Honduras – Utila (tec diving)

tec diving at 50m

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.

Honduras – San Pedro Sula

I was in San Pedro Sula for a couple of hours three years ago on my way to Utila and did not think much of this place. The Lonely Planet guide did not present it in a very appealing light and the main bus station, basically a terminal within a mall, did nothing to help. With a reputation for being one the most crime-ridden city on the planet, it’s understandable that you’d aim at spending the least amount of time here. On this occasion though I could not in and out, I had to spend a night here to meet my cousin.

The view from the Coca-Cola sign in San Pedro Sula

IMG_20160809_142138The bus ride Copàn Ruinas went without a hitch, though I would care to mention a close call full frontal collision with and oncoming bus which scared the shit out of me (and the driver). On entering the city, I noticed a very large Coca-Cola sign up on the hill (San Pedro Sula’s counterpart to he large Hollywood sign in Los Angeles I guess). Having the whole afternoon to spare, I got a set of directions from the hostel’s owner and set out to reach it. The heat was brutal and it took longer that expected. Thankfully, always there to make a buck, the Hondurans had set up a stand serving coconut water, oranges and sugary soft drinks of the more artificial kind. Down from there and back in the city, the heat had receded a bit due to the clouds. I made a quick stop in the central plaza, which sported an ugly cathedral but a nice park with a concert going on and lots of activity around. Back at hostel (a gorgeous property, once an architect’s home), I went into my usual routine of writing on my computer, but I got interrupted for a while by Larry, the head of American group here on mission to rebuild the roof of a local church and a very kind man. Not that I’m into arguing with religious people, but that 12 000$ that went into renovating that church would have been much better invested into providing sanitation and drinking water for a small village or equipment and supplies to a local health clinic.

Otherwise, guess what. San Pedro’s not that bad…

San Pedro Sula main plaza

Honduras – Copán Ruinas

Getting out of El Salvador was painless and on schedule, I was on my way to Copán Ruinas, a town in Honduras whose namesake is, as you might have guessed it, the Mayan ruins of Copán. Quickly, the bus filled up with other Hondurans and since it had no roof rack to put luggage on, I had to spend the three hours to La Entrada, the town where I was to switch buses, with both my backpacks on my lap.The second bus ride, same shit. By the end of it, my legs were starting to feel numb. Finally at the ruins, I checked in the most presentable hostel that I could find, dropped my things and had a well deserved beer before heading out to check the town. Copán Ruinas is actually one the prettiest village I’ve encountered in Honduras: it’s got a nice plaza, cobble stoned streets and pretty houses. After a meal, I hung around the main plaza for a while listening to … an open air evangelical mass. Having had enough of it, I came back and opened my computer for a bit of productive time, but the previous days had taken their toll and I was in bed before 22h00, a very rare occurrence in my case.

Copan Ruinas main square

Up early the next morning, I had breakfast while chatting with Kai, a Japanese traveler and before making my way to ruins, did a bit of studying for my tec course. The Copán ruins are a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the grandest cities (others being Tikal in Guatemala and Palenque in Mexico) the Mayan civilization has left us before vanishing mysteriously. The site is immense and extremely well taken care of thanks to a debt write off from the Spanish government towards Honduras. The way I understood it, Honduras owed a bunch of money to Spain, and the latter offered the Honduran government to cancel that debt if they would invest massively into making ruins the site that it deserves to be.

Ruins of Copan

For a good couple of hours, I visited every corner of this immense complex, marveling at the achievements of the civilization that built it. I had seen Mayan ruins before in El Salvador and Mexico, but nothing that came even close to that scale. Archaeologists have done a stellar job at clearing the place and rebuilding many structures stone by stone. It must have been a colossal ordeal, as the grounds had been abandoned for nearly a thousand years when they were rediscovered and must have been overgrown with thick dense forest.

Copan Ruinas streetI was back quite early at the hostel, had another chat with my Japanese acquaintance and worked for the remainder of the night. Up early again after a restful night, I spent the morning studying and got out for my afternoon visit back to the ruins, but this time to a different site: Las Sepulturas, a residential complex where the Copán nobility used to live and not too far from the main complex. Beforehand tough, I completed my postcard duty, had an awesome (but cheap!) meal at a comedor and toured around Copán town before walking to Las Sepulturas. This archeological site was far smaller than Copán, but to my surprise, it was entirely devoid of visitors and people save for a gardener and two soldiers. I toured it for a good hour and then decided to make the way back a bit more interesting.


Panorama of Last Sepulturas, click for a larger version
Panorama of Last Sepulturas, click for a larger version

I had obviously reached the site using a paved road, but I knew and had seen that both archaeological complexes where actually by the river (logical) from which the valley, the town and the main ruins got their name. It also seemed that their was a dirt path that followed the river. Easy I thought, so I jumped the fence, and started following the trail. Soon, it dead-ended into the river but not to be let down by this small obstacle, I crossed a barbed wire fence and started making my way through a corn field, hoping that the trail would resume soon. It didn’t, so for a good two hours, I was walking amid crops, forest, high herbs and passing one barbed wire fence after another, trying not to get spotted in the process, because I was clearly trespassing. Eventually, I emerged back into Copán town, thankfully not too scratched from that little hike. I was hoping for a bit of ambiance that night in the hostel, but was let down big time. Oh well, I’ll save my energy for Utila, my next destination and a place that is sure to provide more partying than anyone can handle.

First tough, I had to meet my cousin Philippe in San Pedro Sula. He was arriving late from Canada so the plan was to spend the night there and make our way next morning to La Ceiba, where we would meet another cousin, Simon, and from there take the ferry to Utila for a week or hardcore diving and a reasonable amount of partying … yeah right.

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…