Jairo Makes Kites

Originally published September 10, 2016

“Hey neighbor! How many do you want?” 

“How much do the small ones cost?” 

“$3000. You want one?”

August is a month for kites in Cali, Colombia. That’s not to say that it’s the only time there is wind in the city; in fact a lot of people appreciate the fact that just about every day after 4:00 pm a breeze comes in over the Andes, from the Pacific, but August is the month to fly a kite.

Families pack into small cars and drive around, searching for the perfect spot: open, no electric wires, as few trees as possible, no buildings that will get in the way of the flight, and most importantly, windy. So, what was once just an empty lot in the city, or an open field on the side of the road, becomes a mecca during August for kite flying pilgrims.

Jairo Saénz Suarez is one of the sources for the multitudes of kites that are bought, flown, enjoyed, and many times lost, during this month. “I’ve had other jobs. I started working when I was 15. Of course, that was in the days before child labor laws, but I had a job back then.” Kite confection and sales is not his only source of income, he also runs a convenience shop. “I make food, too, but that’s a different story altogether.”

Jairo is what is called a rebuscador in Colombian Spanish. A person who, given their circumstances, does multiple jobs and scrapes together an income. In a country whose informal work force makes up a large percent of the total employed population, many people are forced into this lifestyle.

Jairo Sáenz has been making and selling kites for more than 20 years.

“You work from the 15th of July, you head out and sell. And I work until the 4th of September. I try to do it like this, but you could actually sell all year long, no big deal. People have it in their heads that the wind only blows in August. And, I don’t know why they think that. I see that in other countries, I see on the Internet, they’re flying kites. But not just in August! I don’t know if it’s because of the seasons, or vacations, or who the hell knows, you know?

“I used to make kites when I was a kid. I started making them as an adult when I couldn’t get enough to sell for my business. So, what happened? Well, I said to myself, well… I can copy those. So I started making them. The first twenty turned out pretty ugly, but then, I started getting the hang of it. I mean, as I was making them, I started getting better, until I was making them like these (shows kites). And people like them.

Tajaditas, or slices, are made of bamboo and tissue paper.

“Those little ones are called tajaditas (slices) because they look like a slice of something. It’s like a slice of plantain, or, I don’t know… They change the names in other places. These others are faroles (lanterns). They’re traditional faroles, and you can make them smaller if you want. Or, four times this size. These are like 60 centimeters. But you can make them, like 1.5 meters, you see? But they start pulling like crazy when they’re that big.

“It’s important to have a good variety of kites. I mean, I, as a producer, can’t let a client get away, you know? Because this is a seasonal thing, and it’s for kids, you know? And a kid, you can’t punish a kid because you don’t have… because no, no, no… You have to help kids be happy, because we were all kids once, right? We were all kids once. So, since you didn’t have a kite, and, you know, as the saying goes: he got everything he wanted… but today… it’s important to help the kids be happy.

“Anyway, it’s important that you sell all the different kinds of kites, so that the client doesn’t get away. You have to take full advantage of the kite-flying season.”

An ice-cream vendor came down the hill toward us with his Styrofoam ice chest, topped with a custom plexiglass lid, so you could see the different colored ice-cream pops inside. “Hey! How’s it going?” Jairo greeted the vendor. “You going to have an ice-cream?” he asked me. I asked for coconut, Jairo had peanut. When I asked how much it was, Jairo said he’d pay.

“It’s $1500 pesos for you, but I charge him $1000,” the vendor explained.

“You see, that’s another thing. Between vendors, you can’t go gouging prices. We have to help one another out. You see? Because we’re all in the same story, the one they call rebusque (scraping together a living).

giphy“The little kites cost $3000 pesos (about $1 US) and the faroles cost $10,000. But you charge what you can according to who’s buying. I’m not too worried about it. There is a lot of satisfaction in selling a kite that you made. Someone might come along, usually a kid, and they’ll come along and say, “Look, mister, I’ve only got $1000 or $2000. Will you sell me one?” And I’ll say, “Do it!”

“Sometimes it’s windier in December or January than it is right now. But, the people have it in their heads that you fly kites in August. A lot of people have told me, “It’d be cool if you could fly kites every weekend.” Last year, an older woman, she was about 70 years old, with white hair, she came and just stared at the kites. She was looking at them and she said to me, “Mister, sell me one. They make me remember when I was a girl.” And she put that kite up in the air. She was there with her kite for a good while, and then she gave it to a kid who was in the park. That is something cool.

“I have to struggle to get by. I have to, and I do, because it is good.”

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Shaved Ice in Cali, Colombia

Jesús María has sold shaved ice in front of the church in the San Antonio neighborhood in Cali, Colombia for 31 years. He’s sold to foreigners, locals, musicians and bull-fighters. His life wouldn’t be the same without his job.

What is the allure of brightly colored, sugary drinks? Could it be the bright colors and the sugar?

The plaza in front of the colonial styled church fills up every afternoon and every weekend with people enjoying the view, listening to the story-tellers that come in the evenings, and enjoying the breeze that blows through after 4:00 in the afternoon.

San Antonio church in Cali, Colombia, is prime shaved ice-selling territory.

The crowds of people attract vendors of all types of wares: from corn on the cob to hand-crafted, multi-colored leather sandals hawked by travelling artisans. But there is one man who has been there longer than all of them: Jesús María, the shaved ice seller, who has been providing the park with shaved ice for 31 years.

In Colombian Spanish shaved ice is called cholado, and it comes in various forms. There is the simplest version, that Jesús María sells which is ice, passion fruit and blackberry syrups, lemon juice, and sweetened condensed milk. More elaborate cholados will contain the basic ingredients, plus a number of fruits including lulo – a tropical version of the kiwi fruit that is orange on the outside and tart juicy green on the inside – pineapple, mango, banana and whatever else might fit in the cup.

In a city where the average temperature is 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit), but often reaching 30°C (86°F), there is no shortage of people looking to cool down. It is a product that is commonly consumed here, as it is in many places where the sun bakes down on beaches and cities. What makes Jesús María’s cholado different from many in the city, and virtually any shaved ice that you could buy around the world is his tricycle bike with an integrated manually cranked ice-shaver.

Jesús María’s mobile shaved ice machine. It originally belonged to his brother, who was paying too much to keep it parked. Hence, Jesús María’s career as a shaved ice vendor.

Because it is 100% human powered, you have to wait a little longer than you would for a shaved ice that has a motor powered ice shaver, or a slushie that is just waiting for someone to put a cup under the spout, pull the handle and let the brightly colored sugar slush flow. But while you wait, you can appreciate Jesús María’s utter efficiency in production; you can listen to the classic boleros and vallenatos that continuously flow from his transistor radio; you can anticipate the cool sweetness cut by the sour of the lemon juice that you are about to receive.

Sweetened condensed milk is usually the last ingredient added to a cholado in Colombia.

Selling cholados has been Jesús María’s sole source of income for the last three decades. He charges $4000 pesos ($1.35 US) for a small, and $5000 pesos ($1.70 US) for a large. “On Sundays, I might sell 50. Half of my profits go directly towards supplies, and the other half, I have to spread out over the week. Weekdays are pretty slow, I might sell five or 10 cholados, but I know I can count on Sundays and holidays, when the park is full, to get through the week, “ he explained.

While the days are long for Jesús María – he arrives at the park at 8:30 a.m. and doesn’t leave until after 5:00 p.m. – there are perks to his job. “I’ve served people from all over the world here in the park. But one in particular was Luis Miguel Dominguín, a famous bull-fighter. I remember him because he was sitting right over there, talking on a cell-phone. In that time, no one in Colombia had a cell-phone. So, I asked him who he was, and he told me. But he was just right there, like any other person in the world!”

Hands stained red with sugary syrups are a sure sign of vocational cholado making.

Jesús María has found vocation in making cholados. “This job brings me a lot of satisfaction. I like it. It’s everything to me. It’s like if I didn’t do this, I would probably get sick from missing it.” He has no plans for modernizing his set-up; it just wouldn’t be the same, for him or his customers.


Earning From Obsolscence

Olga Avirama has been fixing broken suitcases for 50 years. In a world of cheap, disposable things, how can we use less by making things last longer?

Originally published June 14, 2016+

Why don’t things last?  As a faithful consumer, you might be able to think back on your life as a string of purchases: your first TV, first car, first cell phone; and then all of the times you had to replace those items. Second cars, third, fourth and fifth cell-phones. Computers lose memory, battery-life fails, the soles fall off your shoes.

Planned obsolescence is part of the world in which we live. From the refrigerator that keeps your food cold to the light bulbs that illuminate your house, everything wears out and needs replacing. Some say it is a consumerist conspiracy to keep markets growing, others say that the lower quality goods means lower costs and easier access for those people with less buying power – actually providing people with a means of buying things that were previously out of their reach. But it is frustrating to think that the term “disposable income” is so literally applied to the money that is worked for and earned by whichever manner.

Olga measures the dimensions of a computer case she asked to make.

Olga Avirama, a 65 year old woman with roots in an indigenous tribe in the Cauca department in Colombia, has lived for the past 20 years counting on planned obsolescence as a source of income. She and her husband run “La Clínica de la Maleta” (The Luggage Hospital) in the First of May neighborhood in Cali, Colombia. 50 years ago, they started making suitcases and bags in their house, “But,” she explained, “since the markets opened up, artisans like us cannot compete with China.”

“The luggage they make is of poor quality. Really, people use a bag once, it gets damaged, and they throw it away. Our mission is to contribute to lessening the amount of garbage generated in the world.” And, help people save the $50 dollars they may have spent on a cheap bag, and turn it into a more lasting product by reinforcing seams, patching rips and anchoring the wheels so that they don’t fall off.

P1060191.JPGLike the SOP (Sin Obsolescenica Programada or Without Planned Obsolescence) movement in Spain, or many Do It Yourself programs, Olga is believes in things that are lasting, and that regular people can control quality. Her workshop has four Pfaff sewing machines, each one turned 50 years old this year.  “We only use two of them, the other ones we use for parts. I do all the maintenance on the machines and keep them working, After all these years I know very well how to do it,” she affirmed while switching on one of the machines.  “New sewing machines come with plastic parts that just don’t last.”

“We get by. We’re a family of five, and with the workshop we keep afloat, but by being very economical.” Olga showed me her small garden where they grow tomatoes, peppers, and various herbs in the front of her house. “People think it’s strange that we grow food here. It’s like they don’t like to be close to the earth. But we can cut back on spending by growing some of the things we consume.”

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“There will always be luggage hospitals in Cali,” she pointed out. “The economy of this country makes it necessary that people find the way to stretch their money. We can’t afford to throw so many things away.”

So, while the shifting global economy has changed the way Olga Avirama and her family earn their living, it has also changed the way we treat the things we buy. Maybe there will be a time without luggage hospitals in the future, but hopefully it will not be because we have given in to disposing of the things that could be fixed.


Hospital for suitcases and bags. Olga Avirama has been making and repairing luggage for 50 years.