“I built it in 1962 and called it ‘The Domino Bar’,” Clifford Woods, 80, told me one sweltering afternoon in his bar on Utila, an island off the coast of Honduras. “To celebrate the opening, I had a dominos tournament. We Utilans take dominos serious. There was a lot of drinking and arguing. Next thing I know, eight men were fighting with machetes. It took me a long time to stop it and I had to show my gun, but finally everyone cleared out. I told my man to clean up. After awhile, he said, ‘Mr. Clifford, come look at this.’ There was so much blood on the floor it turned the water in his bucket dark red. And so I renamed it, ‘The Bucket of Blood.’
I loved this tough old man the moment I met him when the night before he grabbed hold of the back of my pants and pitched me into the street. I’d turned and stared at him in drunken disbelief. “And while you’re out there, pick me up some of those empties,” he called, patting the khaki trouser pocket where he kept his little revolver in a zip-lock baggy. “They’re worth more than the beer.”
True, I’d been acting a little belligerent that night, though I’d like to think I had some cause. It was Tuesday night. Most nights, even Saturday, the electricity goes off between 8 pm and midnight and the island goes dark. Islanders and tourists drift along the streets like forlorn specters. But Tuesday’s the day when the supply ship comes in from the mainland. It takes most of the night to unload and distribute the supplies, including oil for the island generators. As a result, the electricity stays on till two or later and the island indulges in an electronic fiesta. The bars set up their good sound systems and the dancing and partying rips full tilt till blackout.
There was a rave at the Bucket of Blood. Myron, a young Utilan, was dj’ing island sounds; Eric Donaldson, Lucky Dube and Lord Laro. The large frame, tin roofed shack was packed with swaying, sweaty bodies. The tile and concrete floor was sticky with spilled Cuba libres and the air thick with herb smoke and salty body odor. Then these Brits with big, black frame eyeglasses shoved their way into the alcove with fistfuls of tapes and demanded a turn. They played techno. Bad techno. The dancing stopped. People walked out to the road to finish their drinks and catch a breeze. They listened to the dance mix down at 007 and drifted away. They had fucked the vibe. Myron and I told them to un-fuck it. A techno tape was ground under someone’s heel. Observations were exchanged. The next thing I knew some strong little dude was quick marching me to the door.
When I’d finished my penance and stacked the cases in the backyard, the place was nearly deserted. Mr. Clifford pulled the plug on the sound system and told the techno weenies to beat it. He fished me out a Port Royal from the ice chest and we sat on the bar’s doorstep while a young Hondurana mopped up. “I hate that hippie music,” he spat out, “Gives me a headache. Sometimes I wish you damn tourists’d stay home.”
Mr. Clifford was a paradigm of irascibility. An 80 year old bantam of gristle and bone, he could’ve looked fifty if he ever gave a smile a try. What he heard about the outside world struck him as foolish and a waste of time. He had ill-disguised contempt for tourists who came to his island and spent their time playing in the ocean and looking at coral reefs. On the other hand, they were a thirsty bunch so he tolerated those who brought back the empties.
I’d had no plans to visit Utila. I’d fallen in with some Italian hippies whom I met tripping around the Mayan ruins of Copan who urgently talked me out of heading to a little village in Costa Rica where I’d heard rumors of surfers living in sandy, expat paradise. Roberto, a communist vineyard worker from Bologna, insisted I go with them to the Honduran Bay Islands. “Rhoatan es bellisimo, es paradiso…es, como se dice? Fantasy Island!”
Rhoatan turned out to be fantasy island for gringos who’ve just won the division linoleum sales award vacation. It’d probably been paradise before vacationing entrepreneurs stepped ashore and saw the postcard perfect white sand beaches and palm trees, the pristine coral reefs and the laid back island ways and thought ‘Let’s sell time shares!’ West Bay Beach is reportedly the last laid back enclave, but there are just a few grubby dormitories where you get a hammock for about the price you’d pay for a luxury room on the mainland. Rhoatan has gained fame in the last 10 years as a cheap place to get a scuba diving certification…usually about $150 for a 4 day course with gear and air. The muddy road along West Bay Beach was jammed with testosterone-addled scuba instructors and hustlers shilling for overpriced cabanas. My first evening I went to a dockside cafe for a beer. Two sunburned, potbellied Americans took the stools next to me. “Well, I think it’s a damn paradise!” one exclaimed. “It’ll be a damn paradise,” argued his friend, “When they get ESPN.”
I fled the next morning. A sympathetic ticket agent sent me to Utila. The island is about 41 square kilometers and most of the 2400 inhabitants live along Main Street, a narrow road that runs along the crescent shaped bay along the island’s east side. The one other road, Monkey’s Tail, bisects the island and runs through the dense bush of the hills to the uninhabitated west coast. The rest of the island is marshland. There is very little beach, an aspect which has thus far saved the island from massive development.
Legend has it the pirate Henry Morgan and a couple thousand buccaneers made Port Royal, Utila home until the end of the 17th century when irate Spaniards destroyed the port. With the pirates gone and the indigenous Paya people eradicated by epidemics, the island was deserted for half a century when immigrants from the Grand Caymans arrived. For over a century the islanders were nearly isolated, preferring to interact with friends and relations on Rhoatan and Garanja and trading infrequently with the mainland. According to Mr.Clifford, World War II changed all that.
“The big boats would put in here. Merchant ships, most of them, and they was always looking for good hands,” he said one afternoon in the Bucket of Blood when the only other patrons were two sleeping Utilans and a sunburned Dutch couple, painfully making out in the dark corner. “Utilans are men of the sea. The merchants recognized this and hired them on. Utilans have been going to sea ever since. Most men on this island been around the world a half dozen times. The best merchantmen in the world.”
Mr. Clifford got his fill of the sea when as a young man, he’d make periodic trips to the mainland with other young Utilan men to pick up supplies in La Ceiba. Though only 32 kilometers away, the strong currents sometimes make a crossing nearly impossible. “On one trip, we had to tack for three days. We’d just come in sight of the mainland, and then the current would take us out again,” he recalled. “On board was a young man my age, Jimmy Jackson, his name was, and a good sailor. But he’d developed a taste for rum early and could scarcely go a day without a bottle.
“Now, by the third day, there was nothing left to drink on the boat except water – the captain had thrown the last bottle of rum overboard when he saw Jimmy drunk. It was the evening of the third day and we were working hard to get out of that current, but Jimmy was huddled up on the bow, crying to himself. Suddenly, he stands up and says, ‘I can swim there faster than you women can sail. I can swim to La Ceiba and get a drink of rum and be back before breakfast!’ And with that he was over the side and swimming hard to the south. We couldn’t believe it. So I jumped in the water after him and caught him about 50 yards off starboard. He didn’t want to go back and fought me. Almost drowned us both. But he was so weak, he finally let himself be dragged after I hit him a few times. There were sharks around us and both of us bleeding from the fight. It was a miracle we got back on the boat alive. But then, during the night, Jimmy slipped back overboard to swim for a drink of rum and we never saw him again.
“I learned three lessons from that experience: The sea is unforgiving; a man with a powerful thirst will do anything for a drink; and never try to save a man that doesn’t want saving. So I stayed on dry land, openned the Bucket and Blood and resolved to judge no man.”
This story is over eight years old and was originally sold to a national magazine. Its delayed publication is due to a runaway photographer and forces beyond logic. Although Utila has changed since this stories first telling, it remains a wonderful tale. Enjoy the story. – the Editor –