Quique Medina, Chelsea Clinton and Shakira

If eating dinner in Plaza Santo Domingo one day you happen to see a barefoot and tattooed man wearing white clothes, sporting Rastafarian dreadlocks, goatee beard and numerous bead necklaces, you have probably run into Jesus Enrique Medina, better known as Quique (pronounced kick-ay). Although it might be hard to believe, Quique has had dealings with people as diverse as Shakira, Chelsea Clinton, Colombian actress Juanita Acosta and Irish harpist Shelly Cox. He is renown for his hand-made artifacts, and has provided stunning pieces to customers all over Colombia.

Quique is the President of the Plaza Santo Domingo Artesanias Guild. He has his own workshops in Turbaco and Getsemani where he employs several craftsmen. I recently made the trip out to Turbaco with some teacher friends of mine to see his men in action. After taking us on a long walk in the surrounding countryside, where he simultaneously collected seeds entertained us with local Indian legends and herbal remedies, we returned to his house.

Quique works with gold, silver, bronze, copper, emeralds, crystals, seeds, leather, bone, fossils, bamboo and other materials. Every piece is unique, whether it be a seed belt, silver bangle, emerald necklace or a bead wrap. He can make things to order from a simple sketch or instruction, and can do detailed filigree work. His workshop has just some stools and benches, a hydraulic press, a polishing wheel, hand drills and a crude blowtorch device fashioned out of a container of gasoline connected to a foot-pump. On this occasion, my friend Richard had asked him if he could make an copy of his bracelet, an acid-etched bronze piece originally brought from Scotland, to give to his Colombian girlfriend.

First Quique made a charcoal rubbing of the original. Then he enlarged the rubbing on a photocopier about 15%, and got one of his boys to cut out the unicorn, oak tree and sun and moon motifs from solid gold. After rolling a piece of silver between two big wringers, flattening it into a bracelet sized piece, he used the templates as patterns for the the gold unicrorn sun and moon motifs. He then soldered the motifs to the bracelet, polished it all and presented Richard with a hand made solid silver and gold memento. Richard was so impressed he immediately ordered another for himself, this one incorporating an emerald, so he and his girlfriend could have a matching pair.

Quique showed me his official ID card from the US State Department, which led to his story about Chelsea Clinton. When Chelsea had visited Cartagena with her father in September 2000, he had been invited by the local government to display his wares in the Plaza San Pedro.

"I was getting a bit bored standing there all day" he explained, "without a table and not allowed to move from my designated spot with all those secret agents looking at me suspiciously".

But then along came Bill Clinton and Chelsea. Quique caused some ructions among those same agents when he gave Bill a firm and very rigorous handshake. Then he shook Chelsea's hand. Seizing the opportunity, still gripping her right hand with his own, he slid an engraved coconut shell bracelet from his own right wrist onto hers, much to the chagrin of secret service agents who were hovering nearby. "How much?" she asked. Through an interpreter he said it was a gift. She smiled and accepted it, and pointed out 30 other items which an aide noted down. Later in the day a group of men from the State Department arrived and bought up 30 items!

Another story he told was about a long piece of silver rod he was toying around with. He twisted it and shaped it into an amulet, thinking if no-one bought the expensive solid silver item, he could always re-work it into smaller pieces. A Colombian bought it from him, saying it was for a special friend. He was startled to see his amulet on TV a few months later... being worn by Shakira in the Pepsi comercial! Quique has no pretensions to fame, explaining that all men are equal, and even though his regular customers include President Pastrana's daughter Laura, he charges everyone the same price, which is cost of the silver plus a modest percentage for labour.

All this is a far cry from the day he was thrown in jail for being an "illegal vendor". When Plaza Santo Domingo started attracting tourists in large numbers, and tables and chairs appeared in what was previously a public square, some of the restaurant owners resented the presence of the "hippies", and organised his arrest. Quique mounted his own defence and through negotiation with the local Mayor's Office, set up a license system that limits the numbers of sellers and tables and chairs in the Plaza. Now he is President of the Artesanias Guild, and battles to keep usurpers with bogus permits out of the Plaza. He is often called upon to settle minor disputes between the vendors, and works actively to expel vendors who cheat tourists.

Quique currently employs three workers, two of them formerly troubled youths who he accepted into his home to teach them the ancient craft of goldsmithing. He travels all around Colombia to service his growing clientele and get the best prices on silver, emeralds and trade his wares with other artesanias from as far away as Argentina. Quique Medina is the man to see if you want a fossilized shark tooth from Costa Rica or ostrich bone beads. He can easily be found simply by asking the other vendors in the Plaza Santo Domingo, and is easy to spot: he's the guy who hasn't worn shoes or had a haircut since 1990.

Glen David Short is a freelance writer based in Cartagena. His new adventure travelogue, `An Odd Odyssey: California to Colombia by bus and boat' has just been published by Trafford Publishing.

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Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short