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Friday, September 23, 2011

Volcan de Lodo el Totumo

About half way between Barranquilla and Cartagena, sticking 49 feet from the flat landscape, is a mud mound that looks like a small volcano. Indeed it is a volcano, but rather than spewing lava it is filled with mud.

An ancient legend claims the volcano used to spew fire. The local priest believed it to be the work of the devil so he would sprinkle it with holy water. He extinguished the flames and turned the lava into mud which drowned the devil.

There are around 700 mud volcanos in the world. Most of these are in highly remote locations that are not accessible. Many are small and some are steaming hot. These volcanos emit gasses such as methane and helium. So, to find one that I can play in is a real treat.

We arrived mid-day when it was nice and quiet. We paid our $5,000 pesos (about $3.00 US), changed into our swimsuits and began the trek up the mud covered wooden staircase to the top. I didn't know what to expect. I came to the lip of the crater and looked down into a round pool that can hold 10-15 people smooth with mud. A staircase led into the pool. I turned around and began slowly descending into the mud. I didn't know when or if I would touch bottom. Now that I think about it, it is a volcano so according to definition there would be no bottom.

A man came over to assist my decent. The mud was thick and slightly warm. It had a bit of grit to it and a chunk every once in a while, but the mud is said to have healing properties. The man came over and began to massage me – included in the $3.00 fee. At this point I had lost all inabitions and just floated there enjoying the sun and the slimy feel of mud. The mud makes you very buoyant. It took concentration to keep from floating on the surface. Chad decided to go under. It's not possible by yourself, it took the masseuse all his weight to get Chad under.

After laughing and enjoying our soak we got out and started down the ladder. About half way down Chad wondered what it would be like to jump in. We went as quickly as possible with our slippery, muddy feet back up the wooden ladder. Chad pencil jumped then I followed with a cannon ball. Now we felt we had enjoyed the experience to the fullest.

We walked down the dirt road to the lagoon looking like complete zombies. At the lagoon we were met by some women ready to rinse us off. (Again included in our $3.00 fee.) It took quiet a bit of scrubbing before I began to feel the mud wash away but I was presented with a problem. A swimsuit full of mud giving me that “full diaper” feeling. I didn't care anymore – off with the suit. I felt like a maiden in Egypt bathing in the Nile River: warm water being poured on my head, reeds surrounding us, a boat in the distance... I ducked in the water, put my suit back on and headed to the changing room to get dressed.

We bought some cokes before we got back in the car to head to Barranquilla. It was probably one of the silliest, fun things I have ever done.

- Kris

Friday, September 2, 2011


If you purchased a bouquet of flowers from Trader Joe's, Whole Foods or Costco recently, most likely they were bred, grown and packaged in Colombia.
The United States imports 79% of its flowers. 65% of those flowers are from Colombia. Colombia is the 2nd largest exporter of flowers behind the Netherlands. 20,000 acres of land are committed to growing flowers. 79% of that area is in the Bogota Savannah and the remaining area is near the city of Medellin. These two cities are prime candidates for flower growing because of their high, sunny plateau regions. Colombia's nearness to the equator provides consistent long days of sunlight which makes the heads grow brighter and bigger and the high altitude grows better quality roses. Fertile soil, mild temperatures, cheap labor and close proximity to America have caused the Colombian flower industry to flourish.
This week I had the opportunity to visit “Rosen Tantau”, a German rose breeding company. Rosen Tantau in Germany is one of the most important rose farms in the world bringing many new varieties to the rose market each year.
How does a new variety of rose make it from imagination to your dining room table? Rose experts in Uetersen, Germany at the Rosen Tantau farm cultivate, select and test new novel varieties of roses throughout the year. New varieties are then sent to their greenhouses in Colombia for further cultivation and testing before hitting the market. The stem that arrives in Colombia is called a “code”. The rose does not have a name yet, only a number identifying it. The 3” code stem with a leaf is grafted into a rose root system to create a hybrid. The two plants will grow together to create a new variety. Rows of each variety grow in the greenhouses.
Rose Grafts
If a rose achieves the desired qualities for a market it will be given a name by the owner of the greenhouse, receive a patent and go on the market. The Russian market desires solid, large heads that are open whereas the American market desires small, closed heads. Different colors are also in demand in different markets of the world. Once you have a hybrid rose you can not use that breed to graft another plant into. The new plant would be too weak and have problems because the gene pool has been altered.
Other farms will now come to Rosen Tantau to place orders for flowers they would like to grow. A farm may request 100,000 plants of one variety and 1,000,000 of another. Rosen Tantau has greenhouses where they grow commercial plants as well for sale on the market.
Roses, carnations, chrysanthemums and alstromeria are the main types of flowers grown here in Colombia.
When the stems have reached the desired “cutting stage”, the stem is cut and the flowers go into the warehouse to be packaged. The cutting stage is how the flower head opens. The U.S. Market desires a closed head whereas the Russian market desires a partially open head. Length of the cut stem is important in the quality as well.
There are rows of workers in the warehouse preparing bouquets to be shipped out. Each station has a paper with the “ingredients” for the bouquet listed. Piles of each type of flower are in front of her. She takes the required amount of stems for one bouquet, puts them together, uses a machine to cut the stems, then places the loose bouquet on a conveyor belt where another person will pick it up, rubber-band it, put in a packet of flower preserver and the final plastic or paper wrapping around it. She then places the bouquet in a bucket of water. Each bouquet maker has a flag at her station. As she begins to get low on flowers she replaces the flag with a colored flag to indicate more flowers are needed for the order she is working on. A runner places more flowers in the bucket next to her and as she needs them she can move them to her work area.
The completed orders of bouquets are placed in refrigerated trucks and transported to the Bogota airport where they will fly out during the night. The majority of the flowers head to Miami where they are inspected upon arrival. 10% of each shipment is taken out and destroyed by beatings and thrashings to be sure no unwanted pests or disease are let into the country. The inspectors are also checking to be sure no drugs are being smuggled with the flowers.
90% of Colombia's flower export is to America. Within 48 hours of a flower growing in a field here in Colombia it is in a warehouse in the United States. Give it another 48 hours and it is at your local retailer's and possibly in your home. Once you have received the flowers into your home there are a few things you can do to help prolong their life and keep them looking as gorgeous as possible. Cut the stems on a long 2” angle. This will help keep the flower stem from being blocked by bacteria. Remove all leaves that will be in the water. Place the stems in fresh, warm water. A drop or two of bleach will prolong the flowers and a teaspoon of sugar will help the heads to open sooner. Keep the water fresh so the flowers don't get choked by sludge.
The flower houses around Bogota provide work for more than 100,000 people. The majority of them are women. The flower houses encounter the same problems that any other factory job encounters. The women are on their feet the entire work day. There is some machinery present where accidents could happen and where do the children go when their mothers are working? Rosen Tantau farms have strict quality control rules to keep the working environment safe. The floors are continually swept clean of petals and stem pieces. The plants scraps are swept into a channel of water in the center of the floor when they flow out of the buildings and into a filter system. The plant waste is then composted for future use on the farms. Rosen Tantau in Colombia has also set up 2 foundations to encourage the continuing education of its employees. The first foundation allows the workers to receive more education. The second foundation provided education for the children of the employees. A very small fee is charged for each child to receive day care and schooling while their parent is at work all day. If you purchase flowers at Whole Foods, you will be happy to know that a % of your cost is going to this foundation to educate the children.

- Kris

Thursday, September 1, 2011

It's been awhile since I wrote

We are settling in.  Not the easiest thing, as this country has the fewest english-speakers of any I've visited.  My clunky Spanish gets me around just fine, but Kris  and the kids have adventures daily (Kris might use a different word).

Bogota is a great city.  It is distinctly third-world, with horse-drawn carts everywhere on the streets and great swaths of nun-down tiny shops and shacks.  I feel drawn inexorably to the vendors on the streets who sell chiclets and cigarettes out of wooden boxes hung from their necks.  I have no love of either item, but finally broke down and bought a packet of certs mints from a lady today (she asked $1, but I successfully arranged a 30% discount--lucky me).  Anyway, I've also purchased coffee on the street from one of the thousands of vendors of everyday necessities (ie, coffee, fruit, cigarettes and chiclets) located conveniently on and between every street corner in the city.

The nearest park has a giant screen tv on which soccer games are shown every weekend.  The crowds for this are huge and energetic, though not at all intimidating.  About 9am on Saturday and Sunday a parade of black-shirted men open locked tents in the park and begin a bag-brigade, throwing large bean bags from hand to hand and lining them up in front of the mega-tv.  We've seen fans show up to claim a bag 4 hours prior to the beginning of a game!

I've been away in Ecuador for the past week, checking things out at two of the posts there.  It's a beautiful country, but I've seen woefully little of its mountains and coastline on account of a busy schedule.  I'll return in a couple of months to spend some time.  That trip will be extended by at least a day to see either a rain forest park I heard about or a shrimp farm owned by a guy I met the other day.  Emilio is an Ecuadoran-Italian and aquaculturist with a serious surfing habit.  Needless to say an interesting guy.

Ok, my plane back home boards in a few minutes and I've written about three more paragraphs than I meant to.

- Chad