Honduran Chronicles 2: Everyday Life and Death
I should have known from the airport landing that Honduras would be a something of a challenge. I knew nothing about the airport going in, nothing about it being one of the most dangerous airports in the world and the airport with the shortest runway. I quickly found out.
I am not the best of flyers in the first place. A little turbulence can really clench my gut. And I overreact, I really do. In my mind, it feels like we are about to die. As a result, I do whatever I can to distract myself, especially during take-offs and landings.
As we began to land in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, I was in the middle of my inflight movie and loving it. I vaguely noted that we seemed to be flying in tight circles, what I would later come to call our cork-screw landing. The capital of Honduras rests high in the mountains in a bowl shaped valley. To reach the runway, a pilot must spin around until he is low enough to take on the short runway.
Most Hondurans pray during landings in Tegucigalpa. My pastor grinned like a little school boy and kept pointing out the window while I pointedly tried to ignore him. I wanted my focus on the movie. But then our plane tilted and hopped and the landing was on. As soon as our tires hit the runway, the pilot hit the brakes as hard as he could and turned on the backburners as high as they would go. Everything went flying through the air. The smell of rubber and burning brakes filled the cabin. I watched out the window, wondering what was going on, and then I saw the single lane leading back to the airport just as we were about to pass it. Our pilot veered around that corner like we were in a racecar. All of the Hondurans began clapping. That is nothing rare; it happens on about half the flights I am on. But apparently, if you don’t make that turn, you run into a mountain. As we disembarked, it was strange to see the pilot’s ashen face and the way he wiped at his brow. That is not an encouraging sign. I am glad it was only after our flight that I found out the danger of the airport and am terribly glad it was only after our trip that I watched this video of landing at Tegucigalpa. Look at how short that runway is!
Soon after landing, we found our party and headed to Church’s Chicken for lunch just outside the airport. Our guards, armored to the hilt and carrying what looked like ancient AK-47s waited near the van. They were hired to keep us safe on the way to our city. At first, this was kind of cool. I felt like a Vice-President or a rockstar. But then I saw a guard standing right by the door of Church’s Chicken with a well worn shotgun and a whole clip of shotgun shells. When I asked our guides, they informed me that robberies are common and so restaurants and banks and schools and even private homes will hire guards.
We left the capital soon after our chicken and talk quickly turned to the town we were going to and its history. In 1998 that town was hit hard by Hurricane Mitch. We heard horror stories of rain and mud. The hotel we were going to be staying in was buried under 15 feet of mud. (I have seen 7 feet of snow in one day, so I can slightly begin to imagine that much mud). The bridges leading into the town were washed away or damaged by flood waters. I saw those bridges and rode over them and looked down at the river more than fifty feet away and wondered how the water could ever rise that high to damage the bridges. We heard stories of people floating dead in the water that gushed through town. And not just one or two. More than 5,000 people died in that hurricane.
As we drove through Choluteca, I tried to imagine the town covered in water and mud. I have never experienced a hurricane, but if I had to, I can imagine the kind of place I would want to weather it out. I didn’t see a single place in that town that I would have wanted to weather it out. I didn’t see a single place I would have felt safe. It reminded me of the story of the Three Little Pigs.
I relate all of these stories to point out the fact that my biggest concerns of the day are things like: What am I going to wear? Am I going to cook chicken or pork for dinner? I love living in America, a place where these can be my biggest concerns. But my perception is skewed. Traveling helps remind me that I am very fortunate. It reminds me that I am not immortal and that there are more important things than jeans and chicken.
© Seth Crossman