A fruitful endeavour

There had been a run on yellow knickers when I arrived in the proud southern city of Medellin in Colombia in December last year.  So my taxi driver lamented.  Yellow being as close as one can get to gold, and gold being a good colour to represent imminent good fortune and all..

But I’m not sure anyone could look good in yellow knickers, could they?   Perhaps Johnny Depp could pull it off. My taxi driver clearly thought he could pull it off, if only he could find a pair!  And I was amazed, on googling my subject, just how many varieties of yellow knickers there are out there! Even Calvin Klein does a line..I think I found the best ones though.. and they come with nice matching clothes pegs too.. 🙂

golden kegs

Anyway, lest my story get overly distracted by such trivia..

Medellin is one of those cities that envelops you with its pride and energy.  ‘City of Eternal Spring’,  birthplace of stellar artists (Botero), presidents (Uribe), drug barons (Escobar) and a phenomenal metro system, it’s a ‘must do, can do’ sort of place.  The locals, or ‘Paisas’ as they are known, are the Geordies of Colombia. No messin’, straight-talkin’, big-hearted, heavy-fisted folk. Screw those Bogotanos, they say, this is where the action is! And arguably they’re right. Hard to believe this bustling, creative metropolis was, until 10 years ago, one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with one of the highest homicide and kidnapping rates worldwide. Thanks to Pablo Escobar, hero, saviour, monster, mastermind. The fact that its citizens have wrenched  their city out of such dark times in the space of 10 years is a testament to their sheer force of personality and sense of greater destiny.

The Killing of Pablo by Fernando Botero

The old drug baron has left his legacy, however, not least in hospitals, schools, and one grumpy old pet hippo called Orion…who was recently reported by local press to be suffering from toothache and in need of a dentist…

Brave dentist, having presumably taken the hippo-cratic oath

There is even a tacky tour that you can take for $100, courtesy of Pablo’s family, to visit his house, sit in his car, wear his hat, chat with his bodyguard, and smoke one of his favourite cigars!…I have to admit I was briefly torn between a sense of tasteless fascination at the idea and an equal sense of repulsiveness.. The repulsiveness won, thankfully. That, compounded by the outrage that $100 would be going straight into Escobar pockets…a name that was once in the position of being able to pay off the whole of Colombia’s national debt…

While modestly proud of their Escobarian legacy, the locals are far prouder of their modern marvel, the metro system.  People actually travel to the city just to experience it.  Speediness, timeliness, cleanliness, cheapness, quietness, whizzy electronic stair-cable for wheelchair access.. And the best bit, soothing, verging on unctious-sounding Clooney-esque announcements on your journey like ‘have you given up your seat for an old person today?’ and ‘remember to smile at someone on the Medellin metro..’  And people smiled! Anyone who has jostled for space only to be glowered at for taking a prized pocket of space under a sweaty armpit on the tube in London would marvel at this unabashed sense of civic pride…

But this was just the journey, rather than the destination.

My destination was a fruit processing factory in the outskirts of the city to see a young boy with a big heart and a smart head.  This is a boy who believes that if only cocaine-taking teenagers in Britain could understand the devastating effects of their choices on Colombian farmers and his community, they might think again.

The UK is the largest and fastest growing user of cocaine in Europe. We spend £30 million a week on one single Colombian crop, coca. Scary but true. And our cocaine users start young.

Thanks to a committed social entrepreneur I am proud to call a friend, the import of other far healthier and more fabulously exotic crops from Colombia in the form of fruit juices comes with a simple message:  don’t let cocaine become one of your five-a-day.  5% of the sales in the UK go back directly to the community. Farmers that previously had good reasons (or were forced) to grow coca now have better reasons to grow alternatives. Like the one that looks a bit like a hairy orange, tastes like a tarty kiwi-come-gooseberry and calls itself Lulo. Fruit trees, not FARC guerillas, are now paying for new schools, clean water and a renewed sense of purpose.

Lulo: a fruity alternative to cocaine

Selected as a youth ambassador for his community, this lad tells his contemporaries in the UK through video-conferencing and letters that their choices could  – quite literally – make a difference between life and death.Thanks to his fruity school friends (think pen pals with a purpose) and customers in Blighty, this lad has received a grant to go on to higher education. I am there to present him with his certificate, and he bursts into tears. I find it hard not to do the same!

In fancy UN speak, this is called ‘alternative development’ – reducing dependency on ‘illicit crops’ by encouraging sustainable alternatives. But this small, UK social enterprise (www.fruto.co.uk) seems to be quietly achieving what grand UN schemes are taking far longer to achieve – clear, tangible benefits for all concerned.  (And having experimented myself with more than one of these juices in a few fine cocktails in recent years, I can absolutely vouch for the end user benefits…:-)

Cocktail with a Cause

And speaking of fruitful endeavours generally, but less of the edible or ethical sort, I finally got to see lots of these in the jungle recently, and it was very exciting…

First person to guess what it is gets a free cocktail when I next see you… 🙂

Mountain cow? Mini rhinoceros?

OK, some clues: highly endangered species. Long rubbery nose which it uses to snuffle up berries and leaves. Won’t attack humans unless they are very annoying. Likes swimming, but prefers to sink to the bottom and walk on the river bed to allow small fish to pick parasites off their bodies.  Also rather fond of wallowing in mud pits to keep them cool and free of insects (a behaviour that, having shared the same habitat for a few days, I wish I had adopted too…) Closest relative is the ‘odd-toed ungulate’ and the rhinoceros. And, rather bizzarely, in Japanese mythology, this is an animal that was apparently said to eat ones dreams..

And finally – while on the subject of rare and amazing looking things…check out this frog! He looks like he’s eaten a bit of polystyrene and been on a heavy dose of pain-killers like me but this really is him, insides..out!


This is why I love the tropics.

In the course of my general awe and fascination with the glass frog, I read an article about Japanese scientists’ success in perfecting the art of breeding see-through frogs – a ‘humane’ response to amphibian rights’ activists concern over frog dissections. Marvellous – so rather than cutting them open to see how they died, instead they can just watch them die, live, organ by organ.. The ‘new line of frogs’ are said to be the worlds first transparent four-legged animals..

It got me thinking about how we humans might behave differently if we were transparent…

But that’s a subject for another blog.



4 responses to this post.

  1. FABULOUS post. Entertaining, educational and a lovely wander through your varied experience of Medellin. Hear hear! xLT


  2. Posted by Matilda Moreton on March 7, 2012 at 10:43 am

    Well done Lisa – back on track. Sorry missed you at Christmas and sorry to hear about your dramas. I’ve been in New Zealand. Lots to tell, all good.
    Thanks for your wonderful blogging and best of luck.
    Mattie xxx


  3. Posted by pogle on March 30, 2012 at 6:04 am

    It’s an anta, it’s an anta! I’ve got a cartoon anta on a t-shirt I bought in Rio in 1992..
    Though I misremembered and thought it was called a manta… And if you put that word into google images you get a very peculiar combination of images…


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