Dec
03
2008
1

Beautiful Bay Islands

UPDATE: Back on the mainland, finally found a net cafe with which to upload these photos:

Sitting in a hammock on the front porch of the cute little cabin I rented here by the beach, blogging from the iPhone (the hotel has WiFi!) while waiting for the rain to stop. Actually, the last few days have been really nice. But a cold front moved in (dropping the temperature to a freezing 68 F), bringing rain and choppy seas.

After getting off the comfy but seasick-inducing ferry and sharing a ride into town, I found a nice cheap place run by an American who immediately handed me a snorkel and fins, commanding me to get in the water and take advantage of the glorious day. This is why I came here – because the coral reef comes right up to the white sand beach. Just 30′ from shore are the strange, beautiful plants and marine life indicative of this latitude.

The Bay Islands are the most popular destination on Honduras for tourists. Many package tours and cruise ships come here, and never even go to the main land. The Bay Islands are comprised of three main islands and dozens of lesser keys.
Utila is known as the cheap chill backpackers haven, and the cheapest place in the world to get PADI certified in diving. I was originally going to go to Utila, until Douglas convinced me otherwise.
Roatán is the most developed and largest of the islands at 60km long by 7km wide, and has a dozen or so towns spread along it, along with smaller villages and countless resorts. I am in West End, the most affordable and approachable of the towns. It is so relaxed and laid back here, I can’t imagine how Utila could be any more so. Everyone speaks English, there are a variety of nice places to eat and drink, activities galore, or just long walks on the beach. The sunsets are incredible. There is no stress, no danger, no hucksters or touts. The locals are friendly and chill.
The downside for me is that I’m spending 2-3x my daily budget here. Don’t get me wrong – this is a cheap Carribean destination, and I would love to come back some time with a group of friends and rent a house for $600/month. You can even rent an entire island (complete with house) all to yourself for very little money. That would be neat, although I would want my own boat.. at least a kayak. But in general, food and drink is about half what they cost in the States, and about 2-3x what they are in the rest of Honduras. Which is why I’m not staying that long.
The third major island is called Guanaja, and is almost all traditional local people who live crammed into a small region off one end, while farming the rest.

Wanting to hang out in the evening, I was again stymied by the damn election prohibition! I did end up finding a place that would serve tourists in a plastic cup, as long as you agreed it was “iced tea” if the police came around.
I’m beginning to sound like an alcoholic with all this need for booze. But you know I usually only have one drink anyway.. it’s more about hanging out in a public space instead of alone in my room.

Yesterday I took a nice long walk along the beach to the tip of the island, where I did some snorkeling. It was pretty good, but not great visibility due to the winds picking up. On my way back, I stopped to try my hand at smacking a coconut open to drink it’s water. I was fairly successful, and feeling pretty cool with myself, when a local walked up with two enormous coconuts, proceeded to hack the top of one into a perfect spout, and hands it to me. Gratis. The kindness of strangers…
I realized why coconuts have all that water inside them – do you suppose they carry with them the moisture needed to germinate their seed? Wikipedia says no, the water simply becomes the white flesh after it ripens. They are amazing at reproducing, tho – coconuts have been found as far away as Norway!

I’ve decided not to attempt scuba diving again, for various reasons. You may recall that I did a series of introductory dives in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef last year. They can take you down to 30′ of depth without being certified. Which was plenty for me.
First, I’ve always had a fear of deep water (and the whole scuba thing anyway is pretty freaky, it just goes against our primal instincts to breathe underwater), so it took a while to calm myself down. Secondly, I had a lot of difficulty equalizing the pressure in my ears. It was really painful, and took about a week to get back to normal. They say 90% of diving is psychological. I probably could have done it, and would still like to at some point, but am just not feeling up to that particular challenge now.

Now the rains have come, which is good in a way, because I’m prevented from finding other adventures to do. Forced to study and write and read.
During a lull in the rain yesterday, I sat out on the end of a dock and meditated, a first for me. It was really peaceful and refreshing.

One of the activities I considered (until I found out the price) is going 1000′-2000′ under the sea, in a submersible craft owned by a research institute (really just one dude) here. Apparently this is one of the few places in the world one can go that deep, owing to the immediate proximity of the Cayman Trench, some 25,000 ft deep (for comparison, the Grand Canyon is 6,000 ft deep)!

Today I hired a bike and went for a killer ride.. 40 miles, all told. Covered about half the island. I didn’t mean for it to be a mountain biking adventure, but such is the condition of the secondary roads here!

I ran into Craig and Jess, a British couple I met my last week at Spanish school. They´re here for five weeks! I love running into people on the road. Turns out Craig is an accomplished diver, he was regaling us with stories of their wreck dives. Sounds amazing (and terrifying).

Written by in: Honduras | Tags: , , ,
Dec
03
2008
1

More from La Ceiba

To catch you up since the middle of last week:
On Thanksgiving I went to the expat bar in La Ceiba, figuring they were my best chances for finding a turkey dinner. I was right.. they did a reasonable facsimile, with all the fixin’s.

At that bar, I met a couple that I ended up spending the next evening with. She’s American, from Texas. He’s Honduran, from Roatan, actually. His name is Douglas Johnson, same as my father’s! They’ve been married for 10 years, and have a 3 yr old. They’re still very much in love, it was great to see them interact.
They met when she was volunteering down here. She’s a science teacher. He’s had an interesting life. Grew up poor with different dads, became a star soccer player at a young age (captain of the national team! I saw newspaper clippings of him shaking hands with the president, etc), then decided to become a doctor. Did med school here, moved to the States for 8 years for more training and practice, and moved back.

They invited me to their house for dinner the next night, so my project the next day was to buy a nice bottle of wine and a dress shirt (which I’d been wanting anyway for occasions like this.) Their house is really nice, and interesting how they built it. From the outside it just looks like an over sized trailer, a huge steel shell (but with nice landscaping and a palapa.. having done everything themselves, it’s particularly impressive). The inside, though, is fantastic. Half of it is their living quarters, with 4 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, 2 living rooms, a big kitchen, really nice tile work and décor. The other half is a small clinic/hospital that is not yet finished, but he has grand plans for.

Dinner turned out to be pretty casual, with various friends and neighbors dropping by. I was lost most of the time, since their Spanish is so hard for me to parse. As you would expect, many of his friends are fellow doctors, of various specialties. What I didn’t expect was that they would be such heavy drinkers and smokers!

After dinner, he wanted to take us to a friend’s place who was having a BBQ/birthday party. So 5 of us (all men) piled into the SUV and drove out to an enormous mansion on the other end of town. I didn’t get to see most of the house since the party was out on the patio. It’s funny how they treat their own yards just as badly (in my opinion) as they do the rest of the country – throwing cigarette butts and other trash on the ground wherever they happen to be standing, not even pretending to look for an ash tray or garbage can.
This party consisted of drinking beer like it was water, eating large quantities of meat, and singing karaoke! They had one of those home machines that seem to be so popular down here. Fortunately I was successfully able to resist all the drunken requests to “sing”. After several hours of this I was pretty bored, but had no way of getting home on my own.. so I endured.

At one point it was realized that I had yet to try guifiti, the local fire water. The Garifuna make this stuff out of fermented herbs and spices. Sounded great, but it was one of the worst, most incredibly bitter tastes I’ve ever known. They use it as medicine, if you can believe it. It’s also well known as a tonic to make a man “stronger” if you know what I mean, wink wink, nudge nudge. Lots of drunken jokes about that.

Finally the party wound down, and we headed back into town to hit the bars (!) Ended up at a swanky place for you guessed it, more karaoke! At least these singers could sing, and I could actually make out the meanings of most of the songs thanks to the lyrics being projected on a big screen.

Douglas wanted to take me to his father’s place the next day so I could see a bit of the countryside. He also had plans for me the day after, to check out some waterfalls that you get to via an old railroad. But he never showed up to pick me up, and to this day I still don’t know what happened. It’s weird that neither he nor his wife have returned my texts or phone calls. They struck me as honest, forthright people, so I can only assume there was some kind of family emergency.

One of the reasons I stayed in La Ceiba so long was because the town is supposed to really come alive on weekends. Saturday night finally rolls around, and all of the bars and clubs are dark and shuttered. Huh? Turns out it’s due to the election this weekend. The government mandates no alcohol over election weekend, lest it lead to violence. I mean, I’m glad they’re so passionate about their politics, but really! Get this – it’s not even the final election, those are still a year away. These are only the primaries!
It is energizing, though. Voting is compulsory, as it is in most of the world and should be made in the US.

So Sunday morning I caught the ferry after successfully haggling with various taxis for a reasonable ride to the terminal. You can really see from down there how La Ceiba is sandwiched between the mountains and the sea. The ferry is pricey, as is everything on the Bay Islands. Which leads me to the next post…

Written by in: Honduras | Tags: , , ,
Nov
26
2008
4

North coast of Honduras

I could have said, “Caribbean coast of Honduras”, but that would have given you the idea that it’s sunny skies, warm, and blue-green waters. Which it’s not. It’s more like the North coast of England, actually. Why, oh why, did I decide to come in the rainy season?!

How’s this for a travel day:
6:00 am lancha (small boat) for 45 minutes from Livingston to Puerto Barrios. Pleasant trip hugging the coastline. Then into a seriously overpriced taxi for a ride that turned out I could have walked in 10 minutes! [This trip is full of lessons learned.. like, even though the cabbies have more information than I do of what the distances are and therefore what the fare should be, I have time on my side – in the future, I will simply decline every offer until they either a) lower their price sufficiently, or b) I find out the necessary information from locals in the vicinity.. like, can I just walk there?!]
Into a minibus bound for the border. Walked across the border, got exit/entry stamps, caught a chicken bus (they say old school buses don’t die, they just go to Central America) bound for Puerto Cortes. Hugged the Northeast coast of Honduras on this ride, which was accompanied by American 80’s rock blasting at full volume. Even with my earplugs in, Bryan Adams doesn’t sound good.
Had a quick wander around and a bite to eat, then caught a local (non-direct) bus to San Pedro Sula, the second largest city in Honduras.
Here they actually had a real bus station (as opposed to being dropped on the street and wandering around to find the next bus) replete with shops, including Dunkin’ Donuts! Which I hadn’t experienced since the Atlanta airport at 5am, when I began this whole journey. I’ve kept both receipts, it’s amazing the difference in cost.
There are two bus companies that operate first-class long-distance service, and they’re legendary. A/C, meals served by wait staff (!), movies, reclining seats, the works. I took a similar one from Bulgaria to Istanbul a few years back that was pleasant. Alas, it was too much for me (and I was only going a few hours), so I went second class to La Ceiba. Which was absolutely fine by me, until… they forgot to drop me off in La Ceiba!
It’s not like it’s a small town or anything – it’s the third largest city, and it’s supposed to have a bus station that I would have gotten off at. I’m not sure what happened, but by the time the conductor and I looked questioningly at each other, we were a good 10km beyond the city, headed to god knows where. Did I mention that it was dark and raining, as well? We had just passed a police checkpoint, so they dropped me off and I waited out of the rain with the cops who were very nice in helping to flag down a taxi. They also told me how much it should cost, most helpful..
Then things got really weird. The guidebook I’ve been relying on for facts like hotels (Footprint, which is usually pretty accurate) had hotels listed that have not only disappeared, but in one case the street it was supposedly on doesn’t even exist! It was quite a sight. Me, hiking all over town in this torrential downpour at night (glad to have a light pack), trying to find just one decent hotel. It was a laugh or cry situation, and I was laughing.

All in all, what should have been a six-hour trip (according to one travel agent) became 13 hours of 1 boat, 2 taxis, 4 buses, and a lot of walking in the rain. But I’m happy to report that my spirits were high the entire day, it was a great adventure. I’m learning to have fun (rather than get annoyed) with the crazy people who shout in your face whatever they’re trying to sell. I just shout back.
And now I am armed with that much more knowledge of how things work down here.

There is something odd about this town. It’s as if a light hurricane struck it, which I suppose is not too far off the mark. There was a lot of flooding in in Northern Guatemala and Honduras about two months ago, and evidence abounds. A lot of the bridges we went over were obviously temporary, you could see the real one hanging in pieces next to us. Here in town the strip along the waterfront, which should be full of nice places, are all battered and torn up. But it doesn’t explain the missing businesses… a lot of the restaurants from the book are also missing. Strange.

One thing that really gets on my tits is honking. You know how in New York, all the African cabbies will honk to ask if you need a lift? Although you were doing nothing whatsoever to give them any indication that you needed a lift, you were simply walking down the street in peace. Well, here it’s worse. I swear every third car is a taxi, and all day long they drive about hunting for fares. I took a walk this morning out on the edge of town, and occassionally a cab would pass me incessantly honking until I told him to fuck off. Hello, you’re the only car for a mile around! Don’t you think if I wanted you, I would flag you down? Do you really think I don’t see you unless you honk??
As a result, the streets are full of cabs honking at people who naturally ignore them. Man, I really need to take up meditation or something to not let this kind of stuff get under my skin.
I´ve always felt that cars should come with a horn regulator, such that you’re given a certain amount of honks to use in a given day/week/month and once you’ve used up that quota, the horn won’t work again until the next day/week/month. It’s really a no-brainer.
Guatemala was pretty restrained in their use of horns, which I think is probably unusual for Latin America.

From the limited amount I’ve seen thus far, it feels like Honduras is a bit more organized with better infrastructure than Guatemala. The first stop lights I’ve seen since Guat City. The prices are about 50% higher too, which surprised me – other travelers reported the opposite. Perhaps things will be different in the south.
The people are lighter skinned (being Latinos), rather than indigenous Mayans. Since Spanish is their native tongue (for the Mayans, it’s their second language), they talk really fast and slur a lot. Even when I ask them to slow down, theysimplyinsert                      bigpausesbetween theirotherwisereallyfastspeech               soIcan’tunderstandadamnthingthat’sbeingsaid!

Something for you foodies: back in Livingston, I had the traditional Garifuna seafood soup made with coconut milk, plantains, shellfish, and (drum roll…) a whole fish plopped on top! It was delicious, but I was reminded of when Rissie and I drove across Bulgaria. Every restaurant served whole fish, and since she had recently rescinded vegetarianism (and for understandably aesthetic reasons), was grossed out by the head of the fish staring up at her from the plate. So we developed a routine whereby she would avert her eyes while I dissected the fish and hid the head in the nearest planter before she could eat.

People ordinarily come to this town as a jumping-off point for the Bay Islands, which are the main attraction in Honduras. It’s the cheapest place in the world to get PADI-certified in scuba diving. I was interested in perhaps doing that, or snorkeling at the very least, but this weather is really not looking good. It’s actually sunny at the moment, but I don’t trust that it will last. Anyway, the seas are still choppy and cloudy, which is no good for diving. Hmm. I guess I’ll go to the islands anyway just to see them, but might not end up diving.

Written by in: Honduras | Tags: , , ,

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