Guatemala: boats, buses and a black door.

At the start of our trip, the concept of not having some accommodation booked at least a day in advance didn’t exist. We always looked something up on one of the various booking websites and got ourselves a one night minimum stay secured. As time went on, our logistical drive seemed to be dry up somewhat, replaced in spades by our ‘we’ll be alright’ philosophy. And we always were, just about.

Now, leaving Belize City, we not only had no idea of where we were going to be staying that night, but we also weren’t sure which country we would be in by the end of the day. That was a first!

‘Let’s just go as far as we can.’
Trundling south on the bus, we were ultimately aiming for Livingston – a Garifuna town on the Caribbean coast in Guatemala – but if we were too late for a direct ferry, we knew we may have had to stay in Puerto Barrios instead (still in Guatemala but not somewhere you’d want to stay for long). Failing that, Punta Gorda in Belize would have to do!

Tapado - traditional Garifuna seafood soup.   You can see the crab, but can you spot the whole fish?
Tapado – traditional Garifuna seafood soup. You can see the crab, but can you spot the whole fish?

As it happened, we were getting close and the ticket seller on the bus came up to us and said, ‘Are you going to Guatemala today?’ Since we answered in the affirmative, he keenly explained that he would drop us off as close to the dock as possible, and then we’d have a five minute walk – we should just make the last boat of the day.

Grateful for his kindness, we thanked him as we exited the bus and followed his directions making it to the port just in time to buy our tickets for the crossing, although this ferry was unfortunately going to Puerto Barrios, not Livingston. So we sat for a few minutes with a German couple who were making the same trip, gazing at a wooden jetty which had a small fibreglass boat tied to it, getting buffeted by the sizeable waves of the Caribbean Sea and wondering when this ferry would be arriving. It can’t be that big a ferry if there are only four passengers…

Then the inevitable happened – yes, you guessed it, the ‘ferry’ was already there and we were looking right at it. Feeling marginally apprehensive at the prospect of riding the waves in the small boat, we hopped in and watched as the boat captain ominously wrapped our bags and some other cargo in a large tarpaulin and secured it. Were we expecting to get wet by any chance?

Yes indeed, very wet! As the driver gunned the two large outboard engines, we were thrust across the ocean with a kind of kamikaze vigour. It was similar in a way to our boat ride from Gili Trawangan back to Bali, except this time the ratio between size of waves and size of boat was much increased! Numerous times we descended into troughs, with water rising on all sides, only to accelerate up the steep slope ahead of us, cresting the wave at speed and feeling that momentary ominous weightlessness before crashing down once more onto the surface of the ocean with a huge splash of salty water in our faces.

The boat captain was sat in front of us watching the cargo and turning round with a maniacal grin each time the boat was thrown up into the air. After twenty minutes of adrenalin fuelled madness, he turned around to the four of us and said, ‘Hey, where are you going?’ ‘Erm, Puerto Barrios,’ I replied, managing to conceal my concern at his apparent lack of knowledge of his own boat’s destination. ‘And then?’ came the reply. ‘Well, tomorrow we’ll probably get a boat to Livingston.’

He contemplated this for a moment and then said, ‘You want to go to Livingston now?’ ‘Err, well, I guess,’ I said, distracted from rational thought by the continued chaotic boat ride. ‘Tell you what,’ he said, ‘You give me five dollars extra each, I’ll take you to Livingston right now.’ Although my natural instinct would be to refuse this apparent grab for more of our cash, we quickly realised that his offer would save us an unwanted night in Puerto Barrios and an unnecessary boat ride in the morning. So, with our acceptance, he whistled the driver who swung the boat to the right and changed course.

Livingston
You have to arrive in Livingston by boat, you see, as there are no roads leading there from the rest of the mainland. It has roads and vehicles in it, even small lorries, but they too will have come across the water at some point. Stepping off the boat, we were expecting to be met by immigration. But instead, we were apparently free to wander around wherever we liked – to grab a bite to eat, maybe have a beer.

Tempting as it was to head straight for the nearest bar, we thought we should probably get stamped in to Guatemala – didn’t want to end up in no man’s land! The immigration office was about a five minute walk into the town although the guys behind the desk didn’t seem remotely bothered about our appearance – we could have had that beer after all!

Definitely worth the walk.
Definitely worth the walk.

Livingston turned out to be a pretty quiet place, with not much going on. We did spot a walk to a series of natural waterfalls and pools though, so we thought we’d give it a go. Las Siete Altares – the Seven Altars – was about an hour’s walk along the beach from the town. We made our way down there, paid a small entrance fee and were soon clambering through the forest alongside the river. Arriving at the top pool, I was keen to jump in but unsure of the depth. Luckily, a local guy turned up and leapt into the water – it was clearly pretty deep. So we spent an afternoon messing around, diving and jumping into the pool from various points and generally having fun.

Helena contemplates the scale of the problem.
Helena contemplates the scale of the problem.

Significantly, however, the pools weren’t the most memorable part of that day. It is unfortunate that for us, the most stunning thing we saw was the huge amount of plastic that was littering the beach for the entire walk. I’m not describing the odd crushed water bottle and crisp wrapper here, I’m talking about huge piles of plastic everything that had been washed out of the ocean onto the beach. From polystyrene packing material, to drinking straws, to flip-flops, pieces of broken furniture, carrier bags – if you can make it out of plastic and then throw it away, it was on this beach somewhere. It wasn’t necessarily coming from Livingston, either, or even from Guatemala. This stuff can travel hundreds of miles, carried in ocean currents. It was a sorry state of affairs and a huge eye-opener to the massive environmental issue that is only getting worse each day.

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Vultures making the most of the scraps.
A distressing situation.
A distressing situation.

Cruising the Rio Dulce

Our poor photography skills strike again! It sort of gives you the idea though.
Our poor photography skills strike again! It sort of gives you the idea though.

Our other reason for choosing Livingston as our point of entry into Guatemala is that there is a beautiful boat ride you can take along the Rio Dulce going inland. In fact, you almost have to take this trip as there is no other way out of Livingston into the rest of Guatemala. It is a real treat too; minutes after leaving Livingston, the walls of the jungle rise up dramatically on either side of the river. Vegetation inhabits all but the most sheer of rock faces and you get a sense that the river is consciously drawing you in, enclosing you to the point of it being inescapable. With twists and turns, you become entirely surrounded, with the colour of the thick green water below only serving to intensify the experience. I remember being surprised at how quickly the scene had changed from the open harbour at Livingston only minutes earlier. It reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, although his description of the enclosing jungle is far superior to my own!

Intense green!
Intense green!

Strangely however, just as quickly as you were enveloped, the jungle then suddenly releases you into the large inland lakes that house many boats during the hurricane season. The trip through the high-walled forest, a truly stunning experience, was also frustratingly short. From there on in we cruised along the calm waters all the way to Rio Dulce town where we caught a bus to Guatemala City.

Guatemala City
As the bus progressed ever closer to the capital, we were beginning to feel a bit apprehensive. The reputation of the cities in this region is well known and summed up in a single word: dangerous. The guide book is filled with warnings about not going out after dark, taking taxis everywhere and not carrying valuable possessions with you. It was becoming problematic for us then as the bus stagnated in the city traffic and dusk closed in rapidly.

We did have a plan though. Helena had done a little search before we left and found a promising looking hostel in the city that got good reviews from previous travellers. Interestingly, unlike your normal set of reviews that rotate around vocabulary like: ‘clean’, ‘fun’, ‘cool’, ‘chilled’ – all buzzwords for travellers looking for accommodation – the ones for this hostel were all focused heavily on the theme of safety and security, and included numerous references to ‘the black door.’

The black door in question.
The black door in question.

It was called Theatre International Hostel, and I would recommend it to anybody looking for a safe place to stay in Guatemala City. On its own website it says, ‘Please check out the picture of our door so you can find us. We don’t have a sign.’ The reason they don’t have a sign is not negligence on the part of the management, or a lack of marketing awareness; it is simply part of the desire to remain relatively inconspicuous. Purposefully not advertising their location is part of the security strategy. There is also a big sign inside the door that reminds guests not to open it – to anyone!

It was dark by the time we arrived. We only had two blocks to go to get to the hostel so we shunned the numerous offers for taxis and walked at speed into the city. We were carrying everything – big bags full of clothes and toiletries, smaller bags with electronics, valuables, money, cards and passports – the full works. Had we been accosted, not only would we not be able to run, we would be offering up everything we had.

Fortunately however, we made it to the street, walked past a local bus stop (which is an enclosed glass cased structure with a turnstile manned by an armed guard), and found the door. We knocked, it opened. We slipped inside and it was closed firmly behind us.

Once we were there, we found a whole group of other travellers taking refuge from whatever the city may have thrown at them outside the door. We quickly got chatting, bought beer from the fridge and got to work putting our nerves at ease.

Our only niggling problem was that we hadn’t eaten since before getting on the bus at midday. It was soon nearing 10pm and we were considering just foregoing dinner entirely, but we heard there was a corner shop within sight of the door. Looking out (with our feet still inside the hostel), we spotted it and decided it was worth a try. Leaving everything behind, we made a run for it with just enough money to grab some snacks. Wanting to minimise the time spent outside as much as possible, and with our minimal Spanish, we managed to grab a couple of bananas and a packet of crisps and were soon heading back.

So there we were, drinking beer and eating bananas for dinner – what on earth had we got ourselves into?

¿Habla Espanol?
Speaking of Spanish… Well, I can’t – speak Spanish that is. On our day trip to Tikal with Sarah, I was approached by an extravagant guide who said with gusto, ‘¡Buenos días, amigo! ¿Como esta?’ When I replied with no more than a quizzical look, he flung his hands to the sides and exclaimed, ‘What! No Spanish?’

No, unfortunately, I have never learned Spanish. Apart from the occasional ‘¡Hola!’, the frequent ‘¡Gracias!’ and the obligatory, ‘Dos cerveza, por favor,’ I am very challenged in the understanding Spanish department. Helena got an A* in Spanish GCSE but now, by her own admittance, has regressed to a woefully weak level of understanding, frustrated all the more at having bits of language floating around in her head but being unable to connect them together coherently, let alone fluently. What she can remember, only materialises in the present tense too. At least I have an excuse!

This had never been a problem before, however. Quite apart from countries that speak English anyway, pretty much everywhere else we went in Asia, including the whole of India, we got by on English and whatever greetings we managed to learn in any given language. We were quite happily having entire conversations in English and then signing off with ‘Terima kasih’ in Malaysia, ‘Vinaka’ in Fiji, ‘Kop koon kaa,’ in Thailand, ‘Shukriya’ in India for example, and receiving smiles from locals who I suppose appreciated the gesture.

In Guatemala, however, it was not so. It was the first place where people didn’t automatically revert to English for our benefit – and not because they wouldn’t, simply because they do not speak it. Why would they? Unlike the individual nations and languages of Asia, who benefit from being able to communicate in a common language, almost the entirety of Central and South America speak Spanish. They have no use for English.

So, we were suddenly in a situation where Helena had to remember quickly, and I had to pick up as much as I could. Happily, both of these things were kick started by necessity and combined with a bit of miming and a lot of pointing, we’re not doing too badly. I don’t think I’ll be chatting about the finer points of the recent government elections in Guatemala any time soon, but I can get by ordering food, getting directions, and getting a room in a hostel.

Venturing out
The security of the hostel was hard to leave, but at about 2pm the following day we decided that we had to brave the city. We could have just left – many travellers do just that – but I suppose we were feeling a bit stubborn, and like we needed to connect with the place somehow. So we made a run for it – to McDonald’s.

Continuing the door theme, this door to the congress building had some kind of protest stuck on it.
Continuing the door theme, this door to the congress building had some kind of protest stuck on it.

And before you ask, no, we’re not ashamed of that choice. It’s not that we wanted to eat the food, we just needed to find our feet somewhere that we thought may be safe. Familiarity is good for that, so we stand by the decision. Plus, it worked. After a short stop off, we waved goodbye to the armed guard at the door and went for a little walk around the area.

This guy wouldn't have looked out of place in the USA.
This guy wouldn’t have looked out of place in the USA.

It turned out to be quite interesting. We didn’t venture far, but we did get to eat tacos made on the street, visit the main square and spotted a few buildings worthy of pictures. We also found a bakery that sold massive donuts and I find that there’s nothing better to make you feel at ease than a cup of tea and a huge confectionery product. So it wasn’t that bad after all.

All aboard the chicken bus!
It was also here that we first heard of the concept of ‘chicken buses’: ‘You’re going to Antigua? How are you getting there? Are you going to get the chicken bus?’ and other such variants of these questions were regularly asked at Theatre International.

A chicken bus - check out the paint job!
A chicken bus – check out the paint job!

So what is a chicken bus? Well, very simply, it’s an old school bus that the US has deemed unfit for further use. They sell them off to Central American countries (this is not solely a Guatemalan phenomenon) who repair them (apparently), repaint them in gaudy colours reminiscent of the Philippine Jeepneys, and then run them at mind warpingly high speeds as local buses all over the country. They are called chicken buses for two reasons: 1 – because they pack you in like chickens, and 2 – because locals are not averse to transporting livestock on board, most often chickens.

So, were we going to get a chicken bus to Antigua? Hell no. Not a chance. Not when a nice coach from the bus station two blocks down was leaving at a very sociable 2pm, and for a very reasonable 45 Quetzales – about £4 or so – and especially not because we’d heard all sorts of horror stories about them being hijacked by armed gangs. We weren’t ready for that kind of excitement, not just yet anyway…

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Spotted this guy on the way to the Seven Altars – check out the length of his tail!
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Practising my photography.
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Playing around with the editing functions on my iPod – I think it works well on this shot.
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And I really like this building in black and white!

Freediving part II – going deeper…

‘Enjoy your dive. You’re a very strong diver.’ Lisa’s words lingered in my mind as I headed into the deep. From the surface, you could only see the first 20 metres of line, beyond that, it melted away into the blue, as I soon would too. Relax, equalise, you have the oxygen, don’t be afraid, stay calm… Heading for a new maximum depth is always a bit nerve wracking; I remember it from trying to hit 16 meters months earlier in the Philippines, but this was going to be at least double that depth. Not possible, surely? As I descended, the pressure in my ears increased, but the equalisation wasn’t difficult; I was in control. The thing is, you don’t look where you’re going; you keep your chin tucked in, you keep soft focus on the line in front of you, and just … keep … going.

And then it happens. That voice speaks to you from somewhere deep inside, ‘You need to breathe, my friend. You need to breathe … now!’

Tempted to grab the rope and turn back I took a little glimpse ahead of me; the bottom weight is right there! You can’t quit now! But then, every second spent going deeper increases the risk.  Maybe it’s too much, too far, too deep.

With a rather inelegant lurch, I headed down the last metre, grabbed the weight in my hands, spared a moment to glance at the ocean floor a metre or so below me, and then, pulled down hard to begin my ascent. Don’t panic, panicking only burns oxygen, you’ll be ok, it won’t be long, there’s not that far to go…

Sometimes, the ascent can feel like an eternity.
Sometimes, the ascent can feel like an eternity.

Fifteen metres down and rising fast, Lisa appeared in front of me, looking calm, happy, exuding confidence – I am desperately trying to show that I’m ok but my stomach is contracting heavily as my body gives me the signal that it needs to dump carbon dioxide. Hold on, hold on, just a few more seconds….

‘Breathe, breathe, strong inhale, breathe.’ These are Lisa’s words; I’m on the surface, I’m ok. I look at her with clear eyes as the oxygen floods back into my system. ‘You made it to the bottom?’ she asks, gently. I nod my head. ‘How deep was it?’ I check the dive computer on my wrist; it reads 34.7 metres.

34.7m – near enough five metres deeper than I’d been before – would have seemed impossible before we started this adventure back in the Philippines in May with Wolfgang, but now, here in Utila, we were learning that we had the capacity to do far more than we ever realised. Let me spin the clock back a few days…

Welcome to Freedive Utila!
Welcome to Freedive Utila!

We were in Honduras, it was the end of August. We’d been in Central America for almost an entire month and bar one snorkelling trip in Belize, we’d literally hardly stepped foot in the ocean; we were desperate to get back into diving! And that’s when Helena found Freedive Utila.

Utila is the smaller of the three Bay Islands. A mecca for scuba divers, it also has a dedicated freedive school mainly focusing on running the Apnea Total courses. When we arrived, we made a beeline for the school and were greeted by the owner, ‘My name’s Mark but everyone calls me Tex … because I’m from Texas,’ he added by way of explanation. We chatted about our freediving experience so far and Tex invited us out on the boat the following morning to fun dive. Perfect!

‘Fun’ diving, as far as free diving is concerned, is still effectively a training session. Unlike scuba divers who go down for 40 minutes or so and check out all of the fish and coral they can find, free divers get a kick from hanging on to a floating buoy for a few hours, seeing how deep they can go and for how long. Freedive Utila’s fun dives however actually have the added bonus of often being run at a site above a sunken wreck, that of the Halliburton 211, which offers depths up to 30 metres. I was very happy to find that having not dived since the Gili Isles, I was still comfortably capable of hitting around 25 metres.

Tex and Helena ascending back to the buoy.
Tex and Helena ascending back to the buoy.

The second day was even more fun! The lines were running slightly deeper; I made a dive to at least 30 metres (which equalled my pb) and then we played around by making videos of swimming through the wheelhouse of the wreck. I have yet to figure out how to upload videos to this blog, but as soon as I find a way, I’ll get it on here! Helena, although still struggling a little with equalisation, was also gaining depth in the feet down position.

Exploring the shipwreck wheelhouse at 21 metres down.
Exploring the shipwreck wheelhouse at 21 metres down.

And so, after two great days, we were supposed to leave. We had a lot of ground to cover and increasingly less time in which to cover it. ‘We need to go really,’ said Hels. ‘Yeah,’ came my reply. ‘We’ll end up with no time for Nicaragua and Costa Rica if we’re not careful,’ she continued. ‘You’re right there,’ I concurred. And then, after a short pause, she said what we were both thinking, ‘Maybe we should do the advanced free diver course…’

And that’s when the real fun began.

First of all, we moved into a room at Freedive Utila and were immediately welcomed into the family. It was a great atmosphere in the group, with a huge focus on eating Baleadas (Honduran national dish, look it up!) that was second only to the time spent diving.

Just a part of the Freedive Utila family.
Just a part of the Freedive Utila family.

Then we were introduced to our instructor, Lisa, who is not only an exceptional diver, she is also an inspirational coach. Her gentle and reassuring manner put us at ease from the outset, and her genuine sense of energy and enthusiasm for all things free diving was infectious. Lisa gets a real kick from diving, going into an almost hypnotic trance during her preparation and focusing on all the positive aspects of every dive, no matter what the depth.

Day one of the advanced course begins with static apnea training – very simply, the art of holding your breath for as long as possible without moving. This can either be done ‘dry’, (i.e. on land) by putting on a nose clip and keeping your mouth closed, or face down in the water. We were to do both.

Helena went first. We had wandered out to the wooden dock and she was lying face up on a yoga mat with Lisa sitting cross legged near her head, speaking gently, counting inhales and exhales as she prepared Hels for her first attempt. The breathing preparation takes at least five minutes and focuses mainly on calming you down, reducing your heart rate, and clearing your mind. ‘When you’re ready, take a big breath,’ said Lisa softly. It was time.

I watched as Hels filled her lungs from the bottom upwards and then closed her mouth. Lying still, she seemed entirely at peace. There was no interruption from Lisa; she just sat, calmly observing, stop watch in hand. I had also sneakily started a timer on my watch and was looking on with interest …

Two minutes passed and Helena looked comfortable. Lisa was now looking closely at Hels’ stomach, searching for the tell-tale muscle contractions that signal increased levels of carbon dioxide in the blood stream.

By three minutes, Helena’s stomach muscles were visibly crunching, and Lisa was talking now, telling her she was doing well, asking her to signal she was ok, and counting contractions with her, ‘Ok, five more…’

When Helena breathed again, Lisa went through recovery breaths with her and then asked, ‘How was it?’ Helena described listening to the Caribbean accents of the guys nearby drifting across the water and watching colourful patterns swirling behind her eyes. Then the question came, ‘How long do you think you did?’ After much thought Helena ventured a guess of, ‘Two minutes? Maybe two and a half?’

She had hit three minutes thirty one seconds. Sixteen seconds better than her previous best, 3:15, and this was just her first try…

We didn't take pictures during the course - sorry - but hopefully this shot of Hels chilling on the dock will enhance the story at this point!
We didn’t take pictures during the course – sorry – but hopefully this shot of Hels chilling on the dock will enhance the story at this point!

Then it was my turn. I was feeling a bit nervous – the last time I’d tried static on Gili Trawangan, I hadn’t even managed to hit the same time I’d done on the first day with Wolfgang – 3mins 30secs. I was worried I may be in for another disappointment.

I started the breathe up with my eyes closed and Lisa’s voice in my ears. All too soon, the five minutes were gone and she was telling me to take my big breath. As soon as I did, I felt like I needed to exhale, to keep breathing. I felt uncomfortable on the mat, constantly had the urge to swallow, and my brain was spinning with the distractions around us. I tried to shut it all out, to relax, to focus but there was a voice in my head saying, ‘This is no good, you can’t do this, you need to breathe, breathe … breathe!’

I’m not sure whether it’s harder to fight the urge to breathe when you’re at depth or when you’re on the surface. At depth, you pretty much have no choice; if you open your mouth, you’re breathing in water! In static apnea on the surface though, all you have to do is lift your head and it’s right there, sweet, refreshing, oxygen-rich air, ripe for the breathing! In dry static, it’s even worse. You just need to open your mouth.

But somehow, I managed to fight the urge. When my contractions started, I heard Lisa’s voice in my ear, coaching me through it, checking I was safe. The thing is, once they start, they just keep coming, getting stronger and stronger all of the time. Soon, the entire front of my torso, from my abdomen right up to my throat, was pumping in and out. ‘That’s good, that’s very good, you’re going to be very happy,’ Lisa’s voice still helping me through, but then she changed tack,’OK and now breathe. Breathe Chris, breathe.’ Breathe? Really? Does she mean it? I had a nanosecond of doubt before I took up the offer and opened my mouth to begin recovery breaths.

After discussing my ordeal (because it had pretty much been a fight from the start), and venturing a guess of three minutes, she showed me the watch. It read four minutes and three seconds. I was stunned.

We moved into the water. Helena went first again, and after the same preparation, was looking comfortable, lying perfectly still with Lisa watching closely. Then, all of a sudden, she popped up. It had only been two minutes and 45 seconds. ‘Sorry, I just felt like I had to come up,’ she said wiping the water from her eyes. Sometimes it goes that way; like anything, you get good ones and bad ones.

So, a bit sooner than anticipated, it was back to me. Nose clip and goggles in place, breathing through a snorkel, I was floating face down to prepare. This time I felt much calmer than I had on the dock. After all, I’d just done a 4 minute breath hold, I had nothing to lose. We went through the full preparation, I took my final breath, and put my face down.

With your face in the water, things are different. Your senses are numbed from the outer world, especially your hearing. It’s easier to enter your own headspace and remain enclosed within it. Although I went through my initial discomfort, a phase I’m beginning to get used to with breath holding, I suddenly found myself in an extended moment of complete calm. It felt so relaxed, so easy. Spiritual, even?

Inevitably, the contractions came, and soon Lisa was talking to me, asking for ok signals, pushing me on but keeping me safe. Eventually, she told me to breathe and when I surfaced, I was amazed to read 4:37 on the watch. Four minutes, thirty seven seconds. I had not only equalled the dry static, I’d surpassed it by over thirty seconds. And I felt like I could have done more.

Neither of us would have guessed that we could do this kind of length breath hold!
Neither of us would have guessed that we could do this kind of length breath hold!

Helena was keen to have another go in the water, and this one went much better. With Lisa’s coaching through the second half, she not only smashed through three and a half minutes, she broke the four minute barrier and kept going … Face in the water, continually signalling ok, the time kept counting and Hels pushed on and on. Incredibly, when she did finally surface, Lisa stopped the clock. ‘You’ll never believe this,’ she said, showing Hels the stop watch, ‘You just got exactly the same time as Chris. 4:37!’ ‘Oh damn!’ came the reply, ‘Just one more second would have done it!’

Buoyed by our static performances, we were keen to get back into deep water. Day two was focused on ‘exhale diving’. I won’t go into too much theoretical detail, but there are an unexpected set of bonuses that occur when you let the air out of your lungs before you dive; it’s also the best way to train your lungs to cope with deeper pressures. You’d think that you would need as much air as possible, but the main benefit of exhaling is that it is actually much easier to dive. It makes sense, really: with full lungs, you’re incredibly buoyant, so it’s hard to descend. Diving with empty lungs alleviates the buoyancy issue and incredibly, doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t dive for as deep or as long … But to go into that would to be getting super technical.

I do clearly remember one of my early attempts though; I’d followed Lisa’s instructions: taken my last big breath, then relaxed and let it out, before heading down the line. It was certainly different – I was dropping like a stone! Then all of a sudden, I had this desperate urge to breath; it wasn’t a contraction, it was just a very strong deep sensation, sent from somewhere in my nervous system that had me heading for the surface at speed. Hanging on to the buoy, I described what had happened. ‘That sounds like your vagus nerve,’ said Lisa, ‘It’s a survival response triggered by pressure on your abdomen.’ The most important thing was that it could be trained. ‘If you give in to it each time,’ Lisa explained, ‘it will get stronger. You need to relax, thank your body for trying to keep you alive, but have confidence in the fact that you have the air. It will fade.’ And it did. I still get the sensation at depth, but I’m learning how to manage it. Day two then was another huge leap in our understanding of free diving and the way the body manages the effects of pressure and depth.

Helena and Lisa on deep diving day.
Helena and Lisa on deep diving day.

Speaking of depth … Day three was deep dive training. We are now back to where I started this post, with my dive to 35 metres. Helena too, despite still not fully solving her equalising issues, was diving to greater depths feet first, hitting 20 metres on day three. So we came back from our final session satisfied, happy, stunned, grateful and inspired.

And now, it was time to go.

Well, I thought it was, but Helena was keen to get in another session. ‘You want to go out again?’ I questioned, feeling tired after completing the course but knowing that if the boat went out again the following morning I’d definitely be on it. We spoke to Tex. ‘Well, we don’t have any courses going tomorrow, but if you both want to dive, that’s enough for me to take the boat out. There won’t be any students so we can go to the deep site if you like?’ It took us all of two seconds thought to accept the offer!

The dive boat in Utila's calm water.
The dive boat in Utila’s calm water.

So, it was the true final day. We were anchored in deep water with two dive bouys set up. Both lines were running to well in excess of forty metre depths. Tex was on one, with Jon, the other instructor, and Louis, one of the masters students. On our buoy we had myself, Helena, Lisa and Zach – the other masters student. All experienced divers, all focused on doing our own dives, all acting as safety divers in rotation for each other.

Having thought I may have been too tired, I was now feeling pretty good and keen to recreate (and beat) some of the depths from the day before. I was slightly niggled by the 34.7 – I wanted a true 35. The first couple of warm up dives, however, didn’t go particularly well. I couldn’t seem to find proper focus, couldn’t clear my head. I’d made comfortable dives, but it just wasn’t feeling that good.

Soon it was time to make a decision – go for a maximum dive, or use this as a practice session. The thing about deep diving is that you can’t do it repeatedly; you can’t push your limits and then expect to do another and another and another dive to the same depth. It takes a lot out of you, so if you want to do it, you have to do it early on in the session and fully commit.

On my fourth dive then, I let them know I was going for maximum depth (It’s an important part of the safety protocol to let your safety diver know what dive you’re doing). I went through the full breathe up, got myself calm and focused, took a final breath of full lungs, and headed down the line.

Initially, things seemed to be going ok. I’d got past the first ten metres, I was beginning to feel my body getting drawn into the ocean as it became more negatively buoyant, it was going well. The vagus sensation came and went, and then … I turned. Something inside clicked, my hand clasped tight onto the rope, and I sent myself upwards without knowing what depth I had reached.

Back on the buoy, I took recovery breaths, signalled to Zach that I was ok, and then looked at the watch – 33.2 metres. I hadn’t even matched the dive from the day before, let alone beaten it. Frustrated, I considered calling it a day there, and for a few minutes I just watched the other divers and performed my safety role in turn.

Lisa was amazing to watch. Diving for herself now, not acting as an instructor, she was only wearing a nose clip. The final breaths of her breathe up saw her with head out of the water, sucking air in through pursed lips to control the flow, head tilted slightly to the left, eyes closed and … smiling! Each time she went down the line it seemed so serene, so graceful. She did have one final word for me as coach though – after recovering from a dive, she slipped around the buoy, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Hey. Yesterday, that 33 metre dive would have been a pb.’

She had a point. You can’t always expect to go deeper every time; there will be better days than others.

Zach drifts down easily to the Halliburton wheelhouse.
Zach drifts down easily to the Halliburton wheelhouse.

With this thought in my mind, I decided to go for one more dive. This time, my main focus was on enjoying the dive, staying calm, relaxing, being grateful for where I was, for who I was with, for just having the opportunity to learn and perform in this sport.

Strangely, the preparation for this dive was perhaps even worse than the one before; there was a slight swell on the ocean and I was beginning to feel nauseous. But, as the water splashed into the snorkel, and then onto my face as I was taking my final breaths, I began to feel a strong desire to be under the surface. I’d never known that sensation before – I guess my subconscious knew it was still down there!

My subconscious was right. As soon as I was fully submerged, the nausea instantly disappeared. Heading down the line I felt calmer than I ever had on any previous dive – I think I may even have had my eyes closed. I began to feel the rope trailing faster through my fingers as the ocean welcomed me to its depths, and then … I stopped, and did nothing.

We’d spoken about this part of deep dives on the course, the freefall – when your body is no longer buoyant due to the pressure of the water on your lungs and so you simply drop deeper into ocean. You’re weightless, flying. It felt a bit like when the static had become really easy three days earlier. Thank you body. Thank you for being so amazing. Everything was positive, my mind was almost completely empty, the only sensation being the continual trickle of line through the fingers on my right hand, metre after metre. I was going deeper, I had no idea how deep, but I didn’t really mind; something would tell me when it was time to turn – a contraction maybe, possibly even the weights at the end of the line.

That something actually turned out to be an inability to equalise any more. I just went to relieve the pressure in my ears and it didn’t work. I tried a second time, still nothing. Oh well, it must be time to go. Grasping the line, I turned and began to ascend. Although it seemed to be taking a long time, I felt comfortable, in control, aware of my body and its reactions to both the depth and the lack of air.

Very soon, Lisa was in front of me, checking I was ok in the last part of my ascent, and then guiding me back to the buoy safely where I took my recovery breaths, and marvelled at the amazing feelings I’d just experienced. ‘I got to freefall,’ I said with a smile, ‘I’ve never felt it properly before. It was incredible.’

Only then did I check the dive watch. It read 41.0 – forty one metres.

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With our super special coach, Lisa.

***

If anyone reading this is interested in freediving, Apnea Total Utila is a world class place to learn the art.  Helena and I have to say a huge thank you to Tex, Marie and their instructors Lisa and Jon; their experience and professionalism is exceptional. Thanks too to Zach and Louis, the masters students, who are both incredible divers. 

One last thing, I have purposely written repeatedly about safety procedures in this account. It maybe detracts from the writing slightly, but it is of utmost importance that everyone understand two things: 1 – Helena and I have been diving with some very experienced divers whose number one priority is always the safety of everyone in the water and 2 – this priority on safety begins in the class room. You cannot and must not attempt to free dive alone, nor should you attempt static breath holds without qualified supervision. We would hate to think that we put anyone in danger by writing an account such as this. Get yourself to a freediving school – you’ll love it!

Finding our feet in Central America

Landing in Belize City signalled the start of the second major leg of our trip; a four and a half month jaunt through Central and South America which could take in thirteen different countries … or perhaps even more, we’ll see!

Also, we had Sarah, our friend from school, joining us for a bit to explore Belize.

Sharing a bottle of duty-free prosecco - what's not to like!
Sharing a bottle of duty-free prosecco – what’s not to like!

Having heard that Belize City wasn’t the greatest (or safest) place to hang around, once we met Sarah at the airport, we jumped straight on to a water taxi and headed for Caye Caulker, one of Belize’s many small islands. We’d booked a few nights at Tree Tops guest house where we met the enigmatic and interesting Doris. A short and rather heavily set lady, Doris had a dry self-deprecating humour that only made her all the more endearing.

Caye Caulker itself is a decent place to hang out, busy enough to support a variety of restaurants and the occasional bar, but not so busy as to feel inauthentic. We wandered along the main street, enjoying the lack of cars and the relaxed vibe, stopping off at the bar by The Split – the break in the island caused by hurricane Hattie in 1961 – now a lively spot and the best place for swimming. The only issue this section of Caribbean coast has is a prevalence of sea grass, which is a floating seaweed type plant that is washed ashore by the prevailing winds. It’s not harmful in itself, it just slightly detracts from what would otherwise be impeccable beaches.

Belize’s other main attraction is its reef; the second largest barrier reef in the world after Australia’s. We spotted a snorkelling trip run by Ragamuffin Tours that involved sailing out to the reef. I was excited by the idea of being on an actual sailing boat – we hadn’t been on any so far on the trip – so we opted for this one. I suppose the fact that it was run by a crew of dreadlocked, reggae loving rastafarians may have also played into my pushing for this particular choice.

Helena and Sarah prepare to join me in shark-infested waters!
Helena and Sarah prepare to join me in shark-infested waters!

I stand by it though; the tour was awesome. Not only did we really sail the boat (some chugged out there on an engine despite being capable of sailing), the marine life on the reef was incredible. Our first stop was ‘Shark and Ray Alley’ where, unsurprisingly, we got to see sharks and rays… It was a bit unnerving at first, as the water was absolutely teeming with sharks, but Captain Shane explained that these were nurse sharks and they had little or no interest in nibbling on us for lunch. So, GoPro in hand, we hopped  in.

Getting up close and personal with the nurse sharks.
Getting up close and personal with the nurse sharks.

Within minutes, the rays had also shown up and the whole scene was alive with activity. I got gradually more confident getting closer to the animals and managed to get a few decent shots. The only thing that was a little disappointing – which we didn’t realise when we booked it – was that the tours bait the sharks at this location. Good for tourists, not so great for the wildlife, although we would concede that they did mimic the nurse sharks’ natural behaviour somewhat by hiding the bait inside empty conch shells.

The rays have a somewhat other-worldly appearance.
The rays have a somewhat other-worldly appearance.

Moving on, we were treated to two more stops both with fabulous visibility and some of the best coral Helena and I had seen, particularly soft coral. We even got to do a little swim through the reef at about 7 metres down which was hiding place to a huge number of fish.

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We also saw this incredible eel!
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I could get used to this…

The boat ride back was also a lot of fun. The boys broke out a five gallon bottle of rum punch. This is no exaggeration! It was literally one of those water butts you find on dispensers all over the place, but filled with rum punch. ‘This all has to be finished by the time we get back to shore,’ announced Shane, sharing out the punch liberally. I was happy to have a glass or two, but I was more interested in sailing (such a child!) and was very pleased when the guys were happy to let me take the helm. One hand on the rudder, the other holding the rum punch, this was definitely the Caribbean life!

Oh, I almost forgot – we saw a manatee!!

Very lucky to see it and even luckier to snap this pic!
Very lucky to see it and even luckier to snap this pic!
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Sarah wasn’t so sure at first!
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The iguanas pretty much do whatever they like!

We could have stayed on Caye Caulker for longer, but we decided to move on, picking San Ignacio in the centre of the country as our next destination. After a rather disappointing one night stay at a riverside location – where the owner seemed to think we were strange because we had an issue with the fact that the door to our room wouldn’t stay shut – we found some lovely accommodation in the town and made plans. We had a fun afternoon getting up close and personal with the green iguanas at a sanctuary housed by one of the large hotels, and then searched out ‘Sweet Ting’, a bakery that we’d spotted in the guide book which served not only the most delicious, but also the most outrageously gigantic portions of cake we’d seen in a long time.

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The temples at Tikal are monumental in scale.
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And the view from the top is superb!

San Ignacio is also only thirty or so minutes from the border with Guatemala, and just beyond you find Tikal. Described as ‘the mother of all maya ruins’, we took the opportunity to pay it a visit. Helena and I had visited Chichen Itza in Mexico in 2011 and Sarah had just been prior to coming to Belize. A visit to that iconic ruin is spoiled somewhat by the sheer number of souvenir sellers that line the main entrance and are prolific throughout the entire site. The curse of being named as one of the wonders of the world perhaps? Not so with Tikal. It’s much quieter, with fewer visitors, and no souvenir stalls that I can remember, only the occasional stand dotted around selling much needed refreshments.

Here, you are in the jungle. The trees swarm about the remains of the temples, waging a constant war against archaeologists who are trying to balance preserving the site, with preserving the ecosystems that have regrown around and amongst it. The result is a magnificent combination of natural beauty and historic civilisation, where a four hour tour will have you stumbling across vast structures that moments before were entirely hidden from view. We had a hilarious guide too, Nixon, who was tiny, exuded continuous and genuine awe at the size and architecture of the site, and had a fabulous little giggle that he did after each piece of information he gave us.

The temples emerge from the trees as you walk around the complex.
The temples emerge from the trees as you walk around the complex.

For our final stop, we headed back to the coast. Placencia is effectively an island, similar to Caye Caulker, but it has a tiny strip of land joining it to the mainland so you can get a local bus all the way there. It was another good place to hang out and chill for a bit with a few decent restaurants and coffee shops and bars on the beach and that sold intoxicatingly cheap cocktails . It was peculiarly quiet though as we were visiting in low season but this didn’t bother us much as we spent our time relaxing, reading books, and recharging.  Soon it would be time for Sarah to head back to the UK and for us to tackle the likes of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador with the most minimal of Spanish!

Rum punch fuelled fun in the sun!
Rum punch fuelled fun in the sun!
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This guy followed my lead from the picture above!

Another bus ride, another poem

An early morning journey through the hills of Honduras had me reaching for my notepad once more:

From the window

A corrugated tin roof reddens with rust.
Corn grows in rows on the side of the road.

Fallen trees shrouded in moss
lie heavy in the long grass.
A pair of tiny fishing boats
poised on the lake
leave untroubled the waters by their sides.

Posters of people’s faces, once awash with colour,
hang limp and lifeless, fading.

Rotting posts suspend barbed wire,
coiled and twisted, strewn between them.
A dappled grey and white horse, tail flicking,
stretches for blades of grass out of reach of its tether.

Washing hangs on a line; green, blue, red, yellow.
A vulture, black and grey, perches placidly,
scanning left and right.

And the forested hills rise ever up and up in the distance,
climbing into mountains.

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Put it all on red…

Think of Las Vegas, what springs to mind? The legendary Strip lined with casinos and huge hotels, high rollers playing big stakes in the gambling capital of the world, where the casinos never close – and most definitely never lose – except in Ocean’s Eleven, of course. If you’ve been, you’ll know exactly what it’s like; if you haven’t been, it’s everything you think it is, but … more.

Las Vegas is one of the most surreal places you will ever visit. Intoxicatingly brash, unashamedly extravagant; everything in Vegas is striving to be bigger, brighter, more luxurious, more enticing, full of promise, dripping with opportunity, drenched in possibility. The shiny floors and sumptuous carpets frame row upon row of mesmerising green velvet tables and smiling dealers, ‘Welcome, welcome, come and play.’

'Hey, you know what would look good here, the Eiffel Tower!'
‘Hey, you know what would look good here, the Eiffel Tower!’

And you want to play, because that’s why you’re there, and you want to be one of those people, sitting at the table with stacks of chips, casting bets on top of bets and winning big, raising your hands in ecstasy as the roulette ball drops into red one more time. It looks like so much fun.

Honestly, I suppose Hels and I didn’t quite have the budget to do Vegas justice. You have to go expecting to have fun, and spend money – not ‘lose’, as such, because, hey, you’re in a casino, having a good time, playing a game, enjoying a drink, where else in the world would you expect to do that for free? And yet, somehow, in Vegas, you always want to come out on top, feel like you’ve beaten the casino, even if it is out of only ten dollars.

The Bellagio
When we were looking for accommodation for Vegas, I was amazed to see the Bellagio pop up on booking.com! I though that such an exclusive hotel would have no need to be listed on a booking website. However, there are so many hotels in Vegas that the accommodation is relatively cheap, for what you’re getting so we decided to splash out (a little bit) and get a room in the famous hotel. Initially, we were only going to go for one night, but then we figured that we wouldn’t get the most out of it on that short a stay, so we thought maybe we should stretch it to two. In the sixty seconds that passed while I was inputting our details to the site, we’d convinced ourselves that, in fact, three nights was best, and before you knew it, our booking was confirmed. Well, you have to have a little luxury once in a while, right?

The Bellagio on the left, Ceasar's Palace on the right.
The Bellagio on the left, Ceasar’s Palace on the right.

The Bellagio itself is an icon on the Las Vegas strip. It’s famous dancing fountains are watched by thousands as they perform every night. Just the fact that the Bellagio has a lake in front of it – bearing in mind that Vegas is in the middle of the Nevada desert – is testament to the insanity of the Vegas architecture.

The interior is incredible – as are most of the hotels in Vegas to be honest. It’s a sort of a cross between a vast casino, a luxury resort, an art museum and a high end shopping centre. It’s actually very hard to distinguish where and when you enter it, as it sprawls its tentacle corridors in every direction linking up with the hotels around it on the strip.

The ceiling of the lobby is pretty cool!
The ceiling of the lobby is pretty cool!

The heart of the hotel is, of course, the casino. Hels and I spent quite a lot of time voyeuristically observing games; partially trying to get our heads around them before parting with any money, but often in awe at the vast sums of money that were being splashed around. Each hotel tends to have a sort of theme, to which some pay more attention than others. The Bellagio, to its credit, appeared to want to simply portray a classic, high end, gambling experience. That did mean that a lot of the tables had very high minimum bets, though. At least $10 on each table and more often than not we saw $15, $25, $50 and even $100 minimums. It was at one of the $100 tables that we witnessed the most insane piece of betting we’d ever seen, but I’ll save that story for the end of the blog.

Our room, which was very lovely, had a view overlooking the strip and the fountains (if you ignored the huge car park and craned your neck around to the left a bit!). I was gutted to find that they didn’t provide tea and coffee, though. I know it sounds like a stupid and insignificant thing, but seriously – what kind of 5* hotel doesn’t provide a kettle? You’d get that in a Travelodge in the UK!

The gym was good though. Half way through our run on the treadmill, a lady came round bearing a tray full of neatly folded, cooled and scented face cloths. ‘Would you like an iced towel,’ she asked. ‘Why, thank you. That would be lovely,’ I said as I took one and dabbed gently at the sweat on my brow. Now that was a first! And going to the ‘pool’ was another voyage into the imagination. You enter into an open air complex of fountains – which are in fact swimming pools – interspersed with manicured trees; the whole thing wouldn’t look out of place in an Italian piazza.

There is no normal anything in Vegas!
There is no normal anything in Vegas!

Our other main activity was meandering up and down the strip, marvelling at the no-holds-barred approach to buildings. A short stroll takes you from the sublime to the ridiculous, and then marches you headlong into the downright insane! Quite apart from the gargantuan scale of some of the hotels, Vegas seems to have a thing for building replicas of other famous structures, notably the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty (including full scale New York skyline backdrop), and an Egyptian pyramid, complete with Sphynx, to name but a few.

The Luxor casino is also simply known as 'The Pyramid'.
The Luxor casino is also simply known as ‘The Pyramid’.

Playing my hand
Having played poker regularly for the last ten years with friends I met through teaching, I was keen to try my hand in a poker tournament. The Bellagio and Venetian are two of the most famous venues for Texas Hold’Em, but their tournaments are $115 to enter, tend to last at least five hours and are renowned as being filled with the toughest players on the strip. As I was more into having a bit of fun rather than lining the pockets of a Vegas shark, I opted for the $45 tournament at Excalibur.

It turned out to be a good choice: there were only 17 players, but I felt like I was in a proper tournament with heavy chips, machine shuffled cards and a dealer who runs the game.

You can't really miss the Excalibur - on the more gaudy end of the Vegas scale of architecture.
You can’t really miss the Excalibur – on the more gaudy end of the Vegas scale of architecture.

Note: A poker jargon warning is in place for the next few paragraphs. My intention at the start was to keep my head down, figure out what was going on, and get a feel for the table. Three hands in, though, I was dealt pocket queens and found myself looking at a nondescript flop with a rather loud, extravagant player to my right throwing chips into the pot. I felt in pretty good shape so matched him up and hit a third queen on the turn.

He threw in more chips, and I couldn’t see what he might have that would beat my queens so I called the bet. The river card came and it was another low numbered card offering seemingly no help to anybody. He checked his cards then upped his bet once more. I was convinced I had him, but my heart was pumping and I was wondering what had happened to my original strategy.

I called his bet though, and he turned over a partial straight. ‘I was chasin’ it,’ he said, ‘but you hit that one.’ You’re damn right I did, I thought – but said nothing.

That put me in a pretty decent position but then my lack of proper tournament experience began to shine through I suppose. As the blinds went up, people started to go out and I found myself on the final table playing a super tight strategy. Players were dropping left right and centre and despite surviving, I wasn’t gaining much ground. The thing about poker is that as your chips dwindle (as they often inevitably do) you find yourself with increasingly little to lose, so your strategy can loosen up a bit.

The police ride Harley Davidson's out here; nothing to do with my poker game but I had to put him somewhere!
The police ride Harley Davidson’s out here; nothing to do with my poker game but I had to put him somewhere!

From 10 players on the final table, we were now down to five. Not bad, I thought, but I didn’t have many chips left, a couple of rounds of big blinds at best. And then came another pocket pair; this time however it was threes and not queens. Well, I considered, not much to lose as I said, ‘All in.’ I wasn’t expecting to win that pot, it’s the last ditch effort of every player about to go out… but the risk for the players keen to eliminate you is that they may call your bet with even less in their hand – which is what happened. Two guys called the all in, both just playing on a high card, one had an ace, the other a jack. All five cards came down; there was a king and a queen amongst them, but no ace or jack, so my threes stood strong and gave me a little more life.

It was relatively short lived though – we were now down to four players, two big stacks and two tiny ones and soon enough I was all in once more but this time my luck had run out. Gutted. I was happy to have come fourth in the tournament, pleased not to have embarrassed myself, but the tournament pays prizes to the top three. If I’d managed to hold on for a few more hands, I’d have walked away with a $120 third place. Never mind.

So, did we win any money? Well I didn’t, but Helena did a little better. We found a $5 minimum roulette table in Excalibur and decided to have a go. Taking a seat, she bought $40 worth of $1 chips and started playing. Going with a strategy of $5 on red (and occasionally black) plus five more chips spread around the numbers, there weren’t many hands where she didn’t hit anything at all. You only really get big money in roulette if you hit the number exactly, whereas your chances of getting something are increased if you split your chips over two or more numbers. If you do this, though, you get much lower odds, so you may feel like your winning but you are in reality staying pretty stable.

Hels did manage to build her stack to $63 though, at which point she turned to me and said, ‘Shall we call it done?’ ‘Nah, put it all on red,’ I said jokingly, although having clearly been mildly infected with the Vegas curse. ‘I’m joking,’ I followed up, ‘but why not have one more bet; spread $13 dollars around, go for some single numbers. That way, if you lose, you’ll still be ten dollars up from where you started, but if you win, you’ll have even more.’ So that’s what she did, but didn’t hit anything. It shows she should never take my advice when it comes to gambling!

Take that Vegas!  A ten dollar profit!
Take that Vegas! A ten dollar profit!

Managing to avoid the nagging voice in our heads, ‘Just one more bet. You’re sure to win on the next one,’ we cashed in our chips and we’re happy with our evening’s play.

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You could look at this view for hours.

The Grand Canyon
The other reason (excuse?) for staying three nights at the Bellagio was that we could take a day trip to the Grand Canyon. We managed to find a reasonably priced trip online and were picked up at 6am – it was going to be a long day! Our bus driver, Larry, had a very dry sense of humour and had clearly been in the business a long time. Within minutes of getting on the coach, he had the microphone in hand and started a non-stop announcement that lasted for the next hour including gems such as: ‘The coach is equipped with air-con. For some of you it will be too warm, for some too cold. What am I going to do about it! Nothing.’ I had to chuckle at his no-nonsense approach to customer satisfaction. I did enjoy his super drawn out vowel sounds though as he repeatedly welcomed us to the ‘Graaaaaand Caaaanyon, the greeeaaaaatest show on Earth.’image

It was indeed a spectacular show; indescribable really in proportion, be it depth or width, and the layering effect of the rocks, mixed with the geological shapes carved over millennia by the Colorado River were so intricate that they would easily hold your gaze indefinitely. Our only regret was that we didn’t have more time. Although the tour offered us two different points from which to view the canyon, we were all too soon ushered back onto the bus for the long ride back to Vegas. We would have loved to have brought the camper van here and gone hiking into the canyon itself, to get a real sense of the place.

Crazy betting
I just have to recount one final story from the Bellagio casino before I draw this entry to a close. On our final night, we were taking a last wander through the casino maze when we paused at a roulette table. There was a $100 minimum bet, and one lady sat playing, spreading out chips, sometimes winning big, other times not so much, but running pretty steady on her overall stack.

Then another gentleman approached the table, reached into his pocket for a wad of $100 bills which he dropped onto the table. The dealer counted out $1700 and exchanged it for chips. Wow, we thought, this guy is in for the long haul.

But he clearly had other ideas as he nonchalantly clutched at stacks of chips and dropped them onto individual numbers on the table; no splits, and nothing on red or black. This meant that his chances of winning were much reduced, but if he hit one of the numbers, he’d get paid out at 35-1, swelling his overall stack to an immense $30000 plus.

The dealer span the wheel, sent the ball in the opposite direction and signalled for no more bets. The ball dropped into a slot and the man had missed on all of his bets. As the dealer swept away the chips (and paid a small win to the lady who was still playing), the man sort of twitched a little, almost literally scratched his head, and counted out his remaining stack into $100 piles. He had ten left; that last bet had cost him $700.

What next? we wondered.

Well, out of all of the remaining possibilities, we weren’t expecting what happened. Rather than playing more conservatively, or spreading the bets over multiple numbers, he proceeded to take all ten of his $100 stacks and place each one on an individual number. The roulette wheel span once more, and the ball sailed round before dropping into its final destination. The dealer dropped her shiny silver marker onto the winning number…which was none of the ones the man had bet on.

He then paused, cocked his head, watched his $1000 bet get swept off the table, and left, walking slowly away. The whole sequence of events had taken less than five minutes.

‘What the hell just happened?’ I said to Hels. It was the most incredible and insane thing we saw in Vegas – $1700 evaporating in two spins of the roulette wheel – and neither the player nor the dealer barely blinked.

Absolutely aghast at what we had witnessed, we knew it was time for us to go. There was just one last picture we had to take…

You just have to have a picture with the world famous Las Vegas sign!
You just have to have a picture with the world famous Las Vegas sign!

Oh, and here’s a couple more for you:

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The Statue of Liberty welcomes you to New York New York casino.
A casual reconstruction of the Brooklyn Bridge - why not?
A casual reconstruction of the Brooklyn Bridge – why not?
If there's one place that American's really didn't need to be open 24 hours...
If there’s one place that the Americans really didn’t need to be open 24 hours…
The strip.
The strip.