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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 Campbell, Gordon, Downs, and Hodgeson.
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).
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.
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!
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?”
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.