Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Under the Sea

It has once again been some time since I last sent word of events in Central America. This time around, though, it was not pure sloth that prevented your coresspondent from writing, but the presence of family members in Guatemala, and then a week of what I would consider well-deserved vacation in Honduras.

Appetites whetted by this blog, your correspondent's parents came to see Guatemala firsthand, and within a couple days they were cavalierly hailing unmarked cabs off the street and chatting up the locals like long-time residents. Perhaps someday they will publish a report of their adventures here.

After they had a week of soaking in the local color, we decamped for Roatan, Honduras and Anthony's Key Resort, an entirely foreign experience for your correspondent. While accustomed to traversing washed-out dirt roads to visit remote hamlets and sleep in scorpion-infested flophouses, the experience of an all-inclusive resort was uncharted territory. My spirit of adventure undimmed, I bravely agreed to give it a try. Anthony's Key is primarily a scuba diving destination, and the "all-inclusive" tag means not just three squares a day, but three trips out to dive on the reef surrounding Roatan. The meals were all served by waiters who universally refered to the guests as "my friend" and the drinks served by bartenders who referred to the guests as "buddy." There isn't really a beach to speak of, so visitors who choose not to dive would be limited to sipping fruity cocktails by the swimming pool. I can't imagine why one would choose a tropical resort without a beach if diving weren't the goal, but there were some individuals who were fixtures at the pool, plowing through trashy paperbacks or cartons of cigarettes, demonstrating that people like to do all sorts of weird stuff on vacation. For your correspondent, other than a quick horesback ride along the beach, and a quick kayak trip around the little island, I spent the week doing two things: scuba diving and scratching bug bites.

Your correspondent learned to scuba dive three years ago in Vietnam, under the tuteledge of a French instructor, which had the advantage of being able to close one's eyes and imagine being taught to dive by Jacques Cousteau. I'm sure he was a good teacher, but not all his lessons found a permanent home in this pupil. Upon arrival at Anthoy's Key, your correspondent asked for a refresher lesson in diving, to which the dive shop replied that I ought to give it a try and see how it went first. This doesn't seem particularly safe, but we were in shallow enough water that it wasn't really life-threatening when I went under for the first and made it immediately clear that I had no recollection of what any of the tubes or buttons on the scuba gear were for. The divemaster now convinced, I took my refresher lesson and was ready for the week of diving ahead.

As a dive-centric resort, there were a whole fleet of boats equipped for dive trips. Each guest was assigned to a boat from which they would dive for the entirety of the week. So, not unlike joining an organized tour and rolling the dice with whatever other tourists sign up for the same tour, we spent a week diving with, and getting to know, an odd assortment of fellow travelers. Among them were a Catalonian couple who had wetsuits that looked thick enough for use in the North Sea, perhaps to compensate for the fact that each of them appeared to have about 0.5% body fat; a gregarious Georgian (as in Atlanta, not Tbilisi) who had been to Anthony's Key just a month ago and was already back and shared a seemingly endless supply of veteran pointers (e.g. "A lot of people don't realize that the guy at the pool bar brings his own boombox to play music at the pool, and if your camera says your batteries are too low for the camera, they can still power the boombox, so it's a good idea to give him your batteries instead of throwing them away"); a middle aged Sicilian from Detroit who seemed to always have what looked like a matchstick hanging out of his mouth who was probably not a mobster, but could play one on TV in a pinch; and a 57-year-old guy and his 10-year-old daughter from Vicksburg, Mississippi, which young girl was apparently missing school to go on a dive vacation, and seemed a bit young and reckless to be diving, but was mostly harmless, and which older guy was relentless in videotaping every second of his daughter's every dive, and was not shy about bumping fellow divers out of the way to get that Scorcese-esque camera angle he needed of her. They were all fine people, although we certainly spent more time chatting with some rather than others. But there is something a little odd about spending a substantial amount of money to go on a relaxing vacation and for an integral part of that vacation to involve long stretches on a small boat with randomly assigned strangers, not knowing for sure whether they're going to be tolerable or not until about halfway through the week. Maybe we were lucky, or maybe people are always going to be generally pleasant when they're on vacation; one way or another, we lived.

The diving was fantastic, as it would have to be to support a week of hanging out in one place with nothing else of note to do. For nature enthusiasts, diving is like going hiking, except that the wildlife doesn't scurry off and hide when it smells you five hundred yards away. As such we saw at close range sea turtles, moray eels, giant crabs, one seahorse, and an almost infinite variety of technicolor fish. The Holla regrets that we were unable to send the staff photographer along to snap colorful pictures of Blue Flathead Parrotfish and Juvenile Spotted Drums, although having seen the behavior of many underwater photographers, you're not missing that much. Your correspondent was trapped on one merciful brief water taxi ride with a fellow guest who insisted on showing off all the pictures of fish he had captured underwater, and while the staff photographer is certain that he could have given underwater shots a little more compositional interest than this gentleman, he still suspects that most such photos will more often than not just look like a bunch of fish. (Although the staff photographer would like to encourage you to click on the picture above of the fish that lived in the shallows near our bungalow to see a larger version of it.) Even so, we particularly regret not having visual record of the shark dive, when we went 80 feet down with a bucket full of chum, and spent ten minutes swimming within a few feet of 20 circling reef sharks bigger than we were. Your correspondent was still focused enough on not screwing up the whole breathing underwater thing to feel even a tinge of fear from the sharks, who, honestly, weren't going to put the effort into biting off anyone's leg when there was a whole bucket of already-dead fish waiting for them.

That may have been the most compelling story of the trip, but maybe the most amazing view was on the final day of the trip when we dove near the pointy end of the island, where the piscine superhighway passed by. One could look left and right along the reef and see thousnands if not tens of thousands of fish stretching as far as the eye could see in each direction, eventualy merging with the deep blue of the water.


Ma & Pa Stokes said... captured the essence. Mmmmmmmmmm...the post-vacation glow is back.


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