Unfolding Utila

I spent four days in Utila getting settled, choosing a dive shop, taking care of some life admin, and getting a few more fun dives under my belt before starting my Advanced Open Water course. My energy and inspiration level was low and I wasn’t digging what Utila was selling.

If you haven’t read it, I suggest you improve your life and do so.
Source: Google Images

Sometimes you need someone else’s love of a place to open your eyes. Like how Bill Bryson’s deeply affectionate account In a Sunburned Country *completely* turned around my interest in Australia 180 degrees.

My guide in Utila became my fellow diver (and, though not made official with a log book autograph, I counted him as my buddy), Edwin. A native of Honduras’ capital city Tegucigalpa visiting from his now-home in Miami to surprise his family for Mother’s Day, he was a bright ray of sunshine. Utila was his place. A place he had been coming for years, first learned to dive, knew people, had some of his fondest memories, and deeply loved. He was purely happy to be back and it showed. And he was kind enough to share his island and his company with me. When experiencing it through his enthusiastic eyes it was impossible to not be affected.

I like piña liquados…

My regular readers may have noticed a pattern in my travels: the way to this girl’s heart is through her stomach. After our second day of diving together, we grabbed lunch of super baleadas and fried plantains covered with ground pork, cabbage, and other typical taco toppings. When I asked him about must-eats around the island the day quickly snowballed. First, we went to Reef Cinema (also the site of a kick ass book shop!) for the best smoothies in town. Even though we just finished eating, we then had get some sopa de caracol (conch soup), *the* dish he emphatically said I must try. Diving is hungry work!

He tracked some down and I learned that sopa de caracol is also the name of a breakout hit 90s Honduran punta/pop song akin to the Macarena, the video of which is FANTASTIC! Look at those outfits… Our soup was cooked fresh especially for us for by a Garifuna woman, who left her restaurant to purchase the conch immediately after we ordered it. Laced with curry, lime, cilantro, and hot sauce with huge hunks of conch, plantains, carrot, and mazapan fruit, it was incredible.

Sopa de caracol, wow!

Over all the tastiness of the day, we talked non-stop about careers, management, family, environmentalism, education, San Francisco and Miami, food, diving, and his dreams to improve Honduras. His bright and optimistic, yet realistic and grounded, outlook was inspiring.

On tap for the evening was a triple header at the soccer field, a community fundraiser and all around happening good time. Travel pro tip: If there are handwritten fliers plastered all over town advertising any special local event, GO! The posters said festivities went from 4-9pm, which apparently meant 6-11pm. We showed up just after 5pm (even when I’m late I’m early!) and while waiting outside the field (we beat the players there!) nibbled on mangoes dressed with chili, salt, and vinegar purchased from the basket of a woman’s bike.

Sour and sweet mangos!

The game was a gathering event for the whole town; the stands were full and it was a super fun localesque experience. There were three matches: two teenage exhibition matches (one girls, one boys), and the equivalent of a minor league Honduran team, the Utila Pirates taking on a rival from the mainland.

I kept accidentally cheering for the wrong team…

We met up with some other friends there and enjoyed the lovely spectacle of the match together. The teenage teams ran about semi-chaotically the pitch. A DJ played dance music. Over the far fence, spectators without tickets–who were later scolded publicly by the DJ–watched, cheered, and threw fireworks onto the field. The announcer for the professional match called the opposing goalie names and said with gusto all sorts of other ridiculousness, as a minor league announcer always should. A travel show/documentary team filmed the scene for a pilot project they are putting together on the Bay Islands. (If they cut it right, you should be able to see me in the stands!) Small children were everywhere climbing over and under spectators. One cutie gave her mom/aunt/grandma a particularly focused and forceful hair brushing right in front of us; I couldn’t stop laughing. We ate–you knew this was coming!–a dinner of bbq chicken, tortillas, beans, and coleslaw, then topped it off with a helping of tres leches. Mmm… The Pirates won and everyone left happy.

Happy fans. Go Pirates!

From there, we took to the town. First Tranquilo, which has become my favorite night spot on the island, where I drank the coldest beer of my life on the second story of their dock and we left minus one pair of sunglasses. Next we hit the iconic Treetanic where Edwin reconnected with old Utila buddies and I took in the unusually bedazzled and beautiful atmosphere. And what late night would be complete without a post-midnight snack at the baleada stand smack in the center of town off the main the dock? Up far too late for a morning dive.

A detail of steps leading into Treetanic during the daytime, only a glimpse of the art that covers this enormous bar.

Since that lovely day, I have more whole-heartedly embraced the Utila spirit (minus the drug culture). I have opened my eyes to the emerald green hummingbirds that inhabit the island (and actually LAND on branches and perches!), let go of my frustrations about street traffic, thrown myself into diving, built more social connections with cool people, ran into old friends from previous stops on my trip, discovered a rockin’ book shop, and been happy giving the food scene a closer look. Expect blog posts on all of these topics soon. Now, when the dive boat is headed back to shore and the coastline of Utila town comes into sight, I smile.

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