwhile here in Guatemala, if buses have schedules, I sure don’t know what they are. And you can’t look up a bus time on Google Maps like you can in Canada. You just head to some location on the bus route, and you wait for your bus to come by. We’re actually fortunate that from home, a couple of buses come by and all head through Jocotenango (church location) and into Antigua (nearest city, where we generally do our grocery shopping). Once in a while we’ll come down the hill and just miss a bus and have to wait a while (like 20 minutes has been our longest wait time so far), but other times, it’s a short five minute wait. Today I crossed the highway just as a bus rounded the corner, so I hopped on and was in town in record time. 

Buses have some sort of standard stops, but you can also wait anywhere along the bus’s route and hop on, and you can also get off anywhere along the route – just go up and ask the driver to stop and let you off. 

Buses come in a variety of colours

Why are they called chicken buses? There are a couple of different stories to explain this name. Some say it’s because passengers are crammed in like chickens. My preferred story is actually that people take whatever they have to sell in the market with them, including live chickens. 

Besides the bus driver, there’s another staff person on the bus who stands in the doorway and yells the destination at people. Once in a while, he comes down the aisle and collects bus fare from people. These people have the most excellent memory for who has paid and who has not yet. I think I would be awful at that job, but every person I’ve seen has been so good at their job. 

Would you like to have a job where you lean out the front door of a bus? You need to be really good at hopping in once the bus driver has actually started driving. You also need to remember who has what stored inside the back door of the bus, because when those people get out, they expect you to get their stuff for them again!

I also have to say, given the picture that I painted early of people all crammed in, that perhaps the pandemic has been good for creating space on the bus, especially for a Canadian who likes her personal space. Capacity limits are technically in place (I say technically because I really don’t know how seriously drivers take them. I’ve never seen anyone turned away!) and temperature checks are done at the door of the bus (again – I’ve never actually seen someone read the thermometer, but it technically gets pointed at everyone!), but ridership also just seems to be down. I don’t mind having the additional breathing space and being able to get a seat. It also makes it feel much safer – much less worry over pickpocketing or theft when you can see everyone and not have people packed in close to you for long periods of time. 

Despite all my description here, I kind of think that you need to ride a chicken bus to really know what it’s like. I know that some of my friends and readers have done just that. From your experiences, what did I miss in my depiction here? 

Additionally, I don’t have too many pictures of buses, and I don’t have any really excellent ones. I also don’t have enough to capture the wide variety of bus colour. If you’d like to get some better visuals, do a Google image search for Guatemala chicken bus and enjoy!