Mr. Clifford stayed on Utila from then on, saved his money and eventually opened the Bucket of Blood, a tough saloon for thirsty men who’d sailed around the world. Yet, despite the unusual worldliness of its seafaring citizens, the island has been slow to change. The first television didn’t arrive until the mid-seventies and the roads were paved for the first time four years ago. It’s not that Utilans are less interested in progress than their brethren on Rhoatan, it’s just that most of them realize if they sell off the island, there’s nowhere to go. Austin Thompson, 69, went to sea for over thirty years before returning to the island to raise pigs and horses deep in the bush. “I went out to see the world,” he states simply, “and left it there.”
For now, Utila remains the backpacker island. Services, hotels and cafes are cheap and on the surface the island is somnolent and laissez-faire. There are only a couple Japanese pick up trucks, a handful of two stroke motorcycles, and ATVs. It’s a bike and hike island when it’s not too hot to move around.
The main attraction are the world’s cheapest scuba certification programs. Presently, there are about 13-15 different dive shops along Main Street. San Diegan Christopher Phillips was the first to offer PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors) certification in 1991. Prices have settled around the $135 mark which gets you a 4 ½ day course with eight dives and all equipment included. Phillips estimates that in the last five years during high season (July to September; January to March), the number of tourists per month has jumped from “less than a thousand to over four thousand”.
Outwardly, Utila doesn’t appear to suffer from sudden fame. The Islanders wave and stop to chat to strangers, the tourists are generally respectful and laid back and even the Germans are bearable. Mornings I’d take a dive to one of the reefs and then wash up like waterlogged detritus on the beach. After a cheap, fresh fish lunch it was time for a nap in hammock beneath a palm and then in late afternoons I’d climb the hill up to the Bucket of Blood for a chat with Mr. Clifford. He muttered angrily whenever he saw me in the doorway, so I think he looked foward to it, too. On the third visit he let me mop, so I knew I was golden.
I learned that not everyone on the island was as enamored with Mr. Clifford as myself. The Bucket of Blood’s history of drunken brawls did not put Mr. Clifford in good standing with the majority of islanders who are devout Methodists and Christian Science. His wife was one such Christian lady and when after her death 15 years ago, he married a ‘Spanish lady’, he seemed to confirm a lot of islanders more negative opinions. His relations with his sons and daughters from his first marriage, according to one local woman, “were a little strained.”
But if Mr. Clifford was not universally loved, he was respected. He knew his own mind and went his own way. He worked hard every day of his life and provided for his family. Utilans respected his pride and ethic, even if they didn’t enjoy his company.
Around sunset, when the Bucket of Blood filled with domino players and Mr. Clifford got busy and surly, I’d head to Sea Breakers where islanders and tourists gathered nightly for cheap cocktails and the sunset’s nightly floor show. The bar, run by some Québécois, is nothing more than a shaky pier with some extra decking, picnic tables and a palm frond covered bar, but it has the best sunset view on the island, cheap drinks, a convivial clientele and steadfastly refuses to play the Cat Stevens tapes inexplicably favored by other bars on the island.
For dinner, small groups of instant friends would head for Sharkey’s, the best restaurant on the island, owned by former Oakland, Californian, Dave Ayarra. Then it was back down the road to 07 or Casino for some dancing until the lights cut out. Living large cost $15 a day.
At the Bucket of Blood rave I’d seen Mr. Clifford flirting with a couple freckly English girls and kidded him about it a couple days later. “My relatives,” chuckled the nut-brown pubman. “This English girl found out my great-great grandfather was an Englishman named Morden Woods. And she came up to me at the dance to say she, too, had an ancestor named Morden Woods and the name was traditional in her family just as it is in mine. You see, Utilans consider themselves English and the Spanish on the mainland hate us for it. Always have. And now we got their violent ways.”
I asked him what he meant. Mr. Clifford sighed and went to get himself a coke and me another beer. He motioned me over to one of the benches away from the bar, away from where his Hondurana help was working. “Island people don’t mix much with Spanish. My second wife is Spanish and I guess you’ve heard that my neighbors don’t like that much. My daughters won’t even talk to me. That’s too bad, but I don’t spend time worrying about it. I’m a man and a man can’t alter his behavior to suit a woman or he stops being a man.”
Mr. Clifford paused and looked out the door. It was a raw spot. I figured he’d turn and tell me to get the hell out, probably boot out the lobster-red smoochers, too. Instead, he looked back at me and narrowed his eyes. “I won’t say that Utilans aren’t violent. A Utilan settles disputes with his fists. Of course, there are exceptions. Did I tell you about Bob McField? It was back around the turn of the century. A bad man, but a great musician. He was in love with a married woman, Elsa Thompson. One night Bob McField follows her on to a boat, a Schooner it was, the Olympia. After they put out to sea, he sets about murdering everyone on board. 13 people, including a baby. He then takes Elsa and puts her in a rowboat and tries to row back to shore. They were on the north side of the island and she jumped out. He shot her and then bashed her in the skull with an oar. He rowed back to the schooner and set it on fire and put a sail on the rowboat and headed for Rhoatan. Meanwhile, Elsa made it ashore, barely alive. She had to walk clear across the island, past the alligators swamps and through deep brush that tore every bit of clothes off her. Finally, she stumbled into the yard of Freddy Gabriel, a minister. He took one look at her, figured her for a ghost and ran.
“Finally, someone sensible took her in. She identified Bob McField. As an accordian player he was always in demand, so they found him at a dance. He was brought back to the island, tried and taken to the big mango tree in the Methodist graveyard and hung. A week later, a commission came from the mainland and told the islanders that they had no right to try and hang a man without a Honduran official present. So they went and dug Bob McField up, put him in the witness box in front of the Spaniard, tried him and then took him back up to the mango tree and hung him all over again. That tree is now called the Bob McField mango tree.”
Mr. Clifford chuckled softly and gave me a sidelong wink. “Since you tourists started coming, the Spanish have been coming over, thinking to get their share. But there’s not enough to go around. So there’s violence. There were 3 killings last year. All by Honduranos. No tourists, but they robbed and raped a few. I tell every girl who comes into the bar, ‘you carry a knife or razor and mark that man if comes at you. We Utilans will find him and do the rest.”
The Pirate Crew, a motley group of Floridian barflys on the lamb from federal drug indictments, shuffled into the bar and took their customary table. They’d been hacking through the bush, clearing some plots for ‘farming’ and were in a drinking mood. Mr. Clifford went to the cooler and came up with about eight Port Royals wedged between his fingers. On his way back, he paused and said, “get lost now. I’ve work to do.”
That night at Sharkey’s I asked Dave Ayarra if Mr. Clifford had been exaggerating. Ayarra, shook his head. “Underestimating. We’ve got nearly four times as many tourists on the island as we did when I got here two years ago. It’s great for business, but it’s causing problems. Four or five years ago there was no violence because no one had money, not even the tourists. But it’s changing. You can’t see it on the surface, but it’s there.”
I went back to the Bucket of Blood the next afternoon for rehydration and more of Mr. Clifford’s story telling, but he hadn’t been around all day. Later, I was hanging around Patricia Munoz’s tienda next door to my room at the Seaview chatting with the church ladies when the call came in. Patricia, ninety if a day, sat down heavily after replacing the receiver. “They just found Mr. Clifford up in the bush,” she said quiety. “Someone cut his throat.”
Written by Kent Black
Photography by Mark Smith of AboutUtila.com
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 –
Look for more of this fantastic story in the near future only at www.intheknowtraveler.com