Eric and the girls are in language school, but I have the morning off so I’m going to do some shopping. My destination is La Bodegona, the only supermercado in Antigua. It’s located on the other side of the city, but Antigua is quite small so it should only take me 15 minutes to walk there.
I exit our AirBnB’s front door and cross a small courtyard to an orange metal door. Eric and I chose this AirBnB because it was reasonably-priced and appeared, from an online map of Antigua, to be close to our language school. As a matter of fact, this particular casita is actually attached to our language school. Passing through the orange door, then, I walk right by Kiara, hard at work studying Spanish with her teacher. I see Eric and Adelina with their teachers as well, but I hurry past, lest Adelina see me and become distracted.
Outside, I cross a one-way cobblestone street, careful to time my crossing with a break in the stream of cars, motorcycles, and tuk tuks that traverse the city. Since there are no crosswalks, it’s best to dart across the street mid-block; that way, the vehicles are only coming from one direction. If this were a family outing, Eric and I would insist on holding the girls’ hands and keeping ourselves in between them and the traffic. Alone, I’m able to move more quickly through the city.
Antigua, the one-time capital of Guatemala, is built on a grid so – calle por calle (street by street) – I make my way steadily northwest. I pass by Iglesia San Pedro, where Eric and I attend Mass on Sundays. Although Kiara and Adelina understand very little Spanish, they do a good job of sitting still during Mass, enticed as they are by the promise of earning helado (ice cream) in exchange for good behavior. (Eric and I are not above parental bribery.)
Attached to the church is a hospital where physicians (mostly from Canada and the U.S.) volunteer their time with clinics and surgeries. The public hospitals have all been closed since before we arrived, the doctors and nurses on strike due to poor conditions in the hospitals. Antigua is a thriving, bustling city with every amenity we could want (WiFi, hot water, a sports pub for Eric to watch Notre Dame beat Michigan), but the reality of Guatemalan poverty is never very far.
Walking through the Parque Central, I make an easy target for the many indigenous peddlers vending their goods. They sell everything from drinking water in plastic baggies to Guatemalan instruments to selfie sticks. Women, dressed in gorgeous bright traditional clothes, show me woven bags and purses while swaying their babies in colorful slings. I smile broadly, but I’m firm: “No, gracias. No hoy.” (No, thank you. Not today.) Eric and I try to buy from these peddlers whenever we can. We see them carrying their heavy loads, often from villages miles away, working tirelessly to eke out a living in a country where nearly 60% of people live in poverty. If I want to buy a pelota (ball) for the girls, I might as well buy it from the man carrying dozens of them on his back.
In the distance, the Volcán Pacaya looms large, one of several volcanos visible from Antigua. Last weekend, our family hiked Pacaya, taking in its breathtaking views and roasting marshmallows in its active lava river. Tourism is among the strongest economic drivers of Antigua, with travel agencies all around the city advertising (in English) their many excursions. We were happy to take part; as I told Kiara and Adelina during our descent from the volcano, “I don’t think there will ever come a time when that doesn’t rank among our coolest life experiences!”
Just a few more blocks to go. I pass by the many tiendas (shops) that line the street. The city of Antigua is designated as an official Unesco world heritage city, so all buildings must adhere to certain aesthetic regulations. Thus, the Taco Bell and Dunkin’ Donuts blend quite seamlessly with the city’s many colonial churches and courtyards.
I nod to a street preacher, whose dedication I admire (if not necessarily his message): he has been here each and every time I’ve walked to La Bodegona, holding his Santa Biblia and admonishing passersby for their spiritual indolence. Antigua is a very Catholic city, but – as it is throughout Latin America – evangelical Christianity is growing here.
Finally, I arrive. La Bodegona employs far more people than an average U.S. grocery store. Dozens of employees stand at the end of aisles, smiling and encouraging me to try a free sample: of fruit, of soy milk, of rum, of cheese. There are ofertas especiales (special offers) advertised on neon placards throughout the store: Buy this bag of refried beans and you’ll receive a packet of salsa verde (conveniently taped to the side of the beans) for free! The first time I shopped here, I was hungry and exhausted and I found the whole store to be somewhat overwhelming. Today, I know exactly what I’m looking for and where to find it.
I make my purchases – socks for Kiara and leche en polvo (powdered milk) for our family’s breakfast cereal – mentally converting the quetzales I’m spending into dollars. I’m grateful that I finally remembered to bring my own bag and I won’t have to buy one. It is curious to me that the store has so many employees distributing free samples, but nobody helping customers to bag their groceries.
Despite the early hour, the sun is already high in the sky as I make my way back home through the city. I hug the side of buildings in an attempt to stay in the shade, vowing to wear my hat next time… and to never take for granted these incredible moments and memories in Guatemala.