I enjoyed Mr. Morales’ well-researched historical piece “Belmopan Turns 50” (See: Amandala, August 4, 2020), commemorating Belmopan’s 50th anniversary. I’ve lived here for 42 of those years and feel qualified to add a bit of personal flavor to his review.
In 1978 I got a job with the DFC in Belmopan and set out on our New Capital sojourn. We rented a duplex on Oriole Avenue. The water from the shower was Río On cold, even at midday. Our neighbors included a retired chief justice, the nation’s premier and a nationally acclaimed electrical engineer. We were already on our way up.
A lone young man lived across the street from us. His routine at day’s end was: open up the house, max the volume of his record player, snag a beer and a stool, then lounge out on the concrete slab over the drain. For the next hour he gulped beer and bobbed with the rhythm of the music. On weekends he was gone. Of course!
“The house is too hot,” he said, replying to our query one evening. “Waiting for it to cool down,” he added.
“Why do you play the tape so loud?” I asked.
“So I can hear it out here!” he shrugged, rebuking my naiveté.
We had a 2-year-old baby at the time and mentioned our irritation to the Premier’s aging aunt, two houses down from us. Shortly after, the guy was gone. We were learning the gears of the New Capital.
In that year there was only the Shell gas station, owned by Mr. Albert M. Gas was around $2.50 a gallon! A small shopping center on the East Ring Road, the hospital to the northwest, and an entertainment center owned by enterprising Mr. Darwin G. and abutting the gas station, triangulated the town.
I mention this only because the gas station was the first structure one saw on entering the New Capital. Apart from the showgrounds layout, there was bush on both sides of the highway. No monument marked the exit into Constitution Drive, which took you from one wilderness experience into another. We helped a touring couple at that junction once, poring over their guide map laid out on the bonnet. Their destination was Middlesex; the exit to the New Capital was not on their map; and they could not figure out this crossroads in the Belizean jungle. The New Capital was a concrete oasis surrounded by virgin forest.
Forest Drive was a dirt road that ended at a clearing now known as La Riviera. Completely circumscribed by the Ring Road, save for Site 7 and a cul-de-sac called Orchid Gardens, the New Capital sweltered in the daytime, but cooled down rapidly at night.
Here I’ll borrow a paragraph from Morales’ account, information that’s new to me: “Downtown Belmopan was Toucan Avenue in the 1970’s…Businesses (there) included British American Ins., Yellow Bird restaurant, Elma’s Snack Shop. Royal Bank, Espat’s store, Lopez’ Drugstore and the library.”
The three leading denominations took turns at worship in the same building known as the Ecumenical Center.
As Mr. Morales said, the place was small. Two enterprising men, “Big-Big” (after whom the stadium is named), and “Smithy,” provided lawn-mowing service. They were all the manpower needed to keep the yards of the city groomed. Mr. John D. delivered newspapers on Saturdays and Sundays, tooling around on his basket-equipped bicycle. “Eska” (I think short for Escalante) had a grocery shop located near the taxi stand. His facility catered to the needs of the office crowd. Eska was from that rare breed for whom “getting to know him” was a 10-minute encounter. A straight-up cusser, he greeted you with a twinkle in his eyes and an easy smile that the best grocers reserve for the day’s first customer. I would like to see a section of the Ring Road renamed Esca’s Memorial Parkway.
Government offices were housed in two (still unpainted) 2-storey buildings that flanked the parliament. A British army helipad occupied the empty area between the western flank and the Ring Road.
There was a lone barbershop, located on Toucan Avenue, but I think most men got their cuts in Roaring Creek. (I continued with my Belize City barber.) Next to that barbershop was the only licensed bar in Belmopan known as “Charlie’s.” Conveniently located on the main walkway and only a few houses from the B.E.L. office, Charlie did a thriving business. There was no music, no rowdiness and no night service: the Premier’s lodgings was a hundred yards away!
The picture of small, 2-bedroom bungalow clusters accompanying Mr. Morales’ article is a stark reminder of what we saw that year. Patricia R. and her husband moved to Belmopan the same year we did. She wrote:
“My first view of the new town in the area of Wood Streets was at dusk…not one of the
houses was occupied and the doors of most were open and moving (sic) in the evening wind.
It was an eerie moment.”
The unofficial word was that two-storey buildings other than those already built, would not be allowed. Since the buildings remained the property of Recondev until paid for, no additions could be made till then, anyway.
There was no cable service and rooftop antennas dotted the landscape. The only signals came from the King/Vasquez tower in Hattieville. Satellite dishes identified the wealthier residents. One was George W., our neighbor from Jamaica. (We had moved to another house by 1979.) He put up a dish and strung cables along our street. We had the prettiest pictures that you ever did see!
No, we do not regret our move to the New Capital despite Mr. Morales’ candid reminder that “…there were very few social amenities available…” There were other shortcomings too, but we knew Belmopan would be our home at last. And we’re still here!
Golden greetings, ’Pan!