Friday, April 29, 2016

The Comedown: Tales from an Ex-Expat

Find any expat blog where the expat has returned to their country of origin, and you'll find the same stories over and over.

It's weird being here.
My friends here don't understand my experience.
This, that and the other thing here now drive me crazy.
I miss my expat home and friends there.

(So if this post is tl;dr for you, just look at those four lines and that's basically it.)

To recap, I'm back in Canada for a few months getting ready to move to Japan in July as an assistant language teacher with the JET Programme. I've been here in Saskatchewan for about two weeks now, and they've been two loooonnnnnngggggg weeks. I've been spending a lot of time at my grandparents' house getting it cleaned up and ready to sell (some of you may remember that I was back here this past January visiting my ill grandpa before he passed away) which has come with all kinds of other work to do for the family. It's made me think hard about what I 'need' as possessions, and realizing how much work it is for others if you don't keep your affairs organized and up to date (and if you fill your house to the brim with stuff). The house has sold so I should be off cleaning duty as of this weekend. Time to focus on finishing up my TESOL certificate, dust off my Japanese textbooks, and complete my oceanography course. I'm planning a small trip to Portland in the meantime too, so watch out for more on that and tell me where I should EAT!!

It's been strange being back here for such a long stretch of time after being in Roatan so long. After a long few days of travel to get here, I immediately started noticing how my time in Roatan had affected my personality and subconscious attitudes. Here's some of the things that stuck out:

- People here are so RUDE!! I got used to greeting everyone on Roatan, and you better say your good morning or good afternoon before asking anyone for anything in a store, bank, taxi, etc. or else you'll get a pretty cold response. Greeting people is part of the culture in the Caribbean and I got big smiles elsewhere in the region when I started all my interactions with one. Here people just walk up to the bank teller and when she says hello they go straight to I WANT THIS MUCH OUT OF MY ACCOUNT. No hello, good morning, how are you, nothing.

- soooooooooooooo many choices for food! And good beer!!

- I am not into the music here, like, at all. I miss my dancehall and reggaeton blasting from everywhere, though I don't miss my neighbors pumping it at 5:30am. Several of our neighbors here are having their siding redone and the workers blast country music radio all day, and I die a little inside. My Spotify is on Dancehall Hits non-stop. What if I forget how to wine?

- I still accidentally yell buenasssss! when I go into a store and can't find anyone, or when I'm letting myself into someone's house. I also often find myself cursing in creole - when I get angry, it's the first thing that comes out. I keep telling everyone I'm coming back every time I leave the house (good preparation for Japan, I guess...ittekimasu!) and nobody here seems to understand what I'm saying when I call someone 'a stress'.

- Drinking from the tap here still creeps me out a bit. (Not only do we have good water in Canada, my parents have a crazy ass whole-house filter on our water line that takes everything I have nothing to fear except fear itself.)

- I keep seeing cars that look like my Roatan friends' cars while I'm out for walks. I have waved to a lot of strangers.

- Going to the bank here is glorious. Absolutely glorious. No lines, friendly tellers who say 'yes' to all my requests and then actually do them, no waiting, no "the system is down", no "the manager isn't here today". I love going to the bank.

- Grocery store: also fucking glorious. VEGETABLES. That is all.

- Driving is not fun here. Lots of rules, no passing slowpokes, have to watch for pedestrians and speed limit signs! I have to really concentrate when I drive here. I feel like getting a ticket is only a matter of time, and I'm pretty sure I can't pay the police officer $22 to look the other way here.

- I have been able to wear my leggings and long sleeved shirts. Not sweating 24/7 is one of my favorite things about Canada. I work out in the house, I cook, I clean, I move furniture and boxes, I walk for over an hour each day in a park... haven't broken a sweat yet. Fucking amazing.

- In general, everything is just so efficient here. I can't believe some of the things people complain about (I used to do it too!!) - you really don't realize how green your grass is till you see it from the other side.

- I'm really glad I have stuff to keep me occupied because everyone here is so BUSY. It's a nightmare trying to make plans with my friends... everyone has everything so scheduled, nothing is spontaneous. There's no running into your friend on the street and deciding to go for a beer. Their kids have 483 after school commitments. People really know how to fill up all their free time here.

- People are constantly pointing out rips, holes and stains on my clothes - it's been so long since I've given a thought about what I'm wearing that this really catches me off-guard. On Roatan no one cares or comments on what you're wearing. It seems to be a pretty big deal here...? I think people are trying to be polite, but I know what my clothes look like, I just don't care! I'm not going to not wear a shirt just because of a little stain on it!

- Everything here is brown right now and so blah looking. I'm feeling really landlocked. The lack of humidity is lovely, but there's nothing lush about Saskatchewan in spring. Thankfully I'm headed to the west coast at least once a month before I leave, so I'll get my ocean and mountain fix there.

I miss my friends. I miss living in my own apartment. I miss morning beers. I miss sitting on a dock. I miss dancing (and guys who can dance, sorry Canadians). I miss diving. I miss boat rides. I miss walking down the road. I miss the community that was so small it drove me batshit crazy with everyone in each others business but so close-knit and supportive that any disruption sent people running in to help faster than you could blink. I woke up today to videos of a huge fire in West End, and while it was a total loss it was heartwarming to see people streaming in to help. A local friend of mine who has a good heart but is caught up in drugs was pictured being treated for smoke inhalation as he tried to help put out the fire. I miss people like that.

Yes, I am conveniently forgetting about all the less-than-stellar things about Roatan. I'm forgetting the sweltering heat, the bugs, the frustration trying to complete seemingly simple tasks, the asshole divers, the ripoffs, the language barrier and the shitty internet. I also woke up today to horrific news that a friend had been broken into, robbed and raped in her home by an unknown assailant. These are the kinds of things you forget about when you are looking back from far away.

the dive shop i used to work at is called bananarama... sent this photo to all my coworkers with I MISS YOU GUYS plastered all over it! they made fun of my green juice, shellac manicure and new pink clutch.

I know all this is totally normal and everyone who comes back feels the same way. I can't help but think how grateful I am that I have this move to Japan on the horizon, and I can keep going forward towards that. I think if I would have just been coming back here to life in Canada again that I might have forgotten all the very valid reasons why I left Roatan, and hightailed it back there to my sometimes-annoying yet comfortable life in a place where everyone knew my name. For now though, it's time to enjoy everything Canada has to offer before I leave my 'home' once again.

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 try to post more than once a month. So there's that. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The End of an Era

At this time I'm usually trying to whip up a belated roundup post, but there wasn't anything to round up. I haven't written any posts. I wasn't even on Roatan. And a lot of big things are happening. So this post is an ode to the end of an era instead.

Let's get to the point: I'm leaving Roatan. For good.

It's not an easy thing for me to write. Putting something out there like that on my site seems so final, and set in stone. My readers who have followed me on this crazy adventure know that sometimes I write things a little too soon and then they don't pan out (hi, welcome to my life). But it is this time - the flights are booked and the decisions have been made. I'm leaving.

I hear you, cubicle-dwellers who have followed me as an escape, or an aspiration. I hear your cries of, "NOOOOO HOW CAN YOU LEAVE SUCH A BEAUTIFUL PLACE WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU?!?". Don't think that it didn't cross my mind once or twice, guys.

Here's the honest truth - I don't love it anymore. And all the beautiful beaches on the island can't change that.

I don't love my lifestyle anymore. I'm tired of having to work 60 hours a week to barely make ends meet, panicking during slow season when I have no work for three months straight and borrowing money from my parents or friends just to eat, and never having enough extra money to travel anywhere else. I don't want my only recreational activity available during my free time to be drinking in a bar. I'm not in good enough physical shape anymore to be diving 15 times a week and hauling tanks and gear on top of it - my body is tired, my sinuses are ruined and I'm just too fucking old to be told I have to dive when I'm sick or else I make zero bucks. I just turned 31 and this just isn't the kind of lifestyle I want for myself at this point in my life.

I don't love what I feel Roatan turning into. (This read was startling.) Everyone is fighting for a dollar and not much of it goes back into supporting the island. Even after paying tons of money and spending time to get my residency and do everything legally there, I still have to deal with daily attitudes of "get off my island and stop stealing locals jobs" by islanders and I'm sick of it. (Do I blame them for wanting the gringos off their island? NO. Do I feel like hearing it every day and feeling unwelcome? Also no.) I'm tired of the corrupt government being able to change things on a whim that don't benefit the tourism industry, and making things difficult for necessary foreign workers to work in it. I'm over being treated like a human ATM just because I'm not from here. I'm not stoked on the cruise ship industry turning the island into their elite playground where only certain people and companies get to benefit from it while hordes of cruise shippers trample a little island that doesn't have the infrastructure to support that many people on it. I don't like seeing the reef get ruined by clueless tourists who really couldn't give a shit because they're on vacation, dammit, and they'll stand on the coral if they want to because who cares. I have seen the tourism decline on Roatan in the last few years from the media reporting on violence in Honduras, as well as the fall of the Canadian dollar, and tourism going down directly affects my job here.

Do I sound like an entitled, complain-y person who just spent four years living in paradise? Maybe to you, but probably not to people who live on Roatan. Those that have been there for years know there are pros and cons to the island and it is not easy to live here. Every day there is a struggle for something, whether its the constant power outages, terrible customer service, banking practices and lineups that would make your head explode, grocery stores with rancid food, or trying to get something repaired. Living there is not the same as being on vacation, and the expats there all know how tough it is to get that through a tourists head. There are all kinds of amazing things about Roatan (it's a tropical paradise, hello!) but there are also challenges and you'd have to stick your head pretty far down into that soft white sand to be immune to them. My great things are just not outweighing the crap things these days and haven't been for a while now.

I'm happy that I know myself well enough to know when to make a change. I grew up in a military family and I have kept the tradition of moving every few years long into my adult life. I have itchy feet and a wandering heart and I'm okay with being a gypsy hobo who wants to see new places after I'm done exploring the one I'm at. It's a big world and I want to see all of it. I've been on this little island for four years and I'm ready to see somewhere new!

None of this changes the fact that I am SO PROUD of what I did. I got out of my cubicle. I moved to Roatan. I became a dive instructor. I did 1200+ dives.  I taught hundreds of people how to dive - I changed lives! I worked on a megayacht. I ran a dive shop. I ran a hotel! I got to see hammerheads, whalesharks, seahorses, and other rare underwater creatures. I was lucky enough to help others on their own cubicle throwdown paths on Roatan (hi Lauren!) and other destinations. I met so many people from around the world through my site and my work in Roatan that I would have never connected with otherwise. I had a ton of fun and did basically whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I was interviewed by PADI and was an AirTransat Expat Expert. I lived on a tropical island for four years! Not many people can say all that. I don't regret a single thing. It was such an incredible adventure and I'm so glad I can look back without ever having to think, "what if?"

So what's next?

Well, I was in Canada from January till March taking care of family stuff and making plans for what's next. I'm back on Roatan right now to tie up loose ends, sell some stuff, and say my goodbyes. I'm not stoked on leaving some of my favorite human beings in the world, but in a place like Roatan where people are always coming and going, you get used to people being impermanent in your life but always in your heart. I love my friends on Roatan and I know I'll see them again - whether we meet up somewhere else in the world, or I head back to Roatan on vacation in the future. It's always a "see ya around" thing there, it's never goodbye.

I am so excited to announce that I've scored a spot on the JET Programme, a Canadian government program that sends people to Japan to be assistant English language teachers and promote cultural exchange. I interviewed for this in early February in Vancouver, and now I'll be moving to Japan for at least a year at the end of July. I've wanted to apply to this program since I graduated from university eight years ago and I finally decided to go for it, and applied last October. I can't wait to continue my adventures in one of my favorite countries in the world, and change from teaching diving to teaching English.

There will be LOTS more to come on this in the next few months as I get ready for departure!

me at a temple in japan in 2009

What about Cubicle Throwdown?

I hope you'll stick around as my blog does a bit of a transition - I plan to keep writing as I move to Japan and live in a completely new place with a completely different job. So Roatan and diving will no longer be the main focus of Cubicle Throwdown, but the spirit of following my dreams (wherever in the world they take me!) will remain the same and I still have lots to share from my time here that I haven't gotten around to posting yet. And I'm pretty sure I'll have lots of typical Rika adventures in Japan!


At the end of anything, I think it's important to say your thank-yous. So as this part of my life comes to a close, I'm going to thank:

My readers. For those of you just joining us or those poor bastards who have been here from the admittedly terrible beginning, THANK YOU for your words of encouragement and for continuing to check in back here and read my ramblings, even when I seemed to be going in 40 directions at once. I'm so happy you guys came along for this ride. I hope to still be able to write something you'll want to read as things change here.

My Roatan friends. I have no idea what I would do without you guys. THANK YOU for supporting me, keeping an eye on me, having the time of my life with me, and making sure I stumbled to the right house after late nights at Booty Bar. Thank you for not judging (or silently judging) my hilarious yet mostly terrible decisions. I learned something from all of you and I know we'll cross paths somewhere again somewhere in the world.

My Canadian friends and family. THANK YOU for thinking I was crazy for doing what I did, but cheering me on anyway. Thank you for loving me even though I missed like all your weddings and baby showers and birthday parties and housewarmings and bachelorette parties. Thanks for letting me jump back into your lives when I showed up once every year or two. I love you guys.

The people of Roatan. Islanders, THANK YOU for sharing your home with me for the last four years. Thank you for helping me navigate a crazy place with unwritten rules, for showing them to me and helping me along the way. Thank you for including me at your McCoys and hog fries, your children's birthday parties and graduations, your weddings and your family dinner tables. Thank you for teaching me the reef, island talk, bush medicine and how to not dance like a white girl. Thank you for noticing when I made efforts to not be a stupid gringa and tried to respect you and your home, and thank you for forgiving me in the times that I failed. Every one of you that I've met has made an impact on me and I won't forget you guys. A special thanks to all my boat captains throughout the years, who have always gone the extra mile to keep me out of trouble both above and below the water. You guys are the damn best.

credit: shawn jackson

Roatan, it's been real. I won't forget you and I know I'll set foot on this island again someday, I just don't know when. Until then... see ya around.

credit: alex in wanderland

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 try to post more than once a month. So there's that.

Monday, March 7, 2016

A Canadian Winter

It's been a long, LONG time since I've been in a real Saskatchewan-style Canadian winter.

And I don't even think I can call this one a 'real' one, as it's been one of the mildest I've seen in my life. The photo above is from my first day here in January and it was nearly -30C... but now we don't even have snow (the photo below is from yesterday). However, rocking up from the Caribbean tends to make anything under 25C feel a little chilly.

Everyone here keeps asking me what the hell I'm doing here in the winter. It's not the time I usually choose to visit (even when I lived in Vancouver I normally tried to schedule my family visits in the summertime - there's a reason I left Saskatchewan and it is WINTER). This visit was not a regular one. Unfortunately, my grandpa was terminally ill and I came home to spend time with him before he passed away. I only got five days with him before he passed, but I am so, so glad that I got them and that he knew I came. I'm happy that I was living the kind of lifestyle that I was able to drop everything and leave for an undetermined amount of time - I know not everyone has that option.

This trip has been different than the others, and not just because of the reason I came. This is the first time I've come back from Roatan and not been itching to get back to the island after a week or two. In fact, I extended my time here in Canada by nearly a month. I didn't want to go back. I spent a glorious week in Vancouver, eating all the things, and another lovely lazy week in Saskatoon visiting old university friends. The rest of the time I've been in small town Saskatchewan with my family and friends, enjoying luxuries such as drinking water out of the tap, walking around safely at night and non-rotten vegetables at the grocery store. I'm headed back to Roatan in a couple weeks which will be interesting. I miss my friends a lot, and the diving. I can't wait to get back in the water. But I don't feel the pull that I usually do to get back there.

Lots of big changes are happening for me this year so stay tuned. In the meantime, if you need me I'll be over here eating sushi all day until I leave.

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 try to post more than once a month. So there's that.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Roatan Roundup: Months 40 + 41

It's no surprise to me by now that whenever things seem to be humming along here, something will inevitably show up to shake things up!

What's new?

The last couple months have seen a lot of changes here on Roatan, especially in regards to the diving industry. Crackdowns on dive instructors working illegally (this is a can of worms I'm not interested in arguing about today - but to all the hecklers: I have my residency so save your diatribes for someone else), massive fee increases and new requirements for operating permits for dive centers, and a new tax plan from our illustrious mayor which currently includes a $10,000 USD permit fee for foreign course directors and tec instructors just to be able to train dive pros (not counting the $2,500-3,000 that residency costs, and you need to get that first to be allowed to work, which can take upwards of a year). I don't even make $10,000 USD a year as a dive instructor here and I can't imagine these guys are making 10x what I'm making, so that number seems pretty creative. Local course directors and tec instructors (of which there are none) have a $2,000 USD fee. There seemed to be a bit of backpedaling my the municipality as the original interpretation was ALL dive professionals including instructors and divemasters, which was not corrected publicly until well after the plan was released. The backlash in the community was massive, and now they have clarified (after witnessing an uproar) that it isn't for instructors and divemasters.

Perhaps the municipality is forgetting that these course directors are the ones training the dive pros on Roatan, local and foreigners both, who bring dive tourists to Roatan to spend money in our local economy. They also train numerous Hondurans as dive pros for free as part of giving back to the community. The course directors here are already legal residents and pay tax, so this is really an affront. Course directors and tec instructors located on the east end of Roatan in a different municipality pay ZERO as this is a municipal law. I foresee a lot of people moving their business east, or leaving altogether for a friendlier island, or course prices going way up so they can cover these fees. The low prices are one of the reasons that people come to Roatan to get trained, so that will dissuade potential pro candidates, who come here for months and spend a lot of money on rent, bars & restaurants, groceries, utilities, etc. I also doubt the course directors will be able to continue to train locals for free as they will have to take on more paying students to cover the fees. Not good.

These numbers are absolutely outrageous for locals and foreigners alike. No one here makes that kind of money. Targeting the largest tourism activity on the island and issuing these 'fees' which penalize the people helping to bring tourists to the island and having them return again and again (and these tourists also rent hotels, eat at restaurants, go fishing and ziplining, take tours, etc.) is one of the stupidest moves I've seen here on Roatan, and that's saying a lot. No permit fees for bartenders, fishing guides, zipline guides, etc. all of whom work in tourism and make decent money and tips. There are 150 pages of new taxes for the municipality and this is only the beginning - many other sectors are affected.

I normally try to keep quasi-political stuff off my site as I end up receiving threats online and in real life, but this latest batch of efforts that seems to aim to expunge foreigners from Roatan or penalize them for bringing money to the island is getting to the point where I want people to know about it - I want TOURISTS to know about it - so people can make an informed decision about visiting the island and what activities they're going to participate in. Right now the businesses on Roatan have formed a committee and are pursuing legal action against the municipality on various grounds to try to get these new changes revoked. The mayor has also allegedly just decided to give himself and his councilors a large raise which is ludicrous. Some hotly contested items with the new taxes have been put on hold for two weeks while they try sort it out. The mayor has agreed to have a meeting in two weeks with affected sectors. In the meantime, their social media person has blocked anyone voicing a disagreeing opinion about the taxes or a less-than-stellar opinion of the mayor on their Facebook page, myself included. (Uh, guys? That's not really how free speech works. We aren't in Cuba or China here...or are we?) Thankfully I have more platforms to speak on than just their Facebook page :)

While Roatan and the diving industry sort out their battle, I'm taking some time off the island to see where it all ends up. I don't want to be somewhere where I'm putting in so much time and energy to promote the island/diving industry and help visitors have the best time so that they come back again and tell their friends, and having it returned by essentially trying to force my fellow members in the dive industry off the island (or at least out of the west side where they have been established for many years), which in turn will affect the entire diving industry here.

I'm heading to Canada this week for a couple months and then I'll see what's happening here after that. If they've sorted it out, I'll be back. If not, I won't. It's a slap in the face to the diving industry by Roatan, especially after I and many others have spent time and energy helping to train locals in diving for free.

I haven't been 'home' for about a year and a half, so I'm really looking forward to seeing my family and friends. And, obviously, eating EVERYTHING. I have some other career paths that I'm going to be looking into while I'm there, and I am taking some time off work to complete some courses that I've been trying to work on for months. I will also be trying not to freeze into a solid block, as it's the dead of winter in my hometown and I don't even own any pants.

So, with all that being said, let's get on to the roundup for months 40 + 41:

1. Gratuitous diving photo:

Let's be clear - if you give me your camera underwater to take photos of you, you're gonna end up with a ridiculous Rika selfie somewhere on that camera. Guaranteed.

2. Posts from the last month(s):

I managed to squeak out quite a few, and was really happy with the quality of the posts I've been producing lately. I hope you guys enjoyed these. All were shared extensively on social media and are quickly becoming my most popular posts!

3. Coolest thing I've found on the internet this month:

Um, kitchen island with a tiny ocean? Yes, please. Take my money.

Remember, you can see all my roundup posts by clicking here or on the 'roundup' label below!

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 try to post more than once a month. So there's that.

Unfortunately, this post has been edited several times as new information becomes available about the new taxes on Roatan. I'm always trying to update it based on current info, so I apologize for the changes but it's important that I post accurate information, as slander and libel laws in Honduras are taken much more seriously than in North America and I've already been threatened. Bet you guys are excited to read all I'll have to say once I leave the island for good :)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Roatan Review: Blackwater Night Diving with West End Divers

Sometimes, things that happen are just "so Roatan", and if you've ever been here you know what I'm talking about.

I was walking to meet my friend for ice cream one evening when I passed West End Divers, and co-owner Gary (more commonly known as Bugs around these parts) stopped me in the street.

"Have you been drinking?" was the first thing out of his mouth.

I wondered if my (100% sober) gait was deceiving people, and responded with a, "no I haven't, thank you very much!"

"We're doing a blackwater dive in 5 minutes. Wanna come?"

How do you say no to an offer like that? I had heard rave reviews from the first few trial runs of the dive, and I was seriously intrigued. Of course, I called my ice cream date and said sorry, can't go, and ran to my house to change into a swimsuit and grab my mask. I was back at the dive shop in 5 minutes flat, out of breath and a little anxious about what I had just gotten myself into.

Blackwater dives are very different from the traditional night diving on Roatan. Instead of heading out at sunset, jumping off the boat and exploring the reef, you leave much later (at 7pm) and the boat goes 1-2 miles OFF the reef, out into the blue - which is out into the black at night. West End Divers has developed a unique and safe tethering system, so that the divers are attached to the boat via an individual 40ft anchor line and personal tether at all times during the dive. Your 10ft tether rope can swing 360 degrees around your anchor line, but you can't pass 50ft down and the divers spend the dive neutrally buoyant between 20-40ft.

What's the point of a blackwater dive? Well, it's mostly for the insane little creatures you can see that far off the reef! At night, many deepwater marine creatures come up to feed on the phytoplankton that lives near the surface. Lots of little weird gelatinous/jellyfish-type things, tiny squid and fish, larval eels, and generally just bizarre things that we don't see during a night dive on the reef. No big guys (mantas, sharks, etc.) have been spotted yet, but the emphasis is on the yet - I am confident that the more blackwater dives West End Divers does, the more divers will see! [Edit Jan 9: silky sharks were spotted on the latest blackwater dive! YEAH!) The bioluminescence in the water is also much, much more visible during the lights-out part of the dive than it is during a reef night dive, just due to less light pollution (when we night dive on the reef, the lights from resorts, etc. on shore affects us underwater because it's so close).

As West End Divers large boat Delfin rumbled us away from Roatan, my fellow instructor dive buddy and I sat together quietly with a little bit of apprehension as we weren't quite sure what to expect. The other three dive pros with us had all done a blackwater dive before. The boat had several extra staff on it as this kind of diving requires more surface support than a regular night dive. The speakers were pumping happy music and there was a definite air of excitement as the divers got their underwater camera setups ready. When we got to the spot, the boat dropped a sea anchor and each diver was given an individual line-handler and a high-intensity underwater torch. After a thorough briefing from cheery divemaster Courtney, our line handlers attached our anchor line over the gunwhale of the boat and our tether lines were clipped to our BCDs. We dropped in and our line-handlers directed us to the correct position on the sides of the boat (there is a max of 6 divers, each on their own line about 10 ft apart). We got the ok to descend, and down the lines into the dark we went.

It's definitely a weird and disorienting feeling the first few minutes. Not having the reef around you for any reference was a new thing for me, and I remember thinking, "wow, I'm really breathing hard - I must be nervous!" and checking my dive computer constantly because I had no idea what depth I was at. There was a little bit of current, so I just got myself neutrally buoyant and let the tether line hold me in one spot so there wasn't any resistance and I didn't have to kick. You can see all the other divers around you because everyone has lights, and you can see what they're seeing in their beams which is kind of cool if they've spotted something. I was able to reach my buddy by kicking over to her and scare her by grabbing her leg (we had an emergency hand holding plan in place in case we got scared, but we didn't end up having to use it - haha). With the current, my buddy and I were in front of the other three who all had cameras, so if we noticed flashes going off behind us we just turned around to see what they were looking at. I spent a lot of time just resting with my beam pointed out into the dark, seeing what creatures were whizzing by me. I squealed with excitement when I spotted a tiny squid, and my buddy and I caught a few things that were cool but we had no clue what they were. As dive pros with thousands of dives on Roatan's reef, it's a lot of fun for us to see new things.

The time passed quickly for my buddy and I as we figured out the best positions to get in and tried to make sure we weren't bothering the photographers with our lights. We showed each other weird jellyfish. We watched the camera guys doing their thing. We did somersaults on our lines. We bravely turned our lights off and hung out in the residual light from the other divers. We pretended we were Superman flying around. I spent a while picturing giant squid or a mako shark suddenly coming at me out of nowhere but sadly I have to report neither happened. At the 55-minute mark, we received the audible signal from the boat that we had 5 minutes left and to turn our lights off for a truly dark deepwater experience. As the camera strobes and torches turned off, we were in complete darkness....for about one second, until our eyes adjusted and the bioluminescence started. If you haven't ever seen this, picture everything being completely black, and then anything moving (us, our tether and anchor lines) having millions of green sparkles coming off of it. All five divers were waving their hands around, kicking and doing spins, so with our lines moving and us too, it was like seeing a sea of tiny fireworks EVERYWHERE. It was beautiful. I've never seen that much bioluminescence, even during the darkest of reef night dives. Absolutely amazing.

Finally, we got the audible signal for 60 minutes and to come up. My dive buddy and I slowly surfaced and started WOOHOO-ing - we still had an incredible adrenaline rush going. As our line-handlers got us back on the boat and unclipped, everyone was talking animatedly about what they had seen and the photographers immediately got their cameras out and started showing photos of the strange and wonderful little things we had found down there. Our captain, Nelson, started maneuvering Delfin back to shore as we all happily chatted about our dive.

Of all the things I've done diving around Roatan - night dives, seamount dives, well over a thousand reef dives - this was by far the most interesting one I've ever done. What a way to start off 2016! (And for someone who is still kinda scared of the dark, that's saying a lot!)

 West End Divers is currently the only dive shop on Roatan offering this exceptional experience. To participate, you must be an advanced open water diver with an absolute bare minimum of 25 dives under your belt (personally, I would recommend more but just chat with the staff there so they can assess you) and previous night diving experience. Blackwater diving is not for inexperienced divers, or divers with anxiety or claustrophobic tendencies. It's also definitely not for anyone who has trouble with vertigo. You can read more about West End Divers blackwater diving here, and their terms and conditions here. For those adventurous divers who tick all the right boxes though, I highly recommend you check this off your bucket list! Tell 'em Rika sent you, and say hi to the deep for me. I hope you see a shark!

me and lanita on our lines - by mickey charteris
 A massive thank you to Shawn Jackson, Mickey Charteris and Courtney Blankenship for letting me use your photos for this post. Thanks to Bugs for catching me on the street with the best invite ever, and to the shop for loaning me gear. Also thank you to Lanita, my favorite dive buddy of all time who didn't question me when I called and said "get your ass down here in five minutes dude we're going blackwater diving" - always good to check off another adventure with you my friend!

Disclosure: West End Divers generously hosted me for this dive but it was not in exchange for a review. I just happened to be walking by the shop after people canceled last-minute so I was offered the spot. Right place, right time. You guys know no matter who is taking care of the bill that I'll always give you my honest opinion!

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