Taking the Long Way to Utila
I meet Marvin at the Banana Republic Guesthouse in the rundown port city of La Ceiba, Honduras. I had just arrived and like nearly every other traveler to pass through, intended to leave on the first ferry to Utila the following morning.
I was trying to pay for my 160 lempira room with a 500 bill. Naturally, the emotionless receptionist had no change. Marvin stepped up and offered to trade me 5 100 bills. I was thankful. 500s can be be impossible to break.
After a brief exchange of standard backpacker small talk, I learn he has just bought a sailboat, which currently sits in the La Ceiba Shipyard. He’s looking for a crew or just a few hands to help with the cleaning and prepping. He tells me if I’m interested I can help him clean and get it ready for water, and then help him sail it to Utila–bypassing the $28/per leg ferry ride, adding a learning experience and a bit of adventure. I agree to join him to the shipyard the next morning.
After a long and confusing cab ride, down a dusty, pothole-laden gravel road, we reach the shipyard. With flocks of goats, cattle and sheep roaming the premise, it seems to be more of a farmyard (with the end of the Mayan calendar not a month away, one can’t help but be reminded of Noah and the Arc).
The little sailboat, named Hedwig, is in a mild state of disrepair and neglect. It will be our job to give her some love and attention. To summarize: What follows is a week of prepping, removing the little boat’s contents; rinsing, scrubbing, washing, drying, staining, oiling–inside and out, every crevice–organizing, fixing, testing. We run errands, buy cleaning supplies and stock up on canned food and water.
One afternoon, after working, we go out with a some other shipyard guests to a a hidden lodge on a jungle river, for swimming and relaxing. There is a lonely monkey attached to a rope near a pool table. When I approach him he climbs into my arms and clings to me lovingly, refusing to let go or get down. I badly want to steal him, though doubt the practicalities of backpacking with a monkey. The experience leaves me feeling melancholy.
That night we visit a bar popular with expats and people who have lost themselves to Central America. As I sit and listen to an odd combination of Spanish, English and German, I wonder how I ended up in this situation; in a dingy bar in a sweaty city in northern Honduras; drinking beer, outnumbered by German captains.
One night we join a boat mechanic and a catamaran captain for dinner and a sunset in a nearby Garifuna village. The Garifuna–direct descendants of escaped St Vincent slaves–are a people who resemble their Caribbean relatives far more than their fellow Hondurans. We eat rich, coconutty conch soup as Garifuna children play in the water, the setting sun reflecting shades of lavender, pink and orange on the grey sea. Reggae blaring, cold beer, a fresh breeze–nothing to complain about, not even the sand flies.
One night we take out the Belizan shipyard worker who had helped wax Hedwig. We eat grilled meat then play pool at a seedy local bar; trying not to be distracted by the convincing transvestite prostitutes shaking their booties to blaring reggaeton. I wonder how men can be so pretty.
At the end of each night I’m dropped off back at The Banana Repubic, always to meet a new flock of backpackers, staying a night in La Cieba before catching the early ferry. But everyday by 9AM, I’m once again the only guest. By 10, Im picked up and brought back to the shipyard.
Two days before we set sail, I move my things to the shipyard; sleeping on one of Hedwig’s convertible beds. A main living area with a tiny kitchen, map and navigation nook, convertible table and benches that turn into beds, a closet-sized bathroom, and a cramped captains sleeping chambers make up the inner cabin.The toilet is broken beyond amateur repair and the sink is missing a fresh water tank–i.e. no usable toilet, shower, or sink while on the boat. Staying on the sailboat feels a lot like camping. My nostalgic camping memories along with my childhood love of that Kurt Russell classic Captain Ron keep me in high spirits throughout the experience.
One day, a massive crane comes and picks up Hedwig, carries her 100 yards and gently places her in the harbor.
We test the engine and check for leaks. It becomes evident that the windows leak after a few torrential rain falls. Also, that the engine brings in water. Necessary repairs are made and finally we are ready for the open waters.
It takes us just over 4 hours to get to Utila. Within the first hour we realize that the engine compartment and the underpart of the floor boards is filling with water. We begin quickly pumping and scooping out the water, as Marvin tries to figure out the source of the problem. Fifteen stressful minutes later its discovered a hose was left unattached after yesterday’s repairs–hence leaking salt water. The hose is reattached and we are again sailing smooth. As lack of wind in the proper direction makes actual sailing impossible, Marvin teaches me to drive the boat using the navigation system and motor.
At one point, crazy German that he is, Marvin gets the idea that he’d like to try wake boarding behind Hedwig, while I drive. I agree, though not entirely keen on the idea. It turns out to be an anticlimactic event–Hedwig’s weak motor failing to exceed a crawling speed, Marvin slowly skimming the water with his board.
I drive the remainder of the journey, while he takes care of last minute repairs.
We arrive and anchor in the harbor just as the sun is setting spectacularly into the sea. It’s mandatory that we celebrate our week of work and successful crossing. Also it’s a Friday. We take the tiny dingy, with its ancient motor to the island and immediately are thrust into the backpacker/diving/party abyss of Utila.
Over the next few days, I say goodbye to Marvin and Hedwig and become a true participant in the Island’s festivities–signing up for an open water diving course & staying in a Utila classic, always just a few feet from the sea; under a hot sun, speaking English only, mingling with the other divers, and dive masters. I have no shame and I will stay till the end of the world and likely until after Christmas.