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Central America, pt. 4: Volunteering in the Murder Capital of the World

The conclusion to a journey that took place over three years ago

I have finally got around to wrapping up a journey that I had already written three pieces about previously, but this post contains the sole purpose for that particular trip — Anna, her friend and colleague Fatimah Gilani, myself, and some other volunteers going on a mission trip to provide free eye surgery for people in a reasonably remote area of Honduras.

So far on this trek, one that took place almost three and a half years ago, I have covered:

  • Central America, pt. 1: Christmas in Guatemala: Anna and I had spent a strangely warm Christmas Eve in New York City watching the Rockettes Christmas Spectacular, completed a hellish check-in at Newark Airport in New Jersey, flew to Guatemala, and then spent Christmas Day exploring Antigua; chocolate museums, monasteries with deep pits full of human bones, that sort of thing.
  • Central America, pt. 2: “Hey! Let’s Go Climb an Active Volcano!”: We ate a heap of incredible food including pig face stew, went through some pretty cool markets, and climbed an active volcano, all before getting plastered in a hidden mezcal bar on our final night in Antigua.
  • Central America, pt. 3: Our First Visit to Mayan Ruins: We then flew to the Guatemalan city of Flores to explore Mayan ruins, as well as some flora and fauna at the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

In this, what was initially going to be the second instalment of my ‘Tales I’ve Forgotten to Tell‘ series, I will look at some old photos, check up Wikipedia, and ask Anna a bunch of questions, as well as try to recall whatever I can to tie up the loose ends and complete the story of what was one epic two-week getaway. As is always the case with these types of posts, there will be a ton of pictures.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015
Similar to how we had spent the previous day, Wednesday was also going to consist of walking around Mayan ruins, this time the ancient city of Tikal:

Tikal is the ruin of an ancient city, which was likely to have been called Yax Mutal, found in a rainforest in Guatemala. It is one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. It is located in the archaeological region of the Petén Basin in what is now northern Guatemala. Situated in the department of El Petén, the site is part of Guatemala’s Tikal National Park and in 1979 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tikal is the best understood of any of the large lowland Maya cities, with a long dynastic ruler list, the discovery of the tombs of many of the rulers and the investigation of their monuments, temples and palaces.

Also worth noting:

There are thousands of ancient structures at Tikal and only a fraction of these have been excavated, after decades of archaeological work. The most prominent surviving buildings include six very large pyramids, labelled Temples I – VI, each of which support a temple structure on their summits. Some of these pyramids are over 60 metres (200 feet) high. They were numbered sequentially during the early survey of the site. It is estimated that each of these major temples could have been built in as little as two years.

We spent most of the day on a guided tour around Tikal. One of the highlights was when our guide told us about an area where the ancient Mayans used to play a ball game resulting in a team, sometimes the winning team, being sacrificed to the Gods:

For the Maya, human sacrifices were associated with the ball game. The game, in which a hard rubber ball was knocked around by players mostly using their hips, often had religious, symbolic or spiritual meaning. Maya images show a clear connection between the ball and decapitated heads: the balls were even sometimes made from skulls. Sometimes, a ballgame would be a sort of continuation of a victorious battle: captive warriors from the vanquished tribe or city-state would be forced to play and then sacrificed ​afterwards. A famous image carved in stone at Chichén Itzá shows a victorious ballplayer holding aloft the decapitated head of the opposing team leader.

This was our tour guide’s reasoning as to why Guatemala are terrible at football, they simply killed off all of their best players. Anyway, a bunch of photos can probably describe the place better than words can. Some of these pictures may also begin to look similar after a while, but Tikal definitely was beautiful:

IMG_7537 2

I secrete my own salt

After Tikal we showered and went back into town to grab some dinner and find a bar to kick back in. We might have washed ourselves, but we were still so sweaty that if we did tequila shots, we wouldn’t need the salt, we could just lick our arms, which is probably what I did (right).

Thursday, December 31, 2015
It was New Year’s Eve and the plan was to travel down to Guatemala City to ring in the new year, but first we went to have a look around Lake Petén Itzá, as the city of Flores, where we had stayed for the previous three nights, lies on an island near the lake’s southern shore. Once done with the lake we went to the adjacent municipality of San Benito, another small town, but this one had somehow managed to double in size over a period of 10 years! Again, we ate well, had a look around a really sad shopping mall and some markets, having our photos taken with random strangers and trying to fight the urge to buy fireworks, before stumbling upon one of the most miserable looking amusement parks I’ve ever encountered. The park had a giant billboard for the Bolontiku Boutique Hotel, a beautiful five-star resort, however, the park itself was located directly in front of Hotel Pinita (not to be confused with the far nicer Hotel Leo Y Pinita), a place that looks like the kind of motel in which hookers get murdered in seedy films and TV series’, and one which is so bad, even their Facebook page doesn’t have photos! It’s hard to tell if the amusement park was still operating, but I doubt it, either that or they haven’t had any fatalities requiring them to move to another town yet, hence why the grass was so long. We wandered around the deathtrap rollercoasters and Disney knockoff rides before stopping in at a bar prior to making our way to Guatemala City.

After a short flight and a couple of run ins with some dodgy characters we were in the squalid heart of Guatemala City, but there was a bit of a problem — It was now 9:30pm on New Year’s Eve and we were staying in what was supposed to be the safest area of the city, mainly surrounded by embassies and very little else. We found ourselves walking around looking for a bar to celebrate in, but initially with little success as the few that were there were either full or closed. At first only two options presented themselves; there was the bar in a nearby hotel, which was where we began, one that had a two-piece band and contained a combination of some lonely-looking friends of the band and a couple of elderly people who very probably were crying into their drinks, or there was the local Hooters. Yes, we almost ended up spending New Year’s Eve in a Hooters. Hey, at least we know the wings would’ve been good, but it too was closing when we arrived. We had had a great time in Antigua and wished we had just stayed there, but we eventually found ourselves in a relatively empty bar, possibly even crashing their staff party, because it seemed that everybody drinking in the room was an employee or at least dating one. One of the significant others’ of a bar employee was an osteopath from a small town in the USA whose girlfriend only spoke Spanish, thinking this gave him a licence to say whatever he wanted in English, as she had no idea what he was saying. I got talking to this douche while Anna danced with his lovely, friendly girlfriend and it turned out he was simply an awful person. I told him that we were in Guatemala for a holiday, but were traveling to Honduras so Anna and some others could perform volunteer eye surgery in a rural community where it is difficult for the citizens to seek medical attention. His response? He said he does similar mission trips, but he doesn’t see the point because you don’t know where the money goes. I tried to explain to him that that wasn’t really the point and that it was more about helping people, a statement that led to a rather loud argument and him demanding to speak to my wife about the subject instead. This was a rookie mistake on his part, because he probably assumed that not only wouldn’t Anna be able to speak English particularly well, but she must also be yet another subservient Asian woman who will just go along with whatever he says, boosting his fragile ego. However, nothing could be further from the truth — First of all, English is Anna’s first language and secondly, anyone who has ever met Anna knows she does not back down from anyone and this guy had just opened a can of whoop-ass when he asked to discuss what he thought were the cons of Anna’s biggest passion with her. She explained the auditing process that is involved with mission work, but he tried to point out that he himself was a big deal because he works with orthopaedic surgeons. He then went on to tell us in front of his oblivious girlfriend that you simply can’t help Central American people due to them being lazy and continued to use a lot of other disrespectful terms, knowing he could get away with it, because we were among the only other people in the bar that spoke English. This just triggered Anna further, igniting a heated argument between the two. By this time it was almost midnight so we counted in the new year with the staff, had a few more drinks while ignoring that particular asshole, and then made our way back to the hotel. We couldn’t have a massive night anyway, we had to fly to Honduras the next day.
A look at the final day of 2015 from our perspective:

Friday, January 1, 2016
It was the first day of the new year and the main purpose of our Central American journey was finally here. We’d be flying into Toncontín International Airport, located just 6km (4 miles) from the centre of Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras, and the one that was ranked second on the History Channel’s Most Extreme Airports. In fact, interestingengineering.com listed Toncontín International Airport as the eighth most dangerous airport in the world due to this little tidbit:

As you may be noticing, airports in mountains become very hard to land at due to the variant terrain and often short approaches. Toncontin Airport is no different. In order for planes to prepare for the descent, they must make a quick 45-degree bank turn to reach the runway in a valley. After this bank, planes must rapidly drop in altitude, being careful not to scrape the terrain directly underneath. High altitude makes flights to this city a real challenge.

Yes, we needed to land in one of the world’s most dangerous airports from a technical standpoint to arrive in what was once the world’s most dangerous country from a murderous point of view. I’m not kidding!:

In 2012 Honduras had the highest murder rate in its history. It also had the highest murder rate in a non-war country. In 2012, 7172 homicides were recorded. On average, there were 20 homicides a day. There was a 6.2% increase in homicides compared to the previous year. 83.4% of these homicides were committed with firearms.

Between 2011 and 2015 the murder rate in Honduras decreased by 30% (rate claimed by government, not independently confirmed). Homicides went down from 88.5 per 100,000 residents to 60.0 per 100,000. Homicide rate decrease stopped in 2016 when the murder rate did not present any significant differences from 2015. In the first semester of 2016 a rate of 14 deaths per day equalled the murder rate in 2015.

Due to the high levels of impunity in the country, the majority of murders in Honduras are never punished. In recent years only 4% of homicides have ended in a conviction. The lack of justice has produced a lack of trust in the police and other authority figures, which is not good for creating civic participation.

That’s crazy for country of just over nine million people. To put those numbers in perspective, in 2012 Honduras averaged 20 homicides per day, whereas in the last count done in 2016, Singapore had 18 (0.32 per 100,000 people) and Australia had 227 (0.94 per 100,000 people) for the entire year! Even the USA’s most recent murder rate was only 5.35 per 100,000 people, compared to Honduras’ then 88.5 per 100,000 people! At least the Honduran government had claimed the murder rate had gone down by 30% by the time we arrived, but that was only factoring in residents, however, tourists are also a big target as well due to the poverty in Honduras, along with gang problems. We weren’t going to be spending our time in Tegucigalpa though, we were going down to the city of San Lorenzo, just 34 km (21 miles) from the border with El Salvador, the newly crowned first-place on the murder poll, although with a percentage still slightly below Honduras’ personal best just a couple of years prior. Anyway, enough about the killing, let’s find out a bit more about our home for the next five nights, San Lorenzo:

San Lorenzo is a municipality in the Honduran department of Valle.

The city was established by Spaniards as a village in 1522 but not granted city status until 1909. It is the primary Honduran port on the Pacific coast and lies on the Pan American Highway.

According to the 2001 Honduran National Census, San Lorenzo is the 20th largest city with a population of 21,043. According to census, the population was divided between 19 colonias and barrios. It had a population of 15,294 in 1988 and 9,467 in 1974.

This mission trip was organised through Surgical Eye Expeditions (SEE) International, a nonprofit organisation based out of Santa Barbara, California, and they arranged all of the accommodation and transport from Tegucigalpa to San Lorenzo, as well as within San Lorenzo to the hospital, complete with an armed detail. That’s right, nobody was allowed to travel anywhere without the company of several guys with machine guns.
I’m not sure what time we arrived in Tegucigalpa, but by 4:30pm we were on the road and were on our way to San Lorenzo

Saturday, January 2, 2016
On the first day of volunteering they needed as many people as they could find to get down to the hospital early in the morning and help set up. This is an area whose economy is based around the seafood industry and agriculture, particularly fruit, but it’s difficult to make a living from fishing or farming if your eyesight isn’t the best so it was absolute madness when we arrived, with hundreds of people that were seeking help barely kept from storming the hospital early in the day by even more armed guards already in place.
Take a look at the mayhem:

Sunday, January 3, 2016 – Wednesday, January 6, 2016
The rest of days at the hospital followed a similar pattern, but also with patients from the previous day returning for checkups or to have the other eye worked on if a procedure were necessary. The only difference was that for the final two days I wasn’t permitted to travel to the hospital, despite the fact that I had made myself available to run errands or do any labouring work that was needed, due to the fact that leaving the resort where we were all staying was deemed an unnecessary safety risk for me. Instead, I was forced to stay back with nothing much else to pass the time but to kick back with a book, which was fine by me, but I did spend most of that time just hoping in the back of my mind that everyone got back safely, relieved when I heard the van arrive home each evening.

The people at SEE International did a fantastic job organising this mission trip, but I did have one major problem with the whole thing; a lot of the American non-medical volunteers and fundraisers who were present for the trip in San Lorenzo, but spent all day kicking back at the resort, were devout Christians from the same church and also appeared to be spoilt trust fund kids. None of them were struggling for cash. Lunch was a standard meal at the resort and supplied to the volunteers at the hospital, but a buffet of home-cooked food was provided for dinner at the resort every night, generally an hour or so before any of the volunteers or guards had returned back from an extremely tiring and busy day of free labour. I saw on the final nights that before each dinner they would say grace, saying how they were doing God’s work and thus they were blessed with the bounty they were about to consume, and went on to eat almost all of the food, leaving hardly anything for the people who were really getting their hands dirty when they returned from the hospital! It was disgusting.
At least on the final night they took everyone else out for dinner and drinks to thank all of the surgeons for their hard work in improving the lives of many Hondurans who normally couldn’t access or afford the help they received.
Some more photos from those final days in San Lorenzo, Honduras:

The final leg of this particular trip was an unusual one — Checking out ancient ruins is always fun, especially in a place like Tikal, we had one of our most anti-climactic New Year’s Eves ever in Guatemala City, and doing volunteer work in Honduras was at times terrifying, but ultimately satisfying, something that couldn’t have been achieved without the hardworking people at SEE International.

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