monthly news magazine for
Roatan, Utila & Guanaja

August, 2004 Vol.2 No. 10
Calendar Style
feature story / editorial / local news / business

by Thomas Tomczyk

Many 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

"I 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.


Neil 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 of originality.
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."

Neil 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," says Neil.
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 Julia.
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 Keller's vision.
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 abound.
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, managing editor

Spending 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 citizens.

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Continental's 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 $100.

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.

Pirates Take Revenge
(and championship)

According 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.
On 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 11th inning.
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 in Tegucigalpa.

Is 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 and 25.
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.

Utila's only public park - rescued from disuse or a wasted opportunity?

The 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 damaged.
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."

Not 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 its appearance.
"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 Howell.
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 houses."
by Thomas Tomczyk
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ISLAND STYLE McDONALDs combines business savvy and ideals
Some 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.

The 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.

If 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."

Read past issues of
Bay Islands VOICE

No. 4
May 8

Vol2 No. 2

Vol2 No. 3

Vol2 No. 8

Vol2 No. 9