Thursday, 30 June 2011

Hot-Blooded Latin Stereotypes & Cooling Off

ESCAPING LA RUTA, we headed for Tacuba, a small town at the end of the line in northwestern El Salvador. The place itself is pretty dead, and drunken zombies stagger around the time at all hours. Unemployment is high, and some people have given up...notably the men of the town; the women seem made of sterner stuff. In Tacuba, behind every drunken man, there's a strong woman. Wandering the town one afternoon, in search of coverage of Honduras v El Salvador, we'd ended up walking into the drunk tank. Seeing faded hand-painted beer ads on a dirty wall, I shrugged at Andy, and he nodded: worth a look. The smell of unwashed bodies hit us in the face like a fist as we entered. Three men got up to greet us with a cry which was the desperate primeval call of "The free beer has arrived". They staggered towards us, arms outstretched in frightening welcome, and I noticed another man laid out on the dirt-packed floor. Another was kicking the pinball machine. We backed up rapidly towards the doorway, explaining we needed the football, and they obviously had no TV. They were too drunk for any realistic pursuit of us, and we quickly found a bakery with a telly which they gladly put on as we started knocking the beers back. It seemed no-one in the town gave a toss about the game; funny when you think that a football game between these two sparked a war. Not just the football, mind...but the land reforms in the region had favoured Honduras, and border tensions boiled over after the next football game, hence it being named the Football War. I refuse to use the S Word bandied around in these parts.

I'd come to the town due to its proximity to the Nacional Parque El Imposible (No...I'm not translating that for you, either). The main hostel in town organises all the tours. Mama and Papa run the hostel, and their son deals with the tours. The elderly couple are lovely, and the house is probably the most cosy I've stayed in. The exuberant Manolo is the life and soul, and the perfect host; if you are a female travelling alone, that is. If you're a man, you're pretty invisible unless you want to sign up for a tour. He's a good-looking lad in his thirties, but those looks aren't going to last forever, and he doesn't seem in a rush to settle to down. Yes, I know I'm hardly the one to talk. But then I'm not the one trying to shag everything available, hot or not. He'd been seeing a young Jewish girl from NYC when we arrived. She'd asked another English lad at the hostel if she should be sleeping with Manolo or not, and did he think the latino did this with a lot of guests. James didn't want to tell her that, yes...of course he did. But that would become obvious in a painful way. Besides, he's mentioned in the Lonely Planet as the insatiable Manolo. And there's enough mentions of him online. He's a very naughty boy. We didn't talk much, and he seemed a little cagey around me; I think he knew that I recognised the player behaviour and the macho posturing, wandering round the place in his vest with a pump-action shotgun. But the girls fall for it, hook, line and sinker.

Myself and Andy had returned from the game half-cut, to find Manolo and the guests trying to finalise the plans for the bike ride through the jungle to the coast, where the idea was to spend the next couple of nights in a lodge. It was a bun-fight. Some wanted to stay one night, not two. Some didn't want to ride a bike. After twenty minutes of debate, it was noted that there weren't enough bikes to go round. One person had to drop out. I hadn't met James at this point, an Englishman my age, but turned to him as he was sat right next to me, asked if he was going. He shook his head and said he was doing the six-hour waterfall hike with one other fellow. Smaller group? Count me in. I didn't fancy the Big Gringo Bike Ride, despite the opportunity to witness what I knew was going to happen: there was another single girl in the group. It'd be like watching a car crash in slow-motion: the shark would be smelling blood.

Next morning, we waited around while the guides prepared the bikes. I smiled to myself, as I'd obviously made the right choice: the bikes were youths, and not designed for rough terrain, with street tyres. Riding those would be a nightmare for anyone non-midgets in the group. The look James gave me told me he was thinking the same. So off we went, heading up the rough road the the jump-off point. We were joined by an Israeli, who was actually OK, apart from being a tight bastard. We said our Goodbyes to the rest of the group and dropped downhill into the forest. A meandering, treacherously wet path soon had us at the river's edge. A little further ahead, we came to the first jump. The river ran through a tight gorge, and our guide pointed out the footholds we'd need to get across to the rock face we'd jump from. It was precarious, and needed one fluid movement to get across: one slip and you'd fall into the river via some nice rocks below. I began wondering what I'd been thinking to sign up for this...hardly therapeutic for a fractured rib, is it? James volunteered to go first, and the guide wedged himself into the area below, the better to catch us should we mis-time it and fall. He must have been insane, as he was half my size. Following James across, we prepared ourselves for the 5m leap as the guide lobbed a stone to tell us where to aim for. In James went, myself following 30 seconds later. The water was England Cold, and very refreshing after the sweaty climb downhill. After the Israeli clumsily leapt in, the guide pointed out the way to swim to the next fall.

The falls got bigger each time, and we reached Jump 3. Inching out over the slimy rocks, we looked at the drop...a good 6m. There was a clump of jagged rock at the bottom. Hitting those was going to mean serious trouble. The guide told us that only one person had broken an ankle recently, and it took them six hours to help him hobble out. That made me feel a lot better, obviously. James went first again. The trainers I was wearing were so old that there was no tread on them, making me more nervous about slipping. My legs were leaden. Physics was telling me that forward motion would carry me well clear of the rocks with an outward leap; but it's one thing your brain telling your legs that, quite another for the legs to agree, what with the restless butterflies fluttering around in your testicles. But shakily obey they did, and I hit the water hard; it took a few seconds to suface, visiblity in the brown water limited, and a grateful breath was inhaled through a grin. This was exhilarating. I swam on my back to the shale slope at the mouth of the gorge, the rocky edifice above me dripping water from the foliage through shafts of sunlight. The Israeli chickened out, and climbed to a lower perch before nervously launching himself into space. Warming ourselves in the sun on a large flat rock, we agreed that this was one of the best trips any of us had taken while travelling.

We arrived at our next jump, skipping one which looked tempting, had the guide not wagged a finger and told us it was shallow. You could do this trip yourself, but that was the point where you'd break something and rename the river gorge Shit Creek; your paddle would be nowhere to be seen. This next jump was bigger, maybe 6-7m. The rock to leap from was a mere foot across, between a tree and a bush. Trepidation fought my will. James went in immediately: valiant Englishman to the core. My foot was slipping on the rock whenever I put weight on it, and my legs started trembling. The Israeli shook his head and followed the guide down the rocks to the edge of the churning pool. I went to follow him, then steeled myself: I'd regret it if I left the valley without completing the set. I stared at the spot, didn't think about it too much, and launched myself. Hanging in the air, I could see James grinning at me. I popped up out of the water facing the jump...it looked even higher from the pool. My pink palms stung from slapping the surface as I hit. James said he was doing it again, and I followed him. Much easier the second time around...so much that we actually did it again.

The last jump was a different prospect. We stood on the lip of a slab or rock atop a 60m plunge. I assumed, correctly, that we were not to leap from here. With the help of the guide, we abseiled down to a lower point next to the falls where we could drop 8m into the raging pool. This one had less rocks to potentially cripple us, so myself and James were straight in. We jumped a further three times before we made the steep uphill trek to our pickup point...it was just too good not to. Our soaking tee shirts were steaming as we panted our way up through the undergrowth. Before the last waterfall we'd been discussing what the guide likely earned. At $25 a head, I said I hoped it was $10 per person, Manolo keeping $15. James scoffed and said he'd be lucky to be earning $10 per day. We agreed we'd tip him $5. The Israeli quickly dropped out of that conversation, understandably.

Heading back in a pickup through the forest, I noticed a small dog running after us. Tan and black, it obviously had some Dobermann and Rottweiler in it. He was a beautiful animal, maybe 6 months old. It had followed us for some time when I turned to another of Manolo's staff who was stood in the back of the truck and asked him where the dog had come from. "The beach." I was flabbergasted. He then told me they'd come some 18km with him running behind. Some kid was going to be heartbroken tonight, I thought. We lost sight of him on some stretches as the truck picked up speed, but he caught us on rougher ground, running past and awaiting us at the next bend, tail wagging. I fell in love with this feisty little character. Every time I feared we'd lost him, he'd regain the ground. Everyone in the truck was grinning and looking out for hi. Just when I was beginning to picture life on the road with this ballsy little chap, we rounded a corner and drove through a small village we'd passed on the way up. There was a workshop there, with two muscular, mean junkyard dogs roaming the road. We stopped to let someone out, and I was praying the dog would make it past. No chance. One attacked him, and he fled beneath the nearest car. As he came out, he tried to slink away with his tail between his legs. The other dog was simply watching him, waiting his turn. As our truck set off again, he looked after us. I was heartbroken. The latinos would have thought me an idiot, but I felt like jumping out and going to his rescue. But what would I do with a dog in tow? To be honest, as difficult as it could have made border crossings and the like, I very much regret not going back for him. I have a lump in my throat just writing this. As we turned a bend out of sight, I could only gaze backwards, hoping to see him legging it around the corner. He'd have been mine to keep. James could tell I was upset "That's the trouble with life...there's always a bigger dog."

Travelling Light

THERE ARE ADVANTAGES and disadvantages to carrying your own dive gear across the planet. Whileit's great to have equipment you trust and are familiar with, as opposed to taking your life in your hands with a leaking BCD and rasping regulators rented out by a sketchy dive shop, the stuff weighs a bloody ton. My main pack is 20kg+, mainly dive gear, with limited clothing. So after knacking my rib on the surfboard, I decided I'd do a tour of El Salvador without the big bag; Sean kindly agreed to mind it, as he was staying in El Tunco 5 weeks. I lent him my laptop in return for the favour. Packing three tee shirts, my shorts, one pair of swim-shorts, a book, my notebook and camera, I was ready for some serious chickenbus action. The big bag would be a weight off both my mind and my rib.

LAGO DE COATEPEQUE is an hour outside of San Salvador, then a further bus from another junction with El Congo gets you shoreside. It's a varied mix around the lake; walled villas of the rich sit as empty playthings until the weekend, while poorer locals eke out a living from dilapidated, tiny homes alongside the dusty road. I'd travelled up with a trio from Tunco, and we headed for the only hostel which seemed to be operational. And it had certainly seen better days. A couple of workmen were sweeping leaves from the pathways around a cloudy swimming pool. Talk about polishing a turd. The majority of the buildings were in urgent need of repair, it looked like the owners had bitten off more than they could chew. Having said that, this is Latino workmen we're talking about...get a team of Polish lads in there, and the placewould be completely refurbished in a week. But maybe the locals like to save a bit of work for tomorrow, and I don't suppose you can blame them.

We were greeted by the local woman who ran the show. She showed us the main building with pool table and TV, and rusting multi-gym in the gardens. The jetty to the lake was a little patchy, but safe to negotiate your way across slowly. The boss disappeared and returned with a laminated menu for dinner. I was observing the wide variety of food stains on her sweatshirt, silently musing on the age of them, as she passed it to me, leaving a greasy smudged thumbprint in the corner. Like I was going to eat there? I played safe and ate at Oscar's pizza shop; a tiny place dominated by his huge oven. He was a really nice fellow who made 5" pizzas for the local kids for just $1. There are not enough people like that in the world. Two impossibly cute little locals had been waiting for their pizza, and we offered them the slices of ours we couldn't eat. The poor little mites even ate the crusts we'd bitten into; that small detail made me feel really sad. Travel makes you realise how lucky you are.

COATEPEQUE should be a serene place. The lake is best swum in the morning when the wind is low, there are no waves and the water is clear. We were down there early for a day of swimming and reading. Said serenity was broken within minutes by the annoying buzz of approaching jetskis. The owners made figure-of-eight passes around the jetty, trying to catch our eyes. A smile and a No, gracias didn't seem to do the trick. They'd go no further than 30 yards away before heading back, gesturing at the machines and then pointing at you. Like one of us, after an hour of badgering, was suddenly going to leap up in a state of frantic excitement and shout "You there, my good man with the jetski...nothing would complete my life more than renting one of those at this very moment...do bring it over and force yourself upon my wallet, dear boy!?" About as likely as us taking the boat tours which tried the same tactic after the jetskis had given up. In he sailed, pointing down at his craft "Boat!" he cried. "Barco" I answered back. You name it in my tongue, I'll match you in yours. And no ta, I don't want a joyride.

Having had pizza for lunch, our dinner options were limited. We walked to the edge of the village to look for a local comedor, basically a kitchen run from someone's home. Seeing one that looked atmospheric and softly-lit, we headed in. I regretted my haste immediately as the woman jumped up from her dinner, swept bits of food onto the dirty floor with a greasy rag, and bade us sit. A stinking dog begrudgingly shifted its carcass from the floor to let us pass. English manners prevented me bolting for the door. A rictus grin adorned my face. As we ordered and waiting, I took in the surroundings. Unidentifiable animal skins splayed on the walls; lethal-looking wooden traps; faded photographs; huge machetes. Several weird relics dotted the room, laced with cobwebs; it looked like a set from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Grandpa was probably out back, weakly trying to hammer a tourist to death over a bucket. Thankfully the food wasn't as grim as the surroundings. The worrying thing for me was that my companions said that they'd eaten in far worse places on their trip? Like where...prison?

SANTA ANA was the next logical place to stay, being the gateway to the Ruta De Las Flores. The Lonely Paranoid describes it thus: "Hints of a wealthy yesteryear linger in the colonial backstreets...lively nightlife and proud enterpreneurial spirit...the plaza is among the finest in El Salvador..." The only way a local would be proud in this grimy, pointless dump would be if he'd saved enough for a car to drive out of there in. The main square is nothing to look at during the day, and gets very sketchy at night. None of the bars stayed open later than 8pm in that area. I wandered out around 9pm the first night, after smoking weed on the roof terrace with a genial 60-year-old Italian fellow. He'd been travelling on-and-off for years, had no ties, just enjoyed seeing the world...and getting stoned. I felt like Scrooge meeting the Ghost Of Christmas Future. Except he wasn't pointing at my grave, just passing me a joint. Gracias. Hunger got the better of me, and a girl named Kerry was peckish, too. Out we headed through the deserted backstreets to the plaza, encountering only various spectres in the shadows, most looking like rejected extras from Thriller. After a fruitless walk around the darkened square, we escaped the beggars and headed back...reduced to a Pollo Companero for dinner. Think KFC but ten times worse. I'd have been happily back at the lakeside smelling wet dog and playing Guess The Dead Animal Pelt while waiting for my undercooked chicken. It's just a shame that the Casa Verde hostal happens to be the best accomodation I've used, while being situated in the worst town in El Salvador.

ATACO is a beautiful little town where no-one pays much attention to Westerners. No-one, that is, apart from a few buses full of schoolgirls who ran over en masse when they saw us, politely demanding to have their photos taken with us. One said I looked like Paul McCartney. I asked if she meant in the 60s or in his 60s? The German girl with us was popular, blondes being a rarity in these parts. While his girlfriend was occupied being photographed I muttered under my breath to Andy, pointing out a shy girl stood at the back of the pack; she was far and away the most incredibly stunning young woman I've seen in Central America...jet-black hair and cheekbones you could slice bread with. If she walked down the street in London, no doubt she'd have a modelling contract by the end of the afternoon. Andy agreed, but said I was a dirty old bugger...she was only 15. But I honestly wasn't even thinking impure thoughts, simply wowed by the vision of her.

We used Ataco as a base to discover the Ruta De Las Flores (if you need that one translating, don't bother taking up Spanish, will you?), a network of small towns and villages linked by a single bus route. This area is supposedly prettier in the summer when the flowers are in full bloom, but the views of the surrounding hills and valleys were enough for me as they were.

JUAYUA is famed for its weekend food fair, and we headed there under the misguided idea that there'd be everything from frog curry to barbecued lizard. Unfortunately for us, it was the usual fayre of rice, beans and fried chicken. This food really is going to be the death of me. I've never had a bad meal in Thailand, and never had a good one in the Americas...bar the trout in San Gil, Colombia, and breakfast in El Tunco, El Salvador. Buy Phad Thai on the street in Bangkok, and it's far and away richer in taste than the shite forced on us here. Depressing. Anyway, Juayua isn't the most exciting place, but we had a great day there watching Barcelona stuff Manchester United in the Champions League Final. I think the locals expected us to support the Reds, but after the Fergusons crippled my football club this season, I was dancing with delight as the Spaniards humiliated them. Lovely.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Riding The Hog

I WAS MOMENTARILY blinded, floating on my back amid a hissing white world, the glare of the sun burning my face; the leash on my right ankle taught as the wave dragged the board shorewards. Pulling the leash, I was clinging to the board when the second wave of the set crashed over me, the roar of water deafening. The world turned a deep green momentarily, and I gasped for air as the third one struck, winding me. This set over, I climbed back atop the board and started paddling back out. I could see Sean thirty yards away, a massive grin on his face as he sat waiting for another powerful set of waves to come in from offshore. I grinned back, wondering what the bloody hell I was doing out here?

Myself and Sean have a mutual friend in Leeds named Ash. We'd figured this much out on meeting in Tree one night. Sean was travelling down towards Colombia with his girlfriend from Medellin, and they're getting married next year. Nice trip. I'd never tried surfing, unless you count those crappy polystyrene boards you buy on holidays in Devon when you're ten years old? Anyway, we'd been on the same boat out of Utila and headed to Copan, Honduras, together. They were heading for El Tunco in El Salvador, whereas I was heading for the capital.

The bus pulled out of La Ceiba, bound for San Pedro Sula. We were hardly out of the terminal when other passengers were flagging down the bus. A young woman in her mid-twenties came aboard. She was tall and well-dressed, and likely one of the most beautiful women I've seen in the Americas: stunning does her an injustice. I was one seat from the back, and she sat behind me, near a family. She played with a little girl for a while, but kept catching my eye. She asked if she could sit next to me. I wasn't going to say No, was I? My Spanish was rusty after 2 months on Utila, so I only got half the conversation we had. She asked where I was going, and if I was travelling alone? Did I have a girlfriend? She told me she was single. My antennae twitched at this, and alarm bells rang when she showed me all her family photos on her phone before offering me a drink. I've experienced this before, in the Philippines. I turned down her drink, as I had my own. I was offered candy. Smiling, I told her that they were bad for the teeth. She kept up sporadic smalltalk while sending and receiving a few texts. On reaching the halfway point, she went into the restaurant, whereas I stayed on the bus. I had to laugh when she reappeared with a couple of apples. Obviously better for the teeth. I shook my head and told her I wasn't hungry. She flashed me a winning smile and tried to insist; several times. I declined. The smile faded rather rapidly. As the bus set off, she made a call, turning her head away from me to speak. I listened in and overheard "I told him I do not have a boyfriend...no...no...meet me at the other side of the terminal." When the bus came to a stop, she was up and away without even a glance in my direction. A little odd, considering she'd wanted to be friends earlier? I considered calling her name and giving her a sarcastic wave, but didn't know who, or how big, her accomplice was. On exiting the bus, she was out of sight. My Dad's brought me up to question things which look too good to be true, because you usually find that they are. And believe me, this gorgeous siren truly was too good to be true. Bit of a nasty streak though, don't you think? I've since heard that this bus route is notorious for drugging-and-robbing. You can't be too careful.

After a night in Copan, I was waiting for a shuttle bus to El Salvador. Sean and Susannah turned up, and we were joined by another Yorkshireman and a loud Welshman I nicknamed Brad Pits, due to the noxious stench coming from under his arms every time he leaned forward to rest his forearms on my headrest. Repugnant. The conversation was a banal mix of laddish one-upmanship and out-and-out bullshit. My headphones were soon on, and Sean told me at the border that he'd followed suit: it was unbearable.

We crossed the border into El Salvador, the Immigration men bemused at our requests for a stamp. The CA-4 Agreemement between Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua means that we are supposed to get a 90 day visa for all four countries, but most people get a fresh stamp in each country and a further 90 days. It makes more sense to us. And besides, being a graphic designer, I wanted a nice Salvadorean stamp for my passport collection.

Heading through the countryside, it soon became clear I'd swapped one country full of small men in big hats for another country of small men in big hats. But El Salvador has a slightly different feel to it, a charm which I can't quite put my finger on just yet. A tiny gas station with a bashful, bored attendant blasting salsa from a tinny radio; two beautiful female traffic cops checking a driver's papers by the side of the road, one catching my eye as we passed...an excuse for breaking the law if ever I saw one; an old woman walking roadside, a huge bundle of firewood atop her head, secured by a headband of cotton; corrugated-rooved lean-to huts giving way to concrete houses as we neared San Salvador's beating heart; street vendors alongside the Pan Americana highway, leaping aboard schools of slowing buses to sell everything from cakes to toothbrushes; the constant blare of horns and traffic belching fumes; an old caballero atop his horse amongst the stalls, white-hatted in a spotless shirt and trousers, blanco pony immaculate beneath him...a proud, defiant anachronism, oblivious to the cacophony of this modern life raging about him.

Night fell as we neared the capital, and I decided to head for the coast first. Tunco is a tiny one-street village, dead during the week but busy at the weekends when Salvadoreans come to party. It's not a picturesque beach, it's black volcanic sand and piles of rocks and dead trees strewn across its length lending it a post-apocalypic air, akin to a Mad Max set. But people are just here for the surf. And it's a relaxed place to hang out, I got waylaid for a week. So I decided to try surfing. Sean's a surfing evangelist in much the same way I promote the undersea experience. He lives for it. So he was to show me the ropes. We rented boards and headed out. I wasn't expecting an epiphany, but would certainly settle for a physique like some of these regular surfers, if this was the way to get it? Not that that would likely happen, what with my beer habit.

Catching a wave is not a problem. Paddling out to the waves is the problem. The rip currents here are strong, and you can be carried halfway back down the beach before you're even 20 metres out to sea. It's absolutely shattering, and it's no wonder the loacals are built as they are. My shoulders were aching within a few minutes. My problem was that Tunco's wave is not ideal to learn; my arrival coincided with the biggest swells for some time, and some of the olas were twice head-height. Heading out to try and ride these was perhaps a little foolhardy. I was content to sit out there on the shoulders of the waves and watch the experts. Day Three was to change things for me. The surf was impossible to get past, I didn't have the experience nor the stamina to break through to the waves offshore. I was being carried towards the central spot on the playa where the waves smash a huge mound of rocks; better to abandon this and go for a pint, I reckoned. Almost at shore, and making a right spectacle of myself, I was trying in vain to reach the safety of the beach. A big wave caught me, and I desperately tried to cling to my board as I was flung toward the boulder-strewn sand. I was thrown onto the edge of it, and tried to climb aboard once the set passed. Immediately I felt one of the five ribs I broke in Thailand, November 2008, aching acutely. Oh shit, this was going to interfere with my diving somewhat. And travelling around with a heavy pack was going to limit my recovery. Happily I was provided with Plan B.

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

THE BIGGEST LIE on Utila is, apparently, "I'm leaving tomorrow" and, despite my aforementioned disdain for the island as a whole, it had a magnetic pull which was difficult to break free from. Not due to the place itself, rather the people I made friends with while there. Stefano, a tall, thoughtful Italian, had been the main man keeping me sane. We'd met on a boat out to a dive site on the south of the island; I always watch other divers kitting up, note their equipment choices, and hazard a guess as to their diving ability. You learn to do this as a working Divemaster. Stef was as good as I'd guessed, his diving effortless. I respect a good diver. Being 37, he was as exasperated as me about the average age of the single females we were surrounded by on Utila. I lost count of the number of times we moaned about this. But we got on with it. The Third Amigo was a mop-haired Glaswegian named Maxy. I'd assisted Juicy on the Open water, Advanced and Rescue Diver courses. Maxy had been on all three, and was a pretty good diver, too. I was obviously pleased he's decided to take his Instructor course elsewhere, after getting some more varied experience. But what I liked about being around Maxy was the Scots banter. Never short on a laugh with him, and I'd pass by his place on the way to the beach, always seduced by his first question of the day "Fancy a spliff, wee man?" That's my boy. Tempy had been the other in my core trio of mates. Intelligent, beautiful and generally good company, she made my time on that godforsaken patch of rock bearable. She took me into subterranean caves on the island one morning, lighting our way by candles as we got further inside. And then she made me swim in the black pools inside, bats whirling around our heads; despite my primal fear of the Cave Monster which was obviously lurking below the surface. I preferred our deserted beach on the north side that afternoon, if I'm honest. Call me chicken.

I'd tried to leave the day previous. Maxy and Stef had gone down the dock to say goodbye at 6am. Thankfully another friend of ours, a German named Thomas, had been leaving too. So their early start wasn't in vain. I packed that night, and drank a lot less than I did on my previous Last Night At Tree. Next morning I was up at the crack of dawn. I headed for the dock, and was halfway down the road when Maxy and Stef came walking towards me waving their hands at waist height. "No ferry....you missed it." I swore. Mainly as I'd have to carry my heavy pack back uphill; another night out with these boys was no bad thing. I looked at the local on the wall nearby and he shook his head "Gone. Tomorrow." Then the lads started laughing. I joined in, and we headed for the boat. I asked if they'd put the local to it, but they said he'd just joined in unprompted.

Reaching the boat, I was fighting back the tears; I was really going to miss these two. They'd made me a very amusing leaving card about our time on the island. I was touched. Stef pulled out a monster joint for breakfast. Stoned at 6.30am on a rough ferry crossing? Thanks, fellas. I'd asked Tempy not to come to the dock, as I hated goodbyes, and always got upset. But I was pleased to see her cycling down the jetty. It was the nicest send-off I've ever had. As the boat pulled away, I was biting my lip. But as we headed out to sea, I felt relief to be on the road again. It's always easy to get stuck somewhere, and harder to get going. If the island was mainly Spanish-speaking, and the diving a lot better, I'd likely still be there. But it was definitely time to go. Besides, we're going to meet up in Nicaragua to dive with hammerheads...so something more to look forward to there.

The Doc, The Dude & The Factory

I SAT ON the examination table, waiting for Doctor John. Looking around the room at the old anatomy charts, faded malaria posters and photographs of the man over the years; the kidney dish stuffed with cigarette ends. No BUPA here. The queues outside his quiet practice testify to the islanders' trust in him. They say that if you're run down by a bike, shot or stabbed, then Dr John is the man who is going to save you. He'd been the one picking the bullets out of the shot waitress. I'd been lucky enough to turn up on a tranquil afternoon and got an appointment within 30 minutes. In he walked, Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned to the waist (to hide his gut, he said), Guevara-esque beret atop his greying mop of hair; faded cargo shorts and a pair of glasses kept around his neck with a length of transparent tube from an oxygen cylinder or similar. The dachshund he'd arrived with was out back somewhere, yapping in the sunshine. I'd heard the Doc had been here awhile, and read an article from a magazine which was pinned to the wall while he prepared a few bits for my medical. He's a laconical character, and has a reputation for partying harder than most half his age. And with his access to and knowledge of pharmaceuticals, then why the devil not? I'd actually seen him in Tree one night, using a nasal spray every fifteen minutes...I'm pretty sure it wasn't for a cold. Beechams doesn't make you dance like a madman.

He asked me how I liked Utila. He wasn't surprised my answer was so negative, as he said things have changed quickly here. I bemoaned the low average age, and said the choice of women for a single man my age was limited. He chuckled and said he didn't let that bother him. I've seen the evidence to back that up, too. Asking where I was diving, and hearing my answer, he muttered "Hmmm...The Factory" I laughed. The shop was churning out a high volume of divers, alright. He rated a few of the instructors there, but was dismissive of the attitude and ability of some of the others. I concurred. "So. You're taking the instructor course and getting the fuck off the island?" he asked as he listened to my heart with his stethoscope "Good plan." Over the last 3-5 years, he told me, the reefs had suffered from being over-dived and heavily over-fished. It'll take decades to even start to recover. Pretty depressing when I was going to be spending the next two months diving here. Cursory examination over, I thanked the Doc and left.

My main problem with the way the diving system works is that it only takes 100 dives to become an instructor. That is fine, as long as the candidate has experience in other areas and diving conditions. The fact that someone can go from novice to instructor in one easy diving location doesn't sit well with me. Utila and Koh Tao are the biggest training bases in the world, with the least testing conditions. For a new instructor to be able to qualify as a Drift Dive Specialty instructor here, when there are hardly any currents around the island, is a bit of a joke. If they went somewhere like Pulau Weh in Indonesia, they'd be as green as the people they were supposed to be teaching when they submerged in her ripping currents. So is that safe for the student? I think not. I shadowed Juicy, one of the shop's best instructors on one of these courses, and the drift was simulated. They were shown how to deploy a marker buoy which a boat captain would use to follow the divers' location, but didn't get the chance to try this themselves. What's the point? As we made a three minute saftety stop before surfacing, the newly-minted English instructor along with us was unfurling his DSMB as he swam beneath us. Without looking up, he deployed and inflated it...sending this orange rocket shooting up through our group. Had this caught on anyone's gear, they would have been dragged to the surface...not the safest situation. Juicy and I exchanged a knowing look. This Englishman, Ed, was one of the biggest loudmouths on the island; the type of instructor who wears it like a badge, walks round with his shirt off all the time, and sports a dive computer for bed. He surfaced last, and everyone, students included, gave him a sarcastic round of applause as he tried to untangle the lines of his and Juicy's markers. "How not to deploy an SMB on a drift dive" I said to him. I don't think he liked it a bit, especially coming from a Divemaster. But he should be setting an example to students, and a good example at that. I was to see a lot of iffy instructing from the newbies over the next few weeks, and practices which go outside the standards set by the organisation we work for. I saw students belittled and sworn at on some occasions. Some dive staff tend to look down on new divers, but everyone has to start somewhere...and seeing people get a thrill out of their first dive excites me. If it doesn't then you shouldn't be in the job. My instructor had the patience of a saint, as I was all over the place on my first Open Water dives. Very few are naturals. So I'll be patient, too.

I'm not going to bore you with the details of the instructor course. In a nutshell, you take lectures about the business of diving, the commercial side of things and the like. It can be tedious for someone like me who just wants to dive to travel. I'm not interested in money beyond the amount it takes for me to live somewhere exotic and dive every day. The teaching side of the course was obviously more fun. There are two parts of teaching someone to dive: Confined Water, which is where skills are learned and practiced in water shallow enough to stand up in, and Open Water, where the skills are repeated on a deeper dive. Instructor candidates get marked on their ability to demonstrate the skills in a controlled and exaggerated manner for a student diver to follow. We are also marked out of 5.0 for teaching scenarios in each environment. Points can be lost for not briefing correctly, not demonstrating properly etc and a minimum of 3.5 must be achieved to pass. There are also five written examinations to pass in Physics and Physiology, Environment and Equipment and more. The worst part for me was Classroom Presentations, as I've never been a fan of public speaking, especially when you have to look like you know what you're talking about. So there's a lot of pressure. No pun intended.

We had a pretty good group, with various backgrounds and experience. Even the HDIs (Hundred Dive Instructors, as I call them) were pretty good in the water. Emotions were up and down day by day if any of us seriously balls-ed up a mock exam or in-water presentation. The group got tighter and more supportive by the day, and things were going pretty well. Then the fly in the ointment turned up. Kate was a middle-aged, naturalised Canadian, originally from island. She knew everything about diving, and how we should teach. This, despite failing her last Instructor Development Course. After our first few Open water presentations, we were open-mouthed at her diving skills (or lack of). Surely, if you're going to teach someone to dive, you should be able to actually do it yourself? She was all over the place. Clueless. Surely our staff instructors were going to see how bad she was and tell her she wasn't ready for this? In the event, this was exactly what happened. A few of us, concerned that she could make a mistake while playing the role of a student for another candidate's exam, and therefore cause them to fail the course, had a quiet word. We were assured that this wouldn't happen, and just to concentrate on her own performance. It was a weight off our minds.

After ten intensive days, during which we all improved, it was time to meet our examiner. In walked The Dude from The Big Lebowksi. This guy even dived with his baseball hat turned around, wearing a shirt and shorts instead of dive gear. Bizarre. After a quick introduction and brief on the next two days of examinations, we were given our skills to present, and topics for classroom presentations. Mine weren't too bad. The most nerve-wracking bit was when they split us into three groups. No-one wanted to be in Kate's group, and thankfully they lumped her in with the divers from the other shops, only one of our group thrown in to suffer with them. So off we went to prepare.

We'd been told that the hardest bit was over, and that the final exams and tests were a walk in the park compared to our training. They weren't kidding. The staff had prepared us very well, I can't fault them at all. Especially our two main instructors, Simon and Suzy. So I was a bit surprised when our group of six was in the water a mere 24 minutes for our Open Water tests. We take the role of instructor in turn, and our peers have been briefed to make deliberate mistakes for the skills we've been assigned, common ones that new students make. If we spot them straight away, and make the student repeat the skill to the standard required, we move on to the next. In the course, the instructors had made things difficult for us, and we'd each had to deal with three or four students. Now, if we spotted the first problem straight away, The Dude made a scissors sign with his fingers to cut the exercise, and moved on to the next instructor. It was that easy. Disappointingly easy, in fact. A lot of us agreed that we might as well have just handed over the money at the end of the course? It felt like an anti-climax for many of us after the standards we'd achieved. How can you possibly tell that someone will make a competent instructor after seeing them in the water for 24 minutes, 4 of those minutes actually teaching? The sour icing on the stale cake was the fact that Kate had passed...we were gobsmacked. But then, anyone getting in the water with her in future would likely ask for another instructor if they didn't have confidence in her; I couldn't see her getting work anywhere, either.

So The Factory had churned out another load of new instructors, and were prepping the next batch. The wheel goes around, the money changes hands, and instructors like me try to temper their disillusion with the thought that they'll be living in a beach hut on a remote island someday soon; living a simple life, introducing people to a sport they live for and then watching the sun go down with a joint and a cold beer. This period on Utila has been a small price to pay for that freedom and lifestyle. My friend Grumpy had warned me before I undertook the course "Leave your personality at the door, and pick it up on the way out..." Wise words, Iain...wise words.

Diesel & Dustbins

THEY SAY THAT Utila grows on you. It doesn't. I had a trio of good mates there who kept me sane, but if I hadn't already paid for my dive instructor course, then I'd have left after a week. The Bognors hadheaded up here while I'd stayed behind in Antigua, and the title of this tale comes from Kim's emailed description of the place. It ain't pretty. They'd expected somewhere a little more picturesque; as had I. But as you disembark from the ferry and walk down to the main intersection of Utila town, you see exactly what Kim meant. There are huge plastic dustbins on every corner, usually with the odd stray dog trying to tip it over to see what's rotting inside. Turn left and the road takes you past a patchof wasteland on which sit an ancient rusting bulldozer and an abandoned tractor, overgrown with weeds. The gutters are open, and filled with grotty-looking land crabs. This road eventually leads to thebeach (of sorts) which is hardly Ipanema. Turn tight at the intersection, and a long road takes you past a variety of cafes, two-bit restaurants and plenty of dive shops. Locals and tourists alike tear up and down this strip on scooters and ATVs. I'm surprised no-one is killed, especially at night. The nicest and quietest part of town lies straight ahead from the junction, with more Spanish-speaking locals and the only decent bar on the island, Treetanic. I was to spend most of my time there.

The arrival on the island is a feeding frenzy of dive shop employees eager for your business. It's never pleasant having peopleoverwhelm you when you have just disembarked after a rough journey, but it's the nature of the beast, I suppose. Utila is the second biggest training centre for divers in the world, after Koh Tao in Thailand. The latter is a far nicer place to hang out; you can get a green curry, for a start...and the grass is far superior. I spotted my name on a board amongst the throng, and headed for the cute Hondureña holding it. She led me to a waiting minibus, and we were ferried to our accomodation before being taken down to the shop. It's one of the bigger operaions on the island, and very professionally run, but it wouldn't have been my first choice if I'd just turned up to look and hadn't paid in advance for the course. I like smaller, laidback, scruffier shops. There's a slightly snotty attitude from some of the staff, almost as if they're doing you a favour by letting you dive with them; a definite clique, and I didn't want in. But I just got on with it, and triedto deal with the good people working there. There were enough to make it bearable.

I headed back to my room. On the way down the road, I stopped at a restaurant with several hand-painted signs outside advertising the seafood menu. The name made me smile: Babalu. I'll digress a little here and tell you why... and this one's for you, Fletch (after reading stories about my Dad on here, my mate Fletch says he likes my Dad better than me). In 1969, my Dad was a merchant seaman in Liverpool. His mate George was dating a girl called Brenda, whose friend Elaine was single. Brenda suggested George bring Dad out to a nightclub one night, as a blind date. Dad was smitten with my Mum: love at first sight. Mum, on the other hand, thought that Dad was a slightly posh, pompous twit who was a bit full of himself, and thought he knew everything about everything (I think she still does, but now she quite likes him). So now you all know who I take after? Anyway, credit to Dad...he refused to give up. Mum relented and they went to see Bonnie And Clyde at the flicks. Dad only had eyes for Mum, but she quite fancied Warren Beatty. So now you all know where I got my name (Thanks for not taking her to an Englebert Humperdinck gig, Dad...school could have been traumatic). Anyway, all went well, and Dad soon proposed. They got married on Valentine's Day 1970, and I popped up in August. Dad doesn't mess about. Like any couple, they've had ups and downs, but are still together all these years later. Dad's pretty good with his hands, and has taught me how to fix all my cars over the years. Well, when I say taught, Dad fixed the car...and after ten minutes I got cold/ bored and went round to my mate's for a smoke. Should have paid attention, really. Sorry, Dad. Anyway, my parents bought a Dutch barge, and my old fella fitted it out all by himself. It's now a beautiful houseboat, named after the Liverpool nightclub where they first met: Babalu. The concise version of that tale got me a free beer in the restaurant that evening. So thanks again, Dad.

The island is an odd place. Colonised by Britain several generations ago, the population are a mix of black, hispanic and caucasian. The local dialect is a strange, almost Jamaican, patois. It's not pleasing to the ears, I can tell you. And if they pass a friend in the street, they say Bye instead of Hi. I found that bizarre, but a local insisted that if you said Hi, you had to stop and chat. Eh? The older locals sit on the porches of their wooden houses lining the main streets and chat late into the evening. It's a struggle to understand a bloody word.

As on any island, strange people abound. There's a local called Jimmy, who is possibly the world's most unconvincing tranny. He minces down the road, calling out to tourists he fancies, in a pair of cut-off denim shorts and skimpy tops; distended belly overhanging the waistband, a mass of pubic hair crawling to his navel. His ravaged, pock-marked face is usually half hidden by a huge pair of shades. He's always drunk or high. Can't be easy being like that on an island, though. The irony is that, though Jimmy is shunned by many, he is often most young mens' first sexual experience amongst the locals. Creepy. Otherwise, some young boys are still known to interfere with animals to experiment sexually (direct flights from Cardiff available soon). And this was locals telling me, so I'm not doubting it. Jimmy can hold his own, though. I was in a cafe one day, and a big Trinidadian instructor made a homophobic remark as Jimmy walked in. "That's OK" spat the tranny "I don't like fat man..." I had to laugh at that one.

Utila's economy is awash with drugs. Cocaine, crack, MDMA and grass are the mainstays. It says something of the island's lack of charm when one of the tourist attractions is a downed Colombian plane in the jungle. These take off and land at all times of the night, as the airfield is a refuelling point for aircraft en route to Miami from South America. Several locals can be seen during the day, naked to the waist and sweating, wide-eyed and high as a kite. One local restaurant below a rickety old house is a front for a bunch of dealers who sit below the property on worn-out sofas. A couple I met went into the house to seal a weed deal one evening. The owner was completely wired and sat at a table, on top of which were several pounds of grass, coke and a snub-nosed .38 Smith & Wesson. Sketchy, indeed. The local police and the mayor allegedly know what is going on, but palms are regularly greased....so everyone is kept happy.

It's usually the case that ex-pats are crazier than the local lunatics, and Utila's are no different. There are a handful of bars where they hang out, most notably Skid Row and La Cueva. A week before my arrival, at the latter bar, there was a shooting. A German who'd been on the island a good few years had lost his dog to the spate of poisonings in the town. Locals regularly kill off the stray dogs left behind when their selfish western owners depart after a prolonged period here. His dog died after eating baited meat. A tourist in the bar said that most of the dogs on Utila were better off dead. The man left the bar and returned with a pistol. A barman reacted quickly as the gun was pointed at his head, knocking the German's aim off with an ice bucket; the bullet grazed his forehead. The girl who made the comments was shot twice in the back as she cowered behind the bar. After loosing off a few more shots, the bloke calmly handed the gun to a customer and said "I don't care what they do with me now, so you might as well kill me." There were no bullets left. German police later extradited the man from Honduras, as he was wanted for a murder there.

The rest of the oddballs were unarmed, thankfully. The aptly-monikered Skid Row was a magnet for the dregs washed ashore over the years. Several runaways frequented the joint, all faded baseball caps, ragged shorts and stretched tee-shirts. In their 30s to 60s, this crew spent their afternoons drinking beer, telling tall tales and leering at any young woman who walked in. Some even made lewd remarks which they thought made them look cool to the others. A harmless character there was an American named Phil. In his 50s, Phil was well-known for telling extremely tall tales, and was therefore nicknamed "Phil Of Shit". Brilliant, I thought. A nice enough man, but only in small doses, as his stories were just too much. I'd met him at a BBQ, while talking to a local drug dealer about the lame grass on the island; he was kindly letting me smoke his finest Jamaican. Phil was a mate of his, and struck up a conversation with me...all about him. I learned all about his fancy place on the island, and his property back home. After showing me his horrendously gaudy and likely perversely expensive watch, he informed me that he'd bought a property in Grosvenor Square, London, in 1970. For the princely sum of £1, he said. Yeah, right.

By far my favourite Phil Of Shit story was one I overheard in Skid Row one lunchtime. I was one end of the room, Phil at the other. The proprietor was engaged in a conversation with a couple across the bar. Dangerous airports were the topic. Tegucigalpa, Honduras's capital, has a notorious landing strip which neccessitates a rapid decceleration and steep drop over a mountain to land. The couple had flown in there, and had a terrifying landing. The owner told them about a crash in the 90s. Phil, who'd been constantly butting into the conversation, said he'd been on that flight...he'd run for his life and was one of the few survivors. The couple looked at each other, the owner merely rolled his eyes at me, having his back to Phil. When Phil left the bar, I remarked on how quiet things became whenever he left; the owner laughed knowingly. I looked up the air crash on the Web later, and discovered that there had been no survivors in the incident. And he'd got the year wrong. Quality bullshitters get their facts straight.

The place wasn't all bad. I was in Treetanic every night, a psychedlic trip of a bar amongst a huge garden, the main bar amongst a huge tree out front. It's beautiful, a labour of love built by Neil Keller in tribute to his favourite artist, Comfort Tiffany. There's hints of Gaudi there for me, too...the place is covered in a colourful mosaic of broken tiles; artifacts both nautical and animal, decorate each structure. Created over the space of 3 years, this unique bar is listed as one of the top five bars in the world. I was happy enough to be asked to play music from my iPod there, in return for drinks. So I spent most nights happy, a G&T in one hand, a joint in the other, talking to the owner's stunning daughter, Tempy. We became very close, and because of her the place didn't seem so bad most days. She showed me some nice spots and remote beaches on the island's far coast when we rented a motorbike. Along the way she pointed out various local people and told me stories. My favourite concerned a wealthy westerner who bought a huge tract of land and, when he'd built the ideal house he wanted, donated the excess of the plot to the local council to do something for the local community; obviously grateful, they made it the town dump. I can almost picture his face on a hot day as the stecnh drifts across his garden as he has lunch. Priceless.

In fact, that was probably the best day I had there. It's always good to get a motorbike and head out, even if they aren't as cheap as Asian rentals here. I recall myself and Jocky getting a bike each and a full tank of fuel in Vietnam for $3 a day. On Utila it was $35. But I won't complain...we certainly got the use out of it. In fact I think we went right around the island five times in all.

So I've painted a negative picture of Utila, but then travel is subjective. So maybe you have to go see the place for yourself. You might have the second best time of your life. Just don't say I didn't warn you if you don't.