What follows is a letter describing a very recent re-entry from the US into Honduras. The names may have been changed to protect the innocent, and in fact, in the interest of protecting any and all helpful authorities, you might consider this to be entirely a work of fiction. That individual people were understanding and exercised common sense and a helpful attitude along the way IS the point that made the re-entry not so next-to-impossible. It is the attitude that allows life in a locked-down police state to continue for most of its citizens.
Well, we made it all the way back to the ranch… not without a few adventures… but not much the worse for wear. In the process, the luggage was thoroughly searched & appropriately doused with some magical concoction consisting primarily of Clorox…. We did stand in line through the duration of at least 2 presidential administrations, … we did have comical discussions with PPE garbed officials across the barriers of 2 masks, 2 sets of eye protection, 1 face shield, 1 appropriated plexiglass cashier’s window…. Until each person stepped around the barriers leaned in within a foot of the other person in the conversation and yelled what they had just said 3 times while nodding vigorously so that they could be understood.
We then each signed 2 of the 7 pages of documents we had all filled out over the previous several hours while packed together with masks on (most of the time) either elbow to elbow in the completely full airplane or cheek-by-jowl in the interminable processing lines or occasionally, when immediately in front of some official station, obediently hop-scotching between taped X’s spaced either 2 meters or 6 feet apart (there was lively discussion concerning which standard to go by). The two papers we did sign were duplicates of that day’s current incoming pilgrim’s contract. In this contract, we were agreeing to follow the instructions for quarantine under penalty of years in prison (the number of years varying between ½ & 6 years depending upon which internally inconsistent Articulos del Codigo Penal Vigente were applicable on that day & for that specific delito). Since that contract was fresh off the press from the office of the sub-secretary for the production of confusing, conflicting, and vague legalese forms, it countermanded the specific terms and conditions of the quarantine in place from the previous day in anticipation of new instructions from the assistant to the commissioner of the people’s committee for the advancement of the public good in the sphere of public health directives and prison sentences. And, the nice girl clearly incommodiously attired in full PPE, behind the plexiglass partition, and the additional face shield and N-95 mask was supposed to explain to each person the specific terms and conditions of each person’s respective sentence in quarantine.
OK, good plan… Except, she had not yet been read in on the exact terms and condition’s of that day’s mandatory quarantine sentencing, and due to the general din of 500 people in the airport corridor + the impossibility of making oneself understood when separated by mask=>face shield=>plexiglass=> mask => plexiglass=>faceshield, etc. …..with each person after several yes or no Q & A’s which could be essentially pantomimed, she just stepped around the plexiglass, pulled up her face shield as necessary, leaned in as if she was going to give you a kiss on the cheek and yelled in your ear something to the effect of: “ YOU HAVE TO SELF QUARANTINE. I DON’T KNOW EXACTLY WHAT ARE THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS OR FOR HOW LONG…(maybe three weeks?) SO GOOD LUCK, GOD BLESS YOU AND REMEMBER TO SOCIAL DISTANCE!!! For our part, we apparently negotiated ( mostly through a combination of hand signaling and body language) an agreement to leave her name off the form PLUS leave blank the space for “ Fecha y Hora de Terminación de la Cuarentena” and off we went toward customs & immigration…. But first, they had to spray the papers with Clorox…. I. Am. Not. Joking.
(Kind of leaves the documents a little blurry)
Down the corridor and to the left we learned that apparently 4 of the 7 forms we had been required to fill out either on the airplane or earlier in our sojourn through the airport were now out of date and no longer needed. Both Rosanne and I independently decided however that instead of throwing them away we should stuff them into our computer bags… in case they went back into style before we got out of the airport. But Rosanne additionally wanted to keep one of the forms as an example for higher-level elementary grades at El Camino on how not to write instructions (e.g. “ instruction # 2, “ tipo de aduana”: simply repeating the same phrases in question “ Escribe el nombre del tipo de aduana” does not clarify).
Now, mind you that since we arrived at the airport several hours previously, we had not yet officially entered into the country. We were still in that ill-defined no man’s land prior to passing through Immigration. And I was beginning to hope that maybe I had lost my passport … just kidding… sort of. Seriously though, not one other resident alien was trying to get back INTO the locked-down police state of Honduras. In fact, by the time we got to immigration, no one else other than the Migración officials was even in the room. We went through that part of the process so fast the only thing I can remember is the immigration officer’s incredulity as to why we would return to Honduras at this time.
Down the next corridor, down an immobile escalator masquerading as badly designed steps, turn right and enter Customs & Declaration… the last stop before the exit door to the street. I turned in the usual declaration form, denying I was carrying more than $ 10,000 ( always the easy question to answer) and also disavowing any possibility that I had ever even seen livestock from a distance or might have a pack of gum tucked away in some hidden recess of our checked baggage ( this part always requiring some serious mental yoga to answer with a straight face). We put our luggage through the usual XRay machines. And, wouldn’t you know it, somehow those darned XRay screening people suspected that, faced with the rumored mandatory 3 weeks in quarantine and the regulatory impossibility of procuring food from a grocery store along the way to our respective domiciliary places of internment we might try to smuggle in some form of sustenance in hopes of making it through the quarantine period without succumbing to starvation. Ipso facto, they figured that all of those random shapes and densities represented on the screens might be food. They figured right. Every single suitcase had some kind of food in it, since we knew not when we might be able to obtain supplies… given the quarantine, the regulation of which days one can enter a store, etc. ), So that plus the fact that we were the ONLY FLIGHT OF THE DAY… meant they had all the time in the world to give us their special attention. Within 30 seconds I knew that we were hosed…. Literally. They all huddled, looked concerned, called for the boy with the spray tank, who thoroughly doused all of our luggage and our persons with some MORE magical concoction consisting primarily of Clorox… and Rosanne and I were each separated and required to give an accounting of every item contained in our checked luggage.
We later compared notes and found that our impromptu approach to our independent customs interrogations was eerily similar. In most all previous recent customs interrogations (almost always coming through San Pedro or Roatan), even if you were questioned at all, the first and usually the only jiu-jitsu move necessary to explain why I am bringing into the country a rigid proctoscope, 14 used laptops wrapped in Adult Depends Diapers for Men (Size XL), a stack of kindergarten lesson planners, urinalysis reagents bearing an uncomfortably close appearance to a Crystal Meth lab, and transmission re-build parts for a circa 1997 Toyota Land Cruiser… I just name drop and say I work at Hospital Loma de Luz. In San Pedro Sula or Roatan, that almost always works. We are almost always immediate family. But this was the airport in downtown Tegucigalpa – the only city with an incoming flight.
Residents of Tegucigalpa are quite proud and quick to refer to themselves as “ Capitaleños”, that is people from the capital city, Tegucigalpa. I have always suspected that this is at least in part because otherwise they would have to refer to themselves as “Tegucigalpeños”, a word which both sounds silly and no one wants to pronounce… even if they can. Be that as it may, Capitaleños are famous for looking down their noses at the rest of the country as provincial bumpkins… and many officials in the capital city strongly suspect that the existence of any part of Honduras beyond the Teguc. City limits is probably an unfounded rumor. So, this time our name dropping met with blank stares. We each immediately pivoted to the next tried & true relationship establishing maneuver, we asked after their family (particularly kids and grandmas), and talked about ours. Apparently, Rosanne also added spice to her dialogue with how the extra computer was for a teacher for the school…(“you know how teachers need a computer…for the children”), and then how the COVID Fast Tests we were bringing in were so that the patients and families could know right away if they had the plague. For Rosanne, it was after mentioning that the luggage had those COVID Fast Tests that somehow her officer quickly lost interest in touching any more of the contents… even with gloves on. My turning point was when I mentioned how our first COVID patient at Loma de Luz had been someone’s grandmother, sequestered all alone in a room in her little village…For some reason that was the end of my interrogation… I think it reminded my officer that she needed to check on her abuelita. In the end, my officer just decided she had to make a show of confiscating two lemons ( because the seeds were the wrong size you know)… I nodded and agreed wholeheartedly as if I had any idea what she was talking about, signed the papers for the confiscated contraband lemons ( which is bound to come back & bite me sometime in the future), and met Rosanne at the door, not much the worse for wear.
Now in case so far in life you have been able to avoid the pleasure of landing in Toncontin International Airport, opting instead for something comparatively lame & tame like base jumping off the Hoover Dam, the airport is in a valley, surrounded by mountains ( covered with houses and livestock and people you come so close to on final approach that you can lip-read what they are saying from the plane… even the chickens), and you land on a VERY SHORT runway in the VERY MIDDLE of a major city. Rosanne tells me it used to be the third most dangerous airport in the world… until they closed one of the other two. So, when you step out the front door, you step out into the city, surrounded by the entire taxi-driver syndicate, a small army of would-be baggage carriers, families, friends, and cops waiting for exiting passengers, hordes of random panhandlers, street people, gypsies, pharmaceutical company lobbyists and other riffraff. One step outside the front door and social distancing is already a forgotten irony.
We were looking for our great friend (and long-term missionary collaborator) Jim Riley who was
supposed to be there driving the getaway vehicle. Sure enough, easy to pick out (as he is at least a head taller than anyone in the crowd), and armed with only a bandana, a fistful of lempiras of dubious provenance, and a super-soaker full of Clorox, he grabbed some of the luggage and shouldered through the crowd like a friendly linebacker on his way to the car… which for the first time in the 20 years I have known him, actually started without push starting or jump-starting. It actually (again for the first time in 20 years) was a nice car, a reasonably recent model Land Cruiser. God still works quiet miracles, even, maybe especially in pandemics.
One of Jim’s superpowers is that he can (and does) talk to just anybody as if they are his long-lost cousin. Jim is rumored to have talked his way out of a maximum-security prison. I never asked for what particular delito. Maneuvering his way out of Tegucigalpa, Jim proceeded to talk his way into and out of the back doors of allegedly closed fast-food restaurants, supposed-to-be closed grocery stores… even talked his way out of a speeding ticket outside of Comayagua, where he was driving at the speed he was talking. When the officer pointed out his speed, ( they have a speed gun on that highway now) they discussed how indeed when the speed limit is 80 km/hr, it is incumbent on the police officer to stop you if you are driving over 100. Both the officer and Jim nodded in agreement on this point. Clocking on the speed gun at 103, the policeman explained, meant he had to get the driver’s attention. But otherwise 100 or less in an 80 km zone is OK. Apparently even driving over 100 in an 80 zone gets you a pass if you can make your case as well as Jim . Along the way we met and conversed with a dozen more man-(or woman)-on -the-street Hondurans, at toll booths, police cordons and checkpoints, departamento border controls and city-wide lockdown blockades. Each one was just trying to do their job and take seriously this pandemic business… and many of them could have given us a hard time for insufficient paperwork, traveling after curfew, traveling in the wrong direction on the wrong day… all of which was technically true. But after briefly explaining who we were and where and why we were on the road, each person waved us on. Whether nervous or not at all concerned, disaster-doubters or disaster-true-believers, each one also seemed to have retained a goodly portion of one of the truly remarkable characteristics of most Hondurans, their common sense, their humanity… their sense that we are all in this together, that by the grace of God, we are all just trying to make our way through to judgment day.
So after that trip away to the USA, we woke up back in Honduras, just down the road from Loma de Luz, back at the ranch under home quarantine of unknown duration. And like our neighbors and like you, we are all, by God’s grace, just trying to make our way through to judgment day.