I like tea. I drink a lot of it. As an Englishman I of course maintain that tea must be made with milk. But away from Britain fresh milk is not that easy to find. Dried milk actually makes quite good tea provided that it’s fat-free but even half-fat dried milk makes vile tea and full-fat produces a brew so disgusting that one’s first and only mouthful is spat involuntarily over the side. No. Fat-free it has to be. On my travels I’ve found it hard to get, though, and supplies were running low as I arrived in the Colombian port of Cartagena. So I was delighted to find a shop that sold it and I bought, well, quite a lot. Six months supply, in fact. Six months supply for a guy with a serious tea habit.
Cartagena’s significance to world trade isn’t based solely on powdered milk. It’s a container port that serves Colombia and much of the continent. Moonrise was anchored close to the quays where the container ships tie up and I was awestruck by what I saw. If, like me, you find “world trade” to be a rather nebulous concept, go to your nearest container port and just watch. It’s amazing. Those ships are simply vast. An ordinary one might carry 5,000 forty-foot containers (five thousand!) and the big ones carry double that. And, as you’ll know if you’ve ever stood next to one, each forty-foot container is itself quite big. You can get a lot of stuff in there.
Within minutes of a ship tying up to the dock the cranes start swinging the containers off the deck and onto the lorries waiting in a long, well orchestrated line below. I timed it and can report that one truck is sent on its way with an offloaded container about once every ninety seconds, per crane. And there are sometimes as many as four cranes working simultaneously on each ship. And other trucks come bringing containers that are loaded onto the ship at the same rate. The containers, one supposes, are stuffed with food, washing machines, clothes, engine parts, toys, furniture, high tech gadgetry, all you can imagine and quite a lot you can’t. Just about everything that’s produced in one country and sold in another gets there by container ship. And the sheer volume of goods arriving and leaving at Cartagena is truly astounding. “That”, one can say to oneself, “is trade”.
But if Colombia is famous it’s not for its container port or even as a place to buy powdered milk. It’s famous for the FARC guerillas and the recent peace deal, for coffee and for drugs. I read a lot about the drugs trade while I was there and, perhaps as a consequence, I thought I saw evidence of it everywhere. Many of the somewhat incongruous steel-and-glass skyscrapers are totally empty so I immediately concluded that building them was some sort of money-laundering exercise. And the unsmiling men dressed in white polo shirts and black sunglasses zooming about the harbour in power-boats looked for all the world like archetypal drugs barons straight from Central Casting.
So I felt somewhat uncomfortable as I sat on my boat carefully measuring out white powder, sealing it in plastic and stashing it away, imagining as I did so the surely impending conversation with the coast guard: “No, really! It’s milk! I like tea!”