The Tale of Two Shoe Shiners

It is interesting to listen to people talk about what they do. It doesn’t matter how grandiose or menial their job. Everyone has something to say, and many times their words reveal just how meaningful their work is to their lives.

There are two types of shoe shiners in downtown Cali: the one that carries his wares in a small box and ambles under the palm trees in the central square hoping to spot a client or someone looking for some specific shoe related work, and the other, who has had a permanent spot with a chair and an umbrella for the last 12 years, donated by the local shoe polish company, Beisbol.

Raúl Armando is the first kind of shoe shiners. He is a 53 year old man, who has been working the downtown area for the last 20 years. “I’ve had other jobs, and good ones; I worked with the government in EMSIRVA (the public works department), and with the police,” he informed me, enthusiastically. But, he added, “But I was a bum and my own laziness ruined my chances for retiring with a company.”

emboladorHis little tool box, with its small pedestal that clients use to rest their feet on as they receive his services, is the most important thing in Raúl’s life. “For me, this is my wife, my mother, and all my family, because this is my livelihood,” he explains, giving it look of admiration. His trade is not lucrative, just bringing in what he needs to get by. A basic shoeshine costs $2000 pesos, about $0.70 US, $3000 ($1 US) if he applies shampoo and horse grease. If the shoe needs more elaborate maintenance, like rubbing out the scuff marks or dying it a different color, he can charge between $5,000 and $10,000 pesos ($1.75 – $3.50 US).


These rates require Raúl to live austerely. “I spend $20,000 pesos a day ($7.00 US). There’s breakfast, lunch and dinner, and my room that costs $7000 pesos a night. They come at 4:00 in the afternoon to collect the money for my food, so I’ve got to have that money by that time.” Due to a medical problem, he can’t resort to making ends meet in other ways, unless there are special events in the downtown area and he doesn’t have to move too far. He helps people park their cars in December, when the city center fills up. This means that he has a relatively stable economy during the holidays.

Fortunately, Raúl has a handful of returning customers, mainly judges and lawyers who work in the offices around the Plaza Caicedo, the central square. But things aren’t what they used to be 20 years ago. Raúl has seen how fewer and fewer people look for a shoeshine from him, and he supposes that it must have to do with people using cheaper shoes; they worry less about their appearance. That, and the increase in the use of tennis shoes are what have brought about a reduction in demand. But Raúl has adapted to these changes: “Of course, today I have to offer shampoo for tennis shoes. Otherwise, there’d be no getting by.”

Another change that has affected the shoe shiners downtown is the use of public space. This part of the city has seen high levels of mobile sellers, sidewalks crowded with people offering their wares: from underwear and belts to tape measures and books. And the city has tried to do its part keeping the sidewalk open for pedestrians.

“In February of this year (2016) they called us all into a meeting in the Lloreda Building. We thought that they were going to help us establish ourselves more permanently, but that wasn’t it at all. When we walked out of the building, at 10:30 in the morning, our spot was full of cops.”

There_s a saying-1On orders from the mayor, the shoe shiners were given notice that they would no longer be allowed to “loiter” in a single place, but would have to walk continuously. For the time being, they’ve come to an agreement with the mayor’s office that they can gather on the sidewalk across from the Plaza, but there are “caretakers” of public space, who come each morning to make sure that no one is loitering.

Despite all the difficulties for the shoe shiners in the Plaza Caicedo, they keep a strict ethic regarding their trade. “The most important thing for me is that I do a good job, and that the customer feels happy about the product. If they can see that you’ve done a good job for $2000 pesos, then they’ll throw in another $1000 or $2000 as a tip. This feels right, because you know you’ve done things the right way.

No, Not a Shoe Shiner.

Cross the Plaza Caicedo diagonally from where the mobile shoe shiners are, and you’ll find 12th Street, la Calle Real – Royal Street. On this street, full of casinos and restaurants with their lunches designed for office workers, you can also find the lottery vendors and boot polishers who were relocated by the ex-mayor Apolinar Salcedo, 12 years ago.

IMG_2801 (1)This is where Carlos Julio has his chair and umbrella, and where he continues to work after 21 years as a boot polisher. “A shoe shiner? No. I’m a boot polisher or a footwear beautifier. A footwear beautifier and image consultant. That’s what we do here. Embolador (shoe shiner in Colombian Spanish) isn’t even correct Spanish. An embolador would literally be someone who takes someone else’s clothes off for them.”

This clarification draws a clear distinction between the mobile shoe shiner and his counterpart with his fixed chair and umbrella. To give oneself the title of “footwear beautifier” is to assign a new meaning and value to the same job.

Like the mobile shoe shiners in the Plaza Caicedo, the boot polishers on the Calle Real have also been the victims of marginalization. According to Carlos Julio, they were kicked out of the Plaza Caicedo at the same time as the lottery vendors and the paper-pushing scribes because the mayor’s office wanted to “beautify the park”. But with the sponsorship of Beisbol shoe polish, from a nearby city, and the help of the ex-mayor, Mauricio Guzmán, the boot polishers were re-located on the pedestrian street adjacent to the plaza with all the required paperwork.IMG_2803 (1)

Another difference between the Calle Real boot shiners and their mobile counterparts is their price: $2500 for a shine, $4000 for a shampoo and sealer. But these extra pesos, which may be rightly charged by the privilege of having a fixed spot with a chair, do not mean these footwear beautifiers are by any means making significant money. The difficulties are the same one both sides of the plaza. “You might make 10, 20, 30 or even $40,000 pesos ($3.50 – $14 US) a day – but not all that often,” explained Carlos Julio. “It’s a job that varies on a daily basis. You get here and it’s just luck that your clients show up.”

Shoe shining is a job that is part of what is referred to as el rebusque in Colombia, or the activity of hunting down odd jobs in order to make ends meet. These types of jobs offer a certain freedom: no fixed schedule, you can be your own boss, and you are part of a community of people sharing the same needs. But this informality leaves a lot to be desired. The majority of workers live day to day: there are no savings, and no pensions. The two shoe shiners have access to health care through Social Security which gives them basic care when the need it, but nothing more. In Raúl Armando’s case, not following the treatment recommended by his doctors has left him solely responsible for his own treatment, and he has lost the right to return to the clinic.

Even so, Carlos Julio made a very valid point with regards to the manner in which one works. He said, “You adapt to the job because you need it. It is important that you feel good with your work. Feeling good about it brings satisfaction.”

It’s not a glamorous job, and it doesn’t fill their wallets with cash, but the shoe shiners keep shining shoes. They go to work every day with the tools of their trade, they greet the people and chat about the day’s events, and they shine strangers’ shoes until they glow. Their presence in the plaza in downtown Cali is a reminder that personal appearance is an important value to many people, and that public spaces are still used for meeting with people and working. In Raúl Armando’s words, “There’s a saying: a park without shoe shiners just isn’t a park.”

This story was originally published in Spanish on

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.

Typewriters in a Time of Smartphones

Filling out forms on a typewriter is not the hipster-style job you’d think it was.

Originally published May 16, 2016

I sat down with Jairo under a rainbow colored umbrella in downtown Cali, Colombia. His typewriter sat idly on the desk in front of him as he organized his things: plastic chair with pillow, loose papers of various sizes, a large stick – his ‘crazy-tamer’. “As far as I know,” he said, “in Germany and over there in Moscow, they’re going back to typewriters because the computers are going to crash. I don’t know when or anything, but the typewriters are, I don’t know, more secretive.”

The most notable thing about Jairo was his typewriter: a Brother 1350, a compact japanese job, in perfect working condition. The presence of a typewriter in most places is a novelty, but in a public park, out in the open, it becomes something more. Jairo is a scribe, or escribano in Spanish, one of 24 men who work in the Park of the Poets, filling out forms for their clients.

German (pronounced hair-MAN), who types out documents on his 60 year old Facit, is the President of the TRIBUCALI Association, the group of men who also go by the name Legal Advisors of the Plaza Caicedo. He has been working for 41 years as a scribe, and he explained that the reason for using typewriters is not an apocryphal collapse of technology. “We work in the street, exposed to the elements. There aren’t any electrical outlets to plug in a computer around here. Really, only about 70% of the men who work out here know anything about computer systems.”

It is possible that the sight of men in public squares, seated at desks in front of typewriters, formally dressed and helping clients fill out official documents was more common 30 or 40 years ago – maybe many years before that. But in today’s world of smart phones and high speed internet, it’s understandable if the clackity-clacking of a typewriter is unrecognized to a pedestrian’s ear. A great number of people born in the mid to late 1980s may never have actually seen a typewriter in action, except, perhaps in old movies or episodes of “Mad Men”.

German is the president of the TRIBUCALI Association.

For the scribes, there is no sense of nostalgia in their work. These typewriters are the source of their bread and butter. Both Jairo and German have bought houses, sent children to school and provided for their families through the use of these archaic, people-powered, form-filling machines. But because this job is considered informal – no office, no secretaries, no walls, no taxes are paid, no health care is provided, no retirement funds are set up – there are difficult times. The men wait for clients to appear with their documents or their letters to be written. Some days are slow. “There was one day when I only made $2000 pesos (about $0.75 US),” recalled Jairo when I asked him about his income.

“The idea is to not charge too much, or charge too little,” explained German. “No one gets a fixed rate. That guy over there might charge you $2000 pesos or $3000; I might charge you $5000. It all depends on how deep your pockets look.” Billing according to flexible rates is possible because of the great disparity between the social classes in Colombia. In some studies, it appears as the Latin American country with the greatest gap between the rich and the poor. “Our clients cover the whole range. We get from the lowest of the low, to the most privileged.”

And just what do these men do on their typewriters? “We respond to letters, letters of resignation, legal processes, bills of sale, rental contracts. We know all about legal formalities and can help people in their paper work,” answered German.

Colombia has its share of dirty laundry when it comes to corruption, and there is one thing that typewriters do that computers have a difficulty with: they fill out forms without any record other than the paper document. German explained, “We’re not the Office of the Registry. We don’t do anything but fill out forms here. You don’t see computers or printers, do you? We don’t produce any documents here, we just fill them out. If somebody wants me to fill out a check they have, I fill it out. What that guy does with it is his problem. Let me be clear, if the banks are doing it, the businessmen are doing it, and the politicians are doing it, then are we, a guild of poor workers on the street, not going to do it? There are crooks all over the world, Brazil, Peru, and whatever we do here is small change. But if you’ve got a cow that has eight tits, you’d be a fool to keep on milking just the four that everyone else milks.”

Being a scribe is work. They have rules: you keep yourself clean and treat people with respect, that way they keep coming back; you don’t draw attention to the scribes by coming to work drunk; if you mess up, you face the consequences on your own. They don’t have working hours; you can call it a day at 3:00 p.m. and shoot pool with your friends through the afternoon, but if you don’t show up, you don’t make any money. By sticking to these rules, it seems that this group of men have managed attain different levels of success.

This job doesn’t seem to be disappearing any time soon, however, since 2006 their numbers have dropped from 58 to 24 registered scribes. It’s doubtful that many people would miss them if their work did come to an end. But in this time of wifi and smartphones, instant messaging and touch screens, it’s good to know that they’re out there poking away at whatever forms and documents that get thrown their way on their Brothers and Remingtons and Facit typewriters.

The Facit typewriter is ideal. Because it’s heavy, it doesn’t let the desk move when it’s windy.