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October 07, 2004

A Day of Island Life


Although I have yet to find a recharger for my digital camera's batteries, I am going to go ahead and post updates in the interim so that I do not fall too far behind on the journal. Once the camera is working, I plan to backtrack and update past entries to include the relevant photos (of course, because the camera has not functioned since I arrived here, there will not be photos for the time spent on Utila; however, as you will see, I am trying to work around that as best as I can with some links to other pages). Also, I plan to plug in updates from the start of the trip as soon as is possible. This post will be quite a bit more detailed than most posts, in order to make up a bit for the lack of detail over the last two weeks. Those who complained about a lack of information can now feel free to complain about far too much information.

Thursday, October 7: I wake up before my alarm clock at approximately 5:45 AM, an occurrence that is becoming increasingly common. Light is filtering through the curtains and I can hear more than one rooster crowing in the distance. Oddly, for somebody who never had any problem whatsoever sleeping past noon or, if possible, 2 PM, I have to struggle here to stay in bed past 6 AM. This could have something to do with the fact that I rarely stay up past 10 PM here, because there is often little to do at that hour on Utila (on most nights), and because I am generally exhausted by that time. Moreover, by the time I wake up in the morning, it is hot already, and I can feel the places all over my body where the springs from the mattress have cut into my skin. As much as part of me might want to roll back over and go back to bed, a greater part wants nothing more than for me to brush my teeth and hop in the shower --- even if its a freezing cold shower, as it usually is. This morning is no exception and, on top of all of this, I wake to the sensation of the skin on my back feeling drier than dirt. Fumbling to the mirror, I find that the spots I had inadvertantly sunburned several days earlier, while lounging around on Water Cay, a tiny beach and palm tree covered island off of Utila's southwest coast, have blistered spectacularly overnight. I wish I could delight everybody with some lovely photographs of this phenomenon, but I can't, so I leave it to your imagination. Suffice to say, I wake up early as usual and get my act together after a lot of pained staggering around and the application of half a bottle of aloe lotion.

I pack up my bags because today is the last day I plan to stay in my current hotel. Its a tiny room, but comfortable enough, with a strong fan and windows that do a reasonably good job of keeping the bugs out. Neverthless, I'm off to greener pastures. Or cheaper pastures, at any rate. I've been paying $10.50 per night at this place, down from $15 per night at the previous two places I've been at, and would like to knock my nightly rate down a bit further if I can. 500 days or more on the road and this all begins to add up to big numbers.

Since arriving on Utila the previous Wednesday, I've holed up in three different "hotels" along the main road running through Utila Town ( The main road, to provide a brief overview, is essentially 90% of Utila Town itself, running along the waterfront for about a mile and a half or two and flanked with plenty of wind and water-worn one and two-story buildings, in sun-bleached blues, whites and reds, most of which are restaurants, dive shops, grocery stores and budget hotels. Utila is big on the latter, because it has a reputation as the "backpacker" Bay Island (Roatan and Guanaja are, by comparison, more "upmarket," though many dispute this assessment, claiming that prices on all three have leveled out over time).

The main road is not the sort of well-paved, two way street we are accustomed to in the U.S. ( and can just barely accomodate the infrequent pickup truck or minivan if the driver is careful of oncoming pedestrians, chickens, dogs, mopeds and ATVs (the latter two accounting easily for 90% or more of the island's vehicular traffic). Note that the driver is not always so careful. As for the moped and ATV drivers, they seem to get a real kick out of speeding by pedestrians from behind, as quickly and closely as possible, beeping their horns at the very last second.

During the day, you can expect to bump into just about every person you have met on Utila at least once on the road, and frequently two, three, four or five times. The place is that tiny. I read in a couple of travel guides that approximately 2,000 people live here, although one local told me the number is really closer to 6,000 or 7,000 due to rapid expansion in the past few years. Its hard to believe there are that many people here, but the number may include people who live off of the main island on some of the neighboring little cays (, as well as people who live elsewhere on the island, outside of Utila town.

To give some sense of geography, Utila is about 7 miles long and 3 miles wide and the vast majority of the interior outside of Utila Town in comprised of mosquito infested, uncleared swampland (however, the mosquitos hardly keep just to the swamp and thick layers of Deet are mandatory if you do not want your arms and legs and face to rapidly take on the semblance of a pepperoni pizza). Thus, the vast majority of people live in Utila Town, which seems to me to get smaller and smaller with each languidly passing day. This is not at all a negative thing, however: nothing is far away from anything else, the people are very friendly and I don't think you can find many safer places in Central or South America.

I grab my things and head out onto the street at a little before 7:00 in order to get myself breakfast and find the next room to settle into. I actually have a place in mind already, popular in some of the guidebooks and priced at about $7.00 per night ( Its a hostel, with shared rooms, but supposedly one of the better ones. I am going to have to get accustomed to shared rooms of this sort sooner or later, so it may as well be sooner. To make the deal a little sweeter, the place has a nice outdoor swimming pool --- a feature that cannot be overestimated when most of the days top 90 degrees with the sun blazing down on you relentlessly.

As I head down the main road, I see the signs of activity that I have started to grow accustomed to during my time here. People are out in the street, milling around, opening their shops and chatting each other up. Some kids, 5 or 6 years old, are dressed in their uniforms and walking to school. A man who resembles a slightly smaller version of the late Dom Delouise scoots by on a bicycle with his pet Macau perched loyally on his shoulder. On benches along the sides of the road, older men sit and observe everyone, smoking cigarettes and arguing over how best to fix a beaten up motorbike lying face down in the mud nearby. Looking down at the pavement, I spot numerous carcasses of sand crabs that met with the wheels of a truck or an ATV. Flies swarm all over them --- and also on numerous presents left by dogs.

Speaking of dogs, a couple of them come running on down the street, side by side, chasing closely after their owner on a moped. They look much like the other many dogs I have seen roaming about on Utila; lean and mangy and haggard, with their tongues lolling tiredly out of the sides of their mouths and dazed, quizzical expressions in their eyes, as if to say "what in da hell am I doin' on this island, mon?" or "dammit, its just too hot out." The dogs are impossible to ignore and while I think that most people on the island give their dogs and the strays enough food and water to get by, they nevertheless seem often to be staggering about on the verge of dehydrated exhaustion. To make things worse, as bad as the mosquitos and sandflies are for humans on Utila, the dogs also have to put up with swarms of ticks and fleas and other nasty things that burrow into their fur and itch like crazy. Since all of the restaurants allow people to bring their dogs inside (well, "inside" is actually a bad word because almost every establishment is outside or has, at best, 2-3 walls and part of a roof), I've been "introduced" to several of them by resident owners, and have found that if you start scratching them, they will never leave your side. You could literally scratch all day and the dog would just stand there looking blissful and eternally grateful, as if you had just pulled it out of a blazing inferno, then promptly fed it a hunk of fillet mignon. To sum it up, while Utila may seem at times like a paradise for humans, it must be almost hellish to be a dog here. If the dogs had money and could talk, I have no doubt as to what they would do: first, buy Deet; second, buy gatorade; third, run down to the main docks to buy ferry tickets off of Utila.

The dogs disappear down the road. After going on a little further and running into a few people I know from scuba diving, I stop for breakfast at a little restaurant on the main road that is owned by an American ex-pat. Really nice guy (bit eccentric though, seeing as how he has a little male weiner dog named "Sue," after his ex-girlfriend) --- and they can cook there. I get myself an order of huevos rancheros and sit for a while, working on some problems I have to get done for my scuba diving class at 10 AM. As I do this, I see some of the people I had just bumped into before come back down the road, waving as they go.

After breakfast, I check out the Mango Inn, which is about a 5 minute walk up what I will have to call "the main road off of the main road." While the roads all have names, whenever I ask native Utilians the name of the main road (or the main road off of the main road or other roads), I inevitably get the same response out of them: "Da name of dat dare road is 'dat dare road'". Once I asked a guy for the time and he answered "now why wouldja wont ta know DAT for on dis island?!"

The woman at the Mango Inn's front desk tells me that she has rooms available at $7 per night, sure enough, with up to 4 people total in each room. I realize that I am still not that eager to share a place with 3 strangers, however, and I think the woman at the desk senses this when she offers to put me in one of the few 2-person capacity rooms that they have (for the same rate). She tells me she can probably avoid putting somebody in with me and, it being low season, I feel pretty good about my chances and go ahead and check in. Doing so, I pass by the swimming pool, clear blue and surrounded by palm trees and an elevated platform with a sundeck on it. I won't be using the sundeck for tanning anytime soon (my back is already calling for more aloe) but from the top, you can see outlines of the jagged, mist-covered mountains of La Ceiba, some 15-20 miles to the south, across the water, on the Honduran mainland. Views like this (and the incredible diving) is enough to make you understand why there are so many young foreigners residing on the island --- many of whom came to Utila originally on holiday and ultimately never left.

Now on to scuba diving: If you are not a scuba diver and have no interest in learning how to dive, Utila will not afford you much of anything to do with yourself. While this does not stop numerous people from coming here on holiday to lounge on the beaches doing absolutely nothing whatsoever, the significant (relative to the population of Utila) number of 20 and 30-something year-olds who have indefinitely settled here (from countries such as the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Mexico, Guatamala, South Africa, Switzerland, Spain, Holland, Denmark, Norway and Finland, etc...) are here because of the diving. The social circles of the younger ex-patriot crowd on the island rotate almost entirely around the various competing dive shops and even the locals on Utila can be heard complaining that nobody on the island talks about anything other than diving.

I came to Utila the previous Wednesday intending to stay for 4-5 days in order to take the basic PADI Open Water Diver certification course. This is the minimum requirement you need to have under your belt for you to really be able to scuba dive, although there are plenty of places you can go to where they will permit you to scuba under the direct supervision of an instructor with only about a half day's worth of instruction. If you dive outside the U.S., Canada, Australia and certain other countries, the standards can drop precipitously (for example, I have heard nightmares about some Greek and Turkish facilities) and they may let you dive with virtually no education on the equipment, its proper use and other crucial rules of diving that you need to know to avoid serious harm.

The Open Water course last 3-4 days and is divided between 1-2 days reading textbooks, watching videos, taking tests and diving in a swimming pool, and another 2 days practicing certain mandatory skills in the "open water" --- in this case, Utila's warm blue waters and fringing coral reef system.

Having researched the various dive shops on the island in various books and on the web, I decided to check out the Bay Island College of Diving, which seemed to be the most highly recommended of the lot ( It also boasts the only hyberbaric recompression chamber on Utila, should you happen to be unfortunate enough to need that sort of treatment due to the bends, lung overexpansion or other forms of decompression sickness ( The staff were very friendly and offered to start me with one other student in my class, first thing in the morning. Without going into too much detail, the course was a lot more fun and challenging than I had anticipated and I came out of it feeling that I wanted to get more experience diving on the island, especially since so much of the diving I had done in the course involved practicing skills (e.g. emergency ascents to the surface should air supply be cutoff; taking off your mask underwater, putting it back on and clearing it entirely of water by tilting it up while exhaling through the nose; controlling the rate at which you acend and descend) rather than seeing the sights down there. I signed myself up for several "fun dives," which let you do just that --- swim around and enjoy yourself without anything more to it. After the first 2 fun dives, it occurred to me that I just didn't feel like leaving Utila yet. Through some connections I had made (this can wait for earlier updates to get posted), an extremely helpful travel agent on the island was able to postpone my flight to Ecuador for about 10 days. I decided to put some of this time toward taking the PADI Advanced Open Water Course, again with the excellent staff at BICD. The course is an introduction to diving at deeper depths, navigating effectively underwater, and developing certain other skills such as controlling your buoyancy and determing optimum (and safe) dive durations based on your planned dive depths.

As part of the Advanced Open Water course, I spend the morning watching PADI instructional videos with Robert, my only classmate, a quiet, 22ish German from Berlin who is planning to take all of the PADI instructional courses necessary to become a certified "Divemaster" (this certification is the first step toward becoming an instructor). Robert and I completed our Open Water course together with BICD's most senior full time instructor, Francisco, who is all jokes and fun in the classroom and yet reassuringly serious and super-competent under the water.

The video we watch this morning, produced by PADI for use by countless dive centers worldwide, had some of the worst acting and writing in it since Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in "Collateral Damage." The video is meant to explain a device called, simply, "the Wheel," which divers use to plan dives to multiple depth levels (that is, dives that begin at one depth for a certain amount of time, ascend to a new depth for another period of time, and possibly ascend to yet a third depth to finish the dive). This sort of planning is necessary to avoid winding up in the hyperbaric decompression chamber and, since that certainly appeals to me, I had actually hoped to keep somewhat conscious and focused throughout the full duration of the video.

Alas, it is not to be. The video consisted of an acted out sketch meant to illustrate the use of the Wheel to the viewer. In it, Couple A (consisting of Guy with Shady British Accent and Freakishly Big White Teeth and Woman with Out of Control Massive 80s Hairdo) and Couple B (consisting of Moustacheless Ned Flanders Guy in a Wifebeater T and Insanely Nasal Smiley Idiot Woman) bump into each other on a diving boat. "Gee," says Insanely Nasal Smiley Idiot Woman, "we noticed that you two seemed to be able to spend a lot more time under the water than we did." At this point, the actress tosses her hair and smiles seductively, as though she were in the process of auditioning for "Days of Our Lives" or had just invited Guy with Shady British Accent and Freakishly Big White Teeth to join her for Pina Coladas at the Cabana Bar.

"Yes," answers Woman with Out of Control Massive 80s Hairdo, "that's because we used [inane dramatic pause...] The Wheel!!!"

Fast-forward through 30 minutes of tedious banter between the two couples. Guy with Shady British Accent and Freakishly Big White Teeth delivers a smarmy explanation of the Wheel in his best James Bond voice. Insanely Nasal Smiley Idiot Woman tosses her hair and winks for the camera as she delivers sensuous and erotic response lines such as "so how do I determine residual nitrogen and MBT for my third stage dive?" and "would a pressure group G diver at 80 feet be able to ascend to a multilevel stop at 49 feet for 36 minutes?" Moustacheless Ned Flanders Guy in a Wifebeater T nods alongside her and casually flexes a pasty white bicep.

At the end of the sketch, Couple A sums up for Couple B and the audience. Thoroughly impressed, Insanely Nasal Smiley Idiot Woman runs her fingers through her golden tresses and says to Moustacheless Ned Flanders Guy in a Wifebeater T: "Honey, I think that when we get home, we're going to have to get ourselves a Wheel." Seductive wink.

I fight the urge to gag. Robert rolls his eyes, then turns toward me with a wink of his own, mimicing her "I think that when we get home, we're going to have to get ourselves a Wheel."

The rest of this day is a little better, thankfully.

I grab a hamburger and fries at Gladys's, a small restaurant in the backyard of a woman named... Gladys. She's supposed to make the best burgers on the island, but its taken me a week to figure out where her place is, down an alley off of the main road. As Gladys cooks my burger for me, I watch a rooster strut through the backyard of the neighboring house, pecking for food in the mud. When it gets bored and wanders off, a little brown pig comes sauntering up to the same mud patch, burrows around, snorts, squeals and runs around in circles for a while. Its sort of cute, in a delicious kind of way.

The burger is also delicious, with onions blended into the burger patty. The fries are nice and hot, since the whole meal was cooked from scratch. I have just enough time left to run back to the hostel to change into my bathing suit. Then I head back to BICD to catch the boat out for our afternoon dives.

We load up the boat with our gear and head out. There are a few other divers on board, including another instructor with his Open Water course students. Another more junior instructor is also going to be diving with us in order to observe Francisco (his name is also Robert). The weather is perfect and we lie around the deck for a while as the captain takes us around the island toward our first dive site.

The first dive planned is the "deep dive." This is a mandatory dive for Advanced Open Water students and is a minimum requirement for divers who want to be able to dive deeper than 60 feet below the surface, up to an absolute maximum of 130 feet. While navy and commercial divers often go much deeper than this, they do so with far greater training and much more specialized gear. They also make a series of decompression stops as they ascend to the surface, sometimes stopping along the way for periods totaling an hour or more, to permit the nitrogen to work its way out of their blood so as to avoid serious injury or death. Recreational diving experience has shown that 130 feet is the maximum limit for dives that do not require such decompression stops and special equipment. Even so, many divers prefer to stick to 100 feet or shallower, if only because the more interesting sights are generally closer to the surface of the water. In addition, the deeper you go, the more air you use and the more nitrogen that accumulates in your system, limiting the length of your dive dramatically. Its not that a dive to 130 feet isn't safe, just that the dive will be a very short and possibly boring one, compared with a dive to 40 or 60 feet.

Francisco briefs us on our plan. We will head down to 100 feet below the surface. He is bringing an egg with him to conduct a little "science experiment" for us. Also, he has a special underwater pad and pen so that each of us can try to solve a math problem at 100 feet. The idea is to appreciate the effect that "nitrogen narcosis" has on your system. As you reach approximately 100 feet below the surface, the nitrogen in your system begins to give you a bit of a buzz, much like a few beers would. It impacts different people in different ways and isn't per se problematic for diving, but its something every diver needs to be alert to. Francisco aims to have each of us test our own reactions on this dive, for future reference.

We anchor at a buoy some 200 feet off the shore. If we wanted to, we could dive much closer to shore --- the coral reef around Utila is not a "barrier" reef (imagine an underwater wall of reef around the island, starting at some distance away from the shore) but a "fringing" reef that starts in many cases from the shore itself. After suiting up and inspecting one another's gear for good measure, we step off the boat and into the water. We do a final check at the surface before Francisco gives us the thumbs down sign for descent. Down we go.

I learned early on that as soon as you begin to sink below the surface, you need to be ready to "equalize" your ears repeatedly. Because the pressure on the air in your body increases dramatically underwater, the air trapped in your ears and sinuses will cause discomfort (and, if unchecked, pain and serious injury) if you do not release it as you go down. I find that pinching my nose and breathing through it works fine, so long as I do it with every few feet that I descend.

As we reach 25 feet below the surface, I see that Francisco has stopped descending and is looking up. Robert, my classmate, and Robert the instructor are about 5-10 feet above us. Robert, my classmate, is trying to equalize but seems to be having difficulty. We wait for a few minutes, but Robert is not having any luck. Francisco indicates that instructor Robert should lead student Robert back to the boat. We wait. Instructor Robert returns a few minutes later. Francisco gives me a gesture asking if I am ok. I am. He indicates that we should continue our descent.

I follow Francisco and Robert follows me. We swim through countless purple and green fish over a wide expanse of orange, blue and violet coral. There are sea fans fluttering back and forth in the current, schools of tiny minnows hovering motionless next to jagged red pinnacles of rock and coral. Certain plants resemble exotic flowers and the color scheme is reminiscent of a vast underwater garden.

The thousands of colors slowly fall away from us at about 45 feet as we swim gradually down the edge of the reef toward an endless horizon of deep green-blue. There is nothing else in sight. 60 feet. 70 feet. At 80 feet, I see some dull white sand beneath us. There is ocean floor, an incline that continues to lead down and away from shore. We swim to the bottom just as my depth gauge hits 100 feet. Apart from a few stray plants and confused looking solitary fish, there is little to see here. Francisco gives me the signal to come to a rest on the bottom. The three of us sit in a huddle on our knees as Francisco takes out an egg.

I am not sure what the point of cracking a hardboiled egg open underwater is, but Francisco takes a small metal ring out of his vest and begins to chip away at the shell with it. I watch the cracks form across the surface. Francisco's hammering on the shell is actually making the same noise that the banging of one rock on another would make. Satisfied with his work, he peels away at the shell with his finger. The shell floats off in every direction. The yolk pops out and floats before us.

It is at this point that I realize that the egg was not a hardboiled egg but a raw, uncooked egg. The egg white is not to be seen, but the yolk just floats there in a ball looking almost exactly like a hardboiled egg yolk would look. Francisco pokes it with his finger. It gives a little, moves a little bit away, but remains completely intact. No dissipation of any kind. The point of the exercise becomes clear: at 100 feet below the surface, objects are under four times the pressure exerted by gravity at sea level. This pressure is keeping the egg together, just as it is compressing the air we are breathing to 1/5 of its normal volume (which means that we are consuming air from our tank at 5 times the rate we would consume it at the surface and at 2.5 times the rate we would use it at 33 feet below).

The project complete, Francisco hands me the pad and pen. The problem 8 + 4 - 5 - 8 = is written on it. It only takes a few seconds for me to get the answer, but I realize that in solving the equation, I actually used the pen and pad to break the problem into mutliple parts. I never, ever would think to do this with a problem of this sort. Never have. So, while not all that exciting, I did get a sense of the impact of nitrogen at 100 feet.

We ascend to the coral reef and swim around for a little while. The point of the dive is over, but we're not in any hurry to get out yet. There are lots of parrotfish, a few small species of grouper, something I think might be a yellowtail snapper. Then, in the distance, looking like silver spears, five or six 12-18 inch barracudas cruising along in formation.

Back on the boat, Robert seems fine, though disappointed. He's had some sinus problems and possibly shouldn't have come diving that day. Nevertheless, he'll try the next dive and make up his deep dive another day. We spend about an hour and twenty minutes at the surface, part of it moving toward another dive location.

On the second dive, Robert is fine and we only descend to a maximum of 40 feet. We spend about 40 minutes practicing control of our underwater buoyancy: learning to hover in one spot underwater without sinking or rising too much. Many divers consider this the most important skill to perfect, for obvious reasons. At the end of the dive, Francisco has us take turns trying to swim horizontally through a relatively small metal rectangle without hitting any of the sides. Its much harder than either Robert or I expected it to be. We keep rising up slightly as we swim so that our bodies pass the rectangle but our heels wind up caught at its top. Eventually, we get it after 4 or 5 tries. As we take turns, little garden eels, 1-3 inches in length, poke their heads up out of their holes in the sand, then sink back down again. I'm not sure if we're entertaining them or not.

Back on the boat, the sun is already starting to sink slightly, although its barely 5:15. I'm happy --- maybe a little too happy as a consequence of the nitrogen --- and absolutely starving. As soon as we've docked and cleaned our equipment, I rush back to the place I ate breakfast (not so much because I like the place, but because its a 2 minute walk from BICD).

My dinner in a nutshell: The best snapper I have ever had in my life, a big fillet of it grilled perfectly with pepper and a wedge of lime on the side. Rice, mashed potato and salad, bottle of beer and bottle of water. Tip. About $4.50. I sit on the porch, watching people pass by and also watching a tiny green lizard work its way vertically across the surface of the nearest wall. It pauses with its eyes wide open, keeping absolutely dead still until it becomes confident that I do not plan to snatch it up as an addition to my supper. Then, in a flury of tiny steps, it covers a span of 3 feet in probably less than 2 seconds. At the end of its sprint, the lizard freezes to complete stillness once more.

After a cold shower and a change of clothes, I head back to BICD for "movie night." The dive school has nightly events on its open rooftop, complete with a bar charging 66 cents per beer. The movie is "Iron Monkey," a 1994 Chinese film that was recently promoted in the U.S. by Quentin Tarantino. Anybody who has seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will appreciate that the fight scenes in this much earlier film are of the same supernatural quality. While this movie is not as visually stunning and does not seem to aim for any deeper philosophical meanings (other than that greed is bad and generosity toward the poor is good), it still offers more than most typical "fight" films do.

There are about 30-40 people there on the roof. Most of the BICD staff, some of their friends, and some of the other students, as well as people with no connections to the school whatsoever. There are people from at least 15 different countries. Pizzas are ordered from a nearby shop. By the end of the film, empty beer bottles are everywhere. A few people head out to a nearby bar, but I'm tired and wouldn't mind a quick swim before bed. Most people head home and I do the same. By 10:00, I am floating on my back in the pool at the hostel, watching a couple of bats flutter around the trees, with a clear look at the stars.

By 10:30, I'm fast asleep.

Posted by Joshua on October 7, 2004 12:08 PM
Category: Honduras: Utila
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