After riding through large finkas or farms of bananas and palm trees, we pulled up to a small, isolated roadside wooden shack that housed the immigration office for Guatemala. A smile, a one-dollar exit tax, and a stamp in my passport sent us across more frontiers to the immigration office in Corinto Honduras.
Corinto was a tiny outpost that consisted of a restaurant and a few houses. When I say restaurant, this usually means three to four white plastic tables and chairs under a tin roof that appears more like a front porch converted to a food stand.
Eating on travel days often presents a challenge. You are always balancing food for survival with the lack of adequate bathroom facilities. To catch a 6 AM bus means you purchase a small cupcake or cookie the night before, for your breakfast. Lunch is generally some banana chips and a Coke that you negotiate through the window as the bus stops to drop off a passenger, a transaction that wastes no time. I'm convinced my stomach shrinks on these days. It is impossible to sleep and barely tolerable to ride, as I sit partially sideways just so my legs won't smash into the metal backing of the seat in front of me. Even with all these obstacles, I sit with my face pressed against the window, waving at young children, watching colorful birds and observing everyday life with the awe of a small child.
Honduras in many ways looks like Guatemala at first, but soon you notice that gone are the Mayan Indians, replaced completely by mixed Spanish and a small amount of African decedents. We made a direct line to the Bay Islands, which lay off the coast of Honduras. They have a reputation for being the cheapest place to learn how to dive in the western hemisphere. I wasn't sure if this was good or bad, considering your life might depend on the people and equipment of a place that brags of being “cheap.”
After spending a night in Le Cebia, we caught a taxi (to catch a taxi you always haggle and agree on the price ahead of time or you will be charged double, even triple the price) to the boat that ferried us one hour out to the island of Utilia. Here, we jumped abroad a small boat for 45 minutes to Pigeon and Jewel Caye's, two tiny connected islands that you can walk from one end to the other in ten minutes.
A sidewalk served as the main artery that connected the two small Caye's. Only a year ago did they get 24-hour electricity, a fact they are quite proud of; something that I take for granted back home. All fresh water is captured off of rooftops and stored in large cisterns and used later for showers and cooking. All houses, stores, churches (there were seven on the island for 500 people) and the two restaurants were perched on concrete stilts. It was the type of place where everyone knows your business, often even before you do.
No cars, no engines, no loud music, only an occasional whiff of someone baking cinnamon rolls during the day and the sound of wind and waves at night. This was our home for six days. It was the first time in a while that I actually slept. Generally, I wake up throughout the night, something I attribute to noise and constant change of locations. In the mornings, I dove; in the afternoons, I napped. A good life for a few days and well above my intended budget. But at $30 a day for room, board and diving, that still isn't bad. Additionally, they spoke English on the Caye's as a first language, which allowed me to engage with people more easily.
Diving in the clear warm waters of the Caribbean is a special thing as you enter a foreign world of colorful fish and corrals. To go below the surface for 50 minutes is almost like a meditation. When you come back to the surface you are different; you smile more.
On Jewel Caye, I met Shelia. Shelia ran the green store. It was called the green store because it was painted green and had no storefront sign. It had been the family store for 23 years, her father operated it the first seven, and it was he who first painted it green. Inside the green store, there was a pile of crackers on the main counter labeled "Club Social," appropriate for a place that is much more than a store.
Shelia had this to share in her Creole accent, "I wish more of you would come down from the states. I don't speak Spanish, that would be much easier for me." She also chatted about her frustration. They have family in New Orleans and just to apply for a U.S. visa cost $100.00. You lose that fee if you are denied the visa. "It's not really fair. You can come here, but I can't go there,” she said, “but what can you do?" I could only listen and feel a little guilty.
As we left the Caye's, a fisherman came to me to show me what he had caught. Inside his small wooden boat was a full grown Hammerhead shark, at least 10 feet long. In the office of the dive shop, I talked about the impressive shark, and felt remorse. I hadn't seen one shark diving. The owner of the dive shop responded, "It's not really fair, but that's life". And so it is, on land and on sea.