In the middle of our travels, after visiting Tikal, I spent about a week more in Guatemala working on some stuff with PC. Kathy and Joeana passed through Antigua for a day and then went ahead of me to Honduras because I was still had a little more left to do in the office. After I finished, I left Guatemala on a Saturday morning at 6 AM, prepared for an all day trip on shuttles and buses to get me to a town called La Ceiba, on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, from where the boats to Roatán leave. After a 16-hour day in transport, I finally settled in to a hostel late and shared a room with another lady (from San Francisco) who was on my bus that day and headed to the same place.
On Sunday morning, I got on a ferry that took me out to Roatán, one of the Bay Islands in the Caribbean, and found the girls. By this point, we had collected Jenny as well for a couple days. She was a PCV in Kathy’s and my group; she just COS’d about 10 days after us, and then jumped right on with us for some traveling. So we became 4 upon my arrival.
The whole point of going out to Roatán was to take a SCUBA course and get Open Water certified. We had the choice between two islands: Utila and Roatán. Utila was the “backpacker island,” supposedly with significantly lower prices for everything; Roatán has the reputation for being the “resort” island (and therefore more expensive), however the diving was supposed to be better. So what did we do? We opted for the expensive island on our very tight budgets! It worked out really well for us though because we found a cheap hostel ($8/night) with a shared kitchen where the four of us cooked together for the first few nights in West End.
By the time I showed up, Kathy and Jenny had already completed their Open Water course and were SO excited for me to start mine as soon as possible. (Joeana had tried it out for a day and decided against it.) But it was too late to start on Sunday so we planned an afternoon trip over to the beaches of West Bay (where the fancy resorts are) where we went snorkeling and ate a picnic lunch. Kathy, Jenny, and Joe seemed to relish the opportunity to sunbathe, but since that activity doesn’t suit me well, I ran off and joined a beach volleyball game with some locals instead.
It was a little complicated having four girls together, each with different ideas, tastes, and agendas, but we managed all right. All three of them seemed to have some sort of deadline: Joeana was flying back to California from Roatán that Monday, Jenny was flying to California from Guatemala the upcoming Saturday, and Kathy was starting her new job in Xela the following Thursday. And I showed up after everybody and wasn’t going to leave the island after only 2 days. It was a little stressful, but with brainstorming and flexibility, we were able to create a functional plan together for the week.
On Monday, instead of starting my SCUBA course, I spent the whole day with the girls. Joeana left late morning to catch her flight. Then, Jenny, Kath, and I had lunch together and just did whatever we felt like for the rest of the day! That included hanging out with some of the new friends Kathy and Jenny had collected at the Coconut Tree dive shop (where we did our courses), swimming out to an abandoned sail boat with a giant rope swing attached that is there solely for islander/visitor entertainment, and then relaxing in an infinity pool in late afternoon to watch the sunset. Our great day ended with a delicious vegetarian dinner we cooked together at the hostel, then a movie. It was perfect.
On Tuesday, I began my Open Water course at 9 o’clock sharp with Coconut Tree. There ended up being only two of us in the class, me and a guy named Marcus, and Marcus had already done the PADI coursework online so I was left to work independently in the classroom, studying, watching the videos, and completing the knowledge reviews and quizzes at my own pace. Just how I like it! Marcus and I did all the confined water work together that day with our instructor, Rudy, and a guy named Ándre who was just observing our classes as part of his Dive Master training. Although I wasn’t able to do my course with Kathy like we had originally planned, I couldn’t have asked for a better learning environment: a small class with personalized attention and one great buddy!
That day was Kathy and Jenny’s last day on the island so while I was in class, they were soaking up the sun. We all headed out for “Taco Tuesday” at a restaurant called the Flying Pig and each had two very loaded tacos with the works: meat, salsa, kale (instead of lettuce!), guacamole, cheese, and real sour cream—for only $1. We spent the rest of the night socializing with all the people we had met through Coconut Tree, including Marcus and his friend from home, Vijay. Kathy and Jenny had done such a great job establishing a rapport with the shop before I arrived that I felt like I automatically became part of the dive shop family as well. They were so welcoming, so we were in good hands the whole time!
For their last night, we had switched lodging and moved to the Coconut Tree dorms, a two-minute walk from the dive shop, where we paid only $5/night for a 6-bed dorm with a bathroom inside AND air-conditioning. (Surprise, surprise! Roatán isn’t all that expensive after all…) The only issue with the dorm cabin that was constructed on stilts was that some cracked tiles on the bathroom floor were sort of drooping a little and when Jenny—the smallest person in the dorm—took a wrong step, the tiles went crashing to the ground ten feet below, leaving a 4-tile hole in the bathroom floor!
Kathy and Jenny left Roatán early Wednesday morning because Jenny had been in contact with some family friends who owned a beach house near La Ceiba and was running out of days to make it out there before her flight home. I decided to pass on the beach house so I could complete my course and I was okay being left alone so Kathy went with Jenny for company. Once they left, I felt myself completely relax. Since I was behind with my dive course, I thought the girls would get restless waiting for me to finish (even though that is probably not true) had they stayed on the island. Also, Jenny being on a time schedule affected me because we were all trying to make plans together. So when they left, leaving me on my own with all my slowness, I was so relieved. It was the best thing that could’ve happened at that point.
I absolutely loved the experience I had on Roatán!!! I actually never thought that SCUBA diving would be a part of my life or something that I would even try. I like going to the beach and I have gone snorkeling before, but I have never been extremely comfortable in the ocean. I get nervous so I just assumed that the big, dark, deep, scary ocean wouldn’t be the place for me. Boy was I wrong! I am not even sure why I decided to try it (I think it rooted from a plan that Kathy and I hatched together which made me feel good since I wouldn’t be trying it alone!), but my life is now changed. Everybody says this and it is so true: diving gives you access to a whole new world!
The Open Water course lasted three days and included technique learning and emergency situation practice in a confined water setting plus four dives over the course of the second and third days. Marcus was the best buddy for me and Rudy was the perfect instructor. Marcus’ positive outlook and optimism toward everything were contagious so we were always joking around and having fun! And Rudy was professional, efficient, and patient with me, making sure I felt comfortable with every step before moving on to the next thing. And whenever I needed more time with something, Marcus was perfectly fine entertaining himself until I was ready. I looked forward to every day with them!
Although diving was challenging for me, especially in regards to overcoming the psychological blocks (for example, “Wait—you want me to let my mask completely fill with water, take it off, put it back on, clear all the water out, and then open my eyes again? All under water?? Are you crazy?!” Okay, well I never asked that, but I was sure thinking it), it made sense to me. It is very scientific and involves a lot of physics concepts. For every circumstance where something might go wrong with equipment, air, or anything, there was always a pre-thought-out and functional solution. And so I believed that everything would be fine…
And it was. During our four dives, we mainly focused on practicing skills underwater, but Rudy was nice enough to let us swim around some as well. I was really nervous during my first dive and very tense, but after that, I loosened up a bit and concentrated on my Darth Vader-breathing, and everything was fine. Marcus would try all these little tricks in the water like doing flips and hovering upside down so he gave me the confidence to try new things, too!
We saw a lot of new types of fish plus turtles, stingrays, corals, sponges, anemones, sea urchins, cleaner shrimp, lobsters, lion fish—you name it! I had seen similar things before snorkeling, but the difference is that with SCUBA diving, you can get up close and personal, as long as you stick to the “look but don’t touch” rule of thumb. You really have the chance to observe the animal behavior as well as see the creatures that dwell on the sandy bottom or inhabit the reefs—things you can’t see when you are just looking down from the surface. It was so cool to be a part of the underwater world! I was breathing and swimming and felt totally normal, no problems with pressure changes or anything. And I was so excited to be doing something that I thought I would never do!
During that week, I really bonded with Marcus (if you couldn’t tell by now). Before you get any ideas, I should let you know that he is happily married and raves about his amazing wife, Ashley, every chance he gets. Actually, that is probably a huge factor in our bonding. But, geez, this guy is awesome!! I don’t know how people wouldn’t like him. Originally from Sweden, he moved to New York to live with his aunt as a teenager, then stayed for college, and married his high school sweetheart. He works in tech and recently quit his job to start his own business and they live in Mountain View, CA, right near where I was living before Peace Corps!
Marcus has this giant smile that exudes kindness, and he takes interest in other people. His natural curiosity was also evident while we were diving together because he would always swim off a little ways to explore without realizing that he was wandering away from the group. His sincere concern for others, light-heartedness, and silliness opened the door to create a genuine connection between us. I felt like I could totally be myself and speak my mind the way I would with one of my own brothers or sisters. I got so lucky to get paired with such a fun, supportive dive buddy because he really made my first experiences diving unforgettable. And if he knew that I was writing all of this, he would probably blush because he is humble, too. What a wonderful person to have as a friend!
Speaking of friends, when my girl friends left, I found that I was almost completely surrounded by men: I was the only girl in the dorm room with three guys (a Canadian, a Swede, and an Aussie), I was the only girl in my class, and I was often the only girl on some of the dives and when all of us would go out to dinner after we were done diving for the day. Contrary to what life was for me back in Guatemala—if you are seen with a guy, it promotes speculation, gossip, and even jealousy (coming from both men and women), it felt nice for it to be okay to have male friends again. These guys from all over the developed world were easygoing and respectful and conversation came easy without the usual sense of expectation lingering in the air. Realizing how comfortable I was around these guys and knowing that I could have male friends again was so liberating!
I ended up hanging out with the boys all week, especially Marcus and Vijay, and we always had a great time. Marcus and Vijay were always inviting everyone along with them to have dinner and it was hard for anyone to turn down their invitations because everyone knew that a fun time was guaranteed with those two! One night, we all headed to the Coconut Tree restaurant and settled into an area with couches, chairs, tables, and a TV to get dinner together and watch some big soccer games (USA vs. Honduras, then Panama vs. Mexico). I picked a spot on the couch, plopped down, and didn’t get off my butt for four hours straight! Through dinner and both of the games, I didn’t move because I was so relaxed and not worried one bit about time. I can’t remember the last time I did that. It was a good feeling.
On Thursday, Marcus and I victoriously completed our Open Water dive course and to celebrate, we both signed up for the night dive that Rudy was leading that same evening. Now this was new territory and we weren’t sure what to expect, but we all jumped in the water just as it was getting dark, flipped on our lights, and submerged. It was actually a little frightening, especially when I thought I lost the group underwater (but then I found them). I sort of felt like we were in space—not that I know what outer space is like—because it was so dark and it looked like everyone was just defying gravity as they floated along. Marcus and Vijay were paired up so I stayed close to Rudy since I knew he had experience in spotting the nocturnal creatures (and since he had been my instructor, I figured he could save me if something bad happened to me in the dark).
Sure enough, we saw creatures! The first sets of eyes I spotted were a bunch of tiny red glowing pairs flashing up at us when the light hit them. It was creepy! They looked like little devil eyes spying on us; I found out later that they were shrimp. We saw a bunch of other fish peering out at us with one eye from their cubbies and holes among the reefs, and a couple other active creatures moving along the sea floor or across reefs. Then the jackpot: not one, but TWO good-sized octopi on the search for their nightly feasts. They were beautiful—shimmering with iridescence beneath the white light of our flashlights—and they moved with such agility, landing on the reef and billowing up to inhale whatever they could catch before gliding off to the next hunting spot. I think my favorite underwater creature might have to be the octopus. They’re clever little guys.
At one point, we found a sand patch, knelt down together in a circle, and shut off our lights so we were in pitch darkness on the ocean floor. The point of this was to witness bioluminescence, which is a chemical reaction that produces light inside living organisms. This occurs for various biological purposes including luring prey, protecting oneself, attracting mates, and communicating, and it usually happens in the very deep parts of the ocean where light doesn’t reach or at night when sunlight is absent.
One of the most lusted after bioluminescent organisms is the string of pearls. A string of pearls appears as tiny bright blue balls of light that flash in a string-like pattern, one little ball at a time, in sequential motion, and then slowly fade away. They look like the running lights on arcade machines. The organism that produces the “string of pearls” is a tiny crustacean called an ostracod and the light pattern it produces is for mating purposes. (Ostracods in other parts of the world use the bioluminescence as a defense mechanism, but only the ones in the Caribbean use it as a mating call.) Anyway, it was neat to be among the bioluminescence because it really did seem like we were among the stars, twinkling around us.
Back on land (and Marcus and I on a high from our eventful day), we all showered and headed out for dinner together before running off to karaoke night on the island and doing a couple hits together. “Don’t Stop Believin’” anyone? It was a great way to end our “graduation day.” At that point, I wasn’t sure when I was going to leave the island but I wasn’t even thinking about it; I was just enjoying my time and company. Friday I did the same thing—soaked up the awesomeness of the island, the dive shop family, and my buddies. I even squeezed in some journal time. I haven’t been more relaxed than I felt that week in Roatán, and I knew that was saying something. Even as I write this now, I know that my experience in Roatán will be one I cherish forever…and one I will never be able to repeat, as much as I would like to.
On Saturday morning, I finally left the island (after serious deliberations about staying for another couple days or more). I had a new travel buddy, Toby, the Swedish guy who was in the dorms with me, and we were headed for Copán to find Kathy. Jenny had left Kath the day before to get back to Guatemala for her flight home, so in Kathy-fashion, she collected new friends to keep her company until I found her again. It was another full travel day, and we were tired, but went out for a little while anyway with Kathy and her new friends. Copán is a colonial town with cobblestone streets similar to Antigua, Guatemala but a lot smaller, mellower, and safer.
The next day, the three of us headed to the famous Maya ruins at Copán with a personal tour guide, Julio, who was part of the excavation team there as a teenager. He was great and he thoroughly explained the importance of Copán for being the economic giant during that era and then the history of the reigns of the Maya kings there (I think 18 total in that particular empire). Lots of kings, but no queens ever mentioned. Why not? Because women were not entrusted to make decisions in the Maya empire. Oh, yes, and because each king had many women to keep him company, father his children, and thus be the instruments to pass on his DNA. So that’s what the women were good for! I was wondering… And now I understand that the machismo in Guatemala, especially among towns with big indigenous populations, goes WAY back.
At the ruins, we also learned about the ancient customs, temples, tombs, and traditions. There is a well known ball game the Maya used to play on big courts that, when described, seems similar to a mix of racquetball and rugby. There would be two teams passing a heavy ball back and forth across the long alley “court” with sidewalls and launching the ball either toward a basket or toward a high stone structure on the walls that they were trying to break. (At Copán, the court was set up for the players to destroy stone structures of Macaw heads; the Scarlet Macaw is the national bird of Honduras.) A VIP was then chosen from the winning team and sacrificed—apparently it was a huge honor! And that is how the 13th king’s reign ended. Supposedly human sacrifice was rare in the Maya empire; those ball games must not have been an everyday occasion either.
We finished up with a little nature hike in late afternoon, and then we walked back to town. We got off the beaten path for dinner, thanks to Kathy, and ate at a family-run comedor where they served us gigantic chimichangas and an order of tejadas, lightly fried plantain chips with a light tomato sauce for dipping. I didn’t spend very much time interacting with locals in Honduras or studying customs; in fact, I tried to stay as far from the inner workings of this country as possible considering the reputation it has for crime. However, I did observe a couple of fun facts: 1) People are definitely taller and have eye color (more hazels and greens) that was different from the typical dark brown that many Guatemalans have; 2) Instead of the black beans that dominate the Guatemalan diet, Hondurans consume only red beans; and 3) The “typical” Honduran dish is called a baleada, which is like a little burrito and consists of a thick, fluffy flour tortilla spread with refried red beans and dry cheese and folded in thirds for the basic, but any other ingredient such as eggs, plantains, avocado, etc. can be and is often added.
Monday was Kathy’s and my last day together. We said goodbye to Toby in Copán then took off for the Guatemalan border, which was only 20 minutes away. (Kathy had to get back to Guatemala to start her new job, and I was on my way to El Salvador, but from Copán, the easiest route to El Salvador required me to pass through Guatemala again.) This was the first time that Kathy and I had been alone together since the day we got back from Mexico, two and a half weeks prior. It was really important for us to reconnect and review what we had just accomplished. After all, the idea for this trip started over a year ago as we sat in a café in Xela creating our “Guatemala bucket lists” and expressing a shared interest in exploring the countries that surrounded Guatemala as well. Now, at the end of July, we gave each other victorious smiles, because although we hadn’t done everything we planned on, we had done a lot, and changed the plan a hundred times along the way, but the result was lasting memories from really cool shared experiences.
One of the things on my Guatemala bucket list was to see the Cristo Negro, the Black Christ, at the Basilica in Esquipulas. Making a pilgrimage to Esquipulas for the sole purpose of spending some time in devotion with the Cristo Negro is a common thing for Catholics to do, especially those from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and some from Mexico and the United States. There are several theories for why he is black: one is that the resin-saturated smoke from the incense burned in the pre-Basilica hut where Cristo Negro originally was made him darker; the other is that the creator intentionally made him dark to represent the dark-skinned indigenous people.
Cristo Negro is significant because paying homage and praying has resulted in miracle upon miracle over the centuries [since 1594]. Catholics from all over come to stand in line for hours just to spend a few minutes with the crucifix, after which they retreat walking backwards so as not to turn their backs on the Lord. It is really a very reverent and poignant practice. Relying on the history of what faith in Jesus Christ has done for the people and the miracles that have happened, the Cristo Negro represents optimism for a better future in Guatemala, a country that has been ravaged by oppression, discrimination, civil war, and genocide, among many other social injustices.
By the time I finished service, I thought I might have to give up that trip since Esquipulas, Chiquimula was located in the southeastern corner of Guatemala, a part of the country where few PCVs or tourists ever frequented. But it just so happened that both Kathy and I had to pass right through there that Monday so we stopped there just before lunchtime to make our promised and long-awaited date with the Cristo Negro happen. We came at the right time on a Monday afternoon during lunch so we didn’t have to wait in line at all. After we each had our visit in silence, we headed to lunch. It was an appropriate ending for our journey together.
Then we started the next phases of our lives. Kathy was taking on another year in Guatemala but with a different NGO, a different place to live, and a new social scene. And I was starting a solo travel adventure, ready to take on the rest of Central America. Since we had become close in PC, we hadn’t gone for periods of more than a few weeks between seeing each other and we talked much more often than that. So this was weird, knowing that we wouldn’t be in direct contact for at least a month, but probably at least 2 since I kept extending my trip…
Enjoying Nicaragua still! More to come soon!