In 2001, I spent my summer in Honduras. While everyone else back home was celebrating A-Level grades and choosing their halls of residence, I was 5000 miles away, hanging out with pirates, sheltering from hurricanes and narrowly avoiding 9/11.
The internet was still in its infancy really, and being on a remote desert island meant that whatever slow speed dial up was available to the rest of the world, was very much out of our reach. We did however have daily satellite link up with the mainland, this was essential to give us any heads up on severe weather warnings coming our way, although when we were later hit by the tail end of a hurricane, it didn’t take a genius to figure out what was happening, and the weather warning from the mainland was of little use when we were all huddled together for shelter in the main cabana. Thankfully, we only received a small kicking from Hurricane Chantal as she bounced our way after destroying Mexico before spinning off and away from us. The camp took some damage, the clean-up operation was tough, but at least no one was hurt. It was however news fed via the satellite linkage that shed some light on a rather different yet utterly incredible event that took place that summer, and I was fortunate enough to be right there, at just the right time.
Evenings in camp were bliss. Chatter about the day’s dives would fill the air as we all sat in the main cabana drinking chilled beers (the generator was put to good use in the day by powering a small fridge), or on nights with a bit of a breeze, we would pile out onto the beach or the wooden jetty, the moving air keeping the mosquitoes and sand flies at bay. On one such evening, some of us were putting the world to right, high on sea air and island life, the local beer doing the job of relaxing us all to the max. The night sky provided us with enough visual entertainment for hours; shooting stars were common, the tiny white orbs fizzing across the star studded universe above us. Being so close to the equator made the stars seem so much brighter, and closer; reach out and you could almost touch them. We were all fixated on the galaxies and constellations light-years away, but the group all saw it at once, I mean, it was hard not to. It kind of just appeared, out of nowhere, from behind the stars, from somewhere, literally from outer space. It started out as a small bright orange dot, and rapidly grew into a fast moving, yellowy orange mass, about half an inch in diameter and by far the biggest object we could see. “Holy shit!” came the shouts, “it’s a bloody comet” came all of the excited remarks. The comet flashed across the sky above us, leaving behind it a thick, burnt orange trail that seemed to just hang in the sky like a paint stroke on a black canvass. It was mesmerising, we all just stood there, and stared up at the celestial object as it blasted its way over the horizon. And then it struck us, seemingly all at the same time, the alien object was heading towards Earth?! The conversation amongst us was frantic. Where had it landed? Did it hit a city? Was this the end of the Earth as we knew it? The comet soon passed out of our view and over the curve of the Earth to our left, the burning trail hung in the air for a few moments more, a reminder of what had just happened. It made for a long night, we all stayed up into the early hours desperate for a glimpse of another rock falling to the Earth, bizarrely praying for some form of meteor shower to keep us entertained. We all awoke the following morning with similar buzzing thoughts, how lucky we were to have witnessed the events of the night before, retelling the story to those unlucky souls who decided to turn in early. They would soon feel even more gutted about that fact, as we were about to find out.
Not long after morning chores, news soon broke to us via the satellite link of just exactly what we had witnessed, and it was absolutely incredible. We thought we had seen a comet falling from above and hitting the Earth, but in fact, we had witnessed something much more amazing. That night, the US Space Shuttle re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere above Central America, as it made its way home after a space voyage, and landing in Florida. I had to ask the guys to repeat it several times when they told me, each time my jaw fell even further toward the ground. We had been there, right there on that clear Honduran evening, to witness something that so few people in the world had ever seen, an actual space ship coming back from space, its heat shield burning up to 2300 degrees C as it flew back to the safety of Planet Earth, towards home. Just wow. I was 18 years old at this time, and was already having the adventure of a lifetime. I had learnt to dive, swam with dolphins, seen an underwater world I didn’t even know existed and watched a man-made rocket carry people back from the cosmos. Little did I know that the adventure was about to get a whole lot more crazy.