Thursday, December 16, 2010

Copan Ruinas

My trip fast approaching its end, I thought best to position myself close to the airport for an easy outing to catch my flight in 2 days time.  So I caught a bus to San Paulo Sula and found a nice hostel to stay in.  I had a thought of attempting to see the Maya ruins of Copan the next day but knew it would be a push.  The man at the hostel reception told me it could be done if I went early enough and caught the Casa Sola Express.  Good enough for me, I hit the pillow for an early start, arranging a taxi for 6:40am. 

Macaws mate for life
I arrived at the bus terminal and started trying my best to find the right bus, eventually finding the casa sola ticket window.  Through my broken Spanish I learned with disappointment that the bus could get me there but not back again.  I accepted my regret and headed for some breakfast.  Then I wondered, “could there be another bus?”  So, broken Spanish in tow I started a little investigative work and found another bus to Copan.  I could take this bus there and back but unfortunately would have only about a half hour in Copan.  That wouldn't work, but a combination of the 2?  I found I could take the 8am Casa bus to Copan arriving at around 11:30 and then take the 3pm Hedman bus back to San Paulo, leaving me with 3.5 hours to see the ruins.  The stakes were high though. If it didn’t work out, I would either miss my flight or have a very expensive cab ride ahead of me.  I took a deep breath and thought,” just go for it man”.  Sometimes ya gots ta take a chance. 

The Casa Sola Express wasn’t so much of an express as a slow moving chicken bus.  Probably it had been a school bus in another part of the world before retiring, and getting a job for Casa Sola.  These buses are always interesting.  People constantly get on to peddle their wares and stories, from chicklets, to fruit and newspapers.  One guy seemed to be going on about some sort of hard life caused by an injury, another was preaching for about a half hour, after which they came around for donations.

 3.5 hours later the bus rolled into Copan and I grabbed one of those 3 wheel taxi carts and started down a bumpy stone road to the ruins.  From there I enquired about a guide as I figured this would expediate my movements and give me a better picture of the ruins.  It was only $25 and I am glad I did so, seeing much more and getting loads more information than I could have gotten on my own.  My guide Carlos had Maya heritage and had grown up in the area.

The Maya ruins of Copan date back to around 426AD, the city being abandoned around the mid 800s AD.  Other cultures lived in the area from as far back as 1400B.C. The city was abandoned with the collapse of the Mayan dynasty which is believed to be due to over consumption and deforestation.  Sounds familiar doesn’t it!

The ruins were reclaimed by the jungle and remained hidden until the 1800s when the first of the archaeological digs began.  Even now, only a portion of the buildings have been uncovered and there are numerous mounds in the jungle telling the tale of more.

The Mayors house
Our first part of the tour was Las Sepulturas.  This is where the elite lived.  The elite consisted of the mayor (a relative to the King), the priest, the astrologist and high ranking warriors. Copan’s population reached around 27000, 1600 of which were considered elite.  While the commoners had 1 wife each, the elite had multiple wives.  Perhaps the most interesting element of these ruins is that the dead are buried in their houses, with jade in their mouths to buy their way into heaven.  400 hundred years of tombs and dead bodies in your house! At least they are quiet guests.

A statue of a croc
Carlos then led me to the main part of the ruins.  Here lie the large temples, the market, a ballgame court, the king’s palace, and the area where the elite worked.   The Copan River had once moved and washed down a lot of the site, exposing generations of ruins built on top of one another.  Carlos took me around pointing out the huge La Ceiba trees growing through many of the temples and brought me to the warrior training court.  Here he pointed at one of the temples and told me a story.  One of the Kings had put on a ceremony where he took blood from his finger, blood from his nose, blood from his ear, and blood from his genitals.  He then mixed the blood with a hallucinogenic, drank it and announced he was in communion with the gods.  When the trip was over he came to the people with the message from the gods.  He told how the gods had told him that he must “raise taxes, the people must work harder and that he must have more wives”  He then informed the people that if they dare not believe him the gods would bloke out the sun in 3 days time.  The Mayas had an incredible grasp on the movement of the sky.  The astrologist knew that there would be an eclipse that day.  The people were not privy to such information.

Warrior training area
We then made our way to the ball court.  They played a ball game with a large rubber ball, very heavy, hitting it with elbows, knees, and shoulders.  This game was played throughout the Maya Empire (which spanned from southern Mexico, through Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Western Honduras).  In most areas, after the match they would sacrifice some of the losers.  In Copan however, they would sacrifice the best player.  This was an honour in the players eyes as from a young age the priest led him to believe he would go straight to heaven where many virgins were waiting for him. 

Just outside the ball court was the sacrificing area consisting of a large round stone with a divot in the top.  The chosen person would rest their head in the divot, have their throat cut and the blood would spiral down into a jar.  Surrounding this area were many statues of the kings.  Some of these elaborate statues were missing their noses.  I asked Carlos about this and he told me how in the Maya culture a big nose was a sign of aristocracy.  Obviously the king was not always liked and the statues had been defaced accordingly.

The modern warriors
Astrologist office
Before beginning this whole journey I tried to find a book on the Maya culture.  All I could seem to find were books about 2012 written by some white guy who claimed to know all the secret prophecies of the god like Mayas.  I asked Carlos what he thought of all this hype.  It was his understanding and opinion that December 2012 brings to and end a 5000 year old calendar and the Mayan believe that this will be the end of one era and the beginning of a new one.  He said he knew nothing of predictions of destruction or the end of the world.  Remember too he is part Maya!  As for the romantic view of the Mayas being somehow superior in their knowledge of the future, I really didn’t see it like that.  What I saw was an impressive civilization that had great knowledge of stone work, mathematics, science and astrology.  They were surely not immune to the follies of human civilization around the globe and throughout history in terms of thirst for power, greed, and manipulation over fairness, humility, and compassion.  Here in Copan the elite lived high and frivolously off the hard work and oppression of the common folk.  Like many other civilizations these follies brought about their destruction,  a lesson that we should be all heeding.  While I don’t feel like I am one to judge what is right and wrong, I have a hard time accepting any culture that practiced human sacrifice as superior or more in the know.  Maybe I’m wrong but I guess we will see on December 22nd or 24th depending on which white guy is making the predictions!  None the less though I found the ruins to be fascinating and saw that this culture had its greatness.  The Maya people still thrive on with a population of over 6 million scattered throughout Central America.
The market place
I had a quick whistle around the museum and made my way to the bus terminal with 25 minutes to spare.  There I saw an American fellow with dive gear.  I got all excited and went over to chat with him.  He told me that the diving in Honduras sucks (a first that I had heard) and the country is backwards and boring.  I smiled and told him I was hungry making my way over to some more amicable people.
A replica of a temple found inside another temple

My last night in Honduras I spent sitting on the hostel balcony drinking a Salva Vida (a local beer) that I got at a gas station for 14 Lempera ( ~ 90 cents or so) and reflected on my trip.  I am glad that I chose Honduras.  It was very interesting; full of neat things to do and friendly people.  I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it all the time, with the foreign language, garbage all over the place, poverty, and dog bites.  Sometimes I was definitely out of my comfort zone, but at the end of the day, that is in part what I was looking for and part of the adventure of travel.  Many of the best experiences are great fun but some of the greatest experiences aren’t much at all!
With that I made my way to my flight, said good bye to Honduras and the tropics, arriving back in Toronto just after midnight.  The outside temperature, -8 with a cold wind blowing in thoughts of the many adventures that lay ahead in the Canadian winter...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Day in the Jungle

Arriving back on the mainland I headed straight for the closest jungle.  My jungle dream for Honduras involved an area called La Moskita, a large track of jungle up against the border to Nicaragua full of dangerous creatures and devoid of basic infrastructure, my kind of hangout.  Unfortunately though I was having trouble organizing a tour as operators were slow to respond to my emails and my limited time was slipping away. 
I made my way to just outside of Pico Bonito Park, only about a half hour out of La Ceiba and set myself up at the Jungle River Lodge.  The guy at the check in told me he would see if he could help me find my Moskita adventure and gave me some tips for the day, mainly a hike into the cloud forest to a waterfall. 
After a short walk along a dirt road I arrived at a small, very basic visitor’s centre and purchased a pass along with a few id cards for local fauna.  I enquired about Jaguar and the warden reluctantly told me there were lots in the area.   I don’t think he expected or understood why I started to smile at that.

I crossed a swing bridge and entered the jungle, paused to give thanks, set my intentions, and fine tune my senses, a routine I do often when entering my local forest.   The jungle was hot, dark, humid and surprisingly quiet.   Within the first 20 metres of following the hiking trail I found an animal trail forking off to the left.  I tracked along it for awhile but found no distinct tracks.  The rain had pounded down hard the day before wiping the slate clean.  I did however find some leaf cutter ants making their way along their highway and I spent some quality time with them before returning to the main trail.

It didn’t take long before I was again distracted from my agenda to make it to the waterfall and back before dark.  A very faint sound caught my attention.  It sounded like something feeding in a distant tree.  I dropped down into a thicket with my senses trained in on where I thought I heard the sound coming from and stalked closer, even belly crawling through the jungle at one point to get a good vantage point.  I was almost certain it was a monkey of sorts but a few moments later I was pretty sure I was hearing and seeing movement of some sort of bird.  The canopy was too thick to get a really good visual.  What was being eaten, or better said, what wasn’t being eaten was falling down to the forest floor.  I picked up a shell, the nut having been extracted by what looked like a beak, judging by the way it was cracked. 

My interest didn’t waiver for the rest of the hike, checking out plants, birds, loads more ants and the few washed tracks of undeterminable beasts.  It was interesting to perceive the various strategies of plants.  One in particular looked like a dart, the seed having a pointed tip and hair like fletching so after it was released from the flower it would fall down and stab its way into the soil.  I also observed a small lizard. There were 3 waterfalls along the trail, the last being really impressive at about a 60 metre drop.

During my walk out an internal battle was growing in my mind between my jungle dream that I had spent many a night thinking about and another voice telling me that for that trip I needed more time and besides I couldn’t dive in the jungle.  Another affair calling me back to the ocean was a book I had found in a used bookstore on Routan.  The book being the classic novel ‘Robinson Crusoe’ by Daniel Defoe was the perfect island read and very well written.  I was unsure what to do when I arrived back to the lodge.  The man back at the desk had found out nothing so I took the cue that I should return to the Bay Islands, Utilla this time, the following day, and let the jungle dream rest for another voyage.

The next morning I caught an early morning chicken bus out of the jungle and back to the ferry port in La Ceiba.  The ferry however was a no show and no one could give us any answers on its whereabouts until later that morning.  The sea was too rough for the morning ferry and if the weather didn’t break the afternoon ferry would be cancelled too.  So a small group of us spent the day bonding under the cover of the ferry terminal until finally the ferry showed up.  Three Aussies in the group decided it would be a good idea to get into some rum at around 10am.  By the time the ferry arrived they were blind drunk and a handful on the boat, messing around with controls and being very obnoxious.  The sea was still very rough and I thought certain one or all of them would fall overboard as the ship pitched and rolled in the swells and we were all sent flying out of our seats.  The Aussies didn’t have the sense to get themselves into a safe position and it was making me nervous and more nauseous than the rough ride.  I was uncertain how to handle the situation but after much consideration resolved myself to that it was not my business and if they go into the drink, as it were, than I should just let nature play itself out.  To make it worse the female of the trio made it clear that diving was not why she was heading to Utila.  She was looking for cocaine and general party.  I started to question whether this Island was for me.

I found Utila to be a very interesting place indeed.  My first impression of it was kind of seedy.  People were  flying around on scooters, four wheelers, golf carts and dirt bikes.  It was a scary scene to watch drivers weave around each other, bikes and pedestrians.  Not a helmet to be seen either and lots of wasted tourists who probably had never driven machines of the like before.  I was offered to buy some cocaine within the first hour.  I told the guy “maybe latter” so that he wouldn’t think of me to be too different.  I noticed a lot of rough looking characters with tombstones in their eyes roaming around.  I felt like I didn’t fit in and was exceedingly grateful for that.

The next morning brought a new day however.  I got up early to sort myself out before grabbing a 7:30 dive boat.  Utila has the cheapest diving in the world at less than $20 per dive which includes all equipment, the boat, and free accommodation at the dive shop.  The moment I descended towards the corral,  took a breath of compressed air, and watched the ocean close above me, my whole outlook changed and I knew without a doubt that I had made the right decision after all.  On the first 2 dives I saw loads of impressive wildlife, including a hawks bill sea turtle, another giant green moray and 2 spotted eagle rays.

I realized that day too, that there were a large number of people on the island who, like myself, were not there for a party but to dive as much and as frequently as they possibly could.  Or I guess you could say that they were not there to get wasted but were there to party under the sea. Cue the music.

Over the next 3 days I did 5 more amazing dives, one being another night dive and 2 of them involving some ship wrecks.  The current was interesting near Utila and I had to learn to work with it.  It would wash hard back requiring a breaking action with my flippers, than it would wash hard forward and I would kick, moving very fast, then repeat and so on.  On the second to last dive we encountered a remora eel.  Remora eels travel stuck to the side of sharks.  I wondered where his ride was.  The remora was swimming around a girl’s leg and then onto the leg of my dive buddy.  I pulled in behind him to see if I could get the eel onto me.  As I was doing this my dive buddy quickly spun around and came straight at me.  It took a second but I clued into that he was in trouble.  More precisely he was having an air issue.  I gave way for him to get my alternative air source, a spare regulator attached to my vest, while covering my own just in case in panic he took it out of my mouth.  Everything was so calm though, just as we practise in training.  In a brief moment he was breathing off my tank, I took hold of his arm so we wouldn’t separate and signalled to him if he was ok.  He signalled back that he was.  Another dive master came to us and took over.  I was buddied up with a different diver and we continued the dive as my old buddy and the other diver swam off.  It turned out that dirt had gotten into the top of the tank and blocked it.  Good training for everyone though.  Just after that we had a neat encounter with a sting ray.  It was lying in the sand.  When we arrived on the scene it slowly ascended off the bottom and then turned and swam just off to our left.

My final dive was one of my favourites.  It was in an area called the labyrinth.  It consisted of winding routes through the coral and some tight swim throughs.  I tried as hard as I could to soak it all in, knowing very well that it would be awhile before my next dive.  Although as I write this I am back in Canada, looking out at the falling snow and thinking about looking into an ice diving course!
In the end I really liked Utila and enjoyed my dives with Paradise Divers.  They were friendly and helpful.  I had a problem with using a lot of air which they all helped me to slowly reduce so that I could enjoy longer dives.  The next morning I was back on the ferry.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Shark Dive

2 days of waiting were well worth the Shark Dive, 2 days of waiting in paradise, I'm quite capable of handling.  Although I must say that the first day of waiting I didn’t get in any dives and I felt a heavy withdrawal from being down in the corral, breathing compressed air and processing nitrogen.  So the second day I got my fix with a fun dive, which is as simple as it sounds, no course involved just diving for fun. 

The next morning I kitted up at “My” dive shop and grabbed a taxi to a larger town called Coxen Hole.  The shark dive was organized through one dive shop on the island.  Although I use the word organized loosely as they really were quite unconcerned about communication, dive safety protocol, and the wants and needs of the divers.  It really made me thankful for the quality of training that I have been fortunate to have found.  I felt confident in my routine of taking care of my own safety in terms of inspecting and setting up my gear and keeping myself safe during the dive.  The dive shop seemed to be focused on selling a video of your dive for $75.  I wasn’t impressed with the outfit but the dive was perhaps one of the most fascinating events of my life. 
The dive boat went out approximately 20 minutes where we got in the water and followed a reference line off of a buoy down to 21 metres below and behind a reef.  Going down we had to fight a strong current and could see a few sharks swimming around below. 

Getting along the wall of the reef put us out of the current and gave as a good place to observe the sharks.  I say us, there were 9 fellow divers plus a dive master and the guy making the film.  I was trying to keep track of all the sharks but they came in and out of view so quickly it was hard to count.  I estimate there were ~ 15 – 20 Caribbean reef sharks ranging in size from 3 – 6 feet in length, 1 black grouper, a Nassau grouper, and a few other little fish around.  I was hoping for some sort of rogue badass shark to make an appearance.  A tiger, bull, or even some hammerheads would of uped the adventure and as I said there were 12 of us so odds were in my favour!  The dive master brought a closed bucket of fish that the sharks clearly knew all about. Whether they could smell the fish or were working on learned behaviour I was not sure, but my guess is that there was a bit of both.  We then got to swim around with the sharks.  The dive master had told us that touching the sharks was forbidden but that is kind of like telling a kid not too touch the stove.  When one of the larger sharks passed over me I had a quick look to see that the dive master was looking the other way and snuck my hand up towards its belly.  It just scooted above my fingertips but then its tail wacked me in the side of
                                                                                    the head, so I was satisfied.

We were then motioned back to the wall and our man opened the bucket.  This was a surreal experience, being all but 10 or 12 metres from a shark feeding frenzy!  Try as I may I couldn’t help keeping myself calm.  My heart was pounding with excitement so hard I thought it was going to scare the sharks away (or bring them around for a closer look).  My heart rate being up, my air was being used quickly and after the feeding, as other divers looked for teeth, I had to sign to the divemaster that I was low on air and he sent me up.  I did my 3 minute safety stop at 5 metres and got back on the boat.

This was my last day on Roatan and I reflected back on my time spent there.  I really enjoyed the place.  The dive shop, Ocean Connections, was such a great outfit and I was really feeling at home there.  They were professional, friendly, and fun.  My instructor Jergen was fantastic in his skills, clarity of instruction and his attention to safety procedures.  The place where I slept, West Bay Bed and Breakfast, was perfect for me; comfortable, clean and affordable.   The beach was fantastic and I will miss getting up early to do my kung fu and have a swim in the ocean.  While I ate a few times at the beautiful seaside resorts, my favourite place was a locals hang out.  It was built under a house on stilts, set way back from the beach in a muddy parking lot. The cement floor was cracked and uneven.  The tables and chairs made of plastic (and provided by Coke).  The roof was just high enough for me to not hit my head on the floor joists of the house above.  The servers spoke no English so I often knew not what I had just ordered.  But you know  I enjoyed eating there more than at any of the high end,    
picture perfect resort restaurants on the beach.  This place wasvery real. Authentico, I believe is the word.

The people of Routan are gentle, laid back and 
friendly.  I was a bit sad leaving the next day on the early ferry but eager to see some jungle.