Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Day In The Life

The images of desperate poverty notwithstanding, the initial impression of Tegucigalpa is one of…Have I really left the United States? After a terrifying landing, (google 'landing at Toncontin Airport) you enter a very modern airport, all marble and chrome. The very unpopular president Manuel Zelaya (affectionately called Mel) probably wanted a good first impression. Well, it stopped at the door on the way to the street. As you drive into the city, you pass modern shopping centers, gas stations with familiar names like Shell, Texaco and Esso, all with convenience stores, and every fast food joint you remember from home (McDonald's, KFC, Burger King, Applebees, TGI Fridays). If you are TDY (Temporary Duty), you are staying at either the Marriott or the Intercontinental. I stayed at the later for a few days and it was wonderful.

First you start noticing the guns. After a day or 2, you realize that each gas station, restaurant, grocery store and retail outlet has at least one private security guard (32,000 registered private guards to 8,000 police on the street) armed not with a six-shooter but with a shotgun or assault rifle or AK-47. From the way most guards carry and handle these weapons, as they lean it against a building while smoking a cigarette, it is doubtful most guards have had any proper training in either handling the gun or in resolving issues without opening fire. And on a side note, cigarettes are about $5.50 a CARTON. If you smoke, you can consider this a perk. I don’t so it only means that many more poor people can afford to smoke themselves into an early death. Anyway, back to the armed guards…you begin to wonder, though you never ask aloud, does he have rules of engagement? And if he does, what the heck are they?

Driving in the city and the country as a whole has been described variously as a free-for-all, bumper-cars or a geometry problem of how many vehicles can fit in a given space at the same time. Normal behavior includes right turns from left lanes or the oncoming lane, creating a new lane so far to the left that you are obstructing oncoming traffic and turning right across 2 lanes. Passing on the right and using the sidewalk for your vehicle is considered accepted practice. As far as traffic lights go, a red light is just a suggestion that you might stop and take a look before proceeding. Many pickup trucks serve as passenger vehicles, their beds packed with people standing who hold on for dear life as the vehicle swerves back and forth. Motorcycles pass on the right, on the left or wherever space permits. Passing uphill, on a blind curve, 3 cars abreast is not unheard of. Almost any behavior seems to be acceptable behind the wheel…with the exception of talking on your cell phone. You will get a ticket for that.

On your next visit to the grocery store, you notice the usual pictograms for no smoking, no outside food and no drink. But there is another one you haven’t seen before: a revolver with the international red circle and slash. No guns are allowed inside, though if you have one, the store is willing to check it for you if you admit you are carrying one. And oh, by the way, there are no metal detectors.

You also notice that all the cars in the parking lot have heavily tinted windows, not as protection from the sun but to obscure view of the passengers from outside, making it less obvious when potentially vulnerable people are traveling. To afford the passenger even more protection, the front window is often blacked out also. This makes for very interesting night driving. When your car arrives from the States, RSO (Regional Security Office, where I work) recommends you tint your windows as well. The tinting on the back seat is darker because you’ve heard it’s useful to make people think that you might be traveling with an armed bodyguard in the back seat. The most wealthy (and also most scared) families do this, when actually it’s only the one-year old who occupies your back seat. You never, ever lower your windows and always run the AC. The air quality is really bad here.

With all this security, you feel safer. But never safe. One afternoon you go to the barber across the narrow side street from the Embassy and within sight of the Embassy guards, and get a haircut with no problems. Twenty-four hours later, two armed “customers” rob it, threatening clients so that the owner will turn over the cash. They then rob all the clients at gunpoint. You go out to lunch; later that day, the restaurant you visited (which had armed guards out front) is invaded and robbed by six armed assailants. One Saturday morning, you and visiting family members visit the most sacred place in the country, the basilica of Our Lady of Suyapa. As you enter the church, a gun is poked into your side and your purse disappears into the crowd. Even this sacred place is proven unsafe and is then put off limits to the Embassy community.

The next morning, you take your child to school at the American School, which is located in the center of our housing area. As you turn up the drive, you notice the police tape marking off the site of yesterday’s shoot-out between private bodyguards and home invaders, which resulted in one person dead and another hospitalized. Three weeks before that, in the same block, a local attorney was ambushed and shot 7 times but lived. This occurred in front of the apartment where I was living and when I returned home from work, I had to cross under the yellow police tape and show my embassy ID before they would let me go into my apartment building. Parents must pass by armed guards, identify themselves to the guards at the barbed wire topped gate and go into the compound of the school when dropping off their kids. You walk your kids to their classrooms. As you turn to leave, her classmate arrives, escorted not by mommy or daddy but by 2 large men in suits, with sunglasses and wires in their ears and odd bulges under their suit coats. Honduran parents are worried; the daughter of a prominent retail family was snatched from inside her day-care the week before.

Back at home, if you are lucky, you live in one of the 1/3 of the Embassy housing that actually provides you with the extra space this Class 3 post is supposed to have. If no, you may have as much space as you would have in London or Paris, which isn’t much. Embassy families are housed in a limited area due to requirements for local guard response time; this limited market gives post few options. You escape for a moment by turning the TV to local stations from Denver. Honduras is very clever and pirates the signal from whomever they can and for now, Denver must have easy codes to crack! During a commercial, your eyes wander to your window. Through your security bars, you see not a vista of the Rockies, but a solid anti-climb wall at least 9 feet tall, topped with from 1-3 rows of razor wire. Just then, you hear the unmistakable bleep as the Embassy mobile patrol logs in his visit to check that your outside doors are locked and you are safely imprisoned.

A bit later, you request a car from motor pool. You have an appointment for tests at the best available hospital, but it is in a NO-GO zone so the driver must take you. You are having tests due to respiratory problems. You are trying to discover whether they are caused by the seasonal burning of the fields and the forest and brush fires that occur annually for 2 or 3 months each Spring, regularly closing the airport or just a result of the poor air quality. (The average concentration of breathable suspended particulates [PM-10] at the two monitoring stations in Tegucigalpa in 2003, the last year for which data is available, was about 120 micrograms per cubic meter of air. This is five times the comparable figure for Washington, D.C., more than twice the highest level recorded on any single day that year in D.C. and 140% above the U.S. EPA maximum permissible limit. Take a deep breath and enjoy those stats!) However, the tests may not tell you much. M/Med has once again lowered the quality rating of medical care now down to Class One, on par with the poorest and least developed nations in Africa. Your friend was one of 2 women recently who through self-exams discovered a lump. Each of them had mammograms done locally to take along on their MedEvac to the states. But, alas, they were of such poor quality, they were unreadable and had to be repeated by a stateside facility. You wonder if the clean bill of health you received when you had your mammogram here a month ago was truly accurate.

You finish at the hospital and you and the driver start back. Just as you are beginning to notice that the traffic is unusually heavy, the radio crackles with a message from the RSO. The main road (note the use of the singular road) through our housing area is blockaded by taxi drivers in front of the Public Ministry protesting again, a monthly occurrence. The driver is able to use back roads to reach your home, but you hope it ends soon because until it is resolved, you cannot pick up your child from school. The only road into the campus crosses the blocked main road.

There is additional danger at intersections, when beggars of all ages, from preschoolers to seniors, the disabled, vendors and entertainers, fire eaters and jugglers move among the stopped cars. As much as you may want to help by giving them a bit of money or food, you cannot risk lowering your window as it could invite an armed robbery or carjacking.

When you are finally able to pick your child up, you notice that she is scratching a bite, hopefully not from an infected mosquito. Dengue fever has become endemic in Honduras. Last year, at least one official American child was hospitalized with hemorrhagic dengue, which is potentially fatal. (As of today, there are 2 confirmed cases of dengue at the embassy…and there is no vaccine.) You make a mental note to have your spouse take the Reduviid bug you found in your garden to the Embassy to have it tested for Chagas disease.

You start dinner. If you didn’t do it when you got home from shopping, you begin bleaching all the fresh vegetables and rinsing them in bottled water. The fertilizer here is, shall I say, different. Just as you turn on the oven, the house goes dark with yet another power failure. You fumble through the drawers looking for a candle and matches or a flashlight, go out to the back to flip the switch and then travel through the blackened house and out to the garage to fire up the generator. After dinner, you turn on the local news to see what new crisis is facing you and the nation. The public school teachers are out on strike again and will be marching to the President’s Palace in the morning, so the Spouse’s Coffee at the Marriott is cancelled. The body in the street your spouse passed driving home turns out to be the victim of a botched carjacking; the driver was attacked a quarter-mile from the Embassy and was shot while driving off. He drove toward the Embassy, knowing there were SWAT police protecting it and he would be safer. But he collapsed and died as he got out of his car on the boulevard in front of the Embassy. You turn off the TV and flip through the newspaper. Not a bad news day…only 2 pages of morgue photos, with body bags unzipped and corpses turned to the camera so you can best see the entry and exit wounds, not to mention the blood and mangled tissue. You hide the newspapers from the kids so they will not see these things and ask questions. You decide to go to bed but before that, to have a relaxing hot bath. Two minutes into filling the tub, the water stops…the cistern is dry and no water until morning with the motor pool can send the tanker. You sigh, close the windows, set the alarm and turn on the AC, not only to cool you but also to drown out the music from the neighborhood bar and the random gunfire that rings out through the night.

Just another day in Tegucigalpa, Honduras as another day draws to a close.

Sound like a plot for a movie? Not hardly. Recently here at the U.S. Embassy here in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, we were faced with the task of supplying information and hard data to our State Department as to why we should retain our now coveted 15% differential. That means that because of the conditions in this country, we receive an additional 15% of our pay as a “differential” or reward for agreeing to serve at this post. The above is the factual based commentary on life here in Tegucigalpa that was submitted to Washington. The people who contributed to this used very recent personal experiences as their examples. If it sounds like it was made up, believe me, it wasn’t.


La Gringa said...

All I can say is "Wow!"

I've been here in La Ceiba for 7 years and as hard as it has sometimes been, it must be paradise compared to Tegucigalpa.

Debi said...

I've been reading your blog since I found out I was coming to Honduras last April. I think we both have our challenges living here. I finally got my car today after 3 months of waiting. And wouldn't you know...I'm actually scared to drive! Oh, I know I'll be fine. All the other Americans drive so I certainly don't intend to be the first chicken! Every day I'm amazed by what I learn. I think everyone should live in a foreign country at least once. I lived in Mexico City back in the 60s and this is deja vu!!

Keep up your great many of us enjoy it so much!