Another installment of stories that took place in The Gran Hotel Sula, our one hundred and twenty room hotel in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. We opened in 1969, summer, and closed this year 2020.
It was a stupendous run where we saw amazing success, astounding struggles, rare was the day where I could honestly say: ’what a boring day’!
Over the years, the employees became family as is often seen in Central American businesses. Our employees’ troubles became our troubles, their celebrations became ours to partake in. We cried together; we laughed together. It was a blessed time.
It was late afternoon in the Gran Hotel Sula. The hotel sat improbably smack in the middle of downtown. It couldn’t be more dead center of town had my parents used a plumb to position perfect center of the town. Just across the street in front of the hotel was Central square with its enormous umbrella shaped Ceiba trees, coconut and banana trees and bright red Heliconia under brush, many purple flowered acacia trees.
Our front entry had a huge awning over the top announcing The Gran Hotel Sula, green background and large white lettering on the vinyl cover. The two glass doors just at the top of four entrance steps saw a great deal of use. I calculated one time, during a still moment, but to be clear, there is never a still moment in the hotel business, much less in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Not if you’re doing your job. But anyway, I figured that on any given day the double glass doors opened and closed some three thousand times! That’s the daily movement witnessed every damn day moving through that amazing hotel.
Ours was one of the few buildings offering air conditioning throughout. Our tropical valley was at sea level, an hour away was the hot coast of the Caribbean. Curious visitors from town wondered in shortly after our opening inauguration just to stand in the cool air. After a couple of months, we had to exercise crowd control. Gently asking those who came through the front doors what the purpose of their visit might be. I allowed those coming in to bask in the cool, a brief visit then most gently invited to leave. Of course a way around getting ‘exited’ was to enter the lobby floor coffee shop The Skandia and order a plate of fresh cut fries. Fries were also novel!
Entering the front doors, one was immediately immersed in another world. The visitor, mesmerized by the cool, the huge central air chillers powered from the basement maintenance area made an arguably science fiction like hum, as though a spaceship had landed in the middle of this dusty town and was now powering up to blast out of the galaxy. The lobby music, a form of Muzak, which floated just audibly in the lobby and other public spaces brought the space bound visitor back to reality, sort of.
The walls were tastefully decorated with original artwork and one large wall was a mosaic of small, glazed glass squares, which my parents commissioned of a local artisan from the Sula Valley, the traditional Zorzal birds seen flying serenely across the golden rays of a late afternoon sun, below, the agricultural richness displayed by rows of corn, sugar cane, pineapple, wide rivers and jungles. This all surrounded by the majestic Merendon Mountain range seen in actuality just a mile or so away from the hotel’s balconies on the west side.
Years later when I was the general manager some people showed up from the US threatening a lawsuit and for back pay for having ‘their’ piped in music. As I recall, the still very wet behind the ears and sharply suited visitors from the U.S., three of them, with matching brief cases felt rather pleased with themselves no doubt thinking they had succeeded. After all, I hadn’t said I wouldn’t pay a nickel or had given them the impression that their plan was laughable. I’d heard them out, and I asked them to sit in the lobby seats while I called some five members of my executive staff so they might be in on their appeal. A light break in our very busy, very challenging day, the six of us stood around the three now looking up at us. Something had changed in their leaders’ expression as though sensing a trap.
My assistant and head of accounting, Pratts, confirmed: “Let’s see Señores, you are here from where, oh yes Manhattan, Muzac, yes? And you wish for us to pay back pay for the years we have used your tapes, some forty years of usage yes?” The three nodded enthusiastically. Not unlike chipmunks, who knew they were about to get a bag of acorns, and no doubt a sweet commission. He continued setting it up. “Eighty thousand dollars and you’ve graciously applied a long-term members discount, so thoughtful and kind.”
After forty years someone from Muzac headquarters USA decided to visit us in Honduras. We had years prior worn out the equipment that came with the service. We had set up our own recording system with our ‘own’ music. Pratts gently but thoroughly read them the riot act, finishing by reminding them we were in Honduras, not Manhattan, which meant everything. Good bye.
Despite the civic fathers concerted efforts, our town remained with one foot firmly planted in yesterday. Yesterday were gun toting days, horses moving lazily up and down the now paved boulevards. A good cross section of the citizenry, well, the rather happy drinking sector found their way, every day to our bar the Oro Verde, or Green Gold in honor of the valley’s main cash maker: bananas. Watching these, mostly men, come into the hotel lobby from the dusty and noisy street gave one a good look as to the state of things in our city. Most men carried pistols tucked into waistbands or just as often worn on display in ornate leather holster and bullet packed gun belts.
Almost to a man, ten-gallon hats were de rigueur. Mustaches were the rule. Boisterousness it appears was required, the louder the better. These were a mix of business owners who may be in agriculture, in the metal scavenging business, mosaic foundry, shoe stores, you name it, but most dressed this way lest you’d stick out like a sore thumb.
There is one thing I did not see, however, which in hindsight is surprising considering our state of existence back then and that was a lone rider dismounting and tying his horse to the gate and going inside, never happened. Even though the most unexpected things happened daily, we were edging into the modern times.
The following is another strange occurrence. A most unusual anecdote considering it was absolutely true. One of our porters, shall we say Guillermo. Now in his middle age had convinced a very young, (though legal age) girl from the countryside to live with him. While Guillermo was away at work, she had apparently caught the eye of a young man living next door who was trying to woo the girl away from him.
Guillermo’s solution was to bring his lady fair and place her inside the porters’ room, no larger than a small bathroom, next to the hotel front entry. Yes. Captive, with conditions, might be an accurate description. Someone tipped me, another employee, and I invited Guillermo to my office. As he was a union directive, he believed he could exercise this unacceptable behavior. I assured him otherwise. He brought her into my office before they left for the day and introduced me to her. I understood in an instant why he felt the need to ‘protect’ her. A country stunner! He took her home and several months later she had run off with the guy next door.
The city and its citizens immediately took to ‘their’ new Gran Hotel Sula which over night was dubbed, lovingly: ‘The Sula’. San Pedro as the city is called had never in its very long, hundreds year old history seen the likes of a hotel like ours. We exemplified the last in modernity, even by US standards. Our formal restaurant, the Granada featured among many others, table side preparations such as Steak Dianne, shrimp DeJonghe, Cherries Jubilee and Bananas Foster. Our lobster, fresh that day from the sea, was mind blowing. The Chateaubriand with Duxelles sauce was to write home about! This was 1969, and it was still infrequent to find restaurants with these selections in Central America. Our bathrooms offered in room coffee makers! Even in the US, this was still rare. My folks were pioneers in so many ways.
One day, we were in the final minutes of our executive meeting, which we held every Thursdays, something I’d learned from my stint as assistant manager at a hotel in Michigan. No special reason, really. My boss in Michigan explained to me that they left this practice over from his Air Force days as a P-51 mustang fighter pilot held every Thursday. That is if everything went as planned. If all hell was breaking loose, say if two buses had just pulled in unexpectedly to check and eat now! Executive meetings I believe are the same the world round. Depending on who leads the show can be rather drab or can be stimulating.
As it was morning, Bar Oro Verde, which was where we held some of these staff meetings, was closed and prepping for opening in the early afternoon. A bartender, bow tie hanging untied, was setting up booze on the bar top for daily inventory, slicing lemons, changing old to fresh mixers, he brought in ice buckets to throw into the ice makers after cleaning them out, stacks of beer stood high near the bars service back door. Another day under way. In a far corner a cleaning man had just shut off his vacuum cleaner and we could hear unusual cries of surprise from out in the lobby.
As a group we exited the bar and discovered the two porters attending a handsome, middle-aged woman who was sitting, awkwardly face down, ass up in a large single sofa. Miguel, one of the porters, and never one to miss a perceived opportunity, stood over her with one hand planted firmly on her butt cheek. In his hand was a clean towel he used as a compress. In fact, there was very little blood. My secretary was there, who normally was at the meetings taking the minutes, had excused herself because a new local sheet supplier was coming to give her product pitch. She caught my eye and in an instant, she communicated the essence of the rather comical picture playing out on the sofa. My secretary saw my expression and without a word relieved Miguel of his butt-holding duties. Miguel started fanning her as she was quite obviously distraught and whose facial expression showed a paleness and pain.
A newspaperman was snapping pictures of the unhappy woman.
Unfortunately, these news people were ever-present in our hotel. There were of course conveniences having the news ever-present in that if I chose I could do a ‘press release’, of which they were always willing to take part in. For instance, announcing an upcoming special event like such-and-such locally famous Salsa band was to arrive soon. Or to inform that the popular and rather hot and outwardly vivacious vice president’s wife would arrive for a weekend visit. Besides this, our central location was perfect for them to use as a quick ‘jump off’ in reaction to any event unfolding within city limits. Along with the air conditioning, there was the 24-hour Cafe Skandia I had mentioned, so named in honor of my Dad’s Norwegian roots. A wall of public phones meant for calling guests in the hotel rooms made it handy for them for calling their newspaper headquarters. This was before cell phones, of course.
The presence of the newspaper people could reach rather regrettable peaks. It turns out many of them had their business cards listing The Sula as their ‘office’! Other small time business sorts soon copied the strategy, traveling sales guys decked out in modified zoot suits with very classy two tone, wing-tip shoes also had business cards directing potential clients to a certain table, their work ‘desk’ in the ‘Skandia’. After all, this was like saying you had your office in the most sought piece of real estate in the entire city.
This was now in the very early nineties, I had left the hotel back in 1971 to take up a major in hotel administration in the US. After College and many years of working in hotels and restaurants, I’d returned in ’93 to take over the managers’ role. Now a world apart from when we opened the hotel, San Pedro had in fact gained an impressive degree of modernity and growth. Gone were the horses from the streets, now less seemed to ‘carry’, at least visibly. Slowly but surely the ’ten-gallons’ started going away too. Well, sort of.
A small group now gathered about the woman.
The bullet had lodged itself smack in the middle of a generous left cheek. A security guard from across central park fired a shot against some hold- up men. One shot traveled through the park, at waist height, between many trees and underbrush not to mention many pedestrians, had gone through the glass pane of the front door and had found its home in her rear as she was walking from the front desk to the lobby elevators. She said at first she thought someone kicked her.
The hustle and bustle of the noisy down town had muted the gun blast.
Very little pain. Quickly our ambulance service arrived, all in a question of ten minutes. Had stabilized her to the extent needed. She appeared fine and went to the clinic we worked with for guest medical emergencies.
Her husband arrived from the Caribbean coastal town of Trujillo and demanded to see the hotel manager. His wife had since returned from the clinic and was resting comfortably. I received her husband in my office and after offering him a cup of coffee gave him my version of what happened. His initial reaction was that he’d clearly decided before meeting me was to sue the hotel.
After listening to the events, he realized there was nothing we could have done to change the outcome of things and thanked us for tending to his wife’s injury.
The day of the shooting, I called the owner of the security company responsible for the incident. He answered the phone: “Coronel Planchon Villegas de Asturias, may I be of some assistance to you?”
I asked him to cover the cost of my glass door, sure it was insured, but it was the principal. The man laughed, saying: ” Hey Jacobson, you have a good sense of humor, my friend. Surely you don’t expect me to pay for something I had nothing to do with. It’s not my fault the Señora was in the bullet’s path. Oh, and as I have you on the line, may I offer you the city’s best security service?”
Experience and being from these countries I learned years before when to drop an issue…
As the years passed a valuable lesson, young hoteliers would do well to master is to not overreact to events such as this one. Over reaction, reaching out too enthusiastically to fix the problem, may give off the signal that the hotel in some strange way accepts blame!
One time a medical team was visiting us on a mission from the US, they had plastic surgeons and other specialists along with the all important nurses. In this group they had young med students.
Life in Gran Hotel Sula was unpredictable. From one day to the next, it was impossible to guess what situation the visitors might get into. Unfortunately, this event happened in the confines of one of the medical team’s guest rooms.
An adorable, female med student claimed she’d sat on the edge of her bed and was pricked by the stray needle from a hypodermic. Her near hysterical reaction was the fear of catching ADS. This happened when the fear mongering for this disease was at a peak worldwide. It was early evening and some of my administrative staff, including myself, were considering going home. The medical team had just returned from working in a day long field clinic and were getting settled in for dinner, maybe a swim in the pool.
I was in my office when a group of Americans stormed in. In the center was the distraught young lady.
My sister was visiting at the time, a nurse with specialties in a handful of areas. Her experience was quite extensive in so many areas and immediately saved the day. After calming the guest, she explained as clearly as she could that the odds of sitting on a needle that just happened to appear on the edge of her bed was extremely unlikely. The odds were very probable that one of her colleagues for whatever reason had dropped the needle there. After all, needles, syringes, medical items are what they hauled about during their stay.
The members of the team gradually accepted my sister’s gentle explanation, and I could see the young woman accepted her viewpoint. I was of course grateful my sister was there visiting the coast. This was one of those situations where someone else’s involvement was crucial.
There were so many experiences to tell about from ‘The Sula’. It’s a challenge to tell them in such a way that offers a thread, and though a clear arc, up, then back down again would be most appreciated, I hope the form in which I’ve chosen to share them with you is acceptable.