the crossing into el salvador takes us a long hot five hours. waiting around watching the bikes, unshaven and sleeveless, i look like a deadbeat. but i’m not bored - someone’s tried to bring a few dead cows through the border in a dozen canvas sacks and induced a long crime scene charade with numbered evidence placards and all. once through and back on the road, i note that homes are built in brick instead of block, that the women are taller and prettier, that trees blossom with bright orange flowers. dogs and sour smelling livestock are continuous obstacles until we descend to the pacific. yes! what a release! as brilliant blue waves crash below, we throw out elated fist pumps and burn through third gear turns on perfect pavement weaving along the headlands.
we lay up for a few days in el tunco, a small surf destination with amazing food and notoriously serious waves. places like this get quiet at night as everyone grabs some rest before dawn patrol in the morning. we’ve chosen to chill here while rick flies to new york to marry his cousin. (he’s the officiant. …that’s a fun joke isn’t it?) so i’ve got five days on the beach. this is my chance. i will learn to surf. i will master the tides. there’s a pro tour in my future. every day i go down to the beach with a board at noon and get my ass kicked by the surf for an hour. then at sunset i go out for a swim right where the waves are cresting, trying to learn something i guess.
‘how’d ya go? whadya lehrn?’ asks a long-haired aussie surf master when i tell him what i’m up to. ‘that waves are fucking unpredictable!’ ‘yeah…’ he nods thoughtfully. ‘sounds about right mate.’ i find the swimming both exhilarating and relaxing, but i’m unable to make the joy of catching a good wave justify the effort it takes to drag this massive piece of foam all the way out to catch it. one night dan joins me on my sunset swim and the current carries us scarily close to the rocks that divide the beach. we fight furiously without making any progress and begin to panic as we eye waves crashing against the volcanic wall over our shoulders. fifteen hard fought minutes later, we’re sucking wind on the sand and not sure if we should feel accomplished or embarrassed.
mostly we pass the time with bottles around the pool, laughing with some old traveling friends from mexico and meeting some awesome new characters too. on friday, dan puts in some time and effort on a girl who eventually tells him that she’s not only a witch, but a reincarnated witch (she’s prefers the term ‘healer’). bless his heart, he’s willing to look past this, until she also mentions that she doesn’t believe in sex… not ‘partake in’ - ‘believe in’. we sit down at the best spot in town for the thrilling champions league final on saturday afternoon. a wealthy el salvadoran gets drunk and buys tequila shots for the whole crowd when real madrid takes the lead. then real scores again and the guy’s excitement carries his hands right up into the metal fan blades above him. bleeding and laughing, he orders another round. monday night devolves into a bunch of fools trying to backflip into the pool. an aussie shows everyone a new tattoo on his ass advertising a trash brand of champagne. dan slips on spilled beer and slide tackles a chair and the small swiss girl sitting in it. i get distracted catching turtles. rick wakes us up in the morning, wired from his weekend in the states. it’s time to head east.
personally, i don’t want to go to utila. we’ve been on the beach too long, let’s get south. utila will cost us a week that could be spent in the mountains instead. and it means riding 700 miles there and back through honduras - a kinda violent place. but i’ve been outvoted. after living on utila for three months in the fall, rick can’t wait to get back and see some friends. and the diving is ‘the best in the world'. yep, just like every place in the world with a dive shop, people talk it up until you wanna punch em. (maybe it’s just me). if you’ve never heard of the honduran island of utila, you should watch this video. it’s pretty representative, but it fails to mention all the cocaine.
so we bomb across from el tunco on the pacific to la ceiba on the atlantic in two long challenging days. rick’s research says there’s a cargo boat leaving for the island in the morning, but it’s an unknown, so we show up to the docks around six. perfect timing. the ship is a loud flatbed manned by a crew in flipflops and run by a first mate in a tuxedo t-shirt. we negotiate a price with captain mike and ride a plank onto the deck before lashing the bikes to some timber. then we watch for two hours as pickups full of products come and go and the hull sits lower and lower in the water as the ship is weighed down with boxes of bananas and sheets of drywall. most of the entertainment is provided by the men loading cattle into the back end of the ship. it’s really a ridiculous thing to bring our bikes to a totally walkable island, but this experience alone justifies the decision.
our arrival at the utila dive center is dramatic and involves a lot of hugs - rick seems to know everyone. living and diving here is cheap, so young divers stay on this island for months or years accruing whatever certifications they can in order to justify all of the partying that comes with. divers actually have to prove they can handle ‘the lifestyle’ before being hired by a shop. and such a high percentage of dives are made to satisfy training requirements that the term ‘fun diving’ has to be used to describe simply diving for it’s own sake. ‘what cert are you working on?’ ‘oh, i’m just fun diving today.’ despite all my whining, the fact remains: i love utila.
we join up with rick’s old friends on the first night, make a big group dinner, and hit the bars until 3. with some effort we’re up at 7 to get to the dive shop for some fun diving. we chase whale sharks and cruise with eagle rays but a hangover and a harsh sun make for a long day on the ocean. our guatemalan dive master christina hovers gracefully and points out tiny beautiful creatures i would never have seen otherwise. charming, flirty, vibrant, christina’s been here for nearly a year and can’t understand my ambivalence to her passion. as i return from my advanced training course two days later, she hounds me on the dock and asks me how my dives were. ‘pretty good’, i say with a shrug. completely unsatisfied, she grabs my shoulders and shakes me, eyes crazed. ’love what i love!’ she screams in my face.
on saturday both rick and i are pleasantly shocked to run into pretty french girls we’ve already met in other countries. at night we attend a massive beach party with all the key elements: energetic electro, lasers, people juggling fire. after dancing on the sand until dawn, we let dan have the room to himself. a culture of diving and partying sounds exhausting - it is - but the reason i love this place is because it’s so peaceful. it’s hard to explain but the cultural uniformity means there’s no rush to anything. there’s no weekends, no seasons. every day is awesome and everyone is here to stay for a while. there are no luxury options, no one getting taken advantage of. there’s no pressure of any kind. locals and travelers comprise a single community.
and somehow the diving itself mirrors the lifestyle. it’s an extreme form of tranquility. our final advanced training dive takes us 30m below the surface. this is a trippy world on its own - sunken ships, prehistoric fish, the visible light spectrum is altered. and when you go this deep the chemicals in your body start to induce an effect on your perception. your brain works slower, like a drunkenness or a dose of laughing gas. we’re not supposed to survive here. in fact, from this depth, a gradual controlled ascent is mandatory to prevent trapping nitrogen in your veins. so it’s intense - you’re 100 ft below and tripping. but careful breathing, smooth motion, and a calm mind will get you home safe.
enjoy the ride.