Monthly Archives: October 2011

Paradise by the dashboard lights

It wasn’t that far to where we wanted to go on the Peninsula, but it’s a little off the beaten path, so it ended up being a day for all types of transport to get there.

First, we caught your standard chicken bus back to León. These big old yellow US school buses still all have the original (read, un-serviced) parts including ridiculously uncomfortable seats which were designed for 7 year olds. Their one redeeming feature is truly godawful 80s music blaring from tinny sound systems.

We left our big packs at the Quetzal Trekkers base & grabbed a late brekky. We then jumped on the back of a truck with a tarp-covered tray & two bench seats. It reminded me of hanging off the back of a cable car in San Fran except there were A LOT more people and the driver was clearly starring in his own reality version of Grand Theft Auto. It’s a cheap thrill at just 3 cords (12 cents).

After that, we caught a microbus to Chinandega. These are just like your regular collectivos elsewhere in Central America except they do not stop every few miles to pick up twice as many people as the bus can fit. I have seen 9 people squished up into the front bit of one of these vehicles which normally seats 4. Nine. Sheer luxury to have just one person to a seat and no crotches or arses in our faces to deal with.

We then jumped in a ‘pedi cab’ which is a bicycle-driven tuk-tuk – except instead of sitting in a covered bench seat up the back, you sit in an uncovered bench seat up the front. For better clarity on your imminent death, I presume.

And finally we got on another chicken bus, which was delayed for quite a time while dozens of hawkers filed in through the front, and out through the back – selling all manner of things. Fried food. Cool drinks. Gum. Batteries. Phone chargers. Kitchen utensils. Machetes. Bras. I kid you not.

On the way back, we heard what sounded like a pig squealing in extreme pain. I thought we must have run over a stray one in the street but, no. The pig was on the roof of the bus and they were just belaying him down the ladder. As you do.

I love public transport here. It’s fucking mental.

So, the bus dropped us off to a place Skye had sourced, called Rancho Tranquilo in the tiny fishing village called Jiquillio, which is on the Cosigüina Peninsula (in the North West). Only a few hundred families live here in thatched roof huts with dirt floors. They do have electricity and cell service, but there’s no wifi or hot water. In fact, I haven’t had a hot shower since I left Guatemala a month ago.

It was a very simple set-up at Rancho Tranquilo: a couple of bamboo huts and a very basic dorm room, which Skye and I would have to ourselves. At the top end of the yard, there was a bar with picnic tables & benches and a raft of lie-down and sit-up hammocks.

The weather had come good for our arrival, and Skye & I were a bit excited about the prospect of doing more of what we’d been doing down south, but this time in the sunshine! The clean black beach was absolutely deserted. We set down our bags and immediately went for a body bash. The waves were just perfect. The sun was perfect. The water temperature was perfect. It was all perfect.

Back at the Rancho, we met one of the two other guests – both of whom had separately been there for two months.

Simone was an eccentric German with a sense of humour (!) I put her in her late 30s. A petite lady with a big-heart, she was taking a 3 month sabbatical to volunteer on a Tortuga rescue project. Evidently, she was a keen animal lover as when we met her she was wiping the secreting vagina of one of the many dogs who lived there. Most of the dogs seemed to have a medical issue of some sort. One appeared to have a goitre on the side of his neck. Another had a tongue that was permanently stuck out to the side. And apparently the dog Simone was tending to, had an infection. I love dogs but how one discovers this sort of thing unless they’re a vet, is beyond me.

That night, we enjoyed a simple vegetarian curry made by ‘Mummy’ and then went out walking with Simone on the beach to look for nesting turtles.

We didn’t find any. What we did find was an empty turtle’s nest and no sign of her tracks back to the beach. A sure sign that poachers had taken her. Very sad indeed.

It was just inspiring to meet someone so impassioned and learn a little more about these mesmerising creatures. 6 of the world’s 7 kinds of turtles live in Latin America. 3 have been found nesting on this one stretch of beach. A typical ‘clutch’ will range from 80-120 eggs. The obstacles are so numerous (eg, poachers, dogs, birds) for baby turtles that only about one in 1,000 will survive to become a grown-up turtle.

Turtles have existed for over 100 million years. All are in grave danger of extinction. I think sometimes, we forget that extinction means forever.

If you’ve never seen a turtle up close & personal, then I truly hope one day you do. These guys really know how to make a day feel super special. I can’t explain why. Maybe it’s their gentle ways. Maybe it’s their ancient faces. Don’t know. Don’t care. I just know this features somewhere on the scale of Important Stuff.

What was also interesting to see was the beach transform from an undiscovered piece of paradise into something far more sinister. The moment it gets dark – this small community of people who would know each other very intimately, suddenly become suspicious strangers in the night.

The people on the beach at night can be divided into those who are hunting eggs to eat or sell on the black market. Or even worse, those who are after the turtles themselves for their meat and / or shells. Then there are those who are seeking out eggs to save and hand over to the rescue projects for a better chance of survival.
But who can tell the difference? Flashlights are quickly snapped off, and distances widen. Everyone is hesitant to talk to anyone in case they might recognise the voice, or the motive behind the voice. In the dark, I tried to guess who the good guys were & who the bad guys were.

The next day we were up early for another swim in that perfect sea, and we then we went & met Marlon and his daughter down by the river. I had read we could hire a dugout canoe & a local guide for a trip through the surrounding bird-filled estuaries and mangroves. I drowned myself in DEET (my new best friend since The Sandlfy Incident) and we set off in one very leaky dugout canoe made from one very old tree.

We were treated to spectacular views of the Volcán Cosigüina, which used to be the tallest volcano in Nicaragua until an eruption wiped out the apex. At one point, we stopped for a small hot climb to the top of a hill that afforded us amazing vistas of the surrounding waterways, the local villages and faraway volcanoes.

We were back in time for a pre-lunch swim and then more of Mummy’s delicious cooking. She had invited us to her home for a fish dinner that night which I was well excited about.

That afternoon we got to know the other guest: a gay boy who had changed his name from Michael to Sky (note, the absence of an ‘e’ for easy distinction from my travelling mate Skye). He was an Indian (feathers, not dots) who was just one year older than me but had clearly lived a far ‘richer’ life than I, in so many ways. He had been travelling through Latin America for 8 years. I asked him if he was an heiress. He told me his family owned a “small corporation”.

He arranged for a lady up the road to come & give us both manicures & pedicures. It cost just AUD$6. It became very clear to me during this time that the boy had ADHD. He just for the life of him, could not sit still.

He later told me he had spent more than ½ million dollars on rehab. Money that was NOT well spent, given he said he still liked a drink & whatnot. He was clearly keen for some drinking partners and generously offered to shout us our first bottle of rum. Who were we to say no. Sky was a big child, a bit scarred & scatty – but just gorgeous & loads of fun. He was one of those rare people who never have a bad word to say of anyone.

Tina, the trippy owner of the place came back in from town, with a bunch of big hippy hugs. She was from San Fran, in her late 40s, and I think it would be a fair guess to say she had probably spent a good portion of her life alternately smoking pot and doing lots of yoga. She immediately started drinking for Nicaragua and playing DJ from her little perch behind the bar. I must say, she had brilliant taste in music. She was a bit out there, but I instantly took a liking to her.

Her friend from up the road, an older man with the best bushranger’s beard I’ve seen in a long time, stopped in for a quick hello and to collect some stuff that Tina had picked up in town for him. Dennis looked as though he could have been a wanted man – but if he was, he certainly wasn’t worried anyone finding him. He was a still shining light in amongst all the mayhem that was starting to bubble up. He wisely left after just one drink.

Then young Elizabeth rolled in on her bicycle. She was working as a volunteer English teacher up the road. She was a bright bubbly thang and I have no idea what the fuck she was doing in this far-flung corner of Nicaragua.

Simone, the two Sky(e)s and I went to Mummy’s for dinner. We were followed by at least 4 of the dogs from Rancho Tranquilo, and were met by at least another 6 at Mummy’s. We were quickly introduced to the four girls of the family ranging from 11 months in age to 14 years old. They were a rambunctious lot, who took great interest in seeing the photos of themselves on my digital camera.

They had set up a plastic table for us in the dirt, turning Mummy’s open kitchen into a pop-up cafe. ½ dozen odd little piglets were noisily clamouring around their mother for some milk just metres away. I looked over just in time to see one little pig pissing in the dirt right in front of us. Noone else batted an eyelid. I was screaming with laughter.

The meal was one of the best I’ve had in Nicaragua (fancy Japanese not withstanding). A whole fish caught that very morning by Marlon, served with pinto gallo and a salsa-type salad. Sometimes simple is best, si?

We went back to the Rancho to find the girls totally trashed. I’m not sure what had happened in the short time we were away having dinner but we came home to carnage. Tina believed she had broken her toe (she hadn’t) and was crying. Elizabeth could barely stand. She was demanding we walked her home NOW. Sky thought there might have been a local party we could go to on the way home. And so off we all traipsed, with dogs in tow. Elizabeth ended up living miles away. The walk took us ages because she was all over the shop, we also had a bike and an incoming tide to contend with. We got there in the end. We decided to take the road back and had no joy in finding the party. We also got road-blocked by a big muddy pool. Luckily a truck passed us by. Skye flagged them down and we hopped in the back. They took us back to the Rancho.

By that time, i was absolutely knackered from all the excitement & was ready to call it a night. We had a little nightcap with Sky before hitting the hay.

The next morning over breakfast, Tina pulled out all stops to encourage us to stay another night, another week. Mummy even got in on the act. It was hard to leave as the weather was so damn good & the beach was so damn perfect… it’s so rare to get a little piece of paradise all to yourself. But on the other hand, Rancho Tranquilo was actually a bit of a madhouse & I could see myself getting sucked into its vortex & living out the rest of my days drinking myself into a an empty turtle’s nest and wiping dog vaginas.

It was definitely time to leave.

Why does it always rain on me?

When I was a kid I remember visiting Melaka (my mother’s home town) during the rainy season. In the late afternoon, the air would get thick, and a big fat drop of rain would go splat, right in front of me. Then there’d be another. And then another – this time smacking me on the face. I’d look up and the sky would be big and black and really mad. And all of a sudden everyone would quicken up, like someone had pressed the fast forward button. Mum would be yanking on my arm, hard, yelling at me to hurry up. The sky would split into two and all these sharp bits of rain would sting my skin. We were soaking by the time we got home. I loved all the excitement.

The rainy season in Central America goes from July through to September, give or take a month, depending on the region. Here in Nicaragua, October is the wettest month, probably due to the fact that it’s also hurricane season.

None of the countries I’ve visited are well equipped to receive the rain. The streets start flooding within minutes. Garbage gushes up from overflowing gutters. People start madly sweeping down the uneven footpaths.  Traffic gets even more lawless.  And anarchy reigns supreme.

And so there’s been a shedload of water of late. It chucked it down. For the whole 4 days we were in León.

___

So on Saturday, our first night – I found a vegetarian restaurant that supposedly did some good curries. Skye’s a pescetarian. And after 4 months of meat, rice & beans and plantains – I am really missing Asian flavours. We had an okay curry and a very salty chow mien. I would have been very unhappy with it back home. But you take what you can get, here.

After two days of being in transit, we were absolutely knackered – so we turned in early. We just took it easy over the next couple of days. Skye was still recuperating. I was just being lazy.

After 2 nights, we moved from the funeral parlour of a hostel we were staying at, to the far more atmospheric ViaVia a couple of blocks away. The front end of the hostel was a restaurant / bar which was frequented by locals as much as tourists. Behind the bar, was a lush tropical garden spotted with people dozing in hammocks and reading in rocking chairs. It was just lovely.

On Tuesday, we started the day at a French bakery around the corner. My croissant was perfectly crispy on the outside, and all fluffy & buttery on the inside … a truly simple pleasure that made me a very happy girl.

After running a few errands, we then set off to see the largest cathedral in all of Central America. It took more than 100 years to construct. The outside, blackened by years of grimey rain and city pollutants is a bit of eyesore, truth be told. But when you walk in – you are greeted by cool marbled floors, high vaulted ceilings, serenely sad statues, and imposing classical art in ornate golden frames…

We paid to access the cathedral’s roof via a skinny, dark & damp stairwell, to an old concrete expanse of gigantic active bell towers, larger than life statues (visible from the street below), perfectly formed concrete domes (the outties to the innies of the high vaulted ceilings below), and multiple levels with turreted walls.

The rain miraculously stopped for the time we were up there and so we were very fortunate to get amazing views of a fairly sprawling city, considering its relatively small population of 145k people. Beyond the city limits, we could see the Cordillera de los Maribios – a series of volcanoes to the noreast.

One of the reasons I had wanted to come here was to ‘surf’ one of those volcanoes. The first time I had heard you could do this, was when I stumbled upon a blogpost, while doing some preliminary reading about Nicaragua. Basically you haul your arse up an active volcano, they stick you in a space suit and off you go hurtling down course sandy black ash on a modified snowboard. People have been clocked doing close to 80km / hour. I thought that it sounded way fun. And terrifying.

Nursing a sizeable gash on my left knee that was still bleeding and seeping after a good 3 days (I had come-a-gutsa at the Brewery. While sober.) – I admit to feeling pretty nervous about the whole boarding thing. So i was very relieved to hear a few different people saying how it was a bit rubbish at the moment due to the heavy rains. That was enough for me to decide I wouldn’t do it here & now. Maybe another opportunity would present itself elsewhere. There’s plenty of volcanoes in these parts.

Later that afternoon, I took Skye to the Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián – a gallery that LP deems ‘Nicaragua’s finest by a huge margin’. It is home to a lot of interesting contemporary works by Latin American artists. I loved it. I particularly dug the pieces by Nahum Flores. We spent a good couple of hours there and then went back to our hostel.

Sparkles had messaged me saying he was going to be in town that night. We met at ViaVia & caught up over drinks. His life had taken some interesting turns, to say the least. Among the stories he had to share with us, was how he’d fallen into diplomatic circles and was staying as a guest at an ambassador’s place, complete with staff, in Managua. He had come in a hire car. I teased him mercilessly about being a flashpacker and he took it on the chin with his usual good sense of humour.

The three of us fell into a restaurant called Manhattan which ended up being one of the best meals we’ve had in all of Central America. Proper Japanese! I was absolutely beside myself. The three of us scoffed down mountains of fresh sushi rolls of every description, some perfectly battered tempura vegetables, and a few yakitori sticks to boot.

The next day Sparkles went & did a couple of the sites. Skye and I waited for him in a cafe while it rained and rained and rained. We had convinced him to join us at the beach for a night and so off we all went in his lovely hire car. The car was a very basic Toyota Yaris and had done 65,000 clicks – but it felt like a goddamn limousine to Skye and I.

None of us really bothered to firm up a best plan of attack for get out of town & to the beach … and so naturally, we ended up heading in a mostly wrong direction. But we quickly worked out it was rectifiable in that we could take a right and we would be heading in the general direction of the coast. And so, at my behest, we took that right. My thinking being, we could get to the coast then follow the coastline to get to Las Peñitas. Works in Australia.

Anyways, it turns out the road we took wasn’t a proper road. And it wasn’t a short road. And it wasn’t a dry road.

It wasn’t too long before we came upon our first muddy puddle.

I did my best not to back seat drive as Sparkles plunged the car into muddy pool after muddy pool that got larger and deeper and at times, looked like they were going to engulf the tiny Yaris.

Mike had morphed from a self-styled James Bond, mixing with Nicaragua’s bourgeoisie, into the intrepid leader of Sparkle’s Safaris.

At one point, Skye & he got out of the car to test the depth of a particularly big muddy pool with rocks and sticks (all very scientific). I watched from the safety of the car.

We were discussing the feasibility of navigating through the muddy pool when a man driving a horse-drawn buggy stopped to encourage us to follow him on through the big muddy pool.

I just kept having flashbacks of having to push a van out of freezing cold, knee-deep, schleppy mud at Glastonbury and not really loving that experience very much at all.

The ‘road’ worsened.

We passed by a big salt factory called Salines Grandes. This is a miniscule dot in the guidebooks and is virtually non-existent on the tourist maps. For. A. Reason.

No one goes to Salines Grande.

Except for the workers who live in a shanty town of homes constructed from sticks and industrial black plastic, and very little else. I’d never seen anything quite like it.

This was so far off the beaten path, all we saw were skinny cows. A couple of fat boars. Some chickens. Lots of skanky dogs. A couple of jeep collectivos. A few dirt bikes. Lots of walkers. And no other cars.

Why? Because the road we took wasn’t a proper goddamn road.

We persisted and eventually hit a junction that I believed would take us to the beach. However, we would never find out. The rest of the road looked like a river.

Pissing ourselves laughing, we decided to turn back. All in all, this little ‘detour’ took us 2 hours. The beach is 19km from where we started.

We headed back to León, and started again.

Skye found the right road to take us there, and within 12 minutes – we were checked in to the very simple Quetzal Trekkers hostel with front row views to the Pacific Ocean. With its beautiful black volcanic sand, and wild wild seas. It was so nice to hear the sounds of waves crashing. It’s been such a long time since i’ve walked in white wash.

We spent the next couple of days doing little else but sleeping, reading and well … that was pretty much it. We said goodbye to Sparkles on Thursday and by Friday, we were on our way to the Cosigüina Peninsula. The possibility of hiring a dugout canoe had piqued our interest, and we heard about a place to stay called Rancho Tranquilo.

Not the name I would have picked for it.

Waterfall

The next day I went to Pulhapanzak Falls with a small group of people staying at the D&D Brewery, including a fresh-faced American couple; a Brit who lived in LA and sold medical marijuana for a living; and a gorgeous Jordy by the name of Sandra. I had met Sandra the morning I was boarding Capitan Vern’s boat for Roatan. She was with Tyler, a Canadian boy with beautiful tatts. They had also met in Utila & become an odd pair of travelling companions for the time being… She was 46, well-travelled & gregarious. He was 25, softly spoken & travelling for the first time on his own. I just love seeing worlds collide like this… it would be a rare thing for two people from such different places to come together and take a trip like this.

We had heard about an unusual walk you could do, which took you behind the waterfall. It sounded beautiful. I envisaged the waters cascading gently over a large rocky overhang, and a generous ledge below, creating a gorgeous green walkway whereupon I might be able feel a misty spray softly caressing my face… sheer bliss.

The waterfall is 43m high. If you’re anything like me and don’t have a great sense of measurement (good news for the boys!) – this is roughly 14 stories high and about ½ the height of Niagara Falls. I am 1.63m, so this waterfall is 26 times my size. BIG.

We were met at the gate by a lovely local guide with beautiful blue eyes. He had a little middle aged spread going on and was thinning on top a little. I put him in his late 30s. I don’t know why but I found this slightly reassuring.

I had had issues in withdrawing cash from the only ATM in the tiny township of Pena Blanca on the way in, so when I found out the price (which was only 120 lempiras, but that was pretty much all I had on me), I decided I would just swim under the waterfall in the natural pools below.

Our guide wasn’t having any of that, and very generously organised for me to come anyway. Free. I was stunned to say the least.

So we all followed him down a proper walking trail and then across a treacherous boardwalk with a hand rail which opened up to lovely vistas of the waterfall.

And it was at this point, we got a sense of the scale of what we were about to do. And my first thought was this: HOLY MOTHER OF GOD. The waterfall was a big wild beast, thrashing about angrily. Completely unbridled. Ferocious. And loud. Really fucking loud.

We all looked at it and each other a little nervously. It was beautiful, there was no doubting that. But the part of my brain that conceives things like a gorgeously produced cinematic commercial shot in New Zealand very quickly woke up to itself.

This was not going to be a walk in the park. And our guide was clearly a psychopath in sheep’s clothing.

He made us strip down to our swimmers and take off our shoes. We then walked through a gate which said ‘Enter at your own risk’ or something like that in Spanish. And then we hiked barefoot over sharp and slippery rocks. Anyone that knows anything about me knows I am not the most stable on my feet in the best of conditions. I have managed to trip over skirting boards in your standard suburban home. So, I was feeling a tad anxious before we even got to the waterfall’s edge.

So it was all a bit of a scramble but as we got closer to the waterfall, the moss and mud start dissipating and the rocks become a little easier to grip with my toes.

My Dad is bit of a boulderer… I am, and always will be, grateful to him for leading me through many a rock-hopping expedition around the beaches of Coledale, Wombarra and Scarborough when I was a whippersnapper. What better way for a father & daughter to while away the hours together?

However even my Dad for all his ‘get-into-it’ country-boy attitude would have taken one look at this thing, shaken his head, laughed, and just said very firmly, “you can have THAT.”

me, on the other hand… well… I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

We got to the left hand side of the waterfall and were instantaneously saturated. It was so noisy, we had to yell to be heard. Our guide took my hand, and started leading me through the waterfall. Not behind it. But THROUGH it. We were clinging to the very rockface the water was smashing against. There was no large overhang. There was no generous ledge. And there was definitely no freakin Puccini.

At some points of the ‘walk’, we had no more than a couple of rocks underfoot that were, at best, a metre wide. Which sounds like a lot if you’re not dealing with angry rampaging waters trying to smash you to a pulp.

For parts of it, it was impossible to see anything. Zip. Nada. Cero. And at one point, the force of the water pushed away my bathers, exposing both of my breasts. While I am normally a bit shy when it comes to nuding up in front of complete strangers – in the threat of certain death: it was the least of my concerns. Hell, that waterfall could have completely disrobed me and I wouldn’t have cared less.

Every couple of metres, there’d be a reprise of sorts, and we were standing on a slightly wider ledge and the waters would be merely violent as opposed to life-threatening. I didn’t realise how scared I was until I saw the look in the others’ eyes. My heart was in amplified overdrive. I had definitely gone into survival mode. It was now just a matter of getting out alive.

There was also a small cave towards the end, which we took refuge in. We got our breath back. And looked at each other in the darkness with utter disbelief. Laughing like maniacs. It dawned on us what a ridiculously dangerous situation we had put ourselves in. And then we realised we had to go back.

We did. And it was a bit easier the second time round, knowing what to expect. But still a crazy hectic motherass thing to do. We came out the other end, panting and laughing. There was a lot of woo-hooing. Moreover for the fact that we were alive than anything else.

Once I stopped giggling like a lunatic, I thanked our guide for ensuring I got to do this. It ranked right up there with jumping out of an aeroplane at 14,500 feet when I was 21. I gave him my last 100lemps as a tip, figuring I had enough money to get me to the other village down the road, to try a different ATM (which happily provided).

We got back to D&D and downed many home-made beers (including a newly tapped blueberry infused beer) celebrating our survival. Skye eventually turned up from Copan Ruins and we caught up on our time apart. A tasty broccoli soup for dinner and I was not long for bed. I slept like a log that night.

The next day, Skye & I visited the Taulabe Caves. They have paved and lit the first 3 or 400m and apparently exploration has gone as far in as 12km. There’s a lot of stalagmites and stalactites and unusual rock formations – the most impressive to my eye was an angel’s wing maybe 3 metres high. But the thing that was really unusual about these caves is that they are really hot & humid. It gets up to 32 degrees Celsius, due to the fact they are steeped in volcanic grounds.

We hired a guide who took us past the lit paved part and into the batty bits of the cave. It was pretty muddy and slippery and all a bit of a scramble. Towards the end of the hike, one of the rocky ledges we had to climb proved a bit too tricky for me to lever myself up on. My Archilles’ was playing up and the tread on my boots were proving useless, so I opted to sit and wait for Skye and the guide to complete the course. I turned off my torch and sat in the complete blackness, listening to the sound of small bat wings flutter past. My eyes never adjusted for the whole time and I couldn’t see a thing. It was way cool.

Back at the Brewery, we jumped in the pool set in amongst the pretty jungly gardens and cooled off with a couple of pale ales. The manager brought us chocolate-covered strawberries and I told him he was my new favourite person. A softly spoken Manchurian bloke with a cheeky sense of humour and a great chest – I had developed a bit of a crush on Anthony. The chocolate covered strawberries just sealed the deal.

Later that night the ex-manager, a guy called John and his big beautiful brown dog called Lucy; Skye; Anthony and I did our best to empty the bar. Well, Lucy didn’t drink because she’s a dog. But the rest of us gave it a good nudge. Skye and I went to bed with only a couple of hours til the alarm was due to go off.

5.30am and we set off for a 2 day trip to get to Leon in Nicaragua. Me with raging hangover (do you see a pattern emerging here?) And poor old Skye who was sick as a dog with a serious fever and a dreadful cough. 12 hours on 7 buses (not counting the hours of wait times in between), 4 taxis, and 1 very difficult border crossing in the pouring rain, and we finally arrived.

Yet to go out & explore as it’s raining like all get out, at the moment, but a bit excited to be here.

*Disclaimer: I don’t think chocolate-covered strawberries being delivered to you poolside is necessarily included in the price of your room at D&D.

Drowning not waving

I found Captain Vern, who takes punters direct from Utila to Roatan aboard a lovely catamaran. The trip’s more expensive than taking two ferries to and from La Ceiba, but I thought it worth it for the time and mucking around I would save myself. We picked up 10 hungover-looking Danish girls who slept dotted about the boat for the entire trip. I chatted with the only other passenger – an young island boy who was very easy on the eye.

It was raining when I alighted so I jumped in a cab, only to see Skye happily sloshing around barefoot in the mud a little ways up the road. She jumped in, and came back with me to our hostel. I argued with the cabbie over the fare as is fast becoming my personal custom in any new place (he tried to charge me double coz Skye had gotten in the car. The ride was less than 3 minutes long. Fucker.) We checked me in to our simple wooden cabin which was ensconced in a lush green rainforest at the West Bay end of the island.

I showed Skye my sandlfy bites and she oohed and ahhed sympathetically: it was good to be in the company of an old mate. Skye and I met about 10 years ago when she was doing her undergraduate, and I was working at the University of Wollongong. We had been introduced through our incorrigible & infectious friend, Mikey and his soul-soothing lady, Jody. The pair of them had gathered around them the most gorgeous group of girls & boys – many of whom I am pleased to still call friends to this day.

Skye & I had only really spent time together at a collection of crazy college house parties… and while we had very likely shared a little history & possibly even bared our souls to one another – both of us admitted to not really remembering a lot from those days.

What I do know is this: Skye always had a big bright sunny smile on her dial; she was always doing something interesting – whether that be sailing through the Whitsundays or doing a marine science post grad; and she seemed to be very easy-going. I was looking forward to spending some quality time with her and hearing her stories. We had similar intentions for travel for the next month or so. It would be nice to have some company on the road.

We went & got some groceries and booze, and spent the rest of the day just mooching about, getting to know each other and catching up. I organised some diving for the next couple of days with an outfit called Ocean Connection. We played cards with our neighbours that night: a couple of amiable lads from Montana who were getting their Dive Certificates.

Over the next two days, I went out diving with Stefan the Swede in the mornings. I’ve been very lucky to get DMs all to myself. I much prefer this, than to diving in a large group because you’re always going to be at the mercy of the people who chew through their air (it’s standard practice that a dive ends when any one person gets low on air). Stefan had great eyes (for spotting stuff as opposed to the colour of) and was extraordinarily excitable under water. He kept yelling thru his reg and waving his arms about wildly. He was a bit odd, but I liked him.

There were schools and schools of fish. Loads of pretty plants. And on both days, we got to see graceful turtles gently gliding through the gardens.

On one dive, we did a swim-through and were greeted by thousands and thousands of silverfish, swarming. I couldn’t see Stefan’s fins at one point, there were so many of them. Just incredible.

We saw a small pod of dolphins during a surface interval. I wanted to jump in the water with them, but they were moving at a cracking pace. I wouldn’t have been able to keep up.

We also saw loads of little nudibranchs. Nudibranchs are a type of sea slug without shells. There’s some 3,000 different species that have been identified. They’re typically tiny (starting from as little as ½ cm) and characteristically colourful with pretty patterns – a lot of them have ‘feathers’ and ‘horns’. I’ve since discovered they’re also hermaphrodites. I’d encourage you to Google images of them. Soooo pretty!

And then there were the Christmas Tree Worms. These shy little things sport spiraling plumes that resemble a firey red fir. They’re about 2.5cm in size and when you click your fingers, they rapidly withdraw into themselves, so you can’t see them anymore. There’s a lot of animals (and some plants) that do this. You have to have a keen eye for detail to see them in action. They always startle me, in the happiest of ways.

Alternatively, there are those who are very curious and will come up to you for a closer inspection, and will keep you company for a while.

Some sea creatures are sublime show-offs, mincing about like drag queens at Mardi Gras.

Mostly though, everyone’s a bit nonplussed by your presence.

I love being underwater (as you’ve probably guessed by now). I believe neither a five year old child nor an acid-loving hippy would have the vision to imagine this world. A world of weird creatures who live in a luscious landscape which waves at you as you weightlessly wander on by. I am a child in this watery wonderland: curious, enchanted, surprised, delighted, astonished, happy.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to drown and I imagine it would be such a tranquil way to go, once you accepted your fate.

Skye and I spent the afternoons eating, drinking, chatting, reading, and sleeping; and the evenings doing the same. We both were ready to leave after just a couple of days. Roatan is a nice enough island but food & lodgings are quite expensive in comparison to the rest of Honduras. Only the diving is dirt cheap. And for someone like Skye, who can’t dive due to a heart problem – there’s not a lot to do. The beach is not a lie-about type of beach, for all its nasty sandflies. There’s virtually no nightlife to speak of, at least not in wet season.

We decided to catch an 8 minute (!) flight to Le Ceiba, primarily because there wasn’t a lot of price difference between that and catching a 2.5 hour ferry. Chuck in a collective bus ride, a taxi, and the checking in business & we didn’t save ourselves any time in the end. But it was good for the novelty factor. It was only mid-flight, I realised I shouldn’t really be flying after doing a dive the previous day. Hopefully I won’t get decompression sickness!

We caught the bus to San Pedro Sula together and then went our separate ways. Skye to Copan to see the ruins. And I came straight here. I’m currently staying at the D&D Brewery, right by Honduras’ largest lake, Lago de Yojoa. It’s super pretty here – lots of green stuff, bucketloads of birds, and big beautiful butterflies. There’s a lot to do here: a few hiking trails, some caves, a 43m waterfall, a coffee plantation, some small ruins, and so I’m told: good bird-watching (although I’m not sure I’m old enough for that just yet).

I’m just taking it easy today… a bit of a reading / research day… the rainforesty gardens of the brewery are just perfect for this kind of day, and there’s a pool if it gets hot later. I’m starting to think ahead to Colombia. Which is a while away, but I’m keen to organise where i’m going to live for the month of Dec while I do some volunteering and take some more Spanish lessons.

Skye is meeting me here tonight or tomorrow, so I’ll wait for her before we set off on some adventures.

Bananas in pyjamas

I knew jack shit about Honduras before I got here. I don’t know anyone else who has been here. So I’ve relied heavily on the guidebook and personal research. Almost everyone you meet, who travels for more than a month poo-poos guide books, but you know what: they all have one.

The irony is, it’s these same people who say they want to see the real Guatemalans. Or real Hondurans. As opposed to the fake ones? Yep. Because if you came to Australia – the people who live in the best parts (eg, Sydney, Byron Bay, etc) aren’t real Australians.

This much i know for sure: A lonely planet it ain’t.

I love my LP guidebook. And i’ll tell you why. It makes things easier. Crossing borders, connecting bus routes, etc – all the dirty work done for me. I was contemplating following the coastline from Honduras down to Nicaragua. However there are no proper bus routes or guesthouses or even places to eat. In fact, there is very little infrastructure of any kind (water, electricity). So I’ve reconsidered. I’m down with going out of the way to find something a bit more secluded and special. I don’t need hot water or AC. But I also don’t feel the need to suffer unnecessarily. I guess what I’m saying is the thought of walking for miles along a hot dusty road with 20kg on my back in 70% humidity, trying to hitch a ride on the back of a ute, doesn’t really hold a lot of appeal. That might be other people’s idea of fun, but it ain’t mine.

Fun is when I’m diving. Or drinking. Or dancing. Or doing other cool things beginning with D.

The other great thing about guidebooks is they provide a really nice summary of things like political history and how the culture has developed. And this is how I came to learn about the Banana Republic. … it’s a term I’ve always associated with Queensland but never really given much thought to. It basically refers to a politically unstable country dependent upon a limited primary export (such as bananas). The term was first coined by an exiled American author writing about a very corrupt Honduras. The country has been run much like a commercial enterprise, with various political leaders profiteering. Fierce competition between the three main exporters of bananas for land and labour, and their associations with different political parties led to discontent and even a coup d’état. Honduras has a huge foreign debt for a country of its size – more than $4 billion. And those debts fall on the country (not the political leaders) to repay. This results in all sorts of shit hitting the fan (and stuff I’m clearly not qualified to commentate on) ranging from devalued currency to a distinct lack of much-needed capital investment. All of this reinforces its status as a banana republic.

So after 15 hours on a bus with furry teeth, I arrived in La Ceiba and took a taxi to the Banana Republic Hostel. I was clean, satiated and in bed by 10. The hostel is situated right across the road from a church where they were singing until all hours of the night. I’m positive God was asleep before they were. Seriously.

La Ceiba is a small town which is essentially the jumping point to the Bay of Islands, which includes Utila and Roatan – famous for their diving. Aussie Dave and Kiwi Suze had given me the heads up about a dive outfit who owned a hotel on a remote island called Jewel Caye. I caught the ferry to Utila the next morning and got organised with Captain Morgans. They flagged down a fisherman by the name of Zorro to get me & a couple from Perth (Nick and Clare) across to the Caye. Zorro was a white-ish dude with a crazy Caribbean / Creole accent that kinda sounded like it was mixed with Scottish and Afrikaans to my ear. His boat was filled with big shiny jumping tuna. It was about a 20 min ride across calm seas.

We docked at Hotel Kayla: A very simple wooden house with a verandah and just 8 rooms. The three of us went and had some lunch and when we came back, we were greeted by Bogdan the dive instructor from Canada via Romania.

That afternoon I went for a wee walk about the small town. Jewel Caye is only 11km long x 4km wide and there is basically one bike path through the guts of it, so it doesn’t take long. The Caye is home to about 500 people, who share 7 family names. They are the direct descendants of pirates. They were a real mix of black and white and everything in between. Beautiful coffee coloured kids with wild blonde curls ran around barefoot, making lots of noise. There are 7 churches on the island. And no bars. Quite different to Tobacco Caye in Belize which had 20 people and 2 bars. We were specifically asked not to walk around in just our swimwear (boys to wear shirts at all times). That night, as it poured with rain, I heard the strains of a church choir sing… it was like a cross between gospel and country and was just beautiful.

I woke up in the middle of the night, itching like a bitch. I had been hammered by sandflies in the two hours or so I had been on Utila, the day before and i was having a fairly severe allergic reaction. I had these massive angry red welts covering the best part of the back of my legs and my arms. The level of discomfort was around an 8 or a 9. I knew I couldn’t scratch or it would just get worse… But it was absolutely tortuous.

I still have the red marks and intermittent itching 5 days later, albeit both have subsided substantially. I am a little concerned about scarring and latent infections. I mistakenly did some googling and read about all sorts of nasty things associated with sandfly bites, including larvae – Fuck Me: You Do Not Want To Know.

Think pretty thoughts! Think pretty thoughts!

The next day we were up early to go diving. Silvie, a very serious German lass was anxiously undertaking her Open Water, while Nick and Claire were starting their Advanced Open Water. I was just doing Fun Dives. Or Pleasure Dives as i re-named them. Bogdan thought that was amusing.

Diving in Honduras is ridiculously cheap (I paid just over $50 a day for 2 boat dives, including all gear hire and accommodation). Alot of people come to Utila to get certified as a Dive Master. I had considered it, but to be honest – it just looks like a lot of heavy lifting, washing up and babysitting to me. I’d rather just dive.

My DM, Phil from London was probably one of the best DMs I’ve ever had, taking time to explain what to look out for before each dive. He was super relaxed and really took his time to look out for the little things… which is how I like to dive. Some blokes are only interested in the big boys: SHARKS! RAYS! BIG STUFF! I love all the big stuff but the little things are real cool too.

I saw all sorts of cool little things i’ve never seen before including a completely translucent wormy-like fish (i spotted him while hanging around doing the safety stop and i only I saw him because his spine was suspended from a bright orange nub); sea worms inside a sandy bed who kept popping out, doing a little snake charmer’s dance and retracting back into their holes every time we got too close; and sea-horses shyly curled around little pine cone-shaped plants. My first sea-horses after some 160 odd dives! Have decided they’re right up there with turtles and dolphins for making your day.

Each day started with balleadas (fluffy flour tortilla stuffed with eggs & cheese) and cafe con leche, made by the most lovely Marie. We were in the water by 8am and all washed up by 1230. We’d have some lunch and have an afternoon kip. The others were studying, so i took the opportunity to do a little writing and reading. We’d have dinner at one of the three restaurants and get an early night.

Itching like a motherfucker aside (and it was that bad, it very nearly ruined it for me) – I had a great time. Nick & Clare were good company. And the diving was utterly perfect. Warm seas, great visibility, gorgeous sea gardens, and so many fishies!

I came back to Utila with the dive boat and a pleasant surprise… the dive shop had overcharged me and wanted to give me my money back. How good is that? I treated myself to a super clean hotel with AC and views of the water. Just waiting to see if i can get a ride with Captain Vern direct to Roatan tomorrow to meet my friend Skye, and take it from there.

Synchronicity

The past week has been filled with lots of simple pleasures… a lot of time with spent with new friends, delicious food, poking my head around doors for a stickybeak, taking photos… i also took some more Spanish lessons (yo tengo muchos verbos, pero es necesarrio que la practica mi conjugacions. Yo soy retarda.)

Monday night, I went back to Reilly’s to host trivia but they had another bloke lined up (they had forgotten to tell me) so i wound up drinking instead. No problema. I swapped the prep work I’d done for a t-shirt and a shot. It was a good night. They’re a fun bunch of people who work there. I hung out at the back bar which Heather was working. It was nice to meet a girl close to my own age. We hit it off, and she invited me to join her at a spa later in the week to celebrate her birthday.

On Wednesday, i went out to run some errands (astounding how you can still come up with a ½ decent ‘To Do’ list, even when you’re just bumming about in Central America). I was standing outside a little cafe i hadn’t been to yet perusing the menu, when two older blokes waved me in – insisting the food was terrific. And it was. I had a tasty felafel in a pita with lots of fresh salady stuff, and a spicy red home-made shrimp picante that was to die for. I had a quick chat with one of the blokes, Stan, before setting off. I didn’t think much of it at the time.

Aussie Dave & Kiwi Suze (who Sparkles had introduced me to) invited me around for dinner that night. We shared some wine & a tasty feed of quesadillas. Dave and Suze are really well-travelled and good conversationalists. I really enjoyed their company – even though Dave decided I was a bit of a bogan. We had a good laugh. We ended up in a bar called Lava, and met the owner – a dude from Perth who insisted on buying us drinks. We figured it’d be rude to say no. Afterwards they took me to the Van Man. A man who sold carne tortas from the back of his car down in the sketchy part of town for 20 pretzels. Finally, drunk food!

I later got to thinking about the bar owner… ‘how does one end up owning a bar overseas?’ I wondered how easy it would be. What kind of money would it take? Did he make a good living from it?’ While I don’t seriously think I’d venture into hospitality, and I’m not sure it would be in Guatemala … the idea is definitely something I’ve parked.

The next day I was out to lunch at a great lil Asian place with Shelby, when who should walk by, but Stan! I called him in and he joined us for lunch. I can’t think of too many situations where I’d invite a random old man to join me and my young friend for lunch. But it’s starting to feel like the norm, now.
Stan is sharp. He used to be a bigwig for a major financial institute in the States. He’s been living in Antigua for three years. He kinda fell into this business exporting jade jewellery, all centred around the Mayan zodiac. When he learned of my professional background, he asked me to do some consulting work for him. It’s totally feasible I can do this while on the road. Earning money while I travel. What’s not to love? I’ll let you know how I get on with this.

I spent some time hanging out with Shelby, just listening to music & gossiping. I did a bit of sweet negotiation and got her a good price on my apartment, so she could move out of a shitty host family situation. She was absolutely delighted. And so she should be. My apartment feels like a real home. (Albeit a noisy one, on the chicken bus road into town.) I have been very happy there. Blanca and Enrique are good landlords. And with our teacher Phil, who’s an ex-cop, living next door, she’ll have someone who’s got her back.

Shelby informs me I’m older than her mum. Which kinda of weirded me out. But she also reassures me I’m much younger than her mum in many ways & that she could hang out with me for days. I guess there is a big part of me that’s become quite maternal over the girl. She’s incredibly brave and smart but she’s also giving to a fault, and a bit naive. Shelby’s going to learn a lot of lessons the hard way – the same as the rest of us, but she’s going to be doing it in a foreign country and without the usual networks to rely on. I reckon Shelby’s got guts. And you could do a lot worse than to have a daughter like her.

I also spent a bit of time with Jenny. And the more time i spend with Jenn, the more I want. She’s an incredibly solid bird but she’s led this rich & full, risk-taking life. The older people I have met here in Antigua all have one thing in common – they’ve all got these lively eyes shining a light on their bright minds. They just radiate energy. They’ve all got stories. And they’re still making stories. None of this getting old business for them. And Jenny’s no exception. She was very generous in sharing so much of herself with me. It’s funny, because Jenn is old enough to be my mum and I feel like Shelby, I could just hang out with her for days. She’s simply inspiring. You’d be a very lucky person to have a mum like Jenn.

There was around about 20 years difference between Shelby and me, and about the same again between me and Jenn. Although we three are incredibly different, I felt like Shelby showed me how far i’ve come in the past 2 decades and Jenn was showing me what i can look forward to.

And I’m crying fiercely as I write this because I realise that meeting these two gutsy gorgeous girls isn’t about connecting for a moment, it’s about connecting for a lifetime. And that’s something I never expected to get out of doing the TEFL course.

On my last day, i got up early to meet Heather and another one of her friends. We went to this stunning spa resort built from stones, high up on a hill in a place called Lago Amatitlan (not to be confused with Lago Atitlan). We spent a very girly day in thermal pools which were filled with water from Volcan Pacaya. We enjoyed a sauna, and then had massage, facial and chocolate scrub. It was 6 hours of sheer bliss. And all for the price of a massage back home. By the end of the day, Heather was talking about possibly coming to meet me in Colombia for Christmas. I hope she does.

I had one last Spanish lesson with my wonderfully nutty teacher, Sandra and said goodbye to girls in the office of my school. I dropped in on Jenn on my way home to squeeze one last hour in. I couldn’t actually bring myself to say goodbye to Jenn: “Nos vemos” translates to “See you later” and I hoped I would. I got home, knocked on Phil’s door and was happy to find him home. I told him I would collect him to have a couple of last socials at La Sala, so I could say one last farewell to Shelby.

Well of course two drinks is never two drinks, especially when your drinking buddy is double fisting. We ended up at Gaia where his friend, Patty worked. We had a few more there and then got some takeaways. It ended up being a very late drunken night, a lot of talking shit and some damn fine home-made drunk food.

I ended up falling into bed with less than 2 hours til the alarm was due to go off at 3am. I woke up still completely dressed (always a good sign) to the sound of my doorbell going off. I had turned off my alarm, and fallen back asleep. So despite all best intentions for a completely different night and a relaxed wake-up, get ready – it was a stupid mad scramble to get my shit together and get out the door as quickly as possible. Miraculously, I didn’t forget anything or fall over. I did however forget to brush my teeth. So, here I am on bus after 14.5 hrs seriously considering a month off the booze. And my teeth feel furry.

Welcome to Honduras.