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 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 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…..        

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