Final days and diving

Diving was an incredible experience. I’ve been snorkeling plenty of times in Utila, and its cool and you see some amazing corals and fish, but it doesn’t compare to the experience of diving. Being on the boat with cool surfer type people, soaking in the sun, watching the island go past and feeling the waves gently roll the boat is pure happiness. You’re living in the moment. And that’s before you enter the water!

The whole process of beginning my diving started with a bit of an argument with the station over who was going to do it. As it was my last week, and another volunteer, Jeremy is leaving later this week (he left on Thursday- I wrote this post on the plane on Tuesday), we would be allowed to do it, but his girlfriend and another girl who wanted to do it weren’t, which we felt was a bit unfair considering there were more than enough people at the station to do the jobs required. Eventually we dropped it and on my penultimate Sunday Jeremy and I went to begin our theory sessions, which were started with 5 hours of videos. Being quite hungover from a party the night before, we didn’t learn much, but we got a feel for it. The next day we met our instructors, Vanessa and Fa, and with 4 of us in the group, us and two Americans, we began our pool sessions. These consisted of removing the regulator which passed air into our mouths and replacing it with a snorkel or reserve regulator, and mask fills (filling the mask with water and then clearing it under the surface), which aren’t a pleasant experience. Armed with this knowledge we completed some more theory sessions the next morning and headed out for our first dives. Surprisingly not much panicking went on under the surface, where we sat at the bottom at about 10m to repeat some of the pool exercises. This is far more fun than in the pool, helped because of the fact that you’re surrounded by coral and the water isn’t 2 degrees centigrade. Equalisation was and always would be a bit of an issue for me. This is when the pressure gets to your ears and sinuses, causing pain akin to and worse than descending in a plane (interestingly enough since I’ve dived I’ve felt absolutely no discomfort or pain descending in a plane). It just means you have to descend very slowly  and keep swallowing and breathing through your nose. There’s a lot of warnings in diving of sickness and injury, but these are worst case scenarios that really only extreme divers have to worry about. To put it simply, you probably won’t get the bends ascending too quickly from a 20m dive. If you hold your breath however, you can get lung overexpansion, which is why the PADI number one rule is to keep breathing. Second is to always dive with another person, your buddy, who can help you out if things go awry.

Our first couple of dives (one dive session consists of two dives at different sites) also allowed us to follow our instructors in exploring the reefs a bit, and we saw some cool stuff, but due to our inexperience in breathing underwater, and it takes a bit of getting used to, we didn’t last too long before we started displaying low air and had to surface.

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Jeremy outside our dive boat.

The third day followed a similar pattern to the first, doing exercises to start each dive, then swimming around and enjoying ourselves for the rest. My least favourite exercise is when you’re told to take the  mask off underwater and swim around with the instructor. It basically gives you the panicked sensation of drowning, as without your nose covered by your mask, it takes in the bubbles released by your regulator and so you can’t fully breath. Combined with lack of vision and it is really tough to sustain. We do get taught how to clear a mask underwater though, so you don’t have to surface each time it gets filled with water. One interesting question that came up was what to do if you throw up underwater, as a few people were feeling seasick/had dodgy baleada (local tortilla wrap filled with fried beans, meat, cheese and avocado) stomachs. The answer is that your should do everything you do with your mouth on land with the regulator underwater. Cough, burp, breath, and of course, vomit. It won’t be pleasant, but its better than throwing up then needing to take a deep breath in afterwards and finding only water to take in.

One of the best things about diving, apart from the awesome reefs, people and fish, is the feeling of weightlessness. It is the closest thing to being in a low gravity environment and the freedom it gives you is I’m sure what keeps people coming back for more. You know that scene in the Simpsons where Homer opens a packet of crisps in a spacecraft and spins round and round while gravitating towards a lone crisp? I did that, and it feels cool. Obviously you will also get people bumping into each other and issues with buoyancy, but these are eradicated after the first few dives, and that’s when you really start enjoying yourself. At the end of our final day of diving we were given the final exam, which we all passed and so were then certified divers. We were all duly signed up for our two free ‘fun dives’ (one-off dives recreational divers can sign up to at any dive place they go to) the next morning at a coveted north side site. These are the best because they have the most untouched reef networks, so the best wildlife and the opportunity of whale shark sittings, a tantalisingly rare experience even for some experienced divers in Utila. So bright and early the next morning Jeremy and I arrived at our dive centre, The Bay Island School of Diving, and set up our equipment on the boat. It was a long trip to the north side, but we got to watch the sun grow higher in the blue, cloudless sky and catch some of its rays before we had to kit. The two dives we did then were some of the most fun I’ve ever had, gliding gracefully through the reefs with 15 or so other divers watching lionfish (which were killed as they are harmful to the reef and other fish), manta rays, eagle rays, dory fish (Dory from Finding Nemo), giant crabs and other assorted aquatic life. However what happened in between the dives just about trumped them. As we were passing some pelicans hunting schools of fish near the water, some of the divers spotted a large shape gliding close to the surface parallel to the boat. It was a whale shark, and amid the excitement we were brought together and told it was 8 people in at a time. I was in the first group, so quickly shoved on my fins and snorkel and mask and was told to slide in to the water, look down and swim fast. As soon as I got in I saw the shark just a few yards from me. I was briefly stunned by the fact that I was actually in the water with this creature, something we’ve been conditioned to fear, I suppose understandably as it was about 25ft, yet it was so calm and graceful. All the fear that you have on land about things like Whale Sharks, which feel dangerous merely because of their sheer size, dissipates once you understand that as a diver you’re just part of an underwater ecosystem that isn’t there to hurt you, and that you are probably the most dangerous thing there. Indeed after about 5 seconds of attempting to follow it, it must have become afraid of all these squirming shapes so close to it and dived into the deep blueness. Check, my facebook for a video of the secon

d group in the water with it, although you have to look hard to see its grey shape pass under the boat.

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Enjoying the sun between dives. Bit of a pose.

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Horse riding along a beach with Jeremy and his girlfriend Jade.

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View from the highest point of the island, Pumpkin Hill. The mountains are across in La Ceiba, the mainland.

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My happiness as I finally got a crepe off this crazy crepe guy.

For that experience we were only charged 200 lemps, about $10 for the captain taking the time to let us see it, whereas some specific whale shark snorkelling trips can be up to $60.

The whole course was $245, about £170, including the two free dives, which is pretty incredible considering open water courses start at £400 in the UK and Utila is one of the world’s best places to dive.

My last weekend was spent at various nice restaurants, some of the best bars and at the water cay, a small uninhabited island which can be got to for about $15 per person and is effectively a classic castaway island, with decent coral, coconut trees and beaches where we sunned ourselves for most of Saturday.

On Monday, my last day, we went to get bamboo for construction of a new visitor area, and did some garden cleaning, before heading to a favourite Israeli restaurant which also serves amazing banana bread, and Rehab, a bar we hadn’t visited before but does another t-shirt challenge consisting of consuming 4 shots of vodka and a blue liquor in 10 seconds. That done, people started drifting off to other bars or back home (annoyingly), until it was just me, Rachel, Harriet, Frazer and Andy, a 51 year old geezer planning on doing as little work as possible and sunning himself and fishing everyday. He then gave us some life advice (his is falling apart) and we shifted uncomfortably in our seats until he went off and we headed back.

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In the Water Cay. Lots of fun.

Its hard to describe my time at the iguana station. First here with only David, Jose and Suriel, I was the first of a new cohort of volunteers and so got to meet people more or less individually as they arrived. This meant I wasn’t thrust into a group of best buddies, meaning I’d have to be an outsider before I was a part of the group. Instead I could get to know people slowly and form our friendships over mutual experiences. Sometimes it has been a little boring, maybe somewhat repetitive, and I haven’t always been completely well, but when you’re thrust into situations like this with people similar to you, you’re generally bound to make incredible friends, and that’s what I think I’ve done with some of the people there. It’s only a shame that we’re all heading off in different directions. But I guess you can’t cry because it’s over, you have to smile because it happened, and I have some unforgettable memories from Utila.

I am at the moment writing this on the 25th Feb, 9:34pm GMT-6 on the plane to Lima from San Salvador. I’ve been on the road since 6am this, morning and won’t get to my next destination, the ancient Inca city of Cusco in Peru, until 7am tomorrow. There I’ll also probably experience some altitude sickness, so the 26th will be a crash day, but I’m looking forward to arriving at the orphanage I’m working at next. However much I miss Utila, I think maybe leaving after 4 weeks is a good thing, as I wasn’t accomplishing a huge amount, my Spanish wasn’t improving and I wasn’t completely out of my comfort zone, although it was obviously very different to the UK.

At the airport in San Pedro I met a Belgian guy who had been on the road for maybe a year now. You can tell. One bag, a guitar, dreadlocks and simple clothes, I was a little intimidated. But once we started talking, he found out about my desire to learn Spanish and helped me out by conversing with me in Spanish, English and a bit of French. Describing the language from a fluent outsider’s perspective has greatly helped me already, and I’m hoping that by the time I leave Peru I will be a much better speaker than I am now. I’ll need it judging by the fact that Argentinian Spanish (I’ll be there in April) changes words with ll in them, pronounced ‘y’ (e.g calle- street= cayay) to be pronounced ‘che’ – so ‘cache’ (hence Ernesto Guavera’s nickname) and speak their dialect impossibly fast. That will be interesting but hopefully I’ll have met people to travel with by then.

I’m also pretty sure that I want to change my last flight from May back to London to somewhere in Central America to meet my Utilian friends and then back to Miami. We’ll see how it pans out.

Also, check my facebook for cool videos and way more photos.

Anyway, its food time on the plane so hasta lluego.

Snorkeling, insects, partying y espanyol

Utila, for all its parties, bars and quirks, is primarily a diving island, and while my dives are reserved for the final week, we have done plenty of snorkeling. There are various places on the island where the coral and fish are great for snorkeling. All of them are actually away from Utila town, as sewage is dumped in those waters (hence why few people jump off the jetties most bars have at the back). One, which we went to on Thursday, is in the north of the island, and the best way to reach it from the town in the south is to kayak, which is what we did on Thursday. As one of our weekly trips, all the volunteers, including the four new ones (making us 8), rented single and double kayaks and set off on the river through the mangroves. While it was pretty tough going, especially against the current on the way back, it was a welcome change to trekking through the mud on foot. After about half an hour of this we made it to a northern beach, or Rock Harbour as it’s known. This was home to another breathtaking Caribbean beach, and a floating dead dolphin just off shore. Here people sunbathed and relaxed in the shade. A few of us also took our kayaks out to a small coral-y island just off shore, parked up and did some snorkeling. Probably because this is the least developed beach on the island, the snorkeling was the best I’d done here, and I saw a wide array of exotic coral and fish, including plenty of ‘Dories’ (a fish from Finding Nemo). I’m sure José took a go pro of it so I’ll try and get a video up eventually.

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My roommate José

 

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Unfortunately I was rather naive in my application of suncream that day, and returned with painful red chicken legs. Fortunately the burns are now becoming a tan, which is always kind of what you’re after when deciding to go to a tropical country.

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One disadvantage of living in one, especially an island, is the insects that want to eat you. There aren’t any poisonous animals on the island, although the girls still seem pathologically terrified of the tarantulas, and there aren’t even many mosquitoes. But there are sand flies. If you aren’t wearing any spray at any point during day or night, you will be bitten mercilessly, which I discovered during the first week I was here. Either they’ve got bored of my taste now, or my burns have covered the pain, but I seem to have got past that for the moment, while the new people are still suffering.

On Friday we went to one of the many Utilian bars’ 10th anniversary party. Tranquilla is probably my favourite bar because the jetty has a second storey, unlit, where you can just look up and on a clear night watch the stars. Because Utila is an island and electricity is not widespread (one night I was walking into town and all the lights went out. Only one place had an emergency generator, so it was very cool to walk the pitch black streets, avoiding the occasional motorbike or golf cart another method of transport here), there’s very little light pollution, so you can easily spot constellations and secondary stars. Anyway, the party got pretty crazy and waking up the next day for an 8am start wasn’t fun, but in the afternoon we went to the water caves. These are network of underground/water caves that can be accessed by a gorge near the airport. We didn’t dive inside, but went for a swim in the surprisingly warm water, and had our feet pedicured by the shrimp that inhabit the water. We also heard about a German guy who once tried to snorkel them, but either lost air or his light and drowned. Going there, I think common sense would dictate not to try it without t the proper equipment.

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Lastly, a couple of days ago we had to feed the snakes. Unfortunately we had to feed them mouse babies, or ‘pinkies’. In a way it’s interesting watching the snake catch and consume prey, but pulling the babies away from their mother is a bit awful.

For the past 5 days I’ve also been having Spanish lessons, for $120 per 20 hours, which I think is pretty good. She talks quite a lot about her family, in English, which is slightly annoying, but I do learn things in between those conversations.

 

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I’ve also possibly got access to a computer now so maybe I can start editing some film together.

Out.

Rain, sunset and iguana hunting

The reason I’m not posting too often is that I use a tablet, which makes it time consuming uploading pictures and videos.

But hopefully now I’ll be able to do some uploading, as we’ve returned from a kayaking trip absolutely exhausted, and so I have some free time.

First, a video I meant to upload a while ago, although it may have made it into a previous post, so forgive me if that’s the case. This is the rain that can appear without much warning, and can last for hours and even days. If it happens, the centre pretty much closes, as the endothermic iguanas won’t eat. The last time that happens we ran down to Charlotte’s Cafe in a lull and had coffee and omelettes. Haven’t made it back yet but I’ve promised the new people id take them.

A few days after the rain, me and José, my Rastafarian roommate, who is also teaching me Honduran slang (mahé), made the 10 minute walk up to the summit of Stuart hill otherwise known as The Watertower. From there José took a timelapse with his GoPro, which I’ll eventually nab off him, as well as his snorkeling videos, and we watched the sunset, so here are those pictures.

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This is a long exposure photo of José juggling firesticks. Pretty cool.

I’ve also got to cover what happened to some iguanas a few days ago. One of the cages in which we keep the Swampers, the endangered species we’re trying to help, was home to a parrot named Roselita before she died a couple of months ago, so for some reason that I haven’t quite worked out yet, Osgood, the manager of the station , decided go put 3 iguanas in her cage. 2 females and 1 male.
well a few days ago the two females, being 1/3 smaller than the males, escaped. We patched up the cage and thought that would be that. The next day, however, the male had gone. We would now have to catch 3 new iguanas from the mangroves further inland.

I was chosen, along with Rachel, a new volunteer from Ireland, to accompany Osgood into the mangroves. This was a fateful expedition. Not only was it particularly hot day, but the mangroves had far less cover from the sun than I had imagined, and Rachel hadn’t properly acclimatised to being outside of Ireland, let alone a tropical country near the equator. The smell also hits you like the toilets at an IBS meeting. Really really bad egg, combined with a blaring sun, scorching heat and long waits for Osgood to spot an iguana and then fix the fishing rod like contraption he’s masse for catching them, and it was getting to me. But Rachel broke first.
The next day, it was just me and Osgood and, far more prepared this time, we caught a good sized male and female.
Another stressful, hot, dirty day was spent in the mangroves a couple of days later doing 100 10m transects across the swamps looking for iguanas, and catching that last female. I’ve head enough of mangroves for one lifetime.

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To take a break from the restaurants and bars of the town, one night we decided to cook a meal and watch a movie. The meal was a joint effort, made by the two Hondurans and two Europeans at the station at the time. My contribution was guacamole, made better by José’s mantequilla, a Honduran cheese sauce, but there was also fried plantain, a vegetable and pineapple mix, and plenty of other stuff. We then watched Her (2013), a really interesting film about a man who, in the near future, falls in love with his intelligent and intuitive OS. Basically he falls in love with a future Siri. Anyway its directed by Spike Jonze (pronounced Jones) who was a 90s wunderkid director and is now looking to be a really exciting one. Well that’s what you can tell people to impress at a dinner party or whatever.

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More to come. Out.

Beach Trip

Wow, haven’t posted in ages, sorry. This is a bit of a boastful post, but was always going to appear at some point if I was going to truthfully portray life on a Caribbean island.

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This was a trip we took to a place called Neptune’s, a restaurant/bar completely secluded from the main town. We took a boat, free because we were more than 5 people, and arrived there with the place all to ourselves, free to snorkel among the corals undisturbed. Saying that, I haven’t been snorkeling yet with more than a few other people outside our group in the water with us, so it’s never busy.

Caribbean accent on Utila

A lady came to drop off some parakeet eggs, why I don’t really know, but after speaking Spanish for a bit, she produced one of the most Caribbean accents I’ve ever heard. Sounded like Calypso from Pirates of the Caribbean, which I guess would make sense because this place used to be an old hideout/base for the notorious pirate Henry Morgan.

Apologies for the video orientation.

First day working at the sanctuary

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Iguana selfie, as requested by Helen Webber.

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One of the one year old iguana hatchlings. This afternoon we caught them all for measurement and re-habiting in cages based on size.

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Clever girl… They remind me of velociraptors.

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Bite from a big one.

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Tarantula. Not poisonous, but apparently also not pleasant to stand on. A crunch then explosion under your foot as its abdomen explodes.

Today we fed iguanas early in the morning, then I was tasked with chopping down some annoying reeds with a machete. After that me and another volunteer went and caught crabs down by the beach – not an easy task. After lunch, which was brought up from the town, we got working on measuring the iguanas, collecting termite nests and building a new t-shirt and postcard building.

Iguana station , Utila

I took the 9:30am ferry this morning, crowded mostly with tourists , to the island of Utila, the smallest of the Bay islands. When we arrived, a maelstrom of tuk-tuk taxis and Diveschool advertisers awaited us. I was quickly whisked away on a tuk-tuk up winding paths to the iguana statio , a little way from the main town (10 mins walk or so).
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The iguana station is non-profit and not in particularly good shape. The directors recently walked out, and it is now primarily run by local and more long standing Honduran volunteers. One of them, Jose, a student from the capital city on the mainland, is my roommate. There’s also another volunteer named David, from Hull, but he’s leaving on Friday.

As for my responsibilities, they mainly revolve around feeding the iguanas, touring visitors (can also take them around the island) and catching and tagging more iguanas in the mangroves in the north of the island.

Anyway, there seems to be a lot to do, and on top of that I want to fit in 4 hours of Spanish a day at the school in town, and some diving lessons!
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