She is distracted today. She is normally bubbly and charming and witty. But today is not a normal day.
She just found out one of her friends was kidnapped. A successful airline pilot, he was taken in San Pedro Sula by gangsters. As we eat dinner she, understandably, is constantly checking her phone for any sign of an update.
Something feels right as I deboard my plane in Tegucigalpa. As I make my way through the city, I start to see the familiar blue and white.
The Honduran flag features two blue bands representing the Pacific and Atlantic ocean, five blue stars, emblematic of the five original Central American provinces, and an inner white band which stands for the land between the seas as well as peace, prosperity, and brotherhood.
The last time I was here feels like an eternity ago. Now I am a bit older, a bit wiser (I think?), a bit more soberly aware of the world. Indeed, a 16 year old couldn’t hope to appreciate with full effect the chance to live, work, and spend time in such a wonderful place as this. That’s a big reason why I’m back.
Luckily I had an old friend to greet me on my arrival in Tegucigalpa. Janary is working here in Tegucigalpa in the tourism industry. Ten years ago I met her in the small community of Trinidad. We were just kids and could barely speak to each other. Now, we can speak in two languages and each have distinct life experiences to share.
We have a beer on the rooftop terrace of the Hyatt Place in downtown Tegucigalpa, she gazes out over the city, pointing out the different districts and buildings of importance.
Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula are widely known as two of the most violent cities in the world. Business Insider ranked them, respectively, #5 and #1 in terms of homicides per capita. That said, and given the story that I began at the beginning of this post, let me do my best Marco Rubio impression…
Let’s dispel the notion that Honduras is a dangerous place to travel
To do this we must first acknowledge that, yes, murders, riots, and kidnappings (like Janary’s friend) do occur. It’s a sad truth that gangs do have a degree of power over the local populace, especially in such high density areas as San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. The two gangs with the most members and influence are “18th Street” and “MS-13” (Or “Mara Salvatrucha”. Both actually have their roots in the United States. It is a fascinating story, one I will save for another time)
The other sad truth is that, due to mass media, across the world, most of what people learn about Honduras constitutes violence. The perception is that Honduras is just not a safe place for foreigners. I hope to convince you otherwise.
While here I am lucky to be working with Vecinos Honduras, an organization that specializes in aiding farm and mountain communities, setting up exchanges of communication to share ideas and resources. The last few days I spent some time in the mountain community of Tule.
I am welcomed warmly in this tiny community. My hosts are a man named Angel, his wife, Bienvenida, their five children, two pigs, four horses and too many chickens and roosters to count. Bienvenida and her family are featured at the top of this post (Angel was hard at work out in the fields).
These folk live off the land. They don’t have much but what they do have is love, family, and a fierce dedication to their community’s wellbeing.
I am not the first foreigner they have met, but they certainly don’t see many. The perception of danger is enough to drive foreign service seekers elsewhere in the third world. As such they are intensely curious about me, and I of them.
The delicious food I am served, the fresh mountain air, the community, their hospitality and their stories altogether merit a seperate post.
Back to the task at hand. The truth the media won’t tell you is that Honduras is abundant with these such beautiful places and people. There is something for everyone. Sprawling national parks. Pristine beaches. Tranquil islands. Lush forests. Tiny villages full of culture. Tropical birds of paradise and other exotic animals to see.
Even if San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa deserve their notorious reputation, this in no way merits painting a broad brush across the whole of Honduras. It is country of 8 million people, many of whom have fascinating stories and lives. The presence of the gangs, which altogether number around 7,000 Hondurans, should not dissuade those who aspire to an authentic and immersive cultural experience coupled with amazing natural beauty.
Consider that, aside from the two cities mentioned above, no Honduran city is in the top 50 worldwide based on murder rate per capita. The United States has four (St. Louis, Baltimore, Detroit, and New Orleans).
Do you need to exercise special cautions in places like San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa? Of course. But do the dangers of a few major cities define a country? Absolutely not. I for one don’t consider the US’s dangerous cities as emblematic of the country. Moreover, I didn’t think twice about spending new year’s eve in Baltimore two years ago, and would gladly make a trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras (haven’t yet but it’s on my list!)
Might we not take the same approach to our travel destinations?
We are eating dinner that second night in Tegucigalpa. Janary is still troubled. How could she not be? In between Spanish tapas she pulls her phone out and gets on facebook. Her eyes grow big with excitement. Her friend was rescued by local police, unharmed.
A broad smile crosses her face. A truly raw expression of relief. A smile like that is worth more than gold. What a wonderful thing. What a lovely thing.
“The police force is getting better”
Over the next few weeks I will be spending more time with mountain and farming communities. My aim is to learn, listen, and tell the stories of the land and these people. The stories you won’t hear from the media. I hope you will follow along and consider rethinking your perception of Honduras.