Trip slips on banana republic

Approaching the Honduras border on January 19, Stephen Hogg and Tim Munro had no inkling of the corruption, pain and fear they were about to experience. They spoke to Bruce Munro about their ordeal after fleeing the violence-ridden Central American country earlier this month.

The malevolent mood of Honduras' largest city - chaotic, lawless Tegucigalpa - screamed for Tim Munro's attention within hours of his arrival.

The Dunedin-raised 27-year-old had left his best mate and travelling companion Stephen Hogg (27), also of Dunedin, at the city's main hospital while he fetched Mr Hogg's X-rays from their hotel.

''On my way back, a heavily tattooed guy driving his truck down the street just hit the brakes and started screaming in pretty good English `What the f... are you doing here?','' Mr Munro says.

''No-one was batting an eyelid. It was incredibly hostile.

''I just kept walking.''

This was supposed to be the halfway mark of the film graduates' year-long, trans-continental odyssey from Anchorage, Alaska, to Argentina's southern most point, Tierra del Fuego.

Astride Bajaj Chetaks - the hardy Indian equivalent of Vespa motorscooters - the pair had already ridden, filmed and photographed 20,000km of their North and Central American adventures by the time they reached the border town of El Amatillo on the morning of January 19.

They had experienced their share of frustration and excitement travelling south through Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. They had also ''heard bad things'' about the country they were about to enter. What they did not know was that Honduras boasted the world's highest murder rate, 92 per 100,000 people. Nor had they heard that four days before a British tourist had been shot dead in Honduras' second city, San Pedro Sula, while trying to escape thieves.

The country's distinctive attitude was apparent as soon as they tried to enter it.

''We had heaps of trouble getting across the border,'' Mr Munro says.

''It was a case of how much money were we willing to pay.''

''And it did take us all day,'' Mr Hogg adds.

What should have been $US12 each in border fees ended up costing $US100 each as they paid everyone from police officers to administrators.

''A man who spoke English said `Oh the policeman wants five dollars','' Mr Hogg says.

''I said `He can have five dollars when he comes up with a good reason'.

''Later another guy came over and said `He wants five dollars from you both or he will search your bikes and it might take two hours'.''

Once in Honduras, they rode south to spend a few days in the provincial capital Choluteca, hoping the worst was behind them. But they had only just arrived when Mr Hogg fell while pushing his scooter.

''I just tripped and felt my back go ping,'' he says.

It would be the last time he rode his bike.

The pain of walking was close to unbearable. After a couple of days without improvement, Mr Hogg visited a local doctor who suggested he get an MRI scan in Tegucigalpa. He also offered ''all manner of pills and injections which he had in his drawer''.

The scooters were reluctantly left at the hotel in Choluteca and the pair boarded a bus for the capital, 150km to the north.

The city was an ''eye-opener'' on the effects military rule, corruption, a huge wealth gap, roaring drug trade, crime and natural disasters can have on a country.

''It struck me as a place with far more chaos than we had ever come across,'' Mr Hogg says.

''The day we arrived in the capital, the Government apparently stopped being able to pay its CCTV bill, so they canned all the closed circuit TV cameras around town. We also heard the military was no longer being paid.''

Within an hour of arriving in the capital they were warned by three people to take extreme care.

''I was lying on the footpath outside the hospital while Tim went to find a hotel,'' Mr Hogg says.

''A local man who spoke some English welcomed me to his country and then just shook his head at me and said `What are you doing? You need to be careful. It is a dangerous place.' This was just outside the hospital.''

It was on Mr Munro's next excursion, while Mr Hogg was waiting to see a neurosurgeon, that he was screamed at in the street.

THEY did encounter a lot of friendliness as well, they say. But at the same time ''you could feel others were sizing us up''.

''You got the feeling that it was just a matter of time before we at least got our money taken.''

The neurosurgeon diagnosed Mr Hogg with a slipped disc in his lower back. He said it was an emergency situation and recommended surgery.

''He was quite keen to operate on me in Honduras. I was less keen,'' Mr Hogg, who then began planning his return to New Zealand, says.

But first their beloved bikes needed to be sorted. So they got a bus back to Choluteca.

Mr Hogg's sister, who lives in Invercargill, had been searching the internet for people in Honduras who spoke English and might be able to help her invalid brother and his friend.

She contacted an American missionary living in a small town in the hills near the Honduras-Nicaragua border, an hour from Choluteca, who offered to pick up and look after the scooters.

Mr Munro travelled with the bikes to see where they would be stored while Mr Hogg stayed in Choluteca to minimise the chance of nerve damage.

They then travelled back to the capital with whatever gear they could carry; Mr Hogg intent on finding the quickest route back to New Zealand, and Mr Munro hoping to get to Mexico to find a cheaper flight home. It was the closing days of January.

The missionary put them in touch with a Honduran customs broker who, they were told, would not expect to be bribed.

He was extremely helpful. But his belief that arrangements could be made quickly proved incorrect.

A key stumbling block was the permits for their scooters. Stamped in their passports were three-day vehicle-import permits, obviously long expired, rather than the 90-day permits they should have been granted when they entered the country.

It was starting to look as if Honduras was becoming their prison.

Mr Munro contacted his parents, who began doing their own research on Honduras. They were not reassured by what they discovered.

''It was a bit distressing for them, knowing their son was stuck in a country like this and couldn't get out,'' Mr Munro says.

His father phoned the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFat). Staff at the New Zealand embassy in Mexico then contacted their Australian and Canadian counterparts in Honduras, who offered translation assistance if it was required.

FOR two days their customs broker negotiated with government officials. At one point they were told they could get exit visas for $US250 each, but that person then withdrew his offer. The best solution seemed to lie in paying $US350 each to ''officially import'' the bikes, then surrendering the scooters to the officials. They were told once that was done their passports would be stamped with a cancellation of the temporary permit, and they would be able to leave Honduras.

An attempt to extract a further $US350 each was thwarted by the broker, who managed to telephone a higher-ranking official who agreed the extra money was not required.

On Friday, February 1, the day before Mr Hogg's plane was departing, hasty arrangements were made to transport the scooters overnight by truck to the capital.

The physical pain, on top of the stress and frustration, was making Mr Hogg feel ''pretty miserable''.

By now Mr Munro had decided trying to get to Mexico by bus was not a good option.

''Air travel seemed much easier and safer,'' he says.

His flight was not until February 5.

The days between Mr Hogg's departure and his flight out were stressful, Mr Munro says.

''I haven't been anywhere else in Central America before where I legitimately believed it was pretty unsafe to leave the hotel even during the day,'' he says.

''That was confirmed the next day ... The night before I flew out to New Zealand five people were shot dead just around the corner from my hotel.''

When they did each leave, three days apart, their experiences were as similar as they were strange.

Escorted to the airport, Mr Hogg in a wheelchair, their passports were taken from them before they reached the customs counter. A conversation was had with the official on duty - Mr Hogg picked up the Spanish words for ''motorcycle'' and ''vehicle registration'' - and the men were then waved through to board their planes. There was no stamp to cancel the temporary vehicle import permit enabling them to leave. There was no customs declaration to show they were leaving the country.

''Basically, to get out of the country, I'm pretty sure a little bit of USD [United States dollars] exchanged hands,'' Mr Munro says.

''It didn't seem we left Honduras in a legitimate manner whatsoever,'' Mr Hogg says.

Both men have been in Dunedin this week catching up with family.

Mr Hogg is having his back injury evaluated by a surgeon here. If he is healthy enough, he would love to find a way to complete the other half of the journey to the bottom of South America.

''Overall it was an amazing trip. We're both quite disappointed it finished where it did.''

For Mr Munro, who departs for work in Australia this weekend, it will be more difficult.

''It might be a bit expensive for me, but I'm not closing all options ...''

And the scooters?''I imagine they'd probably be gone.''

Tim Munro is no relation of the writer.


Travel advisory

The travel advisory for Honduras is being reviewed, a New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFat) and Trade spokeswoman said this week.

''But this is unlikely to result in any change to the risk level,'' the spokeswoman said. The Ministry already advises there is some risk to security due to violent crime in Honduras and recommends caution.

''New Zealanders who find themselves in difficulty in Honduras can contact the New Zealand embassy in Mexico for advice and consular assistance.''

There are currently 11 New Zealanders registered with MFat as being in Honduras. In the past 12 months, 17 New Zealanders registered with MFat as having travelled to Honduras but have since departed.