Roatan 2000: September 09
Travel to the Mainland
Early morning shower, quick breakfast buffet downstairs and it was off for our first International flight. Except for one small snag. After boarding the plane Kate and I were waiting to leave. The guy behinds us pokes through the seats and asks "excuse me, where does this plane go?" Yup, you read it right, he was on a flight for Honduras and didn't even seem to know it. And his understanding didn't seem too good either when we explained where we were heading. We taxi out on to the runway, the next plane to go, when this guy suddenly gets out of his seat, strolls up the isle, through first class and up to the flight attendants station. Soons he came trundling on back and sat down. Followed quickly by the biggest flight attendant on the plane. Next thing you know we literally made a U-turn on the tarmac and headed back to the gate. At one point the pilot explained "Ladies and Gentlemen, we're heading back to the gate for just a few minutes." That's it, no further explanation. At the gate we were met by 4 armed police officers who promptly escourted our confused passenger off the plane. Working back into the queue for a takeoff we waited, and waited, and waited. Finally after half an hour the pilot announced that the navigation computer on the plane couldn't be recalibrated and an aeronautics mechanic was on his way to the plane now. Fifteen minutes later they powered the entire plane off, including the engines, paused, then powered it all back up again (they rebooted the plane!). Finally, more than an hour and twenty minutes late we taxi out again. Then an announcement comes over the intercom "PLEASE SIT DOWN. We do NOT want to have to return to the gate!". This was apparently said to someone behind us who felt the need for... something I guess. Stretching maybe? Or to find a pillow? Something. After that we blissfully left the ground...
We landed in Honduras and are shuffled down the hall to customs. A whopping three customs agents are waiting, with one for citizens and two for tourists. Without even a word we had our passports stamped and stapled with a yellow paper that was probably our visa. Moving on through we found our bags on the carousel, then went to find our tickets to Honduras. See, the travel agent sent me paper tickets to and from Honduras on Continental but informed us the actual tickets to and from Roatan would be given to us by someone greeting us at baggage. No such luck (of course). We headed the only direction that didn't seem to be covered by armed guards and promptly found ourselves outside in the blistering heat. With a huge mob ahead of us, probably a couple hundred people, and not all of them looked like they just wanted to greet the plane. Squaring my shoulders I stepped right into the crowd, figuring we'd get to the other side then take stock of the situation. Past the people staring, past the money changers screaming at me to convert my money with them and past a couple beggar kids who didn't say anything, they just walked right up to me and threw out their open hands in expectation. About the time I got to the other side of the crowd I turned around and realized Kate wasn't with me anymore. Moving back into the crowd I spotted her trying to find me. Finally getting close to her it turns out someone had just grabbed her bag from her, put it on a two-wheeled cart, and was trying to lead her somewhere. Making sure he understood we needed to get on a SOSA flight, he hung a hard right around the building and right back into the airport, right up to the appropriate line. Thanking him, and tipping a few dollars we tried to figure out what was going on. Fortunately the guy from Mayan Charters (who had our tickets) was both outgoing and had a good knowledge of English. He gave us our tickets (to be converted to boarding passes), explained we weren't on a SOSA flight, we'd be taking the trip on Islana (part of Groupo Taca). Then he set off to find someone to help us. And came back empty handed explaining that everyone (and I mean everyone on the ticket counter) was in a meeting and they'd be back in a minute, to which he added "I hope it's not a Honduran Minute".
After finally getting our boarding passes and being told we'd have our flight announced by a person, we headed up the ramp to the domestic flight waiting area. Trying to get through the metal detectors was a chore since we don't speak much Spanish and the operator spoke no English. Two other women came walking along (one of them was the worldless employee who stamped our passports). The metal detector operator asked them if either spoke English. They both responded no. She explained something to them in Spanish, one stepped forward and demanded our passports. Handing one over she gave a time to the metal-detector person. Apparently she wanted to know how long we'd be in the country (less than 2 hours at this point). She moved us through and we sat on the standard airport chairs.
Travel to the Island
After a bit of waiting a woman came out and announced a flight. Getting up we were told quietly by another tourist that this probably wasn't our flight. We explained we were flying on Islana to La Cieba, continuing on to Roatan. Turns out he was on the same flight and lucky for us his Spanish was good (he looked American). After much more waiting something was announced over the PA system. Our new friend mentioned this was our flight. Down the stairs, through the gate, onto the tarmac and into the most cramped plane I'd ever sat in. A 14-seat (well, the seats were bench seats, I mean the say they pretended there was room for 14 people total), single-engine Russian plane that looked like it'd seen better days. I mentioned to Kate, "well, the pilots wouldn't fly it if they thought it would crash, would they?" The flight actually wasn't bad, just a little nerve-wracking. I had a full view of both pilot's instrument clusters. Every 15 minutes or so a loud buzzer would sound and an idiot light would come on stating "Low Fuel Pressure - Starboard". Or "Low Fuel Pressure - Port". Either way it didn't look good. The pilot would calmly reach up, twist an overhead handle a few times, the buzzer would stop, and the light would go out. We landed in La Cieba and prepared to board another plane, identical to the one we just rode in.
We watched on the tarmac as they unloaded the bags, then were moved to the next plane. Kate was watching closely from inside the plane and saw her back get loaded. We then watched mine get put on a cart and pushed into the airport. Practically jumping out of the cramped seat and hustling back to the stairs I approached the only person who didn't look like a mechanic. I explained I'd just seen my suitcase get pushed on the cart into the airport. She just stared. Finally she said "yeah?", then resumed her staring. After a minute she motioned me back into the plane and started yelling at the baggage handlers. Moments later the entire cart was pushed back onto the tarmac and all of the bags were resorted again, this time with mine ending up on the plane. Whew, yet another crisis averted (all this and we hadn't even made it to the destination yet!)
Another cramped flight and finally we land at the island. Grabbing our luggage we go to find our contact, hoping she'd be carrying a sign or something (the manager of the place had agreed to come get us via email before we left). Not noticing anyone we worked our way outside where the taxi drivers almost pounced on us. Finally a porter moving luggage asked if we needed a cab and we explained that someone was supposed to be meeting us. Asking if we were with Sundancer (we were), he moved us back inside and up to Jeanine. Jeanine was the former manager of the cabanas, and just happened to be waiting for someone else at the airport. She explained that she knew Albea was coming and we could just wait with her for a bit. Finally Albea made it and explained her car had broken down so she'd had to take a cab to the airport just to come get us.
Let me explain the taxis there first. They appear to be just any car that happened to be rusting in someone's backyard in the US, shipped over to the island and put into service. Anywhere that has any kind of law would have promptly banned the lot of them (actually this applied to just about every car we saw, not just the cabs out there.) I've decided that cab drivers anywhere are scary, in Roatan they are just plain terrifying, especially if your new to that kind of thing (we grew used to it by the end of the week.)
We all piled into a cab, the luggage went into the trunk, and some kid got into the back seat in between Kate and I. We made it to the cabanas and got out. Lucky for us Albea had already secured a 5-gallon jug of filtered water (they recommend you don't drink the local water, and even the poorest areas we saw down there used bottled water.) After taking a few minutes to unpack we walked up to the office where Albea was securing us a car from Roatan Rentals in West End. Marco, the owner, agreed to have someone come get us and we walked back to the cabana to wait. Not too long later and we were standing in Marco's office as he filled out he paperwork. Asking which one we wanted while pointing out the window he explained that the Suzuki Samurai was $40/day, and the nicer Samurai with air conditioning was $65/day. Deciding that since the cheaper car didn't have a top and we'd be driving a bit anyway, we went with it. When he asked how long we'd need it I explained we wanted it until Sunday, but since our flight left on Sunday morning at 7am, we should probably turn it in on Saturday. Marco offered to give us until Sunday and just take us to the airport himself if we met him there at 6am, which was pretty nice considering he was closed on Sundays. We agreed and went out to the car.
I'm probably spoiled, but for $40/day in the States you get a pretty nice car. This thing initially struck me as a death trap. Everything rattled, it was rusting, and anytime you were moving the front end had a shimmy and noise that perpetually made you think that both wheels were just going to fall off while driving. We did eventually get used to it and I have to admit I have since changed my opinion on Suzuki Samurais. I now think they are VERY durable. I don't know about reliable, but definately durable.
Finding the Diving
Driving back down The Road (Roatan has one paved road (actually one road with some off-shoots), they simply call it The Road), we decided to stop by Bay Island Beach Resort to get some details about diving. Out of all the email that both Kate and I sent out looking for dive info, only Bay Island responded with anything more than a cursory "yeah, call us". Walking into the office we met Cam, the owner of the resort. We asked about diving, explained we weren't staying with them (most places down there seem to be dive resorts, all inclusive), and wanted some info. She asked how much diving we planned on doing then made us a deal that was hard to beat: $15/dive if we did 10 more dives. She also invited us back that evening for their buffet dinner and "orientation presentation" where she'd talk about the diving, the island, and answer any questions. She also mentioned a new group had just come in from Texas and were doing the checkout dive the next day, we should probably join them. We went back to the cabana to unpack.
We went back to Bay Island for the chicken dinner then listened closely as Cam explained things. Since this was only our second trip involving diving besides Hawaii, we had to listen close. After a drink or two (they have two kinds of beer on Roatan - green and brown. The color refers to the bottle, not the beer), we went back to the cabana for some sleep so we could make it back at 8am Sunday for the first dives of the trip (Bay Island does two dives off the boat in the morning, comes back for lunch, then goes back for a third dive in the afternoon.)
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