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Friday, April 20, 2007

Boats, buses and a bucolic bed & breakfast

Wednesday, we transitioned from an island resort to a rural hacienda near the border with Guatemala. We opted to take a ferry to the coastal town of La Ceiba, then take the bus from La Ceiba to Copan Ruinas.

The ferry ride was easy (Serge gave us a good tip beforehand: buy the first-class ticket on the ferry, as your luggage comes off first). The bus company was organized, even if a bit slow in processing tickets. Security was tight, and a photo was taken of each passenger as they boarded the vehicle. I wondered if the measure was for our security or just to help identify bodies if the bus is hijacked by rebels. In all seriousness, Honduras is generally safe for travelers.

We arrived at La Hacienda San Lucas just as the sun was about to disappear over the mountains beyond the valley. It was a truly magical time. The ranch hands were just beginning to light the thousands of candles and oil lamps that bask the 100-year-old property in a golden glow.

The main house of the structure houses two kitchens (one is the original, which contains a traditional oven), a sitting area and the reception desk. A door leads out to the restaurant on the front patio.

Up a step hill are the two guest houses with four bedrooms each. The beds are covered with colorful Guatemalan bedspreads, and pillows made of woven mat material (the matting was used by Mayan royalty, and is a symbol of political power). The candles were already lit for us and black soot covered the white stuccoed walls above them.

Just outside the room hang two hammocks where we've spent several hours each day napping, reading or hanging out with the resident dogs, Luco, K'inich and Popi. Photo albums in the main house show them all as puppies, when the hacienda's owner, Flavia, moved to Honduras and began to restore the property, which had belonged to her grandfather.

Flavia, originally from this region, moved to Kentucky in her teens to attend a private high school. She went on to college, married, had kids, started a catering business, and eventually divorced--all in the United States. Her grown children thought she was crazy when she said she was going to return to her homeland and live at the hacienda. They said it was "her menopause project."

She couldn't be happier, she tells me on Thursday. However, she says she's a little crazed at the moment getting ready for a large dinner party that evening. Earlier in the week, the hacienda received a reservation for a party of 60 from the Ministry of Honduran Tourism. She appears to be keeping her cool, though, as she sits in the entry way smoking a cigarette. Around her, though, is a flurry of activity among her employees. One is replacing the flower arrangements with fresh stems of tropical flowers, an older woman is grinding corn to make tortillas, 12-year-old Octulio is raking the flowerbeds.

As sun was setting, the mariachi band arrived to set up and began playing some traditional tunes. That's when we and the rest of the guests left to go into town for dinner.

West End Girls and Boys

We had some time to kill before leaving Roatan for mainland Honduras, so we left the cushy confines of the resort and wandered out to the street to catch a taxi to West End, where the budget-minded travelers tend to congregate. The taxis work two ways: you can take a regular taxi for $5, or you can take a colectivo taxi for $1.50. The latter is where the taxi will stop and pick up other passengers until its full.

The taxi we hailed already had a passenger, so we hopped in the back seat. The guy in front, Tony (from Seattle), had just arrived on Roatan from Guatemala. He had no idea where he was going to stay, but he did know he wanted some kind of dive package.

We invited him to lunch, so that he could peruse our Lonely Planet guidebook.

We had planned to eat at a place called "Galley," but when we got there, we found that it had changed hands and opened as the "Pasta Factory at the Galley." The Italian woman running it said she kept the name Galley to capitalize on the previous tenants entry in the Lonely Planet guidebook. Obviously, she´s getting traffic, because here we are.

In a it's-a-small-world way, Serge, our refresher course instructor, rolled up on his motorbike and ambled onto the porch of the restaurant. "This is my wife's place," he said. "We invested everything we had in opening it."

Serge gave Tony some advice on cheaper places with dive packages, and then showed me his "baby"--a tiny Rottweiler, only weeks old.

After lunch, we parted ways with Tony as he wandered off looking for lodging. We were just looking to look.

West End is a laid back Key West-like town with a dusty unpaved road with nautical rope stretch across it to serve as speed bumps. During the day, it is rather quiet since most everyone is out on (or under) the water. At night, the party gets underway and goes all night.

In front of one West End bar called the Buccaneer hung an Ohio State flag. I couldn't resist finding out who and why. I walked into the empty bar and up to the first person I saw in the empty establishment. Pam Wilbur told me that her husband, John, and her son, Dave, moved permanently to Roatan from Columbus in 2003. The bought 10 acres on which they are developing condominiums and a hotel that will be finished in the next six months. John Wilbur had been a developer in the States, and Pam had been a caterer, which made opening a bar pretty simple.

The only problem, she said, was finding good employees. She was willing to give me a job on the spot. "And, it's easy to get a work permit here. We thought about movng to Belize, but the work permit was taking too long. My son got one here right away."

Dave ushered us into his four-wheel drive and took us up the hill to see the units that were under construction, as well as the hotel, then drove us back to the main road and we headed back to the resort.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Field Trip

When I was in high school, the kinds of field trips we took were to the art museum or the zoo. And as you might imagine, the highlight was eating lunch at McDonalds.

For 18 students from Worthington Christian High School in Columbus, Ohio, the highlight of their field trip to the Roatan Institute of Marine Sciences, located at Anthony's Key Resort, has been to interact with the dolphins.

Yeah, you heard me. These kids get a week off of school to travel a million miles away, and study marine biology in a warm, tropical environment. Oh, but they are taking classes while they are here. And there will be a test, says Debbie Walton, their science teacher and chaperone.

All of them spent weeks leading up to their visit studying reef biology, socking their money away and getting scuba certified. That way they were ready to jump in on arrival.

Well, I got my dream-come-true field trip today, too, when I got to snorkel with the 8 dolphins at the institute. For an hour-and-a-half, I swam alongside these creatures in the lagoon at the resort, watching their natural behavior...nothing like the fins and flipper-type show I've seen in the past.

They are a little hesitant to approach at first, so we're given an introduction by a trainer who talks about their physiology, life span, behavior and anything else we could think about asking. Cebena was the dolphin that we were formally introduced to. She is 21 years old, and her child is a year-and-a-half old. After the demonstration, we did the cheesy, touristy pictures--the dolphin kissing my check, etc.

But after all of that, we attached fins, put on the mask and snorkel, and went deeper into the water. Cebena and her child found me first and slipped past in such close proximity that I was bobbing in their wake. Another pair of dolphins were demonstrating sex education. The others were goofing around, nipping at each other and teasing snorkelers. All the while, you could here them communicating to each other through their blowholes.

They truly are amazing to watch, especially beneath the surface of the water. I never need to see the silly tricks dolphins are trained to do again. And then, Cebena waves her flipper at me to say goodbye.

Ups and Downs, and a Few Bends

My day started with a trip to the medical clinic located at Anthony's Key Resort (AKR), which not only services guests, but also members of the community. Because the public health system is limited in what it can provide--plus, the hospital is subject to frequent power outages--AKR's owner, Julio Gallindo Sr., founded the clinic at the resort. Unlike the hospital in Roatan, the power is on 24/7 at AKR, which is like its own town, complete with its own water treatment facility and power plant.

Dependability is the key, especially when you're suffering from the bends and require treatment in the property's hyperbaric chamber.

Luckily, I didn't require that kind of treatment.

Instead, I was being treated for a inflamed eustachian tube. On a severity scale of 1 to 5 (with the latter indicating a perforation), I am somewhere between a 4 and 5, the doctor tells me. He gives me an anti-inflammatory and a decongestant. And now for the bad news, he says: "No diving for the rest of your stay." That means no night dive tonight.

I suppose it could have been a lot worse. After all, the hyperbaric chamber was actually in use by some unlucky fellow as I sat in the waiting room. The chamber itself is the centerpiece of the room. The man inside is displayed on a monitor that sits on top of the apparatus. The technician administering the oxygen to the patient explained that the chamber is used nearly 120 times a year, but seldom is it needed by recreational divers (which account for maybe 20 a year).

Instead, commercial fisherman--like this man--risk their lives every day in order to make a living doing nearly 15 deep dives a day to retrieve lobster from the sea floor. Many don't have any problems for years, but eventually, their practices get the better of them, and they require treatment for decompression sickness. And for some of these guys, going to the hyperbaric chamber is like going to the bar after a hard days work.

For the next 12 days, this man will have to suck pure oxygen for a couple hours a day before he will be allowed back in the water.

I, on the other hand, will still have the opportunity to snorkel with the dolphins.

Monday, April 16, 2007

On the Boat Again...

"A bad day diving is better than a good day at work."

Various stickers are plastered at the AKR dock where a boat shuttles resort guests between their island cabanas and the main resort. But this sticker stands out among them, especially today. Based on the previous day's experience, Chris couldn't disagree more.

However, he's ready to give diving another try--albeit hesitantly.

Peace has returned to Roatan after a night of heavy storms, which is unseasonable for the month of April. Waves battered the deck of our cabana all night, and the colorful hammocks bashed against the railings. Even though the sea was still churning by morning, the sun appeared over the mountain, and it looked like it would be a good day for scuba diving, which was rescheduled for the south side of the island where the waters are calmer.

"Don't worry, Chris," says Frank, the divemaster. "It'll be no problem today."

Frank kept his word.

Throughout the day, we were treated to a healthy barrier reef (the second largest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef) chocked full of pillar, tube and barrel sponges "you can fit a cow in," magestic eagle rays, lobsters, green moray eels, barracuda, parrotfish, gigantic grouper and variety of tropical fish that I can't identify--despite having gone last night to the "School of Fish," an informative fish identification class that is presented once a week by Sergio Luperto, the newest divemaster at AKR.

Part of what makes fish identification so difficult is that the fish change dramatically over the course of their lives. Take for example, the Damselfish. As a juvenile, it looks like a disco ball with it's shiny white dots on it's midnight blue scales. But as it ages, its color changes, it develop stripes, and only the tell-tale disco dots on its dorsal fin give it away.

The highlight was seeing the spotted eagle ray with its six-foot wingspan. It caught one glimpse of us and turned around and shot off deeper into the abyss, and we headed in the opposite direction--back to the surface--with a renewed fondness for underwater exploration.

Now we truly can say that we'd rather be diving than spending our afternoon at a office desk.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Dive In

Roatan is a mecca for scuba divers from around the world, and Anthony's Key Resort (AKR) is a mecca for divemasters looking for a job on the island. Serge, a divemaster, has spent two years living in Roatan, working at various dive shops, but when he had the opportunity to work full time at AKR just two weeks ago, he jumped at the chance. "This is where everyone wants to be," he says. "It's the best outfit in Roatan and in the Caribbean, in my opinion."

Serge is helping me and my husband get reacquainted with diving. It's been just over two years since we dove in Cozumel and we're feeling a little rusty. A refresher course costs $85, but it's worth it from a safety standpoint. After walking us through the steps of assembling the equipment, we dove into the shallows and went through a series of drills--regulator recovery; underwater mask clearing, buoyancy control; and air sharing with a buddy with a low air supply. With a submerged high-five, we passed with flying colors. By 10:30 we were on our assigned dive boat, Trevor, ready to take the plunge.

But that's where the fun ends. Looking out into the Caribbean Sea, boats are being tossed two and fro. It looks like a storm is brewing. I have flashbacks to a boat ride in Peru that I experienced through a Dramamine-induced haze. The boat lilts left and right, and I keep my eyes focused on the now-distant shoreline. "Just get me in the water," I say to the Scuba gods as I gag slightly. "And I'll be fine."

I jumped in and felt instantly better, but my husband wasn't as lucky. He made it under the water, but his breakfast rose to the surface. The boat's dive master, Frank, pulled him to the rocking boat(where he spent the next 50 minutes, while the rest of us were plowing calmer waters at 80-foot depths), while I bobbed at the surface wondering what was going on. Frank motioned at me to descend.

When Frank returned, I buddied up with him and drifted along a rainbow-hued coral reef on my right side. With a divemaster as a buddy, I got the best seat in the house. He knew where to look for creatures from the depths, spotting gigantic crabs tucked into crevices. But it was I who noticed the sea turtle swimming on the sandy bottom.

Returning to the surface was like the shock a child must feel when it emerges from the womb during birth. I sputtered as the deep, blue calm gave way to overwhelming surges of water. The boat made an unsuccessful bid to retrieve us and looped around again. Some of the waves obsured my view of the vessel, which made things disorienting. I imagined what it must be like for rescue divers with the Coast Guard, braving the high seas (Yes, Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher flashed through my mind momentarily).

Once on board, the waves of nausea made me stomach turn, and soon I was bent over the side of the boat next to my beloved spouse, who was oblivious to my predicament. I can't say that this was the way we envisioned spending our vacation.

Once we were on land again, we all compared experiences, as though we were exchanging war stories.

"That was pretty rough. It was rougher than anything I encountered in the ocean," said Charlie McCoy, a kidney specialist from Rhode Island, who experienced rougher ocean waters during a boat race last year from Rhode Island to Bermuda. His family are diving together in Roatan, and this dive was one of the first for his 14-year-old daughter, Bridget. "I was worried about her. Her gear was just as heavy as she is."

Bridget did great, though. That is, until her mother puked in her lap. "I'm taking a shower first," Bridget exclaimed.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

E-mail Changes

I want to apologize for my rusty blogging skills. I haven't been on the blog since last August, and in that time my e-mail address changed. However, I didn't change it in the Yahoo Group settings until after I posted yesterday and realized my error. So, if you responded to the e-mail you received from, you may have received a notice that the e-mail could not be delivered. The glitch has been fixed and my new e-mail address should be listed properly now. It should be the "" account.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

V!VA List Latin America Released

I've written my first book. Well, that's not exactly true.

A travel essay I wrote about the Lord of Sipan was accepted for publication in a compilation of travel stories.

V!VA List, Latin America
is the first-ever armchair travel book created by an online community of travelers, writers and photographers. Packed with colorful essays and striking photographs, the 350-page book is designed to inspire readers to journey south (or north, east, or west!) and experience exotic Latin American culture and its extraordinary places.

If you're interested in more information, visit the V!VA List Web site or just click on the Amazon link at the right-hand side of the page and help me earn a little spending money for my next trip.

In other news
Speaking of trips, the next journey will begin on Saturday, Apr. 14, with an insanely early flight to the island of Roatán. I plan to post on our adventures, so stay tuned. Those of you who are signed up to receive e-mail alerts when I post to the blog (such as this one), please do not respond directly to the automated e-mail itself as it will be sent to everyone on the list. AND, if you would like to be removed the list, please let me know!