This is the second part of a larger series that captures the voices of islanders in Utila, Honduras in a series of interviews. You probably don’t know where Utila is, and neither did I until this past summer when I spent a month on the tropical island learning to be a dive instructor. Between the classes and time in the water, I got a chance to talk to a few people along the way. Their stories speak for themselves.
Utila is an island off the coast of Honduras and is one of the three Bay Islands—Utila, Roatan, and Guanaja—that are a part of the western Caribbean.
Galin Defazzio, age 41
After a life spent traversing the globe, G, as the island people call him, settled down in Utila about five years ago. He now spends his time making homemade noodles and ice cream for the Jade Seahorse restaurant where he is the chef, and tending to one of his two “plant libraries”—gardens on the island where G is cultivating naturalized island plants. G is well-liked among both the island people and visitors to Utila, aweing all with his incredible anecdotes.
Tell me about your upbringing.
I was really boring. Nothing ever happened. Skip the past; it’s the past, you know?
When do you think you – or your life – became interesting?
What, as a person? I mean, honestly, I could tell you all sorts of stories, but you don’t want to hear them.
They’re just not nice. That’s the truth, you know? I could tell you growing up was the best time of my life, but I’d be lying to you. What happened is what got you where you are now. You wanna see something about a person? Look around. That’s what you get and you can tell everything about them. You’re built on your past.
What about your present? Can you tell me about that?
Honestly, still not a lot going on. I just try to keep it mellow. I’m a super simple person. Most of my life has been steeped up in real strange things. Has a lot to do with plants, you know? Has a lot to do with things people never talk about. Ninety nine percent of the things that have happened in my life I don’t think I could put into words.
In the last years, I lived in probably around 30 different countries before I wound up here. Yeah, just boppin’ around, you know? And people all got different versions of reality. There are so many worlds on one world all smacked into each other that I think that a lot of people aren't aware of. Here’s what I think. The world is built on dreams. That is the world. How does that affect my reality? It’s more of how does my reality affect that? It’s like this: if you wake up every day and want the world to be a nicer place, you do what you can to make it nicer.
Is that what you’re doing here, in Utila? Making it nicer?
One time, my friend asked me why I’m building all this, and I said, I want to build beautiful things, you know? Life might be an ugly place but that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. Sometimes you have to weed a garden to make it grow stronger. The more you nurture it, the more it nurtures you back.
You go around the world and there’s little things everywhere that just got messed up that people just don’t remember or understand anymore. I spent a good portion of my life as a soldier in other places, and I’ve seen a lot of that. It gives me a fine appreciation for why you should be good to people, but it also gives me a fine appreciation for why you have to be able to take care of things. I really don’t advocate violence. I despise weaponry. I hate guns. I really do believe that at the end of violence comes education.
How does Utila fit into all this?
It just seemed like the right place to be at the time. Because there were people here that needed my help. There wasn’t really a choice. When I got here, I didn’t have anything. And I lost everything I had. I got stuck on this stupid island with five dollars in my pocket, and I had to make something. There was nowhere to go back to. So I was like, “hm, I’ll just start building things,” and now it’s a bunch of years later and I have a nice place to sit and ice cream and stuff. Life is like that sometimes, but you gotta persist through it, you know? It gets better.
How about the Jade Seahorse? How did you find yourself there?
One day, I ran into Neal and he was like, “You should come build gardens”. They had this whole vacant lot and that’s the day I started building that garden. That one is a lot of stonework. We did some of the concrete and ran out of money. I did all the work I could with my hands, but we had to build the soil and stuff. We don’t have soil here, you have to build it out of green mulch and compost, and wait for it to rot. Then you mix it with other things like algae and dung. Up here I soiled all the property. I had to dig ditches and make steps because they have way more water retention, which is really important here.
I just love cooking. One time I got sick and didn’t get to eat for a couple of months. I never get to watch TV, but—lucky me—for those couple months I got to watch TV. The only thing they played on TV was cooking shows. You never realize that until you’re starved and two months into not eating, but it was indelibly ingrained in my brain that I should probably learn how to cook if I should ever eat again.
At some point, I wound up on this island and I didn’t have a lot to do. I would garden all the time, but there was not a lot to do because I didn’t feel like going to the bar and getting drunk or something useless like that, so I started cooking. A lot of my friends would bring stuff from the bush and I would just cook it and make stuff from that. I like making recipes. I like making sauces. All the sauces at the restaurant, all the ice creams, all the curry pastes. It’s fun making flavors, like painting with your mouth.
Tell me about your garden here.
Plants have taught me a lot through my life. I had a lot of teachers, but at the end of the day, I feel like plants communicate and if you learn to communicate with them, it opens up a broad range of knowledge. We’re symbiotic with them; we don’t really survive without them, and I don’t think people understand that. I don’t understand how people go to church and eat communion and take the blood of Christ and the body of Christ*, but every time they eat a plant, it’s like, who’s body did they eat? They don’t think about that. There’s a mother nature out there, and we’re dinging off her. What does she teach you? Her soul is yours.
A lot of plants that I've taken around the world have told me about climate change. They've told me, “yeah, this is out of our natural habitat, but in a few years, it will be back to what we find our natural habitat”. things like that. They’re just as chatty as people, they just know different things. One day a plant showed me this: people are standing up, but to a plant, they fully feel the motion of the earth so to a plant, there’s no up. There’s only out. To them they’re reaching, but us, we don’t even feel that. We're on a ball, spinning and stuck to it by gravity. We don’t even notice but they do.
This is a plant library. A lot of people don’t understand that’s what we’re doing with the gardens. Every plant in Utila that you can eat is somewhere stuck in these gardens. If you walk around, people have this bean, or this plant, but most of the time, people farm with monocrops or trees. It’s been a long time since anyone had a big vegetable garden.
What’s a typical day like in Utila for you?
You know what my friend said to me one time? You get up, from dusk to dawn you gotta battle darkness, and while you do so, you’re going to have a job and you’re going to dress pretty and you’re gonna look good all the same while you’re doing it. If you don’t make something happen on Utila, every day will be like the last day.
What’s a typical day like? Another day in paradise.
Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
* "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him" (John 6:53–56).