This is a personal story about my homeward bound journey to Honduras after the country went into a lock down due to the Covid-19 virus. I have tried to be as straightforward as possible. The story follows my recollections and feelings along this adventure. I hope it is useful for anyone trying to come back into Honduras!
As a businessperson in the travel industry, I found myself struggling to help guests make it back home during the recent border shut down in Honduras due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Of note, Honduras diligently adopted a proactive position to control the infectious curve early on, by cancelling flights, closing airports and implementing curfews to avoid large crowd gatherings and promote social distancing. The Honduras Institute of Tourism was effective in establishing communication with the different foreign embassies accredited in Honduras.
They set up a network with the different hotels, with the Small Hotel Association of Honduras (HOPEH) playing a leading role. The objective was to determine where the foreign nationals were stuck and coordinating with their embassies to get them back home. Within three weeks, all tourists who were in Honduras had been repatriated. Congratulations for a job well done!
However, my post today is not about those tourists stranded in Honduras, but about Hondurans stranded overseas. Many may argue that I am not Honduran, and legally, they are right. I am a legal resident in Honduras and have been so for the past 26 years, and to be honest, I feel as Honduran as my wife and four sons born in this lovely country. When I departed to Mexico City to attend my niece’s wedding and visit family, I knew there was a risk that Honduras would follow suit with El Salvador and close borders. But I was confident that I would come and go before that happened. Little did I know that two days after I departed, the Honduras government would shut down its borders and I would be left out of the country!
My first reaction was to call the Honduran Embassy in Mexico City for assistance. Although they were officially closed, they did have an emergency email posted on Facebook, and I was surprised by how fast they got back to me. The outlook was grim. Honduras has 17,000 Honduran citizens stuck in the border between Mexico and the USA. Plus, another few thousand stuck in border between Guatemala and Mexico. Without doubt, a titanic job to try to get them back to the country and then place them in quarantine to ensure that they were not sick and would propagate Covid-19 in Honduras. Let alone those Honduran citizens traveling abroad with tickets to fly back but whose flights were cancelled. My family and I were in this latter category.
I was concerned that Mexico’s approach to the crisis was not as swift as needed, and that sooner or later, they were going to get the brunt of the pandemic. Although I was directly affected by the shutdown, and certainly not happy about it, I do recognize that it was the proper action for the country. Staying put in Mexico for several months was just not attractive, and so I got to work on a homeward bound strategy. A homeward bound strategy during Covid-19 pandemic is not a simple task. Especially knowing that I was pretty much on my own! The border between Mexico and Guatemala was not open. That meant that I could not reach the border between Honduras and Guatemala. The flights into Honduras were all cancelled. So flying was not an option.
Seeking Alternatives to my Homeward Bound Strategy
I decided on the strategy of flying from Mexico City to the south-eastern city of Chetumal and then travel by land to Belize. From there, a short flight or boat trip could get me back home, in north-eastern Honduras. As soon as I had my escape plan in place, Belize shut its border with Mexico. So much for that! I was happy that at least I had not yet purchased tickets. After calling Aeromexico I learned that the flights to Honduras were officially cancelled at least through April 15. I did not have high hopes that they would be flying anytime soon after that. By now, the only open border in Honduras that I could reach was the one that Honduras shares with Nicaragua. Aeromexico was still operating a nonstop flight from Mexico City to Managua, Nicaragua. I felt an urge to arrange for tickets and fly into Nicaragua as soon as possible, knowing all too well how fast things change in this fluid crisis.
The Homeward Bound Journey Begins
So, my homeward bound journey started on March 24, 2020 at Mexico City Airport. I was happy to see that by now, there was some control as to who has flying and where. They took my temperature and made me fill out a form stating where I was traveling to and even what my seat number was. The flight was full, with many Hondurans scrambling to get back home using the same route. I was afraid that Nicaragua would soon shut their airport and therefore cut my only possible entry point back home. If that happened, there were no possibilities of being homeward bound for weeks, possibly months! The flight was an uneventful trip, with none of the usual perks that Aeromexico usually offers, such as lunch and alcoholic drinks. This due to Covid-19 restrictions in place.
The second leg of my plan started in Managua. I had contacted VaPues tours, a leading tour operator in Nicaragua to provide transfers from Managua Airport to the city of Ocotal, which is close to the Las Manos border between Honduras and Nicaragua. There I could spend the night and then cross the border early in the morning. The plan sounded perfect, however it had a serious flaw as I would soon find out! As soon as we landed in Managua, the Nicaragua immigration authorities separated Honduran citizens and assigned them to one immigration booth. My wife and son were sent to this line, since they were traveling with their Honduran passport. I was moved on to the regular lines, since I am a Mexican citizen.
My First Stumbling Block
I got through immigration quickly, picked up our bags and confirmed our driver was waiting outside. While the family got through with their paperwork, I went to the ATM machine at the airport and got some Cordoba’s, the local Nicaragua currency. I wanted to make sure that I had cash in hand. I even bought some water and soft drinks for my family. When I came back, they were still within the group of Hondurans. There were probably 25 or 30 in the group, and they were arguing with the reps from the Honduras embassy in Nicaragua.
It turns out that Nicaragua was only allowing Honduran citizens the right to transit from the airport to the border. In other words, they could not spend the night in Nicaragua! So much for my plan to spend the night and then cross the border the next day. The Honduran group broke up into two smaller groups, one headed for the Guasaule border and the other to Las Manos Border.
To ensure that no Honduran got away, they held their passports! The next issue was that they wanted everybody to pay $25 US dollars per person for the transportation to the border. We already had our van outside the airport and were not willing to pay to get stuffed into close quarters for the four-hour trip to the border. After much arguing and haggling, we were able to arrange to have an immigration escort in our van and drove as a caravan from the airport to the border. Although the trip was scenic, and the road was in excellent shape, I was desperately trying to put a plan together to avoid being sent to the shelter where they were putting all Honduran citizens and residents crossing the border.
You see, Honduras has a system in place where everyone coming into the border is sent to this shelter for several nights, with their vital signs checked twice a day to make sure that they are not carriers of Covid-19. The most important part of my homeward bound strategy was to avoid being put into one of these shelters, and somehow manage to be sent home to a self-imposed quarantine. This shelter is only for Hondurans and residents.
If you are not a Honduran citizen or a legal resident in the country, you can not enter Honduras under the current state of emergency. A grueling 4-hour process took place at the border. In the end, we had our passports confiscated by the military, and were made to stand in front of a bus to have a group photo. Evidence that the military had done their job and were ready to leave with us in their custody.
Finally in Honduras, but Still Homeward Bound
By now, it was past 10 pm. We were put in a bus and then driven about 30 minutes to the city of Danli. This is the largest city in the department of El Paraiso. It is a main hub for tobacco and handmade cigar production. Many Cuban immigrants that escaped Cuba just before the revolution brought Cuban tobacco seeds and reestablished themselves in Danli. But let’s get back to our homeward bound trip. We were taken to the shelter at the Universidad Pedagogica Nacional Francisco Morazan in Danli. A basketball auditorium had been converted into a shelter. We had several military personnel that accompanied us on the trip. One of them was counting our passports every two or three minutes. He had been on duty for about 36 hours and was evidently exhausted.
When we arrived, the gate opened promptly, and we were driven into the parking area. There, we were instructed to disembark, find our luggage and wait for the doctors to check us again. Other than the military and police, there was no one else there to coordinate anything. The military were there to make sure we did not flee, but otherwise, did not have any information for us. I walked around the premises. It was late, and the basketball court was full. I counted 50 beds, and they were all occupied.
It was evident that there was no place for us in there. Furthermore, there was no one to tell us what to do. We had to roam the area to find the bathrooms. There was a table close to the bathrooms, and a few chairs. Certainly not enough for our group. A small canopy of about 10 feet by 10 feet was also there. Our group consisted of 12 persons, and we soon bonded to reach the same goal. Avoid the shelter! Eventually, two doctors arrived. They were exhausted and had been working for many hours. Despite of which they were kind and helpful! They spent time with each one of us, taking our temperature, our blood pressure, and asking questions. I was the last one. But in the end, at least we were each given our passports back.
Angels Appear When Most Needed!
Even though we had a good breakfast in the Mexico City Airport, we hadn’t eaten anything since. We were starved and stressed. I had literally sent messages out to everybody I could think of that might help us. The Small Hotel Association of Honduras had shared our desperation, and a kind colleague, that I had never met before called me. Within minutes, she took the risk to go out at night in the middle of the curfew and brought us some baleadas, juices and basic stuff. There is no doubt that Honduran people have a huge heart and will go out of their way. This was the first angel of the night to appear! She was not the last! She was truly an angel sent by God to help us out.
My First Day in Honduras
It was now 2 am, the doctors left, and there was no authority to tell us what to do. Suddenly, a second angel appeared to help us. A young Honduran citizen who had been in the shelter for several days knew where to find some basic sleeping mats. We managed to get enough for most of the group. Then we decided that we were safer sleeping under the carp in the parking lot that finding space in the crowded basketball court.
Although many of us were close to each other, at least we were out in the open air, breathing fresh air and not in a crowded basketball court. The downside was the it was pretty darn cold out in the open! I lament not knowing who this second angel was. I wish that I had his name and could contact him to thank him for his kindness that long night.
The night was endless. We were cold, vulnerable, with no one to refer to. Many set up their bags and suitcases around their mats to “protect” them from the elements. I managed to put in an hour or so of sleep but woke up at 3:30 am. My son was walking around the facility, and I went to chat with him for a few minutes. An orchestra of snores blasted out of the basketball court. I felt grateful that I was not inside and felt lucky to be dealing with the cold.
I decided to try to get some more sleep and cuddled up next to my wife under the canopy. Luckily, I did manage to get some more sleep. I am a morning person and was up at around dawn. Our group of 12 joked around before going to sleep and then early in the morning. There is no doubt that laughter is the best medicine! Once we were all up, my son managed to get some sleep.
But before he did, we chatted for a few minutes. He had spent all night roaming the property, seeking an escape route. By daybreak, he had it all figured out, except for determining what he would do with his suitcase…. A few minutes before 8 am, the people in charge of COPECO showed up. COPECO is the government agency in charge of handling emergencies. It was a group of 5 women in bright orange shirts. The leader immediately came out to us and apologized for not being there when we arrived to help us. She seemed truly sincere, and quickly went on her way to get us something for breakfast. The food was welcomed, though unfortunately coffee was only available with a heavy dose of pre-mixed sugar.
I cannot stand sugar in my coffee, and this had more sugar than coffee. Honduras in general and the Department of El Paraiso in particular, offers outstanding coffee, and is one of the many wonderful things that make Honduras feel like home. Luisa, the leader of the COPECO team was the third angel that we met in less than 12 hours!
My son, Rodrigo is studying journalism. Throughout the night, while seething over our situation, he sent a few messages to leading journalists in the country. He fell sound asleep once we were all up and did not hear his phone ringing. Somehow, one of the journalists got ahold of my phone number and called me. He wanted to establish contact with my son. So, I went against my gut feeling and woke my son up. He was in a deep sleep. But jumped up and roared into action.
He needed skype to connect with one of the top news programs in the Honduras. I offered him my phone and provided some Bluetooth earphones and off he went to make a live report. I know that the report did not help our specific cause, and made it more difficult to move on, but I am convinced it helped those that would come after us.
Covid-19 has placed an unprecedented burden on people, institutions and countries. As we all scramble to act and react, gaps inevitably surface. Our experience at the shelter provides an example of this: action plans implemented with limited planning and resources. Heroic individuals going above and beyond to assist in the crisis. Truthful accounts and accurate social media reports assist in identifying these gaps and allow us to pull together to solve them. My son’s report made it to the national news and soon…
… there was a lot of action going on at the shelter. A bus was dispatched to San Pedro Sula, another was dispatched to Tegucigalpa. Some of those being sent on had only been there for a day or two. This got our hopes up. Perhaps we could manage to be sent to be in a voluntary, self-imposed quarantine at home! Soon we found that they were planning to send us to Tegucigalpa, and we all were thrilled. This meant that we could make it there and then continue our journey home. We hurriedly contacted a bus and hired it and had it ready at the shelter so that when our safe passage was issued, we could depart.
An Unexpected Visit
But before all of this happened, we needed to be checked by the resident doctors. We had just finished our checkup when a couple of unmarked vehicles showed up. It turns out that they were part of the investigation police squad, who were investigating if our human rights had been violated after the report that my son had made This clearly increased the level of stress and confusion we were living! A team wearing hazmat suits inspected the site. Paradoxically, doctors on the forefront fighting our humankind common enemy Covid-19, don’t have the luxury of this protection as resources become scarce.
Eventually, we got our safe passage to depart the shelter. By now, it was 5 pm. The idea was that they would drop us off in Tegucigalpa and we would all find our way home. That day, the curfew had been relaxed, but by the time we would get to Tegucigalpa, it would be in full enforcement. Then our bus driver decided he was not willing to take the risk of being put into quarantine! We had a bus, we had a safe passage, but we did not have a driver. Our safe passage was good exclusively for that driver, and useless for anyone else!
The alternative was to spend another night at the shelter or get on the bus and drive out! We could not make it to Tegucigalpa! Our group of twelve quickly got together and agreed we were to go out and would seek to stay in a more appropriate shelter and self-quarantine wherever we could find hospitality! Fortunately, we did find a hotel in Danli that took us in!
The Last Leg of our Homeward Bound Journey
For us, Danli is a loooong way from home. Close to 600 km over mountainous territory separate Danli from La Ceiba. Usual driving time, over 8 hours. It was not going to be an easy journey. Most of the group of twelve got home in the first 24 hours, but we were still trying to figure things out. Eventually, things worked out, and we were able go get home by Saturday, March 28. It was a stressful, grueling experience that I wish on no one. But it was also a unique experience. I met many people, and many angels. I learned that most of the Honduran citizens on the fire line against Covid-19 are fantastic persons willing to put their life on the line to help other Hondurans. There are so many persons doing their best to help others. I can only wonder, how many people around the world are having similar experiences which necessarily invites us to reflect on how, within the chaos, we can bring solidarity, kindness and awareness that we are all in this together.
Personally, I consider myself blessed to live in Honduras. I met so many angels there to protect me and my family during my recent homeward bound journey that I can not name them all. I do think that Honduras is a fantastic country, and its best asset are its people. God Bless Honduras, and I hope that we can soon have this Covid-19 nightmare behind us. To all those unnamed angels that helped us find our way back home, my most sincere thanks. Truly, nothing like being home. I thank God for that! We are now staying home in our self-Imposed quarantine and hoping for better days. I must admit that living in the Cangrejal River Valley a 14- day quarantine is not half as bad as it might sound!