Taiwan

A superstitious item store in Taipei
A superstitious item store in Taipei

Even the Taiwanese people identify themselves as being Chinese. As a matter of fact, the official name of the country is the Republic of China, which also very much pleases their mainland big brother, who in effect still considers the island of Taiwan to be one of its provinces. All aspects of the culture are strikingly similar, so is the official language and there seems to be consensus among part of the population that one day reunification should occur. However, only under certain conditions, namely that actual China shifts to a democratic political system and cleans up its act when it comes to human rights, freedom of press and wage disparity.

This confirms my original impression that Taiwan was an improved version of China, where people are more welcoming, friendlier and helpful; where cities are safer (not that the continent was particularly unsafe) and cleaner; where tradition and modernity mix in interesting and anachronistic ways; where in general, the inhabitants make you feel that they are happy and grateful you are visiting their country. Owing to its smaller size, one cannot really expect as much variety as can be found across the Taiwan strait when it comes to sights and people, but this also means that distances are smaller and consequently that travelling around is not as much a grueling task as it is in China.

Making a stop in Taiwan was not part of my original plans, but upon hearing positive comments from a variety of people I had met up north and noticing it was halfway between Japan and South East Asia, I figured I should break my journey south in two and explore what this little island is all about besides manufacturing computers and cell-phones.

Taipei

Taipei 101
Taipei 101

Taipei may be the capital of a bustling economical power, it has managed to stay relatively relax and in spite of the spurious growth that has affected most Asian urban centers in the past decades, is well urbanized and pleasant to walk around. True to my travelling habits, lots of urban exploration on foot I did. First to find my hostel. Due to strong lobbying by hotels, hostels are not allowed to advertise at all their location. All you get is an address and mine pointed to the fourth floor of an apartment building. Not really knowing they were so hard to find, I had decided to use the “show up and see if they have room” technique. Luckily, as I was climbing the stairs, the owner was going down so in the end I managed to secure accommodation for my stay in Taipei.

The Long Shan temple
The Long Shan temple

Over the next days, I simply walked around the city and visited a museum or two, checked out the famous Taipei 101 and walked some more. Obviously, I also entered some temples, which to my surprise are generally very extravagant in this country as a whole and a nice departure from those I had seen thus far in Asia. The hostel was practically empty so I spent most nights being productive in front of my screen, but one evening my roommate, Shab, a girl from the UK, offered me to follow her to a Couch Surfing meetup, where through the famous website/social network, foreigners gather around at a bar to exchange about various things related to not being home at present. The following evening, we linked up with someone we had met at that meetup to have some drinks and plenty of them were drunk, the last ones on the steps of the Chiang Kai-shek memorial, which even at 3 am looked impressive.

After four nights, I had decided I had had enough of concrete and cars and left the capital for a more nature oriented experience. David, the owner, had been very thorough in his briefing of all that there is to do for a stranger in Taiwan and strongly recommended that I go to Taroko National Park. Upon him suggesting that it was possible to rent scooters and ride them around mountainous roads I was pretty much sold.

Hualien and the Taroko National Park

Scooter!
Scooter!

After short train ride to the east coast of the island, I disembarked in Hualien, a regional capital and my basecamp to the Taroko National Park, famous for its mountainous landscapes and spectacular gorges. It was too late to go there when I arrived so all I did for the remainder of day was to borrow a bicycle from the hostel and ride it around the city. As planned, the next morning, I got up as early as I could (still late by most people’s standards) and got to the scooter rental shop that I was recommended by the hostel, the only one that will rent machines to foreigners.

The kind of road that you can expect in the Taroko National Park
The kind of road that you can expect in the Taroko National Park

Riding a scooter is quite easy and instantly I got the hang of it. Much easier than motorcycles in my opinion, but that also makes them very treacherous at high speeds as their small size and wheels do not provide as much stability nor braking power. Still, scooters should be driven like their bigger counterparts, in other words, not like bicycles with engines. They are not as fun, but provide a convenient way to get around, especially that my objective was at least 20 km away and the park being set in a gorge so essentially linear, this also meant that sights and trails could often be separated by several minutes of driving.

The Taroko gorge
The Taroko gorge

Aside from having to share the road with massive convoys of Chinese tourist buses on occasions, I had a blast riding on the only and sometimes single-lane road that winds its way up the gorge. Along the route where different trails and sights and I managed to see the better part of them; I even found a natural hot-spring that you could bathe in for free. Everything that I saw was just spectacular but about the trails themselves I’m slightly ambivalent as most were in such a state I never even got close to be able to call was I was doing hiking. Some high heeled tourists were probably very relieved that there was pavement everywhere, but I was sort of expecting a closer to nature experience. Then again, with the amount of visitors the park gets and its geology, classic dirt paths would not last very long. Whatever, I got to walk on several scary suspended bridges and found trails far away enough from the helmet wearing hordes (yes, some had helmets on to protect themselves from falling rocks) and surrendered my scooter after two days pretty satisfied of having admired such spectacular landscapes, especially while driving in them.

Journey Hostel in Hualien
Journey Hostel in Hualien

One last night at the hostel where I stayed up very late with the staff, their friends and some guests drinking all sorts of alcoholic beverages and that was it for my time in Hualien. Funny anecdote: Chinese people, during their very of first class of English in school, get baptized with a name foreigners will have an easier time remembering. Most opt for something classic like Kelly, John and so on, but some choose to elect their own and one Taiwanese girl that night had picked Jelly. Jenny? I replied. No, Jelly, as in jellyfish, or jellybean (incidentally the comparison she prefers). Sure that could provide to be an hindrance to finding serious work abroad, but in her case, it befitted her personality very well and if anything, with the kind of job that would employ her, a silly name could actually provide to be an advantage. Her real name was Jin Xue and I’m most likely not writing it correctly.

Kenting National Park

Located at the very southern tip of Taiwan, Kenting National Park was another thing David back in Taipei strongly recommended in his lengthy and thorough tourism briefing. Apparently, you can do surf there and given the large quantity of surf shops, it was probably the case, but not really into gliding on the surface of the water and bragging about it for hours afterwards, what closed the deal on Kenting was the fact that you could do diving there … and rent scooters.

Kenting National Park
Kenting National Park

Different park, same formula. I rented a motorized two-wheeled mean of transportation as soon as I could and got to all places that were apparently hikable in the park. Once again, where I was hoping for a good solid two hours of proper trails, I got half an hour walks in the park on concrete or brick layed pathways. Since most Taiwainese and Chinese live in cities and are not really used to moving themselves around on uneven and loose surfaces, they come very poorly prepared for actual hiking, both physically and logistically speaking. It seems to me that given their long history of civilizations and millennias of human influence on the landscape either through road-building or agriculture (rice cultivation being the most obvious example), the Chinese have lived removed from true wilderness for much longer than the average North-American. For this reason most go to parks for the same reasons that they go to zoos, to get a glimpse of nature in a safe, controlled and convenient environment. It was not bad per se, but travelling all this way just for this would have been thoroughly disappointing.

A cemetery (full of dead scooter drivers maybe)
A cemetery (full of dead scooter drivers maybe)

In Taiwan, there is so much scooter traffic that the authorities thought wise to build special lanes for them which on some roads materialize themselves as bike-paths sized side roads where all the small engined two-wheeled traffic gets channeled. Quite dangerous if you ask me. Motorcycles go as fast as cars and in consequence require nearly as much space for breaking and for reacting to unexpected events or obstacles on the road. Coupled with the tunnel-vision effect created by speed the requirement for space is even further justified and since people in Taiwan drive like idiots, close calls are a normal occurrence. Crashes? not as common as one would expect. I passed a lady with a severely damaged leg she broke while swerving to avoid a truck that suddenly pulled into the motorcycle lane, but that was it. I guess you get good at driving like an idiot.

Anyway, for supper, I went to the nearby night market, which are quite the thing in Taiwan and very popular with both tourists and locals. A large number of small stalls set up shop along the street or in a dedicated lot and sell a wide variety of food from all over Asia. The one in Kenting was quite conservative as it catered mostly to tourists; the most original food you could have there was fried oreos, the rest was generally your average Asian fast-fare. In Taipei however, I was told that at one night market snakes could be ordered.

The inside a of temple
The inside a of temple

Second day was diving day. Woke up really early, drove to the dive shop and found out I was the only customer. Excellent, this meant I would be diving alone with their divemaster. I got my equipment, which was in poor general conditions but working fine otherwise, hoped on the car and we drove to the first dive site, which was located in a artificial cove created by a large wave breaker. Popular with snorkelers, the site apparently boasted a wide variety of hard and soft corals along with a good population of fishes and other creatures of the sea. Compared to other places I have been, it was nothing to write home about, the flora and fauna appeared to be in rough shape and there was thrash all around. The highlight of the dive were a giant clam, very large pufferfish and some clown fishes swimming around in their anemone habitat. Otherwise, most would have found the dive to be somewhat boring but since I get a kick out of breathing underwater and had not been diving for some months, I enjoyed it. Next dive was done at a deeper site, which provided interesting topography and wildlife and was in fairly good conditions due to its remoteness from human activity but once again, nothing extraordinary except for a sea turtle, which according to the divemaster, are quite a rare sight these days. Having been accustomed to hanging around with sea turtles, I found the sea snake more exciting to watch. it may sound like I was let down but in reality, I’m quite thrilled with having had the opportunity to experience Taiwan’s underwater world. The majority of animals and plants look similar to those I got accustomed with in the Caribbean, only differing slightly in shapes and colors, but there definitely were some newcomers to my repertoire. If only the divemaster would have known their name in English, but sadly, a bunch of Chinese characters are not of much use to me.

Not a bad view!
Not a bad view!
Taking a break at the grasslands
Taking a break at the grasslands

The afternoon was devoted to riding the scooter around the area, but out of the touristic roads. The driving was quite spectacular and so was the scenery. A stop at the Sichui grasslands scenic area to stretch the legs provided me with the best views of Taiwan I have had on my entire trip, the lighting was perfect, it has just rained so all the vegetation was glittering with water droplets and thick clouds were rolling up and down the hills. In the distance, I realized that the many abandoned concrete buildings I had been passing on the way there were part of an expensive decommissioned military complex occupying the whole top of a nearby hill, with coastal gun batteries protected by large bunkers and radar arrays. Had I had the time and prior knowledge of this place, I really should have trespassed for a bit of exploration. After I got back to the hostel, I worked for some time and then went for food at the night market again. This was my last night in Kenting but given my discoveries of the day, I wish I could have spent a bit more time in the area. It always pays to veer of the beaten track once in a while.

Tainan city

Unsure of what my next move would be, I decided not to return to Taipei just yet. I could go to Hawaii, get stuck a couple more days in Taiwan and then go to Hawaii, or have some weeks to spare, go somewhere else than Taiwan, and then go to Hawaii. In every cases, it was best to spend whatever time I had left in the country to visit another place, even if it was for a couple of hours. That morning, I woke up to find that in fact, Melissa really had enjoyed my company in Japan and wanted to see me in Hawaii, so I quickly booked my plane ticket and proceeded to Tainan, a middle-sized city that apparently had a nice old quarter.

The "small" night market in Tainan
The “small” night market in Tainan

At least that is what I remembered from David’s briefing. He had circled Tainan on my map and wrote a bunch of Chinese characters near it. Once there, no old quarter to be found, but the lady at the hostel kindly redirected me to the night market, apparently the largest one in Taiwan, where after dawn every day of the week stalls set up shop to provide clients with food, carnival type of games and cheap clothing. Indeed the market was big and it took me a solid hour to explore it. Later on during the night, I befriended an Indian guy who told me he had been to two markets this night. What? I asked the staff that had provided me with directions about this conspiracy and her answer was that I had gotten to the small one. The other, the largest in Taiwan for that matter, was only two blocks away. Whatever, the market I visited fitted the bill so I did not really bothered going again. Let’s go for a drink the Indian guy proposed and so we did. Himself a software engineer as well and working in Taiwan, we had some interesting discussions … but not about computers.

Night market scene
Night market scene

That was it for Taiwain. Up at the crack of dawn the next day (Sunday the 19th), bus to high speed train station, high speed train to Taipei, flight to Osaka, flight to Honolulu and at 9 am I landed in the Hawaiian capital, crossing the international time delimitation and going back in time to an extra long Sunday.

In retrospect

So you want to experience China but not the Chinese? Go to Taiwan. So you want a country you can actually properly visit in less than a month? Go to Taiwan. So you want cheap and tasty food? Again go to Taiwan. So you are in Asia but don’t really know where to go next. Go to Taiwan. Enough said.

As for myself, I’m off to Hawaii, where I intend to soak in the island lifestyle and not do (comparatively) much for the next couple weeks. It’s an unplanned destination, but after all, what is travelling? An escape from the ordinary.

Back in Japan! At the Osaka Kansai airport
Back in Japan! At the Osaka Kansai airport

Central America – The end

The Great Blue Hole from above

From Utila, Honduras to Caye Caulker, Belize

I’ll admit that as soon as my plane ticket was bought, I sort of checked out and turned on the autopilot. I’m glad my brain did that on my behalf, because the journey was a grueling one. Numerous chicken buses, border crossings, a boat; it took two days and a half to get there. To make things a bit faster (but more complicated), we even went through Guatemala. The reason I just pushed through was that I wanted to dive the Blue Hole in Belize, some cenotes as well, and meet a friend on Isla Mujeres. That’s too bad because what the Lonely Planet said about Belize is true, it vibrates to a different tune than the rest of Central America. It is friendly, clean and boasts well preserved nature as well as loads of mayan ruins. It is well worth spending come time in but I had to press on.

The Blue Hole did not live up to its reputation and that I expected. Many people back in Utila had told me just that but I still enjoyed it since I had never ever done a dive that special and got to see sharks for the very first time as well. Otherwise, it was just a big, deep, dark, blue hole; like seeing the Eiffel tower is a must on a trip to Paris, the Blue Hole has to be dived on a trip to Belize. The two other dives afterwards were interesting and considered by most the highlight of the tour, but for me, swimming at 41 meters deep between stalactites with sharks watching us from far off into the hole is what made my day.

From Caye Caulker, Belize to Tulum, Mexico

A solid day of travelling later and I had reached my second stop, Tulum. Compared to the rest of Central America, going places on the Yucatan peninsula was a piece of cake: no chicken buses, plenty of departues and reliable services. Tulum is a popular destination, praised for its beaches and the many activities you can do around. After all it sits just at the edge of the Cancun region, a resort paradise. But beside a quick trip to the local Mayan ruins, I was not there for that, I was there for diving the cenotes.

Consider world-class diving sites, the cenotes are simply big sink holes in the jungle. As a side note, the Blue Hole is also a cenote, it just sits completely underwater now but it was formed in the same fashion before the level of the seas started raising. Little life is to be found in there, blindfishes, shrimps, small isopods, the cenotes are not popular for their fauna and flora. They are famous for their rock formations, the lighting effects you can see under the right conditions, and cave diving in general. The Yucatan peninsula lies over a huge network of underwater rivers of which the extent is not very well known, but every time a cenote opens up on the surface, a new access to that labyrinth is created. You can enter through one and come up another a few kilometers away, but that is serious cave diving and done by very few highly trained people; if you get lost, you die. I am not that crazy yet, but I feel that if I keep subjecting myself to compressed air at depth, I could get that mad eventually.

The entrance to the pit

Crystal clear water, infinite visibility, no currents, mind-blowing rock formation and being deep enough in a cavern not to be able to see the light of day make for an out of this world experience. However, the highlight of my diving there was not swimming between millions of year old limestone columns, but going down the pit, where two very impressive natural phenomenons can be witnessed: a sulfur cloud and a halocline. The sulfur cloud lies at the bottom of the pit and is the result of vegetation that has fallen down to the bottom slowly decomposing in the water. Everyone is accustomed to seeing clouds in air, but water being a different fluid, their formation takes in a different shape, especially when it is perfectly immobile. From a distance, the result is layered perfectly even and opaque clouds, as you close up, fluid dynamics patterns start emerging, disrupt (it take a few days to reform) the cloud by passing your hand through and create some more, move your flashlight around at the same time and you are in for a trip. The halocline is not as impressive but provides for another interesting effect on the way up. It is the interface between salt and fresh water and because the two have different densities they do not mix. Well, only across their fuzzy boundary, which has a varying refraction index and consequently distorts light traversing the layer that you just pass through going down but actually swim in going up (as part of the dive), making everything look blurry. A similar effect happens between cold and hot water called a thermocline, but the difference in density not being as high, the blurriness is a lot more subtle. With the halocline, you vision is severely impaired, everything you see takes the appearance of a painting from the impressionists and if it was not for the flashlight of the guide, I would have totally lost him. Best dive ever. Here are links to two images from the cenotes I dove in (they are not my own so I cannot post them here), one is from dos ojos cenote and the other is from the pit.

From Tulum to Cancun, Mexico

Initially, the only reasons I departed from Cancun was because I wanted to dive the cenotes and because the plane tickets were cheap. Back in Utila tough, I befriended Rodrigo, who worked as a dive master at Isla Mujeres, an island a couple kilometers off of Cancun, so I decided to shorten my overall way up to meet him over there.

I did two dives with him around the island which were fine, apart for the insane currents on the first one, but the highlight was supposed to be a wreck the next day, which got cancelled because the two other idiots had partied too much the night before. I was hangover myself and still showed up because I knew that operations like this need a minimum amount of people to justify going out, but apparently they did not and decided to sleep in. Quite frustrating. My plane was leaving the next day early in the morning (as usual, I slept at the terminal) so I could not dive in the afternoon and was stuck killing a full day’s worth of time on the island, which is extremely touristic. After 4 months of travelling and being so close to the end, I was not in the mood to enjoy it, all I wanted was to get home.

This is it. That was the end of this Central America trip.

Oh Utila! (Central America month 3 and 4)

“Would you like to hold a fetus?” Doctor John said. Where am I ? I was at a birthday party ten minutes ago, now I am drunk out of my mind sitting on a casket next to a skeleton with a dried-up human fetus in my hands.

“If you shake it you can hear its brain rattling inside its skull”. I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Dive master Dave and Trav seem not to be grasping what just hit them. Screw it! Mighty interesting Dr. John, now can I have some of that rum?

A crazy island full of awesome people

The people I was diving with

Utila had its three lies way before Bocas del Toro. The island is about two things and two things only: drinking and diving. Bars are as abundant as are dive shops and the partying is unending and relentless. Every day you (do) dive, every day you (can) drink. Janne’s blog post struck a point, it is excessive, shallow and quickly you reconsider choosing this destination, but in no time you make friends and realize that no too deep beneath your hangover neighbor lies an awesome person. Other divers, your instructors, the boat captain, the local baleada lady, you get into a routine, the old man sitting in front the corner store says hi everytime you walk by.

Doctor John’s place

The diving industry has this particularity where almost no one that works in it ever thought they would ever become divers. For the majority, it is a second, third or fourth career and as a result this brings a huge variety of backgrounds together in the same place under the same ideal: to have fun and to share it with others.

Consequently, many get sucked in the “vortex”. Travis only wanted to do his open water course and ended going all the way to divemaster. Dave quit his job over the phone. Nora and Meta decided to miss their flight back home so they could stay here longer. I wanted to visit El Salvador and Guatemala.

I never saw that coming

Sometimes, life has other plans for you, all I wanted was to dive: maybe do one or two courses, do some fun-dives, get a t-shirt and move on with my travelling. Problems started when I met Rebecca in Nicaragua, the boss or Bay Island College of Diving (BICD) (she did not tell me at the time), I told her I wanted to be under water and she was quick to convince me that I should just go ahead and take the divemaster course because with it comes free diving for life. The maths are pretty simple, the formation is more expensive, but paying for each individual dive I would get to do over there would cost me many thousands of dollars more.

The Bay Island College of Diving

Two days of chicken bussing north, a night in Tegucigalpa (not much to write about it except that it is super sketchy) and the next day I was starting on my advanced and then rescue diver courses. Rebecca told me that I would be starting the divemaster with Janne, “someone” from Finland. She did not specify the sex of that person, so I was left thinking my diving buddy for the coming weeks would be a Finnish lady. Wrong! Janne is actually a man’s name. I knew I was dreaming in colors. In the end Janne made up for his lack of feminine features through awesomeness in many aspects of his personality, but I felt sort of dissapointed. Anyway, with our catching up done, we joined Travis, Dave, Nora, Meta, Reba and John aboard the divemaster program at BICD.

Things were starting to pick up and already I was starting to wonder why I was doing this and what I was doing here. All I wanted was to dive.

Underwater fun

A divemaster is basically a diving guide. He equips you, takes you diving around, shows you pretty wildlife and brings you back to the boat all while making sure you are safe and enjoying the experience. Diving in itself is a risky activity for the very simple reason that while all life forms started in the water, the many hundred million years we have spend out of it has made us completely incapable of staying lengthy periods of time under it. Technology has filled the gap (SCUBA: self contained underwater breathing apparatus) by making this possible again, but not without risks. Breathing compressed air under water without training or careful supervision is extremely hazardous but if done correctly, it is about as dangerous as golf.

The risks cannot be overstated, but through relentless quality management and research, the diving community has made the sport (in its recreational form) extremely safe. As a divemaster, you become a central part of this risk mitigation effort, but that takes training and experience, which the  course is here to provide by teaching you a wide array of skills and knowledge such as diving theory, search and rescue techniques, leading dives, wildlife identification and so on.

Having all this responsibilities makes diving sound more serious and it does, but it also makes it more enjoyable. As a beginner diver, you crave the adventure, but most of your attention is devoted to maintaining buoyancy, monitoring your air and depth and keeping whoever is leading the dive in sight. As a dive master, you lead the dive, which comes with a moral duty of course, but the confidence and the experience transform what is an extreme activity for most into a sort of meditative experience, something otherworldly.

Diving is really all about fun

Relaxation techniques tell you to concentrate on your breathing, to inhale and exhale slowly, to empty your mind. Under water, this is exactly what you are taught do. SCUABA equipement adds resistance to your breathing so it has to deep and slowly. Your hearing is not that useful, you cannot talk, your sense of touch gets overwhelmed by the contact of surrounding water. All that is left is sight and luckily, coral reefs are among the most spectacular environments on this planet. It has to be experienced to be understood. Everything down there is mesmerizing in its own right. Hovering still in mid-water, watching an hawksbill turtle gnawing at a piece of coral not minding your presence at all sort of gives you the feeling that for that  brief moment you are underwater you are part of it all. Fish are generally no too scared of divers: a squid will acknowledge your presence by turning black, but it will not flee. Everything is captivating, the rules or nature are very different than on land.

Some creatures are extremely hard to find, somehow turning diving into a game of pokemon. I found a toadfish today ! I have only ever seen a batfish ! For some others, its a game of luck, they see you but you will only be able to see them if they choose so, such as is the case with the elusive octopus. I cannot think of something more gracious and beautiful to look at underwater, it is a show of colors and shapes, one moment it is looking at you all bright red in color, the other moment, it turns a shade of gray and tries mimicking a coral bush. Lose sight of it and it will most likely vanish forever. The right creature can turn an ordinary dive into a memorable experience. It takes patience and it takes luck. Some clueless idiots come diving expecting to spot an eagle ray. Sorry for you, but the only places where you are guaranteed to see animals are zoos and aquariums. Do not feel disappointed because you failed to spot that special creature, you just spend 45 minutes breathing underwater, that is also cool.

Getting ready for a staff night dive at the wreck.

There is more to diving than wildlife spotting, especially when done with friends. Explore the hulk of an old cargo ship at night. Get chased by and green moray eel. Map a dive site. Drive a spear through the skull of an unsuspecting lionfish. Come back up on the surface and seal in that memorable dive around a conversation with your buddies.

Island fun

Good times were abundant on the island as much as they were underwater, albeit with reduced options compared to the mainland. Of course, you had a beach, a few possible hikes (freshwater caves), you could rent kayaks, but in all truthfulness, much of the entertainment revolved around the consumption of alcohol and other types of drugs. And the going out was good. Most people came over to take their open water course, which limited their stay to only a couple days, but some faces would always come back and soon you would realize that they either work there or got stuck just like you. You made friends fast.

There was the bar scene, which was limited to only a handful of places. At the dive shop we had a thing called Thirsty Thurdays, which usually started as a casual barbecue and ended in a night of heavy drinking. Once in a while (in normal time that is quite often), there would be the odd memorable event. One of those was a water caye trip which turned into a massive rescue operation.

Thirsty Thursdays

Every two sunday afternoon a bar on the island would organize an afternoon of partying on a deserted island half-an-hour boatride away from town. That sunday started out like every other one, but due to miscommunication about which boat were to take what people and everyone’s desire to spent as much time as possible on the caye, about forty individuals were left stranded there. The ball got passed around a few times until Rebecca, the manager at BICD decided we should be the heroes for that night. With but an hour to sober up from an afternoon of adult fun, I was back on a boat with divemaster Dave and Chad who, all excited by the perspective of saving all those pretty topless girls from a night with the sandflies, actually kept on sipping a bottle a rum they snuck aboard. The sun had set, the sea was a lot rougher that on the way back and finally, the ride was a lot slower because had to take a much larger boat that would fit everyone. The island having no dock, this also meant that it would not be possible to beach that boat. Upon our arrival there, I remember hearing a loud cry of relief before chaos ensued. We could not get closer than about 50 meters from the island and the seafloor was too loose for the anchor to take hold, so we had to yell to everyone there they had to swim to us.

This had to be done in a couple waves as the boat was getting pushed towards shore but in the end, everyone got onboard. Reflecting back on the event, we were extremely lucky it went without incidents: everybody was drunk/high, some were poor swimmers, it was dark, the sea was rough. We were praised more than once on the way back, with promises of free thank you drinks and everlasting gratefulness. None of that would ever be fulfilled.

At the end of the day, it all blends together. At the end of the day, it was just another crazy Utilian adventure.

Learning Finnish

Every time I would be out doing some “serious drinking” with Janne I would ask him for a new Finnish word. Every time he would question my interest in learning his language and my reply would always be that I love the sound of it and find learning languages passioning. For posterity, I shall write down the extend of my vocabulary before it slips my mind. Mistakes are intentionally left uncorrected, Finnish, like Spanish, is written like it is spoken, but it being so foreign still makes it hard to guess the correct orthograph.

  • moi: hello
  • kiitos: thanks (that I learned when I was in Finland)
  • yksi, kaksi, kolme: one, two, three
  • bisse: beer
  • bessi: water (good in between bisse)
  • rarra: money (necessary for purchasing bisse and bessi)
  • koira: dog
  • liahpulla: Finnish meatballs (its what they brought to the “pot luck at cell block C (aka my house)”)
  • minnu nemene on: my name is
  • vissu ma on kandessi: fuck I’m drunk (became extremely useful during that snorkel test night)
  • kiippis: cheers!
  • uva uaatta: good night

Motherfuckin sand flies

All is not fun and games on Utila. Spending so much time high on life makes the landing back into physical reality somewhat rough. For some it is ear infections from diving every day, for me it was sand flies. At dawn especially they are a big issue. A lucky few appear to be immune but I was not part of them; my legs were soon full of bites and the urge to scratch was unbearable. Nothing I would be concerned with normally, the woulds were very superficial, but it got infected. It could be the constant wetness or grey water runoffs directly in the sea or both, I do not know, but what was merely scratches turned into pus oozing deep crater like wounds. Only after a few weeks without any improvements did I decide it was time to act. I got antibacterial cream, pulled out my first-aid kit and made it an habit of disinfecting and putting cream on them once I was out of the water.

Then something else occured, twice. I only remember feeling a small prick on my heel on my way home on night but two days later, a massive extremely painful blister with swelling radiating all around my foot had grown from where the small prick was, leaving me limping quite badly. After a week it went away and I was just starting to recover full mobility when something similar stuck the side of my foot, turning again into the same type of blister but this time a lot more painful and swollen. Now it was time to go see Doctor John.

Apparently he was hangover that day but I was taken care of by his Austrian nurse. “This is not pretty”, yes I know. “No diving for a couple days for you” shit. “This is a staph infection, we will have to scrape it off” shit. I usually am pretty ok with me or other people conducting medical procedures on my body but that time, I had to ask for a glass of water for it felt like I was about to faint, especially when she started cutting away the blister on my foot to uncover what was under: a gnarly infection.

The next day I already felt a big improvement, not only on my wounds but also on my general level of well-being. My immune system was really at war, thank you modern medicine. Concerning the two blisters on my right foot, I am still in the unknown. Staph infections do spread to nearby skin lesions, but this was something different. My first theory was that it was a spider bite and Nick suggested it could have been a brown recluse spider. However, according to Wikipedia, they are not found in Central America. .

This whole story left pretty obvious marks on my legs. Some get tattoos to remind them of places and events, I got scars. Regardless, the jungle is a mean place, if something is wrong, better act quick before it gets out of hand.

Got stuck

I wanted to make this trip about visiting every single country in Central America. Having spent much more time that planned for in Utila, this is not going to happen, I will have to leave mainland Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador for another voyage. Is that a bad thing? No. Am I dissapointed? No. The fact that I could choose to stay in Utila is a perfect example of the range of freedom allowed with no-time-limit trips. Not to forget that staying somewhere for extended duration also counts towards travelling, which some aspects are meant to be experienced this way. Like friendships, which take a while to build. Like ecosystems, which takes a long time to explore. Like baleada places, all which you should try a couple times to truly find your favorite one.

Janne, Dave, Travis, Nora and Meta, spending those two months with you was beyond awesome. Rebecca, Vanessa, Nick, Rimas, Heather, Fern, Kelsey and Captain Seth, you are the reason this was so much fun. For some of you this is only a good bye, as I will most likely come back to take technical diving courses, for the rest, farewell.

Now I need to find a way to put this divemaster thing to good use…

Spearing lionfish

A couple of lionfish (pterois) having a casual hangout on a lazy carribean Thursday afternoon. Just chilling there, enjoying time with friends under a rocky outcrop. We come around and spear three of them. Big Willy gets two, Nick gets one. The others finally notice what is going on and dart inside the closest cavity. Sad of having had their afternoon ruined.

To those unfamiliar with them, they are one beautiful fish, an amazing encounter during a dive. To those who now them, they are pest and must be exterminated. Incredibly hard to kill, three pointy end of an Hawaiian sling through the head and more often than not, they will manage to escape (albeit with massive brain damage). The trick is to spear them once and then impale them again a few times through the skull with another spear.

Sounds violent ? It is.

What justifies it is that lionfish, are an invasive species and posing a serious threat to reefs. The story goes that they were introduced some years ago when an aquarium in Florida broke during a hurricane and set loose all its foreign residents in the ocean. Ever since, having no natural predators, they have been spreading all over the Carribean sea and the Atlantic coast of the United States, eating other endemic fishes by the ton and compromising the fragile reef ecosystems they invade.

Efforts to curb the growth of their population are underway everywhere they can be found, but they are most likely in vain as the lionfish reproduces really fast. The least we can do is try to hunt them as much as we can until we find a way to teach sharks and big groupers that lionfish are in fact, tasty. So much so that they have been made part of the menu at some restaurants in Utila, Honduras. A popular fixture on the island, they have been mostly eradicated by the divers, but around sea mounts further out, they still thrive.

The dive shop I was working at is affiliated with a resort that features lionfish on its menu (the “save the reef” burger), so once in a while, they send a boat out to uncharted sites to hunt them. I was blessed to go on two occasions. It is a lot fun but somewhat technical. You dive outside of the limits of recreational diving:  you can be far apart from your buddy, you go up with little air left (and you consume a lot because of the adrenalin) and in order to take a shot at them, you need to get dangerously close.

Lionfish are extremely poisonous. A single prick from the six spines on their back or from one they have on every fin will make whatever body part affected inflate to three times its size and leave you in agonizing pain for a while. It has been compared to getting your fingers caught in a car door someone just slammed with full strenght. Since long spears are illegal to fish with, you have to get your hand very close to them in order to release the spear with enough force. Needless to say that this is not the time to tune up your buoyancy control. Lionfish will not flee, except those who have had a previous encounter with a hunting diver, they still think they are the king of the reef and will simply make themselves look big as you get closer. But miss them once and they are gone. In spite of the massive display of fins they lug around, they are incredibly fast.

Once the catch is made, the dead lionfish is carefully stored into a plastic tube as its spines are still dangerous. However, they are quite safe to fillet later on because the absence of blood pressure actually makes the venom retracts in the spines. Once in the kitchen, they make delicious ceviche.

 

Getting stuck

Cycling at 30 meters deep, with the wreck of the Haliburton in the background.

Over my travels I have encountered a great number of places where people get stuck. Places where they spend a lot more time in that originally planned for, sometimes ending their trip there, sometimes even coming back to establish themselves in a more permanent manner.

Not so common in Europe or in America, where tourism is generally done among cities or in their vicinity, but in Central America, these persons are abundant  It can be because of the climate, because of the proximity to a favorite activity (surfing…) but more generally, its the people you meet and the friends you find that make leaving so hard. It’s the stark contrast with a life back home in a society that is evermore criticized for its individualism and consumerism.

I am in such a place now. The island of Utila, where you come to dive and you stay for the vibe (and the diving too). Easily a third of the island are gringos and quasi every single employee in my dive shop is an expat. They all left at one point but they came back. Spending too much time here had sort of alienated them from the life they left and their old acquaintances  On the island, it’s diving every day and socializing at night. In spite of all the tourism, there is a prevalent sense of community. The job is hard, the hours are long, but everyone come to this little piece of land to go underwater and is happy to be there doing so. There are no bad days.

Going on a dive aboard the Neptune in Utila, Honduras.