The first time thy name graced my ears was whilst bartending in Antigua, Guatemala…
A riley group of international backpackers on their third round of Cuba Libres were getting into animated conversation at the bar…
Mate #1: “…oh yeah…I completely got narked. I couldn’t add 4 + 6 on the wet board!”
Mate #2: “…and did you do that thing with the eggs? How cool was that?!”
Mate #3: “I didn’t see any egg thing. Why didn’t my instructor show us that?”
Mate #1: “Well that’s because YOU are only Open Water Certified, and WE are “Advanced.” They only do the egg trick in the Advanced Course.”
Mate #3 then proceeds in making the following ordered hand motions:
1. first spreading his arms wide
2. then sticking one finger into the enclosed circle of an “okay” sign
3. and finally making the motions of dealing out a deck of cards.
All three bust out in hysterics and high fives.
This is where I serve them their 4th round of Cubas and interject:
“What did that mean?” (referring to the hand motions).
Mate #3 laughs, repeats the hand motions, and says, “It’s the underwater signal for; “Big Fucking Deal.”
Utila is part of the Caribbean Bay Islands, 50km (31mi) off the North coast of Honduras and world renowned as one of the cheapest places in the world to learn how to dive.
Utila, in a dozen more animated backpacker-bar-conversations, was described to me as: “a backpackers paradise”; “a gringo-trail legend”; and even “a divers wet dream.”
“Well we will see about that!”, I said to myself as I hopped over the bar one Friday, told my boss I’d be back in a week, and grabbed my rucksack.
I didn’t return for three months.
I left Antigua at 4 a.m. on Saturday and arrived the next day on the daily morning ferry into Utila at 10 a.m.
Arriving at the port the first day, most newcomers haven’t any idea of their “fresh meat” status. Divemasters and instructors from every dive shop line up the docks scouting out perspective students for a course in diving….or in bed.
But I had been warned. Somehow, on my ferry ride to the island, I found myself sitting at a table of divemasters who were living on Utila but returning from a weekend “breather” in La Ceiba.
They eyed me up and down carefully…
“Ah. You’re new. One week? Yeah right. You’ll be here for months. So let me offer you some advice. There are three lies that sum up life on this island which you will encounter regularly:
1. “I’m not drinking tonight”
2. “I love you.”
3. “I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“For many, in that order. You’ve been warned.”
My story begins here. But not only are there hidden “lies” and “rules” to life on the island Utila, but also a list of lingo that it takes two months of trodding the island barefoot to comprehend. Therefore, throughout the story, I pause to define such terms that might be in need of explanation. And thus we proceed…
Upon disembarkment, I broke off from the herd and explored the island a bit.
“Hum. No real beach to speak of. Not even many palm trees. *ouch* The locals all speak English. The water is full of trash. Is that a refrigerator door jutting out from the sand? The bathrooms on the docks all drop directly into the water. *ouch!* *ouch!* And WHAT is biting me?!”
Minuscule insects that visit the bay islands in waves of blood-thirsty destruction. Visits are unpredictable and always untimely. Known for their passionate addiction to sweet backpackers-blood. DEET resistant, but famously rumored to “drown” in coconut oil. May leave as many as 50 bites per square inch of skin.
“Not a chance I’ll stay on this island for more than three days,” I said as I slammed my mental fist down.
I “wandered” down the only road on the island to the dive shop “Underwater Vision” and signed up for a three-day Open Water certification course for an a brilliant $130 dollars (INCLUDING my room for three nights).
The next day I began my PADI Open Water Course in scuba diving.
Defined: Scuba Diving
Skin diving with scuba apparatus where one *who is comfortable* is very likely to fall head-over-heals in love with the underwater world. Love for sea turtles and Spotted Eagle Rays, Queen Angel fish and Green Moray Eels. Love for sea fans and jellyfish, for the iridescent squid and octopus, and for lobster and shrimp hidden under coral and in sponges. Love for firework shows of bioluminescence, for schools of squealing dolphins racing the boat and for the chance that one might actually meet acquaintance with the legendary Whale Shark one day. The kind of love that could make a person call his or her ticket agent to postpone a date of departure a few days, weeks…or months.
My love for daily diving, sunsets and stars in combination with my sudden distaste for shoes festered together into a new passion for this so-called “island life.” But my “week plan”, and my boss’s emails inquiring as to my return date to bar-work, still dug their fingernails into my agenda.
And then something happened. Something VERY small happened, with monumental consequences.
I caught Amoebas.
Naked freshwater, marine or parasitic protozoa that form temporary pseudopods for feeding and locomotion.
Parasites..*grimaces*..that live in your stomach… *cringes*… and mass reproduce… *shudders*… and force you to lay in your bed in gut wrenching pain until your roommate, tired of your constant moaning, drags your in-denial-ass to the doctor *which in Utila, inspires a terror of its own* to get antibiotics. The drugs essentially nuke the little bastards, as well as everything else in your digestive and immunity systems. Not pretty. But if you´re young, you´ll survive.
And how specifically did this terrible infection conspire to re-route my entire travel itinerary into staying on this island for 2.5 months?
A week of “down time” with mild sickness allowed Utila just enough flirting time for me to successfully and completely “fall” for island and diving life.
And what exactly did I fall for? Barefootedness. Constant sunshine. Coconut bread. Walls of beautiful ocean. Baleadas (local “cuisine”). Bars on docks. Frothy coconut drinks. Skinny dips. Fresh fish BB-Qs every night. No cars. No phones. No TV. No air conditioning. AND passionate and interesting people from every corner of the world who all shared a love for the former, as well as a love of lacking the latter.
But most importantly: Diving. Days dedicated to diving and constant discussion about diving with people passionate about diving.
Rigorous training course in which one becomes a certified and professional scuba diver. Course normally includes about 6-8 weeks of daily diving in coordination with physical tests and intensive study of the Physics, Physiology, Mechanics, Equipment, Instruction and Safety of underwater diving. At successful completion of the course, trainee receives a pretty little card and the very “cool” title of “Divemaster” — which legally allows a person to work professionally in the dive industry. Certification makes world travel suspiciously easy, usually completely neglects all former years of formal education and has caused more than one “spat” between diver and his/her parents who have higher aspirations for their child that becoming a “dive-bum.”
Life became gloriously simple.
Two dives in the morning. Lunch with fellow divemasters discussing what we saw on our morning dives and laughing over silly student stories. Two dives in the afternoon. Dinner (often times guiltily eating what we saw during our afternoon dives) with fellow divemasters discussing what we saw on our afternoon dives and laughing over silly student stories. In the evening, drinks on the docks watching sunsets, discussing what we saw on our afternoon dives and laughing over…
You get the point.
Diving, food, diving, fish, diving, drinking, diving, BB-Qs, diving, swimming, diving, snorkeling, diving, stargazing, diving, sunsets, diving.
It doesn’t take long to wade deep into the wave of island life in Utila. Before you know it, your skin is the shade of the coconuts burning in your campfire, your feet are tough enough to walk on glass, and your tolerance for CocoLoco’s pina coladas is in the double digits.
CocoLocos is the most famous bar-on-a-dock in Utila. It hosts regular theme nights including, but not limited to; Toga Night, Cross-dressing Night and Body Paint Night. A large square hole is centered in the dock (just down flow from the drop-into-the-ocean toilet). An average of five persons per night will undoubtedly pass through this hole before the night ends (promptly at 1:00 a.m., when ALL the electricity on the island abruptly turns off).
Directly related to the fact that there is severely limited access to television, radio, phones and, in general, ANY form of communication with the outside world (even slower-than-frozen-molasses internet costs a budget-crushing $15 US per hour) — most temporary habitants of the island are happily forced to find other productive uses of their non-diving time.
One such activity includes laying your body at the end of the sand airplane landing strip and then screaming mad profanities whilst the plane comes in for landing within an green-moray-eel’s-length from your head.
Another fashion of island entertainment comes in the form of monthly full moon parties, and of course, the infamous bi-annual “SunJam.”
Ingredients for “SunJam”
1 Deserted Island a boat ride away from Utila
125 Palm Trees
2 Fresh Fish Fry Tables
2 Palm Leaf Thatched Huts
1 Space Cake Stand
500 International Travelers
7 Imported DJs
1 Whopping Sound System
2 Dozen Tiki Torches
Instructions for making SunJam:
Place deserted island in a body of turquoise blue water and sprinkle the edges with soft, white sand and surround with the world’s second largest coral reef. One boat at a time, slowing churn in the 500 browned travelers. Turn on the party around 12:00 in the afternoon, add the space cake and let simmer for six hours. Then slowly turn the music up and congregate the people into the sand dance floor. The DJs will naturally bring the crowd to a full boil. Maintain this temperature for twelve hours, or until the sun has risen. When the screaming and whistling turns to “ohhhing” and “ahhhhing”, it’s time to lay the people out in hammocks under palm trees to cool. Let rest for 24 hours. Savor the sweet memories and repeat twice a year.
Other forms of island entertainment include: “Bunkering Down for Hurricanes”, “Nitrogen Narcosis”, “Watching or Participation in Snorkel Tests” and “Pursuit of the Mythical Whale Shark” — all of which are defined below.
Severe, tropical cyclones occasionally crash the Utila party. Hurricane Chantal did so during my own stay on the island. The emergency plan for hurricanes usually consists of bunkering down with the beer and waiting. My dive shop was the ONLY on the island to send our boat out on the last day of the storm. Our mild fear turned into laughing hysterics when, like a picture page from a Dr. Suess book, we saw a full sized COUCH float by us…in the middle of the ocean.
Defined: Nitrogen Narcosis
The intoxicating effect nitrogen produces when you breath it underwater (of which the exact cause still eludes physiologists). Symptoms include: stuporous and/or inappropriate behavior, impaired attention, slow thinking, euphoria and elation, poor judgment and short term memory loss. Divers are likely to first notice narcosis around 80 feet and are always anxious to feel it on their first deep dive. “Did you get narked?!” is a question that you will over hear at 90% of “Advanced Course” dinner table circles. The effect is equal to about one CocoLoco pina colada.
Defined: Snorkel Test
Initiation rite of passage for becoming a certified Divemaster. Consists of a snorkel, large crowd on a bar on the beach, and the nastiest, most despicable concoction of spirits your best and most un-trustworthy mates can dream up (who, of course, are determined to “up” the nastiness scale at least 10 notches from their OWN *unmemorable – only because they blacked out* snorkel test). Escape from this date with liver death is impossible; One must simply succumb to the stool in the center of the circle and accepted his/her soon-to-be-faced fate. Frightenly similar to a scene from “Animal House” or some equally terrible American, 80’s, frat-house-flick.
Defined: Whale Shark
The largest fish in the world, the Whale Shark is a plankton-eating Rhincodon typus shark, sizing up to 50 ft (15 m) in length. Holds legendary, and almost mythical status on Utila. Boat captains (despite “sighting bonuses”) go madd *-er than they already are* at constant requests to follow flocks of birds that “supposedly” fly over roaming whale sharks who are stirring up plankton that the birds like to feed on. Everyone knows “someone” who saw one.
And so it was in this manner that 2.5 months of dive and island life waved in and out of my life like that couch in the ocean; A comical, colorful, fiction-like and purely delightful episode of my life that I sometimes wonder if really happened at all.
The magic of Utila is in it’s unique island and diver culture. And some may say that Utila is only a petty backpackers’ party, but for me, Utila was, and continues to be, simply a gathering place for people passionate about life. We were called from all parts of the world, to share the same daydream, under the same palm tree, in the same aqua waters, for the same magical moment. And although not a single player in my Utilian adventures remains on the island today, it brings me many silent smiles knowing that THIS morning, someone was surely lying at the end of the airstrip waiting for the plane to land. And that THIS afternoon, someone certainly told the story of a near-death escape from a barracuda over lunch. And, TONIGHT, without a doubt, someone will jump through the hole in CocoLoco’s dock.
So the legend lives on.
And my feet may be soft again, but my memories will forever walk on glass.
*puts regulator in mouth*
*deflates her BCD*
*gives the underwater ‘OK’ sign*
*head disappears underwater*