The Misadventures of a Business Traveler in Central America
Miami to Guatemala City
Yesterday, I climbed into my small attic in order to organize the growing number of boxes and other sundry junk I have been accumulating for the last few years. While up there I came across one container that read: “Office.” I immediately thought; “great. This box is full of old papers and files which I should be able to discard without giving it too much thought.”
Tearing the tape off the flaps, I reached inside and began to rummage, looking for an easy reason to throw it down to the garage floor for a quick disposal. As I reached inside, I noticed one of those old Mead leather bound pocket calendars. The ones we all used before smartphones.
This one was rather interesting as it read "1985 Weekly Calendar." This immediately triggered a lot of memories . Thoughts of the office where I worked. The people. My morning commutes. I figured I’d open it and take a peek. It automatically opened to June 24th of that year, which was a Monday. The first entry read: Eastern 1709 10:20 AM Miami — Guatemala City. Just below it: Radisson.
By the way, I don’t want to be rude. Allow me to introduce myself. I am George Nichols. Retired businessman. Ex-road warrior. Ex-frequent traveler, who at one time held on to hundreds of thousands of airline miles. Eastern, before it went out of business. American Airlines, Lufthansa, Lan Chile, Ladeco, Varig, Avianca, Air France and British Airways. Ah…I forgot; Iberia also.
As you can see, I used to do a lot of international traveling. For many years, I traveled to places like Guatemala, just like the entry in the calendar says. The fact is, in 1985, I did the vast amount of my traveling to Central, South America and the Caribbean. Actually, I have been to all the countries in the Americas with minor exceptions: Guyana and French Guiana in South America, and a few small Caribbean islands. I bet most Americans don’t know Guyana and French Guiana are in the American Continent, but they are. Right by Suriname and Venezuela .
Because I traveled through a lot of third world countries, I often found myself in some less than desirable circumstances. It so happens, this particular trip was one of those. I'll tell you all about it .
As I looked at the date on the calendar and the entries I made, the memories of the actual trip literally flashed into my mind. It was just as if I was watching a movie. I could see myself driving to the Miami Airport, dropping off my VW Cabriolet at the parking garage and walking toward Concourse A. Checking my luggage. Walking to the gate. These were the days when airport security was a breeze.
Back in 1985, Central America was a powder keg. Civil wars raged in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Panama was dealing with President Manuel Noriega; a head of state largely considered a thug, a thief and a drug dealer. Costa Rica, called the Switzerland of Central America was the only place travelers could feel relatively safe. This was the environment with which business travelers had to contend when trekking through this region.
Chiles Rellenos for Lunch
In this particular trip, my plans were to make my first stop in Guatemala City, itself no oasis of peace and tranquility, then from there go to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. From there to colorful San Pedro Sula, also in Honduras and finish out the trip in San Jose, Costa Rica.
As the case was back then, Guatemala too was in the midst of a civil war between communist rebels and the U.S. backed government of Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores. As a member of the military, Mejía Victores was president during the height of repression and death squad activity in the country. Today it is estimated that more than 200,000 people lost their lives due to the civil war which raged for 36 years.
This was my second trip to Guatemala City, and I was well aware that as long as I did not venture too far outside of the capital, I would be relatively safe. Still, I was somewhat apprehensive, specially since I had read in the Miami Herald that a couple of months prior the Camino Real Hotel had been rocked by a bomb placed in the reception area by anti-government rebels.
The Camino Real and the Holiday Inn were the two hotels in the capital most frequented by American business people. It would make sense to try to avoid those two hotels, so out of an abundance of caution, this particular time I decided to stay at the Sheraton, across the main boulevard.
My trip to Guatemala was fairly uneventful. I met with all our business partners and even had time to enjoy some Chiles Rellenos, which are these great fried bell peppers stuffed with meat, vegetables and covered in whipped egg whites. By Wednesday morning I was on my way to the La Aurora International to catch a flight to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Of course, little did I know that one hell of a trip awaited me.
My schedule called for Aviateca, the national carrier of Guatemala, to leave at 8:30 AM and arrive about an hour an a half later. Since this was my first time to Tegucigalpa, my knowledge of the city was very limited. All I knew was that Honduras was a poor country. What we called back in those days "third world"; a terminology no longer used.
These days we say a country is developed, developing or underdeveloped. I guess today, we would place Honduras somewhere between an underdeveloped and a developing country. Probably closer to being underdeveloped. It is certainly the second or third poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti being the poorest and Honduras battling for second place with Nicaragua.
The flight to Tegucigalpa left on time. I settled back on my seat, had a cup of coffee and tried to rehearse in my mind what I would do once I had checked in the hotel. Perfunctory stuff, you know. Call my first appointment to announce my arrival and confirm meeting times; goals for the meetings; maybe do a little paperwork before going for a cab. Simple stuff like that. Everything seemed to be going along smoothly, until we were getting close to our destination and I looked out the window.
Toncontín Airport in Tegucigalpa is considered the second most dangerous airport in the world. Nestled between mountains to the east, west and south, a very short runway and an embankment at the end, make this airport a challenge to pilots and a horror to first-time visitors. It is said, only pilots who have made these flights several times as copilots and sufficiently trained in weaving in and out of these mountains are allowed to fly the passenger jets in for a landing.
As I glanced out the window, the side of the first mountain, the pilot was banking around seemed like I could reach out and touch it. By looking close enough, I could see details of the mountain I did not particularly want to see. I hate to admit it, but I thought that was the end of the line for me.
Amazingly, the pilot banked to the left, then to the right. Went straight for a couple of minutes and reproduced the same maneuver around the next mountain. But hold on; he did it one more time after that. After the third mountain, he went straight for about three minutes and landed with a huge thud.
I took a deep breath and said to myself; "I hope this is not an indication of how this trip is going to be." My hopes were not fulfilled. This, I hate to say, was only the beginning. Hang in there my fellow readers. It is going to get much worse.
This particular trip was perhaps my baptism into the turbulent world of Central America. At times it was scary; at times comical; ultimately tragic for the people in this poor but beautiful country.
Lots of Potholes but No Conveyer Belt
After hitting several potholes, the 727 I was in, came to a halt. Amazingly, as I looked out the window, I noticed how the locals were lined alongside of the runway gawking at the planes as they landed. Perhaps knowing that if they waited long enough they would get to witness a catastrophe.
We exited the plane and walked on the tarmac into the passenger reception prior to going through passport check. It was a hot day, and I was soaked in sweat before we got to the air conditioning. Once we advanced through passport check, we made our way to baggage claim.
As I looked around for the conveyor belt, I realized there was none. Instead, I watched in amusement as airport personnel gathered all the arriving luggage in the middle of the floor in one big pile. Passengers began to jump into to the pile head first, looking for their baggage. It was an unreal scene watching people with half their bodies into the huge pile of every kind of luggage imaginable. I took a little more cautious approach and waited until the pile was down to just a few pieces.
I said to myself; "I am witnessing first hand, a true-third world country."
Tegucigalpa the capital of Honduras lies some fifty miles from the Nicaraguan border. In 1985 as it is today, Tegu, as it is often called by the locals, is a small, compact city of just over one million people. Its infrastructure has barely kept up with population growth. Poor urban planning, densely packed population and poverty are the things travelers encounter upon landing at Toncontín Airport. For most first-time visitors to this city, Tegucigalpa is not visually pleasant. To put it mildly, it is somewhat of an acquired taste.
Across the border, the Nicaraguan government of Daniel Ortega had swept into power six years earlier after overthrowing Anastasio Somoza Debayle the corrupt and despotic president of this beleaguered nation. The Somoza’s represented a dynasty that dated back to 1936 when Anastasio Somoza Garcia first became president of Nicaragua. Since then, Nicaragua suffered through three Somoza presidents and eight other interim presidents known for having been nothing more than puppets to the Somoza family.
Nicaragua is Literally Next Door
However, Nicaragua now belonged to the Sandinistas a radical left wing group that fought in the jungles of Nicaragua, and together with support from the socialist factions of the Catholic Church, financial aid from the Soviet Union funneled through Fidel Castro’s Cuba and popular support, rose to power.
The moment the Sandinistas took over the government of Nicaragua it was a foregone conclusion that the forces of Capitalism and Communism were going to clash in this country of barely six million inhabitants. This small piece of land, scarcely 50,000 square miles, roughly the size of the state of Ohio, became a flash point when in 1980 the United States discovered that Nicaragua was shipping arms to Salvadoran communist rebels. Shortly after that, the Reagan Administration authorized the CIA to help the Contra rebels, with arms, funding and training.
The Contras, short for “contrarevolucionarios” or counter-revolutionaries were made up of ex-Nicaraguan National Guardsmen, disillusioned ex-Sandinistas, and other Nicaraguans that opposed the Sandinista government. They fought in the jungles of Nicaragua against the government from 1979 to the early 1990s and kept several frontier-based camps on the Honduran side of the border.
The Contra rebels were no choir boys. Their tactics were brutal. Among some of their preferred targets was the disruption of rural reform projects the Sandinista government was attempting to establish. Today, most historians describe the destruction of health centers, schools, and cooperatives at the hands of the contra rebels. Others have contended that murder, rape, and torture occurred on a large scale in contra-dominated areas.
¿Cómo esta la situación politica y económica?
Luggage in hand, I set out to catch a taxi to the Honduras Maya Hotel, by far the best hotel in Tegucigalpa, located just northwest of the Autonomous University of Honduras. After a few years traveling through poor and at times turbulent countries one thing I knew was that taxi drivers were a great source of information if you ask the right questions. So I asked the driver in the best Spanish I could muster: “How have things been recently here in Honduras?"
In Latin America and specially in underdeveloped countries these were code words for; “how is the political and economic situation?”; “am I safe?”; “will I be dealing with demonstrations?”; “how active are the urban guerrillas?”
This is an invaluable question to ask, specially back in the days prior to Google and social media, when business travelers relied on direct information from the people on the ground in order to ascertain the political and economic landscape of any country they visited.
Unfortunately, the answer that came back, was not quite what I had hoped for. In fact, it was exactly what I feared. “Amigo, la cosa esta muy grave.” “My friend, things are very dire.” The taxi driver responded. As I let those half dozen words sink in, I began to formulate a plan of how to proceed.
Obviously, getting more information was of outmost importance, so I asked the driver: “What is exactly going on?” To which the driver responded in a high pitch voice that could only be interpreted as nervously apprehensive; “We’ve had a lot of problems, sir. The army has taken control of the city, and everybody is on edge.”
I said: "That's not good."
“Yes my friend. Not a good time to visit the capital.” The driver said as he rubbed his left hand on top of his head, as if anxiously pushing his hair out of the way. “Some streets are barricaded, and soldiers are checking identification cards. There have been some shootings. Some people have been killed.”
“What has been the cause of all this?” I asked.
"Los cabrones Contras (those Contra bastards) are crossing the River Coco into Honduras as they flee the Sandinista army.” The driver said with some degree of indignation. “They come over looking for a safe haven. But the problem is that the Sandinistas have infiltrators and ravel rousers here in Tegucigalpa looking to cause trouble for everyone.”
Hoping to make some sense out of the situation I asked: “Is that the only reason why the army has taken control of the city?”
“Well", the driver said and continued: "that and the fact that sometimes the Sandinista army comes very close to the city limits. The Honduran army is afraid that If they break through the city limits, a war between the two countries could break out .You see, Nicaragua is less than 110 kilometers from here. Tegucigalpa could be exposed to great danger” A quick calculation told me that distance to be less than 50 miles.
Blood on the Streets
The streets of Tegucigalpa are labyrinthine with two story building sometimes built on the side of hills. Cement stairs are built as a form of sidewalks allowing the residents to climb up to their homes or back down to the street. It is a highly disorganized city with serpentine streets leading to major boulevards or highways.
The streets bear numbers or names as identity, making getting around both an art and a science best left to cab drivers or people who have lived there their entire lives. Often times people give directions with a combination of landmarks and street names or numbers. It is not uncommon to see a business card or envelop with a landmark in parenthesis. Something like: "Across from Hospital Escuela."
As I conduct a mental inventory of what I am finding out about the situation, I look to the right and see exactly what the taxi driver was trying to describe. An armored vehicle in the middle of the side street was aiming what seemed to be a .50 caliber machine gun toward a group of houses behind some trees. Two soldiers with raised assault rifles were cautiously walking in the direction of the houses.
The taxi driver looked at me through the rear view mirror and declared: "I am going to take 9th Avenue. There is a barricade there, so have your passport ready." I gulped and touched the front left pocket of my guayabera shirt to make sure my documents were there.
I often used this Cuban invention, as it is light with two pockets on top and two on the bottom. They are worn outside of the pants, like you would a jacket, making them comfortable and airy. They are a perfect combination of casual and formal. Very useful apparel but always gave me the false notion that I would be blending in when traveling in Latin America. Later someone told me it was the best way for locals to recognize dumb Americans. Cultural appropriation never works.
As the taxi driver approached 9th Avenue, we were indeed stopped by an army barricade. Passport in hand, I smiled broadly to the soldier who came to my window. After checking the driver's ID, we were told to avoid Morazan Boulevard, as the army had conducted some raids on houses in that area and were actively trying to establish a perimeter.
Once we were on our way, the driver said the perimeter was to keep the area where most international hotels were located, isolated from the rest of the city. This gave me some degree of confidence, but apprehension at the same time. Maybe it might be prudent to cut the trip short and fly to my next scheduled stop San Pedro Sula, some 150 miles north of Tegucigalpa. That would put plenty of distance between me and the Nicaraguan border.
As the taxi finally arrived at the front of the Honduras Maya, I noticed a man with a water hose washing the side walk in front of the hotel. It was obvious that what was draining onto the street and down the sewer was a pinkish mixture of blood and water. A porter approached me to give me his welcome to the hotel and help me with my luggage and I asked him: “what happened?”
“Some guy tried to force his way into the hotel and got shot by security forces.” Said the porter in a matter-of-fact tone. “But don’t worry sir, everything is under control. We are going to make sure you are safe.”
While the porter’s words were meant to be of comfort, they did the exact opposite. A chill ran down my spine. The last thing I wanted was to be kept "safe" by hotel personnel. At that point what I really wanted was to be out of Tegucigalpa.
Make a Plan
My mind went into overdrive, and I created a plan. Number one, call the airlines and book the first flight to San Pedro Sula. Number two, call Mr. Juan Canahuati, explain the situation, apologize and promise to come back as soon as the situation was more amicable. Number three, stay in the hotel.
While I had never met Mr. Canahuati personally, I knew quite a bit about him. He was the patriarch of a distinguished and powerful family in Honduras dating back to when he moved there to start a business in 1954 at the age of 24. Born in Bethlehem, Palestine, he studied business administration in New York City.
Don Juan Canahuati, as most people honorifically called him, had five children all of whom have deep political connections in Honduras. Mario, his oldest son, unsuccessfully ran as vice-president twice, but did eventually become ambassador to the USA in 2005. Coincidentally, Mr. Juan Canahuati passed away at the age of 80 in 2010.
Honduras is run by a handful of powerful families who came from Palestine sometime between the end of the 19th century until the early 1940s and 1950s. This was one of President Marco Aurelio Soto's (1876-1883) liberal reforms who saw immigration to Central America as a way of developing a culture of capitalism. Consequently, today the Palestinian population in Honduras totals close to 250,000, most of whom are Catholic or Christian Orthodox. Only a small number of some 6,000 are of the Muslim religion.
The most powerful families in Honduras are comprised of members born in Palestine or their descendants. Surnames like Canahuati, Atala, Facusse, Kattan, Faraj, Bendeck, Barjum, Kafati and Kawas own the vast majority of businesses in Honduras including retail stores, radio stations, manufacturing, hydroelectric plants and infrastructe project development companies.
In January of 2006, José Manuel Zelaya Rosales became the freely elected president of Honduras. Embracing center left policies it was feared he would represent a threat to the businesses owned by Hondura's most powerful families, which for decades have taken advantage of workers who sometimes earn as little as $0.80 per hour.
On June 28, 2009, in what is broadly considered a coup d'état, the Supreme Court ordered the Honduran Army to arrest Zelaya and exile him in Costa Rica, He was acused of having created some opaquely understood constitutional crisis. It is rumored the powerful Palestinian families mentioned above orchestrated his departure as president.
Go to San Pedro Sula
As soon as I checked in with the front desk, I dashed to my room and began to put my plan into action. The hotel offered a travel agency free of charge to guests. I asked them to reschedule me on the earliest flight to San Pedro Sula. Unfortunately, the only space available was a Copa flight that would leave at 3:15 PM the following day. I booked it. I called the office where Mr. Canahuati was supposed to be that week and spoke with his secretary. She was very understanding and agreed that the best thing was to come back when the situation was less agitated.
She suggested, however, I should stop by on the way to the airport and meet Mr. Canahuati anyway. He would be in the office at 8:30 AM at the latest. That way we could at least put names to faces together and shake hands. I agreed. In fact the idea was so good, that I decided to call another potential customer, Jorge Faraj, and ask for a quick one hour appointment. The appointment was granted. My plan was coming together. I felt courageous.
I asked the hotel for an early wake up call of 6:00 AM and asked if I could get a hotel limo for 7:30 AM. All throughout Latin America hotel limos are offered to guess on a pay-by-hour basis. They are typically operated by independent drivers who own American four door sedans. Impalas or Crown Victorias. They are always extremely trustworthy drivers who will shuttle hotel guests from appointment to appointment.
The next morning I was on the move. Met with Don Juan Canahuati and agreed to continue our conversation toward some sort of business agreement. Met with Mr. Jorge Faraj, and actually got a commitment for an order to be telexed to the Miami office that afternoon. It might be strange to hear the word "telex" in the 21st century, but that's the way it was before emails.
My driver dropped me off at the airport at 1:30 PM. I was so grateful, I gave him a $20 tip. A big pay-off in 1985 Honduras.
My Taca flight arrived in San Pedro Sula shortly after 5:00 PM and I was on my way to the Gran Sula Hotel, across the street from Central Park.
Fireworks There and Fireworks Here
El Gran Sula Hotel was an old but comfortable hotel. Friendly atmosphere. The front desk proudly informed me that they now had HBO in all their rooms. Just tune to channel 3, the front desk clerk said. Great idea. Maybe I can get some room service and watch a movie.
The entire month of June is a big celebration in San Pedro Sula. It is called Feria Juniana (June Fair). It is associated with St. Peter the Apostle, whom San Pedro Sula is named after. Fireworks, lots of food, dancing in the streets and parades go on all month long.
The front desk clerk gave me the keys to room 312. I was looking forward to a relaxing evening. As soon as I was in the room, I called for room service. A big juicy stake medium well, french fries and the local beer, Cerveza Imperial was my choice. Took a look at the TV set, and sure enough, they had a program guide that said HBO was accessible on channel 3. I turned on the TV set and tuned in for some good ol' HBO entertainment.
The movie Aliens starring Sigourny Weaver would be showing in about 15 minutes, just in time for my stake, french fries and beer. Just as the movie got started, a knock on the door. "Room service", the attendant announced from the other side of the door. I kicked back and began to consume my tasty meal, while in the movie, creepy creatures were popping out of people's chests.
Half the way through my stake and as the action in the movie was intensifying the horrifying sounds of Boom! Rat-tat-tat. Boom again and more rat-tat-tat came from outside my window. "What? It can't be." I told myself.
The walls reverberated. The intense sounds seemed like a battle was happening right outside my window. I dove to the floor. More booms. More rat-tat-tats. "Where is the safest place to be?" I asked myself. The bathtub is probably made out of cast iron, I started crawling in that direction.
Suddenly, I hear a car horn that had been modified to play the "Charge" tune. I stopped crawling. I say to myself; "now that doesn't make any sense." I go to the window facing the parking garage. I see a couple underneath a lamp post in a lovers embrace.
The archaic rotary dial telephone was near the window. I dialed zero. Several rings but no one answers. I am now getting mad. I see the directory. It said the bar's extension was 2017. I dial the number. A pleasant voice answers; "this is the bar. What can I do for you?" "What is going on out there?" I ask. The man with the pleasant voice answers; "the fireworks of course. Come down and have a drink. We have a great view from here."
To say that I felt stupid, does not come close to the truth .
The next day, Friday, I met my customer. That evening, I caught a flight to San Jose, Costa Rica. On the 4th of July, I was flying back home.
When I finally got home, my wife Jane announced we would be taking the girls to watch the fireworks. "Jane, sweety, I am a little tired. Can you take the girls on your own?" I asked, knowing it was a futile utterance.
"No you are not." Said Jane. "You travel constantly. You never want to spend time with the family" I acquiesced.
We are at the park where the fireworks were the most visible, and Jane says. "I forgot to ask you. How was your trip?" I said; "it was OK Jane. It was OK."