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by Thomas Tomczyk
agree that Neil Keller is hands down the best artist on the Bay
Islands. The only problem is to agree: what "kind of art"
does he practice
see myself as a world emperor with a coconut cape," says Neil
Keller. Neil loves to exaggerate and his work speaks for itself.
Conical roofs, tree houses, bridges and grottos fill every square
foot of his man-made garden. "I don't know into which category
to put him," says Marley Howell, Utila's vice mayor. Over the
past 12 years Neil Keller, 50, has constructed the most amazing
and most eccentric architecture the Bay Islands have seen to date.
And he has just gotten started.
Keller is admired by many and misunderstood by even more Utilans.
When Neil came to Utila in 1990, he didn't expect the island to
grow rapidly. The island life was an escape from the suburban
life of a high school art teacher in Los Angeles.
Born in "happy Southern California," Neil grew up in
a postcard Los Angeles neighborhood filled with friendly neighbors,
ice cream trucks and children using belts to carry their books
to a local yeshiva school. "I came through mid-life crisis
at eight," says Neil about his Los Angeles upbringing. "When
you're forming your ideas as a child, you really pay attention
to the world, curious about everything. It's the most intense
period of your life; it influences everything later."
With all this freethinking and experimentation, Neil the artist
has managed to remain child-like, not childish. His projects remind
us what we have lost from the exuberance of our childhood; they
flaunt themselves at our self-imposed restrictions of compromise
and reality. "[When] you want to mimic what other people
write, copy their lives and you have none of your own."
Neil believes that his work only stands out because its background
is mediocrity. That is an understatement. Neil's work would stand
out in just about any surroundings, regardless of their level
Neil is quick to admit that Utila and Honduras are overly influenced
by the architecture of the Northern Hemisphere. He sees little
exploration of the Bay Islands' indigenous roots in art or architecture.
"They ignore their Indian heritage at the expense of commercial
products from United States."
often looks to Guatemala for inspiration in his work. "[There]
they still have their indigenous pride." Even the name of
his project "jade seahorse" combines Mayan jade and
an element of the Caribbean Sea.
In constructing "Nightland," Neil looked for inspiration
from Honduras through more recent artifacts: old Honduran money,
coins, stamps and turn-of-the-century Honduran postcards. He often
finds his materials washed-up on Utila's beaches: century old
porcelain dishes, seashells, bits of coral.
Even though Neil likes to give away his ideas he doesn't think
he has influenced the locals to really appreciate his art. On
the other hand, you will find plenty of Utilans who take their
non-island visitors on tours through Nightland. They do it with
pride and a bit of consternation at the same time. "They
don't necessarily consider it [Nightland] a part of Utila. I think
they are capable of astonishment at anything that's slightly different,"
His building methods did win several fans, especially builders
interested in adapting some of the elements they saw Neil use,
in particular windows and woodwork. A couple of people have commissioned
Neil to invigorate their "mundane houses."
Currently the complex encompasses four cabins: playfully named the
Mono Lisa, the Cama Sutra, the Fantasea, and the Cuatro Quatro,
each constructed with a theme followed through from its name to
foundations. The construction of a final two cabins to complete
the Nightland vision is taking place now.
Keller still keeps a two bedroom house in Los Angeles, California.
The house is decorated as well, but within reason. "I wouldn't
move in with him if he decorated his car like this," says wife
His artistic inquietude has Neil working incessantly. "He can't
be not working," says Julia, who raises the couple's two daughters
and manages the restaurant. Julia is the practical one of the two.
She has been providing the business with "ideas necessary to
survive" on a small, growing island.
Life was tough for the couple before Neil decided to finally commit
to life on Utila. "I lost my job every time he came to visit,"
says Julia who left her work every time Neil came down to the Island.
"Life is only when you are together facing your problems,"
says Julia, who convinced Neil to finally make the commitment.
In 1992, after two years of commuting between Utila and Los Angeles,
destiny finally played its card and, with only $500 down, Neil bought
his Utila home. He purchased the house from "Bud-bud,"
an islander ready to move away from his rowdy nightclub neighbor.
Even now the relationship with the neighbors isn't always perfect.
The "Bucket of Blood" pool hall used to be a disco that
made noise till the early hours of the morning. Bad blood between
the two establishments escalated and finally boiled. In 2002, "they
played this 'ranchera music' over and over to annoy him," says
Julia. Finally Neil snapped, walked into the disco and pulled out
the electric plug from the stereo.
Things are calmer now. Utilans from across the island take their
visitors to Jade Seahorse to impress them. And the mango tree-housed
bar, the "Tree-Tanic," closes at a decent hour.
Keller doesn't pursue perfection. He has the efficient ability to
move on, to delegate less critical portions of the design to his
carpenters. That is no small feat of trust as there are no plans
drawn for the design and communication is all verbal. The "tuning-in"
to the sensibilities of the master builder is achieved through lasting
relationships with local carpenters and masons. Juan Ramon, 45,
is one such carpenter working hand-in-hand with the artist to realize
Once finished, the tactile quality of the different materials is
irresistible. And it is not a museum, so you can roam, touch, sit
on and use the sculpture of the garden and houses. The more time
one spends in the space, the more becomes apparent, revealed. Subtle
relationships between shapes, alignments, boat and marine metaphors
Visible is Neil's mastery at using medium, small and micro-scale
design. One can spend hours analyzing the grotto from the perspective
of its outline and pattern down to the miniature seashells that
compose its mosaic skin. This is even more amazing as Neil has never
made a single drawing of the project. It is all in his mind.
In the garden a conical, hexagonal gazebo twists as it climbs 35
feet. Few elements exist here in their typical context. Door vents
aren't only that, but their shapes reminds of animal forms. Pressed
patterns in the wood disclose a hidden design that becomes an alphabet,
almost comprehensible with time spent in Nightland's environment.
The details appear slowly. With such richness of decoration, space
is of real value. Every cubic inch is appreciated and has a hidden
plan assigned to it by Neil. On the other hand "nothing is
perfect or sacred;" it can be adjusted, changed and there is
a certain crudeness about most things. The stressed pine, mismatched
colors of the wood in window frames: they all tell a story.
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No it's not Rhodes, it's Roatan! by Thomas Tomczyk,
a week on the Greek island of Rhodes, I could not stop myself from
comparing it to Roatan. Both islands are about 35 miles long, with
one end being much more developed. Tourism has become the focus
of both island economies, but the realities of it are quite different
between the two.
The south of Rhodes remains mostly undeveloped, but has become a
windsurfing Mecca attracting fans of the sport from around Europe.
Windsurfing remains an unexplored possibility on the Bay Islands.
Perhaps it would be Guanaja that is best suited to take advantage
of its consistent and strong winds. So far only one rental shop
on Utila has catered to tourists interested in this water sport.
Rhodes feels like a jungle with natural selection taking its toll
everywhere. As new hotels spring up, others fall into disuse. The
island is dotted with abandoned Turkish graveyards, abandoned villas,
olive farms and even hotels.
There are ruins of 900-year-old crusader castles scattered through
Rhodes. The abundance of historical sights creates a situation where
many of them are not even guarded and free to access by anyone.
Every beach is dotted with rentable beds and umbrellas. Determined
tourists in search of deserted beaches have to drive for hours or
settle for rocky outposts not worthy to be named a beach. Still,
mass tourism is related to the five or six month tourist season
on the island followed by the off-season when few if any tourists
arrive. Neither Roatan's infrastructure nor its environment is made
to withstand a short, heavy onslaught of tourists.
The strength of the Bay Islands as a tourist destination lies in
their year-round appeal. The gradual development of events distributed
thought the year provides many reasons to visit the islands. The
Bay Islands Triathlon and fiestas Augustinas, are just a couple
of these yearly events. Conferences and cultural events could only
add to the mix.
The case for visiting Rhodes is strong: beaches and predictable
sun, historical sights and water sports. Greece did well on massive
EU investments and Rhodes is a perfect example of where that money
was spent. The 2,500 year-old town of Rhodes is being renovated
building by building. Good roads crisscross the rocky island. There
is even talk of building a second airport on the south of the island.
Whereas consistent, quality energy remains an unachieved goal on
Roatan, on Rhodes several small, but prominent wind farms produce
energy to supplement the two state of the art power plants.
Small Greek companies have bought a fleet of "flying boats"
from the Ukraine. As the boats accelerate, metal wings underneath
the hull lift them above the waves and the vessels travel at over
twice the speed of regular hull boats. A fleet of catamarans and
these flying boats provide fast transport to other Greek islands
and after 1 ½ hours, you're in Turkey. Trans Mediterranean
and Aegean Cruise ships dock daily in the ancient city harbor. The
Bay Islands still struggle to find a realistic way of moving maritime
passengers between Utila and Roatan, between Guanaja and the mainland,
and perhaps to Trujillo.
We can learn from these examples, but don't have to follow them.
Unlike Greece, Honduras doesn't have the benefit of rich regional
partners ready to invest in its future. The potential of Honduras
and the Bay Islands lies in the vision and resourcefulness of its
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ROATAN GETS NEW AIRLINE and connection
Boeing 737-300 with 124 passenger seats has been booked at 120
seats thru August. That is 97 percent capacity and the high season
hasn't even begun.
"It has been better then we expected," said Rigoberto
Alvarenga, Continental's country director for Honduras and Belize
for the past 15 years.
On June 12, Continental opened its inaugural flight between Houston
and Roatan. The weekly flight arrives on Roatan every Saturday
at 11:30am and leaves at 12:45pm.
Since February, to help to promote the flight and destination,
Continental has pursued an energetic advertising campaign targeting
US divers. The Roatan route is considered a budget destination
and the vast majority of air travelers come to Roatan as part
of a vacation package.
According to Alvarenga, Continental ticket prices vary from week
to week. Currently it is possibly to purchase a northbound return
ticket for as little as $400, or as much as $1,400, depending
on time of purchase and ticket class.
In 2003, after pressure from the Honduran government, InterAirports,
the company in charge of managing all four of Honduras' international
airports, has agreed to lower the landing fees in the country
by 30%, from $350 to $200. For now, Honduras is still the most
expensive place to land in Central America. "At least we
are competitive now," said Alvarenga. It costs $160 to land
a 737 in Belize and Costa Rica has the lowest landing fees, only
Several Roatan resorts and companies directly benefit from the new
flight connection. Petrosun Company provides the fuel needed for
refueling the aircraft in Roatan. Five Roatanians have undergone
a five week training course in Houston to help manage the flight
operations on the island. Two of them work full time at the airport
office, the other three help part-time. "We were trained for
a lot more than what we're doing now," said Leilani Silvestri,
24, airport agent with Continental.
Continental has been looking at Roatan as a third destination in
Honduras since 1991. The airline opened its service between Houston
and Tegucigalpa in 1988. A year later, daily flights to San Pedro
Sula began. According to Alvarenga, Continental is currently not
looking at expanding to other destinations in Honduras.
to Maxine and Stephen Wesley, owners of the four year old
Giants, the biggest struggle this year was finding good,
consistent pitching. After the Yankees ended their season
early in March, the Giants looked hard to replace their
best pitcher, Timor Bodden, away in the US. The Giants picked
up four Yankee players: Kirk Stewart, Cuny Miller, Toni
Brown (catcher and relief pitcher) and Able Bodden (second
baseman). With all the mid season "patch-up work"
their pitching lacked the dominance of a year ago when the
team won the island championship.
the other hand, the Pirates picked up only one Yankee player:
centerfielder Henrik Bush. "We didn't need to strengthen
of our infield, everyone wanted to go to the left field
or right and nobody wanted to stay center," said Pirate
Raul Bodden. "We're the ones that have the most fun."
Jedd James scored the game's only home run and the game
tied 3-3 in the sixth inning. It was a tight match-up as
150 Sandy Bay fans watched the game go into extra innings.
As the Giants put two men on base in the 10th inning it
seemed that the end could be near. Instead, Pirates struck
themselves out of trouble and with high spirits began the
In the end neither their black, polyester uniforms, nor
the 110 degree heat managed to stop the Pirates. The player
benches emptied as Pirate Rudy Fuertato ran home the Pirates
took game 2 with a score of 5:3.
The Pirates were on a roll and won the third game 5-4 to
close the series 3-0. Steve Westley of the Giants scored
the game's only home run and Giants even tied at the top
of the eighth. Henric Bush showed brilliance as he walked
to first, stole second and third base and finally scored
the winning run of a base hit.
The Pirates can now rest and prepare, awaiting the national
championship. The Giants will play a game on July 8, in
Coxen Hole for a place at the national baseball tournament
Sandy Bay baseball island's best? Well, yes. Two years running.
It was a replay of the 2003 season finale as two Sandy Bay
baseball teams met in the island championships on July 18
On the first Sunday, both teams met in game one of the final
series. The Pirates came to the plate well rested after sweeping
the Eagles 3:0. The Giants still had to win one more game
with Kool and Gang to qualify for the finals, but persevered
to finally close that series 3-1.
Naturally the Giants were tired from playing a morning game.
Yet they took the lead several times in the game. Third baseman,
Edison Mann, of the Giants scored the game's only home run.
Still, the game ended 7-5 for the Pirates.
only public park - rescued from disuse or a wasted opportunity?
judging of esthetical quality of an architectural project is subjective.
What some like, others find offensive and inappropriate. Despite the
fact that Utila doesn't have a city architect, or a city development
plan, the island is making efforts at improving its appearance and
quality of life for its citizens and visitors.
Marley Howell, 30, Utila's vice mayor in charge of island beautification
has no budget and has to work solely through individual donations.
Following a major island cleanup in 2002, the department undertook
its second major project - the task of creating a public park in the
heart of the town.
Three decades ago, Utila's public park was much larger. Over time
it was sold piece-by-piece by previous municipal governments. The
view of the water is now gone, and the park is surrounded by buildings
and the main street.
Over the last several years, the park that once served as a children's
playground slowly fell into disrepair. Plans were made for improvements
and the 2002 Utila Carnival Committee organized the donation of bricks
and timber poles for the construction of a new park. As the materials
lay in wait for the construction to begin, piece-by-piece they became
This all changed as work on the 30' by 50' space began in April. The
two designers of the park were Marley Howell and Jim Engel, a local
businessman. They looked up gazebo and park designs on the internet.
"I didn't want something too fancy. We wanted a feeling of a
botanical garden," said Howell.
The hope is that as the landscaping grows, the park will become more
shaded. For now, the only shade is provided by the un-insulated zinc
roof on the gazebo. As the park was designed primarily for older Utilans,
with no place for children, the park sits empty. The neighbors have
yet to embrace the space.
Dolores Discua, manager of Loli's Boutique, still has to visit the
park even though her business sits directly across it, but says, "It's
better than before."
everyone feels the park is an improvement, seeing the project's design
as a wasted opportunity to create a high quality, inventive space
in the town's principal public space. "These [planters] are like
cellblocks of rocks with palm tree prisoners," said Neil Keller,
an artist and author of several creative and unusual architectural
designs on the island.
Keller had received a verbal go-ahead from Utila's Mayor Alton Cooper
to do a park design, if the artist was able to raise the funds for
the project himself. There was no timeline with the offer and, working
independently, Howell finished the project in May.
"Why should I sacrifice the vision for the park if I raised the
money for it," said Howell, who raised $12,000 in materials and
labor. The major donor for the project was businessman Jim Engel,
who's two businesses adjoin the park and are directly affected by
"I saw my park more like a maze of curves, with a gazebo with
triple layers of blue and white glass," said Keller. "These
bricks are not meant to be walked on. They should be used on vertical
surfaces, for planters."
"Since he [Keller] hasn't put pen to paper, this [creating a
park with his vision] would be a very scary undertaking," said
Using diving insurance income, Utila Municipality plans to reimburse
75%-80% of the money raised in park construction.
Thinking of future need for public spaces, the current municipal administration
had one-and-a-half acres of private land donated by local developers
and businessmen: Jim Marx, Shelby McNab and Patrik Flynn.
As Utilans and tourists develop their own opinion about the island's
municipal park, Utila enjoys the largest urban park on the Bay Islands.
The space is three times as large as the park in Coxen Hole, Roatan.
"We have done the best we can with what we have," said Mayor
Cooper. "It's going to be a nice garden in the middle of crowded
by Thomas Tomczyk
story / editorial
/ local news
STYLE McDONALDs combines business savvy and ideals
people say that there are no dogs around here because a dog was
once grilled here. Others don't believe the story, but most people
agree that the best grilled meat business on the island of Roatan
can be found in Los Fuertes.
three families came to Roatan ten years ago from mainland Honduras.
No one had any experience in the business of providing street food
and it was their Pentecostal church pastor who showed them how.
The business was a means for them to make a living and build a church
in the process. Six years later, the three story building is 60%
complete and the vast majority of the Lps. 2,000,000 spent on its
construction came from the meat stand.
The families don't intend to stop working after the church is finished.
There is the education center that needs building and a list of
other church causes. "We work until four-five-six in the morning,"
says Castro about their busy weekends.
The weekly cycle begins every Thursday when Galaxy II brings 100
pounds of beef from La Ceiba. To run the stand for a week the families
use one 50 lb. bag of charcoal, 50 lbs. of onions, two gallons of
mayonnaise, ten lbs. of cabbage and 48 lbs. of corn tortillas.
There are over a dozen ingredients that go into making the Island
famous marinade, including garlic, cilantro, green peppers, vinegar,
salt, salsa, meat tenderizer, chicken broth, cumin, pepper.
The key to the success of the business lies in its location. Strategically
located on the Los Fuertes hill, a stones throw away from the stadium,
half way between West End and Oak Ridge. It's exactly the right
place to grab a late snack on your way back from dancing at Luna
Beach or Oak Ridge Disco.
The busiest day of the week is Thursday when 100 pounds of meat
has to be cut into pieces and marinated. Three people cut the meat
into smaller pieces on a table behind the Iglesia de Dios church.
Twenty feet away the Marquez family prepares the stand for another
night of work. They set up open oil drums in front of an auto parts
store, light the charcoal and skewer dozens of tender pieces of
meat. Cars pull in and orders are placed, and then filled in minutes.
It's like an island version of a McDonald's drive thru window
with profits to match.
it's 4am on a Saturday morning and you are on your way back to Oak
Ridge from a night out in West End there is only one place to stop:
a grilled meat stand by the side of the road. Every night, for the
last six years, a grilled meat stand opens up at the Los Fuertes
hill: Iglesia de Dios grilled meats.
There are three families that alternate weeks in running the food
stand: Efraim Marquez and his wife Ana Argentina, Plino Oved Castro
and his wife Angela Amaya, Wilfred Carmona with his wife Marina
Garcia. "We are three families working as one," says Plino
Oved Castro, "If we don't have more meat the other families
help us out."
The effort put into the business has helped to build a viable and
moneymaking enterprise. The most visible sign of its success is
huge: the half finished church structure that has been built with
part of the stand's profits. Castro talks with pride about the 40'
by 100' church building the families are helping to construct: "It's
overlooking the stadium
200 people come here every Sunday."