Thursday, August 18, 2011

Belize it or not!

(April of 2011)

 I have a thong tan line!

The bustling main drag of Hopkins
After my adventures exploring the northern part of Guatemala, I found myself back in the little Garafuni village of Hopkins, Belize. This was a place I never thought I would return to, yet there I was. Hopkins is a very relaxed village, almost too relaxed for me. You´d better not be in a hurry because nothing gets done with any sense of urgency. It´s kind of like `island time´, except without the island. It's a quaint little place, but definitely worth the stop if you're passing by. If you do, in fact, find yourself in Hopkins someday, I highly recommend two restaurants: Thongs and Driftwood Pizza. Both have excellent food as well as wonderful people who run them. Please tell Tania at Thongs and Ollie at Driftwood I said "hi". 

The beaches around Hopkins are your typical Caribbean beach: lots of palm trees, beautiful sand, gorgeous water, but quite boring since there are virtually no waves. To me, the Caribbean is a giant saltwater lake. The beaches in town would have been beautiful if they weren´t covered in trash, a problem I am finding in so many places around the world.  However, there was a gorgeous stretch of beach in front of the resort I worked at, but that's because the staff raked the beach every single morning. I also want to mention that during the two months I was in Belize the weather was absolutely incredible. I can't remember specifics, I just remember hearing complaint about the never ending winter back home. Of course, I took advantage of every opportunity to enjoy this wonderful weather and work on my thong tan (I knew you were hoping I´d explain that one). I know it may not be the mental image many of you were expecting. Then again, it might be a pleasant surprise... Regardless of how you feel about it, it means a lot to me. It means that I have finally arrived; I can now consider myself a beautifully tanned work of art. I can´t count the number of times I have been approached by beautifully bronzed bikini beach babes who beg and plead to see my thong tan line. At first, I say that I am too shy and modest, but after a little persuasion *wink* I simply slip off my...sandals and show them the distinct thong tan line on each foot. It truly is a beautiful sight to partake.

Hamanasi by night
I had returned to Hopkins to get my PADI Divemaster (DM) certification at Hamanasi Dive Resort. The first two weeks at the resort were great. Everything was new and exciting, the people were friendly, I was learning lots, and I was diving almost every day. I felt like I was on a vacation. I was scuba diving in Belize, and for relatively cheap! The diving was quite nice. I can definitely say it´s not the best place in the world to dive, but it sure is better than the high mountain lakes of Montana. I also had the opportunity to get to know some really cool people who were diving with the resort: a colorectal surgeon from Alaska (you can imagine the great stories he had from down under), his 80 year old father who wouldn´t let brain cancer stop his dive vacation, a great couple from Florida who run a Mexican restaurant, a crazy Swiss couple, a British guy I like to call Scuba Steve, and many more. 

My favorite dive site
One of the first days we dove the infamous Blue Hole, a dive site for which Belize is internationally known. Technically, it´s a cenote, but to me it was just a giant limestone hole in the ocean with some stalactites and a few big fish. Overrated, overhyped, overpriced. Actually, the photos from above are cooler than in person. Also, we can thank the famous Jacques Cousteau and his dynamite for blasting a massive entrance out of the reef for his precious ship, the Calypso. Not exactly the environmentalist we thought he was. Anyway, the best part of the dive was the opportunity to go down to 130-140 feet and swim through the cave formations. I got narced (nitrogen narcosis: excessive nitrogen blood levels cause an altered, almost drunk or high, state of mind), and that was cool. But that´s about it. If you´re going down to Belize to dive, don´t make the Blue Hole your number priority. That's my two sense.

I love to dive. I have found that it is one of the most peaceful activities I have ever experienced. There is something special, almost magical, that I feel when I am under the water. It is such an incredibly peaceful, relaxing, and therapeutic place to be. Even a boring dive can be quite nice in my opinion. As you can imagine, I saw some cool stuff over a month of diving. Some of my favorite things to see were various rays, sea turtles, and eels; they are so beautiful and graceful in the water. I also found that I quite enjoy underwater photography. I think my instructors got a little frustrated with me at times because I was more focused on taking pictures than doing the DM thing, but it all worked out in the end. I also took an intense liking, almost an addiction, to hunting lionfish. Lionfish are a beautiful striped in orange and white with long fins that gently flutter in the ocean currents. What you may not see are the 27 poisonous spines protruding through these fins. In the aquarium they are really nice to look at, but the problem is they are an invasive species that are decimating the numbers of small fishes in the Atlantic. Without small fishes you can´t have big fishes, so their removal is highly encouraged. When the opportunity arose (and I didn´t have my camera with me), I would bring the spear along. I don´t know why I enjoyed it so much, it must have excited my underwater-caveman-primal-instinct deep within. It was fun.

The captivating whale shark
There are a few underwater experiences that really stand out. The first was when a 10 foot Great Hammerhead shark approached within 20 feet of me. At first it was really cool, but the second it entered my comfort zone, my heart was up in my throat. Fortunately, he was just passing by. The other epic experience was diving with the whale sharks. This is actually the primary reason I decided to do my training in Belize in April. For a few days around the full moon in April, May, and June, the whale sharks congregate at a point off the coast of Belize. I actually had high hopes that I would get to do a number of dives with the whale sharks, but the paying guests had priority and I got bumped off the list numerousof times. It was extremely disappointing, but it was what it iwas. Of the 3 days I went out looking for whale sharks, I only had 1 amazing day in which I saw 5 or 6 in a single dive. It was a spectacular experience! They are such beautiful, peaceful, magnificent creatures. I was in awe when I watched them move effortlessly through the deep blue. It was as if the emitted a peaceful energy that I could feel. It´s hard to describe, but this experience will forever be burned in my heart and mind. Of course, being the idiot that I am, I forgot to change my camera battery between dives and it ran out of juice mid-encounter. I was left to simply be in the moment and enjoy the experience rather than trying to capture it on film. The good news is that Scuba Steve (a client who happened to have the exact same camera, except with battery life) took some excellent shots and shared them with me. For that I am eternally grateful. 

Very good times!

Those first few weeks were so darn good, but then the luster soon started to wear off. Diving every day sure takes it toll on the body and I found myself chronically tired. The early mornings, readings and homework, daily DM duties, emotionally draining clients, gear maintenance, and tank/gear haulage back to the shop sure can wear a guy out. This was especially true after a long day on the boat, in the sun, and in the water. Simply diving every day for a week is physically draining. Not to mention that a DM is always on guard since he/she/person of undetermined gender has a huge responsibility making sure each diver has a safe and enjoyable experience both in and out of the water. There were way too many times I felt like I was babysitting the high maintenance clients. Don´t get me wrong, most of the people were great. However, there were a select few whose sole purpose in life was to make our lives difficult (yes, I know, they are everywhere, but usually I try to avoid them). I´m not a fan of this kind of people, they should not breed. Hmmm, maybe I should take my spay and neuter skills to the human field??? I bet people would pay big bucks to sterilize the idiots of the world. It´s definitely something I will consider.

Anywho, I found that the days were long, emotionally draining, and that there was little down time. I also found that it takes a lot of energy to get to know a new group of people week after week. It seemed like the cool people would leave as soon as I developed a relationship with them, then I would have to do it all over again the following week. In addition, we had a few high rollers dive with us and many employees tried to schmooze their way into their pocketbooks, hoping that a little ass-kissing would bring a good tip. I would often be ignored or bumped out of the way by a certain DM in pursuit of his measly tips. Not cool, hoser!

One of my favorite pics, and that´s Toby in the middle!
The cool thing is that I did just under 50 dives during my time at Hamanasi, which would be incredibly expensive if I had paid for each of those dives. Don't get me wrong, I earned my keep, but I saved at least $4,000 on diving, which doesn't include equipment rental! Doing a DM and internship is a great way to get lots of experience in a short amount of time. I don´t think working in the dive industry is my life passion, but who knows, someday I may end up working on a live aboard dive boat in the middle of some lost ocean, butt kissing for my own measly tips! Many are jealous of those that work at resorts because they live in paradise. However, it's not as glorious as you'd think. It was very educational for me to see both sides of the coin. Yes, I was in paradise, and I enjoyed it as much as I could (thong tan and all). However, it wasn´t the ´watching the sunset from a hammock sipping on a piƱa colada´ experience that some may think.

Me and Elvis
Toby and I

Amidst the mix of emotions, I'm glad I did my DM, for it was a great experience. I am now extremely comfortable in the water and I consider myself a very competent diver. I must put in an extremely good word for my two primary instructors: Elvis and Toby. No, they are not a Las Vegas show (although they sure could be); they are two very cool dudes that put a lot of time and effort into giving me the best training they could. Elvis is a chill Belizean with a unique sense of humor. He´s a big guy with a big heart, always willing to give advice and constructive criticism. Toby is a crazy Brit who has one of the most interesting life stories I have ever heard. Give him a few beer and you won´t believe the stories he tells. Sorry, I have been sworn to secrecy, you´ll have to ask him yourself. He is also an incredible diver with eons of experience and a great teacher to boot. These guys are the reason I feel I would make a good DM, if that's what I wanted to pursue. I have been given the tools to recognize problems from above and in the water before they happen, but that also something that comes with experience. My training was definitely a lot more work than I anticipated. I didn't realize how much responsibility is placed on a dive crew, but now I know. They each had plenty of stories, more than I expected anyway, of attempted suicide, attempted homicide, and clients simply dying under water (none were their fault, of course). The most interesting story Elvis told me was about a set of elderly twin sisters who were in their mid-70`s. He was leading another routine fun dive.  At one point, they came around a rock outcropping the same time a nurse shark (one of the most harmless creatures in the ocean) suddenly appeared from the opposite direction. Both sisters freaked out and immediately died of heart attacks in the same moment! Seriously, what can you do in that situation? 

A mystical forest awaits you beneath the surface...

Kind of an awkward end to the story, eh? Well, that awkward feeling will soon go away if you check out my dive pics (sets #17 and 18 on the right side of the homepage) at:

Happy diving!