Posted on January 1, 2012

Honduras Days 1 & 2: Will The Real Tegucigalpa Please Stand Up

One of the first things you notice when you catch your connecting flight to a different country is the atmosphere of the flight itself. It’s no longer familiar. Yes, there are rows of seats with seatbelts neatly folded in place, and overhead bins and a tight aisle running down the middle just like on every plane. But the vibe is different. The people are different. They look different, dress different, sound different, and just somehow seem different. For me, this is always the moment that it really starts to sink in that I’m leaving my familiar little bubble and entering someone else’s. Far, far away.

The flight from Houston to Tegucigalpa (aka Tegus or “The Goose”) is a little under four hours. And now that Continental charges extra for in-flight movies, which I refuse to shell out for, I had a lot of time to read my Honduras travel guide and eavesdrop on the spanish conversations around me. I immediately honed in on the seat diagonally behind mine. The gringo-spanish was unmistakeable, and also louder than all the other voices. I cringed inwardly and glanced over to see if it was as bad as I thought. Yup. A college kid from the East Coast had cornered some poor Honduran guy against the window seat, and was mercilessly practicing schoolroom spanish on him. I wondered if the victim was looking for a way to crawl under his seat to escape, but the Honduran caught my eye and gave me a grandfatherly smile. He didn’t seem to be bothered at all. In fact, he was patiently correcting grammatical mistakes and intently listening to what was being rattled off. Huh. I kind of wanted to go over and practice my spanish too. Later, I watched as a flight attendant came down the aisle. He paused by the side of a passenger’s seat to take an infants tiny hand in his and to kiss her on the top of her head. I immediately thought of three girlfriends back home who would’ve germ-Xed their babies right then and there. But just like the other Honduran, the mother didn’t seem to mind, either. She began cooing to her baby and speaking softly to the kind flight attendant. The flight attendant gave the baby one last squeeze, smiled and continued down the aisle, asking me in passing if I’d like to take the empty row of seats across the aisle so that I could look out the window. Yes! And before I had buckled into my new seat, the grandfatherly Honduran was tapping me on the shoulder asking if this was my first time to Tegus. I said yes and began to explain to him that I was coming down two days early, before the team of doctors would arrive for the start of their annual medical mission in San Lorenzo. He looked a little shocked that I was travelling alone, and his reaction to it was yet another contradicting indicator of what Tegus was really like. According to several online reviews and my guide book (whose opening line in the Tegucigalpa chapter is this, and I quote: “Don’t take whatever horror stories you have heard about Central American capitals too seriously. While [Tegucigalpa] isn’t a favorite tourist destination, it’s actually a fairly pleasant place if you can get past the smog, shanty towns, and traffic.”), Tegus was a typical big city which requires big-city precautions: Don’t wear flashy jewelry, don’t walk alone at night, don’t wear a big camera around your neck and don’t smile brightly at everyone you see. Common sense stuff, no big deal. But according to other blog articles, some warnings from friends-of-friends who had friends that knew something about Honduras–and now, my new Honduran grandfather friend–Tegus was no place for a single, blonde american woman to be.

“Why you are arriving early and no one meet you?” He was truly perplexed by this.

“Well, I…. wanted to practice my spanish a little?” And I realized my watery answer was pretty insufficient. I tried to think of exactly why I did book my ticket two days early instead of arriving with the rest of the team like a normal person, and a vague mashup of daydreams popped into mind. Something resembling a New Years Eve spent Romancing-The-Stone style, with me wearing a mexican peasant blouse and eyelet-ruffled skirt, latin-dancing the night away under a string of lanterns over a cobblestone street. And then I began trying to recall exactly how much I knew about Honduras? When I tried to pin it down, how had I envisioned it would be? All I could muster up was a Dora The Explorer episode, a Carmen Miranda headdress, and the fact that I knew it was a small country somewhere between Mexico and South America.

“Here. I am meeting family at airport. You come with me, and we give you ride to hotel.”

All of my Stranger-Danger alarms began going off, while at the same time I was relieved by the idea of having a hassle-free ride. One of the things I had actually been worried about was the dreaded cab ride in a foreign country, where you really have zero homefield advantage against a cab driver who cunningly tacks on an extra 20 miles to your bill by taking the longest possible route to your destination. And even knowing that taking a ride from a male stranger in a foreign country was the epitome of sketchy life decisions, I still agreed anyways.

“Damas y Caballeros, les habla su capitan…” It was time for the infamous landing at Toncontin International… the History Channel’s “Second Most Dangerous Airport in The World,” where the approach weaves downward through the mountain range before executing a last-minute 90-degree turn onto a fatally short landing strip. I was staring out the window. Hard. Sinking through the cottony cloud layer and here come the brownish mountains sparsely dotted with little green trees! (I was delighted to make out a man leading a real-live burro up one of the foot paths as we careened past. Just like that coffee commercial). And now the hairpin turn! (Below us, I could see neighborhoods of corrugated-plastic shacks on the hills, chickens pecking the ground and dogs walking up dusty roads. On the horizon, I saw the telltale grayish-brown smog layer hiding the tall buildings of a city). And finally the loud clunk of the wheels hitting ground as we got pitched forward in our seats from the pilot deploying full braking measures. When we came to a stop on the short runway, the entire passenger cabin began clapping and cheering. My Honduran grandfather squeezed my shoulder and asked if I was doing ok, and I told him it was the funnest landing I’d ever had. He gave me the same disapproving look as when I told him I was travelling alone.

The airport facility in Tegus is small, but clean and orderly. I was embarrassed by my own surprise that the people greeting us as we filed up the exit ramp were dressed in neat work uniforms. What had I expected? That the airport would be a free-for-all of people carrying chickens in cages and pot bellied pigs running around? Osman (I finally asked his name) kept a close eye on me, translating for me with the Customs official, and before I knew it, his brother Antonio (who turned out to be a prominent lawyer in Tegus and not at all phased that I was tagging along– in fact, we stopped at the Family home on the way to my hotel, and not a single one of the 10 or so hijos, hermanos, y abuelitas that I hugged and kissed seemed bothered to have me standing awkwardly in the middle of their house) was holding the car door open for me to climb in. Downtown Tegus was about 6 miles away, a straight shot on the main road. If you’ve ever wondered what ever happened to your older brother’s 1983 Nissan hatchback or Honda dirtbike, it most likely came to die in Tegus. The cobblestone semi-paved, semi-dirt streets are filled with about fifty percent dirtbikes, and fifty percent old cars, tiny pickup trucks, and vehicles that I can’t even describe–like miniature flat-faced mack trucks with rainbow colored panels and crooked grills. Most of them pouring black exhaust as the drivers hold position by laying on the horn and crowding out anyone trying to creep into their space. Actually, if I had to narrow Tegus down to just one adjective, it would be: Unregulated.

Unregulated buildings that really are just shanties stacked unevenly on top of each other up steep hillsides, with sloping dirt floors under the corrugated metal and plastic roofs. Unregulated traffic laws– no seatbelts, no right-of-ways or paint dividing the lanes, very few stoplights or signage, and no hesitation to inch-by-inch cram the other person off the side of the road. Unregulated vendors, with bottled water for sale on lemonade-style stands outside of the shanties, men walking through bottlenecked traffic trying to sell the drivers bags of dried bananas carried hobo-style on sticks. Unregulated, but not quite lawless. There is a visible Police presence here, most of them carrying rifles– five or six guards at a time standing outside the supermarket, occupying random wooden booths throughout the city, and clustered in groups surrounding all four walls of the US Embassy.

My hotel is half a block from the US Embassy, and once I settled in I decided to put on some non-flashy clothing and get to the market before dark. No jewelry, no purse, and not more cash on me than I could afford to get mugged for. By the way, the Lempira is the national currency here and it’s about 16 Lempira to one US Dollar. Which makes it very inconvenient if you’re horrible at doing fast math in your head like I am, scary when a jar of pickles is labeled 76.50 Lempira (which turns out to be 4 dollars), and awesome if you’ve never had a fat stack of bills to make it rain (they don’t even have coins here, the smallest denomination I’ve seen is a 2-note which works out to like 12 cents). Although I was prepared to blend in as much as possible, I found it didn’t matter that I was earth-tone from head to foot, in cargo pants and a loose beige gauze shirt. I stuck out. Teenagers in pickups yelled gringa at me. I wasn’t insulted but I was waiting for something to get hucked at me or for someone to creep up behind me. I tried to stay alert and at the same time still take in the things around me– the unbelievable number of dirtbikes flying up and down the streets, the pale mustard yellows and rust-browns and grays of the stucco buildings, the laundry drying outside on railings, the totally unregulated electrical engineering here– powerlines black against the sky, bunched by the hundred and strung messily from pole to pole, residential homes with 7 foot high perimeter walls rimmed with barbed wire and the additional deterrent of jagged, broken glass coca-cola bottles cemented all along the top, the smothering sting of exhaust fumes in my nose and lungs.

As it turns out, I had taken wrong turn and gone to a sketchier section of the neighborhood. I know this because the next day (after Osman called to check in on me and offer to drive me to see Valle de Los Angeles before taking me back to join his entire family for a New Years Eve dinner) the lady who owns the Econo Hotel Bed & Breakfast, Olimpia, asked me if I wanted to go for a ride and get out of the city. On our way towards the beautiful mountain village of Santa Lucia, we passed the shopping area I was supposed to end up at, and again I was embarrassed at my own surprise to see the same type of mall you would see anywhere in America… complete with clearly designated parking places, nicely mulched landscaping, designer clothing stores, an outdoor escalator up the heart of the three-story shopping center, and a Chili’s restaurant. The only tie it had to the rest of Tegus were the rifle-carrying Police standing at store entrances. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the two different Teguses, the one three blocks away with shanty towns and suffocating exhaust fumes like you’d see on a Peace Corps brochure, and this one at the top of the hill, which looked like something from a Carnival Cruiseline brochure. And I still don’t know which of the online write-ups about Tegus are correct– whether it’s insane for a lone female American to be here, or if it’s fine as long as you play it smart. Everything so far has been a big contradiction– from the guidebooks, to the people who actually live here, and now even the city itself. I can’t honestly tell you if it’s safe or not.

At any rate… it’s two hours until the New Year arrives, and Olimpia told me to go out and watch the fireworks from her patio which has a sweeping view of the valley and the giant statue of Jesus with His arms outstretched on the mountain top– it’s illuminated every night, and is beautiful against the hills which shimmer with thousands of lights. People have been setting off fireworks around the clock since I got here (they are steadily crackling and booming outside my window right now. Picture someone riding a bicycle over bubble wrap for hours on end, and that’s what it sounds like), and apparently the New Years Eve display is something worth waiting up for. I guess if the fireworks are as unregulated as everything else here, it should be pretty good.

Tomorrow, I meet Dr. Carlos Martinez, Dr. Ron David, and the rest of the team back at the airport. Feliz Año Nuevo everyone!