Misunderstood Honduras

“What about Honduras?” I asked Andy, wrinkling my brow as if we had been in the middle of a conversation when, instead, he had just arrived home after work on an unimportant Tuesday, the door not even closed behind him.  But this is our type of greeting, one that starts when he is in the process of stepping into our apartment, a greeting that begins mid-sentence, mid-thought with me bombarding him of travel destinations and questions, partially formulated plans, thoughts I had been having a mental conversation on all day, ones brimming at my lips so that when I see him, they overflow, surge forth like love.

“Honduras?” he repeated, also wrinkling his brow while taking off his shoes at the door.  He never hesitates to join my mid-conversations.

“Honduras,” I said again, sitting straighter, one pronounced nod in front of him.  I had decided.

“Why Honduras?  What’s in Honduras?”  And this is what we soon found many people asked us.

“Com’ere,” I whispered, captivated by the Honduras I saw as we looked at picture after picture of white sand beaches and clear turquoise water teeming with life so much that it appeared a meticulous posh aquarium.  “Did you know Honduras is surrounded by the second largest coral reef in the world?” I asked him.  “We should go and scuba dive.”

“We should,” he agreed, forgetting he had no intention of going past waist-deep in the ocean, failing to remember he had never been snorkeling, and not recalling that scuba diving frankly scared him.  “We should go,” he said, captivated with Honduras’s beauty too.

So we booked our trip, suddenly and without further questions.  Because this is the life we want to create, where we live in surprise of each other, the world, our future.

So we packed our bags and left . . .

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Located in South America with the neighboring nations of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, Honduras feels a forgotten destination; and that could be because it is going through rough times.  This is a third-world country after all where many do not have hot water in homes; electricity is unstable; and drinking water, a pricey commodity.  There are no animal shelters here so bony dogs and cats loiter with skeletons so feeble they barely cast shadows onto the streets and sand.  The roadways are crap, but that’s because of the weather, which heats up and causes the pavement to bubble and swell until massive crater-sized potholes pop forth, resembling more teenagers’ acne scars.  At the same time, the rainfall can also be so heavy that it transforms roadways into angry rivers and forms mudslides that create and smooth wide portions of the earth into new property lines.  This is a country that stretches, dotting the Caribbean Sea with small, overlooked islands.  And it is on these islands that tourism prospers, so much that many people here are fluent in English, French, Italian, and more, switching between these languages as easy as they blink.  But that tourism comes with a price because Honduras is also a country that steals from itself, where the mainland pockets the money the bay islands make, leaving those areas overlooked, the people there bursting with energy to break free and become a separate identity.  But these island people are far from weak; they have learned to fend for themselves and thrive, finding profits in the holes of what is not offered so that when tourists utter the words “I wish I could,” the locals are ready, dishing out customized plans for the following day as if it were a massive dessert tray for the taking.

But the real reason Honduras may be forgotten is because of it’s crime rate: It had (and flirts with having) the highest violent crime numbers in the world, making murders, rapes, stabbings, and a slew of other horrors cast a grim and dirty light on the entire country.  Locals know of these statistics, and they will shake their heads, slouch their shoulders, begrudgingly speaking of it when the topic steeps into conversation.  That’s also because the truth is they know more: They know of people killing people for a measly five dollars . . .

But that’s the dark side of Honduras.  And don’t we all have a dark side?  What is the difference in Honduras’s five dollar murders verses America’s Black Friday stampede deaths?  Or America’s child killings over the newest kicks?  Or the US’s steady climb towards the highest rate of gun violence?  Or let’s go back further to America’s gun craze in and of itself, which topples other nations and makes the US known to possess about half of civilian-owned guns worldwide?  I point all this out to show darkness can taint other truths because essentially, the truth about Honduras is that this country is an assortment of things — overlooked, improving, building, starting.  And maybe that’s the point.  There is not one way to describe this nation.  Honduras is a country of differences, contradictions so that in the end, maybe Honduras’s one word is mostly misunderstood.

This is why I want to show you its glimmering side, the one that can blind you with beauty so golden, good, pure.  This is the Honduras I want to show you . . .
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I am getting ahead of myself though.  Let’s go back to when Andy had just arrived home after work on an unimportant Tuesday.  That word: home.  Home as in what was once my little apartment is now ours because Andy’s visa got accepted in March so he has now officially immigrated to America.  Yet, home is also not a physical address, a place on a map, but a feeling one can only find in someone else, a feeling I have found in him so that the moment his plane landed in the States, we were finally able to announce our secret engagement proposal.  He — we are home.

This is why we jokingly call this Honduras trip our “engagement-moon” because for months we had been engaged but unable to tell anyone for fear the government would find out, see his visa application, and pull his one shot at moving and working here.  So we kept quiet until his visa was in hand.  Now, we have much to celebrate and yearned to do that in a place somewhere new — not his home of England where he had left or mine in America where I had wished the days be controlled by a light switch, disappearing and passing in seconds until he could arrive.  Instead, we wanted a place of new beginnings, a place to start our story even though our story is a hodgepodge of starts . . .

So back to that original conversation when Andy came home from work and found me on the sofa in front of my computer, asking, “What about Honduras?”

“What about Honduras?” he had said, smiling in a fashion that made there be only one answer: Let’s go.

Alright, so now we packed our bags, got another Passport stamp . . .

and arrived to this tiny island of Roatan, which is off the coast from the mainland.

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I say tiny because Roatan is thirty-seven miles long and five miles wide at its widest point.

Here, we stayed at Las Rocas Resort and Dive Center, where there are picturesque beaches and ocean waters, amazing people I will miss, some of the most delicious food I have ever eaten, and a place so safe that we may or may not have left our key in the door multiple times without once being disturbed.

We lucked out on having the best bungalow, the one used to advertise to tourists, which was feet from the soft sand and had amazing views of the ocean.
IMG_0011IMG_0010.JPGIMG_0350.JPGIMG_0029There are numerous resorts dotting the island and all that we came across had their own restaurants and bars, like ours.
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The view of our restaurant and pool from the beach

Las Rocas was wonderful, serving a variety of Spanish breakfasts . . .
IMG_0570.JPGand fresh local dishes with yummy drinks in the afternoon and evening.IMG_0081

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This is Roatan’s specialty frozen drink, a Monkey La-La, which is a blend of Kahlua, Bailey’s Irish Cream, coconut milk, vodka, dark rum, pineapple juice, a banana, and chocolate syrup.

Our resort was tucked away from the more bustling locations, like West End, but water taxis were available to send you there.  However on Day One, we ventured a short distance on foot to the more populated West Bay area.  Strolling along the coast before dinner, we followed a winding wooden platform over the ocean then walked in the warm water and breathed in sea air.
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That night, we ate on the shore, watching the sun melt into the sea.
IMG_0077.JPGWe were here, our first place somewhere new, so after fourteen and a half hours of non-stop travel, sleep found us at an early 6:30 p.m.

 

Day Two: A Day of Somehows
I awoke to this, which somehow was how my hair looked the entire trip.
20171120_062455-2But we were on vacation and short of tranquilizing the beast of my own hair or buzzing it off, there was nothing I could do which meant Andrew, my hair, and I moseyed our way to a scrumptious Spanish breakfast.  Meanwhile, everyone was very accepting of my odd mohawk, mainly the frail homeless kittens who didn’t hesitate to come over, twist around our legs, rub against our ankles.

We had seen these kittens the first day and slowly began to give them names, such as Alli, the more friendly feline who was highly intelligent and could be seen nightly climbing palm trees onto our resort’s restaurant’s roof where she then catapulted herself off in an effort to successfully catch bats, which she would then eat every morsel — bones and all — in joyful glory; Rummy was a terribly shy grey-stripped kitten, often scared away by people, other cats, heck even the wind;  Bones, an emaciated black kitten who I’m positive will have perished by now without a tender heart to help him; Jasper, the bolder and larger-breed that had scars to prove his many rough battles; and Sebastian (not pictured), who we nicknamed “the resort’s cat” because he was the only privileged one fed by the employees and therefore, allowed to slumber day and night on chairs in the dive shop’s entryway.
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Speaking of that dive shop, my wild hair (or clearly, many hairs) were evident as I was hellbent and determined to scuba dive.  That was what lead us to Roatan after all.  With the dive center located next to the main office, I had snuck a peek inside when we first arrived and found a small mention of Roatan’s well-known shark dive.

“Andrew!” I told him.  “Let’s go on the shark dive!”  I said the words ‘shark dive’ with wonder and enthusiasm dripping from each syllable.

“L.  We don’t even know how to dive, never-the-less dive with sharks.”  He needed convincing I could see.  I wasn’t to be put-off.

“I know . . . sooo,” I said nuzzling into him, “let’s find out more information!”

The only problem was when we arrived at the dive center, no one was inside.

“Excuse me,” I stopped a random man walking by.  He could have been a tourist or the CEO of the resort for all I knew.  “Do you know when the divers are coming back?”

“Two hours,” he said.

“Two hours?” I repeated.

“Two hours.”

I didn’t believe him.  Something about him seemed to say he was left behind for a reason.  My hope and excitement exploded.  “Andrew, we are NEVER going to shark dive!” I cried after we moved from earshot of the stranger.  “That’s why we are HERE!  What are we going to DO?!”

“Calm down,” he said exasperated because as you know, telling an irrational person to calm down is a good idea.

“CALM DOWN?!  What are we DOING?!  We should have booked this BEFORE!  What were we THINKING?!”

“Okay, listen.”  This must be important.  “We are here because we wanted to get away and enjoy ourselves and celebrate and spend time together.”  Suddenly, I didn’t agree.  “There is a beautiful beach here and water — ” he spanned his hands in front of us.  “Let’s go on a walk and explore!”

My sense of exploring was bending down and spotting dead coral.
IMG_0108.JPG“I don’t want to explore” I signed.  I knew I was being childish, but I was also beyond a point of caring.  The one activity that centered around our flying hours from home was a shark dive.  And that one said-activity was gone our first full day.

“Bloody hell.  You’re a nightmare,” Andy told me.  “Great.  This is just great.  We are at the most beautiful place on earth and you’re miserable.  Now I’m miserable.  Are you happy?”  I was.  But I didn’t confess that.

Somehow, Andy convinced me to go on that walk, which I know he regretted because it was the most depressing, sullen walk we had yet been on.  And somehow we also found a dock to sit on, which provided me with time to recuperate.
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Somehow this man still loves me . . . even though I do not make his life easy at times.

It was around this time we saw a motorboat speeding towards our resort’s dock.

“Hey.  L.  That’s them.  I think that’s them . . . ”

There was only one person aboard.

“Andrew.  That’s not them.  How can you have a dive class without divers?  Or instructors?  Or anyone besides the person operating the boat?”

Yet, in that moment — that moment of sheer glory — two other people appeared, just like that — *poof* out of the air.  Seriously.  And we ran — literally ran to the dock.

“THEY’RE HERE!!!!” I screamed as we bounded over sharp rocks in an area not fit for walking.  “CAN YOU BELIEVVVE THEY’RE HEEERE!!!”  Joy, happiness, laughter, everything holy and good was shooting out of my body.

“Hi!” I told a woman who appeared to be in charge with barely enough time to get off the boat.  “We want to shark dive.”  Except what made me a “we” was just arriving, slow and hesitant.  He didn’t seem to want to shark dive.  And I think she sensed this.

“Hi.  First, my name is Anja,” she said in a mixture of accents.

“Oh,” I hesitated, knowing I probably didn’t make the best first impression.  “Hello.  My name is L.  This is my fiance Andy.”  I hesitated.  What more did she want me to say to gain approval to go on this dive?  I have never been good with small talk; this is one of my weaknesses.  So we waited.  And waited longer.  Nothing happened.  I couldn’t stand it anymore.  “And we want to shark dive.”  There I said it.  Again.

“Okay.  Second, are you certified divers?”  She peered around me at Andy, who seemed to be — well, behind me.

I barely whispered a “no.”

“Alright.  Have you ever been diving?”  Her look pivoted from Andrew to me, Andrew to me.

“Yes!  I mean, no.  Well, I have but he has not.”

“You have to be certified to go on that dive” and with that, she turned around, moving and unattaching and arranging her diving thing-a-majigs around her.  This was not the answer I was settling for.  I may have screamed, “Wait!” at her.  I don’t remember.  I seem to forget things in my ecstatic states.

“Yes?” she asked, turning towards us again.  Him, me, him, me.

“We want to go on the shark dive.  If you say we need to get certified, we will be certified.”  People say that I am indecisive.  People say that I take forever to make decisions.  But daggon it, the moment I make decisions, it never fails someone has a problem with it.

“Wait, wait, wait!”  That was Andy.  “I don’t know if I want to be certified!  I don’t even know if I want to go diving!”  Anja laughed and resumed moving her thing-a-ma-bobers.  I wasn’t laughing.

“What do you mean?” I whispered.  “That’s why we are here!”

“Nooo — That’s why maybe you are here.  That’s not why I am here.”

“Andrew.  I remember a day of sunshine and rainbows where we were sitting on our couch, looking at pictures of Roatan, and you said the words, ‘Yes, let’s go and dive.'”

“Okay.  Maybe I did.”  I knew he did.  “But I thought you were joking.  Diving with sharks?!  Who does that?!  Maybe I changed my mind.”  And keep this in mind too — The whole time we were talking, or debating, it was in front of this Anja-woman, who we just met, who I really wanted to butter up in an effort to teach us how to be certified.  We were not making a good impression.  Again.

In the end, I . . . or Anja . . . or we somehow managed to convince Andrew to give diving a try.  “Listen,” she said with a strong accent I still couldn’t pick up.  “We will do a little dive, you can see how you like it, and if you do, we can continue towards certification.  No big deal.”

“Deal!” I said, unable to contain myself.  This was an opportunity of a lifetime!  I wanted him to take it.

“Deal,” he said after me, sort of huffing, sort of happy, sort of confused-at-how-he-gets-into-these-situations.

“When do you want to start?”

“What’s the earliest you can do it?” Andy and I asked in unison.

“How about right now?”  She shrugged her shoulders, ignoring the doohickeys scattered at her feet.  We had her.  We almost had her.

“Right now?” we repeated.

“Right now,” she said again.

I was elated, Andrew nervous, as we raced back to our bungalow to change into our swimwear . . .
20171124_165959-1then we were off . . . filling out forms that signed our life away . . . before following a woman we knew nothing about . . . into the ocean . . . to go diving.

“We will get in here.”  She pointed by the dock and boat.  “This is where we will go over basics.”
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After a few minutes of information — “This is your regulator.  You breathe with this in your mouth.  Take a full, deep breath in followed by a full, deep breath out.  I will model first, you will watch me, then you will try and I will watch you” type-of-thing — we loaded into the boat and set off from the shore, cutting across the calm water.

I turned to Andrew — full of excitement — only to see him appear the complete opposite.  “You okay?” I asked.

“Whatever we do, I just don’t want to go first.  I’m scared to go first,” Andy confessed and that’s when it dawned on me that I was dragging him far out of his comfort zone.  Year one: Surprise sky diving.  Year two: Surprise scuba diving.  Poor chap doesn’t know what to expect from me.

“Hey,” I tried to comfort him.  “It’s okay.  I’ll go first.  It’s not a big deal.”  He appeared calmer . . . until the boat’s motor was shut off and we arrived at our spot.

“Who wants to go first?” Anja asked.

“Him.”  I pointed at Andrew, forgetting what he had told me minutes ago.

“What?!” he gasped.

“I’m scared!  There could be sharks or something, Andy!”

“WOT!!!  Bloody hell, L!  Sharks?!?!  That’s what you wanted!!!” and without another word, he puffed and waddled in his fins, under the weight of his air canister, towards the ladder.

“Good luck!  You can do it!” I yelled from my seat before he cast a horrid glare at me.

(Let me say here while I am writing this, I realize Day Two was not filled with my most shining moments.  I know now I essentially forced one scared Englishman to go scuba diving . . . and then made him go first . . . after I had frightened him about sharks below.  Andrew, chap, I realize my errors and I sincerely apologize!)

“Whenever you’re ready, take one big step into the water,” Anja told him from his side.

“Unnn ssshhhep . . . ” he repeated, or at least I think repeated because he was biting down on his regulator so hard he could not be understood.

“One step.  Look straight ahead, one hand against your weights, one hand against your goggles and regulator.  Then one step into the water,” Anja directed him again.

“Un shep.  Righ.  Un shep . . . ”  I was scared to glance at him for fear of another evil look but I took the risk only to see his flippered foot shaking in the air above the water before he’d return both flippered feet to be side-by-side.  “Un shep . . . ” and he moved his foot back over the water, flipper quivering.

“Chap?  You okay?” I asked.  I was nervous for him.  I did care.  I also did feel really bad because it was right around here I realized he had said he didn’t want to go first.  “Want me to go first?”  Again, a nasty gaze.

“Just one step — look straight,” Anja repeated calmly.

“Unnn shhhep . . . Shish hs harer shn skhi ivin!!!” he declared, which I took to be “This is harder than sky diving!!!” which also made me laugh because he was maybe three feet above crystal clear water on a smooth ocean and, let’s be honest, didn’t have a Navy Seal strapped to his back throwing him into the air.  “Righ!” he suddenly shouted, appearing to be regaining confidence, exciting himself and doing — what was that? — miniature squats because he couldn’t jump up and down with the weight of the air canister.  “Righ!  Un a cowt uhf shree!”

“Okay,” Anja said.

“Okay!” I said.

“Unnn!” he whispered, mini-squatting again, shaking his fists in front of his chest at the water.  I wondered if he was about to fist-pump his chest, American-style.

“ONE!” Anja and I yelled.

” . . . shhhuuu . . . !”

“TWO!”

“Righ . . . ” I heard the deepest inhale I have ever heard then a more guttural, deep growl of “SSSHHHREEE!!!”  Then, with a quick one-step, he fell into the ocean.

“ANDREW?!” I yelled after him, worried some unseen horrible event would happen to him and I would have to live the rest of my life knowing I forced him to go first on an extreme sport he did not even want to be a part of.  How would I explain this to his parents?!  But then — as I was going through answers in my mind — I saw his head pop back up.   “Andrew!  Are you okay?!”

“Your turn,” Anja called to me, waving her hand in my direction.

“Right,” I told her and waddling to where Andrew dropped into the ocean.  “On three — One, two, three” and in the water I fell without a moment of hesitation, which I think is the reason why I prefer him to go first.  When I see him fall to his potential death, I have this massive guilty feeling that I should not have allowed the activity and the only way to rectify the situation is if I follow him, suicide-mission, into the air or out the boat.

“Hey!” I said to him the moment we were in the water beside each other.  “You okay?!”

“HAVE YOU LOOKED INTO THE WATER YET?!  Through your goggles!  LOOK INTO THE WATER!” and face-first he let his head drop in again before popping back up.  “IT’S BEAUTIFUL!!!” and down his head went once more.

Thank God, I thought, feeling my heart relax.  He actually likes it!  So without another word, we waited for Anja before dropping under the water.

Our first dive left us speechless.  The water was calm and clear, undisturbed.  Not only that, but we saw a host of animals: lion fish, barracuda, lobster, and a massive snapper that stayed a couple feet away to swim beside us due to the fact that some divers bring bits of food down for them.  Overall, it was incredible to say the least.  Andrew thoroughly enjoyed himself too.  “It was like swimming in a gigantic aquarium!” he — the-guy-that-loves-aquariums — gushed.  “It was absolutely amazing!”  You’re welcome, Englishman.

Anyway, that solidified it — Once we were out of the water and able to talk, we were going to become fully certified divers.  We were going on that shark dive.

“To be certified, you need a total of at least four dives,” Anja told us.  That cut it close to the shark-dive date, which was Friday, six days away.  That meant if the weather was bad or the waters worse, we couldn’t afford to miss days.

“Right,” we said in unison, on the same page now.

“Let’s start on the paperwork” and with that, Anja passed us forms to complete.  “Know if you say ‘Yes’ to any of these questions, you cannot dive.”  She said this simply, honestly, then disappeared inside the shop.

“Pst,” I whispered to Andrew after spotting a question further down.  Do you take daily medication? it asked.  “What do I do about the medication question?”  I knew if I checked the ‘Yes’ box due to my multiple sclerosis medication, it would cancel me out of diving; but I also knew if I said no and lied, it was my own health I was gambling with.

“I was just wondering that myself . . . ”  His look was one of concern so we called to Anja.

“It is because some medications react to the pressure change,” she told us then peered at me and grabbed the first form we completed.  “How did you get away with this for your first dive?” she said more to herself.  That was because the first form asked something about medication for a specific illness.

“I don’t have that,” I told her.  “But I do take medication daily.”  Her shoulders slouched as if the forms let her down.  “Listen, it is your health.  I would contact your doctor.”  And she was right — I wanted to be certain Aubagio would not negatively affect me if I went diving.  We wanted to enjoy our time here, not return with more health issues.

Needless to say, we were stuck — stuck between paying a-dollar-a-minute for long-distance calls to my neurologist and stuck because my doctor didn’t pick up whenever I called.  I even enlisted the help of my family, pleading in emails for them to obtain a letter of approval.  Until I got that letter, it was a waiting game.

Not knowing if I’d get a written statement during our trip, we left the office and walked down the beach, enjoying more scrumptious food and drink until the sun exploded in color then slipped into the sea.
20171121_170022-2.jpgFull physically and mentally, we headed back to our cabana in the dark, attempting to dodge massive crabs that jittered over our toes.
20171124_170107.jpgTo me, crabs are essentially enormous spiders, harder to kill due to their shells so in terror, I flung myself onto Andrew, leaping on his back and forcing him to shuffle our way back to the resort while we laughed the entire way.

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Fun fact: We didn’t mean to take this picture.  Andy meant to get a shot of the crab but, because it was so dark, he didn’t realize the camera direction was wrong until the burst of light illuminated us.  I secretly love this image because it isn’t posed so it captures how happy we truly are.

 

Day Three: Waiting Game
The moment we woke and the office opened, I checked my email . . . without luck, which meant we were left exploring the island.  This wasn’t bad news though — Unlike earlier, we had no control over future dives so this gave us an opportunity to explore.
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Several of these little lizards were seen leaping from one leaf to another.  Andrew said, “He’s a shifty looking character.  He’s asking, ‘Pst.  Wanna buy some bugs?'”

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An amazing treehouse that even had a toilet!

Roatan has many massive almond trees that scatter almonds over the ground.IMG_0478IMG_0477IMG_0480.JPGWe also found these little (what I will call) berries, which appeared as festive Christmas ornaments dangling off the middle of palm trees’ trunks.  I asked locals if they eat the berries, but they said they did not know what they were.IMG_0506IMG_0507IMG_0505IMG_0495

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Many Americans immigrate to Roatan and buy enormous homes.  This one was near our resort.

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After exploring, we returned for scrumptious drinks and food . . .
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After, we ambled back to the office to check (again) for my doctor’s letter, which amazingly came:
I am one of the treating neurologists for the above-referenced patient.  She suffers from multiple sclerosis for which she takes Aubagio.  I have found no contra-indictation to scuba diving either from this neurological condition generally or from this medication specifically.

With that golden email attachment, our window of opportunity opened.

“ANJA!!!” I screamed, running towards her boat as it was pulling into the dock from a dive.  “I GOT MY LETTER!!!  I GOT MY LETTER!!!”

She smiled and soon we were following her into the dive shop where she handed us two thick books.  “Here.  Read Chapters One, Two, and Three.  Then we can take quizzes, do more theory, then complete Dive Two tomorrow.”  It was settled.  Our destiny.

Let me say here learning to scuba dive is not as glamorous as it may sound.  Diving is considered an extreme sport so with that comes extreme risk, which means a large — and I do mean large — amount of reading, watching informative videos, studying, and training.  Learning to dive is an all-engrossing affair.  Needless to say, the rest of our days in Roatan were filled to the brim with studying and training for our dive certifications.
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Day Four: All Learning, All the Time
We woke to choppy waves, making Anja greet us by saying, “Today we will learn our theory in confined water.  This means a pool.”

We also had another surprise: Initially, we were the only ones in our Learning to be Certified Divers class until two females from Colorado arrived.  Shay and Michelle were about our age and set their sights on certification too, which was awesome because that meant Andy and I now weren’t the only ones fumbling on answers Anja asked and we could all have a good laugh through the training.  Speaking of training, our first main task to master seemed a simple one: putting on a wetsuit and, thanks to Andrew, we had a visual.

“I’d recommend wetsuits if going in the pool,” Anja told us, removing rubbery suits off hangers before handing them to Michelle, me, Shay, then Andy.

“Anja?  You sure this will fit me?” I heard Andy ask.  He seemed worried so I looked his way.  Holding his wetsuit in front of his body, he examined it as if he was purchasing an outfit.  It did appear small though, but no smaller than mine or anyone else’s in comparison to our bodies.

“It will stretch when you put it on,” she said.  “You’ll be fine.”  Then to everyone: “Try them on, see if they fit” and with a flourish of her hand we were squeezing into neoprene.

“I think I’m in,” that was Shay.  Or Michelle.  Or maybe even me as we zipped up around the same time.  Don’t get me wrong — Getting into a wetsuit is not the easiest challenge in the world.  It did take us several minutes — You have to hike your legs up and move in such positions you’d be better off in a Lamaze class.  And don’t even get me started on squashing body rolls you didn’t know existed into a wetsuit while inhaling then zipping those rolls inside in a way that makes you pray Please don’t explode out.  Please let the zipper contain all of me.  But in the end, after some trying, we were all in — zipped, ready to go.

Well, I say “all.”  Instead, I should say “all but Andrew.”  Bless his heart, he was huffing and panting and gasping for breath as he pulled and stretched and bent and leaned until his face turned such a deep color of red, it appeared more purple.  He looked bruised.  I didn’t want to hurt his self-confidence, but to say I was concerned is putting it lightly.  I was down-right worried.  Someone needed to help him.

“Anja?” I asked.  “Can you help . . . um, assist him into . . . into . . . whatever it is he is getting in?”  I pointed towards him in a fashion that must have shown how I had forgotten he received an adult wetsuit, like us.  That’s because he appeared more a maniac trying to stuff himself into a child’s wetsuit, size extra small.  Anja gave me a look as if to say, I’m not touching that with a fifteen-foot pole and quickly side-stepped him as if he were contaminated.  Okay, I thought, I’ll just have to approach this lightly.  “Hey, love.  Hey, you’re doing gr — really great.”  I knew I was lying but sometimes lies are needed to further hope.  This was a time.  “Andrew.  Listen, just pause for a second, okay?”

He wheeled towards me with such force I thought he would knock me over.  His look was rabid, seething at the mouth, sweat flowing from every pore in his face.  “WOOOOT?!” he shouted, out of breath, wheezing, about to collapse from exhaustion.

“Hey, you’re doing a really great job but — ”  He let his arms fall to his sides, dropping his XS baby wetsuit, which snapped like elastic back down to his thighs.  One thing was certain: While his wetsuit seemed to shrink with embarrassment, he did not.  He appeared swelling, positively pissed off.    “Shut up.  Okay?  Just shut up.”

“No, no.  Seriously, you’re doing a great jo — ”

“Does it REALLY look like I’m doing a great job?  Hum?!  Does it!”  Sarcasm was spewing from his lips and onto my face.  Or maybe that was his spit.  Or sweat.  At this point, everything seemed to be spewing from him.  I think he needed to sit down.  And I told him that.  Which also didn’t help.

“Okay, you’re right.” I said, calm, because sometimes it doesn’t matter who is right.  What mattered then was keeping him alive and I was positive he was going to give himself an aneurysm.  “I um, well . . . ”  I didn’t want to offend him in front of the ladies but it needed to be said, it did.  “I think you need a larger size.”  I whispered this in Andrew’s ear, feeling the heat radiate from his face.  I stepped back.  He was making me sweat.

“No!  Nooo chance!  It-tt’sss f-FFF-IIINnn-eEE!” and he continued, laboriously, squeezing into a suit clearly too small for him.  “I’m going to DIE of HE-EEE-AT EXHAUUU-STION but IT’S FIIINE!  IT’SFINE!”

“Please.  Just ask Anja,” I begged.  He clearly knew no bounds.

“Anja says it FITS!  I’m GET-TTT-ING in-t-o it!  I’m not fucking ’bout anymore!”  Hell-bent and determined, he then contorted his body into a position I had never seen done (nor want to see again) and that wetsuit, let’s just say it didn’t resemble a wetsuit anymore.  Hyperventilating and going from light purple to an extraordinary deep shade of plum, he finally managed to get his shoulder in the suit next to his left kneecap.  “THERE!”  He screamed, full of distorted pride.  “ANJA!!!  I’M IN!  I’MIN!”  (Though it was clear that he wasn’t.  I think he was delusional at this point.) “HOW DOES MY SUIT LOOK!!!”

Anja turned from talking to Shay and Michelle.  “No, that suit is too small,” she flatly told him then returned to throw another suit his way, which I might have caught because both of his hands were by his ankles.

“Andrew,” I was whispering again.  “You need to get out of it.  See?  It was too small.  So it’s okay now.  Just get out of it.”  He was cutting off circulation to his head, arms, his legs, frankly from every bit of him.  “Get out of it.  Get out right now.”

Needless to say, he did get out of that baby wetsuit.  With the help of me.  Then Anja.  Then the both of us.  His skin was clammy and burning by the time the deed was done.

“Now you need to get into that,” she reminded him pointing at the new suit and bless it, the look on his face was mixed of panic and confidence.  But he got into it.  Gradually and finally due to his sweaty skin made it harder to pull on the neoprene.  But he did it.

“Great.  Now take them off,” Anja said with another flourish of her hand.

I’m positive you must have heard his exhale countries away but did not know what that sound was at the time.  “TAKE IT OFF!?” he yelled back.

“Yes, take it off.  We are going to drive to the pool now.”

“Hell no,” he told her.  “This bad boy is staying on.  It’s not going anywhere.”  And it didn’t.  He stayed in that suit the rest of the day, refusing to get out of it due to the fact that he — at all costs — did not want to get back into it.  Honestly, if he had paid for it, he probably would have slept in the damn thing.
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Alright so we finally were all in our suits and driving to the pool . . . then arriving to the pool where we had to prove basic skills, such as swimming and floating.

“I need you to swim 200 yards,” Anja told us.  “You have as much time as you need to do this, but it has to be continual — no stopping or standing.  You may use whatever swimming stroke you chose.  I do not care.”

“Okay,” we all agreed.

The only problem was we didn’t know how many yards the pool was.

“Let’s say three laps,” she said.  “That should be enough.”

I didn’t want to settle for ‘should.’  If I was going to be certified, I wanted to ensure what I was doing would not be questioned later.  Hell, if anything, I didn’t want to have to witness Andrew getting into a wetsuit again if we were wrong.  “Why don’t we just do four laps?  We have to swim back to you regardless so we might as well.”

“Fine.  Four,” she told me before announcing it to everyone else.

But it was fine.  Because we all knew how to swim.  Or so I thought.  Andrew and I got in, and we immediately had a secret competition to see who would finish first so we set off at full speed.  That’s when I realized — in the middle of our swim — that we had not swam a lap in a pool since we were teenagers and we were not nearly fit enough to do it now.  This made us swim more slowly, barely moving it felt, then backstroking the heck out of those final laps at such a pace it probably appeared we were more floating.  But we did it.  Everyone did it.  Not that they were happy with me about adding an extra lap, but we made it through . . . and tried to get out of the water to rest.

“Nope.  Stay in.  Now you have to tread water for ten minutes.”

“TEN MINUTES?!”  We all said.  We were exhausted.

“Ten minutes,” Anja repeated.  “You can float or tread, but you cannot touch the bottom and have to do this for ten full minutes.  Ready?”

We had no other choice.  “Ready,” we said panting.

“Start” and her timer was set and we were off.

Ten minutes doesn’t sound too extreme . . . unless you have just swam four long laps . . . which you haven’t done since you were a child . . . and then tread immediately after . . . for several minutes that seemed to expand and elongate.

“How much longer?” Andy asked.  Or was it me?  Or us?  The only thing that mattered was that the answer was nine and a half minutes.  Then another was five.  And both times I’m pretty sure we should have had only one minute left.

“Last minute!” Anja finally told us before counting down the remaining seconds.

“Done!  Now you can get out of the pool.”

Thank God, I thought because I was debating my love for the water even though we had a long, long journey ahead.

“Here’s what we need to accomplish today . . . ” and from there, we had a list of techniques so extensive, they included but weren’t limited to mask partial and fully flood with clearance, regulator and alternate air source recovery, regulator exchange, buoyancy control based on hover and fin pivots, air tank closure, Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent and oral surface inflation of BCD, BCD and weight don underwater, cramp removal, tired diver tows — and do you understand any of this because I felt as if I was choking on all the techniques and I hadn’t a clue what she said and . . . we were off in the water a second time.

Essentially what I learned was plenty: In layman terms, I learned how to clear water from my mask (fancy word for goggles) underwater in case water comes in naturally or the mask (in really unlucky situations) comes off entirely; I learned how to locate the thing I breathe out of (called a regulator) underwater in case it comes from my mouth and I learned how to share my alternate regulator with another person in case he or she ran out of air; I learned two ways to inflate my super-cool life jacket (or Buyouncy Control Device); I kinda learned how to control my buoyancy (so that I don’t float up or sink but hover perfectly in the middle) except this is a really — really really — hard skill and every time I tried it, my belly was smacking the bottom of the pool or I was falling forward while Anja was sitting — a sight of perfection — in the middle of the water watching ; and I learned what it felt like to be out of air due to Anja closing my tank (which isn’t as scary as it sounds — It would be equivalent to blowing up a balloon and feeling those last seconds of exhale, knowing you won’t have more air to give . . . except the air is coming from a tank and you feel it emptying so you should notify your buddy pronto and use his or her air to get to the surface).

Exhausted?  We were too after several hours in the pool with constant drills.

And it wasn’t over — We had to learn how to take apart our scuba gear because, up until now, Anja had taken apart and set up all of ours.

“Remember to close your air tank then release all air from your hoses and BCD” and so forth until her gear was in pieces around her.  “Now your turn,” she told us before stepping back to observe.  Slowly but surely, we all disassembled our gear.  “Great.  Now put it back together.”

This is where it got tricky.  I was confused, so full of information that I had no idea which way was up or down.  “Andrew?  Can we do it together?” I whispered.

“Sure,” he said so that at a snail’s pace we put our gear back together.

“Okay, that was great,” I told him.  “But you still heavily lead and I had no idea what I was doing.  Can we take it apart again and you let me start each step?”

“Sure,” he repeated and so we did . . . or tried to do.

“Stop!” he cried to me.

“What?!” I stepped back in alarm, dropping my hand which was opening my air canister.

“What did Anja just say?  What are you supposed to do to prevent glass from shattering into you or into me?”

I had no idea.  Suddenly my diving equipment seemed like a bomb.  I was scared to touch it.  And I told him this.

“Jesus, L.  Protect your gauge by covering it against your BCD!”

“Right,” I told him, moving to do as he ordered.  “I remember now.  Okay, so I protect myself by covering my gauge against my BCD.  Done.  Now . . . I am going to test the air in my canister . . . ”  SSSHHH-hhhuuurrr-SSSSHHHH-hhhhuuuurrrr-SSHH-hhuurr (That’s me breathing into my regulator.)  “Yep, it works!” I proudly proclaimed . . . only to see Andy’s hand hit his forehead.

“You’re a hazard to take out.  You know that, right?  You’re a hazard.  You’re going to get yourself killed.  I don’t know why you wanted to do this.  I don’t know why I let you learn to dive knowing you are going to get yourself killed.”  Clearly I screwed something up.  Again.

“L.  What did Anja just say?!”  I think he wanted me to fail because he kept asking me this question, which obviously if I knew, I would have done the step right the first time.  “LOOK at your pressure gauge while you are breathing to make sure the needle doesn’t move significantly because if it moves, that means something’s wrong with your air tank!”

“Oh.  Right, right.  I remember now.”  SSSHHH-hhhuuurrr-SSSSHHHH-hhhhuuuurrrr-SSHH-hhuurr.  “It’s fine!”  Andrew rolled his eyes.  And this went on and on until we finally set up our gear.

“Now check each other’s,” Anja told us, pointing at our gears.  “This is the Buddy Check.  Always do this.”

“Most definitely!”  I told her, knowing how much I screwed up the steps beforehand.  I was happy Andrew would check my gear.

“Wot?!” he questioned Anja with this heartbroken look in his eyes.  “She has to check me?!”  He was looking at me as if I was infected with a deadly virus.  “Can’t you just check me,” he pleaded with Anja before she, laughing, stepped away.

“Wait — Andy, why can’t I check you?  I’m your partner, I’m your buddy!” and I puffed myself up proudly, hands on hips.

“I know . . . ” he slumped.  “That’s what I’m scared of.  Now I have to help you set up your gear, then do mine, then check yours, allow you to mess up mine.  Then I have to recheck my gear because you’ll have messed it up!  Great, that’s just bloody great,” he huffed and moved to step up to my air tank.

“Andy!  I’m getting better at this!  We’ll be diving partners for life!  We can rely on each other!  We can — ”

“L.  You were already going to kill yourself.  Now you’re going to kill me too.  This is just bloody great.”

And that was the end of our pool training.

 

Day Five: First Debt Paid
Bright and early, we woke to the most calm seas I’ve ever witnessed.  The ocean appeared more an undisturbed lake of pastels.
IMG_0186This was welcomed news because I get seasick easily and today Andrew was going fishing.  Andy is a huge fisherman so at this point in the trip, I was paying my dues — dues as in the ones I had promised him when he was either not interested, terrified, or pressured into scuba diving with me.  “We can go fishing!” I begged.  “And we can see the sloths!  You wanted to see the sloths!”  I was desperate to get him diving so I threw out every trick in my bag, when in reality I tiptoe along the line of fishing being ethically wrong and the only animal in the world I am beyond-disgusted to look at is a sloth.  Yet, it worked — He went diving (and happened to love it) so now I was stuck on a three-hour fishing venture with plans of sloth-holding in the near future.  But people say relationships are about sacrifices, and this is what I remind myself as we stepped into the boat and glided across the water . . .
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In truth though, I was happy I went.  The view from the boat was incredible.  Because the sky was clear, we were able to see mainland Honduras in the distance, which Chris and Banks (the guys in charge) said was a way to judge if it will be a day of boating — that equates to an amazing day.

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The island of Roatan is about forty miles off the coast of the mainland.

All felt magical, as if we had stepped into one of van Gogh’s swirling paintings.

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Those pops of light turquoise would be be the sole ocean color were it not for lush seaweed growing in the sand, making the waters appear much darker.

IMG_0202IMG_0242IMG_0217When we first got into the boat, Chris and Banks asked if we wanted to keep any catch we pulled in.  Earlier, Andrew and I had talked about this, and if I remember correctly, that may have been the night we were having a pleasant sunset dinner by the ocean when I couldn’t stop sobbing about the amount of poor fish killed here, which translated into the poor skinny kittens that weren’t allowed to eat any fish, which then morphed into a massive ball of depression on how I did not know the rules on being able to fly the five kittens back to America to live with us.  Yes, I believe it was that night . . .  Anyway, while crying and hyperventilating, I somehow agreed that if we caught a fish, we should keep one because we would not have opportunities like this where we can literally catch-and-eat in a matter of hours.  So when Chris and Banks asked if we wanted to keep our catch, Andrew proudly told them yes, while I nodded full of sorrow.  “All I’m asking is for you to please dispatch of the fish quickly,” I had told Chris and Banks, “or I’ll be doomed to sit on the boat crying the rest of the time.”

“She’s being honest,” Andrew said with a heavy sighing.  “Trust me, we would all rather avoid that.”

And luckily we did.  Andrew did catch a fish, a barracuda . . .
IMG_0232and Chris did promptly take care of it.  (Thank you, Chris!)
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While we were on our way back to the resort, we saw this horrible scene: a boat billowing massive amounts of black smoke into the air.
IMG_0258IMG_0260IMG_0264Enter rant: I learned this is a Mayan Princess boat and that this is a normal scene.  What is frustrating (to say the least) is that Mayan Princess is one of the more successful resorts in Roatan, which equates to more money.  However, I’m told they never fix their boats, despite the fact that they take divers, fisherman, and others out more than daily.  If a resort is successful, yet doing nothing to correct a problem as apparent as this — that’s absurd.  Locals told me other boats owned by — surprise, another large resort named Infinity Bay — even leak oil into the water!
I originally posted this rant on TripAdvisor (and may do it again), but I pulled it after I got word that people were questioning those at Las Rocas, as if people there were trying to decrease Las Rocas’s business or whatever other stupid accusation.  Therefore, let me make this clear: This is my view captured on my camera, making it blatant that these two resorts are not environmentally-friendly.  What isn’t obvious is why they would be so foolish and irresponsible.  Harming the environment in such a way not only hurts locals’ businesses and livelihood, but it ruins the sole reason tourists come to the island or people move or stay there at all.
In conclusion, readers, if you plan to go to Roatan, do not support Mayan Princess or Infinity Bay.  They should be pushed to correct this issue.  Without rules governing boats in Honduras, tourists can take a stand and decrease booking at these two resorts.  In conclusion, thank you for being my sounding board.

Back to the end of our boating venture, once we returned Chris filleted the barracuda.
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Barracuda can be tricky when it comes to eating in certain months.  Locals say if the months end in “–ber,” do not eat the barracuda . . . unless it passes the edible test so we waited anxiously to see what would happen.

The edible test is when a small piece of the barracuda is placed in an area of ants.  If the ants swarm the fin, it is good.  However, if the ants steer clear of it, you shouldn’t eat the fish.  Apparently, the barracuda (and other large reef fish) contains ciguatoxin, which is produced from certain types of algae.  Little fish eat that algae then bigger fish eat those little ones so that once they are digested, the ciguatoxin-poison has seeped throughout the large fish’s body.  Harmless to fish, it is poisonous to people and can cause severe problems from prolonged nausea to paresthesia (tingling and numbness in nerves).  One person even told us of dogs dying after eating bad barracuda due to people leaving the fish on the ground after the edible test failed.  Looking back, maybe eating our catch wasn’t the smartest thing we’ve done in our lives . . . buuut we lived to tell the tale so no harm done, right?

In truth though, it rarely causes deaths in people and our barracuda was small (meaning it had not had a chance to consume several of the smaller ciguatoxin-filled fish).  Plus, the ants came out in droves, clinging to the fin, which meant — decision decided — we were going to eat it too.
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People told us the best way to have barracuda is to cover it in lime juice for a few hours then cook it simply with lime, salt, and pepper so while we were asking our resort’s chefs if they would do that, Chris reappeared by our side, urging us to return to the water because this fellow slid out from under the dock.
IMG_0321IMG_0307.JPGIMG_0308The beautiful moray eel was several feet long and apparently smelled the blood from our just-filleted fish.  Moray hesitatingly came out and wound itself around the boat’s idle propeller, hoping for scraps.
IMG_0303Anja later told us people are more prone to get too close to animals like turtles while scuba diving; however, they normally stay further back from eels.  While all wildlife shouldn’t be disturbed when diving, she admitted the turtle can cause more injury to people because its jaws are incredibly strong so it could bite through fingers if it felt provoked or trapped.  While eels are dangerous too, people mostly leave them alone because they are perceived as ugly creatures.
IMG_0315Andrew had his underwater camera with him and would pop it into the water, but Moray thought the camera was food so it would come from under the dock, ready to eat.
IMG_0318Soon though, Moray lost interest and, as quickly as he slid out from under the dock, he hid once more . . .
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Moray wasn’t the only one with plans though; we were to take on our second dive after our boating trek.  This meant completing another quiz before we were in the boat once more.  Shay and Michelle had previously scheduled an all-day boating trip so, like the first time we went out, Andy and I were the only ones diving with Anja.

Unlike the first trip though, Andrew was excited to get back in his diving gear to go underwater and for good reason — This dive was the best dive we would go on while in Roatan.  It had slightly better visibility at around eight-five percent, and we saw even more amazing aquatic life, such as a large sea turtle that was on the ocean floor before it gracefully swam towards the surface where the light was streaming in just right.  We also saw more lion fish in addition to barracuda and another large snapper that followed us.  The dive couldn’t have lasted long enough but, running lower on air, we returned to the surface, making Dive Two completed.

Loading back into the boat, we headed towards Roatan where Andrew and I strolled around the island until our most anticipated meal — our barracuda.
20171122_170931Soon, night was upon us so, while our barracuda was grilled, we watched as another vibrant sunset turned the ocean a deep plum.
20171122_173709.jpgAnd that barracuda?  It was the most delicious fish dish either of us has ever had.  Honest.
20171122_184639.jpgWe weren’t the only ones to enjoy it either.  Stuffed on the sizeable barracuda, we had one fillet left so we snuck portions of it under the table to the kittens who generously gobbled it up.  That night, it felt everyone went to sleep full, happy.

 

Day Six: Rain or Shine
The next day, we were greeted by our kittens, who seemed to thank us for their feast the night before.
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It’s safe to say by this time, Andrew and I had developed strong feelings for them as most of our conversations over food revolved around not how to transport them out of Honduras now but how our cat and dog would respond to the strays we flew home.

As if by a fated sign though, during our serious discussion the sky turned dark with an approaching storm.  Up until this point, we had lucked out because this was Honduras’s rainy season, however, we saw little rain (mostly early in the morning before we got out of bed so that the effects of the storm passed as the sun went up).  This was a different day though.  This was a day of typical rainy season weather.
2017_1119_091139_001.JPGLarge droplets fell as cold rain rushed in, but we needed to complete two more dives in order to make our certification for the shark dive the following day.  Michelle and Shay wanted that dive too so we all doned our wetsuits again (Andrew this time getting into his with ease).  This time, several divers joined us, though they were certified.

As the boat roared out to the Blue Cave, we hunkered down but found no reprieve from the rain.  Droplets felt like ice pelting against our skin so much so that it got to a point where I was comparing it to water torture in my head.  Not only that, but the waves were increasing and seemed angry, making the boat rock up before slapping down.  The combination of boat movement and my shivering made me feel seasick so I had to battle the urge to vomit in front of all on board.  It was a miserable ride out.  Miserable.  And these two pictures sum that up wonderfully.
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Anja quickly gathered the four of us in a huddle and explained what final techniques we needed to prove underwater.  Andrew and I had a total of four left, which seemed simple enough . . . except for the fact that nothing was simple in the cold . . . in the rain . . . while nauseous.

“Andy, L — You will get in and put on our BCD and weights in the water.”  That was Anja who told us the welcomed news of essentially getting into the water as quickly as possible.  True, this decreased the hazard of slipping on the boat in the rain, but it also meant the water was much warmer and we could get in faster.  “Once that is on, you’ll practice compass navigation first on top of the water.  Then you will do the drill again under the water.  Now is the time to focus,” she ended, warning that floating at the surface was dangerous and where we needed to be was underwater as soon as possible for protection.

“Right,” we said in unison before stepping into the water, no hesitation, with our compasses.

“L, I want you to go ten kicks to 120 degrees.  Andy, you will go ten kicks to 240 degrees.”  Off we went.  Anja had showed us how to use the compasses on land earlier so I felt confident in my skills.  Putting our snorkels in our mouths then placing our heads and compasses underwater, we began.

Okay, okay, I silently told myself.  You can do this.  Take it slow.  What I had learned earlier was to not rush compass navigation — one slight inaccurate degree could morph into a problem, mainly when diving for an extended time in unknown territory.  Keeping the compass as level as possible, I moved the lubber line, found North, set my compass, and began counting my kicks.  One, two, three until finally I reached ten.  Keeping my head underwater, I fixed my attention on my compass before rotating began to kick again, counting as I went.  . . . eight, nine, ten.  There, I should be at the boat! I told myself, proud I had seamlessly completed my first solo compass navigation . . . except when I looked up, the boat was a good twenty kicks away and I was at a strange diagonal off the bow.  Basically, I was not where I started and not where I should have been.  Great, just great, I told myself, angry that I failed and failed so visibly.  Meanwhile, Andrew was waiting at the boat ladder.

“How do you think you did?” Anja yelled against the rain and distance.

How was I supposed to answer that?  Clearly I messed up.  “Well.”  I hesitated unsure of how to answer.  “I mean, I’m not remotely where I should be.”

“Come back,” she shouted.  “Try again.”

Damn, damn, damn, I said to myself with each kick of my fin until I reached Anja.

“Now try twelve kicks to 220 degrees” and I was off a second time, hearing the divers hollering at me to hurry as they were about to freeze to death.

But I made it.  Not perfectly back to the same spot but within a kick or two.  “That was good enough.  Maybe not exact but that could be because of the waves and the boat moving,” Anja said before turning to Shay and Michelle and directing them into the water.  “Once everyone gets into their gear, gives the all-clear, and I am in the water, we will go under.  Do not wait on the surface for an extended time.  We are above a clearing where it is just sand below so if you reach the bottom before me, stay there and do not move.”  Anja’s voice was stern so we were quick to follow her directions.
24796521_10105062251788939_8716480917511965439_nDeflating my BCD, I sank with the others into the turquoise water.
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We were excited because both Shay and Andy brought their cameras!

Settling on the sand, I looked around.  We were about forty feet under and, while our visibility wasn’t as clear as our other dives (now about fifty-five percent due to the storm churning the water), it was still stunning.  Looking up, the rain  splattered on the surface of the water creating this sound of little chimes.  One aspect I love about diving is how quiet it is — All you hear is your breathing, deep and calm but what I found I loved more was hearing the rain underwater.  I could have stayed in that one spot for hours.

We had to move on though so Andrew and I navigated with a compass again (this time, we aced it) then we had to remove fully flood our masks (Better worded: We had to take our masks off to emulate them accidentally coming off underwater).   This drill was the one we least looked forward to as it required mind-games with yourself, telling yourself that you are okay and can still breathe even though you can feel water around your eyes and under your nose.

Next, Shay (on the left) and Michelle (on the right) were up completing their Dive One and Two techniques.
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With these out of the way, the four of us relaxed and swam after Anja, enjoying our dive.

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It appears darker in many of these pictures due to the fact that the sun was nowhere to be seen.

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Whether it was because we were underwater longer (completing the last two of separate dives) or because we saw numerous sea animals, this dive was incredible.  There were various fish . . .
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There are three blues in the middle.  Fun fact: Objects underwater not only appear closer than they really are, but they also lose their color.  The colors get lost, disappear in the same order they appear in the color spectrum with red going first.

a shrimp seeking protection inside a coral . . .NOVATEK CAMERAa large crab, a moray eel, and again more lion fish.  (Lion fish are not native to the area and are considered an invasive species because they have no predators.  Because of this, some locations [such as Honduras] hold lion fish competitions certain times of the year.  The competitions span from largest lion fish to smallest ones and so on.)

As we continued, the reef suddenly stopped, as if the edge of a cliff, before plummeting into deep blue.
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Anja motioned us on, despite the fact that — if we could talk — Andrew and I both would have probably preferred a pep talk before swimming over the edge of the reef and into deep, dark water.  But onward we went, moving both beside a reef and nothingness.NOVATEK CAMERANOVATEK CAMERA
Too soon though it was time to pass over the reef again and return to our sandy bit to finish the last of Andrew’s and my techniques.
NOVATEK CAMERAThat meant surface marker buoy deployment, or inflating a buoy underwater so that your boat can locate you if you end up farther than planned.  We also had to do our Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent (essentially where we pretend we no longer have air, no longer have a buddy to use his or her air, and have to get to the top of the water on one breath where we then have to inflate our BCDs manually to stay afloat at the surface).  I was excited about the last drill due to the fact that when we practiced in the pool, I aced it; Andrew used the air in his tank to inflate his BCD, causing Anja to immediately pull a release valve to let out all the air and yell at him about how he forgot the purpose of the drill was to show what he would do in a no-air situation.

Back to this dive: Andrew went first, inflating his vibrant buoy manually before releasing it to the surface.  It shot up into the air, making both him and I feel he had puffed enough air into it for the sucker to look like the image below and basically stand erect and noticeable.
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Then came his Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent.  Shay, Michelle, and I were told to wait underwater until Anja returned so I watched him go up, one breath of air, releasing little bubbles the entire way, and I thought, Amazing job!  You’re doing great! only now to learn, bless his heart, he didn’t do so well.

Me: “Hey, Andrew.  Was your buoy fully inflated when you reached the surface?”

Him: “Nope.  It was limp, flaccid.  I had a poorly erected buoy.”  What he means is that while his buoy shot out of the water, once it reached the surface, its air disappeared and it lay flat, floating on the water.

Me: “Andrew, did you remember to manually inflate your BCD when you got to the top?”

Him: “You know I didn’t.  You fucking know I didn’t.”  Clearly, he’s still a little upset with himself and his errors.  But he survived — Anja pulled a release valve (again), letting out his BCD’s air, leaving him to manually blow it up.

Certification training done!  Amazing job, Andrew!
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Then it was my turn . . .
NOVATEK CAMERANOVATEK CAMERASad to say, I made the same daggon mistakes Andy did.  I started strong — puffing a massive amount of air into the surface marker buoy . . . only to have it fizzle out and be airless on the surface.  Then I screwed up the number one drill I was so happy at acing earlier — I forgot my no-air situation and inflated my BCD using the air from my tank.  “Nope,” Anja said, immediately releasing the air, causing me to sink again before realizing I needed to manually inflate it.  “Good,” she told me before setting back under the water for Shay and Michelle.

In the end though, we finally made it.  We, new fully certified divers!
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With our remarkable dive master, Anja

Full of excitement, Andrew and I went out for drinks and food to celebrate over lunch.
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Then, feeling beyond drained, we returned to our cabana as light rain fell once more.  There, we squeezed into our hammock, letting the warm breeze brush our skin until we were both asleep.
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Once we woke, we discussed the anticipated shark dive, scheduled for the next day,  and — in an anticlimactic decision realized we were exhausted from diving almost every day of our vacation.  So we changed our minds.  Just like that — No sharks, no reason to get certified, no reason to have worked tirelessly our entire trip.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go?” Andrew kept asking me, concern evident on his face.  I think he was worried I would regret our decision.

But in the end, it felt right.  True, I would have loved for us to have dived with sharks; that was the plan after all.  However, I feel we did something larger — We went on our first trip together somewhere new.  We not only learned how to scuba dive but also became certified divers.  That’s why, to us, missing this shark dive meant one thing: an opportunity for us to dive with sharks somewhere new in the future.

“Every trip we go on, let’s do something big,” I told him.  “Something challenging and new that is unique to the area.  Let’s do it together, each time, something new.”

So that’s what we plan on doing and, in a massively more relaxed state of mind, we settled back on the hammock and closed our eyes again.

 

Day Seven: Done, Debts Paid
Without the shark dive, an extra day opened before us and one last debt to be paid.  Hours-long fishing venture, check.  Now was the one he was really testing me on: Petting a sloth.

Anyone that knows me probably just did a deep inhale at the aspect of me petting a sloth.  For those that don’t, let me say here that I don’t care for the animal.  They are actually the only animal in this world I have no desire to pet, touch, look at, even get near.  They have Little Head Disease and these uber creepy smiles that never move with their unblinking piercing little black eyes.  Oh and their legs are even worse!  DOUBLE their body lengths and they stretch-streeetch-stretch their limbs out as if with a desire to slow-murder you due to their disgustingly long, thick nails.  Maybe they should have ears?  Or a tail?  Or something because they just seem this wiry slow-moving mass, which by the way, on principal you shouldn’t trust them: Never trust something without knees.  Mainly one that moves that slow.  I’m positive it is just faking and will absolutely rip faces off of living things.  And who, by the way, thought it would be a cool marketing ploy to make sloths the latest “thing”?  I imagine a group of people, determining what the Animal of the Year will be and Ed or someone over in the corner, nibbling his pencil’s eraser says, “You know what?  Sloths.  Sloths are our Animal of the Year” and then the rest of the group pauses, really thinks before saying, “Gosh darn it, Ed!  You’re brilliant!  Sloths it is!”  You cannot go into a store now without having sloth smiles on canvas bags or sloth faces on aprons or stuffed sloths because, well hell, I don’t know — just because.  I don’t get it.  First it was sheep then llamas if I remember correctly, though there were owls somewhere in there too, but now sloths?  I cannot imagine items selling fast with a sloth on the front.  Moral of the story: Don’t risk it.  There’s nothing redeeming about a sloth.

And I say all of this to return to the issue at hand: Andrew wanted to go to this animal sanctuary where you can pet and actually hold sloths.  Have I said already fishing and now this did not seem near equal to diving, a sport he ended up enjoying?  I think I got the crap-end of the bargain.  But again, relationships are about compromise and I was doing one heck of a compromise this day.

Alright, so we arrive at Sloth Land (which wasn’t actually called Sloth Land but Daniel Johnson’s Monkey and Sloth Hangout).  The story goes it is owned by this guy who rescued animals, such as sloths.  He started taking in more and more and before he knew it, he needed additional help and money to support his cause so he opened his Sloth Land to the public, charging a small entry fee, and people can come in to cuddle the little beasts, among other things.  Good story.

The first beastie to see was the South American raccoon, a large animal only seen in this part of the world.  It enjoys digging in the sand to eat crabs and climbing trees.
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Next up were the dreaded sloths, which Andrew was so excited to see and hold.  “It was a life goal, genuine life goal!  Definitely Bucket List item!” he told me multiple times in excitement.
IMG_0400IMG_0408IMG_0410IMG_0407And then it was my turn . . .
IMG_0431IMG_0428IMG_0427In the end, it wasn’t that bad.  I’m an animal lover through and through . . . buuut I’m not going to go as far as to say sloths are actually cute because, be honest with yourself, they aren’t.  However, they were squishy and helpless and delicate and that it made it hard to not cuddle them and smile.  This female sloth absolutely loved holding onto me too — I think she could feel my heart pounding against her and that made her feel comfortable.

Facts about sloths: Sloths have super long, strong nails, as you see below.  They use these to hang off of branches (or in this case, off of people’s shoulders or necks).
IMG_0432IMG_0419In sad news though, we were told people actually cut sloths’ nails, whether because they want to have the sloths as pets or because the people are simply cruel.   Either way, when sloths’ nails are cut, this essentially kills them because they cannot climb for protection or food.  They end up being forced to stay in one spot, on the ground, unable to fend for themselves until they die.  That really upset me that people can be so callous and ignorant . . . so we should talk about other sloth facts, such sloths’ favorite food.  They absolutely adore hibiscus flowers.  Next crazy fact: Sloths’ food digestion is extremely slow (surprise, surprise) so much so that they pee once a week!

Right, on that happy note, let’s move to the monkeys!  There were two different types of monkeys: capuchin and spider monkeys.  Let’s start with the capuchins, which are common pets in Honduras, equal to owning a dog in America.
IMG_0386IMG_0385There were a few in this enclosure, all of which fly onto your head then leap off as quickly as they arrive.
20171124_170449IMG_0369IMG_037120171124_11193020171124_112207-1When they jump onto you, they give no warning so it is quite a surprise to not only feel them land but feel how they secure themselves, as Andrew found.
IMG_0392IMG_0381Their attention was also diverted within seconds.  One millisecond, they are focusing on eating sunflower seeds . . . the next, flying to your head . . . a second later, investigating your camera.

All in all, the best word to describe them is “bouncing” as that is what they did physically and, it seemed, mentally too.  Beside them were other monkeys, the spiders monkeys. . .20171124_113608

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Spider monkeys are known to imprint, or form strong bonds.  This particular monkey, named Tony, imprinted on the owner of the sanctuary.  No one is allowed to go into the spider monkey enclosure because Tony will get extremely upset . . . well, no one except the owner.  The owner also has to go into Tony’s home alone or else Tony gets highly jealous and won’t let the owner go.

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Fun fact: Spider monkeys have four fingers and that’s because their fifth finger, their thumb, is located on the bottom of their tail!

Next were the birds, which I was over-the-moon to see!  I adore birds and have wanted a green cheek conure.  Birds are highly intelligent.  In fact, green cheeks can taught loads of tricks.
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Speaking of being super intelligent, enter the macaws.
IMG_0455They know how to take off the lock on their enclosure.  The only thing is they didn’t seem to have a desire to leave but instead wanted to prove they could go.  Those that worked there said the sanctuary provides protection and a steady food and water supply so, even if the animals get out, they mostly always return.

IMG_0453These guys were obviously larger and therefore more heavy so when landing on you, you feel it.20171124_114425-1IMG_0447IMG_044920171124_114238
Overall, I was happy I went.  True, it didn’t equate to a shark dive but to see Andrew elated at the mere opportunity to hold the animals — that was worth it to me.

Sometimes life is about compromises.  And sometimes those compromises aren’t so bad.

 

Day Eight: A Day of Goodbyes
Our flight was set to take off in the afternoon, which meant we had time to eat one final Spanish breakfast and embrace our last few hours.  Walking to the dock, we watched as the gentle waves moved towards the shore and soon, hours passed within minutes and it was time to go.
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Just like that, it was time to load our bags into the resort’s transfer vehicle and head to the airport.  Dodging massive potholes, we wound around the roadway into the bustling heart of Roatan.
IMG_0574IMG_0579IMG_0573IMG_0575There are no speed limits in Roatan so vehicles and motorcycles whip around so fast it makes it feel others are standing still.
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Soon, we were boarding our plane to Miami and, before we knew it, Roatan disappeared under us.
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I am so proud of this image: Not only are there whisps of white from motorboats swirling around Florida’s border, but seeing the tip of the East Coast all the way up until it vanishes into the horizon both made me feel both small and strong.

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So our first travel-somewhere-new-for-the-first-time ends here when we left Roatan feeling the same way we arrived: surprised at the pure beauty and magic the small island possesses.  In truth I feel enchanted, still finding myself waking weeks later with a sort of loss for the simple but not simple things: starting our day with a Spanish breakfast, seeing Anja, or witnessing the secrets inside our oceans.  This loss is a feeling I haven’t had anywhere before.

And I think that says something.

Andrew and I only saw a glimmer of what Roatan has to offer, of what Honduras has to offer.  That’s why this country is many things — mysterious, mystical, overlooked, improving, building, starting.   And maybe that’s the point.  There is not one way to describe this nation.  Honduras is multitudes of whatever it is you want to see.  So that in the end, the way I believe Honduras’s one word is mostly misunderstood.

England, Sweet England

Dating an Englishman, I’m learning, has several advantages:

  • When we go out to eat, we get top-notch service, the best of the best — mainly if we have a waitress.  Our water glasses won’t even get below an inch with females refilling them a bajillion times more simply on the off chance that Andy may say, “Fank u f d worta.”
  • We get the best service at clothing stores, too.  Females that work there are eager to talk to him to hear his accent and males are eager to help because . . . well I don’t know.  But just by being near him I also get amazing service.  I’ve never felt so pampered in all my life.
  • Everyone is so friendly, so so friendly!  I don’t think I’ve come by one cross person ever when we go out.  Everyone smiles, talks to him.  I guess by default they include me to keep him happy, but still — I won’t focus on that.  I’ll focus on how everyone’s so sweet.
  • The English seem to have a more brash way of ending service which means that anxious feeling of please-remove-this-salesperson-from-me absolutely disappears when you have an Englishman by your side.  We were in REI once and a cute brunette came over to help him with a jacket.  Once she heard his accent, she wanted to help him with any and everything the store sold — If his eyes darted to a shirt, she ran to snatched it up.  If his gaze paused on a sweater, she wanted to know his size.  “Fanks.  Du’t need anymoor ‘elp” and with a sort of flourish of his hand, the girl disappeared.  “Holy crap!” I said gawking at him with an open-mouthed expression.  “Wot?!” he asked alarmed.  “You have the power to make salespeople disappear?!”  “O no . . . ”  He froze, holding a jacket to his chest.  “You just dismissed that person —  dismissed as in, ‘I’m done with you, leave’ and they listened!!!” I inhaled in awe, wanting to acquire his magical ways.  “O reela?!  U mek me sound like a rite dick.  Should I apologize?”
  • Another advantage: People open up about odd desires and tell interesting stories.  For example, standing in line at a gas station, one woman touched Andy’s shoulder, left her hand there, and leaned in close to his ear to whisper, “An English accent is one of the top three sexiest accents.”  Another woman — who married an Englishman — informed me I should watch Andy closely because “I’ve had females reach right across from me to flirt with my husband!”  She then proceeded to tell me — in great detail — what more she said to the other woman while I imagined her poor bloke husband being confused as to why a seemingly nice lass wasn’t allowed to chat with him.  Yet another woman refused to give Andy his change for gasoline until he said the word ‘thirty.’  This, too, wasn’t his first request at pronunciationing this number.  “Ferti,” Andy told her, sometimes quick and unamused, but other times with a smile, depending on his mood.  Rest assured though, with a smile  invites in more word pronunciations.
  • Yet another advantage: Because he lives in England, he took me to England!  This trip meant the world to me.  Since I was in elementary school, seeing England has been my number one travel goal.  Looking back though, I’m glad I never went before now because being able to go with Andy made it immensely more special.  Seeing him where he felt most comfortable, seeing where he grew up, meeting his family and friends — That was what made the trip incredibly meaningful . . .

Over Thanksgiving break, we made a last minute decision to spend our time in the UK.  We got an afternoon flight to Atlanta then Atlanta to England.
img_5265Things started off really well, too.  We were able to grab a drink at an airport restaurant and relax before our flight.
20161119_104621Yep, things were flowing nicely — We went through airport security fine, boarded the plane fine, even got a compliment from the stewardess . . . at least I, uh, think it was a compliment when she said, “Awww, look at you two!  Are you on your honeymoon?  You’re wearing matching flannel shirts!”  Not planned, by the way; we are just that cool.  Anyway, we smiled and settled into our seat, ready for the eight and a half hour flight to England.  Let me say here before starting, the longest flight I’ve ever gone on was to Florida in high school which was one, a long time ago and two, an estimated four hours.  That’s less than half this massively long flight we were about to undertake.  So.  Let me just put that out there and that I have apologized numerous times for my behavior because I was just a smidge bit of a bad flying partner.  Just a smidge.

Alright, so we take off, we are flying in the air, and I was excited, overjoyed really.
IMG_0435.JPGThis was our first flight together, our first travel-trip!  I was looking forward to having hour after hour beside Andy, and in my mind, we would talk and laugh and get to know one another even more.  I pictured the hours flying by and us even desiring a longer flight because we had such a grand time.  However, Andy had a different plan in mind.  He sat down and, once we were in the air, immediately put on headphones to watch a movie.  “What are you doing?” I asked, confused.  Did he not want to talk to me?  Did he not want to see me?  “Wot?” he looked just as confused and moved his headphones to hear me.  I repeated the question.  “I was . . . watching a movie,” he answered dumbfounded, pointing at the screen, wondering why I could not figure that out on my own.  “I knooow that,” I said, trying not to pout, “but whyyy?  Didn’t you want to talk?!  Don’t you want to see me?!  Weren’t we going to do things together?!”  I’m not going to lie — His mouth dropped open a bit as if I had performed a magic trick in front of him.   “L?  Do things? What were you hoping to do?”  He proved it was possible to look more confused than before.  “We are locked on a plane.  In the middle of the air.  About to go over the Atlantic Ocean.  What could you possibly want to do?”  I began to sulk.  “Don’t you want to talk?  To see me?”  He laughed, a very abrupt he-thinks-I’m-insane type of laugh.  “L.  I’ve seen you.  I know what you look like.  And trust me, we will have more than enough time to talk.”  Then, as if that was the end of that, he put back on his headphones and returned to watching his movie.

His tone made me uncomfortable — literally uncomfortable in my seat.  It was as if I suddenly realized I was trapped on a plane, flying over the the soon-to-be ocean, and for the life of me I could not get cozy.  I leaned, I stretched, I twisted.  I did everything but lie in the aisle or turn my body upside down with feet in the air and head near the floor.  “W-o-t are you d-o-i-n-g?!” Andy asked, probably because I accidentally kept smacking him with my blanket or pillow or, uh, elbow as I tried to finagle a way to get comfortable.  “No, no, you just watttch your mooovie, be happy, just waaatch your movie,” I said as I seemed to be having a seizure getting settled.  He turned and did as suggested, which both infuriated me more and made me more uncomfortable.  How the hell was he so snug?  I looked around at the other passengers.  No one was budging.  How the hell was everyone so snug?!  I felt all muscles spasm and began to freak out.  I needed to get off!  I needed to get off the plane!!!  “Why don’t you stand up?” Andy said when I began to breathe like I was going into labor.  “I CAN’T!” I may have been screaming.  “I NEED TO GET OFF THE PLANE!!!”  “L.  Wot?!  How do you suppose we do that?  Do you want to sky drive to the ground?  Huh?  How do you logically think we can do that?” and suddenly, it was movie time again.

In an effort to calm down, I decided maybe a movie was best . . . but I wanted to watch the movie with him.  “Hey,” I tapped on his shoulder and whispered into his headphone-covered ear.  He sort of snapped the headphones entirely off.  “Yes?”  “Hi!” I said and smiled.  He didn’t smile.  “I um, didn’t know if we could . . . watch a movie?”  “Yes!!!  That’s a GREAT idea!” He smiled now, relief resembled more a visible aura around him.  “Yes!!!  Let’s watch a movie.  Do you need help setting it up?” and he leaned over me to set up my screen.  “Um, well . . . I wanted to watch your movie . . . ”  “Oh, okay,” his confused expression was returning but disappeared quickly.  “No problem!  I am watching Finding Dory so all we have to do is . . . ” and his fingers moved rapidly over my screen to pull it up.  “No,” I stated then a bit more shyly.  “I wanted to watch your movie . . . like this . . . ” and I leaned, well actually more like full-on draped my body over his left side and peered into his movie screen.  He froze.  No one moved a muscle.  I peered up at him, head still on his shoulder, and smiled.  “See?  Isn’t this nice?!”  “You want to sit like that?” he didn’t smile back.  Again.  “Well, yes.  I want to watch your movie.  With you.  Together.  Like in a movie theater!  We haven’t ever seen a movie together, Andy!  This will be fun!”  He laughed then, probably because not only what I was saying was absurd but the way I looked was ridiculous; he appeared to being wearing me as a human scarf.  He pushed play and we watched the movie.

Ohhh did we watch the movie though.  About ten minutes of it . . . until I developed a crick in my neck and became (I didn’t think it was possible until that time) even more uncomfortable.  I huffed loudly and flung myself on my pull-out airline tray and faked sleep.  That lasted about ten minutes . . . until I looked up and sweet Andy had stopped his movie, put on an eye mask, and — I swear — had his mouth open, lightly snoring!!!  I became irate.  I pretended to get comfortable but I admit (I’m a horrible girlfriend) I really just wanted to wake him up.  How dare he fall fast asleep when I felt miserable!  We should both be miserable together!  We should both be talking about how long this flight was!  Hell, we should both be talking!  That was the plan after all!  My pillow may or may not have slapped him in the face.  “WOT ARE YOU DOING?!” he asked with wide mad-man eyes.  “Andy.  I’m just not comfortable,” I said before turning and trying to fall asleep on my other side only to hear him mummer, a little too loudly, “Someone duct taped to the wing of this plane would be more comfortable!”

So.  That was our flight.  For eight and a half hours.  A constant repetition of the above.  Andy ended up sleeping more . . . and watching two full movies . . . and being happy as a little clam on board.  I, on the other hand, got absolutely no sleep, saw no movies, and was fit to be tied.  I will say this: We did talk, ohhh how we talked but our conversation consisted of one thing: How to avoid me making him miserable on the flight home.  (And, spoiler alert: Thank GOD that was resolved.)

Okay, so eight and a half hours later, we arrive in Manchester at 7:00 a.m. and are picked up by his sweet parents.  I had met his mother when she stayed with Andy for a few days but I had only talked online to his dad so I was extremely excited to meet him and spend time with them both.  Bless their hearts too as one of the first words they wanted to know was what any normal person who picks someone up from an airport wants to know: “How was your flight?”  Andy just grunted and walked faster ahead.  I smiled, I was there now!  No need to harbor ill-feelings or dwell on the past, my love!

Soon, we were in their warm car.  It was a rainy and cold thirty-nine degrees there so combined with the cozy feeling of the heat and hearing their calm voices, I fell fast asleep.  Andy woke me on and off to show me bits of England as we rode from Manchester Airport to his home in Sheffield.  Sheffield is where Andy was born and raised, and I could not wait to see where he grew up but to be honest, my excitement was too high because it had the opposite effect and tired me out.  I could not stay awake to save my life and before I knew it the hour and a half car ride was done and we were parking in his driveway.  Once inside, we talked to his parents a bit but overcome with exhaustion again, we decided on a nap which truthfully, I could have slept for what felt like days but I wanted to see Sheffield, see his parents, and go out with them all to celebrate being there!  Our night ended with visits to the most amazing, quaint pubs, a lovely dinner (or tea as the English call it), and a stroll through the heart of Sheffield where the city was bustling with excitement for their Christmas market.  Afterwards, it was back to bed and I cannot remember a time where I slept as good as I did on that night.

Day Two: Birmingham and Stratford-upon-Avon
After a super quick introduction to Sheffield the day before, we were off driving a little over an hour away to Birmingham to see a friend of mine from college.  This was both strange and awesome: Strange because the first full outing we did in Andy’s England was to see a friend of mine in a country I’d never been to!  However, I was beyond excited to have the opportunity to catch up with her, meet her husband and her beautiful daughter, and introduce her to Andy.  I’m so upset I didn’t take any pictures, but it was wonderful and I’m so so thankful we had that opportunity!

With the sun falling fast, Andy and I drove south another about forty-five minutes to Stratford-upon-Avon where we settled in for the night.

Day Three: Stratford-upon-Avon, Watford, and Wembley
Once daylight was visible, we had tea and breakfast.
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Can I make a side note here that I could completely live in England?  I’m a massive tea fan and the fact that everywhere you go — restaurant, house, you name it — people assume you want tea and ask how you would like it is divine.  I have had tea black my entire life and until I went here, I didn’t know there options for tea: With milk?  How much milk?  With sugar?  How many sugar cubes?  Spoiled was how I felt every single time someone English asked me about my tea preferences.

After, we were off to explore Stratford!  As an avid writer and reader, this spot was one I could not wait to visit because it is the birthplace of William Shakespeare.  Nestled on this gorgeous river, the area is beautiful and peaceful.img_0009img_0010One aspect I loved most were the beautiful barges floating on the canal.  They made me feel jealous of those who lived inside, those that had the ability to sail wherever would next be called “home” . . .
img_0011img_0008Once we passed, we followed the sidewalk and slipped under the last berries of autumn into the heart of Stratford.
img_0014To say the town was gorgeous is an understatement.  It was beautiful and filled to the brim with picturesque English stores and restaurants.  Not only that, but all places we went had begun decorating for Christmas.  The British, I was soon to discover, are crazy passionate about Christmas.  More than Americans, which I didn’t think was possible.
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img_0018We only had a little bit of time to be in Stratford before we had to move on so once we walked a bit, we came to the part I was waiting for: Shakespeare’s home.  The building itself was more massive than I imagined and it was odd seeing the town set up around it.img_0022What was also strange was seeing people walk by his home without even glancing at it.  I asked Andy if people there were fascinated with Shakespeare as much as they are in America and he said it may appear not because he is more on their doorstep, which makes sense but is also baffling that I seemed to be the only person there interested in the most famous, world renown playwright.

I could have spent an entire day easily in Stratford, but we keep moving, this time to Watford.  The day was still overcast and rainy but at some points, there were patches of sunlight breaking through the clouds.
IMG_0028.JPGAndy said often, “Welcome to England.  This is typical English weather.”  I think he was worried I would be put off by it, but I love rain and if I’m honest, overcast days are better for my MS so England and I got along just fine.  It was a bit cold but bundled in a scarf, hat, gloves, and winter coat, I was super cozy.

As he drove, the sun began to come through so I busied myself taking pictures of towns we passed.  One aspect that surprised me in the best way was the large amount of undeveloped land, most of which had sheep on it.  I swear we saw as many sheep here as one would see cattle in the States.
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Soon, we arrived to our destination: Warner Brothers Studios, better known Harry Potter World!  I’m a massive Harry Potter fan — I have and read all of the books, I’ve seen the movies.  J. K. Rowling is a highly talented writer, and I will argue for hours on end about her series deserving to be in the literary canon.  She is one of few authors that can craft such an emotional and high-interest tale that appeals to a variety of age groups.  She is incredible to say the least . . . which will get me off of my soapbox for now.  Andy though knew my admiration was deep for Rowling and Harry Potter so he surprised me with an early Christmas present to Warner Brothers Studios, the location for most of Harry Potter and the place where all set pieces are kept!

We had a special deluxe tour which meant we were guided around the studio by a woman in a small group (instead of roaming aimlessly with 120 other people).  Inside, everywhere you looked held either actual props or was the set itself.

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The Weasley’s flying car, Anglia, was hanging in mid-flight near the front entrance

We got to enter the actual Great Hall with Professor Minerva McGonagall, Albus Dumbledore, and Severus Snape’s outfits overlooking the tables.
img_0050It was around here, one of the tour guides loudly asked, “Let’s hear it for House Hufflepuff!  Who is in House Hufflepuff?!”  A good amount people cheered.  Andy and I just looked at each other.  I had come decked out in my Ronald Weasley Slytherin sweater (I realize that contradicts . . . let’s move past it) and Andy wore an equally green sweater to show what house we belonged in.  The woman continued, “And let’s hear it for House Ravenclaw!  Who is in House Ravenclaw?!”  More people cheered; we yawned.  “And what about House Gryffindor?!?!”  Before she could even finish the word, the room boomed with their ecstatic cheers.  Andy and I rolled our eyes.  “And what about . . . House Slytherin?!” she finally asked. We had been waiting for this moment and mustered up the loudest cheer we could . . . only to find we literally were the only ones to celebrate.  We paused; the Great Hall was quiet.  “Get out,” the woman said flatly.  Nice to know we were accepted.

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To pay homage, a picture of the students’ Slytherin attire.

We moved past our not-brightest-moment, seeing the intricate Yule Ball drink fountain, which was just as impressive and just as large as it appears in the movie.

20161122_122740-2Then the Yule Ball outfits . . .

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Notice the color of Hermione’s dress (far left) — This rosy color is visible on all of her attire and meant to show the sweet goodness, innocenceof a girl.

Notice how closely Hermione’s dress color matches Professor  Dolores Umbridge’s color (seen below).  This was done purposely to give Umbridge the appearance of seeming equally sweet, innocent and good, like a grandmother would be perceived.  However, as her powers and evilness grew, her color pink grew brighter.  If you looked closely, the pins on her dress were skulls, showcasing true evil.
img_0129IMG_0130.JPGNext, we saw costume designs where the actors’ wigs, prosthetics, and all else were used.

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Wigs were necessary for all actors, mainly for ones like Bellatrix Lestrange (middle dark brown curls).  With the weather outside rainy, the curls the crew would put into her actual hair would instantly fall.  This wig guaranteed she kept a consistent similar look.
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Snape was my favorite character.  Rowling’s plot twist involving him was so delicately written and fine-tuned that this is one of the reasons I think she is an incredible writer.
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For designs such as the famous scrawling of “I must not tell lies,” they wrote then produced the images to ensure they stayed exact no matter how the actor moved.  Something similar was also done with Harry’s scar as well.

After, we continued to various rooms in the studio.  First, Dumbledore’s office and all of his memories . . .

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There are over eight hundred bottles of memories here with handwritten words on each.

Then, the potions classroom!  This was one of my favorites because there were numerous glass jars and I swear there was no repetition of what was inside!
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All jars had handwritten labels, which was amazing to think about the time and energy that went into absolutely every facet of the movie!
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Even the students’ textbooks had true pages with information created so that the actors could truly feel like were in school using the books.

After, we headed to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters to see the Hogwarts Express . . .20161122_152728

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Inside Harry and Ron were found with their cabin full of treats.
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And of course, Scabbers was enjoying the sugar too!

and celebrate over some delicious butterbeer (and later, butterbeer ice cream!) . . .
20161122_133256 then a walk to Creature Creation!

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Gringotts head goblin
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Bless it, sweet innocent little Dobby
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This dragon was designed to “breathe” fire — A huge flame torch came through its mouth!
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Eee!!!  Aragog
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Little known Buckbeak fact: My kitten is a massive Buckbeak fan.  Whenever he sees Buckbeak, without a word, he will come running and sit in front of the TV.  He has no interest in the TV unless there’s a massive Buckbeak on the screen!

We were able to stroll down Diagon Alley, passing Ollivander’s Wand Shop . . .
img_0090img_0091IMG_0147.jpgand Eeylops Owl Emporium and Magical Menagerie for a hopeful peek at a Hedwig-look-alike.
img_0092img_0093Lastly, we passed sketches, paintings, and models of everything from the Whomping Willow, Aunt Marge, and prefects’ bathroom to the Durmstrang ship, brooms, and Privet Drive.  Then — right at the very end — we finally got to see it!  Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry which was truly magical!

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What was hard to believe is that Hogwarts is actually an insanely massive model.  Those filming had cameras on the end of pins and such to get zoom shots around the school.
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It was incredible how detailed Hogwarts was.  Here are the greenhouses where the mandrakes (my favorites) were kept!

Overall, this trip was amazing!  I could have spent all day inside and still want more.  Apparently the longest someone stayed in here was thirteen hours and the shortest was forty-three minutes.  I vote the first amount!

Full of Harry Potter and magic, we drove back to Wembley where we had delicious — what I call and have been waiting for — Cheeky Nando’s.  Let’s backtrack: One of Andy’s and my first conversations was on Cheeky Nando’s.  It seemed to be this secret society that only Brits knew and they would giggle while Americans looked on confused.  I didn’t want to be a confused, stupid American!  I wanted knowledge!  Power!  I wanted Cheeky Nando’s!  “But what is a Cheeky Nando’s?” I’d ask him often only to get a laugh and a sort of nostalgic glint across his eye.  That no-answer left me researching, coming across articles like this where a Brit took an American girl to get some cheeky Nando’s or this titled “Americans on Tumblr are Trying to Find Out What a ‘Cheeky Nando’s’ is and are Struggling,” which proved to me I wasn’t the only American confused and doing research.  Thank God because let’s be frank, United Kingdom, the answer is not easy and I’m blaming y’all.  So here is my experience trying to determine what the heck is a Cheeky Nando’s.

Me: “Andy, for real.  What is a ‘Cheeky Nando’s’?  You said it’s a restaurant but I don’t get it.  Why does everyone there go crazy for it?  It seems to have a cult following similar to . . . Taco Bell here . . . but not.”
Andy: “Wot’s Taco Bell?”
Me: (Let’s just take a moment to imagine my facial expression, America.  And that facial expression is exactly how Andy was looking at me when I asked what a Cheeky Nando’s was.  I let this pass.  It was too much at that moment, too too much.)  “What is it?”
Andy: “A cheeky Nando’s is when you go out with your mates on a Friday night and you are planning to just go out but you start drinking and one thing leads to another and you go out-out.”
Me: “That’s so confusing.  Sooo a ‘Cheeky Nando’s’ isn’t a restaurant.  It means ‘drinking with friends’?”
Andy: “No.  Well, kinda.  Nando’s is the restaurant.”
Me: “Then why does everyone call it Cheeky Nando’s . . . ?”
Andy: (Giving me a look like I was the strangest person) “No, no one calls it that.  It’s just Nando’s.”
Me: (Of course.)  “But you said cheeky — Why?  What does cheeky even mean?  Why is a restaurant cheeky?” I felt lost.
Andy: “Cheeky is when you go out to Nando’s . . . for dinner . . . on a Saturday night and you end up going out-out.  Five beers later your mates want to go to another pub but you had only planned to go out.”
Me: “Right.  So cheeky and Cheeky Nando’s mean the same thing which is not a restaurant but drinking with friends.  That’s the common theme here.  Why don’t you just say that?”
Andy: “No, that’s not it at all.”
Me: (Clearly I wasn’t following) “Let’s start over.  What is ‘cheeky’?  What is the definition?  What part of speech is ‘cheeky’?  A verb?  Definition: Drinking with friends, no?”
Andy: “Definition?  Part of speech?” (He acted as if he had never heard those words before).  “The definition is what I just said — It’s Friday night and say, you and me want to go out.  We go to Nando’s and you say you only want a beer but we end up getting a lot more and then go back to your apartment and — ” (His eyebrows raise up and down)
Me: “Okay, okay, I get it!  Cheeky means to have sex!  . . . Wait, I thought you and your mates had Cheeky Nando’s?  So you have sex with your mates?”  (Keep in mind, we had just met.  I wasn’t judging; I was only ruling out ‘boyfriend material’ at the time.  Instead what Andy was ruling out was my certainty as the only thing I created was certain chaos.)
Andy: “WOT?!” (He seemed appalled.)  “No!  Bloody hell, L!  No!”
Me: (Fresh start, fresh start) “Okay.  Andy.  Bless it.  We must be on a different page.  First.  What is the de-fi-ni-tion of ‘cheeky’.  Not a Cheeky Nando’s.  Not an example.  A definition.  As in ‘Part of Speech: Verb.  Definition: To drink and have sex.’  Like that.”
Andy: (Silent for a long time.  I either made a break through . . . or I was speaking Parseltongue.)  “Okay . . . okay.  Right.  . . . oh . . . kay . . . ”  (After laborious minutes) “It’s just — This is hard.  Really hard.”

Overall, America, I learned two things from the past months of dating an Englishman:
1. Cheeky
Part of speech: Adjective
Definition: To be up to trouble or mischief
2. Nando’s
Part of speech: Noun
Definition: A restaurant that originated in South Africa and has a Portuguese theme.
Therefore, all curious, a cheeky Nando’s is simply a way to describe a restaurant where apparently Brits go without intending to get into mischief but one thing leads to another and voila, they go out-out where drunken shenanigans ensue . . . I think.

Long story short, after all that talk I was ready for Cheeky Nando’s.
Andy: “What do you want?”
Me: “Um . . . what do you get?”
Andy: “Half chicken, medium hot peri-peri.  Rice.  Chips.  Three extra hot peri-peri wings.”
Me: (Blinking at his no-hesitation answer) “Okay.  I’ll just have the chicken.”
Andy: “But what part of chicken?”
Me: “Uh, what parts can I get?”  (I looked at the menu again.  There was every piece and every combination:  There was a whole chicken, a half chicken, a butterfly chicken, a breast, a fourth a chicken breast, a fourth a leg, chicken livers, three chicken wings or five wings to ten or twenty to about twenty-five wings.  There were chicken wraps and pitas, chicken salads and chicken burgers and grilled chicken, chicken on-the-bone and chicken off-the-bone.  Then double chickens and even a chicken roulette, which seemed scary but intriguing.  There was a fino platter and a meal platter and a full platter next to a jumbo platter which quite frankly all adjectives minus the fino meant the exact same thing.  And yet, for the life of me I couldn’t find the word ‘thigh’ or ‘drumstick.’  It was KFC on steroids.)  “Can I not just have one thigh?”
Andy: “Let’s come back.  What sauce do you want?”
Let me tell you, the sauces were no different as there were fifty sauces.  And fifty sides.  And fifty desserts.  Then fifty non-alcoholic drinks next to fifty-alcoholic drinks.  Don’t believe me?  Just try scrolling to the end of this UK menu.  Dedicate some time, friends.

Our order ended with me telling Andy I fully trusted him and that “I just want chicken.”  “Good thing,” he said before going to the counter and coming back with this . . .
20161122_203220.jpgwhich caused me to not-so-daintily express one, my happiness at having Cheeky Nando’s and two, my love for my boyfriend knowing me so well.  Let me just add we ate everything.  No shame, no shame at all.

What was a shame though was that with a stuffed belly, I passed out super early and that was the end to our exciting Day Three.

Day Four: London and Sheffield
The best way I can describe London is using my new British vocabulary.  In one word: Posh.  The buildings were beautiful and the women clad in fancy furs and dresses clattering on the sidewalk with tall stilettos beside men in button-ups and expensive-looking dress jackets and pants with perfectly polished shoes.  These people slid inside Lamborghinis and Ferraris which zipped from one stoplight to the next beside more “common” model cars like Lexus, Mercedes, and Volvo.

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The US Embassy

Our London views were cut short though because it was around this time that I realized I needed to pee.  Like really pee.  The perplexing aspect though was that I swear I had told him many times but he continued to sight-see.  I made one final effort.  “Did I say already I have to go to the bathroom?” “No you didn’t, but you did now,” Andy answered and kept walking, unphased.  What I learned was that when I thought I had told him fifteen times earlier, I had actually just told myself mentally.  The unfortunate part was that I was beyond ready to use the bathroom and apparently it was not acceptable to traipse into an English bar or restaurant solely to use their latrine, though I would beg to say the owners of such establishments should prefer me to go in without an order to keep me from peeing in front of their door.  Which is what was about to happen.  And I told Andy so.  His response was something about “Why can’t you be like a normal adult?  Why are you like a child when it comes to weeing?  Why do you wait so long?  You are.  You are just like a child sometimes.”  Looking back, that was a kinda mean thing to say to someone that has a bladder the size of a single rice grain but I’ll let it go.  Only because I put him through hell on the flight to England.

Regardless, he was walking faster.  If there is one thing my hiking partner learned about me it is that when I need to pee, I need to pee.
Me: “This is dire, Andy.  This is d-i-r-e.”  It had gotten to the point that I was scouting out trees, pacing in patches of grass like I learned to do hiking.
Andy stopped walking: “Can you do six minutes?”
Me: “SIX MINUTES?!?!?!?!  ARE YOU CRAZY!?!??!  ANDY, I’M LOOKING FOR TREES RIGHT NOW!!!  TREES!!!  IN THE MIDDLE OF LONDON, A FEW BLOCKS FROM THE QUEEN’S HOME!!!  Americans will truly be displaying how we are proper heathens, but truly — SIX MINUTES?!?!?  I CANNOT EVEN MAKE IT TWO!!!”  I was screaming.  On the sidewalk.  As fancy London people walked by me, looking at me like I carried the Black Plague.
Andy: “I don’t know what to tell you.  You’re going to have to wait.”
Me: “ANDREW!!!  I NEED A TAXI AND I NEED A TAXI RIGHT NOW!!!”  I think my eyes began filling up with tears, causing Andy to grab my hand and race off, literally dragging me behind him through the city, past six minutes until finally — God BLESS, finally — we made it to a public bathroom . . . which was a floor below ground.  He pointed and I ran . . . ran to metal bars, like the ones at train stations, blocking entrances except it blocked the damned entrance to the toilets.  WHO IN THEIR RIGHT MIND DOES THAT?!  I pushed, I shoved, I screamed, I wailed; the bar wouldn’t move.

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I’m pretty sure it is not ideal custom to take pictures of the loo but sorry.  I had to have proof that people have to pay an entire euro to relieve themselves.

In that moment I debated a few things: One, I could jump the bar and if I was caught, I would have no problem explaining how dire the situation was.  Two, I could just pop-a-squat outside of the bar in a silent (but not so silent) sign of protest at making people pay for toilets.  Or three, I could cry and scream and wail loud enough for Andy to hear and find me.  Which is what I did as I ran halfway up the stairs, bumping into him on the way down.  “ANDY!!!  YOU HAVE TO PAY FOR BATHROOMS HERE!!!  WHAT TYPE OF TORTURE COUNTRY IS THIS?!?!” I shrieked while he was already pulling change from his pocket (I had no English currency).  “Here,” he said, about to hand me whatever amount he thought I needed which terrified me because if he was wrong, I wouldn’t make it — would. not. make. it — up those stairs again.  This was the moment of all moments.  Our life thus far together had built up to this, built up to whether or not Andy would be awarded “Best Boyfriend in the World” recognition when I asked: “Andy.  PLEASE come with me.  COME WITH ME TO THE WOMEN’S BATHROOM!!!  I don’t CARE that it’s female BATHROOMS!!!  COME WITH ME, please!!!  I’m about to pee right here — I cannot risk something going wrong and me not getting in.”  He protested — a lot — but ultimately I won over when I grabbed his hand and drug him down the stairs.  He slipped in the change, the bar slid back, and I cheered, truly cheered as loudly as I could muster while unzipping my pants before I even entered the stall.  “THANK YOU!!!” I screamed behind the closed door as he disappeared back up the stairs.

In the end, I celebrated by taking a picture of my enemy bathroom and Andy then took a picture of me, the happy traveler again.
IMG_0200.JPGAndy though wanted to prevent this from happening in the future (as if I had a purposeful desire to repeat that horrendous, scary situation again).  “Next time,” he told me, “give me more time, like fifteen minutes.”
Me: “Is that like ‘Fifteen minutes, check and see?'”
Andy, unamused: “No.  That’s like ‘Fifteen minutes, check and pee.'”  Clearly, after holding my hand to literally guide me to the female’s bathroom, he was in no humorous mood.  I, on the other hand, couldn’t have been happier!  Not only that but I dug into my satchel half a second later and found these English candies: Fruit Pastilles.  They are addictive.  Picture crack but waaay more serious, people.  The rest of my England trip absolutely was based on where I could eat more Fruit Pastilles.
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Onward we continued, in my bright and bubbly state, to see the queen!
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img_0235Of course, we couldn’t really see the queen but seeing where she lived — in gorgeous Buckingham Palace — was enough.  One thing that surprised me was that the palace is literally in the middle of London’s busy streets and her front yard was made up entirely of little brown pebbles.  Andy said she has large gardens in the back, but I guess I thought a queen would want to have major landscaping and not rocks in her front yard.

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Overall, the building, the doors, the gate — All were gorgeous and amazingly intricate.

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At the top of the columns at the gate were large stone unicorns because I mean, why would they be anything other than fancy unicorns?

After, we went to venture into the heart of London.  On the way, we passed monuments to remember those lost in World War One.  Andy told me people put poppy wreaths out in honor of those who passed because that blood-red flower was the first to come up on the battlefield.  Now, poppies signify not only World War One but all wars the British empire was involved in and all the lives lost.img_0202img_0270
Then, there was a beautiful park . . .img_0239img_0250img_0251img_0243IMG_0247.JPG20161123_142404img_0257IMG_0253.JPGHorse Guard Parade, the site where the changing of the guard takes place,
img_0260img_0266IMG_0273.JPGand in the heart of London, we found stunning Big Ben and Houses of Parliament, London Eye, and Westminster Abbey.20161123_151024IMG_0288.JPGimg_0274img_0279img_027620161123_150817img_0291Overall, London held many over-the-top delights and boasted of everything from modern fast cars to elegant historic buildings.  I didn’t think I would be charmed by London as I’m not much of a city girl, but I was won over.  She’s a flirty city that draws you in and keeps you intrigued.  Yet, what I loved most was exploring all she offered with Andy.  Time seemed to expand and we were able absorb each moment, appreciate where we were together and enjoy that time so much so that that night, I went to bed full — not of food this time but of love.

Day Five: Derbyshire
Andy and I had planned a day in York to places he had mentioned in our first conversation: places to see the viking history, castles, and cathedrals and spots such as Betty’s Tea Room for fancy tea and those talked-about cucumber sandwiches.  In the end though, I had stayed up all night after feeling ill so we slept in and missed our train.  I felt guilty about this but in the end it was nice to have a carefree, slower-paced day which began with  a gorgeous drive to a restaurant in the Peak District, an area known for its breathtaking landscape.
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There, I stuffed myself on quintessential English food, exactly what I craved to try: pie and chips, roast dinner with Yorkshire pudding, sausage rolls, pork pie, and fish and chips (more on that later).
IMG_5202.jpgFollowing lunch (or dinner as he calls it), we drove by rolling moor after rolling moor . . .
img_0298I truly felt life there was in a beautiful painting.  I told Andy this often and I don’t know how seriously he took me, but if I went back to England what I would want to do most is simply be a passenger in his car and slip down all of their moors, stop to take pictures and walk around, see as much of the land as possible.
img_0295img_0297I asked Andy what now-brown plant was on the moors since it seemed to be dead this time of year and he told me it was heather, the pink and purple plant pictured below (which I took shots of outside a London apartment).
IMG_0194.JPGimg_0193To imagine their already stunning landscape covered in blushing pinks and purples — I honestly think my heart would burst from happiness.
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Soon, our drive took us to well-known Chatsworth.
img_0324Chatsworth is stately home that has been passed down through many generations and has become a top destination in England so people tour it practically every day.  Also, for those of you Jane Austen fans, this is where many shots from Pride and Prejudice were filmed.  The drive alone to Chatsworth was worth it for me — There were deer covering the land . . .img_0314img_0315along with gorgeous pheasant, which I had never seen in person . . . img_0317img_0322Also, what was exciting was a Christmas market on Chatsworth’s grounds, which we explored before touring the house.
img_0325The home was gorgeous but you had limited access to most of it, which is understandable as the family still lives there.  I wish though I could have seen those rooms used daily — the kitchen, dining room, others — to get a sneaking peek at what life is like.  Still, the marble statues, impressive paintings, and general rooms in the house were incredible.  We didn’t have a chance to tour the back gardens because it gets dark so early there in the winter.  Even without it though, walking hand-in-hand with Andy through the Christmas market and Chatsworth home, it felt romantic, like a different type of get-away.
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That night, we ventured out with a couple who Andy is close with, one of which I’ve become friends with talking online.  While I was excited to explore England, I confess I was really eager to put faces with names of friends’ he has talked of to me and meeting this couple was at the top of my list.  Also a note for excitement: Did you know some English pubs allow you to bring in your dog?!  Yep, mainly when the pub owner has a dog and their dog is inside!  I know.  I was about to pack my bags and move to England in that moment.  No bants.

Day Six: Peak District (Bakewell, Castleton, Matlock Bath)
I confess, this day was my favorite.  While Andy was showering, I snuck to the kitchen to talk to his dad and asked him about his plans for the day.  It seemed Andy and I were constantly in motion and I hadn’t had a chance to do the one thing I really wanted, which was spend time with his family.  Luckily, I was able to convince his dad to set off with us so when Andy was ready to go, I slyly told Andrew he was allowed to come out with his dad and me.  The three of us packed into the car and took to the road!

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This day was packed full of the Peak District, which meant I had my heart’s fill of the gorgeous land.
IMG_0327.JPGimg_0333This above picture is Stanage Edge, a popular spot for climbing and walking and a scene from Pride and Prejudice.
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Andy, his dad, and me — Best day there!  The only change I would have made is if his mom could have made it out with us!

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After our drive, we stopped in Bakewell for the most delicious lunch then window shopped around the small town.
IMG_0348.JPGI loved Bakewell — It was quaint and scenic, nestled next to a river which had a small bridge over it that had locks from lovers’ that placed them there.
img_0353img_0341Some of the locks had been there for an extended period of time — They were rusting and all luster had been lost; others seemed brand new as if they were placed there moments before we arrived, but in practically all, they had been meticulously etched to show lovers’ names.
img_0343img_0342img_0345We did not put a lock on because someone (*cough cough*) said the lock weight was destroying the bridge.  I didn’t want to destroy any part of Bakewell so I appreciated the bridge and the symbol the locks stood for before moving on.

Our next stop was to Castleton where we roamed the town and window shopped some more.  The highlight of this day was small events though such as pretending I was moving to England and that Andy and I were going to live together.  Three of us would scout out real estate listings, pointing to which ones we liked, which suited us more, which had aspects we desired.

The last stop this day was Matlock Bath.  Night was setting in quickly so by the time we got out, many places had already closed.
IMG_0363.JPGWe were able to skirt inside a delicious shop called F’coffee though, which by the way — as a person that detests coffee, this name is incredible.  There we had yummy drinks, perfect on the chilly day.
20161125_16292620161125_163055That night, we dipped out again with Andy’s parents to meet his aunts and uncles for drinks and dinner.
20161126_13292720161125_18590220161125_223858Even better, we bumped into two of his good friends at a pub, which was so nice to meet them.
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Day Seven: Sheffield
This was our last full day in England, and we spent it where we had started: Andy’s hometown.  We started by eating their famous fish and chips, which by the way is incredible.  My fish, larger than my face and that sucker went all in my belly!
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After, we explored parts of Sheffield that were more beaten, more rough.  Twisted around a construction site with barbed wire fences and abandoned broken-windowed buildings, tourists rarely go here but this is where I saw a surprising treat: incredible street art.
img_0396img_0388img_0385img_0387I have always been attracted to murals.  I’ll find myself wondering in areas of the city I probably shouldn’t be in just to catch a glimpse of someone’s work.  It was super exciting to see the city has artists that sneak out and paint the buildings alive.
img_0390img_0392img_0391When I look at street art, I hear music.  Sometimes it sounds more like a rap, others jazz, and still more come in the sound of tear-jerking orchestra music.  It’s that type of emotion, pulsing heartbeat though that keeps me wondering through the streets and looking at the art.
img_0407img_0411img_0408img_0409img_0413img_0414img_0415img_0394img_0395It amazes me that more people don’t venture outside to see street art.  I get asked sometimes to go to museums and it always baffles me.  Why do I want to go and pay money to see work that isn’t as current, that isn’t fighting as hard — this very moment — for its story to be told?  I’d pick street art over any every day.img_0424img_0426img_0423img_0422
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After I filled my camera with pictures, we ventured towards the shops and that’s when Andy’s friends called saying they were in that area too, so we met up at a bar then walked outside along the Christmas market and slipped into another pub.
15241203_1274290565963720_8793455449099119565_nI had so much fun this night, so much fun.  His friends were hilarious and to-the-point, open and honest.  We talked about everything from the presidential election to past relationships and hopes for the future, and before we left, tears were shed with Andy soon heading back to America.  That’s what made me happy too: knowing that Andy has some really extraordinary friends that watch out for him, that have his interests at heart.  With the evening hours continuing to creep ahead, we had to say bye and went back to Andy’s home.

Day Eight: Returning to the US
This day was a day of goodbyes.  His sweet parents drove us the hour and a half back to Manchester Airport where we had our last chat in person for awhile.
20161127_081540Then we were off, boarding the plane again for another eight and a half hour flight back, which y’all, can I just say I have an amazing boyfriend?  Remember how horrible I was on the flight over?  Well we stacked up — bought playing cards and got a pen and paper to keep score, I got my book and pulled out my laptop, we were set to go . . . so much so that I honestly looked like this throughout the flight.
img_5235I hope I redeemed myself some or, let’s be honest, Andy will refuse to take me on any more planes with him which completely bypasses my plans for our future (*mumbling under breath*) of making him my sole travel partner.

In truth though, it seemed one moment I was looking out the window at the clouds and seeing another nearby plane fly by . . .
IMG_0436.JPGand the next minute we were landing in Atlanta.
img_0433img_0437This flight was perfect: We watched a movie together (NOTE: The same movie but on different screens — huuuge game-changer for me, guys) and Andy watched another film while I typed on my computer.  We played cards, I read.  It was wonderful — all I dreamed the first flight could be.

In the end, my heart was full of England, full in the best way possible.  England was all I had imagined and more.  Everyone I came across was sincere and friendly, and most were hilarious, bantering with one another and me openly.  There was never a culture shock for me and, in fact, I had a constant feeling of belonging.  While going out of the country made me proud to be American, made my home more meaningful, it also made me realize Americans do not joke around as openly as the English.  In fact, we are the opposite and are raised to ensure political correctness; they are raised to air on the side of caution and to never ever offend.  But what is wrong with skating on that line?  What is wrong with jumping that line and offending people?  I know someone who once said, “I hope I offend you.  That means you’re listening.  That means you care.”  I agree.  In England, people didn’t seem to be as sensitive, people didn’t seem to shy around what they wanted to say.  They said it openly and honestly, and in turn I knew where I stood because of that.  I appreciated that, mainly as the blunt and sometimes too-honest person I am.  But overall, this type of atmosphere seemed more free and therefore, more calming.  Sure, I’m stereotyping all of England based on my small encounter, but this is simply what I saw and experienced.

Often people apologized, saying they were sorry I was there for a short period of time because the country had much more to offer me.  In truth though, this floored me.  I felt England offered me everything I could possibly want: breathtaking landscapes, quaint pubs and towns, amazing attractions but most of all, wonderful people — You made my trip amazing, thank you.

I Pushed Him Out of a Plane

When I met Andy, he seemed to radiate adventure.  We met for the first time at a tiny burger dive-of-a-restaurant, meaning it was not the most glamorous place but the type of spot people choose for a quick bite to eat and a beer to drink but end up four, six beers later tipsy and happy.  We had planned to hash out an upcoming hike but instead the entire evening and early morning hours were spent talking of places we wanted to travel, the food and drinks we wanted to stuff ourselves with, and the cultures we wanted to experience.  I said it before and I’ll say it again: He has a heart that is made of maps of the world he craves to see . . . and I’ll be honest, I was smitten.  I didn’t know at the time that we would later date and he would challenge the way I had viewed relationships over the past few years.  What I did know though was that I could have fun with this guy, we could have fun together, and (despite an argument in my head to not get attached) I began to mentally form a list of the places we could explore.  Was I crazy?  Probably.  I had just met him.  Just met as in, “Hi, my name is L.  You must be Andy, that English guy I’ve been messaging about hikes?” and here I was, quite frankly, planning the rest of his holidays.

One adventure that topped the list was skydiving.  We didn’t necessarily talk of this, but it was one that screamed “him.”  Maybe that’s because he seemed up for it — desiring a life of excitement and passion, surprises, adrenaline.  He, the type that pushes himself for more, yearning for the next great challenge to overcome . . . and well, I could see it because that is me.  So meeting him that night, I hoped we would see each other past that dinner.  I hoped we would become friends, travel buddies even.  But what I hoped most was that I could be the person that pushed him, challenged him.  Surprised him the way he surprised me that evening.

That’s when I started to plan.  Andy is only here for six months and then he returns to his home in England.  That means we will miss Christmas together . . . which, in my head, simply means I have to move Christmas up to meet him.  So on October 2, Christmas arrived.

When I saw him that day, I began playing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and giggling until he noticed the mistletoe I had taped above us earlier.  Next, I handed him a Christmas card and an ultra thin, small “gift” wrapped in holiday paper.

“Merry Christmas!” I whispered.
“Wot??” He was as confused as any person should be on the second day of October.
“MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!” I shouted, laughing.  I couldn’t contain myself.
“Wot you on about?!?!?”
I started to sing the song to him, smiling as if he were the one that had lost his mind, then handed him the Christmas card which basically said how happy I was to have met him and how I wanted to be the person to surprise him in life.  Then I handed him the first “present.”  He unwrapped it.  It was another “card,” which was really a piece of orange paper folded like a card.
18610ef0-e9cd-41c2-9856-c8ae7e88e248 Inside it told him to get ready, wear comfortable clothes, and shoes he can lace up; bring his ID and passport, just in case.  After, the words “Let’s go on an adventure!”

A bit of time later, he was ready and we walked to the car together.  From there, another wrapped “gift” was waiting in the passenger seat.
3a38d397-66ac-42ee-91f1-937d5d85d313Inside I gave him directions to where we were going because as I wrote, “We may (surprise) get lost.”  Then off we went . . . to Orange County, Virginia where his surprise awaited him.  I was properly freaking out at this point because what he didn’t know was we were going skydiving . . . we as in me too and I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to go, I just knew I wanted to do it at some point in my life and it would probably be perceived as cruel if I pushed him from a plane but didn’t follow.  Meanwhile, he was calm and happy — singing songs on the radio, looking out the window at the scenery.  “How can you not be nervous right now?!” I asked him through sweats and gaspings of air.  His smile dropped.  “L . . . Wot do you mean, ‘How can I not be nervous right now?’  Wot are we doing . . . ?” but I just kept driving, trying not to faint behind the wheel.

Finally, we arrived in Orange County and I followed signs to the airport.  As we were passing a skydiving sign, I handed him his last “gift.”
1ad26ede-7077-42be-a948-157d4f1310e4Finally, I told him we were about to go skydiving and he immediately started to laugh, a panicked laugh, saying, “I cannot believe we’re about to jump from a plane!”  Followed by a moment of more panic: “Wait!  You’re jumping too, right?”

I parked and asked him to show me how he felt.  This is his picture:
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From there, there’s no way else to say it except we jumped out of a plane.  13,000 feet from the ground.  Dropping at 120 miles per hour.
img_6770I was doing a tandem jump with a Michael Palin look-alike.  My guy, thankfully, was calm and cautious — He walked me through every single second of the jump before we even stepped foot near the plane.  Then, we re-enacted the every-single-second play directly after.  The man adjusted and readjusted my harness, made sure I was in a great jump suit, and talked to me about how I felt before I dropped through the air.  I felt treated like a goddess.

Meanwhile, Andy was partnered with a massive Navy Seal guy who didn’t really get a 100% A on compassion and kindness.  He was a full-blown military-esque type of man.  I watched Andy and him with a critical eye, making sure Andy was being taken care of as well as I was.  Andy was handed the harness, same as me, but then the Navy Seal walked away, leaving Andy guessing how to put it on.  Andy brought it up to his hips and held it in place, the harness about 200 pounds too loose.  Not only that, but he didn’t have one of the wind suits on.  Maybe he was too shy to ask, I thought.  I’ll ask for him but I want to be sure first.  “Andy,” I was putting on my bright purple suit, “aren’t you going to wear a suit too?  My guy suggested it.”  “Erm,” Andy looked around.  His guy had disappeared.  “I will ask — oh,” his guy reappeared, sneaky like military men in camouflage.  “Do I need to wear a suit?” he asked, all sweet and British.  The Seal looked at him like he was crazy.  “It’s not cold enough,” he stated despite the fact that all other male and females were in a suit. There was an awkward silence between them.  I looked away; I felt awkward watching.  The Seal left his side.  ” . . . Andy?” I whispered, scared the military man would come back and I’d get in trouble.  “Erm, I don’t think I’m wearing a suit, L.”  At the same moment, my guy asked if I wanted to wear a helmet.  “Whatever you suggest — Do I need one?”  “Nope,” he told me and smiled reassuringly.  “Okay, then no!” I was happy . . . until I looked at Andy who was dressed in his civilian clothes, harness not-even-considered-on, and standing alone.  Then I was worried.  “Pst, Andy?  Are you wearing a helmet?” “No,” the Seal stated to me, suddenly reappearing by Andy’s side.  “Oh, I’m sorry,” I told the Seal, not exactly sure what I was apologizing for but I was definitely sorry for something.  “L, I hope I see you again,” Andy said as the Seal motioned for him to turn his back on me.  It was like a tragic movie separation as I was herded the other way — to the plane, to the other divers boarding, away from Andy.  “NOOOOO!!!” I wanted to scream and try to jump over my tandem man to reach him.  “I’ll WAAAIT for YOOUUU!!!” but it was too late — Andy disappeared in the darkness of the building and the sun blinded my vision.  Wait, I thought.  He is supposed to be on this damn plane with me!  Daggon it if I’m jumping without him and I moved to the side to let the other jumpers board until there was my English boyfriend, harness still hanging from his hips, him still holding it up, him still the-only-new-jumper-in-civilian-clothes finally coming to the plane.  “Are you going to adjust your harness?” I asked him, loud enough for the Seal to hear.  The Seal just glared at me and put on his sunglasses.  “Holy s***.  WHAT was I THINKING?!  I’m going to kill my boyfriend,” my mind raced as we boarded.
img_6774There were five new jumpers then their partners and some photographers loaded onto a small plane.  We all squeezed onto two benches as we went up and up still into the air.

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See?  Perfect example of how babied I was by my tandem guy . . . He’s whispering about the next steps we were about to take!

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My ultra-cool photographer

Let me add here literally a couple minutes before people were jumping from the plane, Andy’s Seal finally tightened his harness.  Tightened it once then didn’t touch him again.  Meanwhile, my man had been tightening it and rechecking me every minute.  No joke.  I mean, it’s not that I was all for male-on-male touching when it comes to my boyfriend, but Jesus! Touch him a heck of a lot more please, Seal Guy!  No luck though which left me wishing fervently the whole time Andy’s first and only harness analysis was enough to keep him alive while he plummeted to the ground.  It also made think, “Oh God.  I really should have stressed for him to call his parents and tell him he loved them.”

In the end, they asked us which one of us wanted to go first — Andy or me.  I let him pick because it was his present.  “Me,” he said without hesitation.  “If I see her jump, I’ll bottle it.”  Lucky for him, he got his wish.
IMG_6790.JPGIMG_4714.JPGAndy said when it got to this part, he was thinking, “Mate, I don’t want to do the ‘One, two, three, jump’ anymore.  I just want you to push me from the plane.”  Again, wish granted.
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There is a little parachute that is deployed in the beginning which slows you down . . . to 120 miles per hour.

Bless his heart.  You were instructed to release hold of your harness when your tandem guy taps your shoulders. Andy’s guy tapped his shoulders . . . again . . . and again . . . and again so much so that he eventually just gave up in which case Andy — finally, finally — released his hands and enjoyed skydiving . . .IMG_4731.JPGimg_4749Poor thing.  Guys, notice his mouth.  Bless it.  When I looked at all of his pictures — and I really mean all — he had his mouth opened like this the entire time.  “I was trying to breathe, L!” he told me.  “I was thinking as we were falling, ‘How do I breathe?!’ and the more I thought about how I needed to breathe, the more I couldn’t breathe and the more I thought, ‘How am I supposed to tell him, ‘I cannot breathe!’?”  Turns out, he basically held his breathe the entire way down.  He was okay at first once he landed, but the lack of breath earlier took a toll on him when, in the car, he had a horrible migraine and looked like Death (no offense, Andy).  So guys, if you’re planning to skydive, lesson be learned here: Close your mouth.
Not only this but he didn’t do the proper form when diving . . . You’re supposed to raise your legs in the back so that you are almost “kicking” your tandem jumper’s bottom.  Andy though had his legs splayed all over the place.  He said his Navy Seal guy was “manhandling” him to get him into place.  I asked him why he didn’t just do as he had practiced and been told.  He said, “L.  I had a lot of s*** going on at the time.  I. COULDN’T. BREATHE.”  Alright.  Noted.
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Then it was my turn.  Watching Andy fall from the sky surprisingly didn’t scare me.  Strangely enough, the only thought I had was, “Well.  There he goes.  The only way I can get to him is if I go too.”  No point in time did it dawn on me I could have just gone back to my seat and taken the plane back to the ground to meet him.  So off I flew into the air . . .
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Here I am giving the highest of high fives to my photographer

I got to do a pretty cool hand-grabbing thing where my photographer and I locked hands and went around in a fast circle in the air.  On the plane, he had asked me, “L, how much fun do you want to have?”  “A lot of fun!” I told him excited . . . and also nervous because anyone that has green hair and jumps from planes for a living clearly has a different definition of fun than me.  He explained if I grabbed his hand when he came close, we could do a cool skydiving trick that was pretty simple.  “But what if I don’t want to do the circles anymore?!” I asked, scared I had magically signed in blood that I was going to circle my way to the ground.  “Just let go!” he laughed.  “Go SLOWWW,” I yelled over the plane engine . . . and that’s exactly what he did.  Once we had finished, he came up to me and asked me about our trick.  “I went as slow as was possible.  It was incredibly hard,” he told me, which was really really sweet he did that . . . and made me feel bad that I didn’t appreciate it more because we probably got a sixteenth of the way around our “circle” when I immediately let go.
img_6842image-21image-22Once our parachute was opened, I was able to watch as all other skydivers sank in the sky.  “Where’s my boyfriend?” I asked my tandem man.  “Hum, I believe . . . right . . . there” and he pointed to the one and only skydiving tandem that was doing insane whips back and forth in circles so fast I couldn’t even count.  Yep, I thought, that’s definitely him.

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Coming in for the landing

IMG_4833.JPGIMG_4895.jpgIMG_4836.JPGIn the end, I pushed my boyfriend out of a plane.  Alright.  Maybe not literally.  I actually hired someone else to push him out of a plane.  And you know what?  He still likes me.  He could be just as crazy as I am.  Or there could be such things as miracles.

Either way, I enjoyed falling from the air.  Surprisingly, it was one of the most calming experiences I have ever had — at least once you get over the fact that you are actually plummeting through the air.  Other than the wind rippling around me and through the parachute, it was quiet.  Absolutely quiet, and I couldn’t remember when living had felt so silent and yet peaceful at the same time.  I felt strong, powerful, and watched as the world below gradually came into focus.  Even though the entire drop was only minutes, it felt extended, as if time had paused for me, for Andy, for this very moment which begged me to take it in.  Life is precious, life deserves to be lived to the fullest extent and I’m so grateful for this second chance that I’ve been given.