Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Wedding

One of the major highlights of the past year or me has to be the wedding of my daughter, Trina, to Arun Ramamurthy on July 7, 2012. Trina and Arun are both first generation Americans with immigrant parents. This whole first generation of Americans especially those of with Asian ancestry is a result of a major immigration reform championed by President Johnson in the early 60’s. Prior to this reform, very few people were allowed to enter the United States from the Eastern Hemisphere as the majority of visa quotas were allocated to the Western Hemisphere. The reform opened immigration to anyone, and was mostly based upon qualification and not country of origin. This reform made it possible for South Asians, Filipinos, and others from eastern countries to start a new life in America and be part of the great “salad bowl” that the America was to become. Arun’s father and I both came to the States about the same time in the late sixties/early seventies and coincidentally, we both lived in New York City, but didn’t know each other then. Who says politics doesn’t matter or affect people’s lives??? A good reminder to everyone in the Presidential election year!!!
Music brought them together. Trina and Arun are happy and are bonded by the creative energy of music. As most of you know Trina is a musician and lives in Brooklyn. She has done well for herself as a musician and continues to expand her professional career through teaching music and a variety of performances, individually and through her band Karavika (www.karavika.com). Arun is a Technical Operations Manager at QualityHealth, an online service for health related questions and queries and is doing well. But his heart is in music. Arun, an accomplished violinist specializing in Karnatic, South Indian Classical music, has made a name for himself in the New York area by promoting and exposing New Yorkers to this genre of music.

When I left the States for Belize in March 2011, I had planned not to go back to the States for the 27 months that I am supposed to be here in Belize. Instead I wanted people to come visit me from the States. Things didn’t quite work out as I had planned. I ended up going to the States twice in the first year: once in October 2011 for the engagement party and then in July for the wedding. While both the trips were short and hectic they were exciting and fun.

The engagement party was primarily for family and a few friends to musically celebrate the engagement of Trina and Arun, which had already taken place about a month prior, at a sea side resort in Newport, Rhode Island. It was a weekend getaway, carefully planned by Arun but the purpose of the trip was a complete secret to Trina. Arun popped the proverbial question at the Brenton Point beach with beautiful golden light as the sun was beginning to set and I assume Trina said yes. So a simple weekend gateway turned into a romantic getaway. Still remember getting the call from Trina that night all excited and talking about her beautiful ring. The follow up party was held at the home of Arun’s parents in Marlborough, New Jersey on October 15th and it was a huge success. The dinner was delicious; the Ramamurthys had arranged for a dosa maker to come to the house and make dosas to order and had a whole array of South Indian delicacies. Dosas are a kind of South Indian crepe with or without spicy potato fillings served with coconut chutney and sambar, a special lentil soup. After dinner, a few announcements and a couple of congratulatory speeches the music started. Trina and Arun both have a group of friends who are extremely talented and very accomplished musicians in New York. As the night grew, the music became more and more spirited and it was such a wonderful way to celebrate the engagement of two musicians.

About ten months of nonstop planning, frantic shopping, anxiety filled days finally paid off and everything came together like a charm on a Sunday July 7th 2012. Thanks to Trina and the Ramamurthy family who made sure that everything was thought of, all the details were attended to and kept track of everything on excel spreadsheets. The family members started to arrive during the week preceding the wedding, which was filled with a variety of chores for everyone, a number of preneptual ceremonies, more shopping, and opportunities for us to get to know Arun’s family, who came from all over the country and some from India and probably outnumbered our family by at least 20 to 1.  These wedding days were just as perfect as they could be, despite the record heat during that week. Divine music and the warmth of all those gathered for the occasion made it such a rich and memorable event that not only was something special for Trina and Arun but for all who were present to witness and share the joy.

The wedding was conducted in the Vedic tradition by Dr. Srivanisan, an Indian priest from Connecticut. Dr. Srinivasan was great and made the whole, otherwise long boring, ritual very fun, participatory and meaningful. He was definitely well experienced to perform such weddings before a culturally mixed group as he made sure that all the steps were kept simple and explained the significance of each step to the audience. There were beautiful musical interludes in flutes, cellos and drums during the whole ceremony giving that extra touch and creating that “wow” factor to the whole event. The ceremony was capped off with an elaborate Indian buffet lunch.

No sooner the lunch over, it was time to get ready for the reception. The evening reception started with more enchanting music by the musician friends of Trina and Arun, delicious hors d’oeuvre and an open bar. Everyone was elegantly dressed. It was time to see and catch up with family members and some of the old friends and discover those surprise connections, common friends between the two families unbeknownst to anyone. There were a number of speeches, some shorter, some longer, some trying to be funny like me and some were really funny like the one by Arun’s brothers who did it as a tag team. Following dinner and more drinks there was a huge surprise. After Arun gave a thank you speech, Trina and Arun pulled their violins from under their table and stated playing their adaptation of Ravi Shankar’s melody from Satyajit Roy’s movie Panther Panchali (a diary of the road). There was a standing ovation following that spellbound performance, a unique experience at a wedding.

For some the real party was about to start. The DJ with his double bass voice and the latest Bollywood stuff kept the placed energized and everyone moving. At some point all two hundred and eighty some guests were on the dance floor, not quite sure doing what, but they were there. As it was getting late and the party louder, some of the older folks started quietly slipping out. The party went on till very late and I am told at some point the hotel security had to intervene and no one remembers what happened.

It was a magnificent day and everything went without a hitch. I think all the good music, positive energy and genuine goodwill set the tone for how Trina and Arun's relationship will blossom. As a parent, what more can I ask for other than the happiness of Trina and Arun together? May god bless them and give them the love to help them grow together. 


Wedding photography credit: Binaryflips Photography

Monday, August 20, 2012

Finally an update

Where has the time gone?? It’s just over a year ago that I arrived in Benque. I think the last blog I posted was when I moved into my own house after couple of months with my host family in Sucootz and it seems like just the other day.
It is really surprising how fast the first fourteen months have passed. Everyone says the second half goes even faster. I am not sure if that’s good or bad. Without being over dramatic about it, it simply has been an exciting and a busy year which has been fulfilling in every aspect. It definitely has not been a vacation for me, in fact, I think I am working as hard if not harder than I have in the States and without the support staff that I had in the States. I ventured into a new territory of tourism here and learned quickly how to pretend to be an “expert”. I have gotten the support from the Town’s Mayor, tourism professionals both at local and national levels and the community at large, which made my learning and being able to help a lot easier and meaningful. A lot has happened in the past year, but I will start with my assignment, the whole reason why I am here and then talk about other stuff in the future blogs. I will make sure this time it is not another year before I post the next one.  
I am happy to say that with the community support a lot has been accomplished and a lot more is underway. When I came to Benque, Town already had two other volunteers, one from Peace Corps and the other from Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Roger German, the Peace Corps volunteer had almost completed his term and left shortly after I arrived. Kota Murakami, the JICA volunteer had just started his two-year service about ten months prior to my arrival. Roger, a journalist turned contractor, was a tall handsome “gringo”, charming, well spoken, guitar strumming, “matured” with life experiences, a mid-westerner that could almost walk on water and was an object of fantasy of every woman of all ages in Benque. Too bad for them, Tracy, another Peace Corps volunteer had him on her "corner". Kota is a friendly young architect who enjoys drinking Belikin (local beer), kinda “green” professionally and is taking full advantage out of his stay in Belize. They both had started a number of projects notably a local Market, a Tourism Map/Brochure and an Entranceway into the town, all of which, in my personal assessment, needed some push and direction to get them done. Roger was focused on wrapping up his term and on his main project, a monthly town newsletter “El Chiclero”, which kept him busy full-time and Kota needed a lot of guidance to get these projects completed.        
My primary assignment, as you may recall, was to develop a sustainable tourism master plan for Benque that celebrates its culture, heritage and history but also creates additional economic opportunities for all Benqueños. The Mayor gave me a free hand to do whatever I needed to do to get the stuff going. I literally spent about two months trying to talk to as many people as possible and trying to get a sense of where the community is at. We got started with a stakeholder group consisting of a variety of local stakeholders appointed by the mayor and invited a number of national tourism industry representatives including the Ministry of Tourism. In a record time, in less than six months, we delivered a Tourism Action Plan, which was well received by the community, tourism professionals and the industry.

 The implementation of the Action Plan started almost immediately. We have been busy finishing up on a number of projects, including the ones that have been languishing, such as renovation of several neighborhood parks, a visitor map/brochure, an entrance feature to the Town and a local market which is about to break ground next month with full funding from European Union. Additionally, we have completed couple of conceptual studies for the revitalization of the historic downtown and for a Riverwalk. Thanks to a bunch of Ohio State students. Earlier this year I had arranged for a group of Ohio State Architecture, Town Planning and Landscape Architecture students come to Benque for ten days during their spring break to work on a downtown revitalization plan and a master plan for a Riverwalk along the Mopan River from Benque to the Xunantunich ferry in Sucootz. It was an unforgettable experience for the students and a great booster for the community.  In the next few months our goal is to have a self-guided walking tour of the historic downtown in place, a sixteen page travel guide completed and a travel website (www.discoverbenque.com) up and running. For the remainder of my stay here, I will be busy putting together proposals for a few long term catalyst projects that are extremely critical for the successful implementation of the tourism plan in Benque.
Entranceway from western border heading towards Benque. The landscaping is now fully grown.
It has been very gratifying to be able to guide the community to create a strategic action plan and get the implementation of the plan underway. The Ministry of Tourism and Belize Tourism Board are very pleased with our progress and have generously supported some of our initiatives. They have informally adopted and are promoting our process as a national model for developing local community tourism plans. As a result I have been invited in a number of other towns to assist them with organizational, planning and or urban design issues.

These out of town projects and any project other than your primary assignment are considered as secondary projects in Peace Corps. I have several other local groups that I help out with from time to time. One of my other secondary projects involved occasionally taking photographs for a local conservation group. The most exciting assignment was a flyover the Chiquibul National Park. 
Colors of Chiquibul
The Park is about 264,000 acres with an additional Chiquibul Forest Reserve of about 148,000 acres of hard wood forest bordered by Maya Mountain Range on the south and east and stretching to the Guatemala border to the west. Approximately, 26,000 acres of Caracol Archaeological Reserve sits along the Border and surrounded by the Park. These areas along the border are “invaded” by Guatemalans regularly to carry out a variety of illegal activities such as logging, slashing and burning for farming, stealing of Xate, a plant used for medicinal and various other commercial purposes and more recently gold panning. Most of these areas along the border are inaccessible from the Belize side. There are a very few ranger stations along the border and it’s a 3 to 4 days of hike from the field station to get to one of these remote ranger stations. We were trying to document the effects of these incursions by the Guatemalans. It is really sad to see how a strip of about one to two mile of this park along the border is slowly being deforested and destroyed by these illegal activities. The photographs I took were used to raise the awareness at the national and international levels. It is really a national priority to address this issue and I am glad that in some small way I was able to help. The photographs were taken from a single engine five-seater Sesna, flown by an American nonprofit group Lighthawk and flying at about two thousand feet. I have no doubt I will stay very busy and enjoy the reminder of my stay. I just hope that I can make enough time to see the Country a bit before I leave. There are some images that you can see on my website www.subratabasu.com and look up Belize gallery. 

More later.... 

Looking towards Guatemala. See the "bald spots" as signs of logging activities.

Slash and burn 



Slash and burn


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Life in Benque Viejo

After two months of living with the second host family in Succotz, I am now on my own. Moved into a nice two bedroom house in the old part of Benque Vejo, three blocks from Town Hall where I work and within walking distance of most everything. I have an extra bedroom for visitors, so hope to have some visitors from time to time.

My green house

The history of Benque goes back to the Mayan times which peaked during the Classical period between the years of 200 to 900 AD. However, the more recent history goes back to early 1600s when the British loggers arrived in the area for harvesting Logwood and as the demand for logwood diminished switching to Mahogany in the later years. By the end of the nineteenth century with Mahogany logging and Chiclero harvesting, Benque enjoyed it’s hey days and was the center of economic and cultural center. The Town of Benque Viejo was formally inaugurated in October 1904 (see Moving to Benque Viejo). 

In the recent years through grass roots effort of Community of Artists for Cultural and Historical Endeavours (CACHE), and other dedicated citizens, Benque is being recognized as a center for culture, art and history. Benque has first of the four Houses of Culture (HOC) in the Country managed by the National Institute of Culture and History (NICH). Presence of HOC has allowed the community to re-engage in its cultural identity and to expose the youth to the creative world of visual and performing arts. CACHE has been instrumental in converting an old burial ground into beautiful Centennial Park, which is now pending designation as a Cultural Heritage site by NICH. Another important site that represents the local cultural, environmental, social and artistic history of Benque is Poustinia Earth Park. This 60 acre park is carved out of 270 acres of an old cattle ranch surrounded by the largest network of bio reserve in Central America. Luis Ruiz, a local architect and his brother David Ruiz, historian and the founders of CACHE are the “guardians” of Poustinia Earth Park, an outdoor gallery displaying natural and cultural artifacts that represents Benque Viejo’s history. These thought provoking artifacts carry important environmental and social messages and are juxtaposed to encourage active participation (visit www.poustiniaonline.org)

Self destruction

Benque is the site for several religious festivals notably the “Samana Santa”, the Easter Week starting on Palm Sunday. The route of the “Santo Entierro” procession, which represents carrying of the body of the crucified Jesus Christ to the tomb, is decorated with brightly colored sawdust mats by the community members. One of the largest fiestas in July, Benque Fiesta grew out of the religious novena venerating Our Lady of Mount Carmel, patron saint of the Benque Viejo Catholic Church and the nine days of religious formalities culminates into this massive party known as Benque Fiesta. The highlight of the Fiesta is the selection of the year’s Queen.

2011 Benque Fiesta Queen

People from all around the country and also from the neighboring countries come to Benque to join in these festivities. Starting in October and into the first week of November, Benque celebrates “dia de los angelito” followed by “dia de los difuntos” to honor the dead.

Benque Viejo, a Mestizo town is a bedroom community with few conveniences like restaurants, mostly local fast food and a few Chinese and one Mexican, couple of large Chinese grocery stores, one Chinese hardware store etc along with a library, police and fire stations, and a House of Culture. There are two major printing and publishing places. The Town is run by a Town Council and a Mayor, all of whom are elected. Influence of Catholic Church is evident as the number of Roman Catholic (RC) schools outnumbers other educational institutions. Mount Carmel High and Primary Schools are probably the most well known Catholic Schools. Mopan Technical Vocational high is the Government school. There is no separation of Church and State, all the religious schools are supported through significant government funding.

The Peace Corps volunteers often experience the “fish bowl” syndrome, although people in Belize are generally used to seeing “gringos” (any white people), as there are loads of tourists and hundreds of missionaries primarily from United States doing all kinds of missionary work around this country at any given time. Additionally, there are numerous organizations from England, Canada and United States that send volunteers to help out with teaching in schools, working in the health care fields etc. There are certain advantages of being a “gringo” and the attention sometimes is very useful in a small community and definitely works much better when you are looking to hitch a ride, which is fairly common way to travel especially in villages and small towns. As a “nonwhite” I am not in that gringo “fishbowl” nor do I fit into people’s stereotype perception of an American, so I attract less attention but I don’t quite blend in either. The other thing that confuses people here about me is that sometimes they confuse me with the local “Hindus”, which is how the significant East Indian population in this country is referred to, although they are almost nonexistent in Benque area.

Sense of time in this Country is definitely different than that of ours. This can be very frustrating and something that requires a great deal of effort to get used to. There never seems to be a sense of urgency about anything. If someone says “right now”, you could be waiting for a long time because “right now” doesn’t mean right away, it means sometime in the future. Like a lot of other cultures, rarely things start on time, things take a lot longer than they need to, but no one seems to mind. Compared to Americans, people here tend to be less assertive socially or in workplace and may not express their true feelings in public, which can be challenging sometimes if you are trying to gauge the community’s pulse, which is very important for what I need to do here.

It is customary for people to greet you on the street as you pass them whether they know you or not. Depending on the time of day one would greet you by saying dias or tardes or noches (short for buenos dias, buenas tardes or noches). This simple process of greeting is a very powerful way to create a bond with your neighbors and an effective way of acknowledging the presence of a stranger in your neighborhood. When greeting in English, it is similar to ours except at night. If you meet someone in the evening and the person says “goodnight” to you, don’t turn around and leave, that’s the way people greet each other at night.

Getting a hair cut by a traveling barber
Life in Benque Viejo can be summed up as being very slow, simple and almost bordering on being dull. Some ways it’s very similar to the life in one of the small Midwestern towns in the States. Everyone here either knows everyone or is somehow related to each other. There is a strong social network which can be good but sometimes can also manifests itself into gossips, rumors etc. People here are generally well meaning and generous. They are friendly and are readily willing to help. I think the older part of the town has a stronger social fabric than the newer part, which are typical subdivisions without much of any infrastructures. The older core is denser with mostly one or two story wood frame houses with overhanging balconies on narrow streets that are walkable and provides for good social interactions.  Every block probably has a little tienda where you could get Coca Cola (people are addicted to coke), red or orange Fanta or some chips and some of them would also sell some grocery items. There are several mom and pop (almost always moms and no pops) fast food places selling mainly rice and beans with chicken, burritos, tostadas, garnachos, salbutes etc., which are different versions of tortilla or tacos with little bit of refried beans, shredded cabbage, onion, tomatoes and cheese. In my block the lady across from me makes and sells pizza, which and I am told is pretty good, from her house. Next to the pizza place is Agua Pura, a bottled water place, a big business here, end of the block is a pharmacy and mini-grocery store and the other end of the block is a meat shop. The house next door sells coke, ice and chips etc. out of their living room. It is also very common to have some neighborhood kids go around selling bread, vegetables etc or prepared food such as tamales, tamalitos or bollos. These are all different varieties of tamales, which is a piece of chicken with some special tomato sauce inside corn masa or dough, which is then wrapped in banana leaves and boiled except for tamalitos which are corn masa wrapped in corn husk and boiled without any meat inside.

Making Tamales

The family that owns the Agua Pura also owns my house and five other houses. The family with the Pizza business is her brother and sister in-law. My neighbors are friendly and “watchful” of my comings and goings, which I really don’t mind. My next door neighbor brought me dinner the other night, the neighbor across gave me some avocado and lime from their farm and I made some guacamole with it. The lady at the grocery store knows that I live on the block so the other day she let me have some crackers and told me I can pay her later since I didn’t have any small change.

My daily routine is pretty much like normal 8 to 5 work day, unlike what one might think of a Peace Corps life style, with mostly nothing to do in the evenings. In the morning I have some breakfast sometime at home or stop by the one of the breakfast places to have some burritos, tacos and instant coffee. For lunch we go to one of the local fast food places to have rice and beans.  

My breakfast
A typical lunch

I hope to come home for lunch soon and not have to eat rice and beans everyday. In the evenings sometime I go for a walk or go to the store to pick up stuff or go to evening meetings. I am almost there but I still need to get a few things to get all set and be “modestly” comfortable, as Peace Corps insists on volunteers maintaining a “humble” lifestyle. As I get involve in my work and also get involve with the community doing secondary projects, I will be having a lot of evening meetings and wouldn’t have that many free evenings. Saturdays are generally a market day in San Ignacio. I normally take the half hour bus ride to San Ignacio in the morning and get some breakfast and “real” coffee, not instant coffee, which is the only thing you find in Benque. For breakfast I normally go to either “Pops” or a place called “Ko-Ox Han-Nah”, where you can get some American breakfast and get to meet some interesting people. Then go to bank as there are no banks in Benque, do other errands and go to the market, which is quite a treat and can find most everything. People go to the market very early to get the meat, fish and dairy stuff. Started to start cooking at home in a limited way, I still have some fridge issue that I need to resolve before I can buy meat etc and be able to freeze them at home. Eating out all the time is way beyond Peace Corps budget and besides you get tired of eating the same rice and beans everyday.

All kinds of spices
Fresh vegetable Stall 
Market is a social event

All in all life is good and busy. I definitely have an interesting and challenging assignment that uses all my professional skills and life experiences. I am meeting a variety of people who are important part of this town and of the Country’s tourism industry and look forward to working with them in developing a road map for Benque Viejo’s long term future.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Moving To Benque Viejo Del Carmen

Benque Viejo Del Carmen, situated on the bank of Mopan River, the western branch of the Belize River, is the westernmost town of Belize and the only official way to enter Guatemala from Belize by road. It is in the Cayo district and is approximately 80 miles due west from Belize City with the capital Belmopan about halfway between Belize City and Benque Viejo. Town of San Ignacio, Cayo District capital is 8 miles east on the Western Highway and the Town of Melchor de Mencos in Guatemala is a mile west of Benque Viejo.

History of the area goes back to the Mayan times. The presence of Tikal, Caracol, Xunantunich (see images of Xunantunich www.subratabasu.com) and several other Mayan sites in the proximity clearly indicates that this area was an active center of Mayan settlement which peaked during the Maya classical period from 200 to 900 AD. There are a number of theories why Maya civilization declined, but historians and archaeologists believe that the decline was a result of many complex factors such as possibly unsustainable agricultural practices, tribal wars, displacement by Spanish and just a breakdown of the social and economic systems. The declined occurred at different times in different regions.

The British loggers started arriving in the area as early as 1600s. The early settlers harvested logwood, which was the source of dyes. The dyes were used to stain beaver furs. However, by the end of the eighteenth century the demand for the natural dye was replaced with synthetic dyes and the loggers turned their attention to cutting down mahogany trees. Loggers set up logging camps along the Mopan River bank.  Benque Viejo which means “old bank” refers to the logging camps along the river bank. The loggers would float the logs downstream the Mopan River to Belize City, from where they would later be exported to England for making furniture. The area was still dominated by Mayans who were employed by the British loggers. There were two well established Mayan villages, Benque Viejo and Succotz, with their own Alcaldes.  Subsequently, town of Benque Viejo has been populated primarily by Spanish speaking Mestizos who are the descendants of Mayan and Spanish speaking Peteneros from Guatemala and Yucatecos from Mexico and eventually by 1900 dominated the area. The village of Succotz remained Mayan as the Mopan speaking migrants from San Jose village in Peten department of Guatemala settled in Succotz, although today most people speak Spanish as opposed to Mopan. The first visit by a Catholic priest in Benque Viejo was believed to be in 1865 with the continued presence and influence of the Catholic Church in the area. The Spanish speaking Chicleros were involved in harvesting Chicle, which was used to make chewing gum. Both mahogany and Chicle industry flourished at the turn of the century and Benque Viejo enjoyed its boom days during the first part of the twentieth century. However, due to lack of any forestry regulation, the mahogany reserve gradually ran low and the invention of synthetic Chicle ultimately caused the demise of both the industries and severely impacted the major livelihood of the area by the middle of the twentieth century.
A Statue of a Chicklero
in Chicklero Park

Benque Viejo Town Hall
Benque Viejo was established as a town in 1904. The original town was approximately an area of quarter of a mile wide by a little over a one half of a mile long. The streets were laid out in a grid pattern, parallel to the Mopan River with a number of open civic spaces scattered through out the area and with commercial activities primarily concentrated on the northeastern quadrant of the town. Relatively narrow, mostly one way streets were lined with typically two story wood frame clap board houses with overhanging balconies that created a community that was quaint, walkable, safe and friendly.  
George and Victoria Streets

Church Street
Currently, through annexation, the Town with a population of approximately 8,000 has grown more than twice of the original size creating sprawled developments with very little public service and inadequate infrastructure.

Reminiscent of  British
Under the British authority, in 1962, Antonio Kuylen became the first Mayor elected by popular vote. In 1967 the town was dedicated to the patron Saint Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the town was renamed as Benque Viejo Del Carmel. Belize was granted Self Governance in 1964 eventually gaining its independence from British and joining the Commonwealth Countries in September of 1981. Today Benque Viejo Del Carmen has lost its lustre and its importance as a centre of commerce, but remains proud of its Mestizo heritage, a distinctive blending of primarily Mayan and Spanish history, culture, architecture, and art.

In the recent past as a result of leadership and persistence of several community leaders there has been a cultural resurgence in Benque Viejo. A “House of Culture”, one of four in the entire country, under the auspices of National Institute of Culture and History (NICH), was built in Benque Viejo in 2001 to promote cultural awareness and to inspire creativity. The town also hosts several major cultural and religious festivals that draw people from around the country and also the neighbouring countries. Visit
http://www.nichbelize.org/houses-of-culture/benque-house-of-culture.html or join their Facebook 

House of Culture
I moved to Benque on June 11, 2011 and to start my two year service. I am assigned to the Mayor and the Town Council of Benque Viejo Del Carmen. My primary assignments are to develop a master plan to revitalize the historic downtown and to create a comprehensive tourism plan for the town eventually improving the town’s economy and allowing for increased tax base. I am excited about the potentials and couldn’t have asked for a better assignment. Between my primary assignment and several secondary projects that I already know I will be involved in, I will have two busy years. The main challenge would be to work around the lack of basic resources as well as the lack of support staff to accomplish the tasks. Needless to say I will have to get very creative. My initial assessment is that the key to the success will really depend on how I can keep the community engaged through the process.

There are two other Peace Corps volunteers, Roger and Tracy, currently living in Benque Viejo. Roger works with the Town Council as I do and Tracy is a Health volunteer who works at a free dental clinic in the next village Succotz. They are both getting ready to COS (Close of Service) this October. I will be the only volunteer here for the next two years. Town Council also has a JAICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency, a Japanese version of Peace Corps) volunteer, a young Japanese architect Kota Murakami who is working on a bunch of projects.

The Peace Corps requires that every volunteer spend the first two months at the final site with a host family before moving into his or her own place. I have been staying with Guerra family in the neighboring Succotz Village.   Guerras are a young couple with two little daughters Marianny (5 years) and Belen (9 months).
Both the Guerras are teachers and work long hours for very little pay like teachers everywhere else in this world. Unfortunate reality of our times. I have a comfortable living accommodation, but I am looking forward to moving to my own place beginning of August. It will be nice to finally have your own place after four months of living out of a suitcase.

Drive with care
Your family awaits you
Have a good trip

My life in Benque Viejo next…..        

Friday, July 8, 2011

Finally a Volunteer.....

June 10, 2011, it was one of those beautiful Belizean summer days, clear blue skies, sunny, hot and humid. It is the day when we would be magically transformed from Trainees to Volunteers to start our long anticipated service. The day started with trying to get some breakfast, which is always a challenge around the Garden City Hotel because there are no places around the there to have any kind of breakfast. There wasn’t enough time to go to the market place either. I think I got three little tacos for a dollar from the lady who puts up a makeshift taco/burrito stand every morning across the hotel and an orange juice from the Chinese grocery store, which is commonly referred to as “chiney” here.  With that taken care of, we needed to get ready for the big event: Swearing in Ceremony at the Belize House, which is the official residence of Belize Governor General, at . We all got dressed in our best outfits and got picked up and delivered at the Belize House at 10. As the guests, host families and other Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) started to arrive at the great lawn of the Belize House and started gathering under a huge tent with about a dozen fans blowing in full blast, thirty seven soon to be volunteers were busy enjoying the moment and mingling with the crowd. I was pleased to have my host family from Salvapan come to the event and I was especially honored that my future workpartners Mayor of Benque Viejo DelCarmen Nick Ruiz and Vice Mayor Ana Castellanos representing the Town Council came all the way from Benque Viejo to join me at this special occasion.

With Roger German, Vice Mayor Castellanos and Mayor Ruiz

Picture taking was probably the most important activity of the morning and everyone wanted to have someway of remembering this special day. The day was truly a special and emotional day for all the volunteers of all ages, the new and the current, who made conscious decisions to serve humanity and consider it to be important enough to give up twenty seven months of their lives and to make the commitment to uphold the core tenet of Peace Corps to promote Peace and Friendship around the world.

Festivities started with Belize and U.S. National Anthems: Land of the Free and The Star Spangled Banner with the Governor General His Excellency Sir Colville Norbert Young, U.S. Charge` d’Affairs Mr. Jack Diffily, Peace Corps Country Director (CD) Nina Hernandez and Peace Corps Training Manager (TM) in Belize Jaime Brancato seated at the Head Table. All the honored guests, host families, host partners, volunteers, staff and the trainees were welcomed by Jamie, who never leaves anything for chance and has everything planned out to the last detail. She had the whole three months of training meticulously planned out to make sure that we were well trained not only worthy to be Peace Corps volunteers and to represent the United States of America well, but also be prepared to integrate well into the host country, which is one of the important aspects of Peace Corps’ approach to serving a host country. Country Director Nina Hernandez’s inspiring speech reminded everyone that we, as volunteers, bring the greatest gift of all, “gift of nothing”. We don’t bring any material gift but instead we bring love, friendship and peace. U.S. Charge` d’Affaires Mr. Jack Diffily  filled in for the Ambassador who was out of the country, told us about his own life changing experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo forty some years ago and how proud he was to be swearing in the new volunteers. He then did the formal swearing in of the Class of 2011 and presented our Certificate of Completion of Pre-Service Training.
The keynote Speaker Deputy Chief Education Officer, Ministry of Education Carol Babb related to us how she was inspired to have the best penmanship by a Peace Corps volunteer when she was a student many years ago and even today she cherishes that friendship. Roger German, who I have the distinct pleasure of eventually replacing when he ends his tour of duty in October, welcomed us on behalf of the Class of 2009 and in his characteristicly eloquent way explained how Peace Corps  changes one life at a time through love and care. He talked about how Tracy Hodson, a health care volunteer  helped a little Mayan child overcome her fear of “white people” by being caring and loving. Zachary Pullin, on behalf of the Class of 2010, greeted us and applauded us for embodying the spirit of service, a service that is not about our personal goals, personal vision or personal responsibilities but it is about shared goals, shared vision and shared responsibilities

The session concluded with thank yous from the class of 2011. On behalf of the Class of 2011, Rogelio (Roy) Flores II, Melissa Ng and Taylor Munz thanked everyone in Spanish, Q’eqchi and Kriol respectively followed by a wonderful Vote of Thanks by Breezie O’Neill. We lunched on a typical Belizean dish: beans and rice, chicken, patato salad, bread pudding and coke.

Class of 2011
Cayo District Volunteers
Goofing around
In the afternoon we had our traditional “mock” rivalry of a friendly football (soccer) game between the new volunteers and the current volunteers. We beat the veterans hands down 3-0. I had to nurse my old knee for the next three days after the game. Later we got ready for an evening reception at the U.S. Ambassador’s private residence, a treat we will not forget. Everyone looked very elegent in their evening dresses as we were received by the Charge` D’Affaires and his wife at the Ambassador’s very lush and sprawling residence.

After formal welcomes, some tasty hors d’oeuvres and wine we were treated to the most delicious dinner we have had since we arrived in Belize. The menu was ceasar salad, grilled red snapper, steamed vegetables, potatoes au gratin, and chocolate cherry cake. Charge` D’Affaires was most gracious and spent time talking to all of us and shared stories of his Peace Corps days and of the various State Department assignments he had over the years. 

With Peace Corps Country Director Nina Hernandez 
With U.S. Charge` d’Affaires Mr. Jack Diffily
Well all good things come to an end and so did our wonderful evening and we headed to the hotel. Next day it was time to say good byes to each other as we got ready to move to our respective sites and start our long anticipated two years of service. Moving to Benque Viejo Del Carmen next….