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Chandra's Blog


Entries in SCUBA (3)


La Vida Tranquila -- Flying Solo and Finding our Groove

Last week, J flew up to the States for work, and the kids and I were on our own. He has been our lifeline, the one we depend on for transportation to Town since I can't seem to pull the rip cord to start the boat's outboard. J is our go-to guy for heavy lifting (the 5 gallon jugs of water we haul out here for drinking are cumbersome!)  and local knowledge (he has been commuting here for the past year). His iPhone is also our Internet connection, our online umbilicus. Before he left, J loaded up our kilowatts of electricity, stockpiled the waterjugs, put the propane by the back door, entered everyone I might need on speed-dial and sharpened the machete. I admit I was a little nervous when he left. Would we be able to do this on our own?

We were.

Early mornings, we hitched a ride to Town with either the transport boat for Coral Beach Village or with our neighbor Andi. Some mornings we had to be at the far end of Town as early as 7:00am for Hayden's dive certification at Underwater Vision, while Max and Pip went on up the hill to marine conservation class at BICA.

I had a small epiphany one day as I was walking with my three little ducks in a row, single file since the narrow street can be a crazy mix of scooters and quads and tuk-tuks and bicycles front-loaded with watermelons. I looked around and I felt like, this is our life.  Seven weeks into our adventure, something has shifted for me. This doesn't feel like a huge extreme adventure anymore. Not the usual buzz and sensory assault that I used to get Utila Town trafficin Town. Just a quiet ticking off of my To-Do list: smoothies and email check-in at Munchies, pick up avocados from Bobby, bags of hairy red lychees from the men by the ferry port, huevos from Bush's where they are freshest, and yogurt from Jennifer with a visit to Benja and Mimi, Piper to painting class at the museum by three, return movies to Funkytown...


Piper and her painting instructor on the roof of the museum

It feels like we belong here, hopping on the back of JW's golf cart for a lift up the street, waving to our friends at Che Pancho, speaking whole conversations in Spanish with Alejandro, the tuk-tuk driver. Alejandro and I had gotten off to a bad start when we first arrived here, the result of the chasmic gaps in my Spanish ability. Afterwards, he would frequently ignore my phone calls and look away in the street. But I needed him to be reliable with no other way from Blue Bayou into Town.

Morning tuk-tuk ride into TownSo I studied my Spanish at night to make conversation with Alejandro, and after the first day, earnest Max insisted on sitting on the narrow front seat beside him, leaning his cheek into Alejandro's forearm in that inimitable, endearing Max way, chatting him up about fruit and futbol (in Spanish--le gusto mucho!)  and cheerfully jumping out to operate the gates at Las Palmas. One afternoon Alejandro saw me hauling our yoga mats and snorkel gear and groceries down the street towards the marina (I'd already dropped the huevos and they were dripping out the bottom of the bag) and the kids were dawdling and sweaty, and he chivalrously waved us in and took us the last quarter mile with no charge. I told him in all sincerity that he was the best, and he grinned and welcomed me to call him, anytime. 

Afternoons, we all sweat rivers in the new Yoga Utila studio above Bush's Supermercado. (Max passed on painting class one day to join me in his first adult seventy-five minute Vinyasa class where he proudly showed off his wheel pose and headstand.) At the end of the day, we cooled off by jumping off every boat, dock, bar or balcony over the ocean.


Hayden slacklining with his classmates at Underwater Vision

One of the things I dreamed of was my children forming friendships across all boundaries and borders. Last week, in the breaks between the classroom and underwater parts of Hayden's certification, my kids played fierce but fun games of water tag with whoever showed up in a combination of Spanish, English and the universal dialect of pre-teen trashtalk. The boys list the mayor's son and Camilo, the Argentinian boy who lives up the canal on an old sailboat and looks so much like Max that people in town do a double take when they see them side-by-side, as their newfound friends.


We rode home exhausted every night, gliding quietly through the canals at sunset, where Amigo greeted us with full-body wagging in the marina and exuberant barks.  Our life on the South Shore is like an exhalation, much quieter, more mellow, and coming home and putting down a day's worth of packages and must-haves and groceries felt like a stripping, an unloading of my burdens. A sigh, one word, home...

After eight days, J came back, bearing gifts from the States of polarized sunglasses, jasmine green tea, Shrinky Dinks and copper wire. 

Our commute home

Hayden has graduated as a certified diver, and the BICA class with Amber is finished. Life on the South Shore picked up where it left off, with the small, internal adjustment that I feel more connected to the island as a whole, and confident in my ability to navigate a week of solo parenting in a foreign country. It is still an adventure (roving day long power outtages and the rainy season slow in coming) but I can safely say we have found our Utila groove. 

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La Vida Tranquila -- Birthday Week

The week surrounding Labor Day is typically known as Birthday Week at the Hoffstead. We have Max on Aug 31, Jonny Hay on the 4th and me on the 6th. A houseful of Virgos who are really good at lists, keeping each other on task, obsessive about what's coming next and a little tightly wound.


In our other life, we have been celebrating this event for the past seven years with a Labor Day weekend birthday bash. The guest list has grown to over a hundred and fifty (with most of those under 48") and potentially dangerous homemade piñatas and elaborate cakes that challenge the laws of physics (read: are designed and implemented by someone who has never actually passed physics.) This party is preceded by months of theme-scheming by the boys, weeks of anticipation, and days of baking and prep.


Supplies for a typical birthday week at home

I love this party. I love celebrating my birthday under the raucous excess and exuberance of a party for my favorite boys and their rowdy and fun-loving friends, and of course, their parents.

This year, that was one of the first things the boys asked about when we told them about our Utila adventure--would we still have our party? We plied them with a small substitute on a random Friday earlier in the summer, a micro-version that was equal parts going-away-party and in the words of Lewis Carroll, our very merry unbirthday, with a cake in the shape of the island we now call home.


Our going away Utila cake









Experiences instead of things

Here we are as the actual birthdays roll through. In our Utila life, we are trying to learn to live with less. We told the boys there would be little in the way of presents--this year we are trying to give experiences. We have promised them trips to go rafting on the mainland and ziplining through the monkey park in Roatan in the coming months.

J and Hayden on a diveWe are also lucky enough to have marine biologists Brad and Andi Ryon living right next door. Together they run Utila Realty, while also doing SCUBA, underwater photography, yoga, stand up paddling and ocean kayaking. J and Hayden have been getting up early to dive with Brad, follow the life cycle of a reef octopus and for his birthday, Hayden will go on his first night dive in hopes of witnessing the annual coral spawning.

Max will start his underwater training on the first calm day and they have been avidly snorkeling and setting their free diving records daily. 






 On August 31, we rode to town by boat at midday, Max perched in his preferred spot on the bow. Eight years old!

While Pip and I went off to a girlie playdate and Hayden to his iguana station internship, Max had a special smoothie date with his daddy in Munchies Iguana Garden. We then met up with our friends for the traditional Friday pizza night at Underwater Vision's beach.

There was swimming and dock jumping from the second-story. (I have been noticing that my boys measure Utila by proximity to places you can leap from high ledges into the water. I am asked regularly if I need to take the boat into Bush's grocery, as this is one of their favorite jumping spots in the bay.)


Sunset at Underwater Vision



After throwing themselves off the roof, gorging themselves on pizza and playing ball with Marty, their regular Saturday Animalates instructor who happened to be at the same beach, J and Uncle Nick disappeared to come back with two tubs of ice cream, and a dozen spoons. Instead of a fancy, gluten-free cake, they popped off the lids, and we had an ice cream free-for-all! 












In line with our philosophy of living with less, we only had two small, token Lego sets sent down by the boys' awesome Aunt Linden, and a flattish soccer ball I found in the back of a hardware store here. 

Instead, I asked each member of the family to write and decorate cards for the birthday boy. I was surprised by how seriously each boy took his card, how earnest the hugs were afterwards. Max wrote thankful replies on paper airplanes and zinged them at us all over the house. We also used our whiteboard to write name poems and decorated it with words and drawings to honor the birthday boy. Now I see the cards tucked carefully in their sleeping lofts.

I can't help but think that in our other life, these words might have gone unnoticed in the mayhem of gift opening. To see kind words and honest sentiment treasured means a lot to this writer mama.

 Macrae Maximilian is 8!Jonathan Hayden is 11!



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La Vida Tranquila -- Part Four

La Vida Simple


The other day, while waiting for the boat into town, I run into Señor Tino, the general manager for Coral Beach Village. I ask him about agua de coco, something fresh, thirst-quenching and delicious. At home, I tell Tino, I buy my coconut water from Amazon or when I'm in Grand Cayman from Fosters--I regularly drink several cans of Grace brand coconut water con pulpa. Ah, Señor Tino nods, he knows this. One, the fresh agua de coco, comes from the mainland, but has to be brought over refrigerated, and the Grace, is actually an import from Thailand and not available here. We talk about the logistics of bringing over a fresh case of agua de coco when he goes to La Ceiba for the weekend, and then Tino holds up a broad hand and says,

“I think I have a solution for you." When I come back from town later that day, there are ten fresh green coconuts on my screen porch and a dark-blade machete leaning up against the door.

I realize the wisdom of Tino, and smile at my slow transition to a life more simple. In our yard, in the hundreds of acres of Coral Beach, there is an abundant supply of fresh jelly coconuts. Funny that it took so long for me to make the connection between putting my mouth where my intentions are, closed over the sweet cool nectar of something accesible, local and utlimately, simple.


In the States we strive for or at least talk about aspiring to a life that is less cluttered, less frantic, more connected and elemental. Here, over the last week, I am finding it. Sometimes the struggle is as stretching and painful as the dreaded downward dog in yoga I am loathing as my runner’s hamstrings scream. Here, the simple life isn't a choice--it is essential. We wake up at sunrise, the rays flowing in through the ethereal light of our mosquito netting and start our day. Our dog Amigo stretches and pads outside to meet up with his island compadres, Lobster and Princess, Bundu, Foster and Trouble.


J and Amigo making agua de cocoJ brings me the simplest of pleasures—cold, fresh ice water or a jelly coconut with a straw poking out of the top. When the kids get up, they're hungry, and they eat well. Thick pancakes off the griddle or orange-yolked eggs cooked in farm-fresh butter that has a rich array of flavors.


We sweat, and we reapply a generous coating of homemade bug juice, since the sandflies are most active at dawn and dusk. The most ridiculous thing I brought here was not my flatiron but my perfume, because for the next few months, my scent will be an intense blend of lemon, citronella and peppermint.


J takes Hayden for a sunrise SCUBA dive—yesterday they discovered the octopus they have been visiting has laid eggs, which means the end of her life cycle is near. Our friend Brad Ryon, an underwater photographer and marine biologist caught this amazing photo of her:



female octopus and eggs


After diving, J goes to work and we knock off a little schoolwork while everyone is fresh. In the heat of the day, we abandon the house for the beach. In our week here, I have been so proud of my kids and their tenacity, their huge hunger for the ocean, especially Piper, who has a reputation for being somewhat of a diva. At five, she is young to be so comfortable with equipment that can be frustrating, brave to snorkel in a drift current or swell, enthusiastic beyond my wildest hopes.


Art classWe are coming to know the coral heads of the South Shore like landmarks in a new neighborhood. A certain pair of red Christmas Tree worms on a dome of lime-green brain coral the size of a cocktail table signifies the start of the entry to our shallow trench swim home. We often meet a Caribbean whiptail stingray out by the dock, and there are two big-eyed squirrel fish hanging out around the elkhorn coral just in front of our house.




After the water, our appetite is huge. We drink thick smoothies—whatever is ripe and fresh. Even Hayden, my pickiest eater, is guzzling concoctions of mango, coconut, banana, lime and almond or powdered milk. 

Utila Town is a fifteen-minute boat ride away, so we shop frequently, whichever one of us in town, J for work or me for yoga or errands. We go with little plan for exactly what we will eat, selecting based on what looks good and easy. I am learning to browse the various markets since prices for the same item can vary by as much as double. Some items are cheap, significantly less than the States while others, particularly imported American food, can be three or four dollars more per item. We buy only as much as we can carry, and load up the boat.


Boys burning Afternoons are mellow. The wind often picks up. Sometimes I set the boys on caveman tasks, like burning leaves, moving rocks, or carrying food compost out to the crab pile. We are also fostering a pair of kittens and the kids have the job of gentling them and refilling their beach sand litterbox.


 Mostly we lounge and read or paint or draw or play games. We have majorly severed our online umbilicus. Our internet connection is J’s  iPhone, so unless he is home, we are untethered. I wash our clothes and hang them out on the line. Sometimes, by accident or intention, they get an extra rinse cycle because they stay out overnight during the rain. I rinse our dishes with water from our cistern and put them in the drying rack. I refill the seven ice cube trays with bottled water and make sure everyone stays hydrated. Because we are trying to minimize our consumption and output, I wash Ziploc bags and hang them up beside Piper’s watercolor paintings to dry on the porch. The first night we were here, our new neighbors came for dinner bearing the peculiar gift of a gallon Ziploc full of ice and Brad told me we would soon come to see what a blessing both items were. 


In the late afternoon, we exercise on the porch. The boys are particularly fond of ‘mountain climber’—going backwards up the inside of our open staircases on hands and feet. Sometimes, depending on the wind or the weather, we swim again. Amigo is a game dock-jumping and swimming pal. With the incredible underwater reef life here, the kids are learning to bring a mask every time we go in the ocean. Earlier, they would insist, “No, I’ll just swim or flip off the dock,” but hearing siblings squealing through their snorkels because there is some amazing creature underwater--a peacock flounder, a lettuce leaf sea slug, a sunrise talon shell--you can’t see, it quickly got old.


J and the kids roast veggiesIn the evenings, we shower in water warmed by the sun, reapply our spray, and dress for dinner. We eat early—sunset—more of the same. Veggies roasted over a cardboard and driftwood fire, hot dogs or seasoned meat, and of course, rice and beans. Because our house currently lacks efficient solar power and air conditioning or sandfly-proof screening, once the sun has set, we turn the fans on high and settle into the darkness. Online time and before bed, a highlight of the kids day is reading Harry Potter aloud by headlamp. With Amigo and our kitties, the blessed night breeze and sounds of the ocean, we sleep hard. 


Soon, things will be different. The kids' Spanish tutor and our air conditioner will arrive from the Mainland. Piper will be off on her playdates. Max will find his soccer games and Hayden has secured an internship at the Iguana Research Station. During Spanish class, I'll be riding into Town for yoga, work on my third novel and fruit smoothies at Munchies. But until then, we are here, living a life more simple.  






To read Part Three -- First Trip Into Town, click here