On August 4, 2003, I completed that most dreaded of required skills, a complete underwater equipment exchange, the last skill left in my certification as PADI Dive Master No. 209742. The stressful feat was accomplished on the sandy bottom under the boat dock of the Utila Dive Centre. Here’s the rest of the story :
After we surfaced and climbed back on the dock, my instructor extended her hand to congratulate me, but I gave her a hug instead because there had been days in the previous three weeks of my training and internship when I thought that I would never make it.
Getting up most mornings at 6:00 a.m. to head to the dive shop and getting the dive boat ready for a 7:30 departure to the north side of the island, hauling tanks, assembling gear, and assisting other divers, in 30 degree Celsius plus heat even at 7 in the morning was hard on an “old” man of 62. I lost 20 pounds in three and a half weeks on Utila, which made my doctor at home in Canada very happy.
In my diving and pre-diving days I have been to a number of tropical countries and islands, but in a tourism world of all-inclusive resorts and cookie-cutter beach front condos, nightclubs, discos, casinos, and chauffeur-driven limousines, Utila is an astonishing place, almost surreal, because it has none of that. Granted, it may have one place that comes close, but even the Laguna Beach Resort is relatively small and rustic by comparison to the all-inclusive, 300-dollars-a-night beach resorts of St. Lucia and the Bahamas.
Much of the island is uninhabited. The population of about 8,000 is concentrated in Utila Town, with one main and a couple of side streets, two markets and a host of mom-and-pop corner stores, 10 or so churches, one souvenir shop, 4 or 5 internet cafés, one ice cream shop, a book exchange, one cinema and a few restaurants. Every day, after the ferry arrives, the main street fills with young backpackers from around the world who are looking for a cheap place to stay at no more than 5 USD per night.
The diving is cheap: USD 12.50 or less per dive if you buy them as a ten-pack. Full Open Water certification costs about USD 150-160 and that includes all materials, open water dives and your dive gear. And there are as many dive shops as churches, some of which offer free accommodation if you take your Open Water Certification course with them.
If you are looking for a lie-on-the-beach, swim-up-to-the-bar, and manicure-and-massage-me-after-a-night-of-disco-dancing kind of holiday, Utila is not the place for you. But if you want decent accommodation at a low price, a plentiful and tasty dinner of freshly caught fish for less than 8 USD, including a tip and a non-alcoholic beverage – add another dollar for a bottle of “Salva Vida,” the local beer – then Utila is the place for you.
Utila is a make-your-own-holiday kind of place. Your vacation is not offered you on a silver platter – you have to work at it. In order to enjoy Utila, you have to slow down – a lot – and be pretty happy with your own thoughts and company, take an afternoon nap, swing in a hammock on a porch, read a book, chat with locals and young travellers while standing in line at the bank for an hour or more… Rent a bicycle, dive, snorkel in the sea, kayak in one of the two lagoons, slither on your back into the bowels of a fresh water cave, hang out at Coco Loco or the Bar in the Bush, take a water taxi to Pigeon Cay for lunch. I passed on the Sun Jam, the weekend-long bash on the beaches of uninhabited Water Cay and the major event of the summer season: been there, done that when I was 40 years younger.
I stayed at Freddy’s Place, rented an apartment for four weeks, comfortable, breezy and quiet, and reasonably priced – at the very end of the main street, across the bridge over the channel to the Upper Lagoon – away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Utila, the island carnival and its all-night boom of ghetto blasters.
In the evenings, I ate at Bundu Café, Jade Seahorse, Mango Inn, Munchie’s, RJ’s, Zanzibar’s, and a place whose name I don’t remember, the front end of Coco Loco, next to Deep Blue Divers. I enjoyed them all – the food, service, and company.
After a month, when I left Utila, I was looking forward to a change from the repetitive walk down Main Street, the same shops, the same people – away from the shrill shouting of one’s affairs across the street in an English dialect that even this English professor could not understand. I wasn’t even sure that I ever wanted to return to Utila, but I must tell you that in the Miami airport where I changed planes for Toronto, I started to miss the place already.
I miss Utila’s simplicity and the genuineness of its people: Lucille, my landlady, whizzing by with a friendly smile and a nod on her scooter; Noel, the young man who swept the street every morning and the “frescos” we shared in the midday heat; Nolvia, my “maestra” from the Central America Spanish School whom I met every afternoon for an hour of Spanish conversation; Andy and Barbara, my mentors at the Utila Dive Centre; my late afternoon visits with Johnny and Conchita in the shade of their purified water shop when clouds of noisy birds gathered in the trees beside us; and the Spanish children who on a Sunday morning played with the balloons I had brought in the newly opened Catholic church up the hill towards the Iguana Conservation area.
I think that I will be back to Utila after all – and fairly soon – to relive my memories.