Diary of a Divemaster-in-Training: Honduras

PART THREE: ROATAN, HONDURAS

 

WEEK SIX

Much shorter week that I’m reporting on this time round, we only worked four days in a row because we start our tec course tomorrow, so we’ve been given a day off beforehand. Feeling considerably more sprightly after far fewer days working, though it’s Sam’s turn to start getting a cold, so he took the day off from diving yesterday, to make sure he’s ok for tec, and helped around the shop.

Having said it’s only been a few days, we have got a fair amount done in such a short time. I’ve done another lead, helped out on a try dive, we did our second volunteer shift at the Marine Park and did the Deep Scenario. My lead went well, got a score of 4.5 out of 5. The marine park shift was much easier than previously, because there were far fewer people on the beach, probably only one cruise ship came in that day. Because there were four of us volunteers this time round, we had planned to have two on the beach and two in the water and then rotate round, but all ended up in the water as there was hardly anyone going in from the beach and even then a lot of the time we were just snorkelling around. The shallow reef is pretty ruined but when you get a bit further out it is beautiful, lots of disco fish (juvenile Yellowtail Damselfish which look like small disco balls with flashing iridescent blue spots) and loooads of lettuce coral.

When I wasn’t on diving shifts at the shop, I went upstairs to the classroom and did a lot of the tec e-learning, and by lunchtime yesterday I had managed to get through it ALL. That is: 2 x e-learning book and 1 x a textbook. Great feeling! Have got decompression theory coming out of my ears at the moment, the amount of reading various sources that we’ve done recently.

Yesterday afternoon, Alex and I did our deep scenario (Sam skipped on it due to the cold starting). It basically entailed four missions: descend to 40m/130 ft and hover there for several minutes (every ft below 130 we owed Peg a beer), ascend to 60ft and swim slowly along for 10 mins maintaining the same depth so that we could use it to calculate our air consumption, mark the times on a wrist slate throughout the dive when our remaining air reached certain levels, then breath from a tank hanging beneath the boat during the safety stop. So we descended and hovered for a couple of minutes, didn’t feel anything at first but by the time we moved off I felt slightly drunk and the gas narcosis was definitely hitting me. It went away as we ascended. Other than that, and keeping more of an eye than usual on my air consumption it wasn’t really any different. Once we were back in the classroom we learnt how to calculate our air consumption rate. We both managed to hover at exactly 130ft so Peg didn’t gain any beers, unfortunately for her.

Alex came over for several evenings to have food at ours. Sam’s trend of great veggie food continues: enchiladas stuffed with roasted butternut squash and other veggies, stir fry, chilli baked potatoes etc.

Which brings us back round to today, our next day off. Customary slight sleep in (I was still up before eight), then we headed out for breakfast to a cafe with wifi and tasty food. Sat in the cafe for two and a half hours skyping first Alison, Sam’s mum and then his friend Jess. SO lovely to ‘see’ both their faces and it’s actually exactly a month until Sam flies out of Mexico so it really isn’t long until we actually see them both.

 

WEEK EIGHT

As you might have astutely noticed, Future Self, I have skipped a week. Guna write about our experience of the tec course separately.

So anyway, after the ten days of our tec course we returned to our divemaster training midway through Week Eight. The rest of the week was really enjoyable. We were back to being DMTs the next day, and both on the AM boat, which went a little further than usual, round to the Odyssey wreck. We descended into the blue, and slowly the huge wreck rose out of the water. The main section had fallen apart, but the stern was really intact, and you could swim inside a huge engine room and then up and up along the staircases. There were stairs running all down the back too, and balconies with a table and chair, and the whole place had a slightly eerie, calm feeling about it. An amazing dive.

Our second morning dive was at Balls Deep (so named by two long term customers who bought the right at a Marine Park auction), and had really cool topography: a canyon, chutes, and rather than the shallow reef dropping down to the wall, the wall was much more staggered with sandy patches in between. We stuck near a buddy but otherwise it was just an explore. Accidentally caught Sam on camera with his penis out as he peed!

The following day, Sam and I went out on the afternoon boat, and as there were no customers signed up for the first dive, we had our own bimble around, and saw a lot of wildlife, including my first peas, the tiny, pea-sized (as the name suggests) juveniles of trunkfish. Sam spotted two bobbing about together in the hollow of some coral, black with white spots and teeny tiny pursed-looking lips. Also saw secretary blennies poking out of holes in the coral, a bridled burrfish with big iridescent eyes, a sharptail eel and a spotted spiny lobster.

The next dive Sam led, so I brought up the rear, using the GoPro and just enjoying the dive.

The next day, we both asked to do a lead but just for extra practice, and went to sites we had never been to. My lead was at Blue Moonshine, a drift dive along the wall and then up over the shallows. Incredibly beautiful reef there, the array of colour was amazing. Saw a large hawksbill turtle too.

Sam’s was right up Blue Channel, first through the swim throughs, then up the channel a way, then we looped back. Really cool topography.

Sam leading a group through Blue Channel

Outside of diving, on Wednesday when we ‘graduated’ from tec, we went to sundowners bar with everyone and drank, and the three of us ate a drunken pizza at C-Level, really tasty. On Saturday, after eight days straight of diving, Sam went out to meet the others and watch a televised UFC fight, and I stayed in and had an evening alone, watched Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.

On our day off, we went on our usual supermarket trip, only this time with Alex too, then after lunch, Alex and Sam began preparing dinner. That evening Sam and I hosted our first dinner party together (how very domestic), with eight of us trainees in total. There was a fire at the power plant on the island, so electricity was intermittent, and we ended up eating by candlelight and taking one of the tables out onto the balcony because it was too hot inside without the fan. The chatting descend into a discussion about strange English words and phrases and the evening only rounded off when our neighbour came up to tell us that we were keeping him up with our ‘echochamber gigglefest’.

 

 

WEEK NINE

The first few days of the week I was on the AM boat, so I got to dive a number of new sites. I particularly enjoyed Spooky Channel, which wasn’t a site for wildlife but was certainly atmospheric. We began the dive by descending into a low visibility channel. The light was green and gloomy, and the lack of reef seemed eerie. A turtle swam over us just as we entered the channel, a silhouette against the sunlight from the surface. We swam through the half darkness, with just a sliver of light above us, passing a few lobsters and a green moray eel who came out of its crevice to see what was going on. After thirty minutes or so we emerged on the wall, and the deep blue surrounding us seemed almost violet, and bright, like stepping into the light after being indoors. The reef also seemed to teem with life and colour compared to the previous gloom.

I also helped out on the Tuesday night dive, and it was one of my most incredible underwater experiences so far. The main portion of the dive was pretty standard. Although we swam around as one large group, Rudy put me as the leader for half the customers, so I spent most of the time counting lights and checking on people. At the end we came back to the sandpatch and turned off our lights. The bioluminescence was bright, but what blew me away were the strings of pearls. As we waited in the dark, the water surrounding us began twinkling, like strings of small fairy lights turning on and off, as Rudy put it, or like the opening shot of stars wars as the stars stream past the camera, as Ted put it. Utterly beautiful. I swam among them, marvelling, amazed to think they were signals sent out by male shrimp to guide the females towards them. Combined with the feeling of weightlessness in water that you can’t see in the dark, it was a surreal and somehow moving experience.

On Wednesday and Thursday we did Cavern Specialty. It was run by Monty and Paul, with four of us students, us two with Alex plus Wade, another DMT. We began with a mock up of a cavern on the beach, with a guideline rigged up between the trees. Monty and Paul explained how to tie off your own reel when approaching and entering a cavern, then how to follow the main guideline through, which we practised in teams of two. Then we put on blacked out masks and felt our way along the course, to simulate a silt-out, or light failure. Odd feeling, would be even weirder underwater I guessed.

We then headed into the confined area under the dock, where another mock up cavern system was set up. We swam along in one team just looking at the guideline, then holding on or in a sharing air situation, then we put on our blackout masks and it all went to shambles. Very confusing! Really fun though, oddly calming in some ways: when you can’t see all you can do is work out by touch what is going on and keep your hand on the knee of the person in front and your other hand on the line. We did end up somehow leaving Alex behind, I had no idea that the person holding onto my knee changed.

We then went out for a dive to Hole in the Wall, where Monty rigged up a guideline through the caverns, and we practised tying off, then following the guideline. Nothing too difficult, enjoyed the process though, and after a running joke about how PADI expect divers to have snorkels on courses (dangerous to have in an actual cavern or cave situation in case it catches and causes entanglement) Sam stashed one inside his BCD and whipped it out in the cavern. It was a while until Monty noticed and his growling reaction had me laughing away underwater.

The next day, we did two long morning dives. The first was 85 minutes long because we got so involved in what we were doing. Monty rigged up another guideline through another set of caverns/swim-throughs, and we practised different techniques. Sam and I went first, and as we were nearing the end of the guideline, Monty pulled me aside and told me to hide in a crevice above. I watched, giggling away, as Sam realised I had gone and began searching for me. He didn’t find me at first but came back and trained his torch upwards. He looked mightily confused as to why I had decided to hang out floating in a crevice above the chute. Paul also took off one of his fins and used it to disturb the silt and create a silt out to navigate through. We rounded the dive off by doing the route with our blackout masks, trying to remember the instructions from the way in. Whole thing was great fun.

The second dive was similar but in the swim throughs of Blue Channel. Had to cut it short, when Sam and I were midway through our blackout route, because the dive was running over an hour again. They told us that while we’d been in our blackout masks, a divemaster from another shop had passed over with a whole group of divers; we had no clue.

After cavern we were back to normal diving. I had the chance to dive El Aguila wreck finally (all the other DMTs have dived it multiple times but as I have often been on the PM boat I haven’t yet had a chance). We had a fairly large group of customers, and there were also several other groups from different shops at the site, so it was quite busy. We got a chance to do a few of the swim-throughs through the wreck, and I got a feel for it, but still felt another visit would be nice, if I get the chance. Really liked the tiny garden eels, poking their bodies out of holes in the sand by the wreck, waving round like seagrass.

On our day off, Saturday, Sam, Alex, Dave (doing his IDC soon), James, Ellie and I all rented a jeep to explore the island. Sam started off driving, felt weird him driving on the right. We drove along the ocean side road and got to about five miles away from West End, then the car broke down. So we were picked up by the owner of the rental place, crammed into her car with Ellie and I sitting in the boot, and she took us to another car, larger but with only five seats, so someone had to sit in the boot all day. It was also painfully bright yellow. But it worked, always a good bonus.

We drove about two-thirds the length of the island, and stopped at a place on to the south coast called Oak Ridge. We drove the car up to the river and not much seemed to be going on, so I got out and used my Spanish to ask around and ended up on the phone arranging a mangrove tour. A few minutes later, Charly pulled up at a small dock, and we all climbed aboard his small water taxi.

For the next three hours we chugged along, passing through wide coves, lined on either side with stilt houses, and into a long mangrove tunnel. Charly pulled over so that we could climb on the mangrove roots, to see how strong they were, and we had a great time swinging from a rope swing into the water. We stopped at a floating restaurant on the way back to the jetty for a drink. With a little extra time to kill, Charly showed us his town, several hundred people all living in houses on stilts and using boats as their means of transport.

We drove back the length of the island, stopping by our favourite big supermarket to do our weekly shop and load the boot up with boxes of food for everyone.

 

WEEK TEN

After the excitement of our jeep day out, the dive shop was very quiet on Sunday. There were no customers at all in the morning, so those of us staff who were in set about doing quite a deep clean of the shop’s equipment, from wiping out the oxygen kits to ordering the wetsuits by size on the rail.

Several mornings during the week were quiet. Tuesday morning there were no customers again, but in the afternoon Sam and I helped out with the instructor course going on, pretending to be problem students who couldn’t quite get the skills being demonstrated by the instructor candidates. Interesting to see how the course is run and the kind of thing which is evaluated. After that, Sam and I did our mapping dive. Between the two of us, we got all the information we needed in one dive. I swam slowly, scribbling an outline of the site onto a large slate, while Sam swam to certain points and bookmarked them on his dive computer so that we could measure depths and times between various points. That evening we drew out the maps. I did mine by hand, Sam did his on photoshop by photographing the slate of scribbled drawings and then tracing the outlines. Interesting example of how we approach things differently.

I also accompanied the ‘turtle people’, as we call them (students linked to the turtle research here). One of the guys, Dustin, has done more than 150 dives and knew what he was doing, but the girl with him had only just qualified so I went along to keep an eye on things. Fun dives really, just kept scanning for turtles, then when we found a Hawksbill Turtle we observed it for a while, he wrote notes, then took a small sample of the food it was eating. The second time I accompanied them on a dive, we crossed paths with three turtles, two of which were foraging. The last one swam after us as we left and almost rubbed bellies with Dustin it was so intrigued by us.

On Thursday, Sam and I were both on the morning boat. There were no customers but Tom was teaching a course so the boat went out regardless, so we hopped on it. We got to dive El Aguila wreck again, but this time without a single other group there. Loved swimming through the hatch. Also enjoyed the large groupers which hang around the place.

On Friday, Abbey took us both out to do Sam’s deep scenario. He could have been signed off for it, what with having done the full tec course, but he figured he’d get another deep dive if he did it anyway. We were dropped off quite far from the wall, completely in the blue. It was an eerie feeling, the weightlessness seemed to increase when there were absolutely no visual references. I floated around while Sam did the couple of skills he had too, enjoying the feeling of being held in the vast blue of the sky. Made me think of a quotation from Jacques Cousteau: ‘The reason I love the sea I cannot explain — it’s physical. When you dive you begin to feel like an angel. It’s a liberation of your weight.’

Our final day together was spent watching tv, chilling out at the pool by the DM house with Alex, Ellie and James, and slowly packing Sam up. We’ve been aware the last week that we won’t see each other for a couple of weeks (will be odd after ten months with no longer than four days apart at a time), and that because of visiting Cyprus and other upcoming plans we won’t be living together for a few months, so we’ve been trying to make the most of time together.

Then Monday morning, first thing, Sam was off to the airport. I went in to work for a couple more days. Tried to really appreciate my last few dives, don’t know when I’ll next be in the water again. On Monday afternoon, because one of the instructors was off sick they were short-staffed, so I did my first real solo unsupervised lead with five customers. All went fine, though I didn’t find it as enjoyable as being at the back, need practice and time so that it becomes a bit more natural.

And with that, I was done diving. Up to 153 dives now, 126 hours in the water in total. Nothing really when compared to the several thousand that each instructor here has. The last ten weeks have been an incredible experience, both Sam and I are well and truly hooked.

 

Diary of a Divemaster-in-Training: Honduras

PART TWO: ROATAN, HONDURAS

 

WEEK THREE – FOUR

Two weeks have already sped by. A cliché phrase, but true. Working six days a week, nine hours a day, especially in a physically demanding job (hauling tanks and moving around equipment, plus the actual exercise of diving) is pretty exhausting, and today, our second day off, we slept in and woke up to find we could hardly move.

So, starting from the beginning. We flew from Managua to the island of Roatán two weeks ago. When we arrived at the airport we got lucky:both of us got stamped into Honduras for ninety days, rather than simply continuing on the same visa from Nicaragua (C4 agreement between Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras usually only give you 90 days for all the countries), so we won’t have to do a visa-run midway through our training. We arrived in West End and walked into Coconut Tree Divers, the first dive shop on the strip. Birgit, one of the Little Corn instructors, did her Divemaster and Instructor training there, and had very good things to say about the place. She’d told us a bit about the owners, so I know who PJ was immediately by his long white dredlocks and English accent. It took us only a few minutes of chatting to decide we wanted to continue our training there, so we agreed to drop by in the afternoon for an orientation, then wandered off to find lunch.

Our orientation was led by one of the instructors there called Ted. He was meticulous about all details, seemed thorough and like he took his job seriously. We also met Rachel, who was just starting her DMT too. We were each given a Coconut Tree Divemaster Training booklet. A quick glance through, plus what Ted was telling us, and we could see that the programme was very organised: it included a lot of extra little things (sign-offs needed for compressor training, knots and a series of fish ID quizzes, for example). We went away suitably impressed, and (for me) a touch nervous. Seemed a bit daunting. On the other hand, we figured it would certainly make us more competent long-term.

We stayed in the Divemaster House that evening, a large wooden cabin owned by the course director of the shop, who’s away at the moment, and the next day managed to find our own apartment by chatting to someone at the dive shop. Moved in that evening; big spacious living room/kitchen area, and two bedrooms. Originally planned to sub-let, landlady said it was fine by her, but quickly realised that we both like being just the two of us, so decided that we wouldn’t bother. It’s still a reasonable price.

And so, we began our Divemaster Training at Coconut Tree Divers in earnest. It’s difficult now that we’re a couple of weeks in to try and break it down. We’re expected to be at the shop from 8-5 every day. First task for the DMTs is to check the equipment for the boat: first aid kit, emergency oxygen tanks, a bag with spare kit, and a large thermos of cold water, and then carry it out. Once done, we count off the tanks for the morning dives, carry them out, then check the whiteboard for the day. There is a separate DMT board with our activities for the week, so if we are not interning on a course, we are either put onto the boat for the AM or PM. The other half of the day we use for academic stuff, so I devoted my time to getting through the Encyclopaedia of Diving so that I could do Part Two of the exam, but also got a few other things completed, like demonstrating the four knots we are required to learn to one of the instructors, so that was signed off. Then whichever half of the day you are on, you prepare equipment, carry tanks out to the boat, greet customers, and dive.

The diving is spectacular. Probably my favourite diving I have done so far. There is a long shallow reef then a drop off, so a lot of wall diving too. The coral is in great condition, with very little coral bleaching and a great variety of hard and soft coral, as well as sponges and fish life. A lot of turtles, though far fewer sharks compared to the resident nurse sharks of Little Corn, I haven’t seen one yet. The visibility is far better, often glassy and aquarium-like, and the topography ranges a lot more: in my first week I dived a site called Hole in the Wall, where the instructor led us down a crack to 36m/117ft and back up through swim-throughs, chutes, channels, the rock and coral rising either side of you, magnificent. (On a side-note: due to all the American tourists, everything is done in imperial, so I have had to switch my dive computer to imperial and try to train myself to get used to thinking of depths in feet. In an attempt to learn basic feet and Fahrenheit conversions, I wrote out two little charts and stuck them up on the side of a bathroom cabinet which we can see when we go to the toilet. It’s working slowly.)

In the afternoons, the boat is usually back by 4pm, then it’s clean up, all gear away and ‘beer o’clock’ until five when the work day is done. We’re usually in bed by half nine, exhausted, and often just do nothing with our evenings.

The instructors (and their partners) at the shop all seem good friends and frequently hang out with each other, so we have been to a barbecue, snorkel test and a pizza night already. The snorkel test (to celebrate another DMT finishing his training) made me a bit nervous for mine, and involved giving a ‘boat briefing’ while having his mouth stuffed with marshmallows, demonstrating how to clear a mask which was filled with beer rather than water, and then drinking rum as fast as possible as it was poured down the snorkel. I have also fast become a fan of Gay, PJ’s partner and also an owner of the shop. Watching her with customers, I noticed how many responded to her manner, and I’m sure many people walk in and choose to dive with the shop because of her. She’s also a great laugh, proper British humour, and really made us feel welcomed.

A great thing about the shop is the range of experience. Though there generally seems to be less nerdy interest in the marine life compared to staff at Little Corn with the exception of a couple of people, (don’t worry, we more than make up for it, have already bought a Reef Book), there is a lot of interest and appreciation for diving as an activity. Specialties are run by request from customers, which we are allowed to intern on and therefore also get that specialty as long as we pay for the registration, so for example during the second week us DMTs hung back one evening and Ted gave us a slideshow presentation about Shark Conservation, a speciality he runs. We also got to know Monty, who is in charge of the DMT programme, also has his own technical diving business run from Coconut Tree Divers. It didn’t take long for us to start to think about tec diving, which a lot of people here have tried, and though it’s expensive, even with a reduction, it seemed like an incredible opportunity. As I get further through the programme, meet more people and dive more, the more addicted I become. I started my DMT thinking I would never want to tec dive, but the longer, deeper dives it allows for would be great for scientific diving too, plus the pure interest and further knowledge about diving.

At the end of week two Sam and I did the two-day sidemount course with Monty. There was meant to be another student, hence why the course was running, but he never showed up, so we ended up getting a private course. It was absolutely fantastic. Monty was one of the people who actually wrote the course (but PADI ‘dumbed it down’, as he put it, so he kept it as a distinctive speciality, ie teaches it his way), and you could tell that he has a real aptitude for diving. Just one of those people who has found their way to the thing they are meant to do in life. There was minimal academic stuff, just a short presentation with a bit of background (sidemount comes from cave diving, ie restrictive diving) and notes on equipment (you use different, more streamlined BCDs). Then we were straight into confined water out in the bay and practising. Very odd feeling having a tank clipped on either side of you after so many dives backmount. There are two regulators to breathe from, one on each tank, so we practised turning off each tank, and a couple of other equipment skills, and then moved on to finning techniques. Because sidemount is great for restrictive diving, the focus was on movement in a restricted space, like a narrow chute, so it really forces you to hone down your efficiency and movement. Awesome to be a student learning new in water skills; the Divemaster Training is focussed on competency and a lot of improvement but it’s been two years since I’ve learnt completely new in-water stuff.

Then we took our new skills out for a test-run on an actual dive. Great fun weaving our way through swim throughs and chutes.

The next day we were back in the bay, but this time we learned to unclip one tank and swim with it held in front, so that we could fit through narrower spaces, and then came up against ‘the spider’s web’, whereby Monty had taken his reel and looped it around several pylons of the pier to make the space even narrower. We negotiated it first alone, then together ‘low-on-air’, and finally back-finning, which was ridiculously difficult and I was particularly bad, I looked like a baby learning to walk for the first time.

The second open water dive sidemount was FANTASTIC. We went to Blue Channel and tested ourselves out going through small caverns, and very narrow chutes (’swiss cheese’ as it’s called). Monty filmed us, and then headed back to the shop afterwards, whilst we kept on our gear and did a normal dive sidemount. Monty put together the video of the course, which we watched it at the end of the day, and I was more impressed at my skills than I felt at the time, back-finning through the spider’s web aside.

Sidemount made us decide that we definitely wanted to go for tec diving, so we decided to speed things up a bit with our DMT the following week.

Besides all these diving related activities, we had a couple of days off. The first day off we stayed up watching stuff, slept in, and spent the day sorting out stuff, writing, and Sam made a trip to the supermarket in the capital to stock up on supplies, and returned with stories of incredible items, and brought a few back himself (crinkle cut oven chips, salt and vinegar crisps ). In the evening we went out for dinner, to celebrate our two-year anniversary. Because Jo had been on the radio back home that morning talking about her plastic challenge, we sat at our table during our romantic meal, wearing earphones plugged into my phone listening avidly to her. Amazing food.

During our second week in Roatan, we took a taxi to West Bay with Alex, a fellow DMT, to watch the fireworks for 4th July, awesome display. Then our second day off rolled around and we did much the same as the first, only I went along on the supermarket trip and it really was a highlight (fresh noodles, pesto, bagels, blue cheese… but out of stock on the salt ‘n’ vinegar crisps, disaster!).

 

 

WEEK FIVE

Well it’s been a very busy, but productive week. Monty was teaching a tec course last week, and then teaching us sidemount so he was busy, but this week he’s done a lot more Divemaster stuff, so we’ve got through a lot of our DM specific activities. On Wednesday we had a packed morning, where we went out into the bay and did several activities. We began with our rescue assessment (unconscious diver on the bottom, bring them up, assess, start rescue breaths whilst dekitting both them and yourself and towing them to shore, drag them out) and the only comment on mine was that I was giving rescue breaths roughly every 4 seconds rather than every 5, which would exhaust me faster. Next up was equipment exchange (swap all your equipment: scuba units, fins and masks whilst sharing only one regulator for breathing, ie a stress test due to being slightly low on oxygen). Did mine with Rachel and got full marks so that’s all good. Was indeed stressful, didn’t especially like the feeling of being in full scuba gear, which I equate to comfort and ease now, but only inhaling half as often as usual. Finally, we did our search and recovery (navigate using a compass, whilst searching for a small item, and then a large one which you must bring to the surface). The way they do it at Coconut Tree Divers is like a scavenger hunt: you are given a heading and a time, such as 300° for four minutes, then you find a series of weighted slates inscribed with the next heading and time. Finally you come to a ‘dropped’ tank, which you must tie up using the appropriate knots to create a cradle to clip a lift bag onto and take to the surface. All completed well, even got compliments on my navigation!

On Thursday morning we volunteered at the Marine Park (the Coconut TreeDivemaster program includes two shifts at the Park).At the office we met Giaco, the Marine Park guy who is a shark expert and was mainly responsible for getting governmental protection for sharks in Honduran waters (only the second country in the world to do so at the time, I believe), and then Christie who briefed us on our task and gave us Marine Park shirts. A park ranger and a guy from the Navy motored us round to West Bay beach (pulled up alongside a motor taxi on the way and confiscated a huge joint from a passenger) and dropped us off. It was a cruise ship day, so our task was to approach snorkellers heading into the sea and educate them not to touch anything and where the swimming channels were to take out to the reef. Because there were also a lot of touts on the beach, most people didn’t want to hear or didn’t care, so it was a pretty frustrating morning, added to by the fact that venders wandered up and down selling huge, beautiful conch shells and even dried out seahorses. A couple of guys brought along two white-faced capuchins each on a lead and the cruise shippers crowded round, delightedly having their photo taken as the monkeys climbed around their faces and arms. Although I knew that most people took part out of ignorance rather than malice, it still made me feel angry and frustrated. The whole thing felt like fighting a losing battle.

Back at the dive shop in the afternoon, Sam and I took a GoPro out into the bay and filmed our skills circuit (24 skills we have to be able to demonstrate to students if we were helping out on course). Watched the videos with Monty afterwards and got feedback, and the next afternoon he came out with us and watched/filmed us as we went through them for the final time. We both got fives (full marks) on most skills, with a handful of fours and one three. Not bad, and Monty also said we were ready quality-wise for the instructor course, so that’s positive.

I also began my dive leads. Got positive feedback on my first two, overseen by Chris, though I wouldn’t have found the boat on the second one due to a strong current, so was marked down on that. My third lead was with Ted and his feedback afterwards was positive. Overall, I found that pace was the most difficult factor; I was pretty good at pointing out things, especially after watching Molly and Gary from Little Corn, and checking air and keeping an eye on customers, but when you’re at the front the tendency to speed up, especially when searching for the boat, can be difficult to judge.

Aside from the diving aspects of the week, there were a few extra things going on. Folks at the shop rented a van one evening and sixteen or so of us drove across the island to a resort where there was an American style sports bar; think air-con, thirty screens and actually pretty tasty but mostly fried/meaty food. The event was for the UFC fights which are hardly my thing but entertaining to watch as a one off and an enjoyable evening out with the others.

That weekend mostly revolved around my birthday. I turned up at the shop on Saturday morning, to be told by Sam that I needed to get a set of gear together and put it in the back of a taxi. Slowly a few details came out: Alison had wanted to get something special for my birthday, and Gay had helped organise the event for Sam, including letting us borrow the shop camera for free, whilst Sam orchestrated the whole thing. Still didn’t know what the actual event was though. We were soon speeding along, crossing to Coxen Hole and the other side of the island. The suspicion in the back of my mind proved correct: we were heading for the famous SHARK DIVE. I was so excited that I was jiggling about in the car. We met Sergio, who was leading the dive, and three Americans who were going to be diving with us, and got our dive briefing, then we loaded up onto a small boat and headed out. Only fifteen minutes to the dive site, then we were in the water and descending down the mooring line. The current was so strong that you had to drag yourself down the line. When we came to the sea bed, at about 21m/70ft, we all knelt. Several Caribbean Reef Sharks were circling around us already, and after a few minutes Sergio indicated that we could swim among them. As Sam and I were more experienced than the other divers, he let us swim among them for a while, and Jesus Christ was it an incredible experience. There were so many individuals cruising around us, and we could get so close that I could see their eyes follow me as they passed by, see the pores around their eyes and head which they use for smell, all these tiny, beautiful details. Then Sergio gave us another signal, and we returned to kneel in the sand patch and he opened the small bucket of chum (because I was concerned about the effects of chum when the dive had been mentioned before, Sam took the effort to go see Giaco beforehand and talk it over to ask his opinion on the negative effects of feeding them, which he cleared). For about forty seconds, there was a frenzy as they all crowded around the bucket, and I managed to count eighteen of them, though it was by no means an easy task with the movement going on. After the chum was all gone they slowly drifted away, though as we ascended up the line again, there were still several hanging about. An unbelievable experience.

The next morning, I was served a fry-up by Sam for breakfast (including ‘vegetarian’ Heinz Baked Beans, as the can sold them, bought from the big supermarket), and ate whilst listening to a collection of voice messages he had got together from family and friends. Made me feel very special and incredibly loved. Many made me laugh, and it was so good to hear people’s voices. Sam’s present to me was a collection of photos he had selected from the months since he joined me, to make either into a collage or print out to put together.

We went along on the morning dives, and dived sidemount. A bit of an illness made me slightly distracted but I enjoyed myself, though by the end of the second dive when I had breathed most of the gas in both tanks, they were so much lighter that they were floating upwards and getting in the way of finning. Felt pretty shitty by the end of the day, flushed up and not very well, been working eight days in a row, and before that we did another eight day stint, so I really needed rest. We went to Sundowners bar, the after work haunt of the Coconut Tree staff, for a while after work to hang out with some of the others and Sam got drunk very quickly, then we walked home (higglydepiggledy for one of us!) and he showered to sober himself up a bit, then we headed out to the thai place for my birthday meal out. Delicious pad thai and red curry. Could hardly stay awake when we got back.

A good night of sleep and a day off did me wonders. Ended up not doing much on the day off, just a lot of practical jobs: cleaned the apartment, dropped off laundry, wrote, selected photos for the blog. Then we made a trip to Eldons supermarket. Amazing quite how exciting food can be. Dinner was blue cheese Portobello mushrooms with green beans and roast potatoes (the potatoes were a special request from me) and it was taaaasty. The day was rounded off with a viewing of Frozen.

 

Diary of a Divemaster-in-Training: Nicaragua

PART ONE: LITTLE CORN ISLAND, NICARAGUA

Week One

At Managua airport, we hugged goodbye to mum and dad and watched them go through immigration until they were out of sight. Then we left the swanky, glassy international terminal and walked next door to the small, shabby building which served as the terminal for national flights. A few hours later, we flew from Managua to Big Corn Island (not as tiny and rickety a plane as you might think) and the next day, we caught a panga and crossed to Little Corn. The only available seats by the time we arrived were at the front of the boat, so we had an absolutely spine-thudding journey as the boat leapt through the waves, like trying to ride the wildest horse of them all and jarring with each buck.

We arrived at the Little Corn pier and disembarked, avoiding the touters advertising hostels, snorkelling tours and free drinks. Once we’d loaded ourselves with our backpacks, we set off along the concrete walkway (no vehicles on this island), and wandered along the shorefront amid the few restaurants and bars. The sea was mottled, with patches of bright turquoise and darker blue where the bottom was rocky or covered in sea grass or reef. Wandered into one and then the other dive shop. The second one, Dolphin Dive, appealed more: the staff answered our questions more fully and we liked the look of the operation. Adam, the manager, helped us find accommodation (our requests being a kitchen, to keep food cheap, and not a backpacker place) in the house of the two divemasters who worked there, Molly (English) and Gary (local), who shortly afterwards arrived back from a dive. Both really friendly, Gary took us back to their house to check it out and I quickly realised he has one of the heartiest, most infectious laughs of anyone I have ever met. Their kitchen has an oven (!) and the house is very spacious. They also have two dogs, a big fluffy sandy-coloured shepherd called Simba (aptly named, I immediately drew a line across his forehead and said ‘Simbaaa’ in as low a voice as I could manage), and an island dog (no official breed but they’re everywhere here) called Gypsy. The house is on the southern tip of the island, where it’s very quiet and most of the houses around belong to Gary’s family (he pointed in various directions, picking out his brother and dad in two houses across the way, his aunt and cousin to one side…). Seemed like it would be a lovely place to stay.

Very strange to be in a place where more or less everyone speaks and understands English, albeit Creole English, so the accent will take some getting used to. Absolutely love it though. By this time, Sam had already said out loud to me that he wondered if this would be a good place to begin our divemaster qualification. Within another hour, once we had sat down and had a smoothie in a restaurant overlooking the sea and talked it over a bit, including finances and other aspects, we decided to stay. (The extra deciding factors for me included a lending library in the village, which meant I couldn’t possibly run out of books and the two pet dogs. Yes, these things make a difference.) An odd feeling! We arrived expecting to be here a week before moving on north, and suddenly we were starting our diving internship the next day, didn’t know the first thing about where to get food supplies, and hadn’t even walked around the whole island yet.

The next day we began. I had fewer than the forty dives needed to start the qualification, so I spent the first few days getting my dives up by going out on a lot of the fun dives with Molly and Gary and groups of certified divers. Quickly realised that it is a great place to dive frequently: a lot of coral, many species of fish, stingrays, and resident nurse sharks. On my first dive, with Gary, a HUGE nurse shark passed over the reef, at least two metres long. Haven’t seen one that size for the rest of the week, but the smaller ones, especially at specific sites, follow the dive group around, swimming very close, turning over in the sand, swimming right at me sometimes before curving away at the last moment. Have seen long black moray eels, dotted with white, large shoals of different species, often Yellowtail Snappers, and several Southern Stingrays sat on the bottom and covered in sand so that only their tails and eyes/gills are visible.

Meanwhile, Sam helped out on some courses with the student divers. I joined in towards the end of the week when my assistance was more needed and I had reached forty dives, and spent several days assisting on try dives for people who have never dived before and wanna try it out. Quickly realised how much patience teaching and assisting requires. Although it is enjoyable to help people, and I know that it appeals a lot to Sam, during the dives our attention is so focussed on the students that the diving isn’t about the reef or the wildlife, or the joy of diving, it is about being a focussed, careful assistant. Watching two episodes from an AMAZING BBC wildlife series called ‘Shark’ in the evenings made me think about what I want from diving in the future: definitely want to use the diving to try and get experience in research diving and conservation.

 

Other than these activities, we spent every evening studying the Divemaster manual, a chapter a day ending with a knowledge review we had to fill in, which we then went through the following day with Adam. Absolutely exhausted, in bed by half nine most nights, ready to be up and at the shop by half seven or eight the next morning.

After a few days, we also did our first inwater part of the course: the skill circuit. Steph, an instructor who has been teaching here for five years, took us to the confined area (shallow water) used for teaching, and we ran through a number of demonstrations that Sam and I need to be able to perform, should we need to assist student divers (like regulator replacement, mask clearing, out of air situations, buoyancy check etc etc). There are twenty plus skills we will need to be able to demonstrate clearly and simply, most of them underwater. There were a few surface skills, such as equipment set up, so we had to pretend we were instructing new divers, rather than each other and an instructor with a lot of experience, and demonstrate putting together the gear. Seeing as I’m not a fan of public speaking, I had to just ignore the weird set up and do it. Good feedback from Steph for both of us. Also had a couple of comments at the end of the weekend to the effect that we have done a lot for our first week, so I think we are working pretty hard and doing ok.

With no days off (out of choice, we wanna get into it a bit more first) we haven’t had time to explore the island any more than the necessary places. Have learnt that a supplies boat comes over from Big Corn every Saturday, so that is the day to buy anything fresh, mostly vegetables. Sam went over to Big Corn at the weekend to get money out, and came back with an absolute TREAT: three blocks of cheddar! It was American cheddar but hey, on an island with only salty local cheese that is a MASSIVE treat, never mind after a complete lack of cheddar for many months. He also brought back a huge bottle of olive oil. Only been a week and already these things are exciting. I have also learnt to bake bread (check out the domestic goddess), so every three days or so I have taken to baking a loaf to eat for breakfast and as snacks. I get Sam to knead the dough as my painful wrists make it difficult, plus the better the kneading, the lighter the bread comes out.

There is a strange vibe to the island, I haven’t yet worked it out. For such a small community (about 1000 people or so I was told, 500 or so are original Creole islanders, then a fair number of Hispanic immigrants from the mainland, plus foreigners who have permanently settled here), there don’t seem to be really strong familial ties. Maybe I am viewing this through the lens of a comparison with the family units in Cyprus and expecting that such a small community would be similar in that way. When I talked to Molly about this, she said it was partly cultural but also that cocaine has a huge influence on the island. It is apparently so readily available, and messes up a lot of friendships, families, destroys loyalty etc. A number of foreigners have described arriving on the island meaning only to stay a short while (like us) and then staying for ages, and many are repeat returners, visiting for several months a year. Some have even bought land and moved here, more or less permanently, doing visa runs to Bluefields (costal town on the mainland) every three months, then longer visa runs out of the country (usually across the border into Costa Rica for like twenty minutes then back) every six months. This influx has such an array of consequences, positive and negative, that it is difficult to untangle in my head. There is a LOT of crime, within the first week alone: robbery of a couple, also staying in Molly and Gary’s house, their bags were taken from behind their heads on a beach, an instructor from the dive shop was physically assaulted as she walked home and we heard rumours of the rape of a tourist. And the gossip just seems to circulate and morph and each story has several versions and it is difficult to work out where the truth begins and end, if indeed the truth ends up relating to ‘reality’ at all in the end. Fidelity also seems to be a hazy thing. I have heard that a lot of married local men have flings with tourist girls who either don’t realise that the men are married or don’t care.

But on the other hand, it is a palm-tree-strewn, small gem of an island, and especially when I am diving, or walking back and forth to the house chatting to Sam and looking out to sea and around us, I feel happy to be here. The simpler way of life certainly has its benefits.

 

Week Two

Week two was off to a slow start, with two days off because I was ill. I had a blocked nose and was basically congested, and seeing as this can be dangerous for diving, I had to sit it out. Went along to the dive shop and helped to translate for a Nicaraguan student taking a course, and helped out with assembling and breaking down gear, but other than that just felt frustrated that I was missing out.

On the Wednesday evening, we went out with Molly, Gary and a few others to a local restaurant, where a couple of wandering hippies who make up the group Los Arsonistas (The Arsonists) performed an awesome fire show.

The first dive I did when I had recovered more than made up for the two days off. We came to the surface at the end of the dive, to hear the captain yelling that dolphins were heading towards the boat, so we stayed in the water. Only a couple of minutes later, seven individuals, including a baby, swam into sight, gliding around us, playing with each other and coming quite close. Absolutely incredible moment. We all got into the boat and set off back towards shore, and the pod rejoined us, swimming really close alongside the bow, so we all put our masks and fins back on and jumped into the water. This time they were even closer, and as I was so massively keen, I was swimming out in front and got a really good look, especially at one individual who turned to watch me. There were a total of sixteen individuals by now, who swam below us, wrestling playfully with each other whilst keeping an eye on us, then would swim up to the surface ahead and curve out of the water for air. If I could have told my child self that I would get to swim with bottlenose dolphins in the wild when I was older, I wouldn’t have believed it.

On Friday and Saturday I interned on an Advanced Course, which meant shadowing an instructor as she taught and carried out the course. The Advanced Course is made up of five adventure dives, plus a knowledge review for each dive to be completed in the accompanying manual. I especially enjoyed the peak performance buoyancy dive. It was just the instructor, the one student and me, and we took a few weights and a big square made of plastic piping down to about twelve metres and did various exercises to improve buoyancy, which included different fin movements to increase efficiency, hovering, and swimming through the square in a number of different ways, including upside down which was pretty disorientating. Good fun though, and showed up a few cracks in my own skills which I can improve on, though also showed to me that I am more competent even in ten days. It has got to the point where even just breathing, suspended in the water, has become a joy, that pure, effortless weightlessness is almost addictive. Never mind the incredible wildlife and marine scenery, simply the act of diving is amazing.

By Friday, we had finished reading the Divemaster manual and completed all the knowledge reviews, so did Part One of the exam. All went well, I got 57/60, and Sam got 100%, the smug thing!

Saturday began unremarkably. We then heard the news that a hammerhead shark had been spotted during a dive by the other dive shop at a site off the eastern side of the island. Incredibly exciting, especially considering there has been one confirmed sighting in the last eighteen months (apparently they used to be common but now are incredibly rare, most likely due to being fished). I had to accompany the final Advanced Course dive, but Sam went off with a group to the same site. He was swimming out front of the group and saw the hammerhead glide past him, as well as a group of twenty plus eagle rays which ‘flew’ above him. I was VERY jealous when he told me, more than made up for him missing the dolphins, and though we went on an afternoon dive to the same site to try search for the hammerhead, it was no longer there. Everyone was so keen to see it that the dive group consisted of four customers and six of us members of staff. It was a site called Tarpon Channel, an eerie place, about twenty metres deep, two walls of rock rising on either side of the deep blue. Not much to see by the way of wildlife. As we made our five metre safety stop at the end of the dive, Gary waved a tiny plastic hammerhead shark attached to his BCD jacket at me, then once on the surface made me smile as he laughed uproariously and told me that at least I’d seen one underwater.

The famous photo: fuzzy blur to the right is Sam, fuzzy blur to the right is the hammerhead shark

The famous photo: fuzzy blur to the right is Sam, fuzzy blur to the left is the hammerhead shark

Sunday was our first proper day off. I spent the morning writing and reading and doing other exciting life admin things like laundry. Sam and I then taught Molly and Gary an Israeli card game which we have picked up during our travels. They call their place the Game House because they like board games and card games so much, so it went down a real treat. We played amid preparation for a veggie roast dinner, which when served was delicious: one large Yorkshire pudding divided between us all, carrots done the way my dad does them, cabbage, and rosemary roast potatoes topped off with veggie gravy. We rounded off the day by watching the final part of the BBC Shark series. Dr Andrea Marshall, the top manta ray scientist who I met in Ecuador featured a lot, was odd to see her on screen.

Veggie roast dinner, with Molly, Gary and our two lovely housemates Ben and Ping

Veggie roast dinner, with Molly, Gary and our two housemates Ben and Ping

Instead of allowing me to rest, the day off brought out an illness. I became completely bunged up again, and thought we gave ourselves a really good night’s sleep, I woke up on Monday and decided that if I really wanted to get better I had to not go into the dive shop, so that I wouldn’t be tempted to go diving, especially if they were returning to the site where the hammerhead was spotted. When I headed in to use the internet, I took one look at Sam’s face and knew that I had missed it again. Really upset.

Over the next few days we got talking to Birgit, one of the instructors. She had great things to say about the dive shop on Roatán, an island off the coast of Honduras, where she did her Divemaster training and instructor course. The diving is in a Marine Park, and has completely different topography, with a lot of diving along the wall created by the drop-off into the deep blue. As the island sounded larger (well most anywhere is larger than Little Corn), there would also be a greater range of diving experience, including tec diving and various specialties. We pondered it for a while then decided that it sounded like a great place to finish off our DMT to broaden our range of diving experience. Without booking anything in advance, we said our goodbyes to Molly, Gary, the two dogs and our new friends and left Little Corn on a morning panga.

From Relaxation to Revolution

After the volcanic episodes of Part One of mum and dad’s visit to Nicaragua, we stayed in the colonial city of Granada for a few days. It was a small city, its streets narrow and lined with colonial houses painted in pastel colours, topped with traditional red tiles and decorated with carved wooden balconies. Most of our exploring consisted of wandering around, but we also did the touristy thing of taking a tour of the historic city centre and the lakeside promenade in a horse-drawn carriage. Then we departed and headed for unknown horizons.

Nicaragua has had a complicated, often bloody, history, and the last several decades have seen a lot of political and social change. Apart from a few expat spots, tourism is still generally in its infancy, with little in the way of infrastructure and development to support it at the moment. If you don’t speak Spanish, several of the places we next visited would be extremely difficult to get to and enjoy if travelling independently. This was where Sam and I came into our own; after months of travelling through Latin America, our Spanish was at a decent level and this underdeveloped tourism would simply mean more of a challenge, and hopefully a greater reward.

Still, as we bounced around in a shabby local bus (part of this challenge meant opting for local transport rather than infinitely easier option of domestic flights), I looked over at mum and dad to see how they were taking things. They had chosen the six hour bus journey from the capital city of Managua to reach the port town of San Carlos at the southern end of Lake Nicaragua. If the seats were a little hard, the entertainment more than made up for things, the highlight being what I can only describe as a catwalk of venders at one stop: dozens of venders marched onto the bus selling all manner of (mostly edible) goods, unleashing a cacophony of catchphrases and bargain prices, and piling on in such great numbers, that someone had to open a hatch at the back so that they could all stream off again.

We arrived in San Carlos and found accommodation for the night, and the next morning caught a small launch from the jetty, travelling downstream along the San Juan River. Officers decked out in faded blue uniforms, Nicaraguan Navy I presume, presided over the embarking process, ensuring that all luggage was packed onto the boat well and that each person had a lifejacket. The engine started up and we set off down the river, then it was as though an unspoken signal had been given: no sooner had we turned a bend and were out of sight of the pier, every single person took off their lifejacket and tucked it into the roof racks. Every single person except mum and dad that is, who were perfectly content to sit there bulging slightly for the rest of the journey.

 

Messing Around on the River

A couple of hours later we docked in El Castillo, a small settlement built into the fairly steep bank of the river. It didn’t take us long to explore. Our hotel was at one end of the village, looking out across the rapids of the shallow river, whilst the fort after which the place was named, sat on a hillock at the other end. They were joined in between by a narrow concrete walkway, lined on either side with restaurants, shops and houses on stilts. Though there did seem to be a kind of tourist infrastructure here, by way of several guesthouses and tourist-aimed restaurants, we saw only a handful of foreign tourists in our several days there. Apparently the place usually attracted national tourists, though we didn’t see many of them either.

That first evening, we visited the fort. The fort was small but had a fascinating history; for centuries before the Panama Canal was built, the interconnected rivers and lakes of Nicaragua acted as a Pan-American thoroughfare with which to traverse Central America, which meant that the fort was very strategically located and susceptible to pirate attacks. It did indeed offer a great view both up and downstream, as well as over the village and the farmland and forest on the opposite bank.

The next morning, we met Orlando, our local guide for the day. We all climbed into a small boat and travelled a short way downstream. Shortly after leaving El Castillo, the land on the same bank became Costa Rica, the river acting as the border between the two countries.

We disembarked at the edge of the Indio Maiz Reserve. Only two small areas of the vast reserve are accessible to tourists; only scientists and researchers can venture further. For the next few hours, Orlando led us around a trail which ran for several kilometres through the rainforest. He pointed out medicinal plants, a highlight being the Mimosa leaf he gave each of us to chew, to test out its anaesthetic properties. Sam and I were less cautious than mum and dad and happily chewed away, until our mouths suddenly felt fuzzy and numb and started producing more saliva than was manageable, so we walked along spitting out for a good few minutes. We spotted several beautiful species of frog along the way, including the tiny red and blue Strawberry poison-dart frog. Right at the end of the route, we ran into a troupe of howler monkeys, who were so unconcerned by our presence that we could stand beneath them, mere metres away, as they foraged for food, called to each other, and flopped around languorously in the branches. This incredible experience was topped off by a swim in the stream, during which a lone, probably male, spider monkey came crashing down through the branches until he was close enough to peer at us. He sat watching us for the duration of our swimming stop, which we mostly spent watching him back.

That afternoon, we moved from El Castillo to a wooden riverside cabin further downstream. There were only four rooms available to begin with, but we were the only guests, so besides the caretaker’s family we had the place entirely to ourselves. The afternoon was therefore spent in quiet bliss, reading, writing or simply sitting and watching the river flow past. As darkness fell, fireflies began flashing in the long grass. Dad and Sam used the light of a couple of faint bulbs to play a game from my dad’s childhood which involved stones on a board and a fair amount of strategic thinking.

The next morning, we were supplied with two canoes, paddles and lifejackets, and merrily rowed our way downstream and along a small stream through the reserve. As I am notoriously bad at rowing, Sam did most of the work, enhancing the romance of the beautiful setting by rapping the Fresh Prince of Belair in a BBC English accent for my entertainment.

When we got back to El Castillo that evening, we raced to the reception to use the incredibly slow internet connection to check out the results of the national election back home. An air of disappointment accompanied our dinner that evening.

 

Island Bliss

We caught the small launch back from El Castillo to San Carlos, and on the same day, took an even smaller boat out to the Solentiname Islands, an archipelago of thirty-six islands clumped together in the southern end of Lake Nicaragua. The journey was only an hour, but the waves were against us, and as Sam and I were sat in the front row, we received a drenching.

We landed on Mancarrón, one of the most inhabited islands; next to the pier there was a ‘town’, with the excessive population of forty-five people. As there were no vehicles or roads on the islands, we carried and pulled our bags around the narrow concrete walkway to view a couple of potential places to stay. We settled on a wooden cabin, whose several rooms could hold about fifteen guests but as we were the only ones staying there we essentially had private accommodation with a lake view, and, as we found out the next morning, a full breakfast spread served beneath a thatched roof only a few metres from the water’s edge.

For a couple of days, we simply relaxed and explored the island. The main vocation of the town’s people was as artisans of the very lightweight balsa wood, which they carved into objects and painted, so that as we wandered along the path past the few houses which made up the town, we saw tables laid with colourful creations, often depicting local animals, such as toucans, parrots and turtles. A local artisan acted as our guide, and led us through the dry forest outside the town, climbing up the mount there until we found a break in the trees and had a lovely view across the lake and a few surrounding islands. We also popped into the one room museum, with its collection of indigenous stone and ceramic objects, and the whitewashed church, with its bright murals of animals and plants of the island. In the evenings, we ate at another hotel, which seemed to have only one guest despite its fairly extensive grounds. The food was amazing, three courses made from the limited supplies grown on the island or brought over from San Carlos, each time different and always tasty.

After a couple of days we wanted to explore more of the archipelago, so we hired a small local boat, complete with captain, to transport us between islands. We passed Isla de Padre, where a troupe of Mantled Howler Monkeys sleepily peered at us from the top branches of the forest, and continued on to Isla Venada, where we pulled into a small bay, fringed by a cluster of basic houses. We had come to this island to particularly visit this village: its population was comprised of three generations of the Arellano family, a family of artists headed by Rodolfo Arellano, who all painted in the primitivism style, depicting the wildlife and landscape of the Solentiname Islands. Rodolfo had taught a number of his children who taught their children, so as we walked from house to house we met several Arellanos, and chatted to them as we admired their collections of work. Although it was all the same style, if you looked carefully you could see how the work of each artist differed: the details, the use of colour, the animals they included. The pieces were beautiful, so incredibly detailed that the longer you looked at each one, the more you noticed. Finally we came to the house of Rodolfo himself, who was now confined to a wheelchair, but was still painting and warmly welcomed us in to look at his work. Dad was particularly struck by one of his pieces, a depiction of the island of Mancarrón where we were staying, so soon he was the lucky owner of a painting by the great man himself.

We got back into the boat, with much waving and thank yous, and drove around to the other end of the island and moored. As we clambered over the rocks to look into a small cave, a huge iguana came crashing through the undergrowth, fell into the water and swam away hurriedly. Along the walls of the cave, now home to many bats, we could see the faint traces of pre-Colombian petroglyphs carved by the indigenous of the island.

For lunch we stopped by San Fernando Island. We were the only customers in a beautiful restaurant overlooking the beach and several other close islands. After eating, we followed the path running through the village and up a steep slope until we came to a small museum. It contained an eclectic mix of very large, incredibly beautiful, collaborative pieces painted by several members of the Arellano family, diagrams and photos of petroglyphs found across the islands, and other artefacts, both older and modern, relating to the Solentiname way of life, such as old fishing canoes.

On the way back to the port, we looked around a workshop, with a collection of Arellano work at one end, and balsa wood pieces at the other, the tables laid out chock-a-block full of colourful animals and objects, the walls covered. Finally, our short tour complete, our captain motored us back to Mancarrón island and our wooden cabin.

 

Religion and Revolution

After a few days staying on the Solentiname Islands, we made the return boat journey to San Carlos and from there caught a bus back around the lake to Managua. This time we added on an extra stretch north from Managua, to reach the city of León. On recommendation from a couple we had previously met, we stayed in a small posada, a guesthouse in a colonial building which had been in the family of the owner for more than a hundred years.

The heat in León, much like everywhere else during our wanderings through Nicaragua, was not conducive to a lot of activity, so our sightseeing was spread over several days. We began with an amble through the historic city centre, then returned to the main square and entered the large white cathedral in the hopes that we would spot where to buy tickets to climb its bell tower. A service seemed to be in full swing, and the queue for communion stretched all through the knave, several hundred people long. We spotted where to buy tickets and left the crowds to climb the tower. We emerged at the top, right beside several large bells and were asked to take our shoes off and told not to walk on the domes. Odd instructions considering we didn’t really know what was going on, but we followed the steps around a bend and found spread beneath us the bright white roof of the whole cathedral. It was a surreal landscape, dreamlike and glowingly white, and great fun to wander around, the views in all directions splendid. When we looked down in the main square, crowds were gathering, and just as we wandered back into the bell tower, several boys began ringing the bells, the vibrations so loud that my head buzzed.

By the time we climbed back down the tower, the communion queue was so long that it snaked several times through the cathedral then out its front doors. One of us clicked that the celebrations were in aid of the beatification of John Paul II, and indeed, that evening after dinner when we walked through the main square again, there were crowds stood on either side of the road as a procession and marching band slowly made its way through. Like any interested tourists, we gathered to one side to have a look, and several minutes later a news camera crew came along, filming the crowd’s reaction as the procession passed through. The cameraman lingered on mum and I, and then I made the fatal mistake of answering the question ‘Do you speak Spanish?’ with a yes. Suddenly the camera light was on me and a presenter was asking me questions and holding out microphone, and the locals around me were giggling and pointing as they realised a news interview was happening right in front of them. As the procession filed into the cathedral, fireworks began bursting overhead, and we were treated to a long display before we decided to head for home.

Our sightseeing continued the next day with a visit to the Museum of the Revolution. We found the museum on one side of the main square, an old building with a small group of elderly men sat on the steps leading in, all former revolutionary fighters during the overthrow of the Somoza regime during the 70s. We were introduced to Ricardo Lopez who gave us a tour of the place. The walls of the downstairs room were covered in faded photographs and information boards which Ricardo used to talk us through the events of the twentieth century, leading to the downfall of the dictatorial regime of president Samosa in 1979. There was even a photograph of Ricardo himself, armed and peering around the corner of a building during the fighting.

After the downstairs tour, Ricardo led us up a grand staircase, past what were formerly offices of Samosa’s military, and up onto the roof. We carefully trod along the corrugated iron and gazed at the view around us, as he explained what happened at various points of interest across the city during the revolution. As we left the museum I sat down amongst the former revolutionary fighters, who were keen for a photograph, especially with what my mum referred to as ‘a young lady’.

On our final day, we headed for the coast and spent the day on the beach. The waves were ferocious, and dad, Sam and I had great fun playing in the shallows, being tossed and pulled about. Mum sat reading and watching us under a thatched roof constructed on the beach for sun cover, surrounded by beach dogs. We watched the glowing sunset, then headed to the second floor of a restaurant bar for a drink.

 

And with that, the three weeks were up. The next day we hugged mum and dad goodbye in Managua Airport, watching and waving until they were through immigration and out of sight. It seemed very quiet with just the two of us after all the chatter of the last few weeks. We swung our backpacks onto our backs and headed for the small, somewhat shabbier domestic terminal.

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The Volcano Series

Once across the Costa Rican border and into Nicaragua, we could feel that prickle of excitement that comes with a new, unexplored country. The roads were dustier than in Costa Rica, the countryside drier, the people browner. Old American school buses, straight out of The Simpsons, but patterned with clashingly bright colours and pasted with religious verses and pictures, ferried the population between towns, groaning and bulging with crowds of locals. We climbed aboard one of these ancient specimens and made our way into the city of Granada, and from there we searched for the hotel that my mum had mentioned in an email. We found it only one block from the main plaza, a beautiful ochre colonial building arranged around a small courtyard filled with a paddling-pool sized swimming pool and outdoor kitchen.

The next day was spent waiting in the thick, burning heat, until darkness fell and a taxi picked us up. An hour later, we were stood in the arrivals area of the airport. I was so excited that I could barely keep still and instead leapt about, much to the confused amusement of other people waiting around us. After only a few minutes, mum and dad came through the doors, wheeling their luggage and looking around for familiar faces. Our reunion hug carried the weight of several months apart.

The day after my parents arrived, they handed me several notes from Jo, my sister. They had me laughing, and nearly crying too, and culminated in the unwrapping of Substitute Jo: two photos of her face in a protective plastic folder attached to a length of string, so that I could wear her around my neck wherever I went and include her in family photos. This may sound embarrassing to some of you, but I wore Substitute Jo with pride, hardly noticing the strange looks, and took her with us everywhere.

As we soon found out, Nicaragua is the land of volcanoes. The first ten days of the holiday with my mum and dad were a series of episodic experiences as we moved between a few of these, and so I present you with: The Volcano Series.

 

Episode One: Ometepe

We left the city of Granada and arrived at the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Each clutching a small sandwich bag of orange juice freshly squeezed from a roadside cart, we boarded a ferry and headed for the island of Ometepe. As we glided towards it, its topography struck me; two volcanoes rose out of the water. Both volcanoes were conical, and the larger was still active, a column of smoke forming into clouds above its peak. When I opened the guidebook to look at a map of the island, I realised that it was a figure of eight shape, with the entire 30,000 people of its population living in a series of towns and villages around the narrow base of the volcanoes.

The two volcanoes of Ometepe island

When we arrived on Ometepe, a taxi drove us around the base of the northern, active volcano and crossed to the base of the southern volcano. Because we were travelling with mum and dad, we guessed that the luxury level would be upped a bit in comparison to our usual backpacker standards, and on Ometepe this came in the form of Finka del Sol, an Eco farm. Sam and I were led to a round adobe cabin, painted yellow and with a thatched roof. A short way up the path, mum and dad were looking around their own blue cabin. We were shown how the compost toilets worked (scoops of rice husks acted as a substitute or flushing, surprisingly it worked a treat!), informed that the water dispenser was filled from a volcano spring, and told that as it was sunny at the moment, there was plenty of solar-powered electricity to go round. We went on a wander around the small farm, through a fenced off area for goats and sheep, kept to make cheese, where we ran into a passing troupe of howler monkeys, and up to the breakfast spot, next to the owners’ own, larger, adobe cabin and separate kitchen hut, where hummingbirds flitted between large red hibiscus blooms and blue jays called out to each other with a distinctive warbled call.

Whilst mum and dad got over their jet lag and let the hustle and bustle of their working lives drift away, we had a few lazy days. Not that we had any other alternative: the heat was overpowering, almost unbearable. By only ten o’clock each morning it was at least 35°C, and I don’t want to know what temperatures it reached by the middle of the day. It was all we could do to sit still and breathe in the heat. We managed to make it down to the nearby sandy beach a couple of times and drift about in the cooling waters of the lake. It was an odd sight to see horses drinking from the shores of what otherwise looked like the seaside. We had an unpleasant incident during our second beach session: in the time between dad getting into the water and Sam and I getting out and walking towards our bags, someone managed to pull dad’s backpack behind a rock and take his iPhone and iPod. Sam and I must have unwittingly disturbed the thief(s) before they could strip away everything, because they also took odd small items like sun cream and a penknife, but hadn’t yet got to a couple of other valuable items, including Sam’s DSLR camera sat among our stuff. All things considered, we were lucky really.

After a couple of days, we arranged to go for a walk through the cloud forest which ascended up Maderas, the southern volcano. As I prepared for the walk, I pulled on my right walking shoe and felt a searing needle of pain pierce through my right big toe. Ripping off my shoe, I began howling with pain as I gripped my big toe, completely unaware that my face was streaming with tears. I should say that the culprit who delivered the sting, a scorpion, was not a lethal species and I didn’t need medical attention. It was, however, bloody excruciating. I sat there, unaware of the ghastly sound I was making, clutching my toe for a good half an hour, until the pain began to subside and I could just about walk on it. I managed to get a look at the translucent brown creature when I extracted it from my shoe and released it into the grass and, despite the pain it had caused me, had to admit it was pretty damn cool, even its long, mean sting. Unsurprisingly, I had to skip the walk. Sam, mum and dad came back with reports of another encounter with howler monkeys as well as a sighting of white faced capuchin monkeys. I meanwhile spent the morning interspersing my writing with two minute showers, followed by drip drying, a feeble attempt to cope with the heat of the oven that the world had become.

 

Episode Two: Mombacho

After several days unwinding and cooking in the heat of Ometepe island, we crossed the lake back to the mainland and returned to Granada for a few days. Episode Two of the Volcano Series featured Mombacho, and began with a short taxi ride out of the city. We were dropped off in the car park at the base, and driven up the side of the volcano in a huge 4×4 truck, to the visitor centre, where we realised that the whole volcano was privately owned by an award winning coffee company, and that the research centre had been partly, funded by the British government.

From the centre, we set out along a trail through the cloud forest, circling one of the craters. We were led by a guide, who chatted to us about the ecosystem whilst pointing out its flora and fauna, such as the spikey bromeliad plants growing along the branches and in the nooks of certain trees, or the Monkey tail fern, the tallest fern in the world. We paused at a number of wooden platforms to peer through the trees and across the crater, which was thickly draped in a layer of tumbling green foliage. Midway along the route, we emerged in grassy meadows filled with a number of bright orchids species, with stunning views across Granada, Lake Nicaragua, and Las Islas, hundreds of tiny islands scattered like fragments into the huge lake. A small path to one side led to a steam vent, where hot sulphurous steam from the neighbouring active crater rose out of the grassy vegetation, steaming up dad’s glasses. Near the end of the circuit, our guide spotted a two-toed sloth up in a tree, languorously turning its head from side to side as it chomped on leaves.

As we sat waiting for the next 4×4 to take us back down the volcano, our guide came running to tell us that she had found several red-eyed tree frogs around a small pond behind the visitor centre. We excitedly followed to have a look, and found several of these beautiful creatures, vivid green with bright red eyes. The males had blue patterns on their hind legs which could only been seen if they stretched or jumped. We hung around watching them until the next 4×4 arrived.

 

Episode Three: Masaya

Towards the end of the first week of mum and dad’s holiday, both mum and Sam became quite ill, so we took things slowly for a day or so, and when we went for Volcano Round Three, we took the easier option and hired a taxi for the day.

Hector, our taxi driver, began by driving us to El Coyotepe Fort, on the edge of the Masaya Volcano calderas. The watchtowers at each corner of the structure gave us great views across to the peak of Masaya volcano as well as across the town of Masaya, built in the basin.

Maderas volcano

Though the fort was built in the 1890s, its history was overshadowed by its later use. From 1944-79, while Nicaragua was under the dictatorial regime of the Somoza family, the fort as adapted, with several underground floors built so that it could be used as a prison and torture camp. Hector led us around three underground floors of concrete cells, faint blood stains on the walls of the torture rooms still discernible and words and phrases scratched into the walls, such as ‘only Jesus Christ can save me now’. Bats now inhabited the deserted cells and flitted around our heads as we walked through the prison. The place left me sombre and quiet for a while, as we drove away and towards the peaks of Masaya.

We began at the Masaya Visitor Centre. There were a number of interesting aerial models of the site, as well as Nicaragua as a whole, which put into perspective the two chains of volcanoes strung across the country. We then drove up to one of the four craters. It was an active crater, belching out a thick haze of sulphurous fumes. These were so strong that visitors were only allowed to stay up there for ten minutes each, and even then, we spent most of that time madly coughing as we stared down into the thick white steam. The sides descended into the shifting haze but the bottom of the crater wasn’t visible.

After visiting the peak, we drove into the town of Masaya, and wandered a large market of local artisan crafts, then headed to a viewpoint close by which looked down across Lake Apoyo. With a depth of three hundred metres, it is the deepest lake in Central America, a vivid circle of blue, held in the bowl of several mountainous peaks.

To round off our tour of the Masaya Volcano area, we stopped by San Juan de Oriente, a village known for its handmade pottery. We climbed down some concrete steps and found ourselves in a smoky, dark workshop. In one corner a fire blazed away, heating a kiln. Besides a wooden table littered with pots of bright paint, a woman carefully drew a design onto a large bowl. Upstairs, the shop was stocked with many beautiful pieces; vases, bowls, and pots glazed with different colours, intricate patterns carved into their surface depicting local people and animals.

 

Nicaragua threw a fair few challenges our way those first ten days, ranging from a robbery on the beach to a scorpion sting, from two people struck down ill to a mini flood in our hotel (the rainy season started one night and was intent on proving to us exactly how it got its name). But as we travelled between the volcanoes, the country slowly began to draw me in and intoxicate me, with its landscape, its people, its rougher, unpolished feel, its complications and clamour.