Couple stuck in Guatemala returns

By BUSTER WOLFE,

A Columbia woman and her fiancé on Tuesday finally got plane tickets back to the United States after a harrowing experience being stuck in Guatemala as much of the world's transportation system shut down because of the coronavirus.

Christopher Holzinger of Purvis had planned a four-day trip to Guatemala with his then-girlfriend, Taryn Larremore, manager of the Second Street Bean coffee shop in Columbia, to give her a romantic surprise. The art teacher for Lumberton schools proposed to Larremore during the spring break vacation.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic had other plans. Holzinger and his new fiancée were among 11 Americans trapped together in the Central American nation hoping for a way out.

Holzinger sent a message Tuesday that they had made it to the airport with help from the U.S. embassy and were about to board a plan to return home. However, it was not without a few close calls as they battled tight travel restrictions and the threat of jail time if they were caught out after mandatory curfews.

The couple had been staying at a safe house but were forced to leave at 9 a.m. Sunday when the government closed it down, Holzinger said.

“We decided to make a run for the Belize border. We had to take a boat to our car and a three-hour trip to Guatemala City to stay in a safe house,” Holzinger wrote. “Then we planned to wake up at 4 a.m. the next day and attempt to get to the border. The drive from Guatemala City to Belize was a 10-hour drive,  and we only have 12 hours before curfew. So it would be close. And after we made it to Belize, we had another two hours to drive, needed to stay a night in Belize, then attempt to fly out Tuesday.

“We took a small boat to the nearby town. They would not let us in to get to the car. After a very long negotiation, they only let me into the town to get the car. Taryn and our new friend Doug had to go to  the next village over to get off the boat. I had to pick them up there. I was detained trying to leave the village, and I was detained again trying to enter the next village. Then when I finally got them, our car broke down twice on the three-hour trip to Guatemala City. We had only an hour until the cerfew started. if we were on road after curfew, we would go to jail, no questions asked, for an unknown amount of time. We ended up being stranded one hour from Guatemala City.

“With fear of jail, a friend's sister picked us up, and we had to leave the car, and we got to a house with only five minutes to spare before 4 p.m. curfew. We stayed there.

“We got word that our embassy arranged a flight to pick us up at 9 a.m. the next morning. We needed to be at the airport by 6 a.m. We were 1.5 hours from airport.

“We left at 4 a.m. to the airport. We made it in time! We waited for hours, but we are now at the gate to board in two hours,” he said in the message sent Tuesday morning.

Holzinger and Larremore had been staying in the only hotel available because of its American connections. They had planned to be home about a week ago, but they had been told by the American Embassy it was unable to help and then reached out to U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo’s office for assistance.

For Holzinger and Larremore, the dream vacation they had planned became a nightmare.

“They shut down the restaurants,” Holzinger said in a telephone interview while still stuck in Guatemala. “You couldn't go anywhere because they shut down public transportation. When we were going to leave for Mexico, they closed the border.”

Holzinger said he and Larremore were fortunate to find the hotel to stay on the shores of Lake Atitlán west of Guatemala City.

“There's 11 Americans, and there's no other guests,” he said. “And the reason we were able to stay here was the owner of this hotel was originally an American. Because of that, he's allowed us to stay here. At other places, we're not even allowed to stay; we were turned away. We're not supposed to leave even to go to the adjoining towns on the way in.”

Holzinger said he and Larremore were stopped in one of the small towns on the other side of the lake before they could get to the hotel.

“My fiancée and I were actually detained in a little village,” he said. “We had to go talk to the mayor of the little village to get permission to ride a boat over to this hotel. Then we had to go into a medical facility, and they had to clear us. They still were going to turn us away until actually I took the guy around the corner and showed him the (engagement) ring. That was the only reason he let us go on to the hotel.”

Colleen Kennedy, a spokesman for Palazzo’s office, said she is not able to talk about specific cases involving Mississippi residents who might be overseas. However, she said Palazzo has contacted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s about foreign incidents.

“He has been on the phone with the secretary of state,” she said. “Our staff members have also been working closely with their office trying to trying to get these folks home. As far as what the State Department is doing to specifically remove people and get people back from countries, I know that we had received some guidance yesterday.”

Kennedy said some Americans in Peru were able to obtain flights home.

“The congressman understands that this is global and that the State Department is working on the strategy to get these people back home,” Kennedy said. “Part of the battle that I am in is there is so much information, and it changes very quickly.”

Kennedy said anyone who is aware of relatives or friends who are overseas should contact Palazzo’s office to make sure all Americans are able to receive help.

His offices are located in Washington, D.C. (202.225.5772), Hattiesburg (601.582.3246), Gulfport (228.864.7670) and Pascagoula (228.202.8104).