Return to the Yucatan, starting with Tulum

I’m a completely different traveler than I was five months ago. Way back when, I was just starting off, still getting my travel legs, and recovering from splitting up with Ben. I was more tentative. I did a lot of standard touristy things (which was fine, and I would do most again) and stayed close to home in the hostels. I was just getting used to making friends on the road. Now I’m just a few weeks from returning to the states, am beginning to think about endings and life after Central America, am not traveling solo anymore, and do the more serious adventure travel stuff like cavern diving.

Tulum was one of my favorite places when I first passed through Mexico. In fact, it was the first place I “got stuck”. Tulum around two has struck me in a completely different way. I’ve definitely enjoyed it but it has been so different. This time around, the focus was cenote diving. This was the reason I returned and what I meant to do with my time and money. I linked back up with the now thoroughly-bearded Richard (whose new look reminds me of Joaquin Phoenix during his lost year, especially when he wears my douche bans) after parting in Utila over a month ago. He arrived a few days before me so I hung out with friends he had made in the hostel and checked out Tulum from my seasoned-traveler perspective. Then the magic happened: three days diving cenotes, which was such a special experience that I will write more about soon in detail. Cenotes, my first water love, I am so thrilled to be reuinited with you!
You really should consider traveling with a bearded man.
Revisiting Calavera cenote. Woot!! ❤

Back the first time round, I had a pack full of clothes I hated because I didn’t want to bring anything I might loose; I picked up my first bikini in Tulum round one and now have a wardrobe of dresses with me. I know better where the cheap tacos are, how to find the good ice cream and public places to hang, that you need to go around the corner to rent the cheap bikes, and how to negotiate the entrance fee down at a cenote.

Rich’s favorite taco stand, where they cost 7 pesos ($0.55) and have heaps of excellent toppings.
Mayan calendar sculpture in Tulum Parque Central. How did I miss this the first time??
Decisions, decisions.
Street food in Parque Central.
Manquesitas: crispy crepes with cheese and a sweet. I chose dulce de leche.

50 peso beachrider bikes from Casa del Sol, cenote bound with a muy bueno stick.
Restaurant dinner of garlic grilled fish and ceviche. Tasty, but bang for the buck tacos are the way to go!!
My last night out in Tulum we went out for drinks with some fellow divers who had guided us in the cenotes. After talking about life and travel with these other wanderers, we said goodnight as they were headed home and we stuck around to listen to a Spanish ska cover band (who were totally awesome btw!). When giving hugs goodbye, I had advice whispered in my ear from someone who hasn’t been “home” in a long time: just keep traveling. As my Central America leg winds down, this is just the kind of encouragement I like to hear…

Blue Hole Day

Ah, the day many a diver waits for when visiting Belize: Blue Hole Day. The Blue Hole is one of, if not THE, most iconic dive sites in Belize. Unlike most of the reef diving that goes on around here, the Blue Hole is a flooded cenote way out in the Lighthouse Reef. It is 1000 feet across and 150 meters deep, was made famous by Jacques Cousteau, and is now a marine reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite its fame, the Blue Hole received mixed reviews from many divers I encountered, mostly due to the fact that it is just a deep blue hole without the “prettiness” of the reef. But I’ve been diving the reef in Belize and Utila for thirty-odd dives now, so welcomed something different. I was curious what I would think but had an inkling I would dig it.
The Blue Hole, arial view. Image credit http://www.atlasobscura.com

I celebrated Blue Hole Day on Long Caye with my friends at Huracan Diving, where I stayed for a week. Upon waking up at 6am with that same “it’s my birthday!” feeling of holiday specialness, I was immediately confronted by a dilemma: my blue bikini was still wet from hanging outside in the rain. I could of course wear my dry pink bikini but that would be so off theme for Blue Hole Day! I shared my problem with Jerome and Ryan over first breakfast (more on this later) and both voted there actually was no dilemma because whatever I wore was going to get wet on the boat anyway. I took that as two votes for blue. 😛

Yay for Blue Hole Day! (note the bikini choice)
Yum… no better way to start the day than first breakfast!

Huracan Diving on Long Caye is in the unusual situation of being located very close to the Blue Hole, within the same reef in fact. Most people stay further away in Caye Caulker or Ambergris Caye and must get up very early then take a two-plus hour boat ride to get to Blue Hole, usually arriving about 8am, followed by two dives at Half Moon Caye (these people always rave about). It’s a huge day trip! But at Huracan we were was just fifteen minutes away and took multiple trips to nearby Half Moon Caye on different days, so we could take it easy. We got up at a reasonable hour, had first breakfast, departed Long Caye at 7am, and were the first ones at Blue Hole by a long shot. Diving early and without crowds is always better, especially when there is silt that can be kicked up and destroy visibility. As my friend Nick would say, winning!

This is why Long Caye kicks everyone else’s butt on Blue Hole Day and diving Lighthouse Reef anytime.

Our divemaster Jerome briefed us once we anchored at the south side inside the Blue Hole. From the boat we could just barely see the reef edge that is so distinct in arial photos. We went over our dive plan with particular interest paid to going deep; to reach the stalactites we would be maxing out the depth limits for recreational diving so received reminders on maintaining neutral buoyancy at depth, ascent path and timing, the possibility of additional safety stops if needed, and awareness of possible nitrogen narcosis.

What’s inside the hole. Source: Google Images

Down we went, equalizing like normal down to the edge of the reef at about 30 feet. From there it was a sheer drop down. We regrouped, then descended into the dark blue. It was an easy sinking descent to our max depth of 43 meters, a new personal record for me. At that depth, we reached the stalactite overhang. Approaching them, my mind began to race with excitement, wondering if I was tinged with narcosis, but I slowed my breathing and calmed down. From there we saw reef sharks lazily swimming beneath us. We wove in between the stalactites, encrusted with sea life, and I knew for certain then and there I was going to adore cenote diving for sure. Happily, I did flips for the camera, perhaps a little narked out after all. (And yes, I did notice shortly after the flips that my backup second stage had come loose and fixed it…) The whole ambiance was one of adventure and otherworldliness. I loved it.

The deeper you dive the more quickly you use up your air supply, so on a deep dive you can only spend a little time down at depth then take the majority of your time slowly and safely ascending. We spent about ten minutes from jumping off the boat, descending, and swimming the stalactites before beginning our twenty-five minute ascent. On the slow way up we worked our way out of decomp, saw more reef sharks, and enjoyed the view of the blue deep. We took our normal safety stop at fifteen feet at the top reef, and all was well. As we returned to the boat and got ready to depart, a second boat just arrived from Caye Caukler was just being briefed. We were in and out before anyone else.

A little deeper than we’re *technically* supposed to go…

Another glorious thing about Blue Hole Day at Huracan? Double breakfasts! One at 6am beforehand and one at 9am upon returning. I was psyched after a great dive, quick boat ride home, hot shower, and clean clothes that continued my fashion theme. The gang gathered for second breakfast (including pancakes with nutella+chunky peanut butter for me!) and a log book debrief. We were pretty happy after a great morning of diving.

Log bookin’ it up with the gang over second breakfast.

After the adventure of the morning I took it easy for the rest of the day. To add to the happy times we had stew chicken with rice and beans for lunch! Afterwards, Ryan and I spent the afternoon kayaking, snorkelling, having fun with his new GoPro video camera, and scaring the bejesus out of Christmas tree worms and the spots off Flamingo Tongues (two of my favorite creatures!) at the shallow reef just off the coast near the Long Caye west dock. That night we ate shrimp, drank Belikin, and I finally got my first win against Ryan in Rummikub. Heart Blue Hole Day!

Happy blue diver.

Get me to the boat on time: five countries in 56 hours by land, air, and sea

With one more month left in Central America and having reached my southern-most destination, it was time to turn around and head north towards my exit in Cancun. I would be revisiting Belize and Mexico to meet up with friends I had met along the way and dive Lighthouse Reef in Belize and cenotes in Mexico.

First stop: Long Caye in Belize to visit some lovely people I met three months ago in Caye Caulker who run a guest house out in the Lighthouse Reef that I would describe as a diving retreat. Long Caye is a small island with a permanent population of only about twenty people and is without regular transport; there was one boat I *must* make if I wanted to make it there. My deadline was set: Wednesday at 2pm I had to be on a dock in Belize City. To get there from Granada, Nicaragua would be a three-day travel blitz through five countries; I was under no illusions that I would have time for sight seeing along the way. It was another epic journey, this time executed on my own without a buddy, and surprisingly enjoyable despite the serial early mornings.

Three days, five countries, over 700 miles via bus, plane, taxi, and boat.

My original plan was to fly directly from Managua, Nicaragua to Belize City, Belize. But this plan was thwarted by a malfunctioning airline website resulting in a sudden drastic price increase. I decided to go by land instead, purchased a bus ticket, but then–unconfident with the Guatemalan bus system’s ability to get me from Guatemala City to Belize City in under 24 hours–I opted to shill out some extra cash for a short plane flight to insure I reached my destination on time. More expensive, but hey, it worked.

Thus it began:

DAY ONE, Monday
  • 3:30 am: Woke after a fitful sleep; I was up every hour because I don’t have a reliable alarm clock and did not trust the hostel night watchman to wake me at the appropriate time. My taxi reservation had been lost just hours before and there was doubt whether or not it would actually arrive. Had more bizarre lucid dreams–a habit of mine on this trip–which weren’t helped by a dormmate with a strong stutter who approached my top bunk in the middle of the night and started talking to me. (He was already on my bad side: earlier that evening when I lost my bus ticket and was frantically going through my stuff, he lectured me on not getting stressed out, saying all the things a stressed out person does NOT want to hear. I’m sure he meant well, but good god his attempt at late-night conversation was disorienting!)
  • 3:45 am: Taxi did arrive on time (yay!) and drove me one hour to Managua, Nicaragua.
  • 5:30 am: Caught my TICA bus from Managua to Guatemala City. This bus ride would take two days. TICA bus is the way to travel; they execute travel so smoothly. With comfortable space and provisions, the ride was pleasant. I alternated between sleeping, reading/writing, and enjoying the view of the countryside. I had two seats to myself, my travel pillow, blanket, loungey clothes, snacks, and a huge stack of books mostly procured from Lucha Libro in Granada, including:
    • For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway
    • Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sedaris
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez
    • Anna Karenina, Tolstoy
    • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle
    • A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle
    • Pride and Prejudice, Austin
    • The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Franklin
    • The Trial and Death of Socrates, Plato
    • I, Claudius, Graves
    • Common Sense, Paine
Oh, TICA bus, you need some english speaking proof-readers…
  • Over the next twelve hours on the bus, we left Nicaragua, crossed into Honduras, then into El Salvador. I had a whole different emotional reaction to travel this trip. The first times I entered both Guatemala and Honduras I felt an element of fear. I didn’t know what it would be like and had images of potential danger dancing in my head. This time, I felt safe on the TICA bus (they know how to seamlessly do a border crossing) and nostalgic for my time already spent in Honduras. I was happy to return, even just passing through for a short period. El Salvador was new, but I still felt secure; I know how to make these transits now.
  • 2:00 pm: Rest stop. Discovered El Salvador uses US dollars as their primary currency. Sweet! This makes things easier: instead of different currencies here and there, I can use USD the whole way to Belize!
  • 6:00 pm: Arrived in San Salvador, El Salvador. Driving through downtown, I was surprised how lame San Salvador is; it reminded me of San Pedro Sula in that it is FILLED with shiny plastic American chain fast food (what I hesitate to call) restaurants. Nothing special whatsoever that I saw. No charm, all neon.
  • 8:00 pm: I had designs for a papusa dinner, but those went out the window fast with a late night arrival in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Instead, after some internet time sorting out logistics for the following day, I ended up eating pizza and drinking cool red wine out of a champagne flute at an over-air conditioned Italian restaurant just across the street from my hostel.
DAY TWO, Tuesday
  • 4:15 am: Awoke after another night of dreaming people were in my empty dorm talking to me. (WTF crazy brain? Just let me sleep already!!) Took a taxi to the TICA bus station for leg number two.
  • 6:00 am: Caught the TICA bus to Guatemala City. Still had two seats to myself, so comfyness continued. Read a little, slept LOTS.
  • 10:00 am: Crossed the border into Guatemala and found papusas! Just a few cents apiece, I got myself a small plate for second breakfast.
Papusas in Guatemala, just over the border.
  • I was immediately happy to be back in Guatemala. On my first run through back in April, I didn’t fully appreciate the vibrancy of the culture and people. Instead of plastic lawn ornaments like in El Salvador, bunches of flowers are sold on the side of the highway. The landscape feels lush and green and friendly. I hadn’t realized how much I missed it.
  • 12:30 pm: Arrived in Guatemala City and immediately took a taxi to my hostel. I actually *liked* driving through Guatemala City, which you are not supposed to as it is notoriously dangerous and charmless. Even though most tienda business is conducted behind iron grates for safety, that Guatemalan flare was still there. I picked up four bottles of Quetzalteca, my favorite cheap Guatemalan spirit, then hunkered in at the hostel for the night, eating a dinner of pan fried english muffins with peanut butter and bananas.
That didn’t last long…
DAY THREE, Wednesday
  • 4:30 am: Woke early once more and took a shuttle to the airport, arriving the recommended 1.5 hours before departure. I was the first person at the minuscule domestic terminal, it took two seconds to check me in, and then I slept on a bench for an hour and twenty minutes. Ugh. There is nothing I hate more than getting to the airport way too early. Don’t get me wrong, I never arrive late enough to miss flights, but being there so early is an unnecessary waste of time that drives me nuts.
  • 6:30 am: On a backdrop of beautiful Guatemalan volcanoes and rolling hills, finally departed on TAG flight to Flores, Guatemala.
That beautiful Guatemalan landscape.
  • 7:15 am: Arrived in Flores. During customs inspection discover that my stuffed-to-the-max backpack had busted open at the seams in three places. D’oh! Luckily my rain cover kept things mostly in place for the rest of this trip. I was super amused to see the Belikin beer ad printed on the back of my Tropic Air boarding pass. Can’t wait to get me a bottle of stout!
Belikin pride!

  • 9:00 am: Departed on Tropic Air flight to Belize City. It was a teeny tiny propeller plane with room only for six passengers. Being the only single, they asked if I wanted to sit up front in the copilot’s spot. Um, how about yes absolutely?!
Our little propeller plane.
They should have given me a co-pilot hat!
All the stuff I could have touched and totally screwed us all over.
  • 9:45 am: Landed at Belize City airport, gathered my luggage, and went out to the curb to find a transfer to downtown. All taxis charged $25–outrageous!! I figured there must be a better way, but apparently no buses go to the airport (really? I still find this hard to believe…) I did discover a shuttle to the Princess Hotel, where my boat was departing from. I hitched a ride. The driver told me he is waiting for another flight and we will leave in 10-15 minutes.
  • 11:30 am: Shuttle FINALLY leaves the airport after over an hour of collecting 7 other people on 3 different flights. All but the last passengers were peeved.
  • 11:45 am: Arrived in Belize City proper. Acquired stewed pork plate for lunch, patching material for imminent backpack repair, and special request items for peeps on Long Caye. Searched for a Belikin singlet that did NOT say “You better Belize it!” on the back. Was unsuccessful.
  • 1:00 pm: Stormy weather hit. The seas looked rough and you could not see past the edge of dock. Looking out at the water made me think about how two weeks ago some people I knew got lost at sea in Honduras between Roatan and Utila. They were miraculously found after four day adrift, but after hearing that story I was a smidge leery of boat travel, even though my situation and theirs was absolutely nothing alike. I was in the good hands of capable crew who knew the conditions and area.
Not my ideal vessel for inclement weather…
  • 2:00 pm: The weather leveled off, rain mostly subsided, and the small uncovered boat left on schedule. I huddled in the back, sharing a giant yellow raincoat with another guest as we road into a light rain. After just a few minutes, the rain stopped and the ride became much more pleasant. We crossed the open blue, the mangroves of Turneffe Atoll, and the last leg of ocean until we entered Lighthouse Reef.
  • 4:00 pm: I arrived on Long Caye, safe and sound and on schedule! I happily took a welcome coconut caipirinha from my hostess Ruth. An excellent beginning to a week of chilling out.
Hello Long Caye. Nice to meet you. 🙂
Woohoo! Made it. Time to kick back and enjoy the island lifestyle.
It was a long trip, but I actually really enjoyed it. I covered a lot of ground over those three days and got to see hours of beautiful scenery during transit. I also felt very confident and secure the whole time, and am happy to have the travel scene of Central America down. I enjoyed feeling independent and capable. Sometimes it is all about the journey, no? It does feel weird to be making my final moves towards departure in three weeks. Trying not to think about it!!

Leaving Utila

On the road again, but I still ❤ Utila.

It had to happen eventually. Especially after seven weeks. The family had to break up, the party had to stop, the bubble had to burst. A little bit ago there was a tragedy that struck the dive shop and then a baby hurricane hit; it was grey overcast with an odd mood cast over my corner of this island. Even though the rain poured down, the heat and humidity never cut. It’s like the island started rejecting us. The sunshine good times were over and it was time to start getting the hell out. That was two weeks ago, and I feel like I have been saying goodbyes ever since.

I will miss being so connected to this tight-knit community. I’ve made so many friends here who I adore. I love how long it takes me to walk the 100m from the dive shop to my house because I am stopped over and over by my friends–sharing news, giving a dinner invitation, or just saying hi. You can’t help but be keyed in to what’s happening with everyone, and it is a beautiful beautiful thing.

Some say Utila will steal your soul. Perhaps it does. The last days have been an especially crazy mix of celebration, goodbyes, and large quantities of rum. Mad fun, bittersweet, weird. The crew is all shipping out in all separate directions. DMTs are graduating, new instructors are being minted; everyone is finishing what they came here to do. It’s getting dangerously close to the Bitter End.

I have loved this time in my life and will miss these brilliant moments dearly.

As we gathered up our posse on another “last night”, this one for Rich and Brian, walking down the street from La Cueva to Skid Row we called out for a final “Roll call!!”. Won’t be many more nights all together now. Just a few last family dinners and farewells. Oh, plus a naked dive and a fancy dive to cap things off.  It’s been a blast, and I love so many of you. Hope to catch each and every one elsewhere in the world, another place another time, where we can reminisce about when we called insane Utila “home”.

But Nicaragua and Mexico beckon. I actually booked a hostel in San Pedro Sula and Leon the other day, so I know the departure is happening. After doing some travel research, suddenly I’m not just “leaving Utila” but headed towards new adventure, and it looks like it’s going to be awesome. Packing up my bag for the first time in a month, it is time. I’m getting excited.

On my last day, I walked about settling up my business. (I don’t skip town without paying my tabs, unlike *some* people!) I said farewell to my laundry lady, happy birthday to Denny Bush, scheduled a haircut, said bye to the ladies at La Casita, waved to Sophia passing by on the back of an ATV, got more compliments on my fancy dive outfit the day before, picked up a pack of cookies for the afternoon fun dive at BICD, said what up to Tom, had a super mega baleada at Seven Seas, and was reminded by Doug and Vero about my going away party that night. That night at Vero’s place we all gathered and DJ Jeff started off the party with MJ’s “Thriller”, because my Utila family knows my jam. Doug and I danced the night away. My last morning I spent with joking and laughing Beau and Ben at Rio Coco, then one last liquado and sausage sandwich at my favorite spot, Che Pancho, with Nick. When I closed out my bill at UDC for the third time, Rusty eyed me sceptically. No! I’m leaving this time. Really! I left the island feeling so happy.

Mic spike, smoke bomb, I’m going to get my harmonica… in Nicaragua. I’m out!

Sunset dockside beers with friends, is there a better way to end the day?
…perhaps by throwing in a few dead baby jokes! Oh, we are wonderful people…
A little bike-towing mischief en route.
Just hanging on a boat with a bunch of hot half-naked men, how I do.
Tying up on the beautiful south side of Utila, per usual for an afternoon boat.

Tea-quila shots! Can’t let the photo dive boat props go to waste…
Wouldn’t be a party without a cute me+Nico photo. BEFORE he ditches us to go to sleep. 😛

Running to Treetanic in the rain. I was so proud I didn’t loose my shoes that night. Photo courtesy of  Courtney Ramos.

The gang, rockin’ it down the street. Photo courtesy of Courtney Ramos.

The real Aussies representing at Treetanic. Photo courtesy of Richard McKenna.
Let’s hear from all the Americans: Aussie aussie aussie! Oi oi oi!! Photo courtesy of Courtney Ramos.
Rich after he survived his divemaster snorkel test, wearing now-my staff t-shirt. 😉 Photo courtesy of  Richard McKenna.

IDC party and the man of the hour: Instructor Doug! With scores that were practically perfect in every way. Gratz again, hon. 😀
Kissie kissie!
Doug and Sophia, peer-pressure cheering me to stay just a few more days. Well, okay… Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.
Surprisingly met up again with the ever-charming Mr. Nick Cooper. Next stop, Nicaragua! Photo courtesy of  Nick Cooper.
Sky over the Utila harbor on the night of the boat light parade, from the back of Denny Bush’s speedboat.
Vero getting the party started after boat light parade when UDC, Cross Creek, and my boat joined together to make a big floating dance floor in the middle of the harbor.

Ross taking over the bbq master mantle.
Gearing up for my *actual* last dive.
Representing UDC as we infiltrate BICD!
No Doug, Plata is never ok. Except when all the Flor is gone. 😛
Last night revelry. Who knew the beach party could actually be good??

The LAST last Utila dive

So Utila. I stuck around an extra few days waiting on a travel buddy, to wrap up my time in Utila with final experiences, and to check out the Dive Festival going on right now. A few festival events sparked my interest: the Guinness Wold Record diver pyramid, the $10 sidemount/rebreather try dive, and the lionfish hunt, for instance. None of these I made it to, but instead: the UDC “fancy” fun dive for $15 (instead of the usual $30). By fancy I thought they meant formal attire, but apparently they meant the British ‘fancy’ meaning ridiculous. Well, I can do that too.

I rummaged through my pack and found a costume I deemed appropriate: a mismatched electric blue and pink bikini combo over hot aqua leggings. My friends Nick and Sophia, who have been housing me for the past few days since my apartment lease ran out, approved. I strutted down the street from my new temporary home at BICD to UDC. Strangely to my mind, I got more cat calls and comments walking down the street than normal (which is none), even though I was wearing more clothes than a normal bathing suit. “Wonder woman!” “I like your new style!” “What you wearin’, girl?!” *whistle* At UDC, Deckland said once I dove that all the parrotfish would flock to me, calling “Mommy!!!!”.

*SMILE*

I rocked up to UDC at 12:45pm, timely enough for my 1pm dive. That’s when I was told I was the ONLY ONE signed up for the fancy dress dive. WHAT?! Seriously people? Where is the sense of fun!? We were switched from the Old Tom to a small motor boat, Reefer Madness, that only accommodates six tanks. My guide congratulated me and told me I had won the dive. My prize? An unheard of golden egg: I got to pick my dive site. Any site on the south side of the island. All other dive boat go to someplace the captain picks; divers have no say unless it’s a special site suitable for a course. Picking your own dive site is a big deal.

Me jumping for joy aboard the Reefer Madness.

I chose Labyrinth. As the name implies, the site is a maze of channels and semi-enclosed passageways through the reef just big enough for a diver to explore. One thing I had not done in Utila or ever before was a swim through, and I desperately wanted to. Now was my chance. My guide was keen: “Let’s go see some cool shit!” and we set off.

Taking a little superhero-inspired pose as we approach Labyrinth.

I ticked off another first on the way into the water: the James Bond roll. Entry from all other UDC boats I’ve been on is a giant stride off the back of the boat, but not possible on our little enclosed motorboat. I sat on the rail, held my mask and reg, and threw myself backward off the boat with such force that I did a complete backflip under water. Always going for style points! Pretty awesome way to kick off what would be a totally badass dive.

This dive had it all. The swim throughs were indeed all that. I love needing to tightly control buoyancy and navigating your body through a puzzle course. Neither my guide nor I had dove earlier in the day, so we decided to throw in a little deep dive for kicks and made it all the way to my max depth, 29.5 meters. We ascended along the gravelly bottom; I pretended I was one of the cavern students and did my very best Zoni-inspired hover just above the seabed. Back in the reef, we saw two Hacksbill turtles taking shelter in the reef; one we discovered immediately to our right by only a few feet at the top of a vertical swim through. The visibility was clear, the sun was bright, and sea life was abundant. We also saw a golden spotted eel, a King Crab, and I noticed flamingo tongues (I’ll always think back to my first fun dive when CJ put one of these in my hand).

We came up exhilarated. Wicked dive, probably my favorite fun dive yet. All in all, best $15 I ever spent.

KILLER.

P.S. So… contrary to the title of the post and what I thought at the time, the fancy dive actually turned out to be my second to last dive. The final dive actually happened the next day: a fun dive with Sophia, Nick, and Ross. With newly-minted Advanced and Open Water credentials, Nick and Sophia were on their first fun dives in Utila after their coursework and ready to just go have fun on the last day. A few dock pics capture that post-dive glow.

Aww… couldn’t ask for better people to take me in off the streets. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.
The team. Wahooo! Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

I *heart* Nico, and the tale of the hundredth dive day

When I first met Nico back in my Advanced course and then at the Mango Inn over a month ago, I talked about my blog probably a little too much and he said back then that he was *determined* to make the blog. Well hon, here you go:

Nico and I have been excellent buddies since the beginning and throughout my time in Utila: Advanced, EFR, Rescue, roommates when he moved on to DMT without me, snorkel buddies, and then final dive buddies. The final dive also just happened to be Nico’s 100th dive. Absolutely perfect. He’s been tearing it up and maxing out on dives this whole time, getting in 90 dives here on the island in addition to all his course work over five weeks. Any day he didn’t have classwork or skills in confined water, he was consistently out doing 4-5 dives a day. Tradition dictates the 100th dive must be performed naked. Like hell I was going to miss that! I signed up for the morning boat as a fun diver, he got special approval to be an extra plus one on the full boat, and we planned on going on one last buddy dive together.
…but then I stayed up way too late at the IDC party the night before, celebrating our friend Doug’s graduation to Instructor status. At 7:30am, I woke to the sound of Nico calling me from outside the apartment. He had gone to the shop, set up the boat, sorted out all sorts of glitches, put together my kit, but when he realized I wasn’t there had come to fetch me via a borrowed bike (Rich’s old bike that we had taken to the bottom of the sea, then stolen by Jeff after his departure) with no brakes… he ditched into a barber shop when making the 90-degree turn into my house in an effort to stop! Upon hearing my name through the window, I frantically threw myself together and ran to the boat just in time. He continued to take care of me as my reg wasn’t working properly and I needed a replacement O-ring.
We schemed on how to execute the naked dive. The UDC staff understood the importance of the ritual, but weren’t super keen. Tough luck! An unexpected hurdle: for the first time, even given the dozens of boats Nico had been on, there were children on this one doing their first Open Water dive. Yikes, awkward… Our fun dive group entered the water first, before the kids, and Nico’s swim trunks were suddenly on his head. Let the naked dive commence.
Before the 100th dive. I solomly swear I am up to no good…
Yeah, this happened. Photo courtesy of Robbie Labanowski (thanks for keeping it “artistic”!).

Sans mask, reg, and shorts, Nico dove in the ultimate au natural. After taking this picture, his first instinct was to put the shorts back on first, but then realized–whoops!–air is probably a better top priority. 😛 It was a super amusing dive. We saw a turtle and Nico’s favorite: the bucktooth parrotfish, played along the reef, and had fun posing for the camera as our snorkeling photographer friend Robbie free dove from the surface and would suddenly appear next to us at depth for a photo. A good chunk of my air was consumed by giggling.

Rockin’ the safety stop. Mischief managed! Photo courtesy of Robbie Labanowski.
No way I would have rather spent my final dive in Utila!
Signing my log book, checking both the boxes “DM” and “buddy”. Woot!!

After the dive, I crashed back to bed. When I awoke my eye was killing me. I started crying, and rushed to the doctor. On the way I found Nico at our friends’ Tom and Ryan’s house. He didn’t hesitate to drop everything, escort me to the clinic, translate on my behalf, guide me through the streets when I couldn’t open my eyes, care for me all afternoon as I lay on the couch in the fetal position sobbing in pain, get me tomatoes to freeze and put on my eyeballs, make me a comfort food dinner of mac ‘n cheese, keep me company all evening, and watch the Heat beat the Spurs in game 7 with me. He literally took care of me from start to finish of my day, in multiple contexts, when I needed it most. Never leave a buddy behind. True dat, and thank you.

Babe, you know I adore you, and that you give me hope for nineteen-year-olds. I’m so happy to have become friends and it has been a delight to live with you this past month. Even though you’re a rolling-stone lone wolf, you’ll always be my Utila BFF. I dearly hope our paths cross again for another adventure elsewhere in the world sometime in our lives. You kick ass! ❤

We know how to throw a house party, aka Happy 30th Richard!

Thirty. It’s something I dealt with as a looming shadow the entire time I was twenty-nine. Feeling like “old” was right around the corner. Mourning for the supposedly (although not really for me) care free twenties. Thirty feels like the time you need to get your shit together. There are big life questions that need answers. Or you can attempt to forget, chuck it all, opt out, and ship off like me. 😛 I found that once I turned thirty, the weight lifted and it wasn’t nearly so bad as I had feared. Instead it is an empowering age to be and I absolutely love it.

There are people of all ages in Utila, with plenty right around the thirty mark. One Mr. Richard McKenna in particular was just about to turn 30 and we were determined to celebrate in style. His brother Jamie (who flew in from Australia for the event), his Utila BFF Danielle, and I (all of us 30+) were on it. Rich lamented his upcoming birthday the whole week prior, but we aimed to change his mind about becoming “old”. Come into the light, Rich, because thirty is fuckin’ awesome.

We came up with lots of special touches to make this classier than the typical Utila house party. The plan: catered dinner for our twenty closest mates at 7pm, cocktails at 8pm, more people arrive for music/rum/fun, cake around 10pm followed by tequila shots, then anything goes. We pulled it all together in about 24 hours. I sweet talked Utila Food Company (who were awesome to work with, totally did us a solid by taking on the party at the last minute, and delivered great food!) into bringing the eats. Danielle provided the venue: her beautiful apartment overlooking the ocean. Jamie got some top shelf booze for the VIPs and organized a round of cocktails to be delivered. Danielle and I baked three birthday cakes. I scoured the buy-anything-here stores on the island for decorations. We all spread the word amongst our crew about the big day.

Our big missing piece of the puzzle was a sound system. We wanted something more than a small set of portable speakers, but where to find one? Jamie tried to get one from a local DJ, I checked electronic stores for possible rentals, and a friend tried her local connections too. We all came up empty handed. When Jamie fell ill on the day of the party and was out of commission, we still had nothing and all looked bleak. Until the birthday boy himself dropped by to help with party set up, because he’s that kind of awesome guy. In a bit of a frenzy, I sent him out to pick up ice. In fifteen minutes, he came back not only with an enormous ice chest but a Bose sound system. What?? Yeah, he’s got the connections (he made friends with the local boat captain who took us to Chez Lola and whose family runs the best grocery store on the island… turns out he’s an awesome dude to know) and swooped in to save the day, solving in minutes something we worked on for days. Getting shit done, ’cause that’s what 30-year-olds do. Party, SAVED.

All came together just in time, and our friends began arriving for one smash of a party. All our favorite people came, had an awesome time, and welcomed Rich into his best decade yet.

Birthday boy and the co-hostesses. Or as Danielle put it, “Rich’s rangas”. 😛
That’s about 10lbs of pineapple guacamole. Or as one guest raved, “the most delicious guac babies ever!”
The gang scarfing on tasty curry dinner. A treat from the usual Utila cuisine. Yum!
When you ask people to bring rum to a party on Utila, they don’t disappoint! And only one bottle of Plata too… plus two bottles of top shelf 18yr and 12yr Flora we snuck in there for VIPs.
Rich solving problems like no one’s business. You need a cooler? BAM, done, biggest one on the island!
Knock knock, special delivery. Margaritas anyone?

Taking the edge off. Thirty’s not so bad, huh? 😀
An uninvited guest, above the paper birthday disco ball.
Me and Doug, heart.
Carrot cake, chocolate snickers cake, and vanilla rum cake. Mmm…

Make a wish!
Serving the birthday boy a cake sampler plate. I actually did turn myself into the cake lady of Utila. That night I baked 2, then another 5 over my six weeks on the island.
Roomies, always having fun!
The face of the new PADI-punch!

Live entertainment provided by our musically talented friends.
Two lovely songbirds.
Someone didn’t read the signs not to touch the laptop… but the urge to DJ was too strong.

Rich had to swoop in again to troubleshoot his own party.

The music-killing culprits were quickly forgiven. Until they poured tequila down Rich’s nose when he dozed off at the bitter end!
I heard from guests all night that they were having a fantastic time, and that it was the best house party on the island. Best and most important of all, Rich had fun. All in all, I’m just going to say, damn fine party. 😀
 
Happy birthday! Welcome to thirty-awesomeness.

You’re invited to a tea party under the sea

It was a fun idea: a crazy underwater photoshoot. Take over a boat, bring cool people, bring a bunch of funny props to the bottom of the ocean, and go a little nuts with the camera. Rich and Jamie masterminding the operation, with this as Rich’s first(ish almost, despite the snorkel test; damn that dive map!) official divemaster lead. They spent a day casing town for props, talked the dive shop into getting us a special boat, and made it happen.

The day before our dive, there was a tragedy that closed the dive shop and canceled all dives. We weren’t certain the dive would continue for the next morning at 8am, but things went as scheduled. After weeks of perfectly sunny and clear days, we got the beginning of a tropical depression and the coldest weather I’ve seen since being on Utila. Nevertheless, we were all still psyched.

Not the most ideal light and conditions for an underwater photo shoot.

We loaded the boat with gear and props, then we waited for our captain to arrive. Wet and cold, we waited. Discussions quickly turned to our dive briefing, photo ideas, and underwater logistics. None of us had done a dive like this before.

Who knew the prop umbrellas would come in so useful?
No captain, no problem! Ben’s on the case.
One hour delay waiting for a captain = baleadas and coffee all around.
A skeptical, wet, and cold Erin. We going to make it?

But the rain lessened and the captain arrived, one hour late. Our planned dive site was scrapped in favor of a closer spot due to the weather.

The rain clearing up just in time for our departure. A delightful Vero, as usual.
Me, ready in pink and purple for an under the sea tea party.
We should have known we were in trouble with this dude in charge… 😛
Finally on our way!
We arrived at Moonhole quickly, the closest dive site to the boat house. First up, buddy checks–yep, we’re all lookin’ good! Next order of business: getting all our props down: a table, chairs, bike, costumes, umbrellas, tea set, kettle, cards, beer, rum, shot glasses, sunglasses, a mango, and more. We were all purposefully overweighted to bring everything down. We all cracked up as Ross rode the bike off the back of the boat; other nearby boats must have thought we were mental. Well, maybe we are a little.
The insanity began:
Rich’s bike made it down to the bottom of the sea and back, totally building character (and rust) as well as improving its resale value.
I broke out the stilletos. Who needs fins?
Perfect neutrally bouyant mango.

The mastermind brothers. Cheers!
Dueling Mary Poppins.
Mad man, free-balling it sans all equipment!
Our sea floor dining room. That’s my landlord’s backyard table.
Brian poppin’ a wheelie…
Vero and Kyle, keeping it cool.
Brian’s dreads always look so BADASS underwater!!
Being a lady, I do love a good cuppa.

It was an odd madness under there. As is normal for diving, it is mostly silent and things move in slow motion. Yet this dive, even though it was still slow and silent, had a frantic and random energy as everyone executed ideas of their own. There was a little bit of scrambling towards the end as air began to run low and communication broke down, but all made it up ok.
We learned a lot of lessons. First, we were brought to a deeper site than planned–18m instead of 5m–so this impacted our air usage, ascents, and prop management. Shallower would have been much better; 18m was too deep to be messing around like this. Second, especially with the silt (even worse than sandy!) bottom we were dealing with we all needed to be more careful about our contact with the bottom and instead try to hover to keep visibility as clear as possible. Third, we spent too much time all in the same location, mucking up the visability and each other’s photos. It would have been better to set up two scenes (table and bike) a little further from each other and take turns. A little extra planning on this would have gone a long way. Next time. But for a first, crazy shot it was pretty freakin’ awesome. 🙂

Rescue Diver: It’s a beautiful day to save lives

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One step closer to being an underwater NINJA!

I loved my Advanced Open Water course. So much so that during our final briefing I started asking questions because I didn’t want to stop. Turned out that my instructor Maya was starting a Rescue Diver course the next day, as was my buddy Nico, and she encouraged me to take it. There are many practical reasons to take Rescue; you can never have too many rescue divers in the water. Basic first aid, diving-specific rescue techniques, simple tactics to recognize and prevent problems, self protection, and skills to lead or ably assist in an emergency. Plus, everyone who takes it raves about how much fun the course is. I signed right up.

Rescue day -1 & 0: Emergency First Responder
Before you can start the Rescue course, you must fulfill the prerequisite of Emergency First Responder training. I began the two-day EFR crash course with our five-person Rescue crew: we were a serious bunch with a doctor, a nurse, two DMTs, and me. Everyone else had some prior first aid training, but we went over the basics, including lots of catch phrases: Stop think act! Activate EMS! Hello, my name is Erin, I’m an Emergency Responder, may I help you? We practiced CPR, and I treated for shock by tucking people in under a blanket, offering cake, and saying “there-there” lots. Shock treatment is kind of my bag. With basic skills under our belts, we moved into the water.

Rescue Day 1: confined water, off the UDC dock
Our Rescue course started in earnest as we were all getting kitted up on the UDC dock: about halfway dressed, all of a sudden multiple panicked divers were in the water calling for help. Even simulated, it is easy to freeze before you remember what to do. Two of the guys had their gear on already and jumped in with floats. I tossed a BCD and tank in, splitting my fingers open in the process, then hopped in to deliver it as makeshift flotation to one of the faux-drowning victims. Whew, just in time! SAVED. We missed a few points, were a little slow, but not bad for a first time out.

BCDs are the inflatable vest divers wear attached to their tank and are always plentifully on hand on a dive boat. It’s their purpose to float, so they make a great impromptu rescue buoy! Source: Google Images

Once we properly got into the water, our instructors Maya and Matt demonstrated some basic skills: techniques on how to approach and resolve a tired diver, unresponsive diver, and panicked diver both below water and at the surface. (They made them look so easy!) I learned how to fend off someone who wants to steal my air with my left arm while preparing my backup air source to give them. Simple, yet effective. Calm down, I got you. The tactics for approaching panicked divers at the surface are particularly interesting: give a strong push to spin them around or go underwater beneath them to reach their back, then mount their tank holding it in between your legs, and inflate their BCD to get them buoyant, which usually helps resolve the panic.

For unresponsive non-breathing divers at the surface, we practiced simultaneously giving rescue breaths, removing equipment, towing, and exiting the water on each other. I gave Nico more air than necessary by actually giving rescue breaths through the pocket mask and he hauled me out of the water in a dramatic Baywatch style; we had the whole dock laughing.

This day was intense. We learned so much in a short period of time. I had heard rumors things were only going to get more so when we moved to open water the next day. Bring it on.

Tool of the trade: pocket masks keep water out of the face of victims and easily attach to emergency oxygen pumps.
Source: Google Images

Rescue Day 2: open water, Black Coral Wall
We reached the dive site via boat and as we were putting on our gear, suddenly there were people thrashing in the water. Again. Rings were tossed overboard, rescue divers entered the water. I was partially in my wetsuit already, so grabbed my fins and a life jacket and jumped in. Only after my victim was under control did I hear the laughter from the boat and realize something was off: I still had my sunglasses on instead of a proper mask and snorkel. Whoops… Saving in style! It’s the way I roll.

After performing some skills on sandy bottom—buddy breathing, helping someone scared about their flooded mask—we buddied up, hero and victim-to-be, and went for a dive. I was paired with Devin, who played the part of an overconfident yet under-experienced diver. Apart from our rescue training, we saw a school of colorful reef squid, which are my favorite to watch as they flutter and hover. Every time I turned around, our instructor Matt was totally messing with Nico, at one time grabbing at his regulator while flipped completely upside down. Devin gave me a run for my money, getting himself into trouble and panicking often. At the surface, he freaked again, but I got him under control. “Erin, I almost died!!! You saved my life!” After all the exertion, I gave him a tired diver tow back to the boat. SAVED! Your mother can send me a thank you note.

Nico, ON IT!

The boys, Nico and Devin, looking buff during our surface interval.
Crashed out on the boat roof. Fake dying and fake saving people is hard work!

Rescue Day 3: open water, Pretty Bush
Chaos struck as soon as we arrived at the dive shop in the morning. Devin was ready to “dive dive dive!”, had beer in hand on the boat, and we had to “throw him off” the dive for drinking and diving. A medical “emergency” (ketsup was everywhere!) broke out on the dock and first aid had to be administered. During our predive evaluation we discovered that our boat was improperly stocked with safety gear and had to properly prep it.

Again each of us was paired up with an “inept” buddy with little experience: the buddy checks were a mess as each person had something wrong with them. I remembered my first dive after Open Water where I was buddied with a rescue diver; I realize now he was trained specifically to counteract/prevent mistakes I could have made and that he must have been on the lookout for all sorts of stuff to be wrong with me!

At the dive site, we started off again with victims in the water immediately. Our actions in response and timing were markedly improved from the day before. I went after a thrashing Elle, who rejected the float I offered her and attempted to climb on top of me. I fended her off repeatedly, managing finally to have the float be her only option and getting her to safety without me also drowning in the process.

Into the ocean we went for real and began the dive. After about 10 minutes we reached a sand patch and the “OW” buddies went apeshit. A group of ten, we were in close quarters, and we were treated to thrashing and panicking of every flavor. It was a clusterfuck.

Devin going a little mad, Jonathan coming in from behind to save the day.
Cramp removal in the background, and Alex on the watch.
Being ever vigilant in all directions, keeping an eye out for crazies.

My buddy Elle acted like a three-year-old, causing mischief by grabbing at gear, ascending when she shouldn’t, and playing unsafely. In the video below at about 0:10 you can see me trying to channel her energy into something silly yet not dangerous. The rest of the divers swim around us, in varying degrees of craziness. This was not a normal dive.

Even with all the rescuing, there was still a little bit of time for a little sight-seeing!

At the end of the dive, of course people were missing and we spread out to search. Unresponsive divers were found quickly underwater but not far from the boat and pulled to relative safety aboard the boat. SAVED!

Once back on the boat, ready to head home, all of our ears perked up when we heard a *splash*. For once, it was just people headed into the ocean to pee. But I think from now on each of us won’t hear a splash the same way again. It’s always worth a look to be sure.

At final roll call though, bad news: Maya was missing from the bow. We quickly located her in the water, but she was unresponsive. Jonathan and Alex got her safely into the boat and started her on emergency oxygen. The boys rotated simulated chest compressions in two minute intervals as I performed rescue breaths and gave reassurance in her ear the whole fifteen minutes back to shore. As we approached the dock, we hashed out our next steps to get her to emergency services. In Utila, there is no 911 equivalent; you just yell and then try to locate the doctor in one of the bars. We didn’t need to execute our plan, but man were we ready to!

In the aftermath of saving Maya, all the way back to UDC. Pocket mask and shades, that’s how I roll, biyotch!

I left the course feeling a strong sense of confidence, strength, and excitement. Even though I may not hit every single step perfectly, I am far better equipped to handle an emergency, help someone in need, and protect myself. I am a better diver and person. I am capable. I am a RESCUE DIVER!!

Since the conclusion of my Rescue course, I have been on multiple dive boats where other Rescue courses are being taught. I have to say, we got thrown a LOT more shit that these other courses, partly because we were a bigger group. Every time we started suiting up, someone was in trouble. These other groups don’t get nearly the amount of madness we did and they take a hell of a long time to respond. When you are in the middle of an “emergency”, it can feel like you’re not performing as well as you should, but turns out we were actually a pretty kick ass group. PADI-punch!

All photos courtesy of Arnaud.

Thar she blows

Foreboding early strike from Chez Lola beach out over the Caribbean. Two hours later, forks of lightening dramatically coursed the entire sky as we boated home during a break in the wind and rain. Photo courtesy of Richard McKenna.

I love inclement weather. I think it stems from being raised in Seattle where it is oh so mild all the time, especially the rain that comes down in a mist or sharp, cold little needles. Or maybe it’s my Aquarian nature reveling in air and water coming together so tempestuously. I have a strong childhood memory of wonder from when I was six or seven visiting Tuscon, Arizona one summer: getting caught in a crashing desert thunderstorm, taking refuge under the covered ping pong table at the Arizona Inn, and watching water, thunder, and lightening take over the world. The size of the raindrops was like nothing I had ever seen before and the sound was deafening.

I’ve loved thunderstorms with a passion ever since. During my first summer in Boston there was a night in late June when the sky just opened up. It was on a day when we had been hanging out earlier in a kiddie pool on the front lawn of Phi Delts, and I was still in my swimsuit. I took to the street with a friend, twirling and laughing at the sky and splashing in puddles like a three-year-old. A posse from the house first called us crazy from the window of 1Front1, then came out and joined in. Because it’s damn FUN.

I still always feel that call when warm thunderstorms hit. I love the charge in the air and the visceral sense of insanity from that energy. It makes me perk up my senses as everything seems heightened. There have been three downpours on this trip that have triggered this feeling for me: my last night in Lanquin that went nuts, my final morning in Caye Caulker, and three nights ago in Utila during the opening of Cocoloco (which ended poorly with two lost pairs of jettisoned shoes and a sprained toe after–let’s call it enthusiastic–dancing on a particularly slippery dock). It’s just one more facet of my love story with water on this trip.

The weather in Utila is weird. Even though the days are hot and clear, virtually every night there is a far off lightening storm in the distance. From any dock you can watch the lights go after dark. Only occasionally does it turn into more than a far off display. Two nights ago, I awoke to one such storm. My room has two screen-window walls and had turned into a whipping wind tunnel. The lightening was coming strong at the same time as sunrise, rain slamming against the metal roofs of my neighborhood, wind tossing my filmy curtains into a frenzy. The moment I became conscious, I bolted upright and was drawn to the window. It was a show of chaos and power I couldn’t resist. Apparently in the middle of the night I howl at both the moon and storm clouds.

Is it better to be crying when you feel insane
Or laughing out loud dancing naked in the rain?
Have you ever felt the thunder inside your heart?
Lettin’ go of everything that’s going to rip you apart…