During my freshman year of college, I spent Spring Break in Utila, Honduras. Utila is one of the Bay Islands located in the Caribbean. It is so small that there is no real airport on the island. Instead, I flew to the nearby island of Roatan. Before I left, an overeager escalator chomped at the airport through the sole of my right sandal. I arrived in Roatan with only a few straps and a bit of rubber under my heel.
The moment I landed, I knew I was in a completely different place. The airport was small and open, for the breeze to flow through. Flowers and plants were everywhere I looked. I took a bus to the nearby docks to board a catamaran for the trip to Utila along with the other students. Like Roatan, Utila was bright and lively. I soaked in the beauty as we made the short walk from the pier in Utila to the small apartment where we would be staying. After settling in, we were defintely ready for bed.
The next morning, I met the other volunteers at the Iguana Station. We were given a run-down of the daily routine we would follow for the week. In the mornings, we rose early and had breakfast. We then slathered our bodies with a cocktail of baby oil, bug spray, and sunblock to combat the sand flies, mosquitoes and sunburn. When every inch of exposed skin was coated, we walked up the hill to the station. The volunteers split up for volunteer duties, such as cleaning, feeding the iguanas, and running the tour.
The main concern of the station is the endangerment of the swamper iguanas, a rare breed found only on the island. Many locals hunt and eat the iguanas. To combat this, the station workers rescue and breed them. On special field trips, lessons are taught to local schoolchildren about preservation. I was lucky enough to teach this lesson; however, the PowerPoint was in Spanish. Most of the children on the island are bilingual, so I frequently had to ask them to translate the words. I still get a laugh remembering the first time I did this.
I gestured to the screen.
“Can you read what that says out loud for me?”
They dutifully rattled off the words.
Feeling foolish, I amended my request, “Can you read that out loud in English for me?”
They giggled but repeated the words, this time in English.
Teaching the lessons was my favorite part of working at the station. Afterwards, I spoke with the children about their lives on the island. They were cheerful and inquisitive, and amused by my constant need for translation and my complaints about the heat, which they said was “not even hot yet.”
At feeding time, I went to the marshes to gather small crabs to feed the iguanas. This was a messy, tedious process which involved kneeling in the mud and poking sticks into the crab holes. When they scrambled out, we would grab them and drop them into buckets. We also chopped up hibiscus flowers to create a “salad” for the iguanas. The iguanas may have preferred the crabs, but I was not a fan.
Every evening, after our work was through, we explored the tiny town of Utila. We bought groceries (consisting mostly of beans and rice) and cooked occasionally, often eating out. The local food was plentiful, and there were “imported” restaurants as well. At The Pizza Nut, the owner made pizzas to order. They took a long time to cook, but were delicious. One night, I fell asleep while waiting for my meal. Accustomed to the fast pace of American restaurants, it was strange to wait for over an hour for a meal to arrive. However, every meal I ate in Utila was worth it.
The experiences were worthwhile as well. We climbed a mountain to watch dozens of bats fly out from their cave at dusk. They were so many of them that we had to duck or they would fly into us or get caught in our hair. Somehow, unlike the crabs, I did not mind the bats. During breaks, we also went snorkeling, swimming, and hiking across the island.
The last night in Utila, all of the volunteers went to a local bar to celebrate. I spent most of the night beating the others at the game of Checkers painted onto the bar and trying not to think about having to leave the island.
As the catamaran took us back to Roatan to catch a flight home, a storm rocked the small boat. I was rolled in a tarp (to keep off the pouring rain) under a bench for the entire four hours. When I arrived home many hours later, I was still faintly green. Despite the ruined shoe and seasickness, that week was one of the best experiences of my life. I would recommend Utila to anyone looking for volunteer opportunities, or just a unique vacation spot.
~ Anna Sandy is a creative writing major at the University of Memphis. She traveled to Utila in March of 2011 with the College of Charleston’s Alternative Spring Break program. Her passions are books, travel, and any sort of dark chocolate-covered fruit.