I Gotta Get Outa Here


Border of Honduras
September 1978

Border city of Leimas in the wintertime.

Needless to say I began rapidly developing a new PLAN. I searched around the port city of Bluefields looking for a fishing boat that was heading off in the direction of Honduras. I quickly found one that was willing to let me hitch a ride. It seemed like everyone was trying to get out the hell of there, and with just the clothes on my back I was once again off, but this time on a forced adventure. The trip was unremarkable except that when I arrived at Leimas on the border with Honduras and Nicaragua. The customs guard looked at my passport and saw that I had been in the country without a visa for the last year, He scowled at me for a very long time, until I offered to buy his kids, all 11 of them, new shoes. After a trip to the Tienda, where I bought 11 pairs a shinny rubber shoes, he kindly stamped my passport, and said, “Bien Viaje!”

The trip was very slow, and uneventful. At that point I really believed that the war would only last a few months so I was just looking for a safe place to wait it out. Why I thought that it might be a good idea to go to Guatemala and find my ex-wife Rainy, once again I can only attribute to the excess in drugs.
I easily found her in Panajachel, or “Gringotenango” as it was know locally.

Rainy had rented 3 small house to try and rent out.

Things quickly turned sour with her. She had rented 3 small one room houses, which she was trying to turn into rentals. A mutual friend of ours, who had a case of hepatitis, was living in one of them. Once I found out that her dishes were being mixed in with the households dishes I decided that it was probably a good idea to get the heck out of there. My Mom, who I had now not seen for many years, offered to pay for a plane ticket to visit Chicago. I had about $100 in my pocket. Now, I thought might be a very good time for to take her up on that offer.

Guatemalan pantelones

It was the middle of winter in Chicago, so of course I thought that I might make a stronger entrance by arriving in tipico style clothes. I boarded the plan with a pair of three quarter length Guatemalan pantelones, a multi colored woman’s repeli that I had made into a vest, no shirt and a pair of rubber sandals made out of old tires. Heck, it’s not like I had any winter clothes anyway! Of course I had beads made from sea shells, and I carried on a faded daypack. When I landed in Miami to go through customs the alarm went off and I was pulled off to the side. Soon a customs agents showed up and escorted me into a little room. It seems that 3 1/2 years ago I had had a warrant put out for my arrest. Shit! This was definitively not going as PLANNED.

Ok, Let’s Get on with Our Main Story: Trouble in Paradise

Corn Island, Nicaragua
June, 1978

Our dream was almost complete

By June, Rainy and I were quickly running out of money. At this point we had been traveling for over 5 years with many adventures, but we had done very little earning. Our dream was almost a reality. We had the beach-front land. We had one house almost finished, and enough materials for 3 more. We had it all. The dream was so close, but we just couldn’t convince ourselves to be happy — together.

Rainy saying farewell to me and Corn Island

So, being a “modern” couple, we divided up the remaining travelers checks. I stayed on in Corn Island, and she walked off down the beach heading out to build a new life in Guatemala. To say that there was “depression” on my part, would be an understatement. I spent days swinging in the hammock, listening to Stevie Nicks on the portable music player, while just staring at all the unfinished work. With my friend and partner now gone, and funds down to about $800, I needed another PLAN. What was I going to do?

All alone


Looking back on that time, drugs played a large part in my decision to take my remaining funds, get on a fishing boat, to cross the Caribbean channel to the port city of Bluefields on the Nicaraguan coast where I would buy a horse! Somehow I imagined that if I only had a horse, I could start making money again. Believe me when I say that it was indeed a better PLAN than any of the others. I buried everything that was valuable to me, deep in the sand. My diaries, photos, diving gear, mandolin, etc. I left Nevada, my other best friend and dog (mind you, for the first time in my life) with a 12 year old boy who had done some work for me. After all I would be back in a few days–wouldn’t I?
As soon as I got off of the boat in Bluefields, a Corn Island friend came running up to me and said, “Hey mon, dey started a war and dey got military guys everywhere. I tink from Cuba. From all ober da place. If’n dey see you, dey gonna shoot you, mon!”

“So, the best laid PLANS of mice and men……!”

Footnote from Wikipedia:
The initial overthrow of the Somoza regime in 1978–79 was a bloody affair, and the Contra War of the 1980s took the lives of tens of thousands of Nicaraguans and was the subject of fierce international debate. During the 1980s, both the FSLN (a leftist collection of political parties) and the Contras (a rightist collection of counter-revolutionary groups) received large amounts of aid from the Cold War superpowers (respectively, the Soviet Union and the United States).

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.