The Story Continues and Now the Work Begins

Corn Island, Nicaragua
March 1978

It was pretty hard to get a truck out to our place

There was so much work to do on our newly acquired property. No-one had ever lived on it so there wasn’t even a road to get to it. Just a sandy track that was mostly used by Mr. Campbell and his horses. It was sure to get most vehicles stuck. We were happy to see that the middle of the island, which was a true swamp, was filled with popta plants. From living with the Misquito Indians in Honduras, I had learned the technique of building a thatched house using only the popta palm tree.

Let the party begin

The plan was to build 3 small houses leaving room for 9 others along with a communal cook-house/rec center. Finding someone to help us was almost impossible. One of our friends said that no one wanted/needed the work, but if we could somehow turn it into a party we might have a better chance of getting help. Sounded reasonable, so we made a plan! We bought a bunch of food and beer, and asked any abled body male if they were interested. To our surprise they all showed up.

That’s me hauling out about 500 popta leaves out of the swamp. We needed 30,000 just to finish one house!
Boy them are some short-short pants.
Now the serious construction work began. We also needed about 200 popta trunks for one house.

In no time at all – really about three months of hard-hard work – we were beginning to see the makings of our first house. The only tools that I had to work with were a machete, a hammer, a drill and my most useful tool a 99 cent kitchen knife.

Looking good!

The islanders thought that we were indeed crazy. They called this type of house a “trash house.” No one, they said all too often, in their right mind would live in something that only their great ancestors would build. Most days, a group of them would come down to Shallow Water, sit on the beach, have a smoke and a drink, and watch us work. Even though on Corn Island this type of construction was only used for building temporary structures, I knew that the popta leaf, if aged and properly laid, was good for about 20 years.

Buying Our Land on Corn Island, Nicaragua

Corn Island, Nicaragua
January 1978

Corn Island was a strange place, but one that we fit into very easily. It didn’t take us long to realize that we wanted to buy property and live there. The island was the truest definition of total anarchy. There was only one government official from Nicaragua, but he really didn’t have much to do. There was no crime there. People used to say that, “Life was so sweet that no one wanted to misbehave and get banished from paradise.”

When they needed money the old men collected coconuts.

No one worked very hard at all, and if they did it was only for a short time. This was definitively a trait that we had grown to love in our 6 years of travel! The young boys dove for lobster, or worked on a fishing boat for a few months, and then it was time to rest and party until they needed money again. The old men harvested their coconuts whenever they needed money. Everyone was tall and proud and physically in good shape. Also, there were no heavy weather events on Corn Island. It was often said that bad weather started here and went somewhere further north to do its damage. That’s why the island had some of the tallest and most graceful coconut trees that I have ever seen. Some were over 60 years old.

Once we decided to buy property it was not easy to find anyone willing to sell. Rainy and I spent over 3 months going around to every house on South End, taking tea in living rooms, and asking if they thought that it would be OK if we lived here permanently? In the beginning we were met with pretty cool attitudes, but eventually, when they figured out that we were the real deal, they softened their tone.

The black population is composed mostly of black English-speaking Creoles who are the descendants of escaped or shipwrecked Caribbean slaves; many carry the name of Scottish settlers who brought slaves with them, such as CampbellGordonDowns, and Hodgeson.

Mr. Campbell collecting coconuts

Mister Campbell was willing to sell us 2 acres on the beach in a place called Shallow Water with just two stipulations. One that he could come down and bathe his horse in the shallow ponds that were formed at high tide, and two that he could retrieve as many coconuts from the 100 plus trees as he wanted. We quickly agreed and closed the deal with a handshake, a handwritten note and an exchange of 8,000 Cordoba’s (about $850 US in 1980).

Shallow Water was now all ours

Our new life’s PLAN was beginning to take shape.

We Are Finally “Home” – Corn Island, Nicaragua

December 1977

Going from Puerto Limpira to Leimus was challenging, but comparing it to all of the adventures that we had experienced over the last year in Honduras, it was “uneventful.” Arriving in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, it was yet another wait-and-see time. We waited almost a full month for a shrimp boat that was going out to the Corn Islands. We were getting very good at enjoying the boring times of our adventure. We were lucky enough to meet a Baptist preacher who said that he knew a guy that had a fishing cabin along one of the many rivers. We bided the time taking hikes through the jungle, reading, and lounging around.

Going from Puerto Limpira to Leimus

Every few days we would go down to the municipal dock and ask the boat captains if they were going out to Corn Island. Most of them were going shrimping or lobstering to the Cayos Miskitos Islands, but eventually we found one who would take us. The captain told us that this was a working trip so it might be a while before they reached Big Corn Island. The good news was that he didn’t need us to work.  They would feed us and we could use the captain’s bed to rest in. The bad news was that we got a terrible case of lice, which the crew helped us get rid of by wrapping our heads in a dirty cloth and dowsing it with kerosene. Yes, it did work but….ouch!

The shrimp boat really started to rock and roll as we got further out to sea. It was kind of fun in a way, but also a little scary. We were out in the middle of the ocean on some rickety old wooden shrimp boat with a whole bunch of guys that we knew nothing about, headed out to the open sea to go to some place we knew nothing about. Despite the uncertainty, the trip was once again, uneventful.  I do remember however, when the water changed from a muddy brown to the deep Caribbean blue. After a long time, we finally saw our destination off in the distance. The hot noonday sun bounced off the white sandy beaches. Corn Island gleamed like an iridescent pearl. Rainy and I looked at each other and we instantly knew that we had found something precious. Even Nevada started to run around in circles chasing his tail and barking animatedly.

Pulling into port was like something we had been through many times before in our years of traveling around Central America. It was scary and exhilarating all at the same time. When we finally landed, there was absolutely nothing that was familiar. We had no comfortable point of reference. There was a road, but it was only a sandy track that almost circled the island as a well-worn rut. A few clapboard houses rose up from the sand. They sat perched on large 24-inch boulders. There were no happy smiling faces looking to see who the young gringos were. Every one of the dozen or so people who sat around the dock, had a disinterested kind of scowl on their black faces. Hardly any of them even looked our way as we passed to survey this new landscape. We found ourselves beginning to expect to be a short stay. Little did we know, at that point, that Corn Island would become our home for the better part of a year and a half!

If I ever wanted to create a populated island from scratch, I would start with a road just like this one.

We didn’t have too much luggage with us. There was just enough that we began looking for a spot to store it. The oriental fellow who ran the local variety store said we could leave our stuff at his store, so Rainy, Nevada and I walked off down the sandy road to see if we could find a place to stay. The road followed the ocean and the beach very closely. In some places the ocean actually washed over the road. I remember remarking to myself just what a lovely walk it was. If I ever wanted to create a populated island from scratch, I would start with a road just like this one. As we got some distance from town the water turned a deep, rich aqua blue. It was so clear that even from the road you could see the fish swimming against a beige-blue sandy background.

 Soon we came to a two-story building called Capt. Morgan’s Hotel. The beach widened at this point. It literally sat on a 15-foot-wide spit of land. The surf gently lapped at the first floor. I told Nevada to stay downstairs, and we walked up to see if we could find the owner. Captain Morgan himself was sipping coffee on the porch and looking out to sea. He didn’t get up. He simply looked at us with stern eyes. I said, “Good mornin’.” and he nodded. I poured our life story out to him in 30 seconds trying to be as personable as I could. He was not impressed. Finally, I asked outright if he had any rooms available.

He replied, “Yes.”

“Could you please tell me how much they are?”

“245 Cordovas.”

I quickly calculated. That’s $35.00 US I whispered to Rainy. I didn’t even need to discuss it with her. It was definitely more than we were willing to spend.

“That is just a little more than we can afford. Do you know of any place that we can camp?”

“Anywhere you like.”, he answered.

I politely thanked him and as we made our way back down the stairs, I caught Rainy’s eyes. We were both grinning from ear to ear.

“Looks like this just what we are looking for,” I said.

“Yep,” she answered, “I think we might just be here for a while!”

We looked over and saw that Nevada was wildly racing up and down the beach first chasing a tan colored ghost crab, and then biting at the gently lapping surf every time it made slapping sound as it hit the beach. We walked along the beach, arm in arm, exploring the new magical world that had just been opened up to us.

We were very young and happy, happy, happy to be finally home!

Alligators and Crocodiles, Oh My!

Puerto Limpera, Honduras
December 1977

Back in Mocoron we still had a week to wait for the next government 4-wheel drive truck to take us back to Puerto Lempira. Once there we settled into the only pension (hotel) for a well-deserved rest, when who should arrive — Russel the Alligator Man. I had met Russel at a coffee shop on my last trip to the capital Tegucigalpa. He had spun a tail of having a farm in the Moskitia that raised and sold crocodile skins exclusively to the French. Honduras, in those days, was filled with many weirdos so, though I enjoyed his tales, I never really believed them. Still, he did show up and offered to let us come out to his place.

A Googled photo

He picked Rainy, Nevada and I up in his roughly built plywood-sided boat with a 4 HP in-board diesel engine. We cruised along the Laguna de Caratasca at what seemed like a break neck speed of 2-3 knots per hour. The engine, thought small, was really loud, and sent black diesel plumes off in all directions.

After several hours of this, I couldn’t think of anything really intelligent to say so I shouted, “Hey, Russell how much land do you have?” His reply was puzzling.

 “Well. I don’t really have any land, but you’ll see shortly.”

Shortly turned into evening when we reached a homemade dock constructed entirely of jungle popta sticks. We had seen that the Miskito Indians had used popta  (Sabal sp.) quite a bit, but here, everything including the roof was made of popta. It is a very straight palmetto topped tree that grows freely in the mangrove swamps. The hard-hollow wooden trunk is about 4 to 6 inches in diameter. It is a perfect building material, and Russell had built his entire complex out of these sticks. He was right, he had no land. Everything was built up above the swamp on raised sticks. There were wooden walkways that led to maybe 10 different structures. The roofs were also all thatched with palmetto popta leaves. That building style was something that would come in very handy for us when we moved on to Nicaragua.

Another Googled photo of” popta”.

BTW there are no alligators in Honduras. Something that gave us pause. Later we found out that Russell was called the Alligator guy, and not the Crocodile guy, because he was from Florida where they do in fact, have both species.

Like I said everything was elevated above the black, brackish water below. The Honduran government had told Russell that for every skin that he shipped out, he had to replace it with two baby crocodiles. So, there was a gigantic pen, made out of, you guessed it popta. In it were thousands of babies that he was raising to release back into the wild. Well, the outhouse was perched up on the walkway and cantilevered out over the pen. I will never forget the excitement of the little creatures whenever my business was finished.

After a week or so, Russell took us back to Puerto Lempira where we waited for a government truck to take us to the little frontier post on the border with Nicaragua named Leimus. Up to now, Honduras was one of my favorite years, but I think that Rainy might just disagree with me?  So, this was another adventure, and although we didn’t discover the White City, we did get to watch him capture a live 12-foot crocodile, fish in the river with dynamite, capture small crocodiles at night by shining a light across the water to see their red eyes, it was these things that provided me with one of my favorite adventure of all. They remain with me even to this day, 43 years later.

Here is the border guard at the Leimus, Nicaraguan border. This was a Googled photo, but it is nice to see that not much has changed in 40 years!

And here is the route. Look how squiggly the Rio Coco is which runs the length of the border between Honduras and Nicaragua.