Monday 20 October 2014

Caribbean Island Update – our three months in paradise…

Apologies for going AWOL - some of you might have thought I’d got lost in the Bermuda Triangle or something - as I’ve been home from the Caribbean for almost three weeks and you’ve not yet heard a single ditty from me about our last month spent on the island.

My unusual lack of chatter (and it is unusual - just ask any of my friends) has been due to many factors - such as extended jet-lag, a nasty jet-caught virus, dentist appointments (for the awful reoccurring tooth abscess), important family events and looming magazine deadlines.

So yes, dear reader, it does indeed seem like real life was waiting for me the very moment I got off the plane in Glasgow!

A couple of months earlier when we first arrived on Utila, a tiny Caribbean island off mainland Honduras, it seemed as if we had endless days of summer stretching out in front of us. Indeed, during the first two months we spent on the island, we felt like we were in some kind of time-warp. Then suddenly September arrived and the month sped by particularly quickly.

A couple of months earlier we arrived on the island of Utila in a very small airplane - which certainly ranked as one of the most exciting journeys Trav and I had ever taken!

September on Utila was an incredibly hot, humid and calm. As I reiterated last month, Utila is known as the whale shark capital of the Caribbean and so swimming with the whale shark is the hottest topic of conversation on the island. These magnificent creatures swim so close to the island on the very calm late summer sea. Going out on the boat looking for whale sharks is the number one activity in September and spotting the characteristic ‘boil’ - an area of sea rolling with tuna and other fish rising up as the whale shark feeds beneath the surface - is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever witnessed. Rather than using diving gear and air tanks, you simply use a mask, snorkel and fins to swim with these magnificent creatures - but as they come so close to the surface to feed - that is all the equipment you'll need to fulfill your dreams of swimming with the biggest fish in the sea.

This photo, taken by ace underwater photographer Dave Thatcher, is of my husband Trav,
swimming with a whale shark off Utila in September 2014

Other September Highlights:
Our days on Utila began the moment the sun blazed through the windows of our Little Yellow House at 6am and they were filled with an equal measure of work and play. Except on a Thursday, which from our very first week on the island, was the day that Trav and I had reserved to catch up with each other and relax completely. During September, lots of our lovely island friends managed to join us for a few hours at the beach on ‘date day’, making Thursday’s a real highlight of our week. The fun we had was in no short measure (he-he, see what I did there?) down to the lovely bar staff at Neptunes at Coral Beach – especially Brooke and Jen - who make us feel so welcome and kept the shots lined up!

Thursday 'date day' fun at Coral Beach and Neptunes Bar

So, except for Thursdays and our exciting days out on the Caribbean Sea looking for whale sharks, while Trav was working as a Dive Master at Eco-Marine Dive Centre,I was busy working on my new novel. I’m excited to tell you that ‘Castaway in the Caribbean’ is now almost finished. The writing part is all done but I still have a bit of work to do on editing my chapters and polishing my prose, in order to make this book the very best it can be before it goes off to be professionally edited and formatted for publication. Over the past three months, I have had so much fun and inspiration writing this fast paced romantic adventure novel, which makes this a story very close to my heart, and so I do hope that you will enjoy reading it when it is published.

So what else did we get up to in September on Utila…?

Mid Month Trav and I went along to a rock music gig on Bandu Beach to support our lovely friend Dave and The Barefoot Band who headlined in the Utila Live Music Festival. They were fabulous and we rocked out all night under the stars and had the most amazing time!

Rocking out under the stars with friends to The Barefoot Band

Utila Independence Day just happened to be on our ‘Thursday Date Day’. So we met up with our friends and had lots of fun on the beach, swimming in the sea and then sipping cocktails at the bar, all before hitching a lift back to the dock at Eco-Marine on the dive boat (hence why it looked so crowded) while singing our heads off and having a great time. As the dock at Eco had just had an enormous rope swing installed - that also became the source of lots more crazy fun, enthusiastic gymnastics - and wrenched arm muscles!

Crazy Utila independence day fun... yep, that's Trav on the swing!

The Biggest Surprise of the Month was getting news that our son James, who is an English teacher and lives over in South Korea, was getting married to his lovely girlfriend Sujeong - on that very day!  We had been aware they were planning to get married, as they had recently applied for a marriage license, but as it came through much faster than anticipated they just decided to ‘pop over’ to the registrars office and ‘do it’ straight away.

The official wedding photo of the newly married Mr and Mrs Horton

As you can see, James and Sujeong didn’t bother with wedding tradition, favouring the casual and unconventional. The groom wore his Cure t-shirt and the bride carried a lollipop. Although Trav and I were sad that we couldn’t attend this very special occasion in person, once the power came back on, we did manage to be online during the registration of their marriage and so felt like we were there ‘virtually’. Then we raised our glasses to the happy couple to wish them every happiness in their future married life together.

The Biggest Pain of the Month other than constant power outages that made keeping our over-heated bodies cool and charging my laptop practically impossible – was me getting an awful tropical tummy bug. I was really sick for a week before I eventually went to the pharmacy for something to help, only to find that the cure also knocked me for six with nasty side effects. I must admit to feeling pretty sorry for myself for a good couple of weeks during our last month on the island and so, once I felt I was on the mend again, I wanted to make the most of our last few days there by taking some time out to join Trav and the crew on the boat searching for whale sharks.

I'm out on the boat with the Eco-crew looking for whale sharks with Dive Master Dave

Utila in retrospect: what is it about this small island that makes it feel so unique? Trav and I have been lucky enough to have visited over a dozen islands in the Caribbean and yet I still cannot quite put my finger on what makes Utila so special. On the website Utila the island is described as ‘the Caribbean as it used to be’ and ‘a Key West of 20 years ago’ and I feel this must be true as it certainly has a ‘trapped in time’ appeal. It feels retro. Timeless. I fear that one day the rest of the world will discover Utila or Utila will catch up with modern commercialism and it will be spoiled. There are already cruise ships visiting the neighbouring bay island of Roatan so it really is only a matter of time.

For us, on our first night here, it was undoubtedly the orange-fire sunset on the sea that made it so special. The next day it was the blue sky and sunshine and white sand beaches. Then it was Trav discovering Eco-Marine Dive Shop at Sandy Bay, run by lovely Tara and Steve (Daddio) and meeting the wonderful and generous ‘family’ of people who work and dive there. Then it was going out on the boat to dive and snorkel on the most amazing coral reef in the world in water that is as warm as bath water.

Visiting the Cay’s – tiny tropical white sand palm tree filled islands off the coat of Utila for lazy Sunday picnics was pretty special too and so was spending our evenings in fun company at some fabulous bars for drinks and dancing. The food on the island is really good too and the fish and seafood is undoubtedly the best I’ve ever tasted. All so very very special.

Utila is unique, quaint and unspoiled, some may call it basic, with no chain stores or fast food businesses. There are reportedly less than twenty cars on the island (I only ever saw one or two) and people get around on foot (bare or flip-flopped) or on a scooter or golf cart. The infrastructure on the island, electric and internet, is patchy at best and fresh water is a precious commodity. We bought our drinking water every other day in five gallon drums. Fruit and vegetables are brought to the island by boat from the mainland (Honduras) on a Tuesday and a Friday and shops sell out quickly so the advice is to buy a good-looking vegetable as soon as you see it or it will be gone in the blink of an eye. There are limited health care facilities on the island; there is a clinic and a pharmacy but anyone needing hospital is taken to the mainland by boat or plane. There is opportunistic crime here, just like anywhere else, so you have to be aware of it without letting it make you edgy. The one small bank on Utila is visibly guarded by armed police both inside and out but half of the time, just like the electric supply, the banking systems are down and you can’t use your plastic to withdraw money.

Things happen. Things don’t happen. It’s all part of island life. One thing, of which I am sure, is that there is nowhere in the whole world quite like this beautiful crazy laid-back piece of paradise and it is so very very addictive. It is said (see the crazy ‘Come to Utila’ song on UTube!) that once you have experienced life on Utila you may not ever want to leave. We had to leave after our visa expired after ninety days, but Trav and I are already making plans to return as soon as we can, but next time we’ll get a visa extension or we’ll plan to do a quick visa run to Mexico or the Caymans and back again  (lots of residents who don’t actually have a residents visa do this) so that we can stay on Utila for longer. I plan to write another book and to submit my regular magazine features via the internet but I’ll plan to take my time next time around. I totally underestimated how much there is to do on Utila so I’ll be sure to leave more room in my days for the time-consuming task of sun worshiping, swimming in the sea, yoga (which I discovered for the first time on Utila) and generally chilling out – if chilling out is at all possible in 38 degrees C?

So is it the simple lifestyle that makes Utila special? No modern day stresses? Sure, there are nuisances, like sand flies and electric outages, but none of them can ever compare to the bliss of truly living in the moment, of waking up to sunshine every day and not having to wear many clothes or worry about fashion or hair styles (the latter two items could just be me..?)

Our final week on the island was an emotional one because Trav and I have met some truly lovely people on the island whom we hope will remain our lifelong friends. Utila is an amazing place, but actually, it really is the people we met who made it feel so special and so much fun.

So our final few days were about saying goodbye and promising to stay in touch or saying ‘see you next year’ to those who remain on the island or have promised to return, too.

On our last night on Utila, our host for the evening was the enigmatic ‘Papa’ who travels to Utila from Germany to dive with Eco-Marine every year for several months. He generously invited Trav and I and the whole Eco ‘crew’ to join him as guests at his home where he cooked his special garlic shrimp recipe for us all. It was a fabulous evening of wonderful food, drinks, enthusiastic conversation and laughter. And although Trav and I knew that we were saying a fond farewell to our lovely friends, we also knew that just like Papa, we had a reunion to look forward to in 2015.

Early in the next morning, we were given a lift in our landlady’s golf cart to the air strip on Utila, where we waited for just forty minutes before boarding a small aircraft to mainland Honduras. During that time we were eaten alive by mosquitoes and I sincerely wished I’d chosen a good squirt of Deet over my Coco Chanel perfume that morning. What on earth was I thinking?

For two nights we stayed at a hotel in San Pedro Sula. The city is reported to be the most dangerous city in the world (outside a warzone) and it has been so for the past two years running. Consequentially, we stayed inside our hotel’s luxurious walls for the entire time we were there, taking advantage of the room service, the sumptuous bathroom, the hot water and air con, before we traveled back to the airport to head for London Heathrow via Miami USA.

We then flew from London up to Glasgow. It was a bit of a shock for us to go from 38 degrees C to whatever it is was in Scotland that day and then there was the seven hour time difference to adjust to - but we were home and my thoughts were full of seeing our lovely sons and our friends in Scotland and cuddling my little dog, who may or may not have missed me as much as I missed her!

BUT A NEW ‘Snap Gap’ adventure begins very soon…!
During the first week in November - Trav and I are heading off on another exciting ‘snap gap’ adventure and to a very different part of the world this time. We are travelling to the Persian Gulf and visiting the Kingdom of Bahrain. We will be flying with Emirate Airlines from Glasgow to Bahrain via Dubai and Trav will be celebrating his birthday during our time away. We are incredibly excited to be seeing our lovely friends Sue and Pete once again!

Between now and then I will continue to work on editing and polishing my new novel ‘Castaway in the Caribbean’ as well as putting together my exciting new monthly ‘Bookshelf’ features and ‘Snap Gap’ travel features for Loveahappyending Lifestyle Magazine. I’ll also be updating this blog with any other news about my writerly progress, the ups and downs of our life back in Scotland, and what I might be thinking of packing in my suitcase for our next trip. So please come back soon and do feel free to leave a comment - as I do love to read them all and I promise to reply.

Love, Janice xx