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.

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