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Costa Rica and William Walker

It was late at night in Puerto Limón, Costa Rica. Nearly everyone told me to take a taxi to the hotel. If I didn't, I'd get mugged. So, of course, I ignored their advice and walked. It wasn't the brightest thing I've ever done.

The dangerous streets of Puerto Limón

You can tell a lot about a town's safety as your bus enters the city. Every house in Puerto Limón seemed like a prison. All the houses had iron bars on the doors and windows (even the ones on the second floor). Most houses had fences so high that a pole-vaulter would have trouble clearing them, especially if he landed on their sharp points. Some houses even had the same razor wire that maximum security prisons use. In short, it seems that ultra-safe Costa Rica has moved every criminal in the country to Puerto Limón.

The bus pulled into the shady bus terminal at 11 p.m. and I had no reservations anywhere. The driver told me to hurry up and collect my luggage or someone will steal it. I asked around to see how safe it was to walk four blocks to a hotel. Most people said, "Take a taxi."

However, I felt ridiculous taking a taxi for four blocks! I've walked across America four times, damn it! I can walk four lousy blocks!

I stuck my head out of the station, expecting a mass of hoodlums to assault me, but the coast was clear. In fact, the streets were disturbingly quiet and dark. I looked everywhere and didn't see anyone. I decided to go for it. I boldly stepped onto the pavement and started walking with my luggage in tow.

Within five seconds, a black man emerged from the shadows. Most people on the Caribbean side of Central America have dark skin as they are often descendants of African slaves. This young man was wearing long shorts, sandals, and a ripped T-shirt. He stumbled over to me and yelled, "Hey man! How are you doin'?"

Volcano, Costa Rica - Volcan PoasMy heart sank.

"Estoy bien," I lied.

"Where are you from?" he asked with an accent.

"Chile," I answered while I walked briskly ahead. That's partly true; my mom's Chilean.

He switched to Spanish and said, "These streets are not safe. You lookin' for a hotel? I can help you. Do you want me to help you with your luggage?"

"No gracias."

Suddenly another man appeared. He started to walk alongside us. They knew each other. I kept walking.

"You don't think we're going to rob you, do you?" the new guy asked. "Are you afraid of us because we're black?"

"No, I believe over 99% of black people are honest and would never rob anyone. I'm sure you guys mean no harm."

Our banter continued for four blocks until I was at the hotel. That's when they politely asked me for money. One of them explained, "We walked with you the whole way. We protected you. Just give us a little something to show your gratitude. Something to help us out."

I calmly said to him in Spanish, "I understand you'd like some money. I appreciate that you walked with me the whole way. However, I didn't ask for you to provide this service."

"But we're not asking for much...."

"You're assuming," I interrupted him, "That I have a lot of money. I'm a writer. You hate it when people assume that because you're black that you're a criminal. Well, I hate it when people assume that because I'm a white foreigner that I'm rich and can afford to toss money around to anyone who asks."

"But we protected you..."

I walked up close to one of them and looked him in the eye and said, "I didn't ask for your protection. How would you like it if you visited my town and someone followed you from the bus station and then asked you to pay them? What would you do?"

"I'd give him some money," he told me.

"Then you're a better man than me. But you probably wouldn't give him anything if that happened to you every time you walked out of a bus station, right?"

He looked at me silently. His partner's eyes shifted around, but he also said nothing.

"Thank you for walking here," I told them, "but I'm sorry that I can't give you anything. Good night."

I turned and went into the cheap hotel.

The best story in Central America

My crazy adventures in Central America don't compare to the adventures of William Walker. His life story is so outrageous, so preposterous, that it's amazing that few know about it. William Walker was born in 1824 and had led an amazing life:

  • By the age of 14, he graduated summa cum laude from the University of Nashville.
  • He studied in Europe and got an MD from the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Then he went to New Orleans to get a law degree.
  • He co-owned and edited a newspaper.
  • He lived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush.
  • All this before he was 25 year old.

Walker wanted more. He wanted all of Central America. The only problem was that he didn't have an army. In 1853 he rounded up 45 mercenaries, which he figured would be enough to conquer Baja California. What's amazing is that he did!

He declared himself President of the Republic of Sonora and that he would govern the territory using the laws of Louisiana (which permitted slavery). He intended to become a new state in the Union and conquer the rest of Mexico. The Mexican army finally forced him to retreat back to the US, where he was put on trial for starting an illegal war. Being a smart lawyer, he was acquitted in eight minutes.

Walker returns to attack Nicaragua

About a year later, Walker sailed to Nicaragua with 60 armed men to help the city of Leon defeat the city of Granada. An American journalist in Nicaragua reported that Walker was trying to setup a slave state. Walker sentenced the journalist to death, but the writer escaped dressed as a woman.

After conquering Granada, Walker betrayed his Leon supporters by holding a phony election in which he became President of Nicaragua and then he:

  • Mortgaged the nation for his personal use.
  • Fixed the local currency to the US dollar.
  • Made English the official language.
  • Legalized slavery.

The US immediately recognized the government as legitimate and planned to build a canal through Nicaragua. With that, Walker attacked Costa Rica.

However, once Walker declared he would conquer the rest of Central America, the neighboring countries (who all hated him) forced him out. Furthermore, Walker had pissed off the tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, who soon lobbied the US Navy to stop Walker. Vanderbilt's connections made it happen and the US Navy escorted Walker back to America. As Walker forces retreated, he spitefully burned down the beautiful city of Granada and left an infamous sign saying, "Here was Granada."

Walker returns for a third time

Just six months after arriving in the US, the stubborn Walker gathered yet another small army and sailed to Greytown, Nicaragua. Greytown, now called San Juan del Norte, is strategically located at the mouth of the Rio San Juan, which, at the time, was the main transit route across Central America. However, the US Navy arrested him again, and deported him back to America yet again!

...and a fourth, and final, time

At this point (or far earlier) you probably would have given up, right? Unbelievably, Walker was not deterred. He mustered yet another force and this time stuck his nose in Trujillo, Honduras.

However, the fourth time was not the charm. The British were controlling Honduras (and Belize) at the time, and weren't pleased with this brazen Yankee. The British Navy arrested him. Instead of sending Walker back to America, they handed him over the Honduran authorities, who were salivating at the thought of having Walker in their vengeful hands.

The Hondurans didn't bother with a trial. They just had the 36-year-old Walker stand in front a firing squad.

 

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