Départ

Je me souviens d’avoir été plutôt anxieux lors de mes précédents départs, mais à un niveau plutôt gérable. Non pas du genre d’excitation que l’on ressent lorsque l’on quitte pour quelques semaines, mais plutôt du type vécu avant une épreuve importante du genre examen ou entrevue, où l’on a bien conscience du bien-fondé de la situation, mais où l’on est néanmoins stressé.

Cette anxiété prend sa source non pas dans la peur d’avoir oublié un détail administratif (tout se fait en ligne de nos jours…), mais davantage dans l’appréhension de quitter les gens qui nous sont chers, de quitter notre vie pour une autre. Finalement, une fois à l’aéroport, ce sentiment s’estompe pour laisser place à une fébrilité et le vertige existentiel de l’aventure et de l’inconnu.

Cette fois-ci, l’anxiété pré-départ a atteint des sommets. Elle était à ce point prenante que la veille, je me suis rendu chez mon ami dans Côte-des-neiges à Montréal depuis Saint-Bruno (30 kilomètres) à vélo histoire de faire le vide. Une fois à l’aéroport par contre, j’ai retrouvé en bonne partie la fébrilité ressentie lors de mes précédents départs, mais dans une moindre mesure, car la recherche et l’achat de voiture occupaient une bonne partie de mon esprit: la première partie du voyage reposait sur le succès de l’opération.

Une dernière poutine au St-Hubert (on manque de poutine [pas de Putin] à l’étranger) et j’avais traversé le contrôle de sécurité. Chanceux que j’étais, j’allais voyager sur Air France (vol payé moins de 100$) en raison d’un crédit de 1000 US$ obtenu l’année dernière alors que mon vol Montréal-Atlanta avait été sur-réservé et que j’avais gentiment cédé ma place.

Bagages en cours d'assemblage...

Bagages en cours d’assemblage…

D’Europe vers l’Asie Centrale – Introduction

L’heure du grand départ a encore sonné, cette fois-ci pour 9 mois; le plus long de mes voyages entrepris à ce jour. Mon périple en Amérique Centrale avait duré quatre mois et demi, celui en Asie 5 mois et demi. Là, on passera la barre du 6 mois pour se rendre à 9 avec possibilités d’extension. Le moment ne pourrait pas être plus parfait, Audrey est entre deux emplois et mes études en médecine me permettent une pause (dûment méritée pour avoir fait le programme en deux ans plutôt que trois, je laisse donc mes collègues me rattraper).

Aperçu du trajet

Aperçu du trajet

L’objectif en somme est d’acheter une voiture en France, d’y passer deux semaines pour visiter le coin de Toulouse et passer du temps avec mon ancien associé et ami, puis de prendre la route vers l’Asie Centrale en passant un peu de temps dans tous les pays traversés (incluant la Russie). Ceci- fait, nous vendrons la voiture au Kyrgyzstan et poursuivront en transport en commun au travers du Turkménistan pour traverser la mer Caspienne jusqu’en Azerbaïdjan. De là, nous prendrons l’avion vers le Népal puis l’Inde, deuxième partie du voyage, où nous passerons 4 mois (une introduction viendra en temps et lieu). Pour cette partie, il n’y a pas encore de plans concrets, ce qui occupe notre esprit pour le moment, c’est le trajet jusqu’au coeur de l’Asie dont la logistique est plutôt complexe : l’achat du véhicule, les papiers, les assurances, les visas, l’équipement, etc. Justement, je quitte le Canada quelques jours avant Audrey pour m’occuper de la plupart de ces procédures.

Pour ce qui est de la voiture, les recherches avaient été entamées bien avant de quitter le Québec. L’idéal pour le type de voyage que nous voulons entreprendre est un 4×4, cela va de soi, mais le marché automobile en France n’est pas ce qu’il est chez nous, et ce type de véhicule est plutôt rare et coûteux. Il sera aussi probable que nous fassions affaire avec un concessionnaire, histoire de profiter de la garantie légale de trois mois et donc d’un minimum d’assurance de fiabilité. Autrement, les critères de sélection seront les suivants :

  • une marque allemande ou asiatique, car les autres européennes ne que peu représentées en Asie Centrale (confirmé lors de recherches sur le site de vente de véhicule usagé kirghize, cars.kg)
  • une familiale, pour pouvoir coucher à l’intérieur et/ou avoir suffisamment d’espace pour tous notre équipement.
  • préférablement ne pas dépasser les 2000 euros, car si la voiture brise au milieu ne nulle part, elle y restera probablement
  • à essence, car le diesel est de mauvaise qualité en Asie Centrale
  • avec une bonne garde au sol
  • économe, car l’essence est très cher en Europe

Idéalement, le départ de France devra se faire le 16 juillet, afin de pouvoir rentrer dans notre visa Russe, qui est à date fixe et d’une durée de 1 mois (août). Après le départ, nous irons rejoindre la mère d’Audrey à Florence en Italie pour partager avec elle notre trajet au travers des Balkans, puis deux semaines plus tard nous la quitteront pour poursuivre notre trajet.

Le plan est audacieux…

The Canary islands

Punta del Teno

Punta del Teno

I visited those last march along with my girlfriend’s family. School prevented me from taking part in the whole two week trip, but during my stay, we visited the two main islands, Gran Canaria and Tenerife. Much of the days were spent touring around in rented vehicles to see the sights, which were mainly pretty villages, vistas and geological formations. Between this very busy schedule, I still managed to fit in a morning of diving with my brother in law.

In some respect, the Canaries are sort of the Fort Lauderdale of Europe: pleasant weather year-round, resorts, beaches and the kind of crowd that comes with it. The comparison ends there, the Canaries are much more varied and interesting in landscapes (I’ve never been to Fort Lauderdale, but according to my sources, Florida is flat…) and more importantly, they are in Spain, which equates to history, food and culture. Tenerife and Gran Canaria are both home to two large cities of the sort found in mainland Europe. Regrettably, we spend too little time visiting those, especially that some in the group had never experienced the old continent, but that’s just my opinion. Luckily enough though, some of us were brave enough to stay out on the first night and take par in Gran Canaria’s carnival.

On the whole, I can’t really complain. An all-expenses-paid trip to such a nice destination was a very much welcomed break from the winter.

Honduras – Utila (tec diving)

My time on Utila was split in two chapters. Chapter one, spent with my cousins, was obviously about diving, but also about (responsible) debauchery and good family fun. Chapter two however, was to be about the slightly more serious sport of tec diving. Tec diving is diving beyond recreational limits. Within those limits, should whatever happen, you can always come up to the surface with very little risks of developing decompression illness (DCI). In tec diving, if something goes wrong down there, coming up to the surface is often not an option and if it is, DCI is to be expected. In short, a screw up can very likely either kill you or send you directly to the hyperbaric chamber ($$$$).ready to tec dive

Well, I’m making this sound like risky business and it is, but while it will never be as harmless as recreational diving – and the tec diving manual really insists on that fact – it can be made pretty safe with good training, experience and equipment. I’m saying this in retrospect, everyone you meet (that is not a tec diver) and everything you read make the sport look like pure madness but in reality it’s nowhere as bad as it sounds and just like any other extreme sport, most casualties arise from human stupidity (not errors: careless risk-taking). It’s like skydiving in a way (albeit a lot more complex), where the gear and the procedures have been optimized to the maximum and very rarely become a failure point in chain of events leading to accidents. But just as in skydiving, error chains are short; few mistakes can get you killed whereas in recreational diving, you’d have to get a lot of things wrong before you become a casualty. Understandably, equipment and procedures in tec diving are much more complicated than in recreational diving. Since surfacing is not an option, everything is redundant (you even have a second mask). In order to make the dive feasible, you also carry multiple gas mixes (typically air, pure oxygen and enriched air) so that’s two other tanks strapped to your sides on top of the two you already have on your back. All in all a lot of equipment and a lot of room for mistakes as switching to the wrong gas at the wrong depth could lead to convulsing underwater and drowning. Planning and preparing the dive is also an integral part of tec diving. Where in normal diving you generally just don you kit and go under, in tec diving the planning part is generally just as long if not more than the actual dive itself. You have to plan you decompression stops on your way up (3 minutes at 24m … 6 minutes at 9m … 15 minutes at 5m, etc.) and you also have to plan for contingencies such as going too deep, staying too long, loosing decompression gases and so on. Last consideration but not the least, it’s very expensive. The course itself was 1400$US for 9 days of training and single tec dives generally hover around double what two recreational dive will cost you, making an already very expensive hobby even more costly.

So, why taking up tec diving if it’s more dangerous, more expensive more complicated and overall less enjoyable than recreational diving? There are a couple of reasons. First, the thrill of knowing that I’m 50 meters deep, that coming up to the surfaces would injure or kill me, but that I’m kept safe by equipment, training and experience and that whatever happens I’ll be ready and capable of handling it. Very intellectual I know…  Second, it has made me a much better diver overall giving me in depth (pun-intended) knowledge of what happens and what’s involved when you go beyond the no decompression limit. Third, it’s a challenge. Not that I have a lot of experience in diving in general, but I’ve done enough of it so that going underwater on a normal dive, while fun, isn’t such a thrill anymore. Fourth, it give you access to dive sites that are normally out of bound for recreational divers. Since you can go deeper and stay there for a longer time, there’s more you can explore.

On a training dive

On a training dive

Those are the reasons why I enrolled myself in a 9 days tec diving course with UDC on Utila. I should also add that I did not foresee any other time where I could do it in the coming years. I was traveling alone, had plenty of time, was on Utila (where the diving it cheap and good) and without my girlfriend, who incidentally is not into diving. Even if it will very likely be another couple of years before I get to go tec diving again, the conditions where too good for me to skip on the opportunity. I had a couple of days in between the beginning of the course and my cousins leaving, which I spent diving with the crew at BICD. When the course started however, the better part of my days were spent over at UDC. The program was divided into three parts TEC40, TEC45 and TEC50  which you guessed were the depth limits the course would certify you to but there were also other restrictions. I had to go through a 300 pages manual before showing up for actual instruction so there was a lot of theory review before we even went in the water and when we got wet, the first couple of dives where done shallow to practice special procedures and emergency drills. It was only the last dives of each part that were decompression dives.

At 45m

At 45m

Posing with my instructorTEC40 involved a dive at 40 meters but decompression could not be longer than 10 minutes and we were not allowed to carry gas blends of over 50% oxygen and also not allow to use them for accelerated decompression. TEC45 removed those limits and down we went to 45m with 50% and 100% oxygen (on top of the two air tanks on our backs) to make decompression faster. TEC50 took us (me and my instructor) to 50 meters with again 50% and 100% oxygen strapped to our sides. As mentioned earlier, the oxygen tanks are there to make decompression (coming up from the dive) faster but in our planning, we carry enough air on our primary tanks to complete the full dive plus the decompression on that gas only. To give you an idea, a 22 minutes dive at 50 meters requires about 40 minutes of decompression and ascent using pure oxygen and 50%. On air only, you’d be doubling that time and spending two hours underwater. I’m aware that not many people will share my excitment, but trust me, it was thrilling. I was alone with Scott, my instructor for the whole duration of the formation. He event showed how to do gas blending. It’s like I had to relearn diving all over again; every dive was a blast.

Scott in the front of the bow of the Odyssey

Scott in the front of the bow of the Odyssey

On top of the dives mandated by the tec diving course itself, I ended up doing three other tec dives. The first two were done on a day trip (an hour and half west of Utila) to the wrecks of Roatán and the third one I’ll get to later. Roatán is the largest of the Bay Islands and the more visited one. It has resorts, fancy hotels and is geared toward more conventional tourism while Utila caters to the backpackers both in budget and vibe. The diving, while good in Utila, is generally regarded as being better on Roatán, with larger and more abundant wildlife. Wrecks follow the same pattern. Utila has the Haliburton, a 100 feet freighter stripped and sunk to 30 meters to provide a playground for divers but Roatán has the Aguila and the Odyssey, which are slightly deeper (35 meters) and much larger ships. Visiting those two wrecks is entirely feasible in recreational diving configurations and that’s what the vast majority of people do but contrary to the Haliburton on Utila, you get to enjoy them a lot more if you are tec diving. Where other divers could only spend about 5 minutes at the bottom, Scott, Jake and I got to tour around for a good 25 minutes. On the Aguila, we even went inside the superstructure, spent a bit of time visiting the engine room and them made our way up the next floor before exiting though a door. Being around wrecks underwater, already an eerie feeling, gets even better once you get inside them. The lighting, the atmosphere, the marine life, the fact that you brain thinks your horizontal but your not since the wreck is not sitting upright all make for an out of this world experience. The two dives only took us to 35 meters, but since we spent so much time, it took us about 40 minutes to come back up. Once we were done with the diving, the boat docked to the island, we all went for a meal at a restaurant and on the way back to Utila, got into drinking games on the boats.

Posing in front of the Aguila

Posing in front of the Aguila

At Dr. John's

At Dr. John’s

That night was Pancho’s going away party so I sobered up for two hours before going at it again with the BICD bunch. I went to bet a 4h30 am. Having woken up at 5 am to go to Roatán, I had almost made it round the clock. Tiring but worth it. While with my cousins, I had a more difficult time finding a connection with the people at BICD but once they were gone, the onus was entirely on me to get out there and be sociable so quickly I befriended most of them and got into the gang. The same scenario had occurred when I had visited Utila in 2013, where I had landed among people who had already been together for a couple of weeks. For the first few days, I felt sort of outcast but pretty soon (after a couple of drunken sessions) I was granted a place in the family. Relationship you have with other travelers tend to be short-lived and sort of disposable, but there on that island you spend enough time together to start building meaningful connections. One that I’ll commit to writing is with Jennifer, an English girl I ended up doing a lot of diving with to a point where she would call me her favorite dive buddy. Another one is with Jennah and Blake, an Australian-American couple with whom I had loads of fun.

The day before my departure was spent doing the very last dive of the TEC 50 course in the morning and planning tomorrow’s tec dive with Bob at BICD. There were only two certified tec divers divers at BICD, Nick and Bob and some brand new equipment for a course that they were supposed to set up. Nick, being the course director, was busy with teaching but Bob was more than willing to go on a tec dive. We spent the better part of the afternoon putting together our rigs, doing gas planning an filling bottles. When evening came, I went out for a couple drinks and got to bed quite early for a last night on the island, but I wanted to be in shape. In the morning, the weather was favorable so we made it to the North side. Bob and I were in the water quickly and thankfully got down without any problem. Thankfully I had to specify because there I was breaking an important rule of tec diving, which is not to do a tec dive in equipment you are not familiar with: you try it in shallow water first. The gear was brand new and top notch and the descent was fine, but as soon as we hit 50m, I got into a bit of trouble with my attitude as the wings were too large and air would shift to one side when leaning which made staying horizontal a pain. Restricting my movements did the trick, but it’s certainly something I should have figured out on a shallower dive.

I was not the only one breaking rules that day though. On reaching the edge of the wall during descent, I could see streams of bubbles coming up from divers who were already down there, which I thought was odd because I was certain we had gotten under first and there were no other boats in the vicinity. A few minutes later, while we were at 50m, I spotted a string of dead lionfish below us. Passed the corner, I signaled to Bob that there were to other divers in the distance at around 65m. On closer inspections, I noticed they were only wearing standard scuba equipment. They were on their way up and kicking frantically to get away from us and reach shallower depths as soon as possible. Later on on the boat, Bob confessed to me that it was two other instructors that had sneaked on a dive by themselves to go spear some lionfish, which in and of itself is glamorous thing to do but certainly not worth putting your life in danger over. At 65m, you only get a couple of minutes of no decompression time and that’s if you get catapulted there. Realistically, there is no way to reach that depth and come back up maintaining a safe ascent rate on no deco limits so they certainly had to do a bit of decompression on the way up, which is bad and strictly forbidden in recreational diving. Still, a good diver will certainly manage that on a single tank, but what’s worse is that at 65m on air, you are under sever nitrogen narcosis, air is toxic at this depth and can trigger convulsions with no warning but the one thing that puts you mostly at risk is equipment failure, which at 65m, will likely get you killed. That’s why in tec diving, we dive with full redundancy and large gas reserves. With none of those safeguards and backups, the slightest malfunction may very well end up being fatal for you and your buddy (who will most likely try to assist and get in trouble as well). A regulator free flow at this depth will empty your bottle in two minutes, that’s not nearly enough time to do decompression reach the surface. I knew they could loose their jobs over this so I kept quiet as they were only endangering themselves.

Back to Bob and I’s dive. At the planned time, we started ascent, did all our decompression stops by the book (or the tables should I say). Since the reef was deep on the site, we at to do the 5m stop (the longest) hovering in mid water, which made it quite a bit harder (and boring) since we could only use our gauges for reference. After an elapsed time of more than 70 minutes we emerged. Both happy and (mentally) tired, we fist bumped for a dive well done and climbed back on the boat where the rest of the normal divers had been waiting for us. They could go do another dive but since it’s advised to leave 2 hours between tec dives, we had to sit the next one out, which I took as an opportunity to take a nap. Back on shore, Bob kindly offered to take care of the equipment so I bid farewell to everyone, scrambled to my room to pack my things, went for some last baleadas and got on the ferry.

At 50m

At 50m

Leaving Utila was again sort of heartbreaking. However, I was eager to come back home, start school, see my girlfriend and get back to life as normal. On the ferry, I met up with Eoin, whom I had met at UDC some days earlier and we tagged along all the way to San Pedro Sula and the next morning shared a ride to the airport. My flight back to Montreal made me connect through Atlanta for a good 12 hours and then New-York. With an open traveler’s mind, I took it as an opportunity to do a bit more tourism and got out of the airport and caught a train downtown to check out the city. Atlanta did no seem like much though I had a bit of fun walking among the hordes of disguised people that invaded the downtown core after DragonCon. Later after my walk, I settled at a bar for a couple of drinks and sparked incomprehension when I told the bar tenders I was from Canada. “Why would you come to Atlanta?” they asked me and on arriving back the airport around 3am and reminiscing through my evening that’s exactly what I thought: there did not seem to be much to this city. To be fair, I won’t make a proper opinion until I get to spend a couple days there and properly experience it, but my first impressions were leaning rather towards the negative side.

Atlanta's downtown

Not wanting to end on that note though, I will recapitulate the objectives of this five week trip in Central-America, which were to see a bit of El Salvador, mainland Honduras, binge dive and do my tec diving course. By that metric, this vacation was a resounding success, with my favorite parts being El Salvador and obviously the technical diving. As for the rest, I think I’m getting too much used to backpacking around and have gotten too accustomed to the feeling and the highs it’s supposed to provide. Consequently, I think I’ll make the next adventure more adventure/goal oriented (read motorcycle) and/or travel more exotic routes. One thing that did struck me however was how mentally rested I was went I landed back in Montreal. During the last five weeks, I had completely disconnected from my life here and it even went to a point where I was eagerly counting the days until my flight back.

Such emptiness... being in airports at night is spooky!

Such emptiness… being in airports at night is spooky!

Honduras – Utila (the cousins)

A view of Utila

Meeting two cousins and going to Utila for a week, that’s recipe for good adult fun. I met Philippe in San Pedro Sula at the hostel around 21h00 and there we had a beer and did a bit of catching up. Both hungry, we took a cab to a restaurant that was open late (no walking at night in Honduras, remember?) and ordered the most typical food we could find in a menu that mainly consisted of burgers and wings. Even before my cousin arrived, I had a weird feeling in my stomach but did not think much of it. At the restaurant though, I could not finish my plate and sort of pressed him to go back to the hostel as I could feel my general sense of well-being starting to deteriorate.

An hour after getting in bed, I was woken up by nausea and stomach aches of the type you get when you’ve had too much to drink. That plus a fever, a bit of delirium and lots of shivering. That was it I thought, I’d be sick as a dog for the coming week while my cousins were here, what a stroke of luck. After turning and tossing for a good hour and a half, I finally resorted to forcibly evict the contents of my belly and within minutes I was feeling much better. The rest of the night was uneventful and I woke up feeling fairly well albeit still having a sensitive stomach. We then had breakfast and booked a bus to La Ceiba, the city from which the ferry to Utila leaves. If it wasn’t for the price, that bus ride would have been a huge rip off, I had made sure to ask them if they were to drop us at the ferry to which they replied yes but in reality, we (and other tourists) were dumped at a taxi office and it ended up costing 50 LPS beyond the 130LPS bus ride to get to the dock. 23 LPS = 1 $US so that was not too bad, but this felt very much like a money making scheme, one which I sort of remember falling prey to in 2013 when I first went to Utila.

So at the ferry dock we met Simon and embarked for our Utilian adventure. They had replaced the ferry I took in 2013 with a more modern one but the ride was just as rough. Once on the island, we headed for the dive shop, dropped our things and went to RJ’s for some well deserved fish barbecue. It wouldn’t be honest on my part not to state the reasons I’m actually returning to Utila. First, the ambiance and the people were great, that’s a given, but since I had taken my divemaster course there, I had a life-time of free diving with BICD, the diveshop I did it with. At 30 $US a dive normally (still cheapest around the world), it would mean huge savings. Plus, the diving is great and reef is well managed. There are better spots in the Caribbean, but I have yet to encounter one that offers such a great combination of diving and partying. Second, I’m taking the 40/45/50 meters technical diving courses starting on 22nd of August, but I’ll leave the details for a subsequent post. Regardless of that, my two cousins were totally onboard with the plan and super excited to come down here for the diving (though not the type pictured below).

Diving off BICD's dock

On Utila, the days just blend into a routine of diving, chilling and partying. I honestly would have a very difficult time ordering things into a cohesive story following a timeline so basically, during the 7-8 days that we spent together on the island we did:

  • Diving, lots of it: 10-12 for me, 9 for Simon and 9 for Philippe, who did hit open water class.
  • Drinking, obviously. We went to those bars that were my favorite from my last stay on the island and tried some new ones. Some had changed, some had stayed the same.
  • Chilling on the dock and jumping from it, several times a day and sometimes at night.
  • Having baleadas, getting tired of them and arguing over what we should have instead (some of us are more picky than others).
  • Sneaking on the dock after hours to watch the eagle rays and have beers.
  • Attempting to hike pumpkin hill, but giving up because of the mosquitoes.
  • Getting a tour of the hyperbaric chamber.
  • Spending Sunday Funday on the cays.
  • Climbing on the roof of an abandoned hotel to watch the sunset.
  • Returning to the aforementioned hotel during day time to tag some of its walls. Actually Simon’s idea, who has always wanted to try his hands at graffiti, but did not want to vandalize property in Canada. Does that imply that doing it here in Honduras is actually fine? Certainly not, but the place has been abandoned for a while and is in such a state that there is no other option for it than demolition. Might as well use it for a bit of art.

BICD's dockIt took me a couple days to fully recover from my digestive tract issues and soon after, me and Simon were passed down a cold which Philippe had had for some days and that was running around the shop. Taking turns feeling ill did limit us on some occasions, but opportunities to have fun were still plenty. After a week together, Simon and Philippe took off to resume their lives back home while I was left to carry on by myself. It wasn’t too bad as the new crowd at the dive shop was entertaining (at times…) and my tec course would start in a couple days.

Watching the sunset on the roof of an abandoned hotel

Watching the sunset on the roof of an abandoned hotel

I could not help but notice how the island had changed since I left 3 years ago. Nothing ever stays the same, of course, but you would not expect things to get noticeably different in such a short amount of time. However, the amount of mainlanders has increased drastically to a point were they now vastly outnumber the native population, who being British descendants mixed with black slaves, have culturally speaking not much to do with the rest of Honduras. Understandably, the newcomers want a take in Utila’ success, but what’s bothering is that nothing has been done on the part of the authorities to control the flow of people and all the annoyances they bring with them (ie: traffic, shantytowns, crime, etc.) That was not just an impression on my part, it was confirmed by Nick, whom I had met during my first stay on the island and who had worked here ever since.