Sunday, October 19, 2014

Two Years as a Scuba Diving Instructor in Paradise

You guys. I've been a dive instructor for two years today. TWO YEARS. What the hell!? Where has all this time gone? I feel like I was just writing about how I wasn't sure I'd even get my other courses done in time to do my instructor course. And now I've been teaching people how to dive for two effin years already!

the first day of my instructor course in october 2012... so happy that i am still in touch with all my fellow candidates!
I have written a few posts about being a dive instructor. I even was interviewed by PADI about trading my cubicle for an underwater office. But I haven't written all that I could about it... mostly because I still find it tough to put into words how I really feel about my job.

I don't think I will ever forget the first day after finishing my instructor course when I led a dive for certified divers and did a Discover Scuba Diving experience (sort of a 'try-dive' half-day thing). The certified divers had no idea it was my first 'real' dive lead. I blustered through a dive briefing and spent the entire dive frantically searching for creatures because I felt like I couldn't find enough cool stuff to show the divers, and I kept going too fast and had to keep reminding myself to slow down. When we came back, all the divers thanked me and had a good time, but I felt like I hadn't done a good job and then the boat captain told me I had done the sites in the wrong order... I made a hasty retreat to the bathroom with my cheeks burning with shame and had to will myself not to cry. The DSD went better but the instructor supervising me made some suggestions (which were valid), and I felt like I had made a horrible mistake in coming to Roatan and that I was going to be a terrible instructor.

Obviously things have changed since then :) It was easy to forget that your first week at any job always sucks and you feel like you're incompetent, no matter what the job is.  I now lead already certified divers with confidence and ease, and have certified nearly 100 new divers. I see new instructors on their first dive lead or certification and am now the instructor offering suggestions! One of the best things about my job is how dynamic it is, and I still take suggestions from much more experienced instructors and incorporate different styles and tricks that I see them using. My teaching style is always evolving as I find what works and what doesn't. I learn something new every day, whether it's new knots for tying the boats out or a new cave system at a dive site.

You can see me teaching at the beginning of this video:

(I'm just doing a refresher with a certified diver, so all you crazies about to jump down my throat for not wearing a snorkel can sit back down.) Also, it's super weird for me to watch this.... I've seen lots of videos of me diving so I know what I look like doing that, but I had no idea what I looked like teaching!

Teaching people how to scuba dive is such a strange thing when you think about it. Like, you read a book and someone shows you how some equipment works and then you GO UNDERWATER AND BREATHE. It's super weird. I have to remind people all the time that it's totally normal to be nervous and feel a bit out of place underwater... that's your brain working properly! Humans aren't designed to be 60 feet underwater breathing and swimming around for an hour.... but I am sure happy that we can.

I find it really, really difficult to get across to you all through writing what my job is like. I wish I was a better writer. Some days it is the most frustrating job in the world. Sometimes I take people on dives and no matter how many rare macro creatures I find, or crazy awesome swimthroughs I take them through, they complain about everything and I can't seem to make them happy. Sometimes I feel like asking my students how they manage to get up every day and feed and clothe themselves when they can't do something basic like clearing their snorkel. But some days it is the best fucking job in the world. Sometimes I feel like a queen who's conquered the world when I find divers their favorite fish, or when I take them through a shipwreck and they say it's the best dive of their life. Sometimes I squeal with happiness and joy when my students nail a skill they are struggling with, or when I take them on their first open water dive and I see their eyes get huge as they get their first glimpse of the coral reef during descent. It's feeling that sense of accomplishment when I certify a diver and they are awesome right away. It's an even better feeling when they fight for it - not everyone is a natural diver, but the tenacious ones who don't give up on themselves make me the proudest. I will never have kids, but I have created many baby divers and I love seeing them progress and improve. I won't forget any of them. They probably don't know it, but each of them have taught me something too, whether it's a new way to explain a skill to someone who isn't understanding the way I'm doing it, or to slow my pacing, or to give them more space to figure things out themselves. My students and my divers help me to become better at my job every day.

taught my best friend to dive, this was a blast!
And sometimes, just sometimes, my job is a little bit selfish and it's about me. It's about me finding my favorite fish (it's a queen triggerfish, in case you were wondering), it's about me nailing my buoyancy through a tight swimthrough where two years ago I was hitting the sides, it's about finding the boat on a night dive at a shitty confusing site...which is the most glorious feeling in the world, FYI. It's about those times where you get really good divers and your job is actually fun and doesn't feel like work, instead the times where you have to turn around every 30 seconds to make sure no one is about to do something stupid and die. It's about being able to say YES YES YES when my divers happen to be guests on a megayacht and they ask me to get on board and finish their trip with them through the Caribbean. It's about getting to tell people (juuuuust a tad smugly) who ask, "I'm a scuba diving instructor on a tropical island". That's not something I ever thought I would be saying in my life. But it feels pretty fucking great to say it.

I didn't jump into this life lightly, although I know it may have seemed like it to other people. But I planned for months, and scrimped and saved. I worked two full time jobs for 6 months to save enough money to do this. If you read back in the archives on this blog, you can see all of this in early 2012. I always said that if I went down to Roatan and become an instructor for even six months, all the planning and work will be worth it. I have such a hard time believing how far past six months I've gone with this. I never planned to still be here well over two years later, but I'm pretty damn happy that I am. No matter what happens going forward, for the rest of my life I will always be able to remember that time where I said fuck you to the corporate grind and became a dive instructor in the Caribbean for a few years. If I make it another year I will be 30 years old and this will be the longest-running job I'll have ever had in my life. Not sure if that's a good thing or not, but I think it says a lot.

Cheers to you all for following along with me on this incredible journey! Let's see where my "Three Years as a Scuba Diving Instructor in Paradise" post comes to you from next year.

Guys, make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin', so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me keep on blowing bubbles. So there's that.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

New Tourist Visa Procedures on Roatan

I had mentioned the new-ish Honduran visa procedures in a previous post, but I am getting asked a lot of questions from readers planning to visit, move to, invest in, or retire to Roatan.

Let me first be VERY CLEAR that I am not an expert, a lawyer or any other kind of official. I am simply someone 'on the ground' who has been through the procedures and has seen how it has been working since it's been put in place (late August 2014). I am also not making any sort of statement of what I personally have been doing one way or the other, this post is for informational purposes only. You should consult a Honduran immigration lawyer for advice.

So - here are the changes.

Previously: when you entered Honduras as a tourist you were granted a 90-day tourist visa. While on the record you should have had to leave the country every 90 days for at least 72 hours before re-entering and (maybe) being granted a new 90-day visa, it has been a common practice for years to pay immigration officials around $100 for an extension every 90 days. With residencies and work permits costing $1800-$3000 USD and taking up to a year to complete, they simply were/are not viable options for most tourists wanting to stay longer term on Roatan. (I am not here to debate the legality or ethics of visa or immigration procedures so do not comment on this post or email me if you want to argue about it.) 

Now: the government has implemented fingerprint scanners at airports and some land border crossings and your fingerprints will be scanned at entry and exit. Apparently the info will be shared with the US Department of Homeland Security, which the US expats are in an uproar about but I'm not exactly sure why. Anyway, visa 'extensions' from within the country are no longer permitted and you must leave Honduras for at least 72 hours before re-entering to get a new visa. Overstaying your visa comes with some hefty fines... there is no 'official' number anywhere but I have heard of people 1-5 days over being charged around $160 and up.


Short story: tourists (I'm using that as a general term for those people without residency) are now going to have to do visa runs. You need to stay out of the country for 72 hours every 90 days.

Reality: people are already leaving because of this, especially in the dive instructor community. With wages as low as they are, frequent visa runs or residency applications are out of reach for a lot of people who would like to stay here long term.

With Roatan being an island that's not exactly cheap to get in and out of, the cost of doing visa runs every three months ($400-$600) to neighboring countries like Belize or Guatemala will end up being about the same in a year as a residency or work permit ($1800-$3000). Catch: you still have to do visa runs while residency paperwork is in progress, and there's no guarantee that the government will grant your residency. There is also a ton of paperwork to do for a residency application, and citizens of some countries like Canada are not able to obtain some of the documentation abroad - they will need to factor in the cost of a trip home to get certain documents for the residency application.

I am sure those who are familiar with SE Asia visa runs are feeling very little sympathy, but remember this is a new thing for Roatan. There are no 'visa run' companies set up who take care of all the documentation for you and arrange transportation (although that could be a new niche market here I guess!), and Honduran visa rules state that you need to stay out of the country for at least 72 hours before re-entering... it's not a matter of touching down in another country, getting a stamp and turning around and going back. There are going to be flight costs as well as accommodation & food for 4 days, so it's not a quick cheap trip.

Hopefully Honduras will come up with some sort of extension program again or a realistically-priced work permit that people can apply for. Everyone I know here would prefer to work legally and not have to do visa runs, but when you make $5-$30 a day you're not going to pay $2500 and wait a year for a work permit, especially the current ones that tie you to one employer (if you change jobs, it's another $2500 work permit application) - that's just ridiculous, which is why hardly anyone does it. It would benefit the government to create an easier and cheaper process, so I hope they figure that out before more people leave and dive centers, restaurants and hotels start folding.

I'm still not sure how this will all play out - as with most things in Honduras, you kind of have to sit back when a change happens and take a 'wait and see' approach. I already have questions that no one seems to be able to answer... like how I just entered the country and was fingerprinted at the Roatan airport, so I am in the system as entering the country... but if I leave through Utila and then come back in through Utila, a neighboring island that hasn't received fingerprint scanners yet, I won't be on the record in the system as leaving. So we'll see, but for right now those planning to travel to Honduras for longer than 90 days should be sure to budget for visa runs when planning their trip.

Guys, make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin', so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me start pinching pennies for a Belize trip pretty soon. So there's that.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Roatan Month 26 Roundup

After month 25 coming to you from Canada, this month's roundup is actually coming from Roatan once again.

I am happily settling back in my little life on the island. While I picked a fairly terrible time to come back work-wise (this is the slowest time of year and won't pick up again until Christmas) I am hoping I can scrape by until high season starts.

The 5 weeks I spent in Canada were, as always, never long enough to see everyone I wanted to. Sorry to anyone who I missed. Having spent significant chunks of my life in different cities in Canada means when I go back to visit, I have to divide my time between lots of places. During this trip, I spent my vacation in this order: 4 days in Vancouver, 4 days in Ucluelet, 2 days in Vancouver, 14 days in Moose Jaw, 5 days in Edmonton, and 5 days in Vancouver again. There were a lot of flights involved and time went fast. By the end, I was ready to get back to Roatan and sleep in my own bed!

Well, that's the news! Shall we get on to the roundup? (You can see all the past roundups here.)

1. Gratuitous diving photo:

Haven't been in the water much over the last month, so I don't have one for you! I'm in the background a bunch on this video though, so you can see me diving here (I'm wearing a white rash guard):

And I make a few appearances in this one too:

2. Posts from the last month:

I didn't get as much writing in as I would have liked due to all the traveling. Immediately after getting back to Roatan I spent a week diving with one of my readers who hired me for the week as his divemaster - it was a blast, and any other readers headed my way who are interested in something like that should contact me! I didn't spend much time at the computer though, so here are the few posts from the last month in case you missed them:

  • How Taking a Walk at Night Was a Revelation - a night-time walk in Canada made me realize how my behavior has been altered by living in a place where it's not safe to walk around at night.
  • Time to Go Again: Canada Highlights - a photo recap of all the awesome things I did (and ate) in Canada.
  • On Being a Chameleon - I was convinced in Canada that I was 'home', and ready to sign a lease. Then I got back to Roatan and felt like I would have to be dragged out of here kicking and screaming.

3. Best thing I've found on the internet lately:

I get so many emails from readers who are miserable in their cubicles and want to make an escape like I did. While I hope you all get to execute your very own cubicle throwdown, in the meantime... here are 54 Ways to Make Your Cubicle Suck Less :)

My fave is the hammock chair, obviously.

So happy fall to those of you in the northern climates. Enjoy your pumpkin spice lattes, boots & scarves and snuggly blankets. I'm back here sweating my ass off and getting sunburned and I am loving it!

Monday, October 6, 2014

On Being A Chameleon

I've been back on Roatan for a week now (a very busy week! more about this later!) and absence really does make the heart grow fonder. While I am already missing good sushi and fast internet, I am relishing every walk I take down the street that takes me 20 extra minutes because I have so many people to say hi to. Being back underwater has been immensely helpful in getting my stress levels in regular parameters, and I've been lucky to be diving with a shop this week that is...wait for it... AIR CONDITIONED, so that has eased the transition quite a bit!

From the moment I had this view on the plane, I smiled and thought, "I'm home". Not just because this is where my stuff has been for two years or where I have a lease, but because this is where I feel like I'm home. Even though a couple islanders thoughtfully pointed out this is not my home simply because I was not born here (in their books, anyway), thankfully it's up to me to decide where I make my home...and right now it's here.

Now, all the lovely warm fuzzies aside, let it be on the record that I feel the exact same way in Vancouver. And Victoria. And San Pedro in Belize. And pretty much anywhere on the east coast of Canada. Oh, and San Francisco, Ucluelet and Kyoto, too.

Obviously it's wonderful that I'm happy to be back on the island (if I wasn't, after 5 weeks away, that would be a sure sign that my time here is over) but I started thinking about how and why I could feel at home in so many different places.

Eventually I realized that growing up in a military family where we moved every couple of years has had a profound impact on my adult life that I hadn't thought about before. I was a painfully shy and awkward kid, terrified of trying anything new in case I wasn't very good at it and burning with shame if I made an attempt and failed. However, being essentially forced into an entirely new life every couple of years made me great at a few things after a while. It drove the shyness right out of me. I have no fear of new places. I can make friends with anyone. I am outgoing. I can set up a life in a brand new place and be adjusted in a manner of weeks, where I see others taking months or years to settle in. I can pack and unpack my apartments in hours. And, as I found out recently, I can throw a few things in a backpack on a few hours notice, find my way alone to a different place that I know absolutely nothing about and successfully figure it out when I get there.

I had never attributed these personal qualities before to my upbringing but the more I thought about how deeply I can feel that I am 'home' in a place that I wasn't born in, didn't grow up in, or didn't spend years and years in, I connected the dots. I think having the ability to quickly adjust and adapt to whatever place or situation you're in is an invaluable life skill.

It might not be helping my gypsy hobo tendencies at all, but damn it feels good to be a chameleon.

Guys, make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin', so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me figure out how to change color too. So there's that.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Time to Go Again: Canada Highlights

How does time go so quickly here? Is it because I spend every waking hour eating or being constantly lost in thought about what I want to eat before my time is up and I'm off again to the land of the worst food ever? (Hint: possibly.)

It's been five weeks since I came to Canada and I am out of here today.

While my friends and family were all so, so lovely for hosting me during this trip, I can't wait to get back home, get underwater on a dive, and sleep in my own king-size bed...mosquitoes not included in that wish, obviously.

The thoughts of my own bathroom and $2 drinks (PS. fuck you Vancouver, in that department) waiting for me in Roatan is going to carry me through some really terrible overnight flights and nasty layovers this weekend. Keep me in your airport god prayers for some quiet seats that are free of those stupid armrests they put on them so no one can lay down.

While my next post will be coming to you from the tropics once again, here's my photos + witty caption essay on the highlights of the last five weeks in absolutely no order at all (warning - many delicious food pics):

some amazing views in vancouver

vancouver from english bay at night

with friends like these who needs anemones? (ukee aquarium)

i would like to scuba dive here in ucluelet, minus the smashing violently into the cliffs bit.

so yeah, saskatchewan really is flat enough to watch your dog run away for three days.

smoked salmon is my favorite. i ate it almost every day in canada. that's probably not even healthy.

tofu! tempeh! vegetables! HEAVEN!

a well-attended hockey game in moose jaw

this smelled the best. ucluelet forest hikes for dayssss.

this is a real thing and i'm very happy about that.

so it was zero degrees and i couldn't handle it.

dress shopping. in air conditioning. does life get any better?

i think the theme of this year's canada trip was 'poutine'. there's three other poutine photos i didn't post.

mad stacks of dim sum.

vancity views 

little brothers never grow up

creepin from the seagull view. (vancouver)

the most beautiful chocolate in the world. oh, and it tasted fucking amazing.

last day in vancouver roaming around in my old 'hood... any readers recognize this?

Adios, Canada. See you another time, might be soon. But for now, I'm going home.

Guys, make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin', so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me figure out how to make poutine in Roatan. So there's that.

Monday, September 15, 2014

How Taking a Walk at Night Was a Revelation

The other night I felt like taking a walk.

I used to walk everywhere before I moved to Roatan. When I lived in Vancouver, one of the biggest cities in Canada, I regularly walked to/from work downtown to the neighborhood I lived in (Kitsilano). I walked home drunk by myself from downtown after going to the bar with friends. I walked to concerts, dinner dates and shopping. I never had a problem in 5 years of living there, and I never felt unsafe.

When I first moved to Roatan it was a bit of a shock to me that it was so unsafe for me to walk anywhere outside of the main street at night. I had enough close friends and acquaintances who had been robbed (sometimes at gunpoint) just walking home, that I decided it wasn't a risk I was willing to take. My friends who live in town still carry pepper spray or tasers when they walk on the main road at night! Even when I lived in town, I still sometimes took a taxi home at night because I lived a bit off the main road and wanted to be safe. A couple times people tried to rob me, but I don't ever carry anything on me besides a cheap phone and less then $25 so I never lost much. I have been around long enough on the island that most people know I'm not a tourist, and also I'm not tiny and walk assertively so I hardly ever have issues these days. That being said, I'm not going to purposely put myself in situations that I know aren't safe (hello, common sense) so I don't walk at night.

Now back in my sleepy hometown in Saskatchewan, I felt like going for a walk after dinner. I said to my mom that I wanted to go for a walk, and she said, "so...take a walk then!" and without thinking, I immediately responded, "but it's dark out".

In two years it has been so ingrained in my every day life that I can't walk around at night that I forgot it's completely safe to take an after dinner walk in a small city in Saskatchewan. Or a big city like Vancouver. Or anywhere in Canada, really.

I felt like a 16 year old with a brand new drivers license and a car... I could go walk anywhere I wanted! Even though it was 8:30pm! What freedom!

I bundled up (hey, it was 3C/37F out - I'm not used to these temperatures anymore!) and got ready to go.

As I set out for a walk through my quiet neighborhood, I thought about how wonderful it was that I could go for a walk. I thought about how lovely it was to be walking and not sweating and feeling like I'm about to die of heatstroke. And then I realized about 20 minutes in that I was CONSTANTLY looking over my shoulder and feeling a little anxious. I didn't see a single human being during my entire hour-long walk, but I couldn't shake the sense of uneasiness.

It was shocking to me that even though I am perfectly safe walking around in Canada, that after two years of knowing and being told it's not safe (in Roatan) that I couldn't fully enjoy a walk around my neighborhood here anymore without a nagging feeling that I was doing something I shouldn't and that I might be in danger. Clearly my brain was functioning on autopilot, and I'm glad I'm not immune to it sending out safety signals, but I can't help thinking what a shame it is.

This really got me thinking - do I want to live in a place that is so unsafe for me to walk around alone at night? This is not an exaggeration or 'crazy gringo talk' - it is a real and serious safety issue where I live in Honduras (for me and for people from won't see locals walking home outside of town either) and now it so it is entrenched in my brain that I can't walk around in Canada without feeling unsafe. I don't really like the idea that I have this paranoia even once I'm not there.

I wish things were different in Roatan but it's not my country to change. That's up to the islanders and their government to do something about this kind of stuff that affects their residents and visitors alike. All I can do is decide if I want to be a part of a place where this is the norm and isn't going to be different anytime in the near future. I guess being back in Canada has given me a fresh set of eyes on it as I never think about it while I'm there - it's just what you do and you don't really think twice about it. So I'll keep pondering that question... but in the meantime, I'm going for a walk.

Guys, make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin', so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me figure out where my pepper spray is. So there's that.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Roatan Month 25 Roundup

Month 25 is coming to you live from CANADA!

I guess the post title is a little misleading, because I'm still hanging out in the great white north for a couple more weeks. (And it's literally the great white north right now... it's already snowing in some parts of Canada, and it looks like I may see some snow for the first time in over 3 years. Not that excited about it.) It has been wonderful eating all my favorite food - did you know there are bacon poutine chips now? - and seeing my friends and family.

Times have been a-changing in Roatan since I left a few weeks ago, and some new government regulations have thrown many long-stay visitors in Roatan through a loop. When you enter Honduras, you are usually granted a 90-day tourist visa. Most tourists wanting to stay longer were able to pay for visa extensions at local immigration offices without having to do 'visa runs'. Now the government has implemented fingerprint scanners at airports and your fingerprints will be scanned at entry and exit. Apparently the info will be shared with the US Department of Homeland Security, which the US expats are in an uproar about but I'm not exactly sure why. Anyway, visa extensions from within the country are no longer permitted and you must leave Honduras for at least 72 hours before re-entering to get a new visa. Overstaying your visa comes with some hefty fines... there is no 'official' number anywhere but I have heard of people 1-5 days over being charged around $160 and up. I guess this change is an attempt to look like they are beefing up security in the international eye, with all the bad press about Honduras lately. That being said, I can think of about thirty thousand other things this country could use before fingerprint scanners.

So, it seems that visa runs are now a thing, and with the cost hovering around the $500-$600 mark for getting off the island and out of the country for at least 4 days before coming back in, it is highly unlikely that budget travelers and those on retirement/limited income will be doing visa runs to continue to staying on Roatan (or anywhere else in Honduras, I guess, although I imagine visa runs could be significantly cheaper from the mainland).  Since I fall in those categories, I can't say with any confidence right now that I will be returning to Roatan once my next 90 days are up. Some people have already left. It's kind of unfortunate and unexpected news, and I have found myself wishing that I would have found out about this before I left... I think I would have probably just packed up my stuff and saved the cost of the return ticket. We'll see how it all plays out - the government doesn't exactly have a great track record of taking care of/being able to fix stuff, and I imagine with all the power outages frying the island's electronics that these fingerprint scanners will be by the wayside in short order.

Well, that's the news! Shall we get on to the roundup? (You can see all the past roundups here.)

1. Gratuitous diving photo:

teaching one of my open water students!

2. Posts from the last month:

3. Best thing I've found on the internet lately:

Okay, to be honest, when I started reading this article about Google hacks I thought it was lame because I already knew the first few. By the end, I was all, "WTFFFF how did I not know about this until now??" Google has a timer and a tip calculator! Who knew? So I'm sharing the Google geekery...enjoy!

Guys, make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter ... there's lots of extras posted there that don't make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I'm on Bloglovin', so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me figure out what the hell I'm doing next if I leave Roatan. So there's that.