Preparing for the Feria

12 Aug

So, the fair of the flowers came and went, and we are better for it (for a number of reasons). There were so many flowers during the parade, I was nervous for the well-being of Colombia’s flower stock (ARE THERE ANY FLOWERS LEFT IN THIS COUNTRY?!?!), and the constant street closures made navigating the city via taxi a roundabout nightmare, at times. But the glimpse into the wealth of the flora here and the culture & tradition that goes along with the entire process was beautiful and meaningful. I’ll try to elaborate on that in a moment…er…whenever.

The state of Antioquia, where Medellín is located, makes up a huge percentage of Colombia’s GDP. I read in the paper the other day that in the first quarters of 2011, Antioquia contributed ~30% of the country’s GDP, while the other states contributed to the remaining percentages, with Cundimarca (the state where Bogotá is located)–the closest contributer–generating about ~20% of  Colombia’s current 2011 GDP (it doesn’t hurt that the coffee growing business and the cut flower business are located here in Antioquia).

In general, Colombia exports a great deal of cut flowers to the US. There are conflicting reports of just how many flowers are exported, but some numbers indicate that 60% of cut flowers sold in the US have origins in Colombia. 60%. 60% of the cut flowers sold. In the US. 60%. That’s a lot of flowers.

So, back to the fair and the history. We’ll start with Santa Elena.

Santa Elena is a rural area in the mountains surrounding Medellín. It’s traditionally an agricultural area, where some families have fincas and others continue the farming traditions of region, raising livestock, and growing flowers, fruits and vegetables.

The climate in Santa Elena is–in all respects–a breath of fresh air. The sun shines down and the breeze blows; there are trees, flowers, rolling hills and green everywhere. The area itself covers just as much land as Medellín, but with far fewer residents, allowing inhabitants peace and quiet to enjoy the landscape and their lives (but with a neighbor within a few hundred meters or so…just in case!).

The days in Santa Elena leading up to the official parade on Sunday in Medellín are festive, to say the least. Bus tours bring people to different homes and fincas to dance, drink and observe the silletas being made. On Saturday night the city is–according to many–a bacchanalia. So sad to have missed it.

Silletas are essentially billboards of flowers, arranged in a design, that silleteros* carry on their backs during the parade in Medellín. To be a silletero here is a honor; fathers and mothers pass it down to their children, and to walk in the parade as a silletero is something to be proud of, and of which the general populous is in awe.

To be a silletero is also hard as hell! Imagine, if you will, carrying something as unweildy (yes, spell check, this is a word) as two double doors on your back. It’s hard to move around, your back is bent over to support the weight, the rope supporting the silleta wound around your head, the straps digging into your back and now you are walking a few kilometers in the hot, hot, HOT mid-day sun through throngs of people. Now, imagine that the double doors are laden with hundred of flowers, accumulating–in some cases–to ~100 pounds of weight on your back. Now cue everyone in the crowd screaming maniac requests for you to “Turn around!” (“Vuelta!” or, if you want to be as familiar as a guy in our group, “Vuelta, prima/primo/tia/tio!”) so that they can see the intricate designs created by the sunflowers, roses, chrysanthemums, orchids, etc, etc, etc (I HAVE SERIOUS CONCERNS THAT THERE ARE NO MORE FLOWERS LEFT IN THIS COUNTRY). And, now, imagine you are also between 50-70 years old, as most of the silleteros are. Hard as hell, right?! And yet, a sincere and revered honor.

So, in Santa Elena, the silletas are made by the families. You can even go to their homes where the framework is set-up and watch them weave the flowers and the designs in preparation for the parade. As you can imagine, the flowers aren’t cut until the very, very last minute in order to ensure they don’t wilt before the parade. This is why the Friday and Saturday leading up to the parade are so wild–everyone is working and partying, frantically weaving flowers until the absolute last minute. And yet, somehow the designs are still coherent and the arrangements are beautiful.

Friday we spent our day at two different fincas, eating and drinking and observing the process. Everyone was loving life and enjoying the festivities. At one of the fincas, the silletero living there gave us a brief history of the silletas and silleteros, and demonstrated how the smaller silletas were used to carry humans, by lifting a child sitting in the silleta…which he did using a rope around his head.

In the evening, Greg and I spent the night at our friend’s hostel in Santa Elena. It was so quiet compared to Medellín that it was eerie. When we woke up in the morning, the dog took us on a short hike to a small waterfall (yes, quite right, the dog was our guide) over creeks, bridges and through rolling hills. It was really magical. Our breakfast was all produced at the hostel, from the vegetables and eggs in our omelette to the goat milk in our coffee (coffee was not made on the farm).

We could have spent all day in Santa Elena, lounging around and staring out over the valley between us and Bogotá but, alas, we had to get back to Medellín to ensure we were well-rested for the parade on Sunday.

As we said our goodbyes and began walking uphill to the bus stop, throngs of people were passing us in the other direction, making their way to the many different parties. While we were admiring a silletero on the roadside, a man began speaking with us and invited us up to the patio so that he could perform for us (singing, guitar, harmonica, the whole shebang). I’m sure Greg will upload the video, but it was incredible.

And then we rode the bus down the mountain, back to Carlos E., where we passed out at 9PM. TOTALLY WORTH IT.

*to give you an idea of what being a silletero means, you should read this. Men literally carried travelers to Santa Elena ON THEIR BACKS, using their heads and necks to support the person via a rope strapped around his/her forehead. I will never complain about desk chair induced back pain, again.

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One Response to “Preparing for the Feria”

  1. Lea Anthony August 12, 2011 at 3:54 am #

    The Feria. Traditions are a wonderful part of all societies. We have our own, but it seems Westernized Countries are preoccupied with just the money makers.
    Small celebrations are traditions all our past relatives enjoyed in simpler times and places. I am sure the relatives of our family in Yugoslavia, Italy, Ireland, Scotland and the Native American Cherokee had all sorts of them. Sadly we are displaced from them by times and lack of familial reinforcement.

    How wonderful for both of you to be a part of this kind of generational sharing.
    It sounds like it will go on undisturbed for future generations to enjoy and cherish. How different and odd our Rose Parade tradition has grown, when it may have begun smaller and more intimate.

    When you come back you will probably feel like strangers in a strange frenetic land. You are coming from such bucolic places it is a crime to drive the 405 again. Oh yes and now it is even bigger. We will be your guides back into this strange land. Meanwhile enjoy all the flowers you can because I doubt they will run out soon. We have Peruvian Lillies, but no Columbian ones. If you come across any, do take a picture and let us see some!

    More adventures await you, so we will stay with your blog to see what comes next for Greg and Nina.
    Love and kisses, Mom

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