Chapter 1: The Mompós Project
I did not see it of course. In fact, I only learnt of the event several weeks later when asking after the origins of a stubborn blemish on the top stair.
The brick had sailed up over the terrace wall, mercifully only glancing the Canadian girl. Not a direct hit. Blood, bright and aqueous, perverse in its contrast to the clammy nighttime heat, poured out of her fresh head wound and down the stairwell from the roof terrace. The perpetrator made off down the Coco Solo alley running alongside the Casa Amarilla.
The police were called. As usual, they arrived with the accustomed alacrity in a Colombian Caribbean town.
Despite having seen the guilty party, despite being in a town where everyone knows everybody and gossip is as punctual as the daily news and taken for gospel, the police were reluctant to pursue the man in question. They preferred to log the incident as a sort of “turf war” between rival hotels.
The stain remains to this day however, and no amount of varnish has washed this away.
Life in Mompós continued.
The greatest effort one makes in Mompós is of course not to sweat too heavily and therefore suffer the indignity of enormous and telling armpit maps. At a daily 30 degrees plus, this is challenging. The next effort is that of establishing and acknowledging that it requires substantial effort to achieve just about anything and everything here. Walking to the town hall to renew my business license, heading to the cashpoint to withdraw money or just ensuring that I have enough fresh fruit for my afternoon juice are far from the mundane, they are positively herculean tasks. Everything must be done in its own time and allowing for the ubiquitous gauntlet of salutations to the townsfolk. Consider that my house, the Casa Amarilla, is roughly 1km or five blocks from the bank, this could mean anywhere between one and twenty acquaintances stopping to share a kind word, snippet of gossip or trying to extract gossip en route. This is conceivably why Momposinos — as they are referred — are late for everything. We needn’t mention the Colombian or Latin condition of the failure to keep time; the Momposinos have this disregard down to a fine art.
Mad dogs and Englishmen, but you’ll not find me wandering the streets here in the midday heat unless in an absolute emergency. Even the stray dogs or perros chandosos know to keep to the shady side of the street.
I marvel at the vernacular of the locals as they argue over a few pesos during a particularly heated game of dominoes out in front of my house, and how, they manage to frenzy themselves over so little but, never require any movement aside from a frenetic wave of the arm and a raised voice. Such heated debates can run for the better part of an hour. And, as far as I can tell, no one breaks a sweat. Slap, the domino lands on the plastic table. Then a second slap and this continues until another dispute or the end of a game.
You have to envy the ability to shirk any responsibility. Hours are spent seated here in the shade, and the breeze, if the weather gods deem it appropriate to bless us with one, is most refreshing here in front of the banks of the Magdalena River. An unrivalled place to drink beer and play dominos. And the beer is cheap and oh so refreshingly cold. One leads to another and like those here involved in a great deal of doing very little, you will find — soon enough — a crate placed by your side on the hard packed dirt floor to receive your empties. Howler monkeys may frolic overhead, an iguana may fall from the tree on to the corrugated iron roof causing a terrifying start, but your crate will remain in place. Monkeys and iguanas are nothing new to the domino playing, vallenato-loving patrons of Angelita’s kiosk. But, for we outsiders, monkeys should win prizes for how happy they make us and, iguanas are awesome for being nothing more than miniature versions of Godzilla.
How the local fauna manages to endure the four or five days a week of vallenato-infused aural pollution is a mystery. The same songs, heavy on forced accordion riffs — I use the term riff since I watched one patron of the kiosk during a particularly impressive haul of beer, doing the best version of what would most appropriately be referred to as the accordion take on air guitar — and macho lyrics contaminating (depending on how you view the musical genre) one of Colombia’s most scenic river banks. But, again, this is their thing, most certainly not mine. I wonder how they would react to the Kinks, the Stones and the three repetitive and petulant chords of angst from a selection of 70s punk outfits.
Day to day, of course when I am here and not in Bogotá, is pretty routine. I used to spend a great deal more time here when we were but a fledgling business. I guess you could say that this whole document is an ego trip as was the very restoration of this colonial house. I know a little about what to do and how to do it when it comes to renovations, but don’t expect me to understand how to actually carry out the process. But, here we are, one house done, another one underway and a third somewhere in the pipeline.
If it is raining heavily, my day in Mompós begins with a rescue mission and a prayer to the weather gods that the Magdalena River in front of my house won’t rise too fast. It sounds trite, but the sight of a rain flattened garden, flooded kitchen and puddles in the sitting room can take the sheen off an otherwise beautiful guesthouse in a colonial mansion.
Everything is in order, it’s 6 am and Wendy (I have used Wendy’s name but she has since retired and we have been through some 70 maids in 10 years. We have Luciana now, but, by the time I get to the end of this document we’ll doubtless have moved on multiple times) arrives to start preparing for breakfast. I can hear her dropping pans into the sink as I sip my coffee on the balcony and watch the howler monkeys at play in the trees in front, I think of how this noise will inevitably rouse a few guests. Right now I don’t care. Perhaps it rained last night and the morning is fresh, I’ll tell the injured party that the ruckus they heard was the gurning and snarling of my primate tree-dwelling neighbors. If we are in Colombian holiday season or on a long weekend there is the significantly increased risk that the vallenato music will be turned on early to cater to the overnight revelers. This is Colombia after all, and partying comes as second nature to a costeño.
Life starts early given the soporific heat and if we want to get good quality meat I need to be out and about before 6:30 a.m. If I don’t feel like dragging myself across town to the butchers, you can find me instead buying cheesy almojabanas from a street vendor. Usually those selling these tasty doughy and fattening breakfast treats are little more than nine years of age. As a rule these rings of doughy goodness must come from the nearby town of San Sebastian. I insist upon this. I don’t know why, but the ingredients from San Sebastian are so much better. Something you learn after a while here.
Monty, my irrepressible Weimaraner, is threatening to dig up trash in the street and I have to decide whether to walk him through town or hop on the bicycle. If I am on the bike I can wear him out and avoid chatting to anyone and everyone on the street and get back to the job in hand of running the guesthouse. Rubbish, trash, desechos, residuos, basura, why does Mompós produce so much of this. And, why, despite paying for the refuse collection service do we not have one and have we not had the service since November last year? That’s eight months with sickly smelling human detritus building up alongside the highway into town. That’s if it hasn’t already been tossed into the river. I guess you could say that if Bogotá, the capital city, cannot get its act together and sort out their waste problem, then why would a small and isolated town of roughly 43,000 people in a forgotten or overlooked — depending on how you see it — town be able to manage? A case of irresponsibility twinned with corruption, but you get the impression that people don’t really care and that my middle class northern European sensibilities are distinctly out of place in rural Colombia.
Remember that we run on a currency of shit tickets this far south of Mexico and toilet paper does not go in the toilet bowl for fear of clogging up already overworked drains. The idiot guest who flushed down a tampon is firmly engrained in our collective memories since it was a most personal experience retrieving this item from the tracheal U-bend. And she was Colombian, she should have known better. I could accept this crime from a foreign visitor, but no, I am not going to grant this leeway. If you’ve gotten as far as Mompós, you have had to have spent a night elsewhere in Colombia. You don’t happen across Mompós, you plan to come here and chances are you’ve been privy to the telltale signs plastered onto the facing wall of the commode asking, nay, pleading with you not dispose of your paper in the bowl.
Not to sound the Grinch, but there are times when small town living grates. So much gossip. Today I decide to walk. I chat to the neighbor, a stranger, a man on a bicycle who has been identified to me as a thief (this conversation is even more brief) and one of my wife Alba’s horde of relatives. Sabina, Alba’s grandmother is mother to twelve. I am not certain that my wife can 100 per cent name all of her cousins…and that’s just the official ones, the ones from within wedlock.
I later found out that the thief on a bicycle who would sidle up and make small talk to passing tourists — easy prey — was the victim to a particularly nasty bout of “social cleansing” or limpieza social which took place in Mompos towards the end of one year. Only his bicycle was retrieved from the river near to the town of Santa Ana.
With my walk and some rudimentary shopping done, I head back to the Casa Amarilla via the old customs house. I love pineapple season here. Docked here, where the boats that transported Simon Bolívar in his quest for South American independence from Spain along this waterway would have harbored is a long and narrow chalupa filled with hundreds of the fresh fruit. For under $1,800 pesos I pick up two and the vendor strings their spiny stalks together so I can carry them easily.
I am used to hearing conversations behind my back and as is the norm there is a comment within earshot that the “gringo” has a “gringo dog”. I presume this is due to Monty’s fair eyes. On a daily basis I feel the weight of history here; usually it strikes a melancholy chord with me when I see the abandon that some parts of the town suffer. Corruption, indifference and local idiosyncrasies have left Mompós in decay. Nowhere is this melancholy better illustrated here than in the Plaza de la Concepcion. An ornate church offers some shade at the right time of day and casts a cooling shadow over the newly restored plaza.
While the Plaza was restored with a vigor, despite the best efforts and academic snobbery of the town’s Academia de Historia to thwart this progress, by the government with help from various international organizations, the market building and customs house overlooking the river, perhaps the only building that could rival the Santa Barbara church as the town’s most iconic, has been left in a virtual free-fall of decay. Now an open air urinal for Mompós’ vagrants, the drunk and a huge and pungent-smelling bats’ nest, this republican era construction par excellence received little notice this year until President Santos came to town.
So as to encourage townsfolk to come and listen to the promises of what the Colombian premier would bestow upon the Mompós, a huge awning was erected to offer shade. Those organizing the president’s visit could doubtless see the flaking and poorly tended building, but only a fraction of the columns. These were hastily painted. Once the president was long gone and the awning only a distant memory, some three quarter painted columns are what remain of the promises to Mompós.
My mood lifts. Back in the Casa Amarilla, emails answered, guests attended to, perhaps regaled with a few tales from my own experiences here that seem as if plucked from the magic realism of García Márquez, I look forward to my siesta. The siesta is positively encouraged in Mompós, and I heartily sign on for this tradition. I swing in the hammock strung in my apartment, away from the guests, and catch up on some shut eye or reading. This is quiet time as the whole town is seemingly asleep as well. The fan just pushes the hot air around, but if we are lucky there might be a mid-afternoon breeze that will later usher in a rainstorm and bring the temperature down. I have had on occasion three siestas in one day; this is, pushing the limits of acceptable behavior in my book.
If no guests arrive before midday, it is unlikely they have travelled overnight from the interior of the country. I guess the fact that it is tricky getting here is a blessing as well, in that there are set timetables to the influx of tourists. This is also a perfect filter on the type of tourist we receive.
Around 3:00 pm, the buses from Cartagena and Barranquilla are due and their arrival is signaled by the dozen or so mototaxis that chase them through town jostling desperately for business. I stand in the doorway and watch to see if any potential guests alight. In my experience, travellers don’t like to be harangued upon arrival, and the mototaxi drivers play into this trap almost ensuring that the Europeans and North Americans will walk this way just to avoid their thronging and touting of hotels.
After a certain hour there’ll be precious few arrivals. There are exceptions to the rule of course, such as the lone Israeli and his Danish girlfriend who arrived late one night and promptly asked if Mompós was like Bogotá or Medellín, “Mucha Rumba?” To this day I wonder how they got here; after all, you have to cross a river and then travel miles upon miles of unpaved roads. There is of course rumba, but this is not the attraction.
Perhaps I’ll have a beer with a guest or two on the roof terrace at sunset. Beforehand I make sure that any bookings are organized for the following day and then haul a floor fan up top to dissuade the more insistent mosquitos. This beer may lead to another but I have a rule that by 9.30 pm I limit my interaction with the guests. Hopefully conversations will have sprung up between new arrivals or even possible romances allowing me to take my leave.
And there have been romances, more than I can possibly remember, and far be it for me to damage potential returning visitors by putting their amorous holiday stop outs into print. A German cyclist who claimed to be leaving in the early morning to beat the heat and then proceeded to down beers into double figures with a girl from the Czech Republic who then left before he did without ever having rumpled the sheets in her room. Just like any self-respecting traveller, the German was not shy about recounting his experiences while nursing a coffee the following morning and then cycling off in the midday heat. An action which cannot have helped his dehydrated state. Then there was a girl from Medellin who, whilst on a voyage of discovery for her and her accompanying future mother in law, did some self-exploring with an English chap firm in the knowledge that the suegra would not interrupt their faena. It was only upon their departure that we realized that the young lady had been slipping sleeping pills into her mother in law’s evening juice. “Doña Carmen, I have slept so well here in Mompós.”
While I think about it, why not mention the case of the Spaniard who having arrived in a group canoeing up the Magdalena River was shocked to find a former conquest — ably demonstrating the dogged tenacity of a Colombian lady — from Bogotá to have followed him here to Mompós. Mompós, a town so distant from Bogota that it feels like another universe, where seemingly you would deter even the most persistent suitors just by the perceived difficulties in reaching this town. He was less than impressed. And rather than taking one for the team and squaring down with the young lady in question once more, he settled up with her travel companion in the early morning in a hallway. No, I was not spying. It so happened that one of our reserve water tanks on the rooftop had exploded around 5am and I was up there trying to put an end to the deluge. My night porter, agitated by the spectacle, was wondering what to do with the entangled couple laid out on the colonial tiles. Finally, he hailed down a mototaxi and sent them off to a rent-by-the-hour motel on the other side of town. The ensuing fallout was that the travel companions no longer were speaking to one another and, rather than making up, would use my 12 year old neighbor Amalia as a go between in their conversations.
Awkward situations abound and will doubtless continue, but, this is human nature and human lasciviousness. One only wishes that, in the heat of the moment, couples would close the shutters on their windows so that my poor long-suffering cleaning staff would not have to encounter monos (monkeys — as Caucasians are referred to here) doing the beast with two backs as they do the rounds about the cloister garden and corridors of the colonial house.
The way I have painted it suggests that we are indeed running a motel. But, no, this is not what the Casa Amarilla is about, just that we receive a high number of tourists — both foreign and domestic — and being an observer of the human condition, I guess that people behave more poorly in hotels as they are not at home. What of it?
When we opened in 2008 there was a ripple of mobilization from other businesses in town, principally those involved in accommodation, to get us shut down. Yes, we have received visits from the police acting on the “anonymous” tip-off that we are running a brothel or a motel, neither of which is legal within the confines of the historic center. We have been accused of dealing drugs, not having the correct paperwork, but, over time these accusations have ebbed. One of the more inventive ploys to have me attacked was to call a meeting, formal letters were sent to the Hotel Owners' Union, which indicated that members of a delegation from the Japanese Embassy would be attending to promote Mompós and to invest into the tourist infrastructure here. Something smelt awry, principally because the arrival of a delegation, let alone a Japanese delegation would not go unnoticed in Mompós and we had seen no instances of Japanese people in town. Rather than go myself, I sent Carmen. As she returned it was all confirmed that the whole invention was a charade to get me into a room with irate and envious hotel owners to voice their displeasure with me. Carmen of course, being the robust and take no prisoners costeña, reminded them all that on the event that the Casa Amarilla was full, which was happening fairly frequently, we had sent tourists to all of the other establishments in town. Of course our list of referrals started with those who had been less ghastly to us and then at the end of the line would be the most beastly rivals. Of course, they all denied any knowledge of this policy of ours and claimed to have received no one citing the Casa Amarilla as a reference.
As a former tourist policeman once declared to the most prolific shit stirrer creating all sorts of problems in town meetings regarding us: “The Casa Amarilla is more legal than you are.” And then, when I asked for an explanation as to why this behavior still continued the same policeman uttered the immortal line:
“Si la guerrilla no mata a Mompós, la envidia sí.”
Literally, “if the guerrilla doesn’t finish off Mompós, envy will.”