It was June of 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.
George Nichols was one of these unfortunate business travelers who oftentimes found themselves at the juncture between two countries where life was often cheap and safety was at best haphazard.
He remembers the first time he flew into the Toncontín Airport in Tegucigalpa, Honduras considered the second most dangerous airport in the world. An extremely short runway, an embankment just ahead of the runway, and mountains surrounding the airport to the east, west and south make this landing a harrowing experience for travelers. Only pilots with sufficient experience in navigating through these treacherous conditions were allowed to land in Toncontín.
On this particular day George Nichols was sure the Eastern flight he was in was going to hit the side of one of the mountains that stood guard around the landing strip of this retrograde Central American airport. As the Boeing 727 hit the runway in what could be considered a dizzying roller coaster ride, George remembers the pot holes on the runway which the pilot could not avoid going over. As the plane slowed and began to taxi to the arrival gate, he noticed how the locals were lined alongside of the runway gawking at the planes as they landed, perhaps knowing that if they waiting long enough they would get to witness a catastrophe.
Once he advanced through the passport section and slowly made his way to the baggage retrieval area, he remembers thinking how it was that any airport in the 20th century could be so primitive as to not have a conveyer belt for the luggage of the arriving passengers. He watched in both amusement and amazement as airport baggage personnel piled all the arriving luggage in the middle of the floor for arriving passengers to dive into, some head first, in search of their personal belongings. This was as third world as it could possibly get, he thought.
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. It is what Murphy’s Law calls for following the bloodcurdling flight they just suffered.
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 presidents known for having been nothing more than puppets of the Somoza family.
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, barely 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 El 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, dissolutioned 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 1990’s, 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 were the disruption of rural reform projects the Sandinista government was attempting to establish. Today, most historians are able to 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.
George Nichols flew in from Guatemala City, itself no oasis of democracy, peace and tranquility. 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 this Central American nation. Today it is estimated that more than 200,000 people lost their lives due to this civil war which raged for 36 years.
This had been George’s second trip to Guatemala City, and was well aware that as long as he did not venture too far outside of the capital, he was relatively safe. In spite of this, George was non-the-less apprehensive. He had read in the Miami Herald, his local newspaper, 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 most frequented by American business people. Out of an abundance of precaution, this particular time, he decided to stay at the Holiday Inn.
By the time he left Guatemala City, and flew in the most horrific flight of his entire life to Tegucigalpa, his nerves were quite frazzled.
Once he cleared the Honduran passport section and customs, luggage on hand, George 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 travelling through underdeveloped and developing countries one thing he knew and always practiced was that taxi drivers were a great source of information if asked the right questions. For George the single right question on this particular trip to Honduras was; “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?”
Once in the taxi and his destination was communicated to the driver, that particular question he made a habit of asking, rolled out of his mouth in a rather perfunctory manner. Unfortunately, the answer was not what he hoped for. In fact, it was exactly what he feared every time he traveled to Central America. “Amigo, la cosa esta muy caliente”. “My friend, things are really hot”.
For George, this was the equivalent of pressing the panic button. He knew exactly the type of information that would follow. He asked the taxi driver, in his near perfect Spanish; “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”.
George 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 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?”
“The fucken’ Contras 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 safe haven. But the problem is that the Sandinistas have infiltrators and ravel rousers here in Tegu looking to cause trouble for everyone.”
“Is that the reason why the army has taken control of the city?” George asked hoping to make some sense out of the situation.
“Yes, that and the fact that sometimes the Sandinista army crosses the River Coco after them. The army is afraid that they might come into the city. You see, Nicaragua is less than 110 kilometers from here.” George calculated the distance to be less than 50 miles.
As the taxi driver approached 9a Avenida from 6a Avenida, he was stopped by an army barricade and after checking his identification card, and George’s passport, the driver was told to avoid 4a Avenida. To approach the Hotel Honduras Maya from the west side, preferably 1a Calle. Apparently the army had conducted some raids on houses along Bulevar Morazan as they tried to set perimeters around the area south of Guadalupe and north of 6a Calle.
This happened to have been where most western hotels were located. This gave George some degree of confidence, but at the same time a great deal of apprehension.
Perhaps the prudent thing to do would be to cut the trip short and fly to San Pedro Sula, some 150 miles north of Tegucigalpa. That would put plenty of distance between him and the Nicaraguan border.
As the taxi finally arrived at the front of Honduras Maya, George 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 him to welcome him to the hotel and pick up his luggage. George asked the porter; “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 give comfort to George, they did the exact opposite. A chill ran down his spine. He did not want to be kept safe by hotel personnel; what he really wanted was to be out of Tegucigalpa safely on a flight heading where hotel personnel did not have to keep him safe.
Right then and there, George put together a mental plan of what he was going to do. He would call the airlines and book the first flight to San Pedro Sula. Once his flight was booked he would call his customers and apologize for not being able to make the appointments. He would promise to call them to set up a meeting next time he was in Central America.
As soon as he was in his room, he did not even take the time to unpack. He called the reception and asked to be connected to Eastern Airlines. Once his seat was confirmed for the 3:00 PM flight, he called his customers. All his customers were very understanding and confirmed that he was taking the most prudent action. That evening, George had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. El Honduras Maya is the Grand-Dame of hotels in Tegucigalpa.
An iconic establishment located on the northern side of the capital, today, the Honduras Maya is perhaps not as modern as some of the newer global hotel chains, however in 1985 this was by far the best in Tegucigalpa.
Although George was not very hungry, he noticed in the menu that the restaurant was offering sopa de caracol or conch soup. He remembered the conch chowder he had in Key West, and thought this could be similar, so he ordered it along with an Imperial beer; one of the local brews. One Imperial beer became three. George, not normally a drinker, felt the need to numb himself. He felt the need to relax and forget the stressful day he had just gone through.
By 9:00 PM George was ready to go back to his room and make sure he was all packed and ready to catch his flight the next day. Soon he would be far from Tegucigalpa in a city he hoped did not suffer from flying bullets. As he made his way down the hall of the hotel to the elevator, he noticed two tall American men, with crewcuts, short sleeve white shirts and ties. Strange sight. Business people don’t normally sport crewcuts and don’t wear white short sleeve shirts with ties.
That would be a clear business fashion faux pas neither him nor his colleagues would make. A well-known acronym popped into his brain; C.I.A. There could be no other explanation. Field agents go where the action is, and Tegucigalpa had plenty of action to go around. George told himself; “it is time to get the hell out of town”. No amount of business was worth risking his life.
In his room, George tore off his clothes, threw them on the chair next to the bed, dialed the reception desk and asked for a 7:00 AM wake up call. He laid on his back and the next thing he remembers is waking up to the phone ringing promptly at seven in the morning; “Buenos días Señor Nichols. Son las siete de la mañana.” A groggy, “muchas gracias”, groused out of his throat. He was in no hurry. He had plenty of time to make his flight. After a shower and a shave, he finished packing and headed downstairs for breakfast.
He figured he could check out by 11:00 AM, and be at the airport no later than 11:45. He would have to hang around the airport for three hours before his flight departed, but that was better than being stuck in Tegucigalpa. He was anxious to leave. As planned, upon checking out, he grabbed a taxi to the airport.
Amazingly, this morning Tegucigalpa seemed quite normal other than the ubiquitous army personnel carriers, and soldiers with M-16’s. People were moving about the city going on with their daily routine. The traffic was somewhat heavy, as expected in a city the size of Tegucigalpa. Perhaps he had become accustomed to the state of siege the capital was under, or perhaps the thought that in a few hours he would be out in another city where he hoped, he knew he would be safe. This was not his fight. He was only here to do business, to make products available to the people of the city.
San Pedro Sula, the city where George is heading lies on the north west of Honduras some nine miles from the Guatemalan border. The city was founded on June 27th, 1536 making it one of the oldest cities in Latin America. It is the second largest city next to Tegucigalpa and considered the economic center of Honduras. Today, San Pedro Sula is considered the second murder capital in the world next to Caracas, Venezuela, but in 1985 it was a tranquil, quaint, charming city where foreign business people came to meet with distributors able to ship their products to every corner of Honduras.
Once George arrived at the Toncontín Airport he felt like a weight had lifted. He checked in at the ticket counter, dropped off his luggage and slowly made his way to the gate. On the way, he decided to stop at the restaurant to get a cup of coffee. He saw that one of the tables by the window overlooking the runway was empty so he decided to sit there and relax before going to the gate. As he peered toward the runway, he saw the most amazing sight. Three security personnel with long sticks were chasing a cow off the runway. He could not help but laugh and be amused by the appropriate ending to a most unpleasant trip.
The flight out of the Toncontin airport was uneventful. The runway faced north, with no immediate mountains in the way. The duration of the flight can be described as your basic up and down. By the time the plane reaches 25,000 feet of altitude it begins to descend for landing. Shortly after landing in San Pedro Sula, George was on a taxi to the Gran Sula Hotel located across the street from Parque Central (Central Park) on the corner of Boulevard Morazan and 4a Avenida. Being that the airport is just over 3 miles from the hotel, the taxi ride takes only a few minutes.
From the airport, the taxi took Boulevard del Este, which is a four-lane road that quickly becomes Boulevard Morazan a narrower two lane street with traffic lights every couple of blocks. He loved the fact that there were hundreds of people joyfully walking the streets in what seemed to be a festive mood. Parque Central had children with balloons, street food vendors selling “pasteles de pollo”, and “baleada”, a Honduran dish made of white flour pancake-sized tortilla stuffed with re-fried beans, cream cheese, and sour cream. All of this was in great contrast with the army personnel carriers, soldiers and tanks that were spread all throughout Tegucigalpa.
The Gran Sula is a four-star hotel with a restaurant, coffee shop and an outdoor pool. Once inside the hotel and in the meantime that he checked in, what mostly caught George’s attention was a small sign on the reception desk informing guests that the hotel offered HBO in every room free of charge. “HBO finally made to Latin America.” George told himself. This was great news for him as he was planning on getting room service for dinner and incubating himself in the room in order to decompress and forget about the last 24 hours.
“Señor Nichols, I am going to give you room 307 which faces toward the north of the hotel, away from the road in front. It will be a lot quieter for you.” Roberto, the front desk manager told George.
“Muchas gracias, Roberto” Answered George.
“The bellhop will help you with your luggage to your room. Have a good night.” Immediately upon uttering those words Roberto gave the bell on top of the front counter three quick taps and the bellhop appeared within seconds, picked up George’s luggage and led the way to the elevator and then to room 307.
Once in the room, George tipped the bellhop a couple of dollars and after bidding farewell to him closed the door. Totally relaxed and ready to settle in his room, George unpacked and rifled through the files of the three customers he was planning on visiting the following day.
Once George performed all of the routines to which he was accustomed when in a new hotel room and city, he peaked at the menu by the rotary telephone that sat on the night table next to his bed and dialed number 7 for room service. The voice on the other side of the line said “good evening, what can I do for you?”. To which George answered “This is George Nichols in room 307. I would like to order a carne asada, papas fritas and a mixed salad with oil and vinegar. Oh, and a bottle of Imperial beer.”
He envisioned a juicy char-broiled beef, most likely a nice tender skirt steak, French fries with catchup, and a bowl of lettuce, tomatoes, some olives, maybe an artichoke, and even some sliced mushrooms.
“Very well sir, your dinner will be ready in twenty minutes” Said the voice on the other side of the telephone line.
George laid in bed with a couple of pillows behind him so that he could sit up and watch television. With the remote control he went to channel 12 which was the HBO channel. The normal self-promoting advertising HBO usually broadcasts showing upcoming movies and shows was on the screen.
However, he noticed that the next movie to be aired within the next few minutes would be Sigourney Weaver’s “Alien”. One of his favorite science fiction movies. This would be a perfect end to the evening. Maybe after dinner and the movie he would go down to the bar and have another beer before going to bed.
During this time of the year, sunrise in Honduras is at about 5:21 AM and sunset comes at about 6:21 PM. George looked at the clock on the night table and noticed that it was 5:56 PM. The movie would be starting at 6:00 PM just about the time his dinner would be delivered to his room. He slid open the curtains of the window and noticed the long shadows that the sun, just above the horizon was casting onto the parking lot opposite to his room. It was a relaxing view, pointing to smooth sailing from now until he made back home to Miami.
Alien started promptly at 6:00 PM, and at 6:18 PM a knock on the door signaled his dinner was being delivered. The young man delivering his dinner on a large metal tray came in the room and set the dishes on a round table next to the window. George signed the bill and included a generous tip. The action in Alien was beginning to pick up. George knew the movie’s plot quite well, as he had seen the movie at a theater when it first came out in 1979. In spite of this, it was still shocking when the alien critter comes popping out of the chest of character Kane (played by John Hunts).
As George sat on the table and dug into his steak while watching the action in the movie, he heard a loud bang outside of the hotel, followed by a rat-tat-tat, followed by another loud bang. The noise did not come out of the television! This was real. It seemed as if it came from the other side of the hotel. He raised his head, and looked toward the window. His ears perked up trying to capture other sounds that could help him make sense of what this was all about. Two more large bangs followed by another series of rat-tat-tats.
George’s imagination went totally wild.
A few seconds of quiet, were broken by another large bang and another long series of rat-tat-tat that seemed to be answer by other rat-tat-tats.
George immediate jumped up from the table and began to walk around the room impatiently. He began to imagine worse case scenarios. Supposing the hotel got hit by some sort of a missile. Supposing anti-government forces came into the hotel and took hostages. Supposing stray bullets hit the hotel. Stray bullets could come through the window. He said to himself “Shit, that is a real possibility”, so he immediately hit the ground in order to get well below window level.
“What are the essential things that I need?” He asked himself. “Passport, I must make sure I have my passport with me.” He crawled over to his briefcase, reached up and grabbed his passport, and put it in the front pocket of his shirt.
Meantime the bangs, bangs, bangs would not stop. The rat-tat-tats seemed to be coming from all directions. “Where can I hide” George asked himself.
Maybe I can get myself inside of the bathtub” He thought. His logic on the bathtub was that old-style tubs are usually made of cast iron. Maybe they can act as some kind of protection. The thought of the movie Apocalypse Now popped into his mind. He felt as if he was smack in the middle of a Honduran apocalypse. As he began to crawl to the bathroom, there was a short break in the action of what seemed to George to be a huge firefight. Suddenly, he hears the honking of a car’s horn. It was a strange honking. It seemed to be rhythmic in a strange sort of way. None of this made sense to George.
He mustered some courage and crawled toward the window. Slowly picked his body up to the level of the window and took a peak. In the meantime, the bangs and firecracker like sounds in rapid succession had begun again. However, as George looked toward the parking lot in the back of the hotel, he saw that underneath one of the lampposts there was a young couple in a romantic embrace. Their lips locked together and their arms wrapped around each other.
“Damn it. What the hell is that all about” George told himself. “There is definitely something wrong with this picture.”
As he uttered those words to himself, he walked over to the telephone and called the front desk. The phone rang on the other side several times but there was no answer. This made George panic even more. “Of course there is no answer” he told himself. “They are probably all hiding”. He then dialed 4 for the Calypso Bar located on the first floor of the hotel.
“Calypso Bar, Rafael speaking” Said the bar employee. Although George’s voice was shaking, he managed to maintain his composure enough to say “What is going on out there?”
“Oh, you mean all that commotion outside?” Said Rafael to George “Yes, all that shooting, all tfbhose explosions” George said.
“Does your room face the parking lot or the street?” Said the bar person.
George was now getting totally confused, a little impatient and extremely annoyed. “What does that have to do with anything?” He said.
“Well sir, if your room faces the parking lot, you will not be able to watch all the firework across the street on Central Park” Rafael, the bar worker said to George.
George almost collapsed. A wave of embarrassment and self-reproach moved through his entire being. How could he be so stupid. How could he be so foolish as to not recognize the sounds of fireworks. Rafael, the bar worker, or whatever his position was, it did not make any difference at this juncture, must think he is a complete nincompoop, an ass, a halfwit.
“You should come down to the bar and enjoy the celebration.” Said Rafael. “The entire month of June is San Pedro Sula’s Juniana Fair. Our biggest celebration of the year.” Rafael said in a very joyful tone.
George did not say another word. He just simply hung up.
Embarrassed but calm, he realized he had lost all his appetite and put the tray of his room service dinner outside of the door for it to be picked up by hotel personnel, and got ready to go to bed. Tomorrow would just be another day.
His plans were to fly to Costa Rica Friday the 28th of June, see his customers there, and hopefully manage to get a flight back to Miami on Wednesday July 3rd.
You see, George had promised his wife Marge, and daughters Patty, and Beth that he would take them to watch the 4th of July fireworks.