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.