The Future is Bottled

In Argentina, I meet a hero. A trash collector, looked down on and called a “cartonero,” he actually is an ecological soldier passionate about recycling, but not because it is fashionable but out the pure necessity to survive. And he has restored my faith in humanity.

Alfredo is greeting me by the door, smiling. Ever since we first made contact, via email, he has seemed to be smiling. He has opened his doors in Iguazu, and so I have crossed the entire country of Brazil to get to Argentina to get to know  him and his very special initiative.  As I follow  the maroon, rust-colored dirt roads leading out of the town of Puerto Iguazu, I see very few houses, but the one I’m about to find is one of a kind. It is entirely made up of plastic bottles.

The story is simple. Out of necessity, finding himself out of work, Alfredo had to live off trash he collects. Like many Argentinians in the beginning of the 2000s he became a “cartonero.” I don’t think his smile can really turn into a frown, but  there’s a hint of  bitterness when he remembers those times: ” We didn’t even have  resources to provide for our families. I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t able to fulfill  this basic task of providing  food for my family, I just couldn’t.”

And with all his  stubbornness and will power he fought to find a way out. Just like many extraordinary things, this project was also born by chance. His daughter wanted a doll house for Christmas. And when Alfredo realized he couldn’t afford it, he decided to build one. This was the start of the development of an extraordinarily inventive construction technique.

By putting together plastic bottles, particularly soda bottles, he invented a kind of brick which is both cheap and ecological. His mission is clear : “We are convinced we can find social solutions to the humble that are also ecological. Like removing trash from the streets and thus avoiding that the planet is transformed in a huge trash yard. At the same time, this is a technique that can be easily learned by anyone.” For the past years, Alfredo has refined  his product to make it more resistant. He considers himself a kind of Mad Trash Scientist. He is thankful to have received technical advice from certain visitors, but mostly he did it himself. For instance, one of the criticisms he received was whether the bottles were fire-resistant. Of course they’re not, but they’re certainly not as inflammable like wood. In any case, Alfredo developed an anti-fire system by simply filling them  with water or dirt, so that when the bottle wrinkles with fire, the substance inside will put it out. Ingenious, to say the least. Alfredo tells me that there was of course criticism, the fire proof being only one of them. But what about the life span? The answer lies in the material chosen. He chose a particular kind of bottle, not the mineral water one, but the soft drink bottle. The plastic is thicker and it’s covered by a solar filter, to protect the drink. “This fact is very helpful, because the bottle’s shape stays untouched when exposed to the sun. If the bottles are covered, I’d say that their life span could be practically eternal. When we make the walls, we note that the bottles get dry, but they won’t get wrecked. So, if we cover them with, let’s say, 1cm of plaster, they won’t be exposed to the sun and thus last forever. If they’re not covered, I calculate that they could last for 150, 200 years.” I cannot help but be amazed how such  simple processes can be so effective. But there is still more  to keep me in awe.

As I’m taken around the “Bottle House,” Alfredo continues his story. His grin opens up even more as he speaks. His speech is well-measured and precise. Quite eloquent, I would even say. His objective now is to disseminate his construction technique to whomever may need it. He literally makes tours all over Latin America to teach the poor communities how to build houses made out of bottles. So far he’s helped to build 59 houses all over Latin America: “We bring our tools, build a model of the house and teach them the building technique. Let me just tell you, a house, to us poor people, is a cabin, a compartment of 4mx5m, 3mx5m, 4mx8m, all depending of the economic situation. That compartment is divided in two, normally by a curtain. On one side you have the dormitory, where everyone sleeps. On the other side of the curtain you have the common room, the kitchen, the living room, dining room, all in one. It’s not the conventional house with several rooms separated. What we teach is how to build a model that can be expanded by adding one, and then another, and then another. We want to teach them that it’s possible for them to have that conventional house, given  a bit of tenacity and hard work .” A viable solution for housing problems around the world.

One of Alfredo’s  greatest achievement was in the Paraguayan city of Concepcion. He drove the 1200 kilometers in his 1985 Renault 12. When he got there, students had collected more than 18000 bottles. After ten days of work, they had made a 50 m2 house with all the rooms of a normal house. It’s the biggest he’s built and it was declared a building of national interest by the Paraguayan government. It now functions normally as a tourist information office. “This is  a house that I’m really proud of. A lot of young people worked there that learned the construction technique really quickly. And a lot of them brought the knowledge back to their places and even used it to build  green houses, for cultivation, since the material  is translucent, so that the sunlight can come in.  For me it was a fantastic experience, it gave me true joy! The people, once they learn it, they’ll never forget, it’s like riding a bike.”

To finance his ventures, he accepts donations and he opened a museum house in Iguazu. And the  bottle house construction model is not enough, his inventiveness goes even further. He came up with a lot of products that can help people all over the world. All of them are made using recycled products, from shopping bags made out of plastic stripes to children’s toys made with cans and bottle sofas – the range of this man’s creativity is immense. My personal favorite of his creations is in fact a very practical one. According to Alfredo, one of the poor peoples’ greatest problems is that they normally sleep on the floor, even if with a small mattress. “Humidity gets the best out of your health, especially for children growing up. To face this problem, he used plastic bottles to make a kind of Sommier bed. An innovative and pioneering idea that solves such a simple but serious problem.

Finally we reach the end of our tour. Alfredo is currently building his greatest project. A house built with 24000 bottles. A spacious place, with all the commodities of a comfortable home, so visitors can admire that it is possible to live well in an environmentally friendly construction.

As a curious traveller, I can’t express how lucky I feel for having found  this man. This encounter has filled me with hope and my faith in human kind has been  completely restored. Such generosity and such humbleness. At the same time such boldness and tenacity to overcome the difficulties of life using creativity, imagination, skill and talent. One can simply not be indifferent to something like this. I must thank Alfredo, not only for receiving me with kindness and patience. But for something far more valuable than that. For giving me hope that the future might be brighter.


Strolling around La Paz…

La Paz moment frozen… A good walk in a good city…

A Street Clown and his Son… enjoying a family Saturday… He’s a really good clown, I couldn’t stop laughing…

A Polish Missionary whose name I honestly don’t remember… I do remember that he’s in Bolivia to save souls and redeem people…

Happy people

The shy Watermelon lady

A good coffee warms up the Soul…

Jose and Giovanna… I think Jaws was on Tv, dubbed in Spanish

Another customer… I didn’t get his name but he had one of the most ironic sense of humor I’ve ever witnessed…

Japanese name?

– “Amigo, quieres comprar?”
– “No, gracias… no tengo dinero… pero muchas gracias”
– “Como te llamas? No eres Boliviano… Argentino?”
– “Me llamo João…”
– “Ah… entonces eres Japones!!! hahahahaha!”

So, it seems like I have a Japanese name, at least in South America… This was his face when he heard my name for the first time… Brilliant moment of laughing together, in La Paz, Bolivia.

Happy Peruvian people that made my day

This lady made my day… One of the most genuine smiles I came across. She taught me some Quechua, talked about her life as a farmer and gave my stay in Cuzco a different insight.
Senor Paulino… We shared a cup of coca tea and chatted for a while… He’s such a funny man! He tells me how a lot of times, he misses his old Cuzco and not the busy life of the city now… As soon as I ask for a picture, he immediately turns stiff, giving this amazing pose…
Cuzco Happy Family
Fernando… he doesn’t like pics, but he’s a cute little boy from the Andes!

Let them eat coke..? (Part II)

As if the fact that you can go on a tour of the life of Pablo Escobar, deceased majorly wanted druglord, is not strange enough, I am now on a friendly visit to his brother and former partner in crime. An audience with the Godfather, just with posed pictures

My perplexity quickly gives way to a wave of excitement. This old familiar face, greeting tourists with handshakes and warm smiles, has  been on the wrong side of the tracks, having been a celebrity for that back in the 90s. I feel like I am in a Coppola movie, maybe the “Godfather.” Mr Escobar has opened his door to me, and I have come to pay tribute to him, though not on the day of his daughter’s wedding. Hopefully he will not make me an offer I cannot refuse.

Inside, we admire assorted memorabilia of the Patron’s megalomania. Bikes and bulletproof cars, huge pictures of Pablo behind bars or wearing cowboy outfits. Our attention is drawn to some bullet holes in the wall, result of a recent attack on Roberto’s life. One of at least 40 attacks so far, he is proud to report. The places where the cartel members hid from the police are now a photo opportunity, as are the “Wanted” posters for Roberto and Pablo. Hard to believe that this fragile figure’s life was once wanted for ten million dollars. You can also take a picture with Roberto wearing the cap that Pablo wore in jail. Finally, I get the chance to ask Roberto some questions. It comes as no surprise that he is proud of his life and the things he has done for the people of Medellín. “We built houses for 3000 people, with all the conditions, all the equipment. And we included food for a month. No one has ever done that !” Does everyone here agree? “Some people love us, others hate us. But in a war, you have to have enemies.”

As much as I want to just go with it all and yield to the temptation of simplicity, finding the drug lord ‘cool’ and taking thumbs up photos next to his picture, I cannot help but feeling uncomfortable with this guy being humanized, glorified as some kind of modern Robin Hood. Even more so when I think of the angry old man in Medellín. To him, the Escobars were criminals, nothing more. With this, I decide to go to Bogotá, the capital. I figure that there, where the central administration is, I should find a different perspective, maybe another side of the story. 

On the bus, I meet Marina, born in the capital. She’s a brunette, frail, petite girl in her late twenties who reminds me of a foxtrot dancer of the Belle Epoque. When I tell her about my impressions so far, she gets really upset. “Escobar fue un asesino!” She cannot help being a bit mad at me. And she shows me that. I soon find out why. She tells me that a neighbor of hers was killed in the cartel war back in the day. For her, elevating Escobar is of bad taste, to say the least. ” He killed so many people, especially when he got in a war with the Cali Cartel. It is ridiculous that people actually go and admire him.”

In Bogotá, I visit the National Police Museum which has a section entirely devoted to Escobar’s capture. The drug lord’s confiscated weaponry arsenal is proudly displayed,  including the small revolver he always carried and actually called his “second wife.” But this is not the creepiest part of the exhibition. In another section, I encounter a number of Escobar puppets, mustache and everything, some behind bars, others in his office, and one dead in an acrylic coffin. A true celebration of the “National Police greatest accomplishment.”

In the end I am still torn between the two ends of this weird moral spectrum.The extreme glorification of Escobar I saw in Medellin was matched by the intense demonization I witnessed in Bogota. Two opposite poles of a society. Same intensity of feelings. I leave Colombia with a strange feeling. A beautiful country, yet at the same time one where people suffer of guerrilla wars and drug trafficking. But also a country of people intensely enjoying the best things that life has to offer. At places like the Cafe Saint Moritz, the oldest in Bogotá, I see people laughing, cracking jokes – I see a happy people. The same laughter I found in the people of Sapzurro, in the rhythms of Cartagena or in the slums of Medellín. Just as if they just wanted to forget and chase away all the rundowns that their country has passed. Escobar’s life has touched the good and the evil, the poverty and the riches of this country. Which is why my aftertaste is both bitter and sweet. Nevertheless, my time in your arms, Colombia, was truly memorable! Thank you for your kindness, warmth and making me feel like one of you.

Let them eat coke..? (Part I)

In Colombia, I trace the footsteps of the man, the myth, Pablo Escobar. For people here, the drug lord is either a saint or a demon. For travellers, the “cool outlaw” is a tourist attraction. My visit becomes a challenge, and attempt to understand and reconcile these extremes.

Heading to Colombia from the Caribbean, the landscape around me changes, slowly but continuously. For fourteen hours, my bus follows narrow roads winding up and down hills. Towards the end, dramatic cliffs rise to my left and right  and dense woods with scattered houses flash by. As we approach Medellín, the country’s second largest city, the reefs of vegetation are replaced by urban ones. Authentic ridges of slums, as far as the eye can see. As a first timer in South America, I have of course prepared myself for this city. But no theoretical background information has prepared me for this impressive sight, for this monumental scale and density. The “city of the eternal spring,” quiet and restless at the same time, greets me with soft winds, smiley people and its prominent shantytowns.

When I went to university, the name Medellín was one often mentioned. I studied at the social sciences college where everyone had an opinion and the left hand definitely had a lot more weight. Of course, one of the great habits of the college’s raised fist intelligentsia was to enjoy the sun of Lisboa, sipping beers, puffing away and scrutinizing current  world affairs. In the 1990s, Colombia’s name was often changed into Cocalombia. As a joke, yes, but also due to all the cartel wars blitzing the country. And, above all, it was due to one man who stood out and whose reputation crossed the Atlantic: Mr. Pablo Escobar, aka “El Patron,” aka “El Doctor,” or just simply “Pablito.” I remember well that in my college days, Mr. Escobar enjoyed great popularity and had sort of a fan club. The big question is: Why?

Faustino, my first Medellín cab driver, has an answer: “Escobar should’ve been president of this country! He was the only one to help those in need!” To a lot of people in Medellín, “El Patron” is still a hero, despite his well known history of violence. “He killed a lot of people, people that stood in his way,” says Isabel, a Colombian college student I bumped into on the street. “But that was the only way… Good or bad, no politician helped the people like he did.” I try to understand. I try to see through her eyes. I need to find out more. What’s Medellín like now, almost 20 years after Escobar’s hunting and killing by the police? How do people see him? What’s his legacy?

Walking past a hostel in Poblado, what seems to me a higher class district of the city, I come across a noteworthy aspect of this legacy. A huge, golden poster announces in capital red letters: Pablo Escobar Tour. Looking at the poster, I have to pause for a second and rub my eyes. OK, so the man had more 20 dollar bills than the US Federal Reserve in the late 80s and was the first to import cocaine into the United States. Well, he also built an open air zoo at his house and chose his own prison, which included a nightclub. And yes, he was said to have ordered the murder of a soccer referee who didn’t help his team win a game. A myth of Colombia’s modern history! But does that make him a tourist attraction? The existence of the tour suggests that yes, and it seems to be very popular among travellers. But I can imagine that many Colombians might see it differently… I decide to do the tour the following day, not really knowing what to expect.

I am joined on the tour by the usual backpacking tourists. Brits, Australians, one Icelander. One of them informs me about his massive hangover but adds: “I just had to come on this tour, though. Escobar was really cool.” Entering the van I cannot help but think about these words. As the guide  passionately tells Escobar’s story, I realize how weird I feel about all this. The drug capo actually has an aura of heroism around him. It seems like if you are going to do something outlaw, just do it at an immensely large scale, and it will become cool. Our first stop is Escobar’s headquarters and coke labs that were bombed by the government in the 90s. Tourists take pictures next to graffitis saying “Pablo Lives” while passing locals look at us in a strange way. I approach one of them, an old man walking slowly supported by his cane. At first he doesn’t talk. I detect this slight tension between us. My Spanish helps break the ice, and suddenly he just says “Que pasa? Son locos? Pablo era un criminal!” and walks away. I’m the only one to hear this, as all the others are still “rocking the Pablo thing.”

The next stop of the tour makes me feel even more weird and divided. We head to the outskirts of the city to see Pablo’s grave. I see some locals approaching the tomb. They don’t come close, though, as the grave is completely invaded by foreigners, taking pictures, paying their strange tribute to the “Patron.” We also pass by the site of Escobar’s death. Nothing special, but more stares from locals, and even some disbelieving head shakes. The most incredible part of the tour is yet to come. Up in the “Beverly Hills” of Medellín we visit one of his former mansions. As I step out of the van, I cannot believe my eyes. We are greeted by an old man wearing a cap, shouting: “Bienvenidos, my name is Roberto Escobar.” I almost lose it. Oh man, I thought I recognized him. A sudden flashback: I am about eleven years old, having lunch at my grandma’s place, and on TV I see that man on the news. Pablo Escobar is turning himself in to the police and his brother is with him. The same old man who is now shaking my hand. I feel a chill running down my spine…