Jane Downman wins this week’s Just Back travel writing competition, and £250, for her account of a colourful visit to Colombia
Winding up, up, up, out of Medellin, we looked down at the vast Colombian city, high-rise blocks poking out from streets as steep as San Francisco’s and lined with trees and shrubs. Up we drove, higher than the threads of the cable cars that have stitched together the lives of slum dwellers and city folk.
High above Medellin is a village of flowers – Santa Elena. We were at the height of two Snowdons and the air was fresh. In times gone by, the farmers loaded their backs with flowers and trudged down to the city, where they sold their wares and used the money to buy provisions for the week, before plodding back uphill. Each journey took 13 hours.
Every August for more than 60 years, the descendants of those farmers have taken the starring role in the Medellin Flower Festival. These are the silleteros. Strapped to their backs are wooden frames (originally chairs – sillas) which support hundreds of lovingly arranged blooms. Each weighs 50-90kg.
Dorigo – 75, bronzed, lean, handsome – opened the gates for us. We were visiting out of season and had him to ourselves. Our Colombian friend told him we had travelled from England. “Have you ever been to England?” she asked him.
“No,” he replied. “But I’ve been to Argentina and London.”
“London is in England,” she said.
“Oh?” said Dorigo, who had tramped up the Mall laden with flowers and knew only that the weight on his back was the same everywhere.
Opening a bright green door with panels of red, yellow, blue and pink, we entered an inside-outside room with gapped walls of fat bamboo trunks. We drank physalis tea and Dorigo told us about the birds that came to his garden.
On the walls were notices painted with words to calm battered minds: This place is free of sadness, fears, worries, negative thoughts, stress. There were drawings of hearts and flowers. In this place, there is no Wi-Fi – make contact with your family, with friends, with life! My husband, not a Spanish speaker, saw the word “Wi-Fi” and tried to work out the password.
The side of Dorigo’s house was a backdrop to hanging baskets. Behind, a covered area was full of terracotta and plastic pots, paint tubs, oblong planters and baskets holding geraniums, irises, pelargoniums, pansies and all manner of succulents.
Some leaves were in thick ropes, some were like stars, some had serrated edges. Outside there were sunflowers, viburnum, hellebores, bellis, cosmos. There were shrubs and trees and plants we knew and others we had never seen.
In the field, we stood among rows of small, pink, papery flowers and stiff, yellow lilies like trumpets and looked down over the tiled roofs and quiet gardens of Santa Elena.
In Dorigo’s tiny museum, a display of rosettes marked 40 years of success in the competitions of the flower festival. A black and white portrait showed the proud face of a man who had done with his life what he wanted to do.
How to enter the next round of Just Back
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