The only problem with Utila was that I just couldn’t bring myself to leave.
It was a silent dawn on the jetty. The water was stock still, the hammock only rocked slightly and the air hung motionless, waiting to be heated by the rising sun behind me. It was the moment I realised that real life in Utila had overtaken any desire I’d had to see its whale sharks.
Long-term expats and locals alike will tell you there are three lies on this Caribbean island, and for me the deception was for the most part, real.
Lie #1: I’m leaving tomorrow
I had finally found somewhere in Central America where I felt at home, but I hated myself for why it felt homely. I loved feeling safe, I loved how easy my daily routine was and I loved that every night I could go dancing at bars that lunged over the water under a sky of stars. Most of all, I loved the people I met and that our different cultures, languages and opinions were brought together by our passion for diving.
I loved that I was in my comfort zone.
And so after a few weeks of diving, dancing and constantly deliberating my check out date, I had started to question everything I thought I knew about travel. Shouldn’t exploring the world be harder? Surely we should feel like we’re throwing ourselves into the unknown and be completely at odds with our environment? Isn’t it difficult to become integrated into a community? Well, it just wasn’t. So I stayed.
Lie #2: I love you
Everyone told me that falling in love on Utila was notoriously difficult. I suppose that in such a transient place, relationships and friendships can feel fleeting, shallow and rarely worth the effort.
However I didn’t find that at all. Lucky enough to arrive on Utila with someone I already loved deeply, I left with a heart overflowing with memories of new friends and a renewed passion for being under the water. Every time I said that “I loved” on Utila, I truly meant it.
By far my longest romance on the island was with daily life.
I spent early mornings staring out at the ocean. The dive centre came to life with the hissing of tank machines and the clatter of baleada breakfasts being made. Smiling faces of friends would appear one by one, making my day just by saying ‘hello’.
As the days passed, I began to love the familiarity of the boat roll call as we pulled away from shore and clapped the captain. Daily, I dropped over the edge of coral walls into the deep blue, feeling content and weightless. In between dives, the shuffle to the back of the boat began – would we see a whale shark today? Snorkels ready? Go!
Lie #3: I’m not drinking tonight
With sea-salty faces after a morning of adventures, I would always make it back to the Tipsy Turtle in time for the lunchtime special and a cold beer. Hopping from foot to foot in the midday sun to rinse off my kit, I’d rush to get a seat in the shade. After lunch, if I wasn’t on the dive boat, I would flop into the jetty’s hammocks or simply float around in the water.
Evenings always began by rolling up the tarpaulin for sunset. “Suns down, rums down!” and spirits heightened as the day gradually cooled, descending into debauchery. Long nights were a heady haze of silhouetted sting rays, tarantulas in toilets, sweaty happiness on wooden dance floors and free tequila shots. Days came to an end with child-like sleeps and heavy, achy limbs.
Could I have rejected this nightly routine? Possibly, but then who in their right mind would say no to something that was so much fun?
A whole three weeks after I arrived, I finally found the courage to return to the mainland and it felt just as terrible as I had predicted. However with time, the island hedonism that I enjoyed feels increasingly like a wonderful dream.
I remember very clearly the moment I understood the real beauty of Utila: Time to breath deep and long under the ocean, time to indulge in afternoon beers with good people and time to dance under the stars without a care in the world. Perhaps we can’t try to understand everything in this world that’s strange to us if we never feel at home.
The Eagles’ famous line no doubt sums up my feelings best: I may have finally checked out, but I’ll never really leave.
During my time on Utila I stayed at Alton’s Dive Centre and can’t recommend it highly enough. I did a few dive packages that included discounts on accomodation. They really helped me get back into diving after too long a pause! As always, I don’t receive any kickbacks for any places, products or services that I recommend at Home Is A Feeling. I recommend them only if they’ve been excellent!