THEY SAY THAT Utila grows on you. It doesn't. I had a trio of good mates there who kept me sane, but if I hadn't already paid for my dive instructor course, then I'd have left after a week. The Bognors hadheaded up here while I'd stayed behind in Antigua, and the title of this tale comes from Kim's emailed description of the place. It ain't pretty. They'd expected somewhere a little more picturesque; as had I. But as you disembark from the ferry and walk down to the main intersection of Utila town, you see exactly what Kim meant. There are huge plastic dustbins on every corner, usually with the odd stray dog trying to tip it over to see what's rotting inside. Turn left and the road takes you past a patchof wasteland on which sit an ancient rusting bulldozer and an abandoned tractor, overgrown with weeds. The gutters are open, and filled with grotty-looking land crabs. This road eventually leads to thebeach (of sorts) which is hardly Ipanema. Turn tight at the intersection, and a long road takes you past a variety of cafes, two-bit restaurants and plenty of dive shops. Locals and tourists alike tear up and down this strip on scooters and ATVs. I'm surprised no-one is killed, especially at night. The nicest and quietest part of town lies straight ahead from the junction, with more Spanish-speaking locals and the only decent bar on the island, Treetanic. I was to spend most of my time there.
The arrival on the island is a feeding frenzy of dive shop employees eager for your business. It's never pleasant having peopleoverwhelm you when you have just disembarked after a rough journey, but it's the nature of the beast, I suppose. Utila is the second biggest training centre for divers in the world, after Koh Tao in Thailand. The latter is a far nicer place to hang out; you can get a green curry, for a start...and the grass is far superior. I spotted my name on a board amongst the throng, and headed for the cute Hondureña holding it. She led me to a waiting minibus, and we were ferried to our accomodation before being taken down to the shop. It's one of the bigger operaions on the island, and very professionally run, but it wouldn't have been my first choice if I'd just turned up to look and hadn't paid in advance for the course. I like smaller, laidback, scruffier shops. There's a slightly snotty attitude from some of the staff, almost as if they're doing you a favour by letting you dive with them; a definite clique, and I didn't want in. But I just got on with it, and triedto deal with the good people working there. There were enough to make it bearable.
I headed back to my room. On the way down the road, I stopped at a restaurant with several hand-painted signs outside advertising the seafood menu. The name made me smile: Babalu. I'll digress a little here and tell you why... and this one's for you, Fletch (after reading stories about my Dad on here, my mate Fletch says he likes my Dad better than me). In 1969, my Dad was a merchant seaman in Liverpool. His mate George was dating a girl called Brenda, whose friend Elaine was single. Brenda suggested George bring Dad out to a nightclub one night, as a blind date. Dad was smitten with my Mum: love at first sight. Mum, on the other hand, thought that Dad was a slightly posh, pompous twit who was a bit full of himself, and thought he knew everything about everything (I think she still does, but now she quite likes him). So now you all know who I take after? Anyway, credit to Dad...he refused to give up. Mum relented and they went to see Bonnie And Clyde at the flicks. Dad only had eyes for Mum, but she quite fancied Warren Beatty. So now you all know where I got my name (Thanks for not taking her to an Englebert Humperdinck gig, Dad...school could have been traumatic). Anyway, all went well, and Dad soon proposed. They got married on Valentine's Day 1970, and I popped up in August. Dad doesn't mess about. Like any couple, they've had ups and downs, but are still together all these years later. Dad's pretty good with his hands, and has taught me how to fix all my cars over the years. Well, when I say taught, Dad fixed the car...and after ten minutes I got cold/ bored and went round to my mate's for a smoke. Should have paid attention, really. Sorry, Dad. Anyway, my parents bought a Dutch barge, and my old fella fitted it out all by himself. It's now a beautiful houseboat, named after the Liverpool nightclub where they first met: Babalu. The concise version of that tale got me a free beer in the restaurant that evening. So thanks again, Dad.
The island is an odd place. Colonised by Britain several generations ago, the population are a mix of black, hispanic and caucasian. The local dialect is a strange, almost Jamaican, patois. It's not pleasing to the ears, I can tell you. And if they pass a friend in the street, they say Bye instead of Hi. I found that bizarre, but a local insisted that if you said Hi, you had to stop and chat. Eh? The older locals sit on the porches of their wooden houses lining the main streets and chat late into the evening. It's a struggle to understand a bloody word.
As on any island, strange people abound. There's a local called Jimmy, who is possibly the world's most unconvincing tranny. He minces down the road, calling out to tourists he fancies, in a pair of cut-off denim shorts and skimpy tops; distended belly overhanging the waistband, a mass of pubic hair crawling to his navel. His ravaged, pock-marked face is usually half hidden by a huge pair of shades. He's always drunk or high. Can't be easy being like that on an island, though. The irony is that, though Jimmy is shunned by many, he is often most young mens' first sexual experience amongst the locals. Creepy. Otherwise, some young boys are still known to interfere with animals to experiment sexually (direct flights from Cardiff available soon). And this was locals telling me, so I'm not doubting it. Jimmy can hold his own, though. I was in a cafe one day, and a big Trinidadian instructor made a homophobic remark as Jimmy walked in. "That's OK" spat the tranny "I don't like fat man..." I had to laugh at that one.
Utila's economy is awash with drugs. Cocaine, crack, MDMA and grass are the mainstays. It says something of the island's lack of charm when one of the tourist attractions is a downed Colombian plane in the jungle. These take off and land at all times of the night, as the airfield is a refuelling point for aircraft en route to Miami from South America. Several locals can be seen during the day, naked to the waist and sweating, wide-eyed and high as a kite. One local restaurant below a rickety old house is a front for a bunch of dealers who sit below the property on worn-out sofas. A couple I met went into the house to seal a weed deal one evening. The owner was completely wired and sat at a table, on top of which were several pounds of grass, coke and a snub-nosed .38 Smith & Wesson. Sketchy, indeed. The local police and the mayor allegedly know what is going on, but palms are regularly greased....so everyone is kept happy.
It's usually the case that ex-pats are crazier than the local lunatics, and Utila's are no different. There are a handful of bars where they hang out, most notably Skid Row and La Cueva. A week before my arrival, at the latter bar, there was a shooting. A German who'd been on the island a good few years had lost his dog to the spate of poisonings in the town. Locals regularly kill off the stray dogs left behind when their selfish western owners depart after a prolonged period here. His dog died after eating baited meat. A tourist in the bar said that most of the dogs on Utila were better off dead. The man left the bar and returned with a pistol. A barman reacted quickly as the gun was pointed at his head, knocking the German's aim off with an ice bucket; the bullet grazed his forehead. The girl who made the comments was shot twice in the back as she cowered behind the bar. After loosing off a few more shots, the bloke calmly handed the gun to a customer and said "I don't care what they do with me now, so you might as well kill me." There were no bullets left. German police later extradited the man from Honduras, as he was wanted for a murder there.
The rest of the oddballs were unarmed, thankfully. The aptly-monikered Skid Row was a magnet for the dregs washed ashore over the years. Several runaways frequented the joint, all faded baseball caps, ragged shorts and stretched tee-shirts. In their 30s to 60s, this crew spent their afternoons drinking beer, telling tall tales and leering at any young woman who walked in. Some even made lewd remarks which they thought made them look cool to the others. A harmless character there was an American named Phil. In his 50s, Phil was well-known for telling extremely tall tales, and was therefore nicknamed "Phil Of Shit". Brilliant, I thought. A nice enough man, but only in small doses, as his stories were just too much. I'd met him at a BBQ, while talking to a local drug dealer about the lame grass on the island; he was kindly letting me smoke his finest Jamaican. Phil was a mate of his, and struck up a conversation with me...all about him. I learned all about his fancy place on the island, and his property back home. After showing me his horrendously gaudy and likely perversely expensive watch, he informed me that he'd bought a property in Grosvenor Square, London, in 1970. For the princely sum of £1, he said. Yeah, right.
By far my favourite Phil Of Shit story was one I overheard in Skid Row one lunchtime. I was one end of the room, Phil at the other. The proprietor was engaged in a conversation with a couple across the bar. Dangerous airports were the topic. Tegucigalpa, Honduras's capital, has a notorious landing strip which neccessitates a rapid decceleration and steep drop over a mountain to land. The couple had flown in there, and had a terrifying landing. The owner told them about a crash in the 90s. Phil, who'd been constantly butting into the conversation, said he'd been on that flight...he'd run for his life and was one of the few survivors. The couple looked at each other, the owner merely rolled his eyes at me, having his back to Phil. When Phil left the bar, I remarked on how quiet things became whenever he left; the owner laughed knowingly. I looked up the air crash on the Web later, and discovered that there had been no survivors in the incident. And he'd got the year wrong. Quality bullshitters get their facts straight.
The place wasn't all bad. I was in Treetanic every night, a psychedlic trip of a bar amongst a huge garden, the main bar amongst a huge tree out front. It's beautiful, a labour of love built by Neil Keller in tribute to his favourite artist, Comfort Tiffany. There's hints of Gaudi there for me, too...the place is covered in a colourful mosaic of broken tiles; artifacts both nautical and animal, decorate each structure. Created over the space of 3 years, this unique bar is listed as one of the top five bars in the world. I was happy enough to be asked to play music from my iPod there, in return for drinks. So I spent most nights happy, a G&T in one hand, a joint in the other, talking to the owner's stunning daughter, Tempy. We became very close, and because of her the place didn't seem so bad most days. She showed me some nice spots and remote beaches on the island's far coast when we rented a motorbike. Along the way she pointed out various local people and told me stories. My favourite concerned a wealthy westerner who bought a huge tract of land and, when he'd built the ideal house he wanted, donated the excess of the plot to the local council to do something for the local community; obviously grateful, they made it the town dump. I can almost picture his face on a hot day as the stecnh drifts across his garden as he has lunch. Priceless.
In fact, that was probably the best day I had there. It's always good to get a motorbike and head out, even if they aren't as cheap as Asian rentals here. I recall myself and Jocky getting a bike each and a full tank of fuel in Vietnam for $3 a day. On Utila it was $35. But I won't complain...we certainly got the use out of it. In fact I think we went right around the island five times in all.
So I've painted a negative picture of Utila, but then travel is subjective. So maybe you have to go see the place for yourself. You might have the second best time of your life. Just don't say I didn't warn you if you don't.