Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras
Caitlin S. Chock
April 4th, 2017HondurasTravel Writing Award
My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.
With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.
Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.
But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.
Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.
A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.
Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.
Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.
I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.
I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.
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Caitlin S. Chock
Caitlin Chock is a writer, photographer, traveler, and accidental expat. She has been a professional scuba diver and amateur conservationist since 2010. She blogs about sustainable diving and ocean conservation issues at EcoDiveTravelGuide.com.