I decided to bite the bullet and take a shuttle for once instead of the cheaper local buses. The cost was $80USD from Leon, Nicaragua to La Ceiba, Honduras- and it was worth it. I was lucky enough to get the front seat (which reclined!) and as we took off at 2am, I settled back and snoozed. For the first time ever, the border crossing was a breeze. I was a little on edge because I had heard endless horror stories about buses and shuttles being hijacked in Honduras, and as we approached the border crossing there was a chain slung across the road to impede traffic and all the lights were out. Turns out the power was merely out. Our shuttle driver took care of all of the details for us; we merely filled out our customs form and when he was done all the paperwork and payments, we lined up, 10 of us, and each had our photo and finger prints taken electronically by the cheerful lady at customs. All in all we were out of there in about half an hour. A few minutes after the border, I saw a group of men standing on the side of the road with shovels and I thought, ‘Oh God this is it! We’re being hijacked!’. Of course, it was just a group of workers looking for a ride back home. I felt silly and ashamed and sat back in my seat and began dozing. It was about a 14 hour ride and our driver was swapped half way. He played a few silly movies and I half watched them while listening to my music and taking in the scenes outside the window. Honduras was beautiful. I have to admit, I expected Honduras to be dry and ravaged looking, a poor and beat down country with the worst murder rates in the world by almost double any other country. I was so wrong. Honduras was startlingly beautiful. After the parched land of Nicaragua, Honduras was a lush oasis. Being much more mountainous, this country still received enough rainfall even in dry season to be bursting with rich green scenery. We passed through many towns and villages, none of which looked near as poor or run down as many I had seen in other countries. I was pleased to have my preconceived notions dispelled by the beauty of Honduras.
We caught the expensive and only ferry, dubbed Princess, in La Ceiba for $27USD and settled in for the hour ride over, which was an undulating joy ride for some and a nightmare for others. I found out later they nicknamed it the Vomit Comet because so many people get sick! Once again, I am thankful I don’t succumb to seasickness! The ferry rocked and swayed until the windows were nearly underwater- now I understood why the boat was totally sealed. I giggled and squealed – surely to the resentment of the ill passengers- the whole ride. The ups and down gave my tummy butterflies that tickled me endlessly but didn’t make me feel sick in the least.
I had prearranged everything for my course at Parrot’s Dive Center, a locally owned shop, with the manger Tatiana and she was an absolute joy right from the start. Her emails were prompt, amiable and filled with such an honest excitement at me having chosen to dive with them. She supplied me with loads of information and said she would be there to pick me up with a sign with my name on it at the docks- talk about service! True to her word, Tatiana was there herself to pick us up and show us to the hostel, while telling us about the island on the way in. We dropped our bags, were offered a complimentary cold iced lemonade and then given a tour of the grounds to get us acquainted with our home for the next week or so. As soon as we walked in the always open door, everyone we passed was welcoming us and saying hello and asking how we were doing. Their friendliness was infectious and I found myself beaming and saying hello to everyone. You’ll never have a welcome like they give at Parrot’s; you instantly feel like you’re part of the family. And the warmth of the staff doesn’t end there upon your welcome- throughout your whole stay they make you feel like you’re an old friend, always saying hi, hanging out and inviting you places.
We didn’t start our course for two days- Kajsa wanted to give it a couple of days to let her medication run it’s course and ensure she was feeling 100% before diving in, pardon the pun. We used the time to explore the island and take the free snorkel rentals from the dive shop over to Coral View. It was about a half hour walk down the island so we got to see a nice chunk of it. Utila is one of those adorable island towns- small and wonderfully laid back. I think there are about 5 vehicles on the island; everyone gets around by motorcycle, scooter, golf cart or by foot. The island runs one main road all along the coast and is lined with endless shops selling everything you could need. Every minute or so is a dive shop, for this is the Dive Mecca of the Caribbean!
Coral View offers some great snorkelling. You just have to buy a drink to use the platform that creeps out over the waters edge. We brought our snorkel gear with us and hopped into the warm shallow water and began exploring. After an hour of swimming, and pointing our marine life to each other, we headed back to the pier, grabbed a coca cola, and sunbathed atop the platform to warm back up, as the deeper water cools off quite a bit. Feeling the call of the ocean (and the heat of the sun!) we headed back in to stare in awe at the fish and coral on the reef. I’ve only been snorkelling a few times in my life, and each subsequent time still leaves me breathless. As I gently kicked my fins over the coral, I came to the edge of the reef and stopped, floating, suspended in the salty buoyancy. Right before my eyes was the edge- or as they call it in Finding Nemo, the deep. All I could think about was the animated film and how they absolutely nailed it! The reef drops away precipitously and you are staring out into the dark, mysterious unknown. A shudder went through me, and I wasn’t sure if I was just chilled from being in the water so long, or from the feeling of staring out at the enigma before me. I felt suddenly small and insignificant, and a little vulnerable. I quickly turned around and swam back closer to the reef where the bright fish and coral calmed me.
We started our course and got settled in to the student life. Classes were bright and early, usually at 7 or 9am and were full of corny videos and loads of reading from our text. Our teacher would go over the material the next morning to ensure we all understood and answer any questions. We would take a quiz on each chapter that we covered and were given demonstrations on how the gear works in the classroom. And then it was time to hit the water! The confined water took place just off the side of their pier in the shallows. First we did a swim test to ensure we were competent enough swimmers and could tread water, and then we geared up. I will be honest, I was a little bit terrified. Trying new things like that give me pretty bad anxiety, and the fact that I can’t go underwater very well without plugging my nose was a bit of a concern for me. Okay a huge concern.
The first thing they have you do of course is simply put your respirator in your mouth, stand in water only up to your neck, and then dip your head underwater and take a few breaths. It’s difficult to get your brain to listen to you and take that first breath, when everything is telling you that no, this is wrong you can’t breath under water, don’t do it Brittany, don’t inhale, you’ll choke and die! That was literally what ran through my head the second before I took the breath. You put your face down and tell your mouth to breath, but your brain hesitates, you know those survival skills kicking in and all. It takes an extra second for you to override your brain and take that breath. And when you do, it’s miraculous- you breath!
The confined water wasn’t too bad but I was over racked with anxiety the whole time, even though we were only four feet below the surface and I could come up at any time. I think part of it was the anxiety of performance; I always have such bad anxiety when I have to perform something in front of people, the fear that I will fail and be humiliated can be so overpowering it leaves me shaking. I struggled a little bit on a couple of the skills, mostly taking my mask off entirely and continuing to breath (without plugging my nose, yikes!). The second confined dive we went deeper, but could still easily reach the surface if need be. Again anxiety racked me with the performance of the skills, but I made it through everything. The hardest part about trying to learn to dive and perform skills underwater is the inability to be able to talk! I couldn’t ask to clarify anything – you had to pay absolute attention and hope you understood what was going on!
When it was time to move to open water dives, I was excited and a little nervous- performing skills under 40-60 feet of water was a quite a bit more nerve racking than under four feet! But oddly enough, once we were down there I found it easier. The four open water dives were incredible. The first one we merely dove- we didn’t have to practice any skills. We followed our instructors and worked on our buoyancy to keep level with him which is more difficult than you would think! But practice of course makes perfect, so the more you dive, the easier it gets. We all felt really accomplished when we surfaced after the first dive and couldn’t wait to get back in the water for round two!
After we completed our four dives and filled out our log books, we were officially certified PADI open water divers! What an unbelievable feeling! I had conquered my fears and anxiety and done it! The next day we were treated to two fun dives where we got to go to the North side of the island which is where all the good stuff is. Right when we got in the water a beautiful nurse shark swam lazily below us; I was so close to it! I felt a moment of apprehension when I came close to it, as I was worried that with my mediocre buoyancy skills I would suddenly find myself accidentally falling on top of the shark! But I was able to control myself with my breath and watched as the beauty swam indifferently away from us. We all signaled wildly with our hands the sign for ‘fucking awesome!!!” and laughed through our respirators. We ended up seeing 3 grotesque and captivating moray eels and I immediately thought of the little mermaid and Ursula’s two evil minions. The eels were snuggled into crevices in the reef wall, looking out at us, methodically opening and closing their mouths, and in my head I could hear their lispy voices saying “Yes Ursual!”. We saw lobsters, hundreds of fish of all sorts, these adorable little christmas tree worms that would suck themselves back into the coral if you made a noise next to them, and at the end of our second dive- a sea turtle!!! He was medium sized and absolutely magnificent. He flapped his fins lackadaisically, paying no attention to the wake of divers eagerly trailing him, as he made his way around the coral reef. Of course, the surfer dude voice from Nemo popped into my head and I was secretly hoping the turtle would turn around and ask me to give him some fin and noggin, dude!
Scuba diving basically brings all of your beloved childhood movies to life! What more could you ask for?!
After our dives the captain of our boat located a pod of dolphins that frequented the area and we begin driving towards them. Soon they were beside the boat, swimming along side us, jumping from the water, doing triple backflips leaving us all screaming with delight! My first time seeing dolphins in the wild, how wonderfully enchanting! We were allowed to put our fins and snorkel on and quietly slip into the water to go and swim with the dolphins. They ask that you tip the captain ten dollars for finding the dolphins, and we were all happy to oblige- people pay $150USD to swim with poor captive dolphins on resorts and here we were getting to swim with them in the wild for $10?! We giddily swam around reaching out towards the dolphins. The most bewitching part of it all was as soon as your head was in the water, you could hear their sonar as they spoke to each other! We swam for a good half hour, listening to their beautiful song as the dolphins gleefully ripped past us, swimming and playing amongst us. It was without a doubt, the most remarkable experience of my life. There are no words that can capture what it was like, swimming in the wild with these brilliant and beautiful creatures in their natural habitat. THIS is why I travel, for unforgettable, humbling experiences like this!
After completing our dive course we were joyfully reunited with Richard and Sarah. It was great to see them again and we celebrated by going out to dinner with one of our fellow divers Sammi who recommended a great little mom and pop shop called Ruth’s Place on the only other road on the island other than the main road. The chef/mom’s two adorable children were quietly playing in the background, hiding bashfully while watching us with keen interest. Eventually their curiosity got the best of them and they came to hang out with us. The girl was 7, the boy 6, and while there may have been a language barrier, that didn’t stop them from talking animatedly and singing us songs and showing us all of their drawings. The sister, being the older one, was full of energy and relished being the center of attention. Her sheepish little brother stayed quietly in her shadow and piped up only when we asked him to, ensuring he never threatened her spotlight. They were absolutely precious and we spent several hours at this little joint just to hang out with the kids. The parents were out of sight, just inside the house, keeping an ear out for the kids, but gladly letting them expend their energy with their guests. When it was time to go, we all received at least three hugs from the kids, and Richard got an extra long special one from the girl because she took quite the liking to dear Richard! It was the best dinner I’ve had on my trip so far- not because of the food- though it was good. It was the company of the local children that stole our hearts that left such an impression on us. If they had been older, the language barrier would have surely caused our interaction to be short lived, but because they were carefree children, they wouldn’t let a silly thing like language come between them and their new friends.
On our last night we all went out to the Creperie. I ate here every single day- I have a terribly weak spot for crepes. The place is run by an adorable and exceptionally polite Parisan. He spoke very little and could be found painting brightly colour tourist pieces while waiting for customers. When you arrive he will approach you with a menu, place it on the table and then quietly step back and turns on the music (a wonderful and varied selection of French and English tunes). Once you are ready he stands with his hands behind his back, nods at your request, repeats it to be sure- in his beautiful Parisian accent- and steps behind the counter. He lights his gas stove with a match and whips up the batter for your crepe. I can’t take my eyes off him as he masterfully prepares his only dish- a crepe. I ordered the same every time- banana nutella. He brings your dish with all the decorum of a server at a 5 star restaurant in Paris, and with a slight, humble bow says, “bon appetite’. The crepes are outstanding, the best I’ve had. But it’s the wonderful man who runs the place that had me coming back again and again (okay, the nutella may have had something to do with it too!). I was simply smitten with him and if you ever make it to Utila and get yourself a crepe, you’ll understand why!
After Crepes, we made our way to the movie theater- that’s right, little Utila has it’s very own cinema! It was run by a funny little American with a southern accent. The movie selection was bizarre and I can’t say I’d heard of any of them. We opted for “Accidental Love” a shelved movie with a star studded cast and a ridiculous plot line. We couldn’t resist however, and when we went to get our tickets, the American seemed startled that someone had actually shown up and asked that we give him ten minutes to get set up- he clearly wasn’t expecting anyone. We went to get ice cream and treats for the show since you could bring your own snacks in, and then came back. We paid the $2 and found our way into a large cinema room that we had entirely to ourselves! The chairs were wooden with a slight recline and had removable cushion padding, with a wooden headrest- it had a very 1970’s feel to it. The American came in, looked expectantly at us, as if hoping we would love the movie. He turned off the lights and hit play, lingering in the door a moment to gauge our reactions. The surround sound kicked in loudly, startling us all. He seemed satisfied, turned and practically ran away. We all burst out laughing. The movie was awful but hilarious at the same time and the whole experience was truly unique, a perfect way to spend our last night together as a group.
I bid a sad goodbye to Richard and Sarah after the movie, but promised I would see them in London at the end of August when I passed through. In the morning Kajsa got up at 5:30am to say our sad goodbye. We had been constant travel companions for the last two months, spending 24 hours a day together. It was so hard to say goodbye to this new best friend I had made, but I knew I would see her in the fall when I came to Sweden to visit, so that at least made it bearable. She watched me go down the street to the ferry as I said good bye the beautiful island of Utila, a truly special place that will always be in my heart- how can you forget the place you learned to scuba dive, saw your first shark, sea turtle AND swam with dolphins? Not to mention those crepes!