I woke up to find myself surrounded in a room of gray. A single bulb was forcing itself from the wall, barely lighting this room that felt more like a tomb. In this room was a single chair, concrete walls covered in abstract art, and a single mattress that I was laying on.
I stumbled out of bed to the closest clock to see the time, realizing my flight to Fort Lauderdale, Florida had left 3 hours ago. I had not seen my family in 6 months since I had moved to Sweden and was supposed to meet them for a Christmas Cruise in the Caribbean leaving out of Fort Lauderdale. I was stuck.
12 hours earlier, I was
partying visiting my childhood friend (let’s call her K). I had a layover for one night in New York where I would stay and visit with K until I left for the Caribbean early the next day.
Evidently, this meant celebratory drinks.
As we traipsed around the city of Manhattan, we settled on a trendy, underground club. It was at this said club that I meant a supercool “artist.” So, after this artist and his entourage talked about their many masterpieces at their studio, I HAD TO GO SEE IT.
Did I mention that 6:00 am flight the next day? Oh well… this would only be for a minute, right?
The next morning, I hastily walked upstairs from the studio to find the host making breakfast. His presence felt much more ominous than it had the night before. I explained the situation and he called me a cab.
“Ok, cool. Where are we again?”
BROOKLYN! I was staying with my friend in Manhattan and I woke up in an art studio in Brooklyn. ‘How was I not dead?’ I thought, dramatically. Although, that question was a little premature.
When I finally reached my friend’s house after the 45 minute cab ride, she was sobbing. She hadn’t been able to find me all night and was petrified.
After we hugged and cried in relief, I still needed to get to Florida before the cruise ship left for the Caribbean. I only had $60 left since my parents were going to replace my stolen credit cards when I was going to see them (another story). That $60 was for my cab to the airport.
So K bought me a one way ticket to Fort Lauderdale arriving 45 minutes before the cruise’s departure. It was a long shot, but it was my only choice.
Once I reached the JFK airport, time stood still. While in the security line, I borrowed a stranger’s cell phone to call my mother and, much to this stranger’s awkward dismay, I stood close by as she heard a verbal lashing from my parents.
“How could you be so irresponsible?” My Mom screamed.
My only defense left was with the single fact that I had a flight to Fort Lauderdale and I would still make it. During this time, however, New York and several other states were facing the biggest blizzard of the season. New York received an inch of snow every hour for 24 hours. If you were on the East Coast in December of 2010, you remember this storm. This detail was in the back of my mind, creating anxiety as to whether I would be able to leave New York without a hitch.
When I finally reached the Delta desk, my heart sank. There was an hour and a half delay caused by the snowstorm. I wasn’t going to make the cruise. I was stuck in New York.
I borrowed another stranger’s cell phone, this time from a young girl on a volleyball team. More awkwardness for the poor stranger as she listened to me cry to my mom, explaining how my flight was delayed and that I would miss the cruise.
During this phone call came the sudden realization that I had spent the last of my money on the cab to the airport. My parents were supposed to give me my credit cards and I was borrowing cell phones from strangers. How would I get ahold of K? How would I get there? What would I do about food? When I hung up the phone, I burst into even bigger sobs than I was with my mother.
With nothing left to lose, I went back to the woman at the Delta desk. I explained that I had to get to my destination or I would miss the cruise. Still, she explained this flight would not be happening. I was in panic mode at her presence and tears were welling up, once again.
“However,” she started to say, “Since this is our fault that you cannot make this trip, it is Delta’s responsibility to get you to the first port on the cruise schedule.” Finally! Had this woman known about the first flight I missed, I wondered if this option would have been available. “Let me just see what I can do here”.
With cautious enthusiasm, I returned to the volleyball team for their cell phone. I called my fuming parents and told them that I would somehow meet them at their first port on the itinerary, Roatán, Honduras. I didn’t know how yet, but I would make it!
The woman at the front desk gave me a new itinerary:
- I would stay for another 6 hours in New York and take a first class flight to Atlanta, Georgia.
- I would spend the night in Atlanta and grab a first class flight to San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
- I would spend the night in San Pedro Sula and take a private plane to Roatán where I would find the cruiseliner and meet my family.
All in all, a 48 hour journey!
I felt gracious and ecstatic! But I also needed food and a place to stay. I explained that I had no money and that the last of it was spent on the cab over. The woman at the desk printed out 2 Delta hotel vouchers and 5 meal vouchers, each voucher $6. Furthermore, she continued to say that my luggage would be taken off of this flight and rerouted with me to Atlanta. For the first time in 6 hours, I finally felt some peace.
I was starting to get comfortable for a 6-hour nap in the airport, when the volleyball team came up to me.
“We heard that you didn’t have any money trying to meet your family,” one girl said. “We collected what we could around the terminal. Merry Christmas.” Another girl from the team handed me $50. I teared up and thanked them for being so kind. It was the best Christmas gift I had ever received.
Atlanta’s airport greeted me with artwork and a friendly community. After a first class flight (where I didn’t drink) and my vouchers in hand, I was beginning to feel relief. I walked over to the luggage terminal and waited for my bag. The carousel went around and around for 1 hour before I came to the conclusion: my bag was not coming.
Of course, and keeping the theme of this adventure, my bag went off without me to Fort Lauderdale. The gentleman at the luggage help desk confirmed it’s presence at the FLL airport.
When I suggested it be sent to San Pedro Sula, he informed me that there was no flight there from Fort Lauderdale. ‘Of course, not. Why would something be easy?’ I thought.
It was now 10:30 pm and my bag had to get back to Atlanta and take off with me to San Pedro Sula by 6:00 am. Despite this plan in effect, I couldn’t help but think that I would never see my valuables again.
I returned to the airport the next morning before the sunrise. One by one, passengers started to board the area and I realized that I was the only non-Spanish speaking individual in the crowd. As I started to think of San Pedro Sula, I remembered what my friend in Sweden had said when she traveled through it. Despite being an advanced traveler, my friend had said that San Pedro Sula was the most terrifying place she had ever been in. I would later find out that San Pedro Sula was the murder capital of the world. I was traveling solo to the murder capital of the world.
As I got on the first class flight, I started to cry… again. I was hungry, I was tired, and I only knew basic Spanish to get me by. Did my luggage get on the plane? Would my hotel voucher work in this third-world city? Was I safe? I felt that the worst part of my journey was yet to come.
“Excuse me miss? Are you okay?” When I looked up, I found a handsome man sitting in the first class seat next to me. His skin was dark and he had a well-manicured, shaved head. Dressed in a casual black suit, he could not have been more than 40.
“Oh, yes. I’m just nervous. This trip was unexpected.” The corners of his mouth tightened.
“How is it that you find yourself going to San Pedro Sula? It’s…” he lowered his voice, “…quite dangerous.”
Perhaps it was his charisma or maybe I was too exhausted to have any doubt. Still, I could not help but trust this strange man. After all, the kindness of strangers had worked out this far. I explained to him that after a semester in Sweden, I was meeting my family for Christmas. I explained how I ended up stranded in New York, with no luggage, no money, and no phone. He, in turn, discussed his itinerary in Honduras, though he spoke little detail of his new business venture that brought him there.
After 3 hours of friendly conversation, he slowly pulled a white envelope out of his pocket. He sifted through hundreds of green bills and handed me 2 of them along with his business card.
“You cannot be in this country without any money,” he winked as we descended.
With the help of my benefactor and the exchange rate, I had been granted a brief sensation of wealth. Thanking the heavens, my suitcase had also arrived. With my large bag and the 3,750 shiny, purple and green lempiras in my hand, I hailed the closest taxi waiting outside.
“Necesito un hotel,” I stuttered.
San Pedro Sula had a deceivingly comfortable breeze upon my arrival. With 187 murders per 100,000 residents, San Pedro Sula looked more like an abandoned tropical paradise than a hub for crime. Yet twenty minutes into the city revealed skyscraper garbage piles and amputated dogs. My taxi driver drove by an abandoned toddler on the road wearing a diaper and dragging a broken lawn mower by a piece of twine wrapped around his waist.
The driver pulled up to what appeared to be a large penitentiary tucked away in a local barrio. Its barrier consisted of cement walls 20 feet high lined with barbed wire. 2 armed guards with machine guns waited outside of the entrance and spoke few words to my driver.
As we slowly drove into my new sanctuary known as Villa Nuria, I kept assuring myself that it would only be 24 hours until I saw my family. When I noticed the men with more machine guns at the rear gate, I started to wonder if leaving the airport had been a mistake.
Once we drove inside, I was pleasantly surprised. The buildings were painted a happy yellow and the center of the complex had a pool and playground for children. While there were not many people inside, it appeared to be an apartment-style hotel that was quite lavish (considering my surroundings).
Of course, the front desk had never heard of a Delta hotel voucher. Had I not met my friend in first-class, I would have been worried. My reciept came to 890 lempiras or $41 which I happily gave. This price included two large bedrooms, 1 bathroom, a kitchen, a living room, a dining room, and wifi. I felt like royalty.
The front desk told me that Pedro would be helping me with my bags. He was a young man, not much older than 20. He carried my bags to my apartment and only spoke Spanish, but had an ear for English. With our combined knowledge of the other’s language, we had a nice conversation about the weather and Villa Nuria.
There was supposed to be a lunar eclipse that night. Once I had settled in, I watched Spanish television and went on my computer. But I was bored and I really wanted to see the lunar phenomenon. I walked down to the grocery store that was within the borders of Villa Nuria.
After buying some Pringles and water, I saw Pedro. I asked him to join me to view the spectacle. He didn’t understand right away, but when we went to the pool, laid out on the lawn chairs sharing the Pringles and watching the moon, I forgot about all of the danger lurking outside of those cement walls.
The next morning, the same taxi driver picked me up at the time we had arranged. It was the last leg of my journey and I was to be taking a private plane. Once I reached the same, tiny airport, I was excited! I had conquered San Pedro Sula! Villa Nuria had given me comfort despite the roughness of the city and I was about to see my family.
The small plane could seat 8 passengers, although there was only one other person on my flight. A 20-something Honduran boy who coincidentally spoke Swedish. Had I been an actual Swede, I might have found some solace in speaking the same language. But I took pleasure in the fact that another coincidence had been bestowed upon my journey and looked out the window for Roatán.
We touched down in Roatán and I couldn’t wait to be with my family. This island was more colorful than the mainland and I felt like I was finally on ‘vacation’. I hailed a taxi driver and he informed me that there was only one cruiseliner, which happened to be my family’s.
I thought the struggle was over, until a man with missing arms came up to us. In attempt to beg for money, he started touching me with what was left of his arms. I shouted and the driver hissed at him to go away. The driver threw my bags in the car and I jumped in as fast as I could. Of course, I couldn’t just land casually in Roatán, I thought.
He pulled up to the Norwegian Pearl, a large and extravagant cruiseliner. I paid him and ran with my luggage towards the entrance.
“Ah, so you’re the girl,” said a Norwegian Pearl employee, checking me in.
“Does this happen a lot?” I asked, making conversation as they searched my bag.
“There’s always one on every trip,” he said. 5 minutes later, an attendant showed me to my family’s room.
I opened the door, elated and ready to share my story.
“Hi everyone! I’m so glad I made it! Getting here was so crazy-”
“Shhhh! We’re sleeping!” Turns out, my family had their own wild night and I had to wait that much longer before I could tell my family of my adventure of traveling solo to the murder capital of the world.