Thursday, June 18, 2015

Roatan Month 34 Roundup

Yeah! 34 months! Haven't died or had an island baby yet, so all in all a great success.

I have been taking some time off as it's been a month of big changes. Jump and the net will appear, right? I moved to a new house which I love so much that I sometimes just stay in it all day, and I am taking on some projects and part-time stuff as I had a lot of time open up. However, I have spent a lot of that free time on watching the entire new season of Orange is the New Black (talk to me about it if you need a friend to chat with who isn't going to scream "SPOILER" at you since they're only on episode 2... I really did watch the entire season), wondering what the hell went on with the Game of Thrones finale, and cooking a million things that I pinned to Pinterest because I'm doing this challenge thing where I actually do things that I pin. I dare you to do one of your pins this month!

Let's get to the roundup!

1. Gratuitous diving photo:

Uh-oh... this is the last one for a bit! I haven't been in the water since this photo, which was taken at the beginning of May. This is a photo of Alex and I doing our safety stop at the end of a beautiful dive with Barefoot Divers. Photo taken by my talented friend and buddy from my divemaster program, Ana. I will be doing some more diving (and teaching, YAY!) this week and hope to have some new photos!

2. Posts from the last month:

More than one so clearly I'm winning!
You can look forward to a LOT more posts in the upcoming month - I have 11 posts sitting in the draft folder that I need to finish. I still have a Belize visa run to recap, as well as loads of new Roatan Reviews that are in the queue!

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

I've been stockpiling these - I love this part of my roundup and I hope you guys do too! This month is this crazy video of these dancing old dudes. I hate clickbait shit but honestly my jaw dropped and I let out a whoop at this one:

THAT GUY IN THE BLUE SWEATER THO. This video makes me go all basic white girl because I. cant. even. If you're having a bad day today, I guarantee it will make you smile!

You can always see all my roundup posts by clicking on the 'roundup' tag 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.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Snorkeling Trip That Changed My Life

Kind of a bold title, isn't it?

It's 100% true.

That blurry photo is me. It's me during the second time I ever snorkeled in my life. (The first being a very sketchy set up off a catamaran in Cuba in 2005. Now that I think about it, I'm surprised I made it out alive.) I know it's hard to see, but my face is full of joy. I am at home in the ocean!

I even know what day this was - February 5, 2012. I was on my very first trip to Roatan with my friend Steph, and it was our second day on the island and a guy named Justin that we met at the bar offered to take us out snorkeling in the bay. I even know exactly where I was in Half Moon Bay... right by the sunken submarine where I saw my first octopus. I was kicking around and freediving down and having the time of my life on vacation on a tropical island.

You know what else I saw during that snorkeling trip? This:

I know this photo kind of sucks (Steph was using some sort of crappy underwater camera I think - luckily we've both upgraded since then!), but you guys - this is a photo of the moment my life CHANGED. Cracked wide open, veered completely in a different direction and took me places I never imagined. This sounds cheesy, but it's true. I don't know how many of you know this... I know there's a lot of readers today who haven't been around from the beginning. I get the feeling that most of you thought I took a dive vacation to Roatan and loved it and just stayed here. How many of you knew that before I came to this island I had only snorkeled once? That I had been offered scuba diving lessons by my neighbor when I was 14 in exchange for babysitting his kid and I said, "no way, scuba is for losers!" and never thought about it again? How many of you knew that when I took my first trip here, I was running away from so many things in my life that I took a 3-week vacation from work, found the cheapest flight to Central America (which ended up being Roatan), and showed up here not knowing a damn thing about diving or Roatan? I had Googled the island once and saw that it was in the Caribbean with beaches, and that was good enough for me so I got on a plane with some bikinis.

When I was snorkeling that day, and marveling at parrotfish (which were pretty damn interesting at the time...) I looked down and was completely startled seeing these scuba divers below me. At the time I had no idea what was happening and why divers were underneath me (I now know, from teaching in that exact spot, that there was a class going on!), but watching these guys slowly gliding down there, getting up close and personal on the reef, stopping to look at creatures with no time limit on needing to take a breath - my mind was blown and right that second I decided I HAD to do it. I wanted to be them, I wanted to do that, I wanted to breathe underwater. Whenever we played the 'what superpower would you want' game as a kid, mine was always, always to breathe underwater. I used to have dreams of living in the ocean. For two years, I had the Finding Nemo reef scenes playing on my TV after I got my cable cut off. (Did you know in the special features on the DVD there's a bunch of looped relaxing reef scenes?)

Thank god for my friend Steph, who was brave enough to get certified in chilly Canada and came along on that trip with me at the last minute so that she could do her Advanced Open Water course. We got out of the water from that snorkel and walked right into a dive shop where I signed up for my Open Water course on the spot. If she hadn't been with me, I might have chickened out. Or I might have given up on my course, because I really struggled with the dive tables at first. I remember sitting in our hotel room drinking rum & pineapple out of teacups and her going over and over the tables with me until I got it. She high-fived me as I nailed each part of my course, and she tagged along on my first open water dive - which was the day I decided I was going to dive forever, and that I had to share this with other people. I knew from my first open water dive that I wanted to be an instructor. We also did some of our advanced course dives together. She held my hand on my first night dive, where I was terrified and was underweighted and panicky at the end when we sat in a sand patch with our lights off to see the bioluminescence. By the end of the trip, we were both Advanced Open Water divers with a dozen dives and big dreams in diving.

I'm telling you this story because I want you all to say YES. Say yes to going snorkeling with a random dude, say yes to the roadtrip your friend wants you to join, say yes to a sailing club, say yes to that wedding invite. You have no idea where anything will lead, who you will meet, and where it can take you. I went snorkeling and looked down at some divers and it changed my life. I went from a paralegal on the 14th floor of a skyscraper in downtown Vancouver to a dive instructor in the Caribbean in the same year. All because I said yes.

[And yes, Steph became a dive instructor too! While I did my best to convince her to join me for a divemaster program on Roatan, she had a bigger travel itch to scratch and left Canada shortly after I did - she went through Asia to Thailand and did her divemaster there and then went on to Malaysia. She's now an instructor in the Philippines and we meet in Canada each summer to try to convince each other to move where the other one is :) Love ya girl!]

Steph and I on West Bay Beach in 2012
(side note: I no longer look like this, thanks beer)

Have you ever said yes to something that changed your life?

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.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Guidelines for Tipping on Roatan

Short version: yes, you're supposed to tip on Roatan. 10%-20%. There ya go!

Long version:

Tipping is expected on Roatan for various services. If you're visiting or moving to the island, you should have a quick read through these guidelines to make sure you're tipping appropriately! We don't like people who play the "we don't have to tip in our home country so we're not going to here" game. Labor laws are very different from many other countries and you need to remember that the legal minimum wage still hasn't cracked $400/month here, and we're on an island and so the cost of living is not cheap, even for locals - they might have the benefit of not paying inflated rent, but their electricity bills, water bills, grocery costs, etc. are disproportionately high to wages. Should many employers step up and pay people a decent wage? OBVIOUSLY. Are they going to? NO. Not necessarily because they don't want to - the cost of doing business is really high here. But many are paying service employees based on a certain assumed level of tips from customers.

Now, don't get me wrong - I absolutely do not advocate for tipping when you receive bad service. I never do and you shouldn't either. I believe you need to give the style of service your customers want, and if your customers are foreign tourists who are used to having smiling, attentive service people, then if you want a tip you better be a smiling, attentive service person. Not sitting on your Blackberry playing Candy Crush or saying you're out of something just because you don't feel like making it. In situations where you get bad service, please don't tip, and please ask to speak to a manager and explain why you didn't tip. Just leaving nothing and not telling anyone in charge about the problems doesn't help anyone.

Regular disclaimers: it's your job to ask someone if you're confused about the currency exchange, that's not an excuse to leave a shitty tip. Tip only in USD bills - NO COINS, they are not accepted at banks here - or local currency (lempira). Canadian dollars or Euros cannot be exchanged on the island, so seriously, please don't tip in other currencies than USD or lempira. USD needs to be in good condition with no rips, tears, or writing on it, or the local bank won't take it. So that taped-up $20 you gave to your divemaster is pretty much worthless unless he can trade it with an American tourist for a different one.

Okay - rant over, on to the numbers.

Restaurants: be very careful in restaurants here, and read the fine print. Some places it's stated on the menu that service is included, or will be automatically added to your bill. Sometimes when you receive a bill you'll see that service is added (usually 10% or 15%), but don't be afraid to ask for clarification - tax is also sometimes added onto bills (15% for food and 18% for alcohol). A normal tip for regular service in a restaurant is 10%, with 15% for good service and 20% for outstanding service.

Diving: I wrote a whole post on this, but the short version is a minimum of $5 per tank for fun diving, or 10% of course cost for courses. If you can afford to dive, you should budget to tip accordingly.

Taxis: regular taxis that you hail on the street don't need to be tipped unless they carry your luggage or something. However, 99% of the time, the price you agree upon when you get in is the price you pay and that's it.

Bartenders: here's a tidbit you might not know about a lot of bartenders on Roatan: they are either working solely for tips, or being paid about $10-15 for an 8 hour tips. So tips are very important for the staff in the bar and restaurant industry here. Bartenders should be tipped at least 10lps (about $0.50) per basic well drink up to $1-2 per drink if you're ordering those ridiculous blended drinks with 45 things in them. Tip early and high to get great service for the rest of the evening! Tips should be double for bartenders doing beach service (ie. serving you to your chair out on the beach rather than the bar).

Housekeepers: I was completely ignorant of the fact that housekeepers were supposed to get tips until I first traveled to Roatan. $2-5/day in the room (again, depending on what level of service you're getting) is standard. If the hotel does not provide a tip envelope in the room, make sure you leave a little note with the money that clearly states it's for the housekeeper so she doesn't get accused of stealing.

Tour Operators: there is so much gray area in here that I'm hesitant to even tackle this one. There are a huge variety of tour operators on Roatan - fishing charters, snorkeling tours, island tours by car or boat, ziplining, cultural activities, etc. Sometimes it's hard to know when to tip, especially when it's an owner-operated business. This one you need to use some more discretion for, and take into account the level of service and 'extras' you were given during the tour, as well as how many crew were involved. Remember your tip may have to be split as a policy, so if you give a $10 tip to someone on a crew of 5, they might have to share that with everyone. Don't be afraid to ask what their policy is, especially if you want to make sure a certain amount goes to a certain employee. I always say that 10% of the activity price is a good bet for a minimum/standard tip.

Grocery Stores: on Roatan they have bag boys/girls at the bigger grocery stores who bag your groceries and then take them to the car for you. They work only for tips. For a few bags I give them 10-20lps (about $0.50-$1). For big shopping trips I give 100lps (about $5). I've heard really varying amounts from everyone here on this - some give more than I do, some less. All I can say, is I'm pretty sure these kids are making more with the cashiers when the gringos come shopping.

Spa/Beauty Services: this is the same as North America - 10% to 20% is standard.

Airport: if one of those guys takes your luggage at the airport to carry to the taxi or your resort's bus, you need to give him $3-5 depending on how many bags you have. The only money those guys make are tips. If you don't want to tip, be firm with your 'no thank you' when they ask, and then carry your own shit.

Other random ones: you should tip security guards if they watch your crap for you on the beach while you swim ($5). You should tip employees who find your iPhone that your drunk ass left by the pool and gave it back to you rather than selling it ($....A LOT. Like $50-100.) You should tip the yard guy who dragged a beach chair 50ft from the property for you because you wanted a certain 'view' of the ocean ($5).  I'm sure you get the picture on this! If you're asking people to do stuff for you outside of their basic job duties, you should tip them.

I absolutely hate it when people in the service industry ask for tips because I think it's ridiculously uncouth, but you should never feel uncomfortable asking what a standard tip is if you're unsure and you'd like to make sure you leave an appropriate tip. Best bet is to ask a manager who doesn't get tipped - ask them what a standard tip for their server or guide is - many employees (especially locals) are shy when put on the spot like that. To be honest, it's pretty easy to figure out the tipping here if you're from North America, as it's basically the same as there!

Did I miss anything? Were you surprised at the amounts for tips here?

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.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Roatan Rent: What $350/Month Gets You

Keeping in line with all the changes I've been making lately, I finally made one that's been a long time coming: I just moved to a new place!

(You may remember the other posts in this series - Roatan Rent: What $300/Month Gets You and Roatan Rent: What $400/Month Gets You. These are some of my most popular posts, so I guess people are interested in this...?)

I'm on move #8 in three years here which is kind of a lot, but what can I say... I've got itchy feet! The last place I was living (the $300/month place) I was in for 15 months, and for the most part it was okay, but I had grabbed it on a whim after I was frantically trying to find a new apartment so I could move out of my housesitting place in the jungle and back into 'civilization'. It still wasn't all the way in town though, and my scooter keeps breaking down on a pretty regular basis so it was turning into a hassle to not be within walking distance of everything.

I kept an eye out for months for a place where the price was right - budget rentals on the west side of the island are few and far between, and especially difficult to get inside of the town of West End. So when this one appeared, I snapped it up and am now happily ensconced in my little studio right in town!

Here's what you get for $350/month:

(Please excuse the crap iPhone photos. I just didn't feel like taking out my regular camera! I don't know why I couldn't make these any bigger. Just having one of those days...)

I also have a really lovely balcony out front with a little table and chair, and space for a hammock, but I'm not going to post a photo of that because people are fucking weirdos and I don't want anyone showing up at my house - that includes tourists and locals! If you are coming to Roatan and you'd like to meet me, please just send me an email and I will be happy to meet you at the bar for a drink and a chat!!

This place is about a two-minute walk off the street & beach, right in the center of town so very close to everything. My rent includes water (and I even have hot water here!) but not electricity ($25-50/month), drinking water ($5-10/month), laundry ($30-40/month) or propane ($5-10/month). So this new place is definitely more expensive than my old $300/month place, but cheaper and better than my $400/month place. Sadly, I no longer have a weekly cleaning lady for free! Spoiled, I know.

Out of all the places I've rented here by myself, this one is definitely the most well-furnished and nicest building, and I think the apartment has a nice vibe and good energy. I feel like I'm on vacation every time I get in the walk-in shower... I've had 15 months of a shower that was too small to even turn around in. I also am a huge fan of this being a concrete building as I can't hear the family above me or my next door neighbors at all - and I have no downstairs neighbors so I can work out at home without worrying about disturbing someone. My 10ft ceilings are pretty great too! Even though it's a small space, it feels nice and airy in here.

Everything is just so much more convenient living in town - if I forget something, I just walk home and get it and I'm back 5 minutes later. I also thought this neighborhood was going to be way louder than it actually is - it's only a minute behind the main drag in West End where most of the bigger (read: louder) bars are located, and I hardly hear anything at night. And - knock on wood - so far NO roosters keeping me up all night!

I am spending a lot more time at home these days and I'm so happy that I'm in a little space that I love. I'm really hoping this is going to be the last move I have to do here!

What do you think of my new place? Out of all the places ($300, $350, $400) - which do you prefer?

I'm sorry, but I can't help you find an apartment on Roatan (unless you'd like to pay me for my time, in which case OF COURSE I will help you :) ) If you've found this post while searching for apartment rentals on Roatan, here's the only two things I can tell you: #1 - never, ever send money for a place without seeing it in person first, and #2 - almost all apartment rentals here are done either by word of mouth or on the Roatan Rentals Facebook group. Best thing to do is to get a cheap hotel for a week while you look around at places!

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, May 20, 2015

Roatan Month 33 Roundup

Trying to get back into the habit of my monthly roundups! I also posted more than once this month, so there's actually something to put in the roundup.

I've had a crazy month since I last posted. I had a visit from Alex in Wanderland, and it was a serious 'full circle' moment for me. I remember when I first found her blog - I was sitting at my desk in Vancouver four years ago looking up everything I could about Roatan, and found her posts about a trip there. I didn't know that there were people who were long-term travelers, or who even wrote about it! The more I read on her site, the more I realized that this was something I could do too. I didn't have to sit at a desk and do a job that I hated! (It's still such a huge thing for me now when people tell me that I inspired them to do their own cubicle throwdown and create a new life or adventure for themselves - it makes me feel AMAZING that I can be a small part of that for someone!) It was a big moment of realization and Alex was an inspiration for me and a great source of support over the last few years, so it was pretty fun to get to hang out in person. You never really know if you're going to connect with someone you only know online, but we had a blast - my stomach hurt for days afterward from laughing so much! Lots of tidbits to come from our adventures in the next few posts. I can't wait till our next meetup!

What else has gone on? I took a weeklong vacation/visa run to Belize, which I'll go into detail about in some upcoming posts, but the short version is that I loved it just as much as my last trip there. And for those of you who know where I spend most of my day when I'm here on the island, there are some major changes in that department - hopefully involving getting some more time underwater.

Let's do the roundup!

1. Gratuitous diving photo:

YAY! I actually have one! Alex and I managed to sneak in a couple dives between eating delicious food, working on our sites, chatting, laughing at hilarious Insta accounts and watching Netflix documentaries (we're basically party animals). Here's a photo of us at Mary's Place, one of Roatan's premier dive sites. Many thanks to Barefoot Divers for taking us out, and to my good friend Ana for the photo.

2. Posts from the last month:

More than one! Go me!

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

Here's a little-known fact about me - I absolutely ADORE stop-motion shorts. I recently re-discovered one of my old favorites, Pes, who has come out with some fantastic new ones. 'Western Spaghetti' is seriously just SO good, and you should watch it. I can (and have) watched this all day!!

You can see all my roundup posts by clicking on the 'roundup' tag 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.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Don't Judge A Package Vacation Until You've Done One

When I was growing up, I watched as my friends’ families faithfully went on charter vacations to exotic-sounding locations like Puerta Vallarta and Cancun every spring break. They would come back with cornrows in their hair, stories of snorkeling with tropical fish, and tan lines in the middle of the cold Canadian winter. I never thought much of it, as my family wasn’t very interested that type of vacation.

When I got older and started traveling solo and with friends, my backpacker buddies and I often made fun of the people at the big all-inclusive resorts as they got yet another daiquiri with their magical wristbands all day. We figured it must be very boring and that people who took these vacations weren’t interested in seeing anything that location had to offer.

My perceptions all changed the summer a friend of mine suggested taking a package vacation after we had finished a long, hard summer of work on a university break. At first, I scoffed, but then realized that I was way too tired to put together my own trip itinerary, and we had limited time left before we had to go back to school. I decided to give it a try on a Caribbean trip.

Photo by Artur S / CC BY
I finally understood why people chose these vacations – they’re so easy! We just picked the destination we wanted, decided what type of hotel we wanted, and all the details were taken care of for us by Expedia. Gone were the hours of trying to choose the best flight times & connections, and the miniscule differences between different hotels. Everything was taken care of for us from start to finish with a few clicks. We were on our way to CUBA!

When the departure day finally arrived, once we got to our airport, everything was taken care of – since we were on a charter, there was no waiting in line to check in as it’s only the people on that flight (and not a bunch of other flights on the airline leaving around the same time) checking in. On the plane we were served champagne and a full breakfast for free! I still haven’t had that on any other airline I’ve been on. Once we arrived at the airport in Cuba, there was no struggling to find a local taxi that wouldn’t rip us off – we got straight on a bus that took us to the hotel. At the hotel, mojitos were waiting for us and we were taken to our room. We were given our magical wristbands, and we definitely made good use of them at the bar. We spent seven days exploring the beach and taking in several activities that our activity coordinator had on offer – there was an amazing day on a catamaran cruise to a secluded island where we were treated to lobster lunch, and another day of horseback riding on the beach. In between these, we actually had a blast at the hotel with something new on offer every day, such as Spanish lessons, salsa dancing and Cuban cooking classes.

Photo by Balint / CC BY
To anyone thinking that they are too cool for a package vacation – don’t knock it till you try it! It can be just as fun and adventurous as self-planned travel, and there are so many options available that your trip will be what you make of it. If you want to veg out by a pool all day and drink your weight in margaritas, you can totally do it. Or, if you want an easy home base to jump off from, and not have to worry about figuring out countless flight/hotel/transport details, it’s also great for that. There are many choices with regards to destinations and itineraries, so there is something for everyone. For me, it was the perfect, easy trip after a few crazy backpacking trips and was a fantastic way to relax and recharge.

This post was brought to you in affiliation with Expedia.

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.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Planning a Dive Vacation in Lanzarote

When to go?

Lanzarote is a popular tourist destination in Europe. Many holidaymakers flock to this island for a fun-filled holiday, especially during the peak holiday season. The peak season is between November and April and between July and August. The months of May, June, September and October are the best months to travel to this island in the Canaries. The weather on the island is great and you can find fantastic deals on flights to Lanzarote. Off season deals on hotels can also be found during this time.

Where are the scuba dive sites?

With over 100 dive sites, you’ll be spoilt for choice. The main dive areas include Archipielago Chinijo, Coasta Noreste, Puerto del Carmen and Playa Blanca. Some popular dive sites around Playa Blanca include the Flamingo Wall, Twin Pipes, Las Lenguas, Colardas and the Wrecks. The Veril de las Agujas (Cliff of Needles) in Archipielago Chinijo offers many picturesque areas to dive in. The Lobster Cliff located in the far south is famous for its rocks formation, abundance of fish and lobsters.

Located around the coast of Lanzarote are several old wrecks. The eight wrecks around the area of Los Erizos have a wide array of marine life, including emperor fish, sardines, arrow crabs and Turkish wrasse. You will need to dive several times to explore the entire area.

If you fancy a night dive, do not miss the Harbor Wall. Start from the bay of Playa de La Barrilla, where divers gradually descend to a depth of about 12 meters. You will get a spectacular view of the marine life, but remember to take all necessary precaution when you’re night diving.

What are the highlights?

Lanzarote’s volcanic underwater topography is a unique characteristic, which distinguishes it from other Canary Islands. With good visibility of up to 20 meters all year round, and warm water temperature of 24C in summer, you can come into close encounters with over 500 species of fish, including rays, moray eels, angel sharks, and groupers.

There are also numerous underwater volcanic caves to explore. Swim inside the caves and you’ll soon find yourself escorted by schools of fish. Also hiding inside these underwater caves are the canary star, the tree coral, the ballan wrasse and shrimp.

The reefs are swarming with Lanzarote’s colorful and diverse marine life. Look out for sea horses, red coral and octopus, and don't forget your camera!

Lanzarote is an underwater paradise for scuba diving. The huge range of shallow seabed, amazing landscape of underwater volcanoes, warm water temperature throughout the year, and good visibility, will make your dive vacation in Lanzarote memorable. Enjoy your underwater adventure and happy diving!

Image by winterriot used under the Creative Commons license