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!

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. 

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!