Traveling Angler

Traveling Angler

Down and Out in Tegucigalpa

  • By: Will Rice
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Down and Out in Tegucigalpa

Losing a passport in Latin America’s murder capital.

j Our trip started like many other saltwater adventures. We had a desire to see tailing bonefish, high expectations to cast at permit, and the outside chance to hook tarpon and snook—all do-it-yourself. This was going to be a sun-up to sun-down adventure. Three buddies and I had rented a small house in the jungle, commandeered a boat and driver, and each carried a pocket full of Honduran Lempiras for the fuel we would need throughout the week. For better or worse, we were on our own.

After landing on the small island of Roatan, just east of Belize, we hopped into a prop plane and within 20 minutes had arrived on the hilly island of Guanaja.

Then we met up with our boat driver and headed to our house, which was perched on a steep mountain slope. The immediate plan was to bounce across the 1 ½-mile expanse of water to a small cay and wind down at a Caribbean bar called Graham’s Place. We dropped our bags, put on flip-flops and left in haste—bags and gear strewn everywhere. We would eat, have a beer or two, head home for a good night’s rest and then hit the beach at oh-dark-thirty for snook. After that, we would head out to the flats for permit and bonefish.

The trip took a sharp right turn into troubled water upon our return from the bar, right around midnight. One of my partners—let’s just call him Dave—woke from sleep and dropped the bomb.

“I think I lost my passport,” he said.

“No way,” I mumbled. “Your passport is here. You probably hid it on yourself. Or you probably left it at Graham’s. C’mon, we have to be up in four-and-a-half hours. You didn’t lose it. No way.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Dave said.

The next thing I knew it was morning, we were on the beach, and Dave was fighting a snook, having a great time. After fishing the morning, we pulled the boat up to the dock at Graham’s, where we were the night before. We asked at the bar. The response in broken Spanglish: No passport.

“It must be back at the house in one of your bags,” I said. The tide was coming in—there were permit to find.

So we fished the afternoon until dark, returned to the house and completely uprooted the place while searching for the passport. We searched high, we searched low, we searched the boat, the jungle, the beach. Nothing.

The gravity of the situation began to sink in.

The leading theory at that point was that Dave would have to fly back to the consulate on Roatan, get a new passport, then join us back on Guanaja. He’d miss a day of fishing, maybe only a half day. No big deal. After a bit of Internet research we were confronted with some hard facts that the four of us were unprepared for. There is no US consulate on Roatan. There is no embassy in La Ceiba, the closest metropolitan city on mainland Honduras.

When I originally told friends and relatives I was going to Honduras on a DIY junket they’d looked at me sideways. “Isn’t Honduras the most dangerous country on the planet?” they’d ask. My response: “We’re going to the Bay Islands, not the mainland. It’s not like we’re going to Tegucigalpa or anything.”

As it turns out, when you lose your passport or it is stolen in Honduras, the only US embassy where you can get a new one is in, you guessed it, Tegucigalpa.

According to an article published in the Washington Post, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime considers Honduras the most violent country in the world, with a rate of 82.1 homicides for every 100,000 people. After a coup d’etat in 2009 left the country in political upheaval, Tegucigalpa now records more than 100 murders for every 100,000 residents, making it one of the most homicidal cities in Latin America.

The news that Dave had to travel 180 miles into mainland Honduras to get a new passport put our team morale at an all-time low. So did the fact that Dave’s fishing trip, which he (and we) had planned and looked forward to for months, was over.

In addition to this, our initial research told us that once he arrived in Tegucigalpa and made it to the embassy, the processing time could take 13 days. This news was the equivalent of pulling the card in Monopoly that says, “Go directly to jail, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.”

One of the coolest things I’ve ever witnessed—cooler than a tailing permit—was my other buddy immediately stepping up and saying, “Don’t sweat it Dave, I’ll go with you.”

The next day the two took off on an odyssey into the heart of Honduras. From Guanaja they flew to Roatan, from there they flew to La Ceiba. After another layover they flew into Tegucigalpa.

In Tegucigalpa they were able to secure a meeting with the consulate the following day. Armed guards escorted them to and fro. During their downtime, they camped out at the Marriott bar and flipped through cable in their room—checking back and forth on the status of their request with the consulate. The one positive thing Dave had going for him: He was carrying a valid US driver’s license that confirmed his identity. He also had a credit card. It could have been much worse. And, miraculously, three days later they were issued the new passport.

So what happened to the original?

“Did I get pick-pocketed in the bar? I don’t think so,” Dave said after the ordeal. “The passport was in the same pocket as my chew. I could have dropped it. Did it blow out of my pocket on the boat ride? Possible.”

We did find out later from an ex-patriate on the island that US passports fetch upward of $10,000 on the black market in Honduras. If you lose yours, chances are it is not going to end up in the hotel lost and found.

With a newly reissued passport in hand my two buddies flew to La Ceiba, back to Roatan and then tried to re-book a new flight to Houston. They returned home five days later—no bonefish, no permit, no tarpon. But, eight flights and $1,700 later, they were home safe and sound. Total number of fish to hand: one snook—perhaps the most expensive and labor-intensive snook in the history of fishing Honduras.

What to do if you lose your passport

“Preparation is probably the most important thing a traveler can do,” advises Brendan O’Brien, Director of the Office of American Citizen Services and Crisis Management. “Visit the travel.state.gov Web site and [you’ll find that] every country has specific information that you should take with you on your trip.”

Also know this: “Using a paper copy of your passport to return to the United States isn’t an option,” O’Brien added. “Airlines are not allowed to let you board without a valid passport. When it does happen, the airline faces big fines and the traveler can get turned around and sent back to the country from where they departed.”

Prior to a trip

Travelers should register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), a free service provided by the US government to citizens who are traveling to, or living in, a foreign country (https://step.state.gov/step/). STEP allows you to enter information about your upcoming trip abroad so that the Department of State can better assist you in an emergency. STEP also allows Americans residing abroad to get routine information from the nearest US embassy or consulate. If you need to go to the embassy for any reason (such as getting a new passport), be aware that you need to have a game plan for your own transportation. Officers cannot pick you up.

Make three paper copies of your passport: Give one to someone back in the states who can be contacted in case of an emergency, give one to a travel companion and keep another somewhere separate from your original. If you do have a print or digital copy of your passport (or a driver’s license), this will expedite reissuing.

Take a photo of your passport and store it digitally on your phone if you have this capability.

Bring a passport photo with you—it can save you a step in the process, as some consulates cannot produce passport photos.

If you don’t have a copy of your passport, you need to be able to provide the following: name, date of birth, place of birth, passport number, and the date on which and place where your passport was issued.

Know this: US passports are not routinely issued by US embassies and consulates on weekends and holidays.

Research options to transfer money from your home country to the country/city where you will be traveling.

During your trip

Notify the Overseas Citizens Services of the situation at 202-647-5225. Complete a police report with local authorities. This can help with the re-issue process, and your departure from the country you are visiting. Know that every embassy has an officer on duty 24 hours a day and that you can talk to them on the phone. w