Sunday, May 19, 2013

Getting caught up... leaving Copán Ruinas, 9 months in Utila

Wheew!  It's been so long since I updated that I hardly know where to begin.

I lost interest in blogging when I learned how to check my page stats and realized that basically no one was reading my blog.  :D  Which wasn't entirely surprising since I tend to just toss my journal into my blog and do very little editing, but it was still discouraging because of the amount of time it takes me to publish an entry.

However, since then I have received multiple complaints from the small few of you who WERE actually reading my blog.  Thank you loyal readers!   I've decided to try the short and sweet version.  Erm... well, as short and sweet as I am capable of, at least!  Keep in mind that I DO have 9 months of updating to do so those of you with less patience for my rambling, please don't judge me on this first post!  Subsequent entries will be suitably brief, I promise!  :o)

My last days in Copán were spent working like crazy at La Terraza, trying to get all the prep work done so Wendy, Hans and Dor could leave the restaurant for a week (as they were also headed to Utila for SunJam, one of the largest outdoor electronic music festivals in Central America).  We pulled an all-nighter our last night- didn't finish at the restaurant until like 2:30 am and then I had to pack up all my possessions and get on the bus at 4:30 am.  When we arrived at the bus stop we were surprised to find a man beneath the bus in the process of jacking it up with the world's tiniest jack in order to fix a flat tire. Within 30 minutes we were underway, only to drive for literally about 1 km before stopping again for another 15 minutes or so. : D However, we were soon on our way for good this time, ascending gradually through beautiful, jungle-covered countryside swathed in low-lying clouds. After climbing for some time the road leveled out and the hills and mountainsides began to share space with rolling pastureland dotted with horses and some large breed of cattle that was very close in size to the horses.
Dor, Wendy and Hans survey the progress
Foggy bus windows meant this was the best picture I got.  It really was much more beautiful!
We changed buses in San Pedro Sula then caught the ferry in La Ceiba and before we knew it we were pulling up to the ferry dock in Utila.  The next week was a whirlwind of partying our asses off.  SunJam was EPIC.  We arrived at Water Cay, a little island off the coast of Utila, around 5:30 or 6 in the evening and finally left around about 10:30 am the following day; I'm pretty sure I spent about 80% of that time dancing my ass off.  I also managed to lose my hiking sandals!  :o(  We spent a lazy couple hours floating in the shallow water on the east side of the island before heading back to Utila for a much needed nap so we could head out again for more partying!

Hurricane Ernesto made hostages of Wendy, Dor and Hans so they ended up having about 4 or 5 "last night"s in Utila.  As much as I loved the gang, I have to admit that the self-preservation side of me wasn't entirely broken-hearted to see them go!  I don't think I could have handled much more!

Once they left I proceeded to fall head-over-heels in love... with scuba diving!

It's now 9 months later and I have over 300 dives under my belt.  Like so many other backpackers who come to Utila, I completed my Divemaster training and can now hope to find "employment" in other locations I come to in my travels.  In Utila and a few other select places in the world I will actually be paid (and get to dive for free- wheee!) but most places the arrangement is more of a work-trade, where I will get to dive for free in exchange for being a guide for other certified divers.

When I haven't been diving I've spent the majority of the rest of my time working at WSORC, the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center.  I can say, without a doubt, that the enjoyment I have gotten through volunteering with WSORC has directly contributed to the amount of time I have remained on Utila.

Don't get me wrong, Utila is great- there's very little crime and the diving is cheap but everything else (while more affordable than in the US) is SUPER expensive compared to everywhere else I've been in Central America.  Also, nearly everyone speaks English, which hasn't been great for becoming a fluent Spanish speaker.  I am still reading books in Spanish and watching TV in Spanish or with Spanish subtitles but progress is slow.

However, as usual, I've met some amazing people!  I feel like I say that everywhere I go but it's really true.  The other volunteers I've met through WSORC have been incredible, as have many of my fellow divers at BICD, and there are a handful of ex-pats that I have formed significant bonds with.  It wouldn't surprise me one bit if I am still in contact with these amazing individuals 20 or 30 years from now.

I've been terrible about even writing in my journal but here are some highlights from my time here:

August 9th-12th- PADI Open Water Course.  Lots of annoying (but admittedly important!) skills, knowledge reviews and really out-dated PADI videos but then I'm finally under the water and lovin' it!  Scuba diving is AWESOME!  I have moments where it's a little freaky but overall I'm super pumped and my instructor (Heather) is really good at being patient and she's always enthusiastic and encouraging.  The last day we went Northside and on the way there we got to swim with about 100 spinner dolphins!!!!  They were so close and they were really curious so we were in the water with them for like 15 minutes!

August 14th- completed my PADI Advanced Open Water course.  Totally rocked my navigation and then had an awesome fish ID dive where Heather and I spent nearly the entire 45 minutes in an area no bigger than about 30' x 30' looking at all the tiny things that you never notice normally.

August 18th-25th: Utila Dive Festival- tons of stuff going on all the time, running from place to place doing cool things like different types of dives, BBQ's, pool parties, photo scavenger hunt, Underwater Olympics, etc...  Lots of fun but it was a long, busy week!  Spotted my first juvenile smooth trunk fish while snorkeling at Coral View!  They are seriously the size of a pea.   So tiny.

This is NOT my photo but you simply must know how adorable these little guys are.  Plus I don't think they would mind me sharing!  Here's the link ...

Because 4+ people on a scooter is such a common occurance around Utila, it was one of the photos we had to take for the photo treasure hunt.  Do not miss the fact that the girl driving the scooter is probably not older than about 12!
September 12th- One of my best days in Utila so far!!!  In the morning I had my first freediving session in open water- hit 18 meters no problem!  In the afternoon we had a whale shark boat and we got in the water six times with a 5 meter-long male shark.  SOOO cool.  Many thanks to my fellow volunteer Ellie Taylor for this video...

September 25th-December 2nd:  Lived at The Gardens, one of the most beautiful places on the island, in what can only be described as the most gorgeous 1 BR apartment I've ever lived in.  Actually, I ended up living in two of the apartments because for the first month I was there I was on the top floor but then I moved down one floor for my second month there- although I no longer had the huge vaulted ceilings and my bed was slightly smaller I actually liked the second apartment more because it was more cozy.  My amazing landlords, Jo and Tony, lent me a bike that I used to zip around the island for a few months!  Wheee!

October 10th- Shark Dive Fun Day:  Rebecca (the manager of the BICD) organized an amazing day of fun for us, cheaply enough that even I could justify the expense!  We did boat set up the night before so when we arrived at the dock at 4:30 am there was little to do before the Sea Sprite was casting off into the sunrise on the way to Roatan, and I was on the bow with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cinnamon roll in the other.  What a way to start the day!  Deep-sea fishing on the way there and back (caught a barracuda!), the shark dive (of course!) followed by another amazing dive where we saw huge midnight parrotfish and sea turtles, a bit of time on the island for shopping and lunch, then beer shotgunning and limbo with a piece of (rotten!) bamboo we caught on the way back to Utila...  It was an amazing day that I won't soon forget.

Me and Ellie (shark attack victim) at the Lodge Halloween party
October 31st- Halloween: I was a jellyfish attack victim (Heather's idea after she saw me prepping for assisting on a rescue class one morning!).  I made jellyfish out of plastic bags and taped them all over myself.  There was a party at the Lodge bar with a pineapple carving contest and a treasure hunt night dive under the dock as well as dancing and beer pong.

November 14th: One year anniversary of leaving the US.  I had people over for chicken chili, Neil and Ellie (an English couple that volunteered at WSORC for like 6 months) made veggie chili and Josh (another WSORC volunteer) made cornbread.

December 2nd-18th:  I moved out of my lovely apartment at The Gardens and spent the next 10 days housesitting for Heather and her boyfriend Rudy while they were vacationing in Guatemala.
Yes, he can get out all by himself.  Amazing.

Their dog, Bingo (mostly Rottweiler with maybe some lab or hound mixed in there somewhere) went through some separation anxiety and became pretty-much attached at my hip.  He's such a cool dog!  One night Lois (my soon to be roommate- an English woman who was volunteering with BICA, another NGO on the island) and I were hanging out on the Lodge Dock and Bingo decided to go for a swim- for like 45 minutes!  The local boys have a game they play with him that involves them barking at him until he responds by barking furiously at them while bounding toward them like a rabid dog, at which point they all scream and leap into the water, giggling.  After I was done house sitting I crashed at various places for about a week while Lois and I waited for our new apartment to be ready to move into.

December 6th- I shaved my head and raised $160 USD, 10% of the total of $1600 USD that we raised to help the children of Utila (part of it went to the medical clinic and the rest went to buy Christmas presents for poor children).  Also, some people who were returning to the US took my hair and that of 2 or 3 other people to send to Locks of Love, an organization that arranges for donated hair to be made into wigs for people who have lost their hair as a result of Cancer or Alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair follicles to cease functioning.

December 18th:  Lois and I moved in to our lovely new apartment, which is only slightly less awesome than my place at The Gardens.  It has dark hardwood floors and matching furniture with periwinkle covers, hot water, a balcony, a BBG grill and a beautiful yard with several mango trees that have some large-leafed variety of ivy climbing up them.  It's only about a 2 minute walk from BICD/WSORC, which is nice because I'm constantly forgetting shit at home.

December 31st:  Led my first paid dive for the BICD, as a "qualified buddy" instead of a DM since my paperwork hasn't been processed yet.  Then I went to the New Year's Eve party at Bando Beach- the private beach at the east side of the harbor.  Danced my ass off to electronic music for hours and finally made my way home at like 5:30 am.  Drank only water after midnight so I was totally sober!

January 8th:  Almost got savaged by a barracuda today, for real!!!!  I was on a research dive with a girl named Alyssa from Oregon who has done lots of research dives in the past so our underwater communication is awesome, but unfortunately we're not psychic and I don't have a tank banger (something to make noise underwater to get someone's attention).  There is a way you can cup your hand and smack it against the palm of your opposite hand to make a noise but I'm really bad at it so I look like I'm flailing a lot when I do it.  Apparently it is also a way to entice barracudas to attack you because when I did it to get Alyssa's attention so she could see THE BIGGEST BARRACUDA I've ever seen (like 4.5 feet long- seriously!) it came for me!!!  All I could think was to stick my fin up in it's path but let me tell you that bastard tried to get around my fin 4 or 5 times!!!  I don't know how I managed to move my fin fast enough to keep it in its face but somehow I did it!  Scary.

February 20th:  Kaylee (visiting volunteer from a research group in Belize) and I did a research dive today, which was awesome since I hadn’t done a research dive since Alyssa left. Our first dive we went to Slumberland, where I spotted a beautiful white and gray Quillfin Blenny with yellow on the tips of his dorsal fin. Then we went to Moon Hole and I spotted my first nudibranch!!! It was a Purple Spotted Sea Goddess! SOOO COOL!   
Stole this photo off the internet- here's the link:
Another stolen photo!  But, these guys are too cool not to share photos of them. I can't find the link from wherever I stole this photo- hope no one is offended!
March 2nd:  One of the best nights I've probably had in my life.  Virginia, Geoff, Kristen and Drew were at Driftwood (a bar I started working at a while back to make some extra dough) for dinner as I was finishing up with work, so we hung out at Driftwood for a while and then moved to Rehab for a bit and then decided to see if the eagle rays were off the Utila Lodge Dock, where we randomly ran into Sarah and Todd.  Virginia and Geoff are from Portland and Kristen and Drew live off the grid on the east side of Mt Hood.  Sarah works in Driftwood with me and it was her B-day so she and her boyfriend Todd were staying at the Utila Lodge.  SUCH an amazing night.  All four ladies are pisces and it was amazing how connected we all felt.  I think the boys felt a little left out but they ran around and did errands for us so I think they passed a fun time while we all chatted!  Played with my new electric poi a bit- good times!!!

April 13th-20th:  Assisted Willie with a large group of Utila Lodge guests.  Lodge guests are generally more experienced divers with good buoyancy control and fancy photography equipment who like to dive slow, so I saw more in that week of diving than I normally do in a month.  Worked my ass off but I can now do like 5 pull-ups and I'm convinced it's the result of hauling all those tanks and gear around!

May 7th:  Best whale shark encounter trip EVER!!!  We got in the water like 6 times with an 11 meter female who was SUPER curious about us.  We're supposed to stay 3 meters away from the head and 4 meters away from the tail but there were three times that she swam right through our group on her own accord, and then a fourth time where we were getting back in the boat and Albert started yelling "turn around, turn around!!" and we all did, only to find her coming back to US! She wasn't feeding so she came back JUST to check us out.  SOOO cool.

Besides these "highlights" where I know the exact date, here are the other things that have brought me joy during my time here on Utila:

Assisting on Rescue and DSD courses:  Without a doubt some of the most enjoyable hours of my DM training were passed while assisting on Rescue and Discover Scuba Diving courses.  While assisting on Rescue courses your role is to pretend to be someone who is in need of some type of assistance, so you do a lot of panicking, being tired, being stung by jellyfish, "rescuing" your friends who don't know how to swim but then remembering that you also don't know how to swim, fighting with your "friends" over life preservers and whatever else you may be able to come up with to test the skills of the Rescue students.  Assisting on DSD courses mostly consists of messing with your BCD inflator hose, swimming erratically, getting overly excited or scared and play fighting with your "best friend" or maybe your "instructor", including assaulting them with bubbles from your alternate air source, throwing sand at them and stealing their fins.  Good times! Of course in both classes you spend a good deal of time legitimately practicing the mask clearing skill, as when you laugh underwater it breaks the seal on your mask so your mask gets flooded with water.  : D

Hunting Lionfish:  Lionfish are invasive in the Western Atlantic, and they don't have any predators here because the fish and shark species that would normally eat them don't know they can.  We spear them with "slings", three-pronged spears with a piece of rubber tubing attached to one end which you use somewhat like a sling-shot to send the spear shooting forward through your loosened grip.  Besides the fact that we're helping with conservation, they're delicious!  Lionfish ceviche is TO DIE FOR.

Working at Driftwood:  I really love Sharon and Bruce, despite the fact that sometimes they're not on the same page and one person tells me to do one thing and then the other tells me something completely different or chews me out for doing it the way the other one has told me to! But, they're like another part of my extended family and sometimes family drives you crazy, right?!  From day one they have made me feel like an adopted daughter of sorts, and I really enjoy chatting with all the regulars who come in there, especially Jungle!  And their monkey ball shots (Bruce's homemade kaluah mixed with vodka and shaken over ice- they look like a mini guinness but taste a million times better) are probably one of the best things ever invented.  YUM!

WSORC!  I actually have to do another post to talk about all the amazing things that I have done at WSORC or with the volunteers from WSORC.  More to come on that front...

So here it is, mid May, I've been here for almost 9 months and I've just renewed my visa for another three months.  There are loads of amazing things happening right now, not the least of which is the fact that the new director just started at WSORC.  Her name is Lucie and she recently got her Masters in Conservation Biology and b
esides the fact that I enjoy her immensely as a person, I could tell from day one that she is someone who will advocate for the volunteers, which in my opinion should be the top priority for the director as without the volunteers WSORC would incapable of functioning.  I was the "interim director" for WSORC for the months of March and April but I didn't want a permanent job so it's a relief to be turning WSORC over to someone who has the right type of intentions for the organization.

Also, I've just moved back into the BEST APARTMENT COMPLEX EVER, as Jo and Tony have asked me to return to their apartments at the Gardens.  Love my life!


  1. I love hearing about all the fun stuff you get to do. Amazing where you have been, done and changed in 1 year. Keep posting- I'm following!

  2. Well, I've read this twice now, Mrs. Nobody Reads My Blog. Sincerely, Nobody.