1978 Corn Island, Nicaragua

I’m listening to Fleetwood Mac as I travel down the road from Pipe Creek toward Boerne, TX, on Highway 46, and I am stuck by the poor quality of the recording. I seem to remember the quality of the sound as being better. Of course, that was some 20 years ago. I do know that time does have a way of distorting reality. but still I remember Stevie’s voice as being clearer.

I distinctly remember staring out into Caribbean’s aqua blue sea. I was swinging in my finely woven Guatemalan hammock–it was suspended between two of my coconut trees. As these were the first coconut trees that Rainy and I had ever owned I remember them really quite well. There is a little monaural RCA cassette player sitting on the sand beside me. It was hooked up to a to a small clear plastic motorcycle battery which Dorsy, one of my island friends, would hook up and recharge on his motorcycle whenever the tape player started to drag. Beside it sat a small cardboard box, about 8 inches square, which housed the external speaker. It had a grill cloth made from a black sea fan, which protected the face of it from damage. Stevie Nicks was singing          . I closed my eyes and for about the hundredth time tried to visualize just what she looked like. I had now been gone from the United Stated for over 3 years now. I had never heard of Fleetwood Mac until my brother Wayne gave me this tape. Between the combinations of Stevie’s voice, the crashing of the sea, and the gentle moist breeze I was in heaven. As I rocked back in forth in the hammock in time with the music, the memories came flooding back to me. Just how it was that I found myself on this tropical island off the coast of Nicaragua, I mused, owner of over a hundred mature coconut trees?

The year was 1978. Rainy, Nevada, our 125 lb German Shepard/Doberman, and I have by now had many adventures on our travels through Central America. We spent about 6 months in Mexico, a little over a year in Guatemala at our fabulous house on Lake Attitlan, and then about another year wondering around Honduras. Up till now I would have to say that Honduras was my personal favorite. It was kind of like living in the old west. People even carried guns in sometimes not too small holsters on their sides. The interesting thing to me about Honduras was that the amount of weirdoes per square foot was very high indeed. It seemed like everyone had a strange story of why they were there. Some were even rather frightening. like the man I met in a bar one afternoon outside of San Pedro Sula, who after asking what I was doing in this part of the world proudly proclaimed to me that he ran white slavery. There’s one place I didn’t need to stick around too long in. I let that be a lesson to me — that I would never again go into a cantina that has a urinal in the same room as the bar!

Then there was Russell, the Alligator Man, as he was known to the locals. I had met Russell one afternoon at he office of National Geographic in downtown Tegucigalpa. Rainy and I accepted his gracious invitation to visit him in the middle of nowhere Honduras. After three hours traveling in a very slow boat we arrived at his place of business, only to find that it was smack in the middle of the swamp. His entire place was built up on stilts. From there he and his crew hunted alligators for their skins, which they packed in salt and sold to the French. On one insect ridden evening Russell told us the story of how he had come to be an gator hunter. It seems that he used to sell frozen food somewhere in the US. He wrote so many orders that, he proclaimed one evening as we talked and swatted insects, that he had worn a hole clean through his 14 caret gold Cross pen. Rainy and I of course scoffed at the idea. Much to our amazement he bought out the pen and sure enough it had indeed a worn spot up at the top where it rubbed against his hand. You could actually see the pen cartridge!

Anyway, the list goes on and on and the stories believe it or not do get stranger, but most of them will have to wait for another time. This story is about one of those moments of “True Happiness”. I wouldn’t call my time in Honduras truly happy. It was more like wandering around being shell shocked for the best part of a year. By now we were about traveled out, and since we were not planning to ever go back to the States we began to look for a place to call home.

We had sold everything we owned, including the jeep and the trailer in Honduras. You see we felt that our possessions were isolating us from the really true adventures that we had been dreaming about. When we were done selling everything all we had left was a couple of small packs–and of course a lot of money mostly in large denomination traveler checks.

After we sold the last item, we looked at a map of Honduras and found the most remote spot that a plane could fly in to. Off we went to Puerto Limpera, population 124. It sat on the edge of the Miskito Mountains. From there we got more and more remote until we finally had to hire some local Miskito Indians and their dug-out to go any farther. We were finally taking an expedition! Just like in all of the books we have been reading. We bought 50 pounds of rice, 25 pounds of beans, a box of D batteries, and a couple boxes of 22 caliber shells so our new friends/porters could shoot us some meat. That wound up mostly being Capybara, a very large but stupid rodent, which they smoked over the open fire until it was very tender and tasty. For four months we wandered around the jungle. It was really quite easy, and not as difficult as it might sound. We found that we had a real affinity for roughing it and we always seemed to be comfortable were ever we went with what ever we had.

We eventually entered Nicaragua by taking a leisurely stroll through the jungles of Honduras. From the border crossing at Limas, really just a hut along the Rio ______, we headed straight for the coast and the small town of Puerto Cabesas. We had had enough of wet selva to last us a while and yearned to be back at the sea.

Puerto Cabezas had the only hospital of any worth on the Central American coastline, which, after seeing it, made me feel really sorry for the inhabitants of the Central American coastline. It had a nice collection of wooden clapboard houses in the traditional style of the Atlantic coast. All of the buildings were either built up on stilts or sat up on huge boulders. The town was filled with a collection of mostly black Caribs, but also a nice mixture of different indigenous Indian tribes and of course it had it’s fair share of white do-gooders like missionaries and doctors trying to pay back their student loans. There were very few Latinos. You see the miles thick jungle separated the coast line from the rest of the country. Until recently it was easier to take a boat from Europe than it was to try to get there from the interior. Anyway the Latinos were definitely the minority here. They did however hold all the important government offices such as police and government jobs. Which really endeared them to the rest of the inhabitants. Their mutual distrust and hatred was something that I found was pretty consistent along the Atlantic coast of Central America.

Rainy, Nevada and I hung around probably longer than we should have, but it was getting increasingly difficult to make travel plans when there was nothing to travel on. We had planned on going further down the coast of Nicaragua, but there were no roads and the cargo boat only traveled once a month. Just our luck — it had just left a few days before we arrived. We really weren’t in a hurry so we just sort of hung around getting to know some of the sites. Try as I might I can’t remember any of them so I will just leave that part blank and tell about the next leg of our journey. Another mode of travel soon opened up to us. We were told by the locals that the fishing boats, mainly lobster and shrimp boats would sometimes take on passengers. We began going down to the dock every day and asking each boat caption in which direction they were going. Most were heading out to the Miskito Island banks, but after persisting for about a week we found a very personable caption who was heading out to Isla de Maiz, or as the English speaking locals called it Corn Island. We had of course seen it on the map and had eventually planned to visit it after we had seen some of the coast line. This would mean that we would bypass the entire coast, but by then we were ready to get out of Puerto Cabesas.

The next morning we left at the crack of dawn. The caption, whose name I forgot, really treated us well. He even gave us access to his private cabin with a bed for us to rest in for the 25-hour journey–it appears we had some skimping stuff to do along the way. When it came time to eat we were offered a hearty meal of green turtle and rice. Rainy politely refused to eat it based on her hatred of the way the poor creatures were captured and killed. That usually just entailed flipping over the 200 pound beasts on their back and leaving them until it was time to butcher them – sometimes days or even weeks later. Nevada and I were quite curious as to what they tasted like, and though we had a hard time struggling with the moral dilemma we ate a hardy meal mostly in the interests of scientific research – and of course we did not want to offend our host. Much to our amazement It didn’t taste like chicken at all, but rather more like beef. It was tough, but delicious and we both taunted Rainy as we smacked out lips loudly, but good for her she wouldn’t give in.

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. Here we were out in the middle of the ocean in 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 uneventful, but I do remember 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 irridesant pearl. Rainy and I looked at each other and we instantly knew that we were home. Even Nevada started to run around in circles chasing his tail and barking animatedly.

Pulling into port was like something we had been through so many times before in our years of traveling around Central America, it was scary and exhilarating all at the same time. When we landed there was absolutely nothing that was familiar. We had no comfortable point of reference. There was no road, but rather a sandy track that circled the island as a well-worn rut. A few clapboard houses rose up from the sand. They sat perched on 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. Most hardy even looked our way as we passed to survey this new landscape for what we were now expecting 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?

We didn’t have too much luggage with us, but enough that we began looking for a spot to store our gear as we started on our new adventure. The oriental fellow who ran the local variety store said we could leave our stuff there. So Rainy, Nevada and I walked off, down the sandy tract to see if we could find a place to camp. The road followed the ocean and the beach very closely. In some place 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 the road off just like this one. As we made some distance from town the water turned a deep rich aqua blue. It was so clear that even from the road you could see fishes swimming against a blue beige background. Soon we came to a two-story building called Capt. Morgan’s Hotel. The beach widened at this point. It literally sat on the 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 but only looked at us with stern eyes. I said, “Good mornin’.” and he nodded. Poured our life story out to him in 30 seconds or less trying to be as personable as I could, but 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 Rainy. It was definitely more than we were willing to spend.

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

“Anywhere you like.”, he answered.

 I politely thanked him and as we made our way back down the stars I caught Rainy’s eyes. They were 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 tan colored ghost crabs, and the 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.