Tuesday, January 20, 2009
I had only scuba dived once before, and that was in Thailand on a small island called Koh Tao. I remember it quite vividly, the colours and diversity of life were intense, and the way everything seemed to co-exist harmoniously was inspiring. Since then I had been anxious to try it again, to see more and go deeper into that underwater frontier that we still know so little about. And so it was that I made my way to the island of Utila in Honduras, a place where apparently some of the best and cheapest diving in the world can be found.
The ferry ride over from La Ceiba to the island takes about an hour and is usually a pretty rough ride, which makes for a comical trip across. There are crew on board who seem to have no other function but to walk around and hand out plastic bags and tissues to the many people who cant stomach the angry ocean. I stood near the front and had a view across the whole seated section, where once smiling tourists sat there looking miserable, bending quickly over the side of the boat now and then, or those without shame simply emptying into the provided bag. I suppose I only found it funny because it didn't affect me at all, because I stood there cheerily enjoying the fresh ocean breeze and the fun ride while this puking epidemic unfolded before me.
Utila was not what I expected it to be, and I quickly realized that I had gone from one tourist centre in Copan to another in Utila, and that just wasn't the kind of place I wanted to be at the time. I wanted to be in a place where I was forced to practice my Spanish; where people still reciprocate the curiosity and interest that foreigners bring; where things were a little difficult. Utila though, had everything that a Gringo would need, from fine dining to peanut butter. I tried to use my Spanish anyways, but the locals would always just respond in English - they had no patience for my slow speech. As it turns out, English is actually the first language in Utila, and although it is a part of Honduras officially, it has largely maintained a degree of autonomy which has allowed an interesting culture to flourish. The people in Utila speak English with a sort of Creole/Caribbean accent; apparently the islands were settled by former slaves who moved there when Britain took control of Honduras.
When you get off the ferry at the one port in Utila you are greeted by hordes of people all pretending to be your best friend, trying to convince you to dive with their school. This is something you get used to when traveling - over friendly locals with a hidden motive - and usually the hardened traveler can see right through this. Here however it was a little different because not only were locals there putting on a show, but many foreigners as well, all trying to recruit new students. I managed to make my way through them after a few superficial conversations and made my way to a dive school where I knew someone I had met before in Guatemala. It rained the day I arrived in Utila and continued the four days that I stayed there. It wasn't until my day of departure that the sun finally appeared, which made the return ferry a little easier on people. One of the best things that happened on Utila was that I reconnected with with my friend Nina, who I had been traveling with in Mexico, someone who I never expected to see again as she was heading North. When traveling though, it seems to be quite common that you run into other long term travelers months later down the road.
As expected the diving was incredible and even though I didn't see a whale shark, a magnificent creature that frequents the waters of Utila, I was left quite satisfied with my experience. Diving 18 metres down into the ocean always seems surreal and otherworldly. Everything slows down, your deep heavy breaths calm any concerns you may have, and you glide along peacefully with the thrust of your fins. A little black and white fish appears before you, it is completely alone, hovering in one spot. It approaches you fearlessly and comes right up to your goggles, you watch its curious and intelligent eyes look you over, satisfied it moves on. It seems that as long as you remain unobtrusive and move with the calmness of the ocean life, you are accepted as part of it, and are not feared. However, it was difficult to feel completely connected to everything that was happening before me with all of that high-tech equipment on, I almost wish I had gills...
I finished my diving course and headed back to the mainland to the small port city of La Ceiba, a place that most foreigners refer to as a dangerous dump - I couldn't wait to get there. My friend Tyler, who I had met in El Salvador worked for a Canadian NGO in La Ceiba, he had an apartment in what is called "Barrio Isla", which is a neighborhood with flooded dirt roads and absolutely nothing to cater to a tourist. It felt refreshing to be there. I would borrow a bike during the day and explore the neighborhood, dodging around giant pools of dirty water, every ten minutes stopping to pump up the punctured tire. Tyler made sure to give me the full Honduran experience, complete with a trip to a night club to dance "La Punta", a local dance that is, well, provocative to say the least.
One of the best things about La Ceiba is its proximity to beautiful areas of untouched nature. My relaxing week in the city concluded with a hike into the lush jungle in the surrounding mountain, where we rock jumped into a waterfall pool and a swam in a rushing cool river. We took a long walk out of town because we didn't want to wait for the bus and we were unable to hitch a ride. As we walked along the dirt road that paralleled the river we came across a couple of young guys who were working on repairing the ever forming pot holes in the constantly flooded road. At first I figured they were paid government workers but I quickly learned that they were working for themselves. As cars passed by them they would stop and offer a cash tip to the workers, a sign of thanks for the maintenance of the road. It was a really interesting example of the people here effectively dealing with the neglect of government.
The hike was the best I had been on thus far in Central America, the bright green thickness of jungle that canopied over us and crept onto our path was invigorating. The smell of the ancient trees and the mist of the giant waterfall combined to invoke a sense of peacefulness amongst the three of us hiking alone through wilderness. When we finally reached the base of the waterfall it started pouring rain, and we all just stood there soaking in silence, staring in awe and appreciation at the magnificence of nature.
If I had more time, and a little more money, I would have liked to hang out around La Ceiba for sometime more. There were many more paths to traverse and waterfalls to see, rapids to ride and songs to "dance" with. Tomorrow though, I am on my way to Guatemala city for an opportunity that has arisen that I expect to be incredibly interesting and rewarding. It is a great feeling letting things just play out while traveling, new opportunities and experiences always appear if you just maintain a sense of openness and adventure. I'm heading backwards while I head forwards, and I'm ready and eager for whatever may come next...