Monday, December 15, 2008

Útila the Hun

The view from our porch. We hung out there in the evenings. One guy played guitar and sang. That's the life!For almost 10 months, I had been spending money but hadn’t been making any (with the exception of two weeks in Buenos Aires doing some software development for a friend back home). I had decided to cut out something that had been in my plans since before I began my trip, but was now having second—er, third—thoughts. I was going to skip SCUBA diving, but I was now close to Honduras and I must’ve heard the ocean, fish, and coral calling my name. I e-mailed a dive shop on Útila and got the specifics. It was actually pretty cheap, so I went back to plan A. Warm waters of the Caribbean, here I come!

Adrian got up at the butt-crack of dawn to take me to the bus station. I had a ticket for Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I didn’t know how I would get to La Ceiba—the launching point to Útila—from there, but I’d find out on the way. The bus broke down about an A house on Útila.hour from Tegucigalpa—busted radiator hose I think. That’s where I met Brandon from Colorado and a couple girls. We were all heading to Útila to take SCUBA lessons, so we got to chit-chatting about what busses we could catch from Tegucigalpa and what time they left.

Another couple girls were on a missions trip with YWAM and had called their sponsor who showed up in a small pickup truck to get them and take them the rest of the way into town. I asked them if we could bum a ride since we didn’t have long before we’d miss our connecting bus in the city. The bed of the truck was piled high with people and bags and the cab was filled to capacity with more bodies.

Typical construction on Útila.We arrived in Tegucigalpa around 2:00 PM. The bus was leaving at 3:30, so the timing couldn’t have been better. The kind gentleman dropped us off at the bus station. Before he left, I ran in and checked on the availability of seats. The four of us were in luck. We thanked him and he left with his worker bees. We bought our bus tickets, then went next door to get some lunch. It felt so good to have tickets and know we would make it to La Ceiba the same day. I didn’t want to burn a valuable day because of bus problems.

An old bulldozer on Útila.It’s a straight shot north to La Ceiba from Tegucigalpa, but there’s no road that takes the crow’s route, so you have to go through San Pedro Sula, then cut back to La Ceiba. The bus driver knows the way. The four of us got a room together that night on that waterfront town, then got up early to make sure we were at the ferry dock in plenty of time. We got to the dock, bought our boat tickets, then waited to leave. It’s about 20 miles out to Útila from the mainland, but the ferry smokes. It takes only an hour to get there.

Church of God, along Main Street.Once on the island, the four of us split up and went our separate ways. Well, I went one way and the other three went another. Each of us had specific dive shops in mind. I followed complex directions I had received via e-mail some days earlier. “Once on the island, turn right on the main street. We’re on the left after about 10 minutes.” On this little island, there’s one main drag and one street branching off from the center of Main, lined up with the ferry dock. Main street is about wide enough for one car or two ATVs. Most folks rode bicycles, motorcycles, ATVs, or walked. The occasional car would pass by.

Along the main drag are 3 or 4 churches, shacks posing as restaurants, houses on stilts—in case of hurricane—a few stores, and a dozen dive shops. That’s the deal on Útila—you go there to learn to dive. I found Útila Water Sports with no problem and checked in. I was shown across the street to my room in their two-story housing complex.

Boys playing catch with a mandarine.Back across the street in the office/dive shop, I was given some paper work to fill out—I guess if you drown, they don’t want you suing them. I aced the medical section of the forms, except for my asthma. Little did I know that that one little checkmark would almost be the end of my diving trip. I was introduced to the man in whose hands I would place my life for the next week. Okay, that’s probably a little dramatic. Martin, from Belgium, was one of the nicest guys I have ever met. He was also a wonderful instructor. I couldn’t imagine having gotten anyone better.

Before my first trip under the surface, I had to get written permission by a doctor, due to my asthma. There’s a local doctor, but there’s also an American doctor who goes simply by Dr. John. The dive shop sent me to him. They said the clinic opens at 9:00, but I should show up early. I was there around 8:00. The sign said they didn’t open Martin, my dive instructor, grading my written exam.until 10:00. I needed to get in quickly so I could start my dives in the afternoon, so I just waited on one of the benches on the front porch. The dive shop also warned me he was a bit eccentric and that he shows up whenever he feels like showing up.

At about 10:00, another fella showed up, a regular patient of Dr. John’s. He was an elderly black fellow, probably in his 80s. His name was Dolores Cordón. He and his wife were both born here on the island, while one of his parents was from the mainland and the other from the Caicos Islands. His four children were all in the States, and he had spent many years in New York. He came to see Dr. John regularly to get his diabetes checked. He was very pleasant and I enjoyed talking to him while waiting.

Kate, the dive shop manager, scheduling dives.It began to get hot, so I walked a block down the street and got a Coke, then walked back to the clinic and continued to wait. At 11:00, the (very cute) nurse showed up. She had me fill out some paperwork, then led me into a room in the back of the clinic where she proceeded to take my blood pressure, then had me blow into a device that measures lung capacity—a standard test given to sufferers of asthma. After this, she sent me back out onto the porch to continue waiting.

At 11:30, Dr. John showed up and began seeing patients. By 1:00 PM, he had finished seeing all of his patients—except me. A friend of his had stopped by and they were inside shooting the breeze. I can be an extraordinarily patient guy. I had Aluminum SCUBA tanks.been waiting 5 hours and the Dr. was yakking with a friend. I poked my head in the door and kindly asked if he could see me now—I didn’t know if he was aware he still had someone waiting. He turned to me and said, in a rather raised and agitated tone “I’ll see you when I want to see you! If I want to see you now, I’ll see you now! If I want to see you at 4:30, I’ll see you at 4:30, so get behind me, and if you don’t like it, then get the fuck out!”

I sat back down. At about 1:30, I determined that if he hadn’t seen me by 2:00 PM, I was going to go back to my room, pack my things, and leave the island. At 1:40, the nurse called me in and had me go to another room in the back. A couple minutes later, the doctor walked in, talked a bit, asked me some questions, did a couple quick tests, then signed the waver so I could dive. He acted like nothing had ever happened.

On my way out, the nurse and the receptionist apologized.

Here’s a rundown of my week on Útila:

  • Day 1: I began watching a series of videos and going through a lengthy list of related questions.
  • Day 2: I saw the doctor. Martin and I went over all the material and I had all my questions answered.
  • Day 3: I did my first two dives. We began in about 10 feet of water near the pier. I practiced removing my mask under water, replacing it, and then clearing it. I also had to remove the SCUBA tank and vest (called a BCD, or buoyancy control device) under water and then replace them. These exercises are all just meant to help the beginner get comfortable under the water. Panicking at 100 feet under the surface could end your life in a big hurry.
  • Day 4: I took the written test and missed three out of 50. Two of those were arguably very poorly worded and unclear. Oh, well. I just had to pass, so I can’t complain too much. I also did two more dives. On these dives, we went out in the boat and dived around the reefs. On the last dive, Martin even let me take my camera, which he wouldn’t normally do with a bigger class. It was just the two of us and he knew all I wanted to do was take pictures. At the end of this day, I was a certified Open Water Diver.
  • Day 5: I did two dives—a deep dive where we went down to a shipwreck at 100 feet and a PPB, or Peak Performance Buoyancy, dive. Normally, a diver’s ears shouldn’t hurt, but my left ear was bothering me by the end of this day. It was unrelated to the fact that we went to 100 feet. By “equalizing” as you go deeper, the pressure on your ears is completely normal, just like at the surface. Sometimes, divers get infections or other problems from the water in their ears.
  • Day 6: I did my three last dives—Naturalist, Navigation, and Search & Recovery. For the Naturalist dive, I took loads of photos and later had to identify the things I had photographed, for the Navigation dive, I practiced navigating with a compass and by counting kicks, and had to make my way back to the boat from some random location some distance away simply by following the path we had originally taken by recognizing landmarks, and for the Search & Recovery dive, I practiced swimming in different search patterns and raising an object from the bottom to the surface in a controlled ascent using a special balloon made for just such a purpose. By this time my left ear was really hurting and I had earned my Advanced Open Water Diver certification.
  • Day 7: I just relaxed. I walked around the island and took some photos, as I hadn’t gotten much of a chance to do that so far. It was a nice way to end the week.

Getting the boat ready to go.As part of the two courses I took, I could’ve gone on 8 more dives, called Fun Dives, where you can do whatever you want—take pictures, go to different parts of the reef, or practice skills you’re interested in improving. My ear was bothering me too much and I had a schedule to keep. I can go back sometime down the road and do my Fun Dives.

My last day on the island, I wanted to walk around some and take photos. I hadn’t really had a chance to do that during my busy week of diving, so I wanted to make sure to snap a few shots so I could remember this crazy island. The island is pretty simple to navigate with just two main streets. There are also several really good restaurants that are popular with the tourists. I should mention that everything is pretty expensive there. Remember, it’s really just a tourist destination. Even though many of the tourists are backpackers and don’t have tons of money, it’s a challenge to find a good deal on food, especially if you eat out.That brings me to a point about my lodging.

I was given an unclear description via e-mail by Kate, the dive shop manager, about room pricing, and discovered the problem only when I handed over my credit card the day before departure. She refused to budge and insisted that the misunderstanding was my fault. When I decided there was no hope she was going to do the professional thing, I said “Fine, I’ll pay. Just keep in mind that your e-mail is unclear and other people are going to misinterpret it, just as I did.” That was one of only a few sour moments I experienced while on the island.

Largely, it was a wonderful week. Útila Water Sports was a good shop with good people and good equipment. If you want to learn to dive, I recommend it!


Haley, from Canada.   Martin, my instructor.  Girl and boy on Útila.  Azure Vase Sponge Proof that I dived!Martin (my instructor), Mark, the drop tank, and the boat. Diving to a shipwreck at 100 feet. Haley and Jes from Canada, and Kim, one of the instructors (the one with the wig on!).  Typical transportation in Útila.  Útila Seventh Day Adventist Church  Spotfin Butterflyfish  French Grunt  Cleaning pots and pans on Útila. Kim and Martin (instructors) and Kate (dive shop manager). Getting ready to leave on Monday morning. That's Matt, a U.S. Marine, on vacation.

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