Thursday, August 21, 2014

Roatan Month 24 Roundup - Two Years!

Two years. TWO YEARS. I never thought I would be writing this post.

I remember thinking when I left Canada, “Well, if I make it even six months this will all have been worth it.” Now it’s two years later and I’m still here on Roatan - diving, drinking too much rum and enjoying the best sunsets in the world.

I am going to take a break from my traditional roundup posts for this once, since it’s a milestone. Instead of my usual roundup, I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned from living on a tiny island in the Caribbean for the last two years.

You don’t need as much stuff as you think you do. I’ve been wearing the same 10 shirts and 3 shorts for over a year now (I changed out my ‘wardrobe’ once since I’ve been here). And you know what? No one notices, or cares, including me. I don’t have a flat-screen TV or an office chair & desk, and my life still goes on every day. My 'stuff' has been in storage for two years and I've managed just fine without it.

The world won’t explode if you use dollar store shampoo. I’ve been very lucky that in the past, I had enough money to buy whatever kind of shampoo (and clothes, food, etc.) that I wanted without worrying about it. Now that I’m on an extremely strict budget and in a place with limited options, I’ve had to buy and use things I would never have dreamed of back in Canada. My hair gets just as clean with $1.50 shampoo as it did with my fancy $18 shampoo I used in Canada. This applies to an awful lot of things. It's been a good lesson to learn.

Patience, and more patience. This place pushes me to my limits constantly with ridiculous red tape, line ups that can go on for hours, and the constant “I’ll get to that when I feel like getting to it” attitude. However, I have learned to be more patient and find myself a little bewildered when I hear tourists getting in a huff about having to wait 5 minutes for something. Lady, just be glad you never have to go to the bank.

Trying new things never hurt anyone. I have done all kinds of things here outside of my comfort zone, from eating fried guatusa, to using bush medicine to cure ailments, to learning how to drive a boat. I have said ‘yes’ to many adventures just to see what would happen, and have had some incredible experiences (remember the megayacht I ran away on?) This island has been a great place for cultivating an adventurous spirit.

You can’t eat garbage and drink every day. I haven’t said too much about it on this blog, but I really struggled with my appearance the first year I was here. When I arrived on Roatan I had just had a really stressful year and had been working two full-time jobs for six months. I was way too skinny, but that’s how everyone first saw me here. After a year of too many baleadas and Salva Vidas (plus going from a dive instructor to a dive shop supervisor which had me sitting in an office all day) I had put on 25 pounds and EVERYONE felt the need to comment on it. Especially the islanders, except to them it was a good thing – they were really pleased that I wasn’t ‘skin and bone’ anymore. I didn’t feel good about myself though, and I’ve worked hard to lose 15 of those pounds and am now feeling happy and healthy again with my weight. It was a tough lesson but I had to learn how to take care of myself properly here and find a good balance.

You don’t need all that makeup. I’ve never been a girly-girl, or someone who enjoyed wearing a lot of makeup, but I used to wear some every day and worked in a corporate environment where you were expected to look ‘polished’. I wear zero makeup here (except maybe once every couple months when I’m going out on a Friday night) and people constantly think I’m younger than I actually am. I also feel like it’s more of a compliment now if someone thinks I look good, because this is what I actually look like!

A lot of us are really spoiled. Do you have water you can drink that comes out of your tap? Do you have power that doesn't go out every day? Do you have enough extra money to get a Starbucks every day? The people here have taught me humility. They go without so much that is a 'given' in many other countries, and they just deal with it as best they can. They don't complain about it on Twitter.

You can’t run away from yourself. All too often, I meet people here who ran away from problems they had in their home country before moving here, and then are shocked that they keep running into the same issues. Just FYI, you don’t magically become a different person simply because you moved to the beach.

I don’t know how much longer I will stay on Roatan, but I do know I’m incredibly proud of myself for reaching a goal I set for myself and then exceeding it. There was a big learning curve when I arrived, but I feel like I have finally hit my stride and know how to do what I need to do here. Two years is a big accomplishment and I know, despite whatever comes next, that I will always be able to look back on this and say that I did it.

You can read my previous monthly roundup posts here: Month 23, Month 22, Month 21, Month 20, Month 19, Month 18, Month 17, Month 16, Month 15, Month 14, Month 13, Month 12, Month 11, Month 10, Month 9, Month 8, Month 7, Month 6, Month 5, Month 4, Month 3, Month 2 and finally little old Month 1.

And last but not least, here’s some news for you – I’m going to Canada!! I’m leaving here August 23 and will be in Canada until September 26. So you’ll find posts for the next month will be Canada-based! I am super ready to EAT EVERYTHING and see my family and friends. Trying to co-ordinate some kind of epic summer meet-up somewhere with Colleen and Steph… any other Canadian bloggers around who want to get in on this?

Guys, make sure to follow me on FacebookInstagram 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 cheers to another two years of ridiculous adventures. So there's that.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

8 Beaches Worth Visiting in Phuket

(So guys, I'm still on the downlow for a little bit. My lovely friend Karyn from Not Done Travelling has stepped in with a guest post for you all about beaches worth visiting in Phuket! Show her some looooove in the comments. Thanks Karyn!!)

When the chance came up to write a guest post for Rika, I wanted to write about something that follows on from her current theme of islands, beaches, and diving. I had recently put up a post on my own blog about my favourite beaches on the west coast of Phuket, Thailand, and I was really surprised at how many people mentioned that they had overlooked this little island in the Andaman Sea. 

Unfortunately, over the last 30 years it has built up a little bit of a reputation for itself as a beacon of girly bars and overdevelopment. Because of this belief, many people are skipping it in favour of other Thai islands or the mountainous North. However, Phuket is more than just Patong and the girly bars. I spent an entire month there, and I learnt that there is a location for everybody, no matter who you are or what you are into. So I thought I would share my Phuket beach recommendations with you also.

Before I do so, here are some some quick facts about Phuket:

- It is located just off Thailand’s south-west coast, and is connected to the mainland by a bridge.

- It’s actually quite big, at 48 kilometres long and 13 miles wide. Including all of its smaller islands, it has an area of 576 square kilometres. (I did some research and found out that is about 7 times larger than Roatan! Wow.)

- There is a mountain range in the centre, with the highest point being 529 metres. (The Big Buddha sits on a mountain to the island’s south and is worth a visit).

- Phuket is home to about 600,000 people, but just under half of these are seasonal workers, expats, and other non-Thai citizens.

- The western side of the island (including the beaches I mention below) were hit by the devastating Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, and there were many fatalities. However any damage to buildings has now been repaired, and tsunami warning signs are dotted around everywhere. 

The eastern side of the island has plenty of development, but the beaches there are definitely not as good as those on the west. So if you are considering a trip there, here are the west-coast beaches I can highly recommend.

8. Patong
Patong is party central, and all of Phuket’s nightlife revolves around it. This means it is definitely not everybody’s cup of tea. (In fact, when I first drove through it, I snarkily made a Facebook post saying, “Patong is bad and it should feel bad!”) If you’re definitely not a party person, you will want to skip this area altogether. However if that is totally your scene, you will love this beach. 

Mass tourism has definitely left its mark. Though I didn’t swim there, it did not look very attractive (too many people, too many boats, too much noise, and too much rubbish). But if all you want is to pull up a sun lounger and chill out, it will do you just fine. You can tell that Patong must have been, at one stage, very beautiful, so if you can overlook some of the overdevelopment side-effects, you will love it.

7. Bang Tao
Bang Tao is 2 beaches north of Patong. It is very long and straight, and seems to stretch on forever. It only goes for 6 kilometres (4 miles) but it’s straightness makes it feel like so much more.

There are a lot of resorts lining the beach (such as Laguna Phuket Golf Club) and it feels to be a very family-oriented place. Because of its size and width you will never feel crowded here. In fact, you will feel fairly isolated. My memories of Bang Tao are of endless sand stretching on for miles, with only a few other people in our vicinity – and we were there in peak season!

Of course, with fewer people on the beach there are fewer shopping and dining options, but if you’re staying at one of the resorts then you will have everything you need anyway.

One detraction, though: sea lice. There were so many sea lice here we got out of the water and decided to move on. Itchy, itchy.

6. Surin
Surin is just south of Bang Tao, off the hill between Bang Tao and Kamala. It’s small, so keep an eye out for street signs. We found it just by following our noses. We did not swim here, but hung out for a while and had some lunch.

The water looked beautiful, and the sand looked clean. There is a wide range of restaurants lining the beach which seemed to be very busy, but then again, we did visit at a meal time. It seemed like there were a lot of people on the beach itself, but I think this is related to its small size. I am sure there is a lot of peace and quiet once you’re out in the water.

5. Nai Harn
Nai Harn is the southernmost beach on Phuket’s west coast, just up from Promthep Cape, a popular viewpoint. (The photo above is taken from Promthep Cape).

Because it is tucked away down there, most tourists don’t know about it or don’t make it down for a visit. Thus, it is cleaner and quieter than many of the beaches further north. It is also a favourite of the locals, which is always a vote of confidence.

I have been told that due to its desirability, accommodation around this beach can be a little pricey. But this is Thailand – there will always be a budget option somewhere close, if you don’t mind a little walk.

4. Karon
Karon is one beach south of Patong, and one beach north of Kata Yai. It is not as long as Bang Tao, but its length is enough to have the same sort of effect. Even though there will be a lot of people on the sand, you won’t feel crowded at all.

What I loved about Karon was its depth and surf. Depending on the phase of the moon, the waves here are downright scary. Hence, you should be careful (apparently tourist drownings are not that uncommon). There is a steep drop off at low tide, so this, combined with the strong currents, mean you should be really careful with little kids. But there are some nice restaurants not far from the beach, and a great dive shop with a pavillion on the sand. If you are into diving, there is a reef not too far off, which is supposedly great.

Another plus is that it is just south of Patong, so if you want to head in there for some nightlife, it’s just a short ride away.

3. Kata Noi
This little beach is quite cute. It is just over a small hill to the south of the main beach at Kata, Kata Yai. (In Thai noi means small, yai means big). The waves are just as big as at Kata Yai or Karon, despite it being so much smaller than its two northern neighbours.

There is only room at this beach for 2 resorts, so there is quite an exclusive feel about the place. There is very little to the south of Kata Noi (the road to Nai Harn curves around just south of Kata Yai) so if you are not staying in the Kata Noi area, access will be from the north.

2. Kata Yai
This beach almost made it to my #1 spot! Perhaps I am biased because we stayed at Kata and spent so much time at this beach. However there is so much to love about it.

In my opinion, the whole Kata area in general is the perfect mix of action and relaxation, and I feel that simply translates over to the beach as well. Yes, there are a lot of people, and it is hard to find a sun lounger, so you’re better off just taking a towel and claiming a little spot of sand. But the water is gorgeous, the whole place is clean, and the waves are great.

You can jet ski, take a banana boat ride, go parasailing, play beach soccer, bodysurf, or swim out past the breakers and just float there. I swam astonishingly far out to sea and it was still beautifully clear all the way down. You can get beach massages, hang out at the beach bars, or get a bite to eat at the very delicious restaurants that are up the southern end.

The northern end of the beach contains a coral reef that stretches all the way to the tiny island just offshore. You can snorkel right off the beach, and the nearby dive shops take beginner divers down here too.

1. Kamala
Finally, Kamala is my absolute favourite beach on Phuket.

Kamala is just north of Patong and just around the corner from Surin, It has white sand, beautifully clear green-blue water, and a quiet vibe. There are also relatively few resorts, similar to Nai Harn. Because of that the options are a little pricier, but this also means the place is a little more peaceful than Patong, Karon, or Kata.

There are plenty of sun loungers, and the beach is lined with lots of chill little restaurants to hang out in. As with Karon, it is only a short taxi ride away from Patong if you need a little more action in the evenings.

Now, with these suggestions in mind, I have to specify that most of these beaches are within driving distance of each other. Why not rent a motorbike and drive along the coast until you find the place that suits you. Taxis in Phuket are expensive, but there is also a bus that will take you between Kata and Patong, as well as to Phuket Town.

Plus, there is another bonus that I haven’t mentioned yet. Every single one of these beaches comes with an extremely beautiful sunset. So you can’t lose.

Karyn is an Aussie girl who is passionate about the environment and marine conservation. She realised there is no cure for the travel bug, so she is currently in the process of setting up a location-independent lifestyle, in order to travel long-term. She blogs at about her adventures.

Friday, July 18, 2014

How to Become a PADI Scuba Diving Instructor

People ask me all the time how I became a dive instructor! I can say that it is not an easy (or cheap) process, but if you have a passion for diving and have the right personality to teach, it's an amazing way to do what you love - and if you want, live in some pretty interesting and exotic places.

Since I can only speak for my own experience, this post is focused on how to become a PADI dive instructor. There are many training agencies around the world for basic certification all the way up to instructor - some of the more common ones are SSI, NAUI, BSAC, SDI/TDI, CMAS - but they are all different and I really don't know what the other ones are like.

the day i passed my instructor course!
The journey to become a dive instructor starts a looooonnnnnnggg time before your instructor course. You have to become a certified diver first! After that, there are continuing education courses. The timeline and cost looks something like this:

(Prices are from Roatan in 2012 and have probably gone up a bit - and keep in mind Roatan is one of the cheapest places in the world to do diving courses.)

  1. Open Water Diver - the basic diving certification course. 3-5 full days plus homework at night. $300-450
  2. Advanced Open Water - a step up from the Open Water course. 2-3 days. $275-400
  3. Emergency First Responder - before starting the Rescue course, you have to have a current First Aid certificate. If you don't have one from somewhere else, you'll need to take this. 1 day. $100-$150
  4. Rescue Diver - a seriously physically and mentally challenging course where you learn how to react to emergency situations above and below the water. 3-4 days. $300-400
  5. Divemaster - the first professional step. Usually an internship where you work in a dive shop while studying dive theory, practice skills and dive leadership. Must have 40 logged dives to begin. 6-8 weeks. About $2000 including PADI fees. Once you are a 'PADI Pro' you will have to pay yearly professional fees to keep your standing. If you don't pay, your certification level reverts to Rescue Diver. I think it's around $90/year to maintain a Divemaster rating. 
  6. Open Water Scuba Instructor - this is a 'dive instructor'. Usually a 8-12 day Instructor Development Course (IDC) with a 2-day Instructor Exam (IE) at the end. About $2000-3000 including PADI fees. It's about $250/year to maintain an instructor rating, plus some shops require you to maintain professional liability insurance. You must have 100 logged dives by the end of the IDC to participate, and have been a certified diver for at least six months.
  7. Master Scuba Diver Trainer - this is a small step up from a regular OWSI. All it means is that you have certified at least 25 students, and that you are licensed to teach 5+ specialties. There are a few ways to be certified to teach specialties, but I took the route of doing an MSDT prep week with my course director after the IE which takes 5-7 days and costs $600 and up depending on how many specialties you want. PADI fees depend on how many specialties you choose, they are around $70 per specialty. This is the instructor level I'm currently at.
  8. There are a few higher instructor-level ratings but they're kind of irrelevant for this post and since I haven't achieved them yet I can't tell you much about it. Check the PADI website if you need info on that.
PADI has built in a bit of a roadblock to full 'zero-to-hero' programs where people do their courses back to back and try to become an instructor as fast as possible. You have to be a certified diver for at least six months (ie. have completed your Open Water course for six months) before you're allowed to do the instructor course. One of my friends didn't know this, and his IDC center overlooked it, and he went all the way through the instructor course and exam and PADI wouldn't certify him as an instructor because he hadn't been a certified diver for six months. He had to do the IDC and exam all over again (and it's no easy feat). Other courses have 'minimum logged dives' thresholds before you begin the course. Most dive shops won't do a Rescue course with less than 20 dives, or Divemaster with less than 40-60 dives.

doing a refresher with one of the first open water courses i ever taught. this lady was nearly 70 and it took me almost three weeks to get her certified, but she did it!
I personally think that PADI should have higher 'minimum logged dives' thresholds. When I did my courses, I did my Open Water and Advanced Open Water back to back, which I don't recommend to anyone. It's really hard to get everything you can get out of the Advanced course when you've only just learned to dive and you're still figuring out your buoyancy and basic dive skills. I also think the Rescue threshold should be raised to 40 dives. As a Rescue diver, you learn to be responsible for yourself and other divers underwater, and if you're still developing your skills as a diver, it's hard to assist others. I also think 100 dives is low for an instructor.

my 'office'
I did my Rescue the second I banged out 20 dives, and started my Divemaster as soon as I hit 40 dives. I had 114 dives when I started the Instructor course. When I look back on it now, over 800 dives and 50+ certifications later, I really don't think I had enough diving experience.  I would recommend to anyone looking to become a dive instructor to get as many dives as you can between courses. I know diving is expensive but you will have so much more success at the professional level when you have actual experience in the water. I never had any doubt about my teaching ability - I am a natural teacher and have a knack for sharing knowledge - but I think I would have been a better dive lead with more experience first.

Certifications don't always mean everything... there are some local dive guides on Roatan who never went past the Rescue level, and they have 35,000+ dives on this reef. When I was a brand-new OWSI, I had 119. Who would you rather go out with for a fun dive? As a certified diver, I'd rather go with someone who has more experience on the reef. Who would I rather have teach me how to dive? An instructor. Just something to keep in mind (looking at you, newly certified OWSIs on Roatan who like to tell the boat captains who used to be divemasters here for 15-20 years how a site is supposed to be done).

Now, having your piece of paper that says you can teach people to dive isn't everything. Most shops expect instructors to have their own set of full gear. Full gear means: BCD, regulators/console, dive computer, fins, mask, snorkel, wetsuit/drysuit, knife, torch, etc. I bought all mid-range stuff and spent close to $6,000 for everything new 2.5 years ago. I have already replaced a BCD (thank god my dive shop was a ScubaPro dealer and let me order one at the dealer price of $250, otherwise it would have been around $600-800 retail), had one mask stolen (a $75 mask) and replaced with a $25 (dealer price) one, had a torch die (a $90 light that ScubaPro wouldn't replace because I lost the receipt), and had to get increasingly larger wetsuits as I gained weight here (thankfully free from dive shop lost & found). I am going to need a new dive computer soon which will probably run me around $600. I also pay $165/year for the highest level of DAN dive accident insurance - as a dive professional, because of how much time I spend diving I have a higher risk of having an accident, and with a ride in the hyperbaric chamber costing $8000-10,000 per treatment, I don't want to pay for that. Every diver (even recreational) should have dive insurance. Most travel policies don't cover scuba diving, so be sure to look into it.

get ready for killer triceps from hauling tanks all day
I always tell people diving is not for the faint of heart or wallet. All in all, it cost me around $13,000 for all courses and gear. That's not including the cost of 2 holidays to Roatan to complete courses, or the cost of moving here and not working for the first 4 months while I did my Divemaster and Instructor courses. I think I had to save about $20,000 to get to the day I started working as a dive instructor.

Oh, and once you become a dive instructor? Unless you work in one of the very few places in the world where you make decent money (but still not great), be prepared to get paid shit for how much work you're expected to do. Also, there is no guarantee that you will get work! You'll be competing for jobs with instructors who have way more dives and experience than you, and since you get paid the same no matter what your experience level is, dive shops will almost always choose the more experienced candidate. Instructing is not all rainbows and butterflies all the time either.

I have spoke at length on this blog about how little we get paid (and how often people don't realize they are supposed to tip). Most people are shocked when they find out my salary. From talking to friends who are instructors all over the world. you seem to be able to make enough money and save a bit in places like Grand Cayman and Australia. Anywhere else (the rest of the Caribbean, SE Asia, Indonesia) you usually make enough to live and have some beers with your friends a couple nights a week and that's it. I don't recommend this career path full-time for anyone who has student debt, loans, or credit card bills. It's highly unlikely you'll make enough money to make monthly payments consistently, especially if you want to go home to visit once a year or do any traveling. This is not a career you get into for the money. It's a career to get into to share your passion and knowledge of the underwater world with others. Sometimes I get frustrated and stressed about finances when my other non-instructor friends here are taking holidays from Roatan (yes, we still need holidays when we live in paradise...we're still working, we're not retired!) and I have to cut back on my groceries for the week because I don't even have enough money for everything I want to eat for the week.... but then I take someone for their first open water dive and see the amazed look on their face. There is nothing in the world that beats that feeling.

happy instructors on a staff dive!
Do I recommend becoming a dive instructor? To some people yes, to others no. It's not something you do just to get free diving. It's not something you do if you can't stand being in the pool day after day doing 'try dives' and telling people how to clear their mask over and over and over and over and over. It's not something if you are just trying to find any way to make a living in an exotic country. It's for people who have a passion, and the ability to impart knowledge to others. You have to have the patience of a saint (mine gets tested daily), the know-how to convey instructions in several different ways (not everyone learns the same way) and the inner moral compass to stick to PADI standards even when your student is really, really nice and she is going to leave you a big tip if you just pass her but she isn't mastering the skills. The bottom line is that it's not for everyone, and you really need to think it through to the long-term level. Get a ton of experience before putting in the time and money. Assist on courses at your local shop so you can see what teaching is really like. Talk to instructors who have gone through the IDC at the center you're thinking about choosing. If being a dive instructor is truly your path, you'll love it!

Guys, make sure to follow me on FacebookInstagram 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 showing people Nemo's world. So there's that.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Roatan Month 23 Roundup

23 months living on this island... holy highballs, that's a while!

Kind of an interesting up-and-down period lately with work and stuff here. I'm still freelancing which is a great experience getting to know how other shops work. I haven't made too much of an effort to get work, and will probably try a little harder in the upcoming weeks because it was fast and furious at first and has now slowed to a trickle, but there is work out there - I just have to go get it instead of waiting for them to call me. For now, I've been taking a bit of a 'staycation' and doing all the things I haven't had the time to do over the last...well... 23 months! I've finally had high-speed internet installed at home (which means you can find me in bed watching Netflix 24/7 for the next 3 weeks, probably), changed my cable provider to one that actually has English channels (I've had NatGeo and the Food Network on non-stop), got my first haircut in 14 months, took the time to shop properly for good groceries and made delicious healthy meals, and just enjoyed my free time! After nearly two years of working 8-10 hour days, 6 days a week, I am ready for beach hangouts, day drinking and sleeping in. The money thing is stressing me out just a little bit, but at this point in time I've accepted if I can't/don't make enough money freelancing, I will head to Canada in the fall for a couple months to save money and then come back for busy season, or move on to somewhere new. We will see!

You can always see all my monthly roundups by clicking on the 'roundup' tag below... but here they all are in order: Month 22Month 21, Month 20, Month 19, Month 18, Month 17, Month 16, Month 15, Month 14, Month 13, Month 12, Month 11, Month 10, Month 9, Month 8Month 7, Month 6, Month 5, Month 4, Month 3, Month 2 and finally little old Month 1. Sometimes when you type 'month' that many times it looks really weird.

Roundup time!

1. Gratuitous diving photo:

Now that I'm back in the water, I actually have some of these again! Here's me taking a video of one of the other instructors on a staff dive...

BONUS: here's the video I took on that dive... if you watch carefully, you can see the exact moment he snapped the above picture of me!

2. Posts from the last month:
  • Lost & Found: Back in the Water - opening up about why I left the job I had been at for nearly two years here, and stepped out on my own into the unstable freelance world.
  • Roatan Review: The Landing - a super sweet lounge/restaurant/smoothie bar that fell off my radar before but is definitely my new place for sunset drinks.
  • 5 Things I Love About Roatan - with all my new-found free time, I am trying to get more balance in my life....hence, a post about all the great things about Roatan. (This ended up being one of my more popular posts; I think you guys must be tired of hearing how shitty the electric company is and how the grocery store is always out of everything. Sorry.)
  • 10 Steps to the Perfect Dive Vacation - as a dive instructor, I spend my days trying to give people kickass dive vacations. Just a liiiiiiiiiiitle more homework before your trip can ensure you have the best dive vacation ever!
  • Roatan Review: Ocean Connections - a dive shop in West End that went from pretty blah a couple years ago to an inviting, busy place that will take care of everything for you, AND take you on great dives.
Other places you may have missed me around the internet this month: I announced on social media that I am now a staff writer for the West Bay Tours blog, so I'll be sharing my posts from there since they will be all about Roatan! The first one is already up: Roatan Dive Sites Your Guidebook Won't Tell You About. I also did an interview with The Guy for his Travel Blogger Interview series, which you can read here

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

I first heard of the Royal de Luxe street theater company back in 2007 when my ex-boyfriend showed me this video (below) he had found online and thought I would like. "Like" ended up being a bit of an understatement. I'm not sure what it is about these massive outdoor puppets, but I am totally enamored with them and have probably seen every video online of them a million times. This is bucket-list stuff for me, guys. I'm obsessed. I WANT TO SEE THESE SO BAD. I think I would start to cry if I saw it in real life. I know they creep some people out, but I love them.

I recently was over at Adventurous Kate where she said that these guys were bringing the show to Limerick, Ireland in September. So if the universe wanted to be really cool, I think it would find a way for me to go to Ireland in September to see this!

Guys, make sure to follow me on FacebookInstagram 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 find some magical thing to get to Ireland to see those beautiful puppets. So there's that.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Roatan Review: Ocean Connections Dive Shop

When I first arrived on Roatan, Ocean Connections was a 'bros-only' dive shop - the owner refused to hire any female instructors or divemasters. The decidedly testosterone-laden vibe was bogged down further by a small, beat up dive boat, a dark little shop and some sub-par organization on the diving front. It was an adequate enough shop, but wasn't a place I recommended to people.

Thankfully, the shop sold to a new owner two years ago. Enter my good friend Amanda, who was traveling through Central America, met a boy on Roatan and forgot to leave.... and started managing Ocean Connections. Perhaps 'managing' is not the correct word here. Maybe 'turned a struggling dive shop into a sprawling, busy dive center which runs like a well-oiled machine and is offering a superb dive experience in West End and the only place on the island to offer the BOSS underwater scooter experience'. Yeah. That's more accurate.

A major staff change, serious boat upgrades (including purchasing the largest dive boat in West End for diving & the BOSS scooters...see my pics of the giant Princessa del Mar docking further down the post - this boat was designed by the owner and built right here on Roatan), huge shop renovations, fancy new Aqualung rental gear, a brand-new dock with a massive palapa (arguably the best dive shop dock in town and a great place for sunset beers - see photos near the end of this post) and Amanda and her team organizing things to a tee have transformed Ocean Connections into a fantastic dive shop that I'm happy to recommend to anyone. Speaking of happy, did you know they're the only shop in West End advertising HAPPY staff? (Note to other dive shop owners/managers: um, happy staff is kind of important. FYI.)

I had spent plenty of time dropping by Ocean Connections to say hi to Amanda and Sarah every time I walked by the shop, but hadn't been diving there since all of the changes. Despite a gray and cloudy day, I headed down to OC carrying all my gear to get a first-hand experience of the shop with a 2-tank dive. I found Amanda in her 'office'....

... and was immediately relieved of the gear I was carrying by Breesha, who was going to be my divemaster for the day (and who has a Manx accent which I guessed correctly for bonus points, and may also be the most adorable human being ever). She took ALL my gear to the boat and set it up for me. ALL OF IT. When you hear of a shop offering 'valet diving service' on Roatan, it means that they take your BCD/reg/weights to the boat, set it up on a tank for you, switch it over between dives and break it down and rinse it at the end of the day. You have to take your own mask/fins/wetsuit to and from the boat and rinse them yourself. Not at OC... you don't have to touch any of your gear until you're ready to jump into the water, and at the end of the day you just walk off the boat and onto the beautiful deck, and relax while the staff takes care of everything.

We hopped into the boat with the experienced and friendly captain Jerrold at the helm and off we went - but what about the other divers? Breesha had two more divers gear set up on the boat. Were they late? Were we leaving without them?

Nope - OC offers concierge diving service, meaning they will come pick you up at whatever dock is closest to your hotel! No need to walk down to the shop, or take a taxi if you're staying in West Bay... we cruised over to the Infinity Bay dock in West Bay where the other two divers were waiting and they jumped in carrying only their cameras - everything else was already set up and waiting on the boat for them. We headed to our first dive site, listened to a thorough briefing from Breesha, and then Jerrold helped us into our gear and into the water. Sometimes I can't enjoy fun diving on my days a dive instructor, I feel obligated to assist if divers are having trouble, whether I'm on the clock or not. However, Breesha was totally on top of things and in control, so I was able to relax and enjoy the dives. Thank you Breesha!!

Here's a video from our dive at Butcher's Bank, which clocked in at a whopping hour and six minutes (the dive, not the video!):

After this dive, we got out and did it all over again at the second site. I have no video of this because immediately upon descent on the second dive my GoPro decided to be awesome and flood. I went back up and gave it to Captain Jerrold, who kindly opened it up and tried to dry it out for me. (Thankfully it ended up being fine!) I went back down and we had an amazing second dive - Breesha pointed out turtles, squid and all kinds of other reef creatures that came out to see us. After another 60+ minute dive, we dropped the other divers back off at their dock, headed back to the dive shop and I stepped off the boat carrying only my GoPro while Breesha and Jerrold broke down all the gear, rinsed it and hung it up to dry. Such a luxury for someone who schleps other people's gear around all day :) I discovered that I had finally bitten through my mouthpiece on my regulator and I bought a new one from the Trident diving accessories that OC sells. I walked back out to the deck and asked one of the BOSS boys for a blade so I could change it out. Instead, my reg was whisked away and returned to me five minutes later with the new mouthpiece neatly in place. Amazing service from the boys - and we know each other outside of OC, so they knew I wasn't even a regular 'guest', and still went out of their way to assist any way they could.

I had the opportunity back at the dock to see the giant Princessa del Mar come in from the BOSS tour - this is truly a sight to see. Over thirty cruise shippers arrive at the shop in the morning via bus from the cruise ship dock, are taken out on the boat for 30 minutes in the scooters and 30 minutes-1 hour of snorkeling (the group alternates half and half at a time so everyone gets a chance to do both, or guests can choose to only do one, or even just hang out on the boat), are brought back to the dock and dropped off and walk straight back onto the bus and back to the ship, like clockwork. I overheard one of the guests telling Amanda as he walked back to the bus, "I can't believe you guys have only been doing this tour for a year - it was so organized and well-run that I thought it had been going on for years". What a compliment!! Amanda has a completely separate crew that run the BOSS tours, which is different from the dive team. They have 4-5 people in the water with the scooters (one leading and 2-3 corralling people so they stay together, plus Sarah doing the underwater photos), a snorkel guide in the water with the snorkelers, and the boat captain supervising.

What I loved seeing that was besides the lovely Sarah, the entire crew running the BOSS operation are local guys who are being trained up to divemasters by OC (they are already rescue divers, which is the requirement to lead the BOSS tours). I really feel like dive shops owe it to Roatan to provide opportunities for locals to earn a living in the diving industry here, whether it's in the shop as administrative staff, boat captains or divemasters. Amanda's entire dive shop crew are all islanders besides her, Sarah, Breesha and the head instructor Jonathan. This is not common here and I applaud OC for it.

I have so many great things to say about the dive center that OC has become over the last couple years. It's been such a positive change and is only getting better. They have recently purchased the building next door and are planning to expand even more - with a proper office for Amanda (she is excited about this) as well as a classroom and lockers for diving guests. I can't wait to see how this shop continues to grow and develop as a first-rate dive center in West End!

Things you need to know:

  • check out their website, Facebook, Twitter, and all the fabulous reviews on TripAdvisor
  • located in West End - the big yellow building next to the Blue Marlin
  • make a reservation: call (from North America 713-370-2450, or from here 9901-3646) or email them at
  • prices vary depending on what you're doing - check out pricing here
  • remember to tip your divemaster and boat captain in lempira or new/good condition USD - read my guidelines for tipping on Roatan
  • there are options for 'Stay & Dive' packages with accommodations at the lower and higher end of budgets... check out SeaBreeze Inn and Cocolobo (I have stayed at both, and highly recommend both these hotels), and ask OC for more information if you're interested in an accommodation + diving package
  • let them know Rika sent you :)

Rika's Rating: kickass shop, go here!

Many thanks to Amanda and the entire Ocean Connections team for hosting me during my two dives, providing me with coffee and jokes, and treating me like a first-class guest. Special thanks to the boys from the BOSS team for the boat washdown show! As always, my opinions in my reviews are my own, no matter who is taking care of the bill.

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 maaaaaaaaaybe consider doing a BOSS tour after making fun of them for the last year.  Maybe. So there's that.

Monday, July 7, 2014

10 Steps to the Perfect Dive Vacation

Working in the scuba diving industry for the last two years has opened up my eyes to a whole new world of dive travelers. I don't often get to travel on dive vacations, but I work every day with people who are on them. After seeing my guests have great trips (and some not-so-great), I feel like I can offer some useful advice to those planning a dive vacation.

me at work, taking out some of my fave divers
photo courtesy of sarah

1. Choose your location based on what YOU want as a diver.

If you don't like diving in cold water, steer clear of most of Europe and northern parts of the Americas. If you like macro stuff, check out Bonaire, Australia or the Maldives. If you like big stuff, maybe the Galapagos or Palau is for you. Wrecks? Truuk Lagoon, or the Philippines. Crazy currents and swimthroughs? Cozumel. Super easy, warm water, no current, good viz, laid-back, varied topography? Roatan!!

The point is, you need to think about what kind of diving you want to do, and then research to find the right location for you. I've had divers come to Roatan and complain about the topography or marine life. Sorry, not my fault you didn't do your homework before booking your trip! If you're booking dive trips based on short flight times or cheap costs, then if it's not the kind of diving you like, that's bad planning on your part. Always check the time of year that you're going - there is usually a 'season' for good diving in most places.

2. If you're traveling with non-divers, you should think about them too.

A place like Roatan has a finite amount of stuff to do for non-divers. This is a small island geared towards diving. If your significant other/kids don't dive, they can zipline, go to an iguana farm, snorkel, go to a dolphin show, lay on the beach, or get drunk. That's basically it. So if you have other people to take into consideration on your trip, make sure you look into non-diving activities for them before booking to make sure they get to have an amazing time too.

3. Get your gear serviced before your trip.

And if it's 47 years old and falling apart, replace it or rent gear on your trip. That is all.

4. Take a refresher BEFORE your trip.

I feel like I can't stress this one enough. If you are a certified diver, and have been out of the water for more than six months, you should really take a refresher before you go on your trip.  If you sign up for fun diving, you're expected to have your basic diving skills, equipment set up, familiarity with operating all gear, and hand signals down when you first step onto the boat. It is NOT the divemaster's job to babysit you while you flail around and/or give you a 'free' refresher on the first dive of your trip (you would be surprised how many people ask me this - would you do your job for free?)  If you are that guy who does that, you better give your divemaster a big tip and apologize to the others on the boat.

If you live somewhere chilly, it's usually done in a local pool or dive tank and only takes a couple hours. You don't want to waste precious vacation time trying to remember how to put your gear together, or being that guy on the dive who can't control his buoyancy and isn't responding correctly to the dive lead's hand signals, so just pay the $50ish and do a refresher before you go. You can also schedule a refresher with almost any dive shop at your destination for the day before you start fun diving, so there is that option too, but why not save time and do it at home?

You can also use this refresher session to test out your newly-serviced or new-to-you gear to make sure everything is working before you depart. I can't tell you the number of times that a diver 'just got it serviced' and had something go wrong on the first dive of the trip. Better to find out at home that it wasn't serviced properly than on vacation where they may not have the parts to fix it.

5. If you're going to get certified on your trip, consider online learning to cut down 'homework' during vacation time (ie. more drinking-margaritas-poolside-time).

A PADI certification course can take anywhere from 3-5 full days to complete, and if you do the entire course on your vacation, there's about 12-15 hours of reading to do at night. Who wants to do homework while they're on vacation? Not me! Take care of the academics at home by signing up for online learning and completing it prior to your trip. You can even complete all your confined water sessions with your local dive shop in a pool too, and then all you have to do is 4 open water dives (just 2 half-days) at the beginning of your dive trip and you're certified! Most courses have mandatory medical forms that need to be filled out (and a physician's clearance obtained, if necessary) prior to the course, so save yourself the headache of trying to find a doctor in your vacation destination and get this taken care of at home before you go too - just ask the dive shop to email you the form.

6. Do your research on tipping customs where you're going, and budget accordingly.

Have I mentioned this enough on this blog? If you can't find the answer online about customary tips where you're going, ask the dive shop. Budget for a super-amazing-service amount of tips, and if for some reason you end up giving less than that, then you have extra beer money. Everybody wins.

7. As with all types of vacations, check entry/exit requirements, visas, etc.

Here on Roatan, you won't be permitted to board your flight to the island unless your passport is valid for at least six more months. You'll also be turned away at the airport if you are coming from a yellow fever country without proof of a vaccine. When you leave Roatan, there is a $40 exit fee you have to pay. Check luggage limitations if you're carrying scuba gear. These are the kinds of things you need to find out well in advance - getting denied entry to the country or a massive surprise baggage charge is never a nice way to start a vacation.

8. Make a reservation, and get confirmation in writing.

If you are one of those divers who thinks it's perfectly fine to show up at a dive shop with no reservation and then scream at the staff because they're full and can't accommodate you, someone should turn your air off underwater. If you didn't make a reservation, you need to keep your trap shut if the shop can't fit you in. End of story. Most shops don't turn away divers for fun (duh, they want your money!) so if they tell you they're full, then they're full. You snooze, you lose.

Everyone needs to make reservations, especially those looking to do dive courses, junior divers (who often require private guides at many shops due to their 40' depth restriction), anyone diving during holiday times and those traveling in groups larger than a couple people. Dive shops often need to arrange extra boats or staff in advance for courses or big groups....usually owners don't like to pay a bunch of staff to sit around when there are no divers scheduled (weird, right?) Yes, some select shops operate on a first-come-first-served basis, but you should find out beforehand. If you don't make a reservation, then if you go to the one you'd like to go out with and they're full, your job is to politely say, "okay, thank you!" and head over to another shop to check for availability there.

9. Ask the dive shop for information.

You are our favorite kind of diver - you make your reservation, pay your deposit, ask for information and then do what you're supposed to with the information you've been given. Be that kind of diver!!

This is your chance to chat with the office staff before you arrive to get all the details down. Ask things like:

  • do I need to come the day before I start diving to get geared up, fill out paperwork and get a shop orientation? Do I need my certification card and logbook?
  • how far in advance of the dive times do I need to be at the shop? (Do not show up early, because you will be in the way of staff trying to get the boats set up for the day. Do not show up late, because you might miss the boat or make everyone else late. Show up at the time the staff tell you.)
  • if my wife/kids/friends are interested in snorkeling/doing a Discover Scuba Diving experience/ridealong on the boat, what is the cost and do we need to schedule this beforehand?
  • how are the dive sites chosen daily? Are they guided? Are there depth and bottom time limits? Do we come back to the dive shop for surface intervals or stay on the boat? How long is the ride to the dive sites? What am I allowed to bring on the dive boat? Is there secure storage at the shop for my belongings while I'm out diving? Do I need any special certifications to do any of the dive sites? Is there shade/water/fruit/towels on the boat? Is there valet service or do I need to haul my own gear/tanks and set it up?

It would be really cool if you can try to think about most of your questions and get them all in one email so it isn't an endless string of back-and-forth questions for the office staff... but we'd rather you get all the information prior to the trip, so that we can avoid you finding out on the first day that you don't get to do 85 minute dives and having a fit, so ask away. (Check the dive shop website first. Most have FAQ sections. Don't waste the staff's time asking stuff that's already answered on their site.)

10. Have fun!!!

So what if the viz is a little shitty, or it's a couple degrees colder than you thought? Things the dive shop can't control: weather, visibility, currents, marine life (hello, do you think we call up the manta rays and turtles and ask them to come by to see you on the dive?), water temperature, etc. so please don't complain about those, because we can't do anything about it. If you book with a reputable shop with experienced staff, you should know that they're giving you the absolute best dives they can given whatever the conditions are, so relax and enjoy it! Make sure you listen to the briefings and instructions, look for cool stuff on your dives, take badass underwater pics and post them to Facebook to make your friends at home jealous,  get to know your fellow divers, buy your divemaster and boat captain a beer at the end of the day. Even a bad day underwater still beats a good day at the office :)

Diving vacations are not cheap, and I know all too well what it is like to work your ass off all year for a measly two weeks off. Following these ten steps will ensure you have the best dive vacation possible, which is what the dive shop staff want for you, so help us help you have a great holiday experience. Happy bubbles!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

5 Things I Love About Roatan

"So, do you like living here?"

I get this question from tourists on a near-daily basis, usually after I tell them I've been on the island for two years. Uhhhh... if I didn't like it, would I live here for two years? Now don't get me wrong, this place makes me want to pull my hair out sometimes. But so did every place in Canada that I lived at some point in time or another. (Can I be any clearer to people that paradise does not equal no problems?) But that doesn't mean there aren't amazing things about it. Here's some from my friends at West Bay Tours:

I think it's pretty obvious (on this blog or a quick Google search) that Roatan has amazing diving (duh) and gorgeous beaches. I don't need to reiterate that for you. So here are the absolute best things about this little island that you may not have known about:

1. The old-school islanders and their hospitality.

At the place I used to work, my boat captains and I used to head down the beach and up the side of the hill every once in a while to visit a local family who was watching some land for the gringo owner who lived in the US. Several generations of family were living in a massive run-down vacation home and doing what they could to survive off the small payment the landowner sent them every month. I used to see the younger boys fishing, gathering local fruit (mangoes, plantains, plums, avocado, etc.) and hunting rabbit...the day I realized this was to feed the family and not just for fun was a very humbling day for me. They were always so happy to see us coming up the hill to visit them, and we would sit and chat with them while the grandpa told hilarious stories about 'the old days'. The last time we went, one of the little boys came running after us while we were walking back down with little bags of fresh homemade popcorn for us to eat on our walk back. Such a touching gesture from people who had so little - this is what real islanders are like, not the violent crap you hear about on the news.

2. Not ever being ashamed of my clothes.

I would never walk around with ripped, torn or stained clothes in Canada, or something that wasn't "in", or matching. But here, people don't judge what you're wearing (unless you are being a tourist and walking around in your bathing suit, a neon crop top with booty shorts or barefoot). You don't just go throwing away clothes every time they get a little damaged or dirty. I felt really self-conscious last summer walking around in Canada with my clothes from Roatan - I hadn't even noticed some of the rips and stains until my friends (lovingly and helpfully) pointed them out. I never think twice about it here. Awesome!

3. Walking down the street in West End.

After two years of walking down the same 1 mile road that comprises the little village of West End, I still get a kick of hearing my name and a 'hello' yelled out of nearly every shop/restaurant/hotel that I pass. I thrive off being connected to lots of people, and this place is fantastic for it.

4. The tortilla guy.

There is a dude who drives his motorcycle through all the neighborhoods every evening yelling "TORTILLAS!! TORTILLAS!!" with a big cooler strapped to the back full of fresh tortillas inside. Because really, is there anything better than fresh tortillas that you can flag down from your front porch?

5. Being in the loop faster than CNN breaking news.

One of the first things you need to learn about Roatan is you find out basically all the news through various Roatan Facebook groups. There are thousands of members from all over the island who constantly update regarding power outages, crimes, where you can find ______, and which restaurants are open that night. I find out everything from Facebook groups!

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'! Plus it makes me keep on lookin' at the bright side of life. So there's that.