(NK) We settled in for a mammoth road trip from Lake Atitlan to Honduras. Don’t let the relatively short distance on a map deceive you. The roads are unpredictable in many ways. Police checkpoints, speed hump riddled villages, crater sized potholes, truck drivers driving like today is their last – the usual Latin American nonsense that makes every journey interesting.
We had another attempt at getting around Guatemala City without it pulling us in, which we failed at, but were soon on open country roads. We hadn’t bargained on a two-hour wait in a traffic jam, which we presumed was another accelerator happy lorry driver who’d overturned his load.
|Traffic, what ya gaan do!?|
After seeing many police cars shoot past, we arrived at the scene expecting to survey the carnage but instead found an unusual situation. Everyone in the village was out but there appeared to be some kind of stand off going on. Sticks were the weapons off choice for most participants, except the police who were armed with their usual shotgun and hand grenade combo. We didn’t stay to see what happened, so that’s where the story ends really. The point is, that we were very bloody late getting to the border. So late it was now dark and we were driving in Central America, which is a big, no-no for gringos like us.
We weren’t sure what the rules on driving AND crossing a border in the dark were. So we just did it.
The crossing was surprisingly easy. You hear stories about touts trying to make money and photocopy hell with documents, but the Guatemalan officials at El Florido just made it really easy and everyone hanging around the border just wanted to be helpful. Again, the guide done by the guys at Life Remotely proved invaluable. Thank you Guat and goodbye – probably our favourite country so far!
Honduras got off to a shaky start. The customs woman who was sorting our passports and tourist cards had Celine Dion’s Heart Will Go On Titanic song blasting on the stereo. Fi started to sing along - I hate to say - fairly badly, and got a filthy look from Mrs Immigration, who then turned to me and pulled a face. A face that said - where’d you find her?
Importing Trisha, Fi had much better luck. The customs guy clearly fancied her and kept asking about her name and where it was from, why was she called that?
He’d then wistfully look into his computer screen repeating it ‘Fee ownAAA, Fi (pause) O nA.’ Before asking for the third time if we were married or just friends. If it ‘d been North Africa I’d be writing this alongside my new camels.
We hit the highway (in darkness) fully expecting corrupt police or the elusive bandits that we’re yet to see anywhere. Luckily an overnight stop in Copan was quite close so no dramas.
On arrival in the town the first three place we tried were booked up. Usually after a 12 hour drive not without it’s stresses, arriving in a town you don’t know in the dark, hungry, tired and being without accommodation, would be a trial to say the least. Three months ago we’d be in all kinds of panic. This night we calmly went about our business with our evolving Spanish and eventually found a little place that even had somewhere safe for Trisha to sleep.
The next day on the road to La Ceiba for our ferry to the Bay Islands we practiced a new technique called ‘the smile and wave’. Along with being the murder capital of the world, Honduras has a reputation for police that will always find a way to extort money. As we’d learnt, reputation precedes these Latin American countries and the reality is often much more sedate. We had also been through too much to be worried about corrupt police – the game was on!
The first technique for checkpoint avoidance was to hug the car in front concealing our US plates that can sometimes make us a target. By avoiding eye contact you can sail through quite easily. If there’s no car to hug and the police official puts his hand up for you to stop, this is when you employ ‘the smile and wave.’
You simply grin like an idiot, wave right back and drive straight past, pausing only to look in your mirrors at an irate official kicking the dirt. We managed to get all the way to La Ceiba port without being stopped once. It is of course all about timing and technique. Too obvious and they may come after you but this is Latin America after all, so I don’t think they can be bothered.
The port has a secure car park so we were happy to leave Trish for a few days and jumped on the ferry for our pleasure cruise across the Caribbean that unfortunately for us, turned into a scene from The Perfect Storm.
As the boat rocked and rolled against the increasingly large swells, the chundering began all around us. Fi and I talked very little and just kept staring at the horizion while we tried to keep our stomachs in check.
(FK) I actually felt okay for once as the fear of capsizing overpowered the seasickness. However, the ferry ride proved to set the tone for further boat excursions and my continual feeling of being on a boat permanently for the next week.
We were pleased to arrive in Utila and Utila Dive Centre, the dive school we were diving with, met us at the dock and took us to where we’d be staying. We were doing our advanced course, which cost $299 but included four nights accommodation and two extra dives. A pretty good deal no matter where you are.
It felt so good to know we were getting back to the ocean. After a couple of fun dives we got stuck into our Advanced course – five dives consisting of buoyancy, navigation, night dive, deep dive combined with a wreck and drift combined with naturalist – they sure do give you value for money on Utila. The proceeding storms had left the sea conditions pretty rough so we were fortunately/unfortunately confined to the bay with pretty straightforward dives but challenging surface conditions and near life and death experiences of trying to haul our arses back on to the boat. Perhaps not the type of exhilaration we were after but fun never the less and helped us notch up our 40th dive.
|The Haliburton wreck|
We were comfortably settling into island life having booked into a $10 a night guesthouse with plans to do more diving. This was until we spotted a poster for free diving and a two-day course. There are mixed views in the diving community on this sport, those who seem to be anti and never done it and those who have and are converted. Whatever side you sit on, the thought of diving to 20 metres without a tank on and just a breath of air had us shit scared, so we signed up. Gulp.
Tex (yes from Texas) was our tutor for the course and owner of Apnea Total Utila. His opening gambit to the course was “free divers have created a mystic around the sport, encouraging people to think it is dangerous and that only the few are capable of doing it. Making it an elite club to be part of. Well, I’m here to prove it’s totally safe and a sport for anyone to do and you will be able to go to a depth of up to 20 metres by your second day.”
|Tex AKA Poseidon|
I was somewhat skeptical, having only just got the hang of going under water with my snorkel a few weeks previously. After a classroom session on physiology, yoga like breathing techniques and watching some awesome freediving videos, we went home to practice our ‘breath-up’. The next day I was half hoping that the sea would be too rough to go out on but low and behold, it was like a millpond, so off we went. We arrived at the Haliburton wreck, one of the 30metre scuba dives we had done a few days previously. We both managed to get to 12 metres by the end of the two-hour session and could clearly see the top of the wreck and scuba divers watching us with interest. Tex then went down to 30m and had a little swim around the wreck. Everything in your mind is telling you that you need to breath, your body is giving you signals but the reality is that your breathe up creates the right conditions to do this and you have more than enough oxygen in your body to stay underwater a lot longer.
|What it looks like underwater|
Although I was pleased with what I had managed to accomplish, it was not reached comfortably and I confessed to Neil afterwards that I didn’t think free diving was that enjoyable or really for me. What I actually meant was – that really mentally pushed me like nothing else, I was totally out of my comfort zone and I don’t have the confidence to go any deeper. You see, free diving makes you face your fears head on. There is nowhere to hide and only yourself to trust in – my head was scrambled.
(NK) I must say at this point that I have rarely been prouder of Fi. Free diving is a very mental sport and in all sports it is often the mental part that is the toughest. It’s not just about being focused but learning to handle one of your most instinctive fears, the fear of drowning. Your brain and your body, work together to send signals in an attempt to scare you back to the surface. They want to keep you alive. Your capabilities and mammalian dive reflex, however, are able to push you deeper and for longer than you often realise – if of course, you can stare the fear down and say no to the signals.
Not an easy thing to do 40ft below the surface when you’re convinced you have no air. It reminded me of the fears you face before a fight. The signals that make you go weak and increase your heart rate. All the things you don’t want to happen if you’re to perform well. Your body and mind basically try to betray you. They create physiological impulses to make you flee the situation and push fear and doubts to the forefront to convince you that it’s a bad idea.
It’s extremely hard to be confident in these situations and extremely easy to back down and run or make excuses. That’s why I felt proud. I was very scared myself and felt the signals, but have been through them before fights, so they now have a familiarity. It made me very happy to see Fi going through that same battle with herself and winning.
That night it was my birthday and we’d been invited round to dinner by Ella and Pablo, an English girl and a Guatemalan guy who were living on Utila while Pablo became a scuba instructor. We kept bumping into them and Fiona had decided in her head that we would be friends after the first time we’d seen them.
They cooked us a great birthday dinner and a few beers and a bottle of Flor De Cana later we’d become firm friends. Their toddler Bo even came out to join the party before we left in the early hours of the morning. Our mentor, Tex, had luckily given us a get out card as it was my birthday and had kindly offered to move our next session by a day to accommodate our hangovers.
Tex knew exactly what was going through our minds on the second dive, I think he is actually part Jedi.
“I bet you’re thinking there’s no way you can possibly go deeper than 12m, but you will.”
This time Lisa, another free dive instructor came along and we benefited from both of them coaching us. I learnt that even at 10m and with two wetsuits on, I’m negatively buoyant as I let go of the line to see if I would sink or rise. I sank.
We also worked to improve the way we moved in the water in terms of efficiency. After doing some more dives Fiona reached a record 16m. Then it was time for fun as we practiced black outs and how to treat a free diver that has a surface blackout. We were also shown how to do the Jesus Christ. Instead of pulling or swimming back to the surface you simply lie back and stretch out your arms in a cross. The water and air in your lungs does the rest.
(FK) After overcoming my fears, the second day of diving left me absolutely buzzed but also very calm. I can see why this sport becomes very addictive. I learnt so much more than just how to dive deeper in water on only one breath. I learnt a lot about myself, my capabilities, how to face my fears and overcome them.
(NK) A great day of diving and Fi’s depth record was capped off by a yoga session with Lisa, making us feel very mind/body connected. It’s rare to meet special people like Tex and Lisa and privileged is the best word I can think of. We left them feeling better versions of ourselves with another new appreciation and perspective on life.
A reoccurring theme that keeps cropping up on this trip is appreciation. When you stop thinking about the things you want or don’t have and focus on the amazing things you do have. Yourself, your health, each other, family, friends, the world around you. They’re all that much better when you give them the appreciation they deserve.