Saturday, June 18, 2011

Utila, Bay Islands: A Vacation Within a Vacation

Wow it really doesn't seem like 2 weeks since my last post.  The past 2 weeks have definitely been a blurr.  From Belize, I ventured to the island of Utila, one of the Bay Islands off the northern coast of Honduras, to learn how to SCUBA dive!  Of course, the day I decided to make the seabound journey from La Ceiba to Utila was the one day in the last 2 months it decided to storm.  And the thing was, the storm blew in only minutes before the ferry left so I had no time to prepare.  The last time I got seasick I told myself I’d never let it happen again, but I was reminded of that terrible experience for the following hour as our boat was tossed about like a ragdoll in 10-15 foot swells with no way of focusing on the horizon because the view out the windows changed only from ocean to sky every few seconds.  The only thing that saved me was the AC unit, which I stood in front of silent and motionless, pale and sweating profusely for the entire hour as I dreamt about how standing on solid ground would be 10 times better than winning the lottery.  

Luckily, it was worth it in the end because the next two weeks were some of the best in my life as I ended up completing both my Basic and Advanced Open Water SCUBA diving certifications!  I have no idea why it's taken me this long to pick up this sport - it is honestly one of the most amazing things I have ever done.  It's one thing to see pictures, but to actually be swimming down there among all the fish and coral is an unmatched experience.  The Bay Islands are well known for their beautiful reefs and cheap SCUBA courses, so I decided it would be worthwhile to stop there and give it a shot.  Utila is the smallest of the 3 Bay Islands, but it's much cheaper and less touristy than its neighbor, Roatan.  

There are about 10-12 dive shops on the island, all of which offer similar dive packages usually including the dive course, accommodation throughout the course, several meals, and 2 "fun dives" that you can make on your own or with a buddy after completing the course.  I dove at the Utila Dive Center (UDC), one of the most reputable dive shops on the island and fairly well known throughout the world.  

I had a blast diving there and met some really awesome people that I hung out with over my 2 week stay.  Randomly, I ran into Felix, a Dutch guy I had met on one of the buses in Belize, at the ferry from La Ceiba (port on the Honduran mainland) to Utila, and we ended up hanging out for most of the time we were there.  I never would have expected to see some random person I met on a bus in one country on a tiny island in another country, but I´ve now come to realize that random re-encounters happen way more often than you´d expect.  In fact, I also ran into Will (Canadian guy I stayed with in Placencia) at a bar in Utila, and he literally just walked into the internet cafĂ© I’m sitting at right now 4 days later in Leon, Nicaragua.  I was shocked at first, but I decided I will no longer be surprised if I run into any of the same people during the rest of my trip.  Most everyone travels along the same routs more or less, stopping in the same cities, so the likelihood of running into someone multiple times is actually quite high.

Our first night in Utila we met a group of Ozzies and Kiwis (and technically a French guy, although he had spent enough time living in Austraila to have converted his French accent into an Ozzie accent so we just considered him Austrailian) who we also ended up paling around with for the following 2 weeks. 

Rick, Owen, Felix, Ed, Ahlem, Me

Ahlem, one of the Ozzies, and I were both doing our Basic Open Water certifications so we became dive buddies and convinced each other to stick around for our Advanced certifications.   We couldn´t have asked for a better dive instructor (thanks Maddy!) either.  

 Me, Laura, Ahlem, Maddy, and Magal

We paid $35 each to have a videographer dive with us and take pitures and video.  Javier, the Spanish videographer, did an awesome job and made us a really sweet video which I'll post to Facebook when I'm in a place with a decent internet connection (most likely back home).  Although he spoke very little English, we ended up hanging out with Javier for the remainder of the trip, which was great because it gave me an opportunity to practice my Spanish, considering everyone else on the island speaks English.

Essentially, the only things to do on Utila are dive and party, so you can imagine how crazy and exhausting it can become once you stay there for more than a week.  That is exactly why I decided I needed to leave; otherwise I think I’d be spending my entire 3 months there, convincing myself more and more each day to scrap my plans to go back to the States and think about beginning my career as a dive instructor.  It is also why I've been referring to my 2 weeks on Utila as a vacation within a vacation, because that's exactly what it was.  While there are local people that live on the island, the majority of the people are either backpackers or dive instructors (or dive instructors in training), so everyone dives during the day (many times starting as early as 6:30am) and parties at night.  Most nights, we either hung out at the Mango (hotel we stayed at) or the dive shop before heading out to the bars.  A popular game I had never heard of that is often played at UDC is called Nails.  It's one of the simlplest, yet most entertaining games I've ever played.  It consists of a wooden plank, nails, and a hammer (and usually beer, despite the obvious concerns).  Everyone stands around the plank, gets their own nail and hammers it into the plank just enough so that it stands up on its own.  Both the first and the last person whos nails are completely hammered into the plank are responsible for buying beers for half of the participants.  This means that you go for nails other than your own at first, and then try to hammer yours in as quickly as possible as soon as the first nail is in (since that person had to buy half the round) and make sure your nail isn't the last to be hammered in (since the last person buys the second half of the round).  The catch is that you only get one swing at a time, amd you must begin the swing with the hammer head resting on the plank next to your own nail before you raise it and go for either your own nail or someone elses in one fluid motion.  The hammer gets passed around in a circle until the round is over.

Due to my outstanding coordination, I failed to hammer my nail in before everyone else so I lost the first round.  However, I started to get the hang of it afterwards so I managed evade responsibility for more rounds of beer.  

The 2 most popular places at which we spent most of our evenings are Tranquila Bar and Treetanic (called so because the bar is basically a big treehouse).  Treetanic is actually more than just a bar, it´s more like a giant shrine made out of recycled glass and other random odds and ends.  I can’t really describe it so I'll let pictures do the work!

Melanie, Michelle, Magnus, Sebastian, Hanna, Me

The other thing I have to mention about Utila is the food, which is absolutely amazing.  And super cheap too!  There are two main food items that are found everywhere on the island.  The first is called a baleada, which consist of beans, rice, eggs, and usually some kind of meat and veggies wrapped in a tortilla.  The second is called a pastelito, which is similar to the baleada except the interior ingredients are completely enclosed in some kind of delicious doughy wrap.  Both the baleadas and pastelitos usually cost about 10-12 Lempiras (a little over 50 cents).  On my second to last night on the island we all ate dinner at Pizza Nut and had some of the best pizza I've ever tasted in my life.   

 Julian, Me, Ellie, Rachel, Rick, Tom, Alex, Alehm, Javier

Fortunately it wasn't storming when I left the island but it was windy so the swells were still pretty big.  This time, however, I prepared and took a motion sickness pill beforehand.  It worked like a charm - the combination of the effects of the pill and lack of sleep the night before knocked me out cold after I got on the ferry and I woke up just before we docked feeling great!  I can say with confidence I will never forget to take one of those pills before boarding an ocean-going vessel ever again.  

From the port at La Ceiba, I hopped on a bus to the Honduran capital city of Tegucigalpa where I spent the night.  I arrived at about 11:30pm, took a taxi to a hotel in the downtown area, then woke up at 4:30 the following day to catch a 6am bus to the town of Las Manos, located at the border of Honduras and Nicaragua.  Everything was running smoothly until I went to the immigration office to get my passport stamped to leave the country.  However, I quickly realized something was wrong when the immigration officer kept flipping through my passport pages mutiple times over.  Apparently I somehow managed to skip the immigration office as I entered Honduras, even though I had gotten my passport stamped upon leaving Guatemala.  So bascially, I got my stamp in Guatemala, walked over the border, and somehow walked right by the immigration office on the Honduras side.  Which technically means I entered the country illegally.  OOPS.  So I was assessed a fine of $165.  Another problem - I had about $50 worth of Lempiras on me and there is no ATM anywhere in Las Manos.  After a lengthy wait and discussion with the officers in the immigration office, I was told I could go to the Western Union (of course there's a Western Union and even another bank, but no ATM) to have money sent to me by anyone that would care enough about me to get me out of that situation.  Enough said... thanks Mom!!!  I definitely owe you for that one :)  Two hours later I was over the border WITH a new stamp in my passport (I triple checked) and on a bus to the Nicaraguan town of Leon, where I am now located.  I am thinking about staying here and taking an intensive Spanish class for a week or two and taking advantage of all the volcano and nature tours they have nearby.  Apparently you can go volcano boarding here, which is exactly what it sounds like: sliding down volcanic ash on a board.  I will definitely be checking that out tomorrow!  

I think that covers just about everything up until now so I'll update again once I have more adventures to report on!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Guatemala, Belize, and Getting Used to Buses

While I know I said I'd update once I got to Guatemala, I've now been through Guatemala and Belize and am getting ready to move onto Honduras tomorrow!  It turns out getting to the internet cafe moves down on the priority list once you begin to explore new places.  Both were short visits, but a lot of fun.  I arrived in Guatemala city around midday on Monday after my flights, first from Chicago to Houston and then from Houston to Guatemala City.  From Guatemala city I took an hour and a half bus to Antigua where I spent 2 nights with my buddy Erin who was the group leader of the spring break trip I went on 2 years ago.  He's been living there in a nice little apartment for the last 5 years and was nice enough to let me crash there for a couple nights.  I thought I was going to be sleeping on a couch but it turns out he's got a guest room with an extra bed!

It was definitely luxurious living compared to what I was prepared for.  I was a bit worried at first about his 2 cats considering my allergies to those things but I had no problems.  One of them tried to sneak into the room every time I opened the door but I was sure to block his path or kick him out after each attempt.  Erin met me in downtown Antigua once I arrived and we grabbed some lunch before going back to his apartment.  I re-explored Antigua Monday night and crashed early since I hadn't really slept in 36 hours.

On Tuesday I decided I would make a visit to the small rural town of El Tizate where I stayed during my spring break trip 2 years ago to see if the family I stayed with was still around.  I told them I would go back to visit so I was simply fulfilling my promise!  I got off the bus, knocked on the door, and Egma (my host mom) answered the door!  I don't think Guatemalans change the location of their homes as much as we Americans do so it's not surprising they were still there.  Osman, their 15 year old son was home too, but Egma's husban Agustin was working and the 2 other kids, Cindy (9 years old) and Franky (11 years old, and yes they are Guatemalan) were at school.  I walked around the village with Osman until everyone else came home.  We then had lunch (typical rice and chicken with tortillas).  Osman had class afterwards, so Cindy, Franky and I walked across the street and played soccer with some of the other young neighborhood kids until they tired me out.  We went back to the house, had dinner, took pictures, and then I said my goodbyes before hopping on the bus back to Antigua.  It was great to see them and they were definitely surprised to find me knocking on their front door!  (Below, left to right: Franky, Egma, Cindy, Osman, Agustin, me)

Wednesday morning I got up early and caught a 7am bus back to Guatemala City, where I then caught another bus to a small town called Flores in northern Guatemala.  The bus ride is normally 10 hours, but ours took 10 and a half due to a group of undocumented Hondurans getting caught at one of the police checkpoints.  I'm not really sure how they resolved that situation because they all ended up staying on the bus, but I didn't care because I just wanted to get off that bus as soon as possible.  To add to the problems, the power was out in the entire town when we arrived at Flores.  Luckily I had been sitting next to and talking to a well known local politician on the bus, so she helped me to make arrangements to get to Belize the following day and also to find a good, safe hostel.  I was guided to my room and given a single candle.  Even though it was only 9:00, I just got ready for bed and went to sleep because I wasn't about to wander around town in the dark.  Once I blew out the candle I couldn't even see my hand an inch in front of my face so I wouldn't have been able to get up and do anything even if I needed to.  Luckily, the 10.5 hour bus ride wore me out so I fell asleep quickly.

I got up the next morning at 4:45 and was picked up at the hostel at 5:00 by the bus service with which I had made arrangements the night before.  They drove me and 2 Dutch guys across the border of Belize and dropped us off in Belize City.  That was a 4 hour bus ride.  From there I took another bus to the small town of Independence, which took another 4 hours.  From independence I caught a water taxi to the small beach town of Placencia.  It turned out that all the hassle was totally worth it because not only was the town gorgeous, but there were so few people there that it seemed almost uninhabited.

I had met a guy named Will from Vancouver on the water taxi so we walked around and found a hostel to stay at.  Ultimately we found the one in the picture below, about a 20 second walk from the beach, for $12.50/night.  It's hard to beat that deal!

There were 3 girls from San Fransisco also staying at the hostel, so we all hung out and explored the town on Thursday night.  There wasn't much going on (like I said, there was almost no one on the island) so we all went to bed early.  Will got up and left for Honduras on Friday morning, and I headed straight to the beach where I spent a good part of the day with the San Fran girls.  It wasn't really until I took a walk down the beach that it truly hit me - for the first time in over 5 years, I have nothing to do, nowhere to be, and nothing to work ahead on.  After 5 years of engineering with summer internships in between each year, my brain doesn't want to let me think that that can actually be true.  Later in the day, 2 Austrian guys checked into the hostel so we went to the convenient store, grabbed some Belekins (Belizean beer), and hung out at the hostel before going out to one of the local bars.

This morning (Saturday) I got up early and got some more quality beach time in.  The weather couldn't have been more perfect either day - sunny, 85-90 degrees, and a cool 5 mph breeze.

When I was all beached out, I packed up, checked out, and took the water taxi back to Independence where I caught a bus to Punta Gorda, a couple hours south along the coast.  That brings me to where I'm at right now, sitting at the internet cafe here in Punta Gorda, Belize, getting ready to head on to Honduras tomorrow.  It sounds like the music is getting louder outside so it's time to go exploring.  I'll update again after I have some Honduran adventures to report on!