Beer and Birds

For the last five days, I have been chilling in a wonderful little place called the D & D Brewery, near the Lago de Yojoa. It is a small microbrewery and accommodation run by an American fellow and has the best beer I have tasted since leaving Canada and a decent dorm to boot. I was to stay for just a night or two, and then head on back to Copan Ruinas to pick up the DHL package my mom sent me from Canada with my zoom lens and replacement credit card. This did not happen. First of all, there was way too much to do in the area to fit into the time frame. Secondly, my package has been stuck in San Pedro Sula since Wednesday, awaiting a “clearance delay”, whatever that means. According to the DHL website, the package has gone from Edmonton to Calgary to Cincinnati to Panama City to Guatemala City to Tegucigalpa (capital of Honduras), back to Guatemala City and finally to San Pedro Sula, which is only a 3 hour bus ride from Copan. Fingers crossed, it will make it there by Monday or Tuesday.

 

On my first day at the brewery I signed up for a 6 am bird-watching tour. Not my normal cup of tea, but the guide was this opinionated old British naturalist named Malcolm, and he was definitely worth the price of admission. Between spotting Kingfishers and Herons on our little rowboat on the lake, he also filled me in on all that is good and bad in the world according to him and how the corporations were ruining Honduras. It was like having a tour with a very cranky David Attenborough.

 

The next day I went to the Pulhapanzak waterfalls- at 43 m, they were definitely impressive, but more worrisome were the kids playing near the bottom. You could also take a tour behind the falls, but I didn’t bring a bathing suit and the wet rocks looked a little beyond my balance capabilities. I also went for a hike at a local orchard/nature preserve and got thoroughly lost. The map they provided me with was vague at best and totally not to scale. I followed what I thought was an official path over a hill and as I descended the other side, I saw a man with a machete clearing brush. He smiled and waved me on down the path that had become a dirt road so I continued on. Eventually the road ended in a small work camp where a woman and a man were tying up sacks of some kind of citrus fruit. I tried to ask the man in broken Spanish where the path was, but all he did was point into the brush near the river. I knew that was the same river (more of a creek, actually) I had crossed on a footbridge earlier in the day so I decided to use it to navigate back to the nature park. After a few meters the brush became to thick alongside the water so I rolled up my pants and waded in. I forded down the watercourse for about 200 m at which point I spotted the missing path on the right, behind a barbed wire fence. A little crouching and crawling later, I was back on track. Nothing like a little backcountry hiking to make the afternoon interesting.

 

Back at the brewery, I met a woman named Inga from Australia and her friend Michelle from South Africa. They both worked at a mine in Sierra Leone and Inga was a geologist. Small world, right? We got to chatting and she offered to pass my resume along to some friends of hers at BHP Billiton in Australia. With a little luck, I might have a new job out of this. I think those whale sharks gave me some sort of good luck mojo because everything I have done since then has worked out really well. Even the bird tour was better than expected- Malcolm said it was the most species he had seen in one day since last spring.
I left the brewery this morning and made it to the town of La Esperanza, a cute little place up in the highlands. Rather than go back to ugly old San Pedro Sula on my way to Copan, I thought I would take the back way. I am a bit off the beaten track, but it is pretty nice. I have yet to see another backpacker and the scenery is gorgeous. Tomorrow I will move on to Gracias and Santa Rosa de Copan and make it back to Copan Ruinas by Tuesday. Lets hope my package is there too.

-A.

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Another bumpy road in Central America

Whale Sharks!!!!

Tonight is my last night in Utila and after ten days, I can safely say that this place is up in my top three favorites in the world, along with Karijini National Park in Australia and the Fjordlands of New Zealand.  There are no majestic water falls, nor any grand mountains or hot springs, but the ocean life I have encountered over the past several days has been amazing.  The water is clear turquoise and the coral is pristine, the fish are plentiful and the people are wonderful.

After I got over my cold, I completed my two free fun dives that came along with the course on Saturday.  My pressure equalization has been getting progressively better so I was able to descend with little of the ear pain that had been plaguing me in previous dives.  As soon as we got to depth, we spotted a sea turtle hanging out along the buoy line.  It had been my dream to see a sea turtle in the water for years.  I had been to several nesting sites in my travels but always in the wrong season.  There is something about seeing them move so effortlessly through the water that just gives me goosebumps.  The rest of the dive went well and we surfaced and went to the next site.  We followed along the side of a huge reef wall, spotting groupers and angelfish and the occasional spiny lobster or crab.  Then as we came over a ridge, ANOTHER sea turtle.  One of the dive masters told me that she never saw a turtle until her 46th dive- I was on my lucky 13th.

I took the next day off from diving and just relaxed on Jewel Cay.  My room overlooked the water and I could see the coral beneath the shallow water.  In the morning the sun rose directly outside my window.  On Sunday I decided I had had enough peace and quiet for a while and headed to the main island of Utila.  I went with a German couple I had been hanging out with to a presentation on whale sharks given by a biologist at the local research center.  Utila is the only place in the world where you have a chance to see them year-round, though only one had been spotted since October.  The research center allowed snorkelers to go out with their research boat for $50.  I put my name on the waiting list, but wasn’t sure if I should spend that much for the off-chance that they might see a whale shark that day.  In the end I decided to spend my money on a couple more dives instead, and it was probably one of the best decisions I have made on this trip.

This morning started out rough, as I had trouble getting to sleep and then had to meet the dive boat at 6:45am.  I grabbed a coffee and a cinnamon roll from Thomson’s Bakery (yum!) and then climbed aboard- and within 2 minutes half of my coffee was on my shirt when someone in front of me slung on their backpack and tipped the cup into my chest- I soon forgot about that, though;  as we rode out to the first site, we came across a pod of dolphins and the captain slowed down.  One of the dive masters shouted to get our fins and masks on because we were going in.  The boat was still moving as I leapt from the side and got a mouth full of salt water for my trouble.  I forgot about that in a moment, as a half dozen bottle-nose dolphins swam within 4 meters of my face.  They only stayed for a few minutes and then it was back to the boat to get to our dive site. 

After the dolphins, the dive seemed a bit underwhelming but it was interesting enough, with several small coral channels to navigate through.  On the way to the second site, more dolphins showed up, playing in the water along our bow wave. And then the captain spotted a large shape in the water.  Someone shouted that it was a whale shark and that we needed our mask and fins on NOW.  Geared up once again, the captain steered alongside the beast and I got into the water just in time to see is tail fin flicking into the blue.  We climbed back aboard and continued on.  Not five minutes later we found ANOTHER whale shark.  This time I was already sitting with my gear on and dove in like a flash.  Those 10 seconds were the most memorable of my life- I landed within 3 meters of the giant creature’s head.  He was at least 10m long and I am pretty sure I could have stood up in his mouth.  Whale sharks are filter feeders and don’t eat anything bigger than about 30cm, so there was no physical danger, but the shear enormity of the creature I was swimming beside was hard to fathom.  It still hasn’t really sunk in what I saw this morning and I think it will take me a couple days to really appreciate it. 

We, of course still had one more dive, and as we descended, I was still thinking of the whale shark when we came upon an eagle ray, about 1.5m wide and a moray eel further along.  The other dive group encountered more dolphins as well. Finally the diving was done for the day and the boat headed back.  The final cherry on top was the sea turtle we saw skimming the surface along side the boat on our way back to Utila.  The manager of the dive shop was on the boat today and told me that it was her best day on the water ever (she has over 100 dives in her log book). 

We all tipped the captain generously and my dive master, Lisa, said I was good luck.  In 4 dives and two snorkels I managed to see 3 sea turtles, 2 eels, a ray, and 2 whale sharks.  I can’t believe how lucky I am.  There are no words to explain how surreal and extraordinary the past 3 days have been.  I am leaving tomorrow for the mainland with not a single regret and an experience I will remember until I am a hundred years old.

Cheers.

-A.

P.S.  Speaking of age, HAPPY BIRTHDAY KRISTAN!!!!!  The whale sharks say hello! 

 

Into the Blue (And Out Again)

My grand plan when I left Copan Ruinas was to catch the 5am bus to San Pedro Sula and then change for another bus to La Ceiba and finally, from there catch the ferry to Utila (the closest and cheapest of the Bay Islands of Honduras). I thought I would be especially smart by staying up to catch the bus rather than risking sleeping in by going to bed. I did end up where I planned to be, though in hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have had so many beers the night before in my effort to stay awake.

 

On the evening of the 13th, I went out with some of the girls in my Spanish school and we ordered a round of the big beers sold in Copan (equivalent to about 3 regular bottles). A couple of those went down pretty smoothly and then the girl from Kansas had to go home as she was having some difficulties walking. I was still okay, but there were still 4 hours before my bus was to leave so I stayed until closing and then went back to my place to pack. I did end up sleeping for about an hour, but luckily my alarm was set as a backup, so I still caught the bus, though at the time I assumed I probably wasn’t the most sober one on board. Turns out I was wrong- I slept the whole way to San Pedro Sula and when we arrived, the Australian couple behind me asked whether I had been grossed out when the girl in the seat across from them started vomiting. I slept through the whole thing, and though I was a bit hung over by the time I got to Utila, I figured that was a small price to pay for missing that little episode of the journey.

 

Once in Utila, I signed up with Captain Morgan’s Dive Center for my PADI Advanced Open Water Course. I have been a certified diver since I was in Australia, but the advanced course was a good way of building my confidence. The first night I slept on the main island but after that I got to transfer to Captain Morgan’s secondary accommodation on one of the small cays to the southwest. While Utila was interesting, I found that the maze of motorbikes and golf carts made strolling a slightly stressful operation. Jewel Cay (pronounced ‘key’), on the other hand, is a little piece of mellow paradise for $6 a night. As usual, my tiny ear canals started acting up after my first dive, but I managed to finish the course before my ears got totally blocked. The same thing happened when I was in Australia and in Hawaii, so I was anticipating it. I think I am not anatomically designed for long term diving. Alas! My instructor kept suggesting that I sign up for a divemaster course but I am pretty sure my inner ear would just implode at some point if I dove every day.

The five dives I had to do to qualify as an advanced diver were a deep dive to 30m (100ft), a dive to a shipwreck, a navigation dive, a night dive and a dive to fine-tune my buoyancy. I have to say that my favorite was definitely the wreck dive- I felt like I was in a national geographic documentary as we swam around and partially through the old boat. There was an eerie, ghost-like quality to the old beast- it sat at about 30m depth with small fish swimming through it’s rusted exoskeleton. The ship had been intentionally sunk as a training wreck, so it is mostly intact except for the removal of sharp edges. A very surreal experience, to be sure.
I still have two fun dives to do once my ears clear up, so I have been hanging around Jewel Cay waiting on that and for my minor cold to disappear as well. I can confirm that there are worse places to be stuck with a stuffy nose. I will update again when I move on. Cheers, amigos.

 

-A.

Mucho Escuela

Today was my last day of classes at the Guacamaya Spanish School in Copan, Honduras. It may seem silly to say but I had forgotten that school is supposed to be a challenge. I have not taken a language class since ninth grade, taught by a woman who spoke english as her fourth language and smelled of garlic. Suffice to say I didn´t get much out of it. Getting my brain back in gear definitely took a while and the week was quite humbling. At Guacamaya, I had one-on-one instruction with my teacher (maestro en español) Sara. At all of 19 years old, she was infinitely patient with me as we struggled through irregular verbs and gerunds. Back in High Prairie, grammer was never exactly my strong point- I picked up sentance structure mainly through context because I read so much but his week I think I made up for all that I missed in English and more. Twenty hours of immersion instruction later, I think I have achieved the communication level of a 3 or 4 year old. This is a definite improvement on my previous ability (of a 2 year old). At the beginning of my trip, I would simply throw out nouns haphazardly along with hand motions in the hope that the poor clerk or driver would eventually understand what I wanted. Now I feel I can actually construct a proper sentance, though I can only speak in the present tense so far, and I still have no idea why “usted” (the former form of “you”) is in the third person. I can also understand a lot more of what others are saying even if I can’t respond in kind. The tricky part of the immersion aspect was that I had no Spanish and my instructor had no English so there was lots of diagrams and arm waving when I didn`t pick up on something right away, and it was quite difficult to get beyond superficial layer of understanding. I would know that you had to accent a letter, but not why. All things considered, though, it was definitely worth the $230, especially the homestay. My host mother’s name is Carla and she runs a small comida (cafe) in town. She was very helpful and patient as I struggled through haulting sentances, though her mother was a little less so. She talked so fast I could rarely pick up more than a couple words out of a sentance and then she would get annoyed when I didn´t understand. I think that little old ladies are the same all over the world. I am pretty sure I met her Polish counterpart when I landed in the Warsaw airport in 2007. Tonight I am going out to the pub with a few of the students here and then tomorrow I am off to the Bay Islands off the north coast to perhaps take my Advanced diving course. Depending on price, I may just do some fun dives instead, though. The island of Utila is known for whale sharks, and the coral is supposed to be quite pristine. And just so you don´t worry a whale shark has emphasis on the whale part and not the shark part, so I will most likely emerge from the ocean with all my limbs intact unless I get stuck under a boat propeller. Hasta Luego Amigos!

-A.

Hello Honduras

After a lengthy stay in Rio Dulce, Guatemala, I decided it was time to move on so I tagged along with a Toronto couple to Copan, Honduras.  With border formalities, it took about 8 hours.  Copan is only 10km into Honduras, but I definitely feel a different vibe here than in Guatemala- then again, it might just be the relaxed nature of the highlands.  Copan is famous for it’s Mayan ruins, and in fact, the town’s proper name is “Copan Ruinas”.  It is covered in old cobblestones and morning mist and seems a good place to hang around a little while.

I checked into a hostel called Iguana Azul (Blue Iguana) and almost immediately left again to go for beers with my dorm-mates.  I don’t think I have encountered such a diverse bunch of people in all my travels.  Singapore (I can’t pronounce or spell her name) is laid up with an ankle sprain, and is a qualified aeronautics engineer; Lauren is a Swiss fellow who doesn’t speak much; Angela from England makes up for Lauren and talks all the time- she’s been travelling for decades with an equivalent number of stories; May is from San Francisco and is studying to be an elementary school teacher; Cory is a biologist/lobbyist from Australia and finally there is David- an older man who works as a mathematician/statistician for the US Department of Defense in Maryland.  Crazy, right?

We spent the morning walking around the famous ruins, which I promised myself will be my last set of ruins.  I feel like I have given the Mayan their due and need to move on.  The site was much smaller than Tikal, but the detail was amazing with some pillars still show the original pigments.  We went pretty slowly to allow Singapore to keep up on her crutches.  The highlight was the pair of red Macaws perched on the fence as we left the park.  In the afternoon I wandered the town and came across a Spanish school.  After a little research, I decided I would pop in and see if they had room for me.  I wrote a placement exam which I think was probably the lowest scoring test of my life, and they told me I could start tomorrow.  For $235 US, I will get 4 hours of instruction per day for 5 days along with a homestay in Copan.  My original plan was to do schooling in Guatemala, but once I found out that this place did one-on-one teaching, I was in.  God knows my Spanish can’t get any worse.  Wish me luck!

-A.

 

The Art of Doing Nothing

Geographically speaking, I haven’t moved that much from where I was last week, but sometimes I need to hibernate for a few days to catch my breath.  I am currently in Rio Dulce, a small town 30 minutes down-river from Livingston, my port of entry from Belize.  Livingston is an interesting place in that it has no road access- even though over 24,000 people live there.  The motor bikes outnumber the cars at least 5 to 1 and the culture is a mixture of Caribbean Garifuna and Guatemalan Maya.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the city just for the fact that it was a bit boring.  I shared a hostel room with a really nice French fellow named Gerome, who teaches French in Mexico and was on his holiday break- he planned to spend New Year’s Eve in Livingston, but I decided to move on. 

From Livingston I caught a boat down the river to the town of Rio Dulce, which is no bigger than High Prairie and basically exists as a supply town for the small yachts that come to dock from the Caribbean.  The river flows along through a gorgeous limestone canyon and ends in a wider bay that eventually joins up with Lago de Izabal (Lake Izabal) and spanning the narrows is the largest bridge in Central America.  When I got to town I checked out a couple hostels and eventually was directed to Hotel Kangaroo.  You can only access it by boat as it is tucked away down a little mangrove tributary of the main river.  It is run by an older Aussie named Gary who got tired of doing construction in Queensland and moved down to Guatemala.  He built the whole place himself with hand tools which is an impressive feat for a building constructed on wetlands.  Arriving on New Year’s Eve, I was treated to a big feast of shrimp after which everyone clamoured into the boat to go check out the fireworks at the bridge.  We partied at a dockside bar and I counted in the new year in Spanish.  I was the only backpacker in the hostel- the only other folks that weren’t staff were a semi-retired American physicist who works part time for the US government at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and his Guatemalan girlfriend.  He told me that he works on radiation shielding and not on the nuclear weapons the place is known for.  Of course if he was working on nuclear weapons, he probably wouldn’t be telling me anyway…

On New Year’s day there were no buses or public transportation running so I stayed at the hostel and just hung out with the staff all day.  The on-site restaurant is run by a Mexican lady named Graciella along with her niece Dani.  Dani’s little brother Raul was also visiting for the holiday and I spent some time helping him with his English.  The food is amazing and the dorm is one of the nicest I have come across.  This is probably why my two night stay has turned into five.  I have done a couple of day trips to town and one to the hot waterfall down the road (a hot-spring fed stream that falls over a 5 meter cliff, apparently the only one in the world), but mostly I have just been reading and watching the river and visiting with Gary and Dani and Graciella.  I will probably move on tomorrow, but we’ll see how I feel when I wake up.  I think that is one of the key difference between backpacking and going on a proper holiday. On a holiday the whole idea is to relax and de-stress, but the nature and length of a backpacking trip means that occasionally you just need to shut off and recharge.  Every day you are making decisions about where you are going to sleep and how much you are going to spend and where you are going to eat and if you don’t park in one spot every once in a while, you’re going to get burned out and want to go home early.  And that is the last thing I want to do right now.  Happy New Year everyone!

-A.