Earlier this week, Jorge wrote a blog post about about the PET Lamp project. It’s an initiative that helps eliminate the abundance of plastic waste that contaminates the Colombian Amazon – and a perfect example of Colombian creativity and resourcefulness.
PET Lamps was started the Summer of 2011 – the same Summer I spent living in Colombia, also surrounded by artisans and plenty of colour.
For me, it wasn’t the plastic waste that turned into something fabulous, but a certain spiky plant called fique that grew around the village. It’s now considered the “Colombian national fibre”, which says something of its importance.
Spools and spools of fique fibres fill the shelves of Colombia’s artisan shops. There was one in the village of Mogotes, in the North East of the country, where I was staying. Blues, reds, purples, greens and yellows of different sizes were stacked across from the products the are used to create: woven handbags, shoes, sacks, tapestries and dolls.
Among them, other local nicknacks like sombrero key chains and the little yellow, blue and red matchbox style chivas piled high with fruit and vegetables.
What was so incredible about the fique products though, was how many people were involved in the production of one bag. I was lucky enough to be able to see the entire process and take a few photos.
Fique is in the same family as the pineapple plant. When it is strong, the outside leaves are cut from around the base of the new growth. This is repeated as time goes on.
Ducking under a few plants and twisting around others, I was able to walk right up to the farmers who were harvesting the leaves in Mogotes.
A loud buzzing sound from the machine fills the air along with the thick smell of the plant.
Two men in yellow rubber boots and thick gloves work at opposite ends, extracting the fibre from the leaves through a shredder.
It’s fascinating to watch.
The leaves are pushed in and pulled back out, leaving a pile of green muck on the ground below.
This can be used to make bi-products or as an organic fertiliser.
When they have gathered a significant amount, the juice is squeezed out of the fibres and it’s hauled to the river by mules.
It is a pretty common site around the village roads.
And down by the riverside, of course.
Once there, it is washed by hand with the help of a few jutting rocks.
Sometimes a tarp is laid out to keep it clean as it’s tossed back up on the bank.
And sometimes not…
Then it’s brought back up to the road where it’s strung along the road side on clotheslines to dry in the hot Colombian sun.
This is also common site around the village and it doesn’t take too long before the green has turned to brown.
From all of the handling, it is a bit of a tangled mess, so the dry fique needs to be untangled, much like hair is brushed, before it can be used. One day, we trekked up into the mountains, around some incredibly bumpy dirt roads, until we could no longer drive. We got out and walked the rest of the way ending at the top of a steep pathway worn into the side of a hill.
It is here that we encountered the man who untangles the fique. You could tell by his leathery tan skin and the veins in his hands that this is not an easy job. He has blocks of wood stacked up outside of his home, huge thick nails sticking out of the top. He takes handfuls of the dry fique fibres and repeatedly combs them through the nails, yanking to pull out the knots.
It’s wound around sticks later on to transfer neatly.
There was a woman at the house who went inside to light a fire under a black kettle.
She brought out cups of the popular hot drink aguapanela (basically sugarcane water) 10 minutes later. There were also two other men and two children.
They loved their lollipops.
There were also plenty of chickens running around the yard.
Plus, an adorable small striped kitten.
One of the boys brought the kitten over for me to pet.
He chased his favourite two chickens and brought those over too, one tucked under each arm, with a lollipop in his mouth.
The boys helped to feed the chickens.
Then they brought us on a tour of the property where they had more fique drying on clotheslines in the sun. We met their grandfather who was sitting in the back. He had a huge grin on his face and laughed hysterically when I showed him his photo and indicated he wanted me to take another.
It was time for a break and everyone was in good spirits and full of smiles, but it was difficult to see their remote and taxing lifestyle up in the mountains on the outskirts of a tiny village and think about all of the comforts of my own back home in New York or London.
Eventually we made our way back down the mountain to the village, stopping to chat with another man who was standing knee deep in brown water, digging sand and throwing it up on the bank where it would be collected later and sold. Another very difficult job to do day after day for little reward.
We visited another woman later on who worked from her home. She’s in charge of spooling the untangled fique so it can be sold on to artisans in shops. There are different ways of doing this, but hers involved a long pole of guadua (similar to bamboo) and a foot pedal. A lot of the fique is dyed beforehand, the only part of the process I didn’t have the opportunity to see.
A few months later, as part of the corpus christi celebrations, we were invited to watch a group of local women in Mogotes gather for a fique spooling competition.
This is serious stuff.
There’s a strong sense of community there and everyone gets involved in one way or another.
The men cheer them on whilst enjoying whiskey or aguardiente, a favourite drink of the locals.
Most impressive was a blind woman who was definitely giving the rest of the spoolers a run for their money. She has been spooling her whole life and hasn’t let her lack of sight stop her.
The whole event was unlike anything I’d seen before.
Some fique remains unspooled and is sold in bundles for other purposes like making lassos or ropes used in sailing or transportation.
It’s stored in many places we’d walk by.
It truly is a staple product of the area as its production touches so many people.
There’s also an artisan work space at the main entrance to the village where I watched weaving taking place as well as the process for making shoes and many other products.
Spools of fique are sent to shops run by local people where they are bought by artisans. Many of the artisans use weaving machines and many others prefer to work by hand.
The final products are then given as gifts to family and friends, sold to local shops or exported.
They’re a popular tourist souvenir!