A Year and a Day #23: Diving on Utila – Honduras

Diving on Utila
Sunday, 28th December 2003

From the Caribbean port of La Ceiba, Gari and myself took a boat to the
island of Utila, and sailed into the rainy season. And it really rains in
Utila’s rainy season. The first two days were more or less sunny, and
then the rain began with the softness of an artillery bombardment. Rain
sang to us all night while we slept, burst like an unending explosion on
the corrugated iron roof of the bar where I tried to study my diving
homework, it drizzled into every gap, gully and dip in the streets, it
soaked socks and trousers and made shoes stink (or perhaps mine did

But fortunately, I hadn’t come to the island for the sunshine, I had
come, like everyone else, to dive � Utila is supposed to be the cheapest
place to learn to dive in the world. My beginner’s qualification, the
PADI Open Water Diver, cost a total of $176, which included four
days accommodation. We arrived without anything arranged, and our
confusion increased upon arrival, as every dive shop seemed to be
offering essentially the same package.

We were on the verge of signing up to “Captain Morgan’s”, but after what
in retrospect still seems like a sensible FAQ, the conversation went very
weird and more than a little contemptuous on their side. We were trying
to sort out what insurance would cover us in an accident, especially of
interest given the need to sign a release form, and this seemed to
utterly bewilder the instructor and office manager. “If you drop
something heavy on your foot… Well, that’s your fault isn’t it?” were
some of the helpful lines we were given before we became utterly
disturbed and took our leave. In between me choosing to do my course with
“Utila Dive Centre”, we met a friend of mine from Todosantos, Teresa. She
regaled us with how the week of diving had left her temporarily deaf and
her nose bleeding � Gari had already been becoming more and more dubious
about doing the course, and this convinced him he’d rather stay on the
island’s surface while I dived.

I ended up being taught by Andy at the Utila Dive Centre, and am
extremely grateful that was how the more or less random selection of
diving instructor turned out. Andy was either one of, or the most
qualified instructor on the island – at any rate he held the highest rank
on PADI’s flowchart of qualifications. Even after a few minutes
conversation, his aura of professionalism and expertise came across; he
never barked orders or tried to impress us with his experiences � he
didn’t need to. While I don’t think there is much danger of a serious
diving injury on Utila � every school seemed well set up � I ran into a
lot of old friends from earlier points on the backpacker trail who
finished their diving more abruptly than they expected to, with blood
seeping from their ears or other less dramatic problems � so it does seem
to make a difference who you train with.

I began my diving course rather nervous. After a day and a half of
homework and watching the unintentionally amusing PADI training videos,
we put on wetsuits and scuba gear, and the boat set out for the coral
reef. Everyone on the course was assigned a diving partner (a “buddy”),
and told to stay close to him at all times, we swam in the water to the
diving point, deflated our life jackets and slowly sank.

I found myself on some primeval level scared by the prospect of breathing
deeper than a few metres under water, particularly nervous of getting
nervous and mistakenly holding my breath (the worst thing you can do in
scuba, more or less � it brings on lung rupturing type injuries). I’ve
also long had problems with an at least partially blocked nose for a good
proportion of my life – which could potentially make it impossible for me
to dive very deep. As one descends, the water pressure increases and
pushes onto the air pocket in the inner ear. This quickly becomes
agonising unless one is frequently equalising the pressure, typically by
holding one’s nose and blowing into it, to refresh the air in the ears. I
sank into the clear sea lightly holding my nose, morbidly anticipating
the moment when I couldn’t equalise the pressure any more and the pain
would grow and grow until I would be forced to ascend.

But my sinuses performed admirably, and diving is incredible. It is
nothing like swimming, no blundering flapping to keep one’s mouth above
water, no struggling against gravity. It is being weightless, it is
flying. I could never have imagined the freedom of movement the residents
of the ocean enjoy, they must truly be freer than birds.

Slowly I learn to use my fins to manuever, rather than waving my front
paws ineffectually. With powerful fins enhancing me and a good neutral
weighting in the water, I wish to be somewhere and I am there. I must
always be near my buddy, but why must we swim stiffly side by side like
an arguing couple? With minimal effort, I sinuously swim over and around
him, sometimes switching to swimming on my back, watching my breath
bubble to the impossibly high up ceiling of the water. To see where he is
behind me I kick one fin and silently spin until I am standing on my
head, hovering in the water, then spin another 90 degrees to go and meet him.

Honduran sisters and diving folks

Honduran sisters and other diving folks

We swim past fortresses of coral reef, past un-Earthly browns, yellows,
purples. The coral bristles with strange spines, spindely fans, enigmatic
hollow cannon-like protrusions, shallow fungal bulges like radar dishes;
we glide carefully through narrow canyons in the rock wall, a few feet
wide, before swimming out into open water again; I pass shoales of lurid
tropic fish close enough to reach out and gobble up. The sea is sometimes
clear, sometimes a misty nothingness; we practice emergency techniques on
the shallow sand bay then descend to around 18 metres for our swims. I
love to be diving.

A mid-week crisis

By half way through my course, I was feeling pretty down, and began to
long to take a day off to recharge. On top of receiving a rather ominious
email from Todosantos on the 16th, for the first time suggesting I might
have real competition for the job, some quite irrational worrying about
my daily budget (given I had forked out a lot of dollars for the course),
a quite phenomenally disappointing failure of a date with a beautiful
Honduran girl (I, in hindsight, acted like a bit of a doormat and got
walked on as a result), my second day of diving was also somewhat
harrowing. Unlike the first day, we spent the entire boat journey to the
dive site in blistering rain and wind, so I was already pretty cold and a
little tired by the time the dive started. One of the training exercises
was to swim with your mask off for a while, and this went a bit wrong for
me. I started swimming, essentially blind in the haze of the water, and
Andy stopped me, and indicated a mistake I was making.

I tried again, but had got my breathing confused, and somehow managed to
fill my mouth with water instead of air from my tank. The combination of
not being able to see and not being able to breath got me instantly
scared in a wash of adrenaline. I tried to clear my mouth, but I think I
was panicking, so wasn’t keeping a seal on my mouth piece, and more water
got in. The urge to forget all the training and equipment and madly swim
for the surface began to grow from a deep un-sapient part of my brain � I
reached out and clutched Andy’s arm with white knuckles. Even when I
cleared my mouth of water and sucked in air, my heart was racing so much
I didn’t feel like I’d got any air in, and immediately started taking
another hyperactive breath. I fought down the urge to swim up, fought to
calm my breathing, and took my mask and slipped it back on, and after a
few attempts managed to clear it of water. Andy made a “Calm, calm”
gesture, and swam me back to the group.

I kneeled in the shallow water, and was completely alone as my heart patter-pattered. I
longed for someone to reach out and pat my shoulder in support but no one
in the group even looked at me – but they probably hadn’t realised
anything had happened. I repeated a meditation mantra over and over again
and slowly calmed down (something I picked up from one of the Bank of
England’s graduate training courses). Once everyone had finished the
exercise, Andy took me out again and I completed the technique with no

Coming back to land, I felt cold all the way to my centre and very
exhausted. I walked through the rain to my hotel, and slumped on the bed
� as there was no hot water in the hotel’s showers I couldn’t think of
any way to warm myself up before the next dive looming tomorrow. Gari
offered helpful words as best he could, but I headed to the dive the next
morning really wishing that the bad weather would force a postponement.

But the dive went ahead that lunchtime, and strangely my spirits rose as
I set about fixing my gear together and checking the dials on my
equipment. I realised I actually knew what I was doing, at least
partially, and completed my suiting up quicker than most of the group. We
sailed out in blistering rain and again the diving was fantastic.

Latino Caribbean

Utila’s island culture was fascinating to me. I’d never been to the
Carribean before, and Utila was a friendly mix of mainland-style Latin
Hondurans and white and black Caribbeans � I never knew whether someone
would speak to me in Spanish or the sometimes incomprehensible English of
the island. Some locals just spoke with a slowed down version of the
Afro-Caribbean accent one hears in London all the time, but others,
particularly older white men, spoke so strangely it took a few minutes to
understand an even simple line like, “D’ya want to come back now?” The
individual words were all stretched out, while the spaces between words
narrowed to the point of non-existence. It was a strange experience to
see antique pale grandfathers calling out to each other in an accent that
would make Ali G proud.

There is a local culture in Utila that seems to carry on a step away from
the backpackers and divers. Locals wandered into breakfast canteens and
laughed about the cold weather, played large games of football and
volleyball � some little roads petered out into wooden walkaways wobbling
over marshes, houses on stilts as neighbours � a thousand miles away from
the nearby peanut smoothies and book exchanges on the main street. Over
breakfast in one simple canteen, I stepped into the general conversation
about the rain and later mentioned I was from England. Osmond, a
venerable black man in worker’s overalls and a proud straight posture
that pilates instructors would envy, (“The best man on the island”, in
his own smiling words) remembered England. “England… In England it’s so
coold your thaughts freeze.” I suspect it would not take long to make
good friends on the island.

During one night in the great dock-side bar Coco Loco, I wandered away
from my friends to the edge of the quay to look at the night time sea.
Some local young guys were talking – immediately they offered me a share
of their joint, “wanta smoke?” I declined, and asked them about good
night places on the island. “Aahhh,” said the most Hispanic-looking one
of them, “here is good, Mango Inn is good, but wait till de summer, lots
of people, dancing every night, take four ecstasies, find a woman,
dancing all hot and close…” I’m no expert on the subject, but four
tablets of E did seem like a lot to me, “Does your dick still work after
four ecstasies?” I asked. “Nuttin wrong with my front-tal package,” he
grinned. Everyone started giving their views of the effect of ecstasy on
the sex drive, but then a tall American man walked up. “Sorry to disturb
you guys, but here’s a question: dog or cat?” We considered for a minute
and all said, “Dog”. He smiled and walked off. The three of them and I looked at each other non-plussed.

I told the three of them that Utila was famous among young travellers all
over the world, which pleased them greatly. They laughed, “tell all the
wimen in de world, to come to the island for some Latino heat!”

On my last day of diving, I really, really enjoyed myself, apart from a
nervous moment at the start where my right ear wouldn’t clear (but I went
to surface, blew a lot of snot out my nose, and was fine). I was going to
stay an extra day and dive again (Gari had left by this point, bored of
being stuck in intermittently perpetual rain with nothing to do), but
later on, my right ear started aching. Not extremely so, but enough to be
noticeable, and I decided this was the sign to give the diving a rest,
not wanting to start coughing blood, etc like some of my backpacker
acquaintances. I packed my bags, and as walked past the breakfast place
where I had met Osmond and others, the manager leaned out her window and
shouted, “Bye Daniel!” I left with very warm memories of my very cold
time on Utila. I took the boat back to La Ceiba and then a long bus
journey to meet Gari in the capital. Checking my email, I found that the
language school job had been given to someone else, and realised I would need a new plan.

Decision about my travelling

I have resolved to change my travel route. Instead of heading on to South
America, I’m going to travel north/fly to LA and then fly to South East
Asia, probably to Thailand. I’ve had an amazing 5-6 months exploring
North and Central America, but feel like I want a break now. Also, the
financial logic runs as follows: Travelling to South America will use up
a lot of my money, and I will probably have to get to Australia by early
May to use my work visa and make some more money back. Right now the idea
of working in a temping or bar job in Oz for several months just doesn’t
appeal to me, I’m just not sure how exciting a challenge that would be
for me.

Plus, I realised how much I want to see Asia. As an experiment while trying
to decide where next, I wrote down the ten countries I most wanted to
travel to in my life � about half of them were in Asia, and the only
South American contender was Argentina. Think I will leave South America
for a later trip, and give myself as much time as I can to explore it,
rather than rushing through in four months or so. This also means leaving
Australia for later too, but I think the gist of the confusing
bureaucrateese of Australian Immigration is that I can reapply for the
work visa if I don’t utilize it now.

So, Asia. Tremendously excited and a little scared. A whole new world to
uncover, and I don’t even have a guidebook to read. Images of immense
heat, noisy cities, rickshaws, curries, meditation classes, quiet
villages, learning about Buddhism, jungles. No real route occurs to me,
but as I’ve long wanted to see Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, plan
to just fly in and see where the road takes me. Am going to aim to head
up to Japan after some more travelling and try to work there for a little
while and get some more money together. This means I am going to arrive
in SE Asia with enough money remaining to see an awful lot of places,
travel on to India, and maybe even have some money left over to explore
Africa � but that is in the very distant future. I have the indescribable
luxury of having no end date for my travels, and have been realising
recently I just have no especial interest in heading back to England, at
least in the near term. More on this topic later.

Expect a few more emails on Central America, then I’m going to write
a bit to sum up this segment of my travels, and then my travel diary
should start up again in Thailand.

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