Utila: A Hidden Gem

A few months ago I was in need of an adventure. Something to get me away from the daily grind, away from grey skies and into azure seas. I wanted to do something new, experience something I had never done before. Unfortunately it felt like my budget was far smaller than my ambitions.

That’s when I heard of a small island off the coast of Honduras. A friend of mine had gone travelling some months before through Central America. On her travels she had stopped at what looked like something straight off a postcard. Stalking through her Facebook pictures I knew I had to see this place for myself. After a bit of an online catch up I found out it was one of the cheapest places around to learn to scuba dive. The next day I booked two weeks off from work, I was going to Utila.

One month, one train and two nearly missed flights later I landed in San Pedro Sula. I was greeted by a pan flute band playing a hauntingly beautiful version of The Sound Of Silence. The taxi driver I’d organised with my hostel was waiting for me with my name on a sign. With his decent English and my broken Spanish we managed to communicate well enough during the journey. He pointed out a couple of neighbourhoods during the ride and I definitely understood I’d be shot and robbed if I ventured into those. Bullet wounds have never been a souvenir I’ve been keen to come away with.

I had faced the decision of either flying direct from San Pedro Sula to Utila’s airstrip or to neighbouring Roatan and getting the ferry from there. The flights ran on Monday,Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 3pm. At £60-85 for a one way flight I didn’t fancy blowing part of my budget that could otherwise be spent more frivolously.

Instead I chose to stay in San Pedro over night at a hostel. The dorm rooms averaged at £7.50. I stayed at one called La Hamaca and was perfectly comfortable for the night. I caught a coach from the municipal centre at 4am the next morning and paid £11 for a ticket to La Ceiba (having pre-booked the ticket at the hostel). The journey got me there in plenty of time for the morning ferry at 9am (the second is at 4.40pm). Once there I purchased a ticket for the ferry at £17, though the cost for this can vary depending on high and low season (I went in March, just at the beginning of high season).

The ride took a little over an hour, after watching La Ceiba and the Cordillera Nombre de Dios mountains disappear I went to the front of the boat to look for Utila. It started out as the thinnest slither on the horizon, then the tallest point, Pumpkin Hill, became clear. The water turned turquoise as the sea bed shallowed and I greeted by boats and quirky water front bars that were soon to become familiar.

Part of the Bay Islands, it’s situated on the Mesoamerican Reef System, second in size and diversity only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Between the 1550’s and 1700’s the area was caught in conflicts between the Spanish and British as they sought to dominate the Caribbean. All the while pirates such as Henry Morgan would use islands like Utila as bases to gather supplies and store plunder. Today there are still plenty of wrecks to be explored, and maybe even some pirate treasure to be found.

I was in pure holiday mode during the first few days, just enjoying eating, drinking and soaking up the sun. The average cost for a four bed dorm was £8 a night and eating out was cheap costing anything from 50p for light bites and snacks to £15 if I really want to treat myself. A bottle of beer typically cost £1. Tuk-tuk taxis were an inexpensive way to get up and down the main strip and some of the back roads.

After the first couple of days I wanted to be a bit more independent and fancied exploring the island more. There were plenty of rental places up and down the main strip with bicycles, mopeds, off-road motorbikes, quad bikes and golf carts for rent. Bicycles cost £7 a day and mopeds average £13-17, although you may be able to get a discount if you’re hiring for a week. Not all places offer this up front but it doesn’t hurt to ask. I got a little moped for a few days which was perfect for zipping up and down the main strip and some of the other roads. When it came to riding down some of the dirt tracks to get to Pumpkin Hill and some of the more secluded beaches it was hard going but manageable. If you’re feeling that adventurous it might be worth thinking about spending a bit more for something more suited to off roading.

After visiting a few diving schools I got a feel for the average prices and what was on offer. For beginner and advanced courses the cost was £210 which includes all of your gear. Some offered free accommodation for four nights while I was learning which was definitely a bonus. I ended up with Underwater Vision which I would highly recommend for the atmosphere.

The teaching was top quality, we were all well acquainted with our equipment and what to do in an emergency before we even got in the water. Our instructors were professional, patient, explained everything in depth while having a sense of fun and adventure at the same time. For someone like myself who was slightly anxious about being in the open water the instruction on this course gave me total confidence being in the open sea.

However, the main thing that concerned me was diving ethically. Just before I left for Utila I read that in Thailand, Maya Bay, made famous in The Beach, had been closed to tourists to allow for the reef there to recover from intensive visitation. Tourism can have a devastating effect on local flora and fauna, especially delicate corals. What struck me about Utila was the pride that the residents take in the beauty of their island. Due to its location plastic and other waste often washes up on the otherwise postcard perfect beaches. It doesn’t stick around for long though, teams of locals will lovingly clean the beaches, tourists can get in on this as well. Dive centres like Underwater Vision do a weekly clean up run with instructors and students taking part. Most of the beaches are protected as well, there are warning signs and heavy fines against those thinking of illegal fishing or removing shells or corals.

When it came to diving itself all of the instructors have a clear passion for maintaining the beauty of the reef. While in the water they remained watchful of their pupils, reminding us to not get too near the coral should we drift too close. Most instructors are against interacting with the wildlife and instead prefer to lead their groups in observing only. An exception is made for the Red Lion Fish, an invasive species which preys upon native reef maintaining animals such as the Cleaner Shrimp. Instructors and locals spear hunt the fish which has become something of a delicacy on the island.

A lot is being done locally to maintain the reef system and islands but as my instructor, Sam Cogin, told me the problem of conservation is a global one.

“I came here for a few dives. I never thought I would stay for a long time. What kept me here was a combination of self improvement in diving, a lot of amazing people and just really the ability to stay away from Australia and meet new people every day and create experiences.

I have thoroughly enjoyed teaching people how to dive. I have made significant changes in my life to try and conserve what we have and being able to show people and explain why its important to reduce consumption. Looking after what’s left while we have it has been really enjoyable and rewarding for me.

My first impressions of the reef were I thought that it was amazing and spectacular. To be honest I think globally more needs to be done in relation to dealing with global warming and the introduction of MPA’s (Marine Protected Areas). I think that addressing this locally will be a short lived adventure. Obviously having Marine Protected Areas in local communities is a great effort but will be short lived long term if the water doesn’t stop getting warmer.”

I spent two very happy weeks on Utila. When it came time to leave I skipped the morning ferry just so I could enjoy a few more hours. Learning to scuba dive was an other worldly experience, one that I’ll be looking to repeat. When your certificate arrives in the post back home it really is something to brighten up the post holiday blues. It was a great way to bond with people, I became quick friends with my dive group. Once the day’s dive is done you’ll probably find yourself headed to a bar with your group like I did. The island has a relaxed vibe to it, no one is in a rush here, everyone is welcoming and I didn’t think twice about walking home alone at night.

Utila is one of those hidden gems, it’s not a five star resort, it’s not a cruise ship destination and that’s part of its charm. The simple life is best here, it wont blow your wallet, most of the bars are wooden shacks, full of character and characters. As for the natural beauty, you’ll find yourself in a hammock, sipping a beer, suspended over clear blue waters wondering why you don’t give the nine to five the sack and stay. There really is love for the island from the locals and long termers, it’s infectious. You might catch it too.cropped-29244070_10156264008364413_1129336078247919616_o1.jpg

Climb

When I was little there was a tree in my back garden. It was huge! Tall and lanky, it towered over the neighbourhood, when a wind kicked up it would sway and swing like a drunk leaving the pub. I used to love climbing it, it was my favourite thing, you couldn’t get me down from there. At first I used to hang around in the lower branches, safe in the knowledge that if i fell the ground wasn’t too far below. After a while, though, the lower branches lost their appeal, suddenly they didn’t feel so high after all. I started to venture further up and found, after the initial discomfort, the view was better from up here. After that I was hooked, everyday I’d venture a bit further than I dared.
One day the wind got real ferocious, I was about halfway up now and clung to the trunk fearing I might be blown away. I wasn’t, I weathered the storm and I found my resolve strengthened. The worst had happened but there I still clung.
Suddenly the swaying tree didn’t seem so ominous, now I’d met with it properly. I redoubled my efforts and soon enough I knew every branch on my ascent like an old friend and I would swing in the breeze at the top most with what felt like the whole world before me.

Wading In The Nature Of Things

After a slight debacle with a cash machine in a near by village we returned to Hampi ready for the day. We headed down to the Sacred Ghats and caught a motorised boat at the crossing there, less scenic than the coracle but also less expensive. On the other bank I hired us a moped and we headed toward Anjeyanadri Hill, believed to the birthplace of Lord Hanuman. Shell quickly dubbed the bike The Colostomiser, it was a rickety, rusty old thing that lurched to the right of its as though possessed. The state of the roads didn’t help either, especially as there was no suspension, the ride was more like a beating specifically for our bottoms and genitals. I expected the thing to fall apart underneath us at any moment and I prayed to the Gods that nothing pulled out suddenly in front of us as the brakes we almost none existent, something I neglected to tell Shell.

Luckily we got to the foot of the hill in one piece, purchased some bananas in the dusty car park there and started our ascent up the zig-zagging white stairs. Very soon we were drenched in sweat as the mid-day sun beat down on us making us wish we had gotten there earlier in the morning. It wasn’t long, either, till the macaques started to gather expectantly around us. A large, rather brazen male sat in the middle of the stairs and fixed us with demanding eyes. We edged past and he followed us on the edge of the stairs until some others climbing the path took his fancy.

After some huffing and puffing we reached the top, all sweaty and panting. The temple itself was not overwhelming, inside it rang and thumped while the Vedas were recited, pilgrims bowed before idols in praise. What really struck me was the view, before us was a vast landscape, doted with brown-gold rocks beyond reckoning, even the hill we’d just climbed looked like it was made of several enormous boulders just stacked haphazardly on top of each other. Out from the sun baked rocks called banana plantations and fields of crops, a vibrant green as the cobalt river snaked its way through the land. We sat around for a while, feeding the macaques and watching their habits before starting down again.

We rode around trying to find a route to Cesare’s shrine, eventually we were pointed down dirt road which ended in a ford. Leaving the moped I splashed my face in the river to cool off while buffalo and white robbed pilgrims passed by. As we crossed I noticed the ford itself had been made using discarded blocks from temple ruins. It was great crossing history like that and I daydreamed about where they may once have stood and how they had come to lie there. The whole place was like that, it whispered with a promise; a promise that every rock, temple and discarded block had a story to tell. I would gladly hear every one of them. I thought back to Elephanta Island where we’d seen the sculpture of the Triumti. Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. Birth, life and death, the three cosmic functions deified, each function existing for and because of the other. The very machinery of the cosmos which binds all things in a cycle of deaths and renweals, here I was walking across it. Watching as the crystal waters flowed over those old blocks it was so very clear to me then. That which is made fades, crumbles and through it’s own destruction is made a new, not as it was but something else. As the water refreshed my feet it was with a thrill I realised I was wading in the very nature things.

Tell Of England At Spring

Never mind where I’ve been or gone
There is no where so delicious
As England before spring
Long nights gone and longer days to come
The mid-evening bathed in gold
The gnarled brown lengths bloom once more
And we are that promise;
Cold will come again
But not before the warmth
So tell a passer by
Go see Avalon by evening’s light
Her meadows, her woods, her winding clear streams

Opening To The Boys From Qizhongtao

The last of the winter mists cling to the valley. White clouds dance all around. Dead branches tease promises of resurrection soon to come. Snow lies here and there, relenting to the growing warm of spring. The earth breaths again, damp and spiced, inhaling decay, exhaling renewal. Dewed trees weep a thousand-thousand joyous tears. Their drops become rivulets, trickling down the hill face. A breeze through ever green leaves stirs them to a slow sigh of welcome. The cranes flutter in their nests, a falcon soars, calling to the sky. Goats walk stony paths, sure hoofed and hungry. Above the pearl mountain watches, long pregnant with Winter she now births their child into the world. The cerulean dragon winds and scythes, falls and roars through the valley below. The mother glows with silent pride. This is the symphony of spring in the village of Qizhongtao.

The huts sat sodden, their chimneys peppering the air with wood smoke. Amongst their dripping fascias the children came running. Feet slapping in the muddy paths, their laughter boisterous like the rivulets down the valley side. They ran cheering and yelling, calling to their friends to come out and play. Two cows huddled under an out cropped roof were disturbed as they rushed by. Snorting their displeasure they shook their heads, jangling the bells around their necks before returning to their usual placidity.

Up into the woods the children went, finally the long winter nights were done. Amongst the mossy crags and trees they hurried, hiding and swinging, rolling and howling. Their shoving and pushing well natured, each one testing their strength against friend, cousin, sister, brother. They were all family below the mountain. Ever watchful, Tian Zhenzhu had seen their grandparents and parents come into the world. So to would she watch the children have their own and witness their passing also.

Beating The Backpacker Blues

37333618_10156568453819413_8581801126532218880_oYou’re home. Now what? The past few weeks or months have been filled with experiences and adventures that you’re still convincing yourself really happened. You’ve met like minds and unique individuals, some scary, others delightful. Maybe you’ve picked up new skills, been tested in ways you never thought you would be and learned things about yourself. You’ve been to another world, immersed in a different culture, seen the world through different eyes.

Now you’re home things don’t really feel like they’ve changed much. It’s easy to start feeling stagnant when you have to start thinking about getting back to the daily grind, especially if you’re looking for a new job. The joys of re-writing your CV while feeling no one will really be impressed that you can fill two industrial bins with onions in an hour or spot a rabid monkey at fifty paces.

It can feel a bit depressing when all you want to do is get back out there but lack the capital. When looking at your bank balance that untravelled horizon can start feeling all too distant. While you wait, save up and long for something different from this there are a number of ways to keep the backpacker blues at bay.

Make a plan. Not all those who wander are lost, but it’s easy to feel that way if you don’t know what direction you’re heading in. If you really want to get back out there start planning for your next trip. Do it now. This will give you something to look forward to and something to work for. Plan your budget, get talking to people who have been, figure out how much you need for how long. You don’t need to know every aspect of your trip in fine detail but having an educated guess of how much you need helps. Once you have an idea that clues you in to how long you’ll be around for, which is far better than not knowing at all. Suddenly every shift, every pay day brings you that little bit closer to where you’re going.

Re-connect with people. Now that you are back it’s time to see your friends and family. Go and see those people that wanted to talk to you at ungodly hours while you struggled to find enough internet signal to send a message. They’ll want to hear your stories and they’ll have ones of their own as well. Maybe your pictures and stories will inspire someone to come with you next time and you’ll have a travel buddy to start plotting with. If you’ve learned a new recipe while you’ve been away invite people over to try it out. This might be one to try and the parents first because even if it’s a disaster they have to like it. If you surround yourself with loving company being home is never really a bad thing.

Stay in touch with those you met during your travels. There are few things better to keep the spirit of your adventures alive than talking to the people you share those memories with. Now more than ever it’s easy to stay in touch with people, you don’t have to let time zones and distance separate you. If you’re feeling the blues contact them, maybe more than your friends back home they’ll understand how you’re feeling. Even if just you happen to think of something you did together get hold of them, see what they’re up to, ask them what their plans are, catch up. They might even be headed in the same direction you are.

You don’t have to look too far for an experience. Adventure is out there and you don’t have to go jetting off to find it. If you find yourself getting particularly bored look around you. Sometimes we spend so much energy thinking about exploring foreign places that we can forget that there are adventures to be had right on our doorstep. Get on a train and go on a city break. If you don’t want to spend too much money then hop on a bike or pack a car with friends and gear, go camping, hiking, find somewhere to spend a few days in the countryside. Use your imagination and go have some fun.

Keep perspective by asking yourself, is it really that bad being home? The weather might not glorious everyday, you might not be able to head to the beach or step out onto the piste. You can’t eat excellent food for next to nothing or go to a rave in a rainforest but there are definitely some benefits to being home. Not being an all you can eat buffet for mosquitoes and wanting to bathe in Tiger Balm is a relief to be sure. If you’re adverse to creepy crawlies at least the ones back home aren’t as menacing or abundant. You know the language and asking for directions doesn’t turn into a game of charades. While getting to your destination people actually follow the rules of the road instead of treating them like suggestions. Always being on the go, spending a few days here, a few days there can be stressful, especially trying to lug a backpack around under hot sun and high humidity. Washing your clothes is not a rare treat any more. You can even drink the water without worrying you might spend the next week trying to hold your guts in and mapping out toilet stops. Most of all be grateful, for the people you met along the way, that you have had experiences worth missing and to yourself for having the drive to get out there and do something different.

Keeping the blues at bay while you’re home is pretty easy when you try. Every now and again they might creep in and that’s fine. Try not to wallow in longing for a new adventure, make a new one happen instead. Just because you’re home it doesn’t mean the journey is over. What you’re doing now is part of it, the struggle, the sweat and the effort to get back out there again is all part of a bigger story. With some imagination and some mindfulness you’ll find yourself out there soon enough but hopefully not before feeling it’s not so bad being home.