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Sunday, 30 June 2013

Moving to Honduras

Written by Treva Wynn
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I was really struggling with the luggage. The floral suitcase was from the seventies and only had a little strap that I had to pull in a direct line with the bag or it would tip over. Not to mention, there was a thick gray slush that was lining the sidewalk near the terminal, which didn't help with the stability. My heart was beating so fast yet my body was performing all the motions fluidly. Riley and I walked through the sliding glass doors into Dayton International Airport to see my mom, best friend, aunt, and step-mom waiting for us- for me. It was around four in the morning. After receiving a beautiful leather journal from my mom, it was time for good-byes. Something I have become all too familiar with- never comfortable, but familiar. Hugs and kisses were given as well as please-don't-get-yourself-killed looks. Not unlike a robot, I pivoted on my heel, and walked towards the check-in counter. Watching my luggage float down the conveyor belt into airport oblivion, I realized there was no turning back. I'd said my peace, and now I was moving to Honduras, for 6 months, alone. I waved one last hand at my family, at my husband, took a mental picture, and walked away. 

Once I knew they could not see me, I slowed my pace, and took a very deep breath. As I slowly exhaled, I felt my world slipping off my shoulders. An overwhelming sense of liberation, independence, the unknown, washed over me and actually made me stagger. A smile crossed my face, from ear-to-ear, and it didn't vanish until I was 35,000 feet in the air, over the Gulf of Mexico. My transfer in Miami had gone smoothly enough. I had changed from Southwest to TACA Airlines. As I boarded the plane, I noticed the atmosphere was completely different than in the stuffy Southwest cabin I had just exited. There was Latino music playing, the seats were brightly colored and had interesting patterns on them, and everyone was standing up- talking, shouting over one another. I found my seat and tried not to look like a moron. I could barely contain my excitement. Yet when the flight attendant started the safety procedures completely in Spanish, my shit-eating-grin dissipated, just a hair. It hit me. I didn't know Spanish. I had never taken a lesson, let alone a class in my life. Surely it doesn't matter that much, I thought. The two girls, my future roommates, who will be picking me up from the airport are English speakers. While mid-flight I looked around to notice I was one of maybe three gringos on the plane. This excited me even more. I couldn't wait to be part of something completely foreign and different to me, to live and breathe experiences in a whole new light. The English speaking gentleman to my right helped me though the customs forms and told me when we would be landing. I looked out the window, down to the mountainous terrain of Northern Honduras. There were endless miles of dusty brown peaks and cliffs, blankets of trees, and a small trace of what looked like a road. As the plane landed rather harshly on the runway of the San Pedro Sula Airport, I could hardly believe my eyes. The mountains were absolutely breath-taking and the sun was high in the bluest of skies. A few tears formed in my eyes out of absolute jubilation.

The customs experience wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. They realized quickly I didn't speak Spanish and ushered me through with mild annoyance. I retrieved my bags and struggled through my last security checkpoint. After all, I had two large suitcases, a carry-on, and my purse (I completely over-packed). I finally walked past a glass wall into the greeting area of the airport.

My eyes scanned for Kristen, the girl from Chicago who I had been trading emails with. It occurred to me... I had no idea what she looked like. They don't know what I look like either. They probably have a sign with my name on it! I stumbled with my bags awkwardly through the crowd until I was looking through the front sliding glass door of the airport. An uneasy feeling pinched my stomach, but I ignored it immediately. One part of my brain was calmly saying, They're here, they're here... somewhere, they're here. The other side was screaming and firing off alarms. You idiot! You never even talked with her on the phone, skype, or even facebook! You don't even know if she exists! You just flew 1,500 miles to the 'most dangerous city' in the Americas and it was a scam! No. It couldn't be. I didn't give them any of my information. There's no way. Then maybe this is just a cruel joke! Maybe they are watching you right now and laughing their asses off! You didn't even write down the phone number she emailed you, although now your phone is dead anyway! I allowed myself thirty more seconds of hysteria, and took another long, deep breath. I collected myself after watching the last women walk away with their expected guests. They're not here. They're not coming. I fished my charger out of the luggage and walked into an airport cafe, toting all of my worldly possessions with me. I walked up to a woman working, showed her the charger, the dead phone, and threw up my shoulders and hands in a questioning motion. She miraculously nodded and pointed to an outlet near the ceiling. After what seemed like hours, I had enough battery to call Cathy, my step-mom. There's no way I can call my mom, she will freak out. I ensured her that at my ripe age of 23 I was well mature and responsible enough to fend for myself. Obviously, I was wrong- but I couldn't let her know that. Of course, Cathy didn't answer her phone. I leave a calm voice mail asking if she could look in my email, and find Kristen's phone number. As I wait, dumbfounded by my actions and lack of sense, I noticed the sun getting lower in the sky, closing in on those beautiful mountains. The airport was nearly empty. Out of nowhere it seemed, a tall white man walked over to me, as I sat on the floor, cradling my knees to my face. "Hi, we were on the same flight. Do you have somewhere to go?"

Sorry dude, I've seen Taken. No thanks.

"Yeah, I'm volunteering in a town called Ocotepeque. And 2 of my friends are coming to pick me up. They're just running late."

"Oh, okay... well I hope they get here soon. It really isn't safe for you to stay here by yourself."


 

I thanked him for his concern and assured him I would be just fine. He walked away and joined a group of middle-aged people standing near the front doors. I tried Cat's phone again- nothing. Fifteen minutes passed and my new tall friend walked back into my corner of the cafe. "Ma'am, the lady working here said that she needs to close. You'll have to sit outside."

"Oh, okay." I unplug my barely charged phone and gather my things.

"Listen, I work with an orphanage nearby. Over there, (he points) that's my friend. She's a nun."

Seeing her cue, she walks over and shakes my hand. She didn't look like the nuns I'd seen on TV. She had long dreadlocks, baggy worn Tye-dyed clothes, and glasses that held on to the tip of her long nose.

"Listen, Hun. We don't feel comfortable just leaving you here. Do you even know Spanish?"

"Well... no, I don't."

I have a friend who owns a hotel outside of the city. We could take you there, and it would give you time to figure out what your plans are. By the looks of it, you don't have any."

"No, I'm sorry but I couldn't possibly impose like that. And I'm sure these girls will be here soon."

"How well do you know them? Are you willing to gamble your safety on it?"

After I thought about it, I realized I had just as much chance getting kidnapped and killed with the two girls I didn't know as with these strange missionaries.  

"Okay, great. Let's go."

As they loaded my bags into their tiny, paint-chipped minivan, I took one more glance around the airport parking lot. I could not believe I flew to Central America, got stood up, and am now leaving with some Catholics I had met 30 minutes prior.

Well, here we go. I sat quietly in the seat behind the driver and we took off. The deserted airport road turned into a traffic nightmare after two miles. We were in one of four lanes of traffic on a road designed for at most two. Mopeds and scooters somehow were flying in between the sardine-like cars, just barely missing side mirrors. Despite the chaos, I was thoroughly impressed. Our skilled driver weaved in and out of cars with relaxation and confidence, which were highly contagious. Once we were several miles away from what I assumed was downtown San Pedro Sula, my chauffeurs began the expected Honduras-brief. "Don't drink the water. Don't use it to brush your teeth. Don't wash your dishes with it. Don't even open your eyes in the shower!"

Yikes. I got it. No water.

(Which for the record, yes the water is polluted, but I use it for everything but drinking- and I'm still standing!) 

"Most importantly, don't go outside once the sun goes down. Ever."

"Yeah, of course. I'm not planning on putting myself at risk."

They frowned at one another. I could tell they were not impressed with my amount of good judgment thus far. I didn't blame them. There I was, accompanied by four complete strangers, flying towards a supposed hotel in a country whose language I didn't speak.


 

"Oh yeah, one more thing... you can't flush the toilet paper."

What!? 

As they filled me in on the major exports of my new country, my inner-ninja continually looked for something in the van that I could use as a weapon. I had to be prepared for anything.

I silently gasped out of overwhelming relief as we pulled into the front parking lot of a quaint hotel ironically named "La Casa Blanca." It's real! The hotel is real! Maybe these people don't want to kill me and are just genuinely wonderful! I rejoiced internally. Although the hotel was located directly on the busy street, once inside, the traffic was taken over by exotic birds calls. There was a gigantic cage near the entrance to the lobby that housed several macaws (the National Bird of Honduras). 

My missionaries talked to the young girl at the front desk and I could tell they were informing her of my situation. After a few moments, her eyes enlarged, she looked at me, and had to fight back a smirk. Dumb gringa. I'm sure she thought. I was thinking the same thing.

My new heroes and I traded phone numbers and they told me they would return the day after to see if I had resolved my problems. They also informed me that if I hadn't, they would be glad to have me live and work at the orphanage. I think that was the first moment I had exhaled since realizing I was alone, really alone. I immediately relaxed and hugged my hippie nun.

A teenage boy carried all of my bags up and placed them in the room. I was happy and proud to use the only Spanish word I knew at the time, "Gracias!" I closed the door and sat on the bed. Immediately, I had the same rush of feelings I did at the airport. Freedom. Independence. The unknown. I gave myself a few necessary moments to absorb the situation. Well, it looks like I have two options: stay here with these amazing people I just met, or go back to the airport, and buy a ticket to Jamaica. Either way, I'm not going home. I already had my good-bye party. How embarrassing.... I decided to call Cathy again and give these mystery girls one more chance. Thank God, she had Kristen's number waiting for me when it rang. I punched in the country code and her other eight numbers. My heart started racing as I started pacing around the hotel's courtyard. One ring: nothing. Two rings: nothing. Three rings: a distorted "hello!?"

"Kristen! Is that you!? Can you hear me?"

"Wh-- th--s?" Her connection was terrible.

"This is Treva! I'm at a hotel. You weren't at the airport!"

"A ho-el!? Where!?"


 

"Casa Blanca, it's in El Progresso!"

She replies some inaudible curse words as she informs her traveling partner.

"Okay, don'- move! We'-e coming to -et you!"

Hallelujah! It wasn't a scam!

I sprinted to my room and shoved the few things I had removed, back into the old luggage. I attempted to take it all down myself, but when I was spotted walking down the stairs looking like a suitcase monster, the same teenage boy came running up to relieve me. I walked up to the front desk with much more confidence this time. I got some place to go! The faux confidence drained immediately once I realized I couldn't explain why I was leaving after twenty minutes, where I was going, or who with. I again shrugged my shoulders and held up my hands. She nodded in comprehension. Seriously!? I offered some U.S. dollars, and she politely shook her head and smiled. Again, I had the chance to use "Gracias!" Patting myself on the back, I exited the lobby and parked myself under the covered patio outside- next to those dreadful birds. 

After what seemed like hours (in reality, probably 30 minutes), a taxi pulled up in front of me. Two girls got out, saw me, and smiled in relief. I on the other hand, sprung out of my seat like a child. I ran over to them and wrapped my arms around them both. At this point, I didn't care why they weren't at the airport, I didn't care how I potentially could have been killed- I was with the two people I had planned to be with and I was happy. After I released them, the introductions started. Kristen, from Chicago, fluent in Spanish. Awesome! Katie, from England, had just moved to Honduras a few weeks prior. We piled into our chariot, took off into the crazy traffic, and headed back into San Pedro Sula. After ten minutes of inquisition from both sides - myself and them, we all started to relax. Their bus had broken down during the five and a half hour journey from the town they volunteer in to San Pedro. As we made our way towards the bus station, they took notice of a giant stadium filled with people.

"Oh man there's a football match tonight... I really would love to see one. I was a sport's journalist in my last job." Katie informed us in her adorable but don't-mess-with-me English accent.

"Oh, me too! But Treva just got here, I'm sure she's tired,” Kristen added.

I was in no place to irritate people any more than I already had. Naturally I responded "Me? Tired? No way. Let's go to the football (soccer) match!" In reality, I was exhausted. The mental trauma my brain had just gone through had not allowed my body any time to recover. We decided it would be best to go to the bus station first, drop off my things, and buy tickets for the last bus: one in the morning. I internally cried as I purchased the ticket that wasn't valid for another 6 hours... It's going to be a long night.  I had no idea how long.


 

The stadium was just as chaotic as the city's traffic. We walked underneath the cement bleachers looking for something to eat. I hadn't eaten since the night before, yet what I really craved... was a beer (or as it turned out, several). We found an empty space amongst the endless sea of concrete rows, and sat down with beers and hotdogs in hand. A cloud of smoke and insects lingered under the powerful stadium lights. Children vendors were selling packs of gum, cigarettes, and turtle eggs. Thousands of fans shook the stadium as they stomped, cheered, screamed, sang, and chanted in support of their teams. I was thoroughly enjoying myself as I mimicked the reactions of those around me to the goal or foul that had just occurred. As the last minute on the clock ticked away, we decided we should probably make for the exit.

Bad idea.

What I can only imagine was similar to the infamous The Who concert, the three of us were smashed between mobs of people. I quickly lost sight of both my new friends, and I concentrated on keeping my feet moving and my face in the air- so I could breathe. I saw the exit that the mass I was part of was heading towards and I reassured myself I'd be fine once we were outside the stadium. Unfortunately, as I was being crushed through the threshold I felt someone step on my flip-flop. The momentum of the crowd kept me going and it was quite painfully torn off my foot. Once finally in an open space again, outside the exit, I found Kristen and Katie waiting for me.

"Aw man I lost my flip-flop in that mess!"

Kristen, after eying the situation a moment, dove back into the crowd in hunt of my poor, and surely smashed, flip flop. Moments later she 'resurfaced,' flop in hand, waiving it triumphantly. I thanked her a few dozen times and we set foot in the same direction everyone else seemed to be going. We knew we were relatively close to the bus station, and we didn't feel like finding and paying for a taxi, so we just kept walking.

Bad idea.

We reassured each other that because there were so many people walking with us, we were safe. Never mind it’s 9:00, and very dark. For a few minutes, I was quite loving walking amongst the crowd. Some children ran circles around their tired parents, while others were fast asleep on their mothers' chests or fathers' shoulders. It was not unlike leaving an amusement park after a long day; until I felt a sharp tug slice around the front of my neck. Within the same second I felt hands in the pockets of my jeans. I realized rather quickly that the tug on my neck was someone pulling my chained necklace from the back, snapping it, and letting my Dad's dog tags go flying into the middle of the busy street. We were being mugged. On instinct, I jumped into the street after my Dad's possessions, nearly being hit by a car. The car had slammed on his brakes and was halted just a few feet in front of me. I turned my attention back to the side walk to see four teenagers circling Kristen, kicking her, and trying to get whatever she had. Kristen however, being the badass that she was, kicked and punched right back. In a sheer moment of adrenaline and anger, I ran towards the little circle- arms-a-flying and yelling. This effectively dispersed them. One boy acted like he was going to hit me, so I reminded him I was a good seven inches taller by standing up straight and saying something that apparently translates in every language. He joined his group and they took off, running away as fast as they came. Catching my breath while squeezing my Dad's tags, I looked at Kristen and Katie. I immediately scanned the ground, and retrieved a large and heavy rock. At the same time one of us was trying to find the words to say after a situation like that, another group ran towards us. Except this time, they were all nine and ten year old girls. They grabbed each of our hands and started pulling us up the street, towards a tall chain-linked fence that guarded a garage. They were all speaking so fast, and so frantically, I had no idea what was happening (rock still in hand). Apparently Kristen did. We were led to one of their houses where a father was standing, waiting. The girls quickly and desperately told him what had happened. I didn't need to know Spanish to know this man was sorry, and he wanted to help. His face dropped as the girls went on and he slowly, and sadly, shook his head. He ushered us into the bed of his truck and he, like a bullet, shot off towards the bus station. 


 

As we said our ‘good-bye’s and ‘thank-you’s, I couldn't help but think in how just a matter of five minutes, one could see the worst, and the best part of a country. We entered the deserted terminal and found the bus office we had bought a ticket at previously. It was the only place open in the entire enormous complex; it was rather spooky. I paid my 3 Lempiras (Honduras currency) to use a restroom, and excused myself for some much needed self-reflection time. I stared into the mirror and noticed I had a bloody, thin red line crossing my neck from one side to the other. As I have done so many times since, in uncomfortable situations, I burst out laughing. Oh my god, it looks like someone cut my neck! I've been here for 5 hours! I can NEVER tell mom about this... Once I regained control and stifled the laughter, I exited to the room where Kristen, Katie, and 15 others sat on the floor, backs against the wall, waiting. 

We passed the hours speaking with a young man who was about to make a three day long journey to the border of the United States. Once there, he would find the coyote he had talked to, and would hopefully make it across. I prayed that night he would, safely.

I really hoped that once I was safely in a seat on the bus, my night would be over. I was pushing 24-hours of no sleep, and I figured the bus ride would be a lovely way to wind down.

Wrong.

Never having experienced ground transportation in a developing country, I was absolutely terrified. I was more afraid for my life in that first hour of that particular bus trip, than I had ever been. The mountains were pitch black and full of sharp curves and turns that border on the edges of cliffs.  The driver was speeding so excessively, I half expected one side of the bus to go up in the air when we took corners. But always to my amazement, we didn't crash. Instead, we pulled up to a 'police check-point' at three in the morning. My body and mind had just started adjusting to the high-speeds at which we were traveling when the brakes were slammed and we came upon thirty policemen standing idly in the middle and side of the road. Some were drinking in the bed of a truck, others were twirling loaded semi-automatic weaponry around in the air like a baton, and some were giving every person on that bus (through the window) that we-know-what-you're-up-to look. The door opened and the cops flooded the bus in just a few seconds. Immediately they barked orders. Kristen translated for me:

"All of the men, outside. Women, stay where you are, and get out your paperwork."

The men quietly and obediently marched outside and lined up perpendicular to the bus. As I fished out my passport with shaky hands, I watched the men being padded down and searched outside. The police arrived at our seats and Kristen and I dutifully handed them our information.

"Where is yours?" He asked Katie.

"She left her passport in Ocotepeque. We live there, we were just on our way to pick her up from the airport." Kristen patiently explained to the cop.

"Step off the bus, ladies." He only wanted them to leave, not me.

My heart rate quickened as I watched the officers lead them towards a truck. I couldn't hear anything obviously, but I understood exactly what was happening. Kristen was throwing up her arms out of frustration and Katie stood aside her nervously. Every once in a while Kristen would point towards me, inside the bus still, and gave him the what-is-she-supposed-to-do-if-you-take-us-to-jail look. I returned the same concern. I had no idea where I was, how far away we still were from our town, nor could I even ask anyone. I found out later that the police wanted to take Katie to a jail in the nearest city for not having her passport with her. Kristen reasoned with them how is she supposed to show you her passport if you throw her in jail!?


 

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, they were allowed back on the bus, free to go.

The bus driver resumed his insane speed and all went back to normal. Everyone was quiet, or asleep. It was past four in the morning. 45 minutes later, we pulled up to yet another check-point. This time, they ignored Katie's lack of identification, and let us leave after they padded the men down again. 

By the time we reached Ocotepeque, the sun was just peaking behind the mountains that engulfed the little town. I once again, was struggling with that stupid bag and the strap, except now it was much more difficult. It kept tipping over on the gravel covered dusty road, so I just dragged it. Eventually Kristen came to my rescue again, and picked it up over her head and carried it the rest of the way to our apartment. Like I said, badass. Naturally, our apartment was 3 floors up, sitting on top of a flat roof. There were two structures, one for the kitchen and living room, and the other for bedrooms, separated by an enormous balcony that was divided by cloth lines. I walked and leaned against the edge, absorbing my surroundings, and my freshly experienced adventures. I looked down to see a scrawny dog running across the deserted street of my new home. In the last twenty-four hours, I had been abandoned, saved, trampled, mugged, saved again, and had survived the scariest bus ride of my life.

Quietly I thought,  ‘I think I'm going to like it here.’

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(c)Treva Wynn

 

 

 

 

Last modified on Monday, 01 July 2013