Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Dark Undercurrent

THEY SAY YOU should never go back a second time. Whether that's a relationship that didn't work, a job you left, or perhaps a favourite bar on an island. The dynamics change, the people are different and your memories can sometimes be spoiled by a second visit. I recently spoke to a fella I met on Koh Tao, Thailand, three years ago. There had been a decent gang of us there, diving most days and frequenting the Eazy Bar most nights; good music and the barmen supplied us with a steady flow of joints. It was a great few weeks. But he'd returned two years later: the staff had changed, and locals we'd known had moved on. So I try not to go back if I can help it. Coron in the Philippines is different: there are wrecks there.

So after all I said about the Bay Island of Utila, Honduras, it was as much a shock to me as anyone else that I was returning there. But there was wind of a diving job with a friend I'd taken the Instructor Development Course with, and with the season low in places such as Mexico, I decided to go back. Work experience and just something to do was appealing...constant travelling can get tiring. So Stacey said to head up, as they needed someone soon. I also had another motive for visiting as I'd been dating a beautiful Honduran girl when there originally. But no details on that...gentlemen don't tell, and all that.

I'd been in Costa Rica when the job had been mentioned, and had a horrific bus journey across three countries to look forward to. I stayed overnight in Managua, and at least found something decent to eat in the ramshackle neighbourhood near the bus station. I was up at 4am and on a bus 20 minutes later. It was a grind to get up to the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. The bus had pulled up outside the tiny depot, and armed guards saw us inside. The café served nothing but chicken that had been fried for a month and bright-orange cheese sandwiches on unappealing white cardboard-like bread. I was starving, but not that desperate. I recalled seeing a taco place a few blocks away, and headed for the door.

"Where are you going, sir?" asked the man, brandishing a assault-rifle.
"I don't like the food here...I'm going to find something else."
"Do you have a gun?" he asked, patting the weapon.
"Do you have a gun?"
"Er...no?" I smiled.
"Then don't go outside."
Righty-ho. I suppose the people being escorted to their taxis by the security guards should have been a bit of an indicator. Tegucigalpa really is as dangerous as they say.

And so, refreshed by my can of sugary fizzy-pop and a bag of stale, hard nuts, I was on my way again. Night was falling as we arrived in San Pedro Sula, reputed AIDS capital of the Americas. I didn't want to be catching that again, it was bad enough last time. So I was lucky enough to get out of that violent shithole, making the last bus to La Ceiba by the skin of my teeth.

First thing in the morning, and a pleasant(ish) ferry crossing saw me deposited on the dock in Utila Town. Juicy and Fernando, a couple of instructors from the shop I'd trained at, were waiting to ambush tourists and take them to the shop. They both hugged me, laughing, and said "I thought you were never coming back?" I grinned sheepishly. I walked up the road and went to see Tempy at Treetanic Bar, arranged lunch, and then took my old room at Bavaria Hotel. Every familiar face I passed grinned and asked "Never again, eh?" You have to laugh, don't you?

To be honest, despite my problems with the place, it felt like coming home. Walking down the street and seeing old acquaintances was great, buying my baleadas from the same lady in the street, and catching up with the remainder of my class. But things weren't to be as rosy as I'd hoped. Sometimes in the dive industry you can be treated like a commodity: worked into the ground for little reward, and dropped like a hot potato when the trade is slack. So I was hardly surprised when the job didn't materialise. No guarantees in this business. There was some talk of dive-guiding, but Utila's sites are hardly the most exciting on the planet. So I settled into my old routine of swimming, reading, sunset beers, G&Ts and reefers at Treetanic, and seeing my lady friend most evenings.

Beneath the surface, though, all was not well on the island. A local criminal had recently returned and there had been a large number of robberies. A Divemaster at one shop had been away for a week, and came home to find that someone had smashed a hole through the wall of his house. Everything had been taken including, he told me with understandable dismay, the soap from his shower (talk about a clean getaway). Several other people had been robbed, and word came that the police on Roatan had seized a large number of items. By the time these tourists got to Roatan by boat a day later, locals there had already claimed the haul of iPods, phones, computers and dive gear. One man I spoke to had gone to see the police chief back on Utila. This cop is reputed to be a virtual prisoner on The Rock; involved in the murder of a couple of criminals in past years, he's been told that he is a dead man should he set foot on the Honduran mainland. He didn't bother taking his feet off the desk when the tourist entered, and was reading the paper. On being asked about the valuables being given to locals on Roatan he shook his wrist, on which hung a gold watch, and said "Nothing there...just a few watches..." He went back to reading his paper. Apparently the police are complicit in the thefts, receiving their cut of the profits. A notorious family live on the island and, for a fee, they can usually "find out" who stole and then "buy" your items back for you. But even they are unaware of who this gang are. Or that's their line, at least.

I was sat in Treetanic one evening, and things were slow. The island was very quiet. I struck up a conversation with a German at the bar, a man in his 50s. He told me that he'd been robbed two nights before, and that the thieves had broken through the ceiling outside his room, then climbed over the wall via the roof space. Being drunk that evening, he hadn't noticed anything out of place but, on waking, he'd seen the hole in the ceiling above his bed: all his camera equipment and his laptop were gone. I asked him where he was staying? Next door but one to my room at Bavaria. I told him to watch my beer, and raced back to my quarters, bagging my valuables to be locked in Tempy's house. No way was I taking any chances.

The German told me that he'd been running a dive shop on Roatan for 5 years, and had lived on his boat. Though he'd never had a single problem in all that time, sleeping on an unlocked boat obviously had potential dangers. He'd slept with a snub-nosed .38 revolver under his pillow; also stolen in the raid. To say he was thoroughly pissed-off was an understatement. So much so that he was selling his boat and heading back to Germany. I told him how the Thais deal with Burmese thieves out on the islands. Myself and Jocky had been robbed in 2008 on Koh Tao, but only our cash was taken from the room, despite all our valuables lying around: if the thieves are caught with currency only, nothing can be proved; but caught with someone's camera and it's a different story. One Thai had told me of a notorious thief who'd finally been apprehended in the act, how he'd been taken out on a fishing boat late at night and bound with rope and lead weight. The terrified man had pleaded with his captors and swore that he would never steal again. "We know you won't" said the Thais, and threw him into the sea. Rough justice Thai-style.

The German fella also told me an amusing story about a vicious dog owned by a local on Roatan, who had bitten a couple of people, and had also gone for him on several occasions. Despite discussing it with the owner, nothing was done...so he and a few friends decided that it was time for the dog to go: they poisoned it. They took the carcass out to sea, weighted it and dumped it with several large lobster pots into the water. A week or so later they retrieved the pots, full of large lobster, and forgot about the dog. Some time after that he was on the beach one day, chatting to two local policemen, their backs to the shoreline. He noticed something floating in the water and realised with horror that it was what was left of the dog. The conversation was cut short and he was soon quickly heading back out to sea with a little more weight; this time it stayed down. Apparently the lobster was the biggest and tastiest he'd ever eaten. I've heard of corn-fed chicken, but never dog-fed lobster? I'll take his word for it.

My German friend Gerald had been around when I first arrived back on the island, but before I could go and visit him he'd disappeared. He and a few friends had started a rival ferry company recently, with a solitary boat. One morning he'd been poaching customers from the queue for the main company, run by one family for years. This went down like a shit sandwich, obviously. A few nights later someone fired a fusilade of shots at his house. Taking the subtle hint, the German left the island immediately, abandoning his house and all his belongings. Don't step on local toes.

It wasn't all doom and gloom on Utila, though...there was much hilarity, too. I met a bearded ex-Navy S.E.A.L named Dave. Short and wiry, he was amiable but looked the type you shouldn't mess with; like he could kill you with his bare hands. I'd missed his 30th birthday the previous night. Apparently he'd been having dinner with friends when a bespectacled tourist ran past on the main street, stripped to the waist and sweating heavily. This fella would run up and down the main street every single night, in that weird low-impact style which looks somewhere between walking fast and mincing down a Paris catwalk...it's not a good look. Dave had had enough "If that guy runs past one more time, I'm stripping off and running with him." As good as his word, as the jogger passed again, he stood and stripped naked and then chased him down the street. The locals were horrified, as the island is deeply religious; he'd passed numerous churches and halls before someone called the police about the jogger with the swinging, hairy ballbag. The other runner ignored him, and Dave got bored. He returned to his table, got dressed, and was two forkfuls into the remains of his dinner when the cops arrived and hauled him away. He spent 18 hours locked up, without food and water. Paying a fine sometime later, he was released. He laughed and told me that it wasn't how he envisioned spending his 30th birthday, but I told him that I thought it was brilliant: how many people can tell their grandchildren that they spent their 30th in a Honduran police cell for streaking down Utila's main drag? Not many, I'd imagine.

So after a couple of weeks catching up with friends, the heat becoming unbearable, and the season dead...it was time to leave again. As the job hadn't materialised, I couldn't hang around doing nothing. Stefano got in touch: did I fancy joining him in San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala? I sure did. I'd had a great time there first time around, and it was on my route back up to Mexico. I could drop in on people I'd met in Antigua on the way, too.

I waved Goodbye to Utila for a second time. And I'll never go back. Ever. Yeah, yeah...I know. That's what I said last time.

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