Mompox

16 Sep

mompox river view

 

Travel is often a matter of balancing a desire for control and a willingness to abandon that control when it serves no purpose. If one finds oneself in a place where timetables and commitments are loosely treated and made on the spur of the moment without too much forethought – well-meant but never likely, in reality, to materialise – and you find yourself fighting this attitude as though it were an aberration, then you are in trouble. If, when travelling you are always trying to be in control of the uncontrollable – especially in a country like Colombia that resists any kind of ulterior control – then you are doomed to misery and failure.

I tried for a couple of days to find the best way to travel to the old colonial town of Mompox -also known as Mompós (population 30,000). It is to be found 249 km up the Magdalena river from Cartagena, and was founded in 1540 by Don Alonso de Heredia, whose elder brother settled Cartagena. An absence of functioning travel agents, as well as the complications of getting reliable information together contributed to a delay in my arrangements. I knew that there was a daily bus service from Cartagena that took eight hours, but did not wish to lose so much of the day. Alternatively I could take a colectivo to an intermediary town five hours south, catch a taxi to a riverside settlement and then a launch upriver for the remainder of the journey –which would again take up most of a day: two days, there and back. In the end, by chance, I came across the Toto Express, run by the eponymous Toto, who organises a pick-up truck for four or five passengers, and who asked me to be ready at 4.30 a.m. on Saturday morning. The truck takes an hour or so to pick up passengers, and arrives in Mompox at 11.00. – in theory at least.

My companions on the trip were William, the driver, and three Colombian ladies, Momposinas on their way home. They talked more or less incessantly, so I was able to catch a flavour of the town they came from. The señora in front was very concerned about William’s driving, although I thought he was rather good, considering the hazards of the journey, and the tendency of other drivers to drive on the wrong side of the road because of the caked mud trenches and potholes (although much of the route is covered, there are long stretches of mud track to negotiate).

At one point we are taking a number of curves on a particularly poor stretch of road, with a lot of traffic. We are stuck behind a lorry. A car passes us at speed, and William edges out carefully to see if it is safe for us to go also. ‘Such imprudence’, says the señora in front, speaking with extraordinary formality. ‘And for what? Just to get ahead! I would rather be wise than imprudent, wait for an opportune moment to pass, and thus keep my life.’ A chorus of agreement from the two señoras in the back with me. William appears to take this personally and turns up the Ranchera music so loud the ladies cannot hear each other speak. The music is pretty awful, but his feelings have been hurt already, so I don’t complain. William then takes what he claims is a shortcut and we encounter a lorry stuck in the mud, completely blocking the narrow uncovered road. We do a three point turn and take the long way around, crossing the River Magdalena by an ancient ferry, consisting of planks attached to three metal boats, and powered by an invisible motor. On the bank a pair of dogs are glued together by their hindquarters, determinedly facing away from each other but unable to move. They appear bored and indignant.

Mompox is a town strongly referenced in the work of Gabriel García Márquez, whom I am currently reading in a pirated – and very badly printed – Spanish edition of Love in the Time of Colera. (It seems obligatory to read García Márquez in Mompox, just as I was compelled to read Lowry in Cuernavaca). Neither this book, nor, apparently, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, are actually based in Mompox (although the latter was partly filmed here) and the settings for Gabo’s fictions tend to be an amalgam of places, real and imagined. If his literary vision is of a certain type of Caribbean town, hopelessly locked into its past, apparently forlorn and yet inherently joyful – such paradoxes are essential to any understanding of Colombian sensibilities, and Colombians are supposedly the second happiest people on earth – then Mompox is as good a place as any to begin to understand the novelist’s sense of habitus. It is a quintessentially Marquesian place, in which the improbable – not to say the fantastic – seem to be woven into the fabric of everyday life. And there are a lot of colourful birds, iguanas and snakes, just to add to the atmosphere.

Iguana in a tree

Iguana in a tree

 

Dead deadly snake

Dead deadly snake

 

Solitary stork

Solitary stork

Yellow bird

Yellow bird

A random google search came up with ‘the very aristocratic and sorrowful city of Mompox’. The Spanish colonial authorities had the Royal Mint here, supposedly out of reach of the English pirates who made frequent raids on the regional capital, Cartagena. Aristocratic it might well once have been, and sorrowful, at times. It was a site of many confrontations during Colombia’s serial civil wars following independence from Spain. More recently it was a no-go area, changing hands between FARC rebels and government forces over a period of years. Since Colombia’s big clean-up a few years back, it has been – and is being – readied for tourism. But tourism, you might be warned, of a particular kind. It reminds me a little of Greece in the 1970s, in which tourism was taking off, but was still in its fledgling, puppy-love stage. There is the same unawareness of ‘service’ – you often wait until whoever is behind the till/counter to finish what they are doing before they attend to you. This is done entirely without malice: it is simply the pace of life telling you what’s what. There is a lot of smiling and a lot of mutual incomprehension. My question about the wifi in my hotel – which I was assured was available in every room – is answered by a shrug, and when pressed, the explanation: oh, you know, it comes and goes. Foreigners are still a novelty, and therefore quite amusing. The hotels, or rather pensions, are extremely cheap and mine is decorated with the kind of bad hippy art that I thought had died in the 1970s also.

On the first evening I wander around the cemetery – often a good place to start – and am delighted to find the grave of one Juan de Dios Wooggle Boivié. You couldn’t make it up. It goes into the catalogue of great names, just pipping that of the Baron Ferdinand Edgar Percival de Frutigen, whose memorial I once encountered in the Pyrenean town of Prats de Mollo.

 

Tomb of Juan de Dios Wooggle Boivié. Mompox

Tomb of Juan de Dios Wooggle Boivié. Mompox

 

mompox cementery

Mompox Cemetery

mompox cementery 2

 

Mompox cementery cats

Mompox cementery cats

mompox old market

 

mompox flowers and street

 

mompox 2 cyclists

 

 

Man at window, residence for the elderly, Mompox.

Man at window, residence for the elderly, Mompox.

 

 

 

 

‘Story’, by Rómulo Bustos Aguirre

14 Sep

Story

I ask myself: why write poetry?

And from some place in the mysterious forest

(in that other story that I am trying in vain

to write with this poem)

the wolf replies

moving his bushy tail Socratically:

– The better to know you.

 

 

Cuento

Me pregunto: ¿Por qué escribo poesía?

Y desde algún lugar del misterioso bosque

(de ese otro cuento que en vano estoy tratando

de escribir en este poema)

responde el lobo

moviendo socrático la peluda cola:

– Para conocerte mejor

 

 

 

Copyright with the author

Necktie

13 Sep

 

She is talking

about the violence

in her country

while peeling

an orange

these guys

she says

are not assassins

they are artists

of death

they slit the throat

(she gestures)

and pull the tongue

out front

like so

they call it

the necktie.

 

 

 

The Tourist and the Fisherman

12 Sep

Boquilla beach

The Tourist (A) is perturbed by the amount of dissembling he has to indulge in when confronted by awkward situations. He defines awkward situations as those times when he feels he cannot act freely, and is accommodating to someone else’s agenda rather than following his own. This happens, incidentally, much of the time, even when he is alone.

A. meets a fisherman (B) on the beach at La Boquilla. He has gone to La Boquilla for some quiet time, a swim, and to read and possibly settle down with notebook and pencil and do some writing. He is not seeking out distractions even though at some point he will be seeking out some food. And there’s the rub. The restaurant recommended in his guidebook – actually a palm thatch shack – appears to be closed and B. has started his pitch by telling A. he will provide him with a lunch of fresh seafood and rice. Lobster, langoustine, crab.

I am a fisherman. Langoustine, crab, fresh fish. All fresh. I dive for lobster. B. has decided to speak in Pidgin Spanish, perhaps because he thinks that A. might understand him more easily. In this respect, B. believes that tourists resemble children and animals, and should be spoken to with care.

B. also tells A. he has a canoe and that he can take A. for a ride through the mangrove swamps, the very same mangrove swamps, A. knows, that were used in the filming of a novel by Gabriel García Márquez. I take you in my canoe, says B., and you look at the birds.

A. also knows from the guidebook – or thinks he might know, as the guidebook has already coughed up several inaccuracies –  that these particular mangrove swamps are home to, amongst other birds, Wilson’s plover, red-knot, gull-billed and large-billed terns, grey kingbird, lesser kiskadee, cattle tyrant, Wilson’s phalarope, collared plover, semi-palmated sandpiper, solitary sandpiper, semi-palmated plover, black, least and brown-throated parakeet, Louisiana and little blue herons, reddish egret and ringed kingfisher.

However, ornithology is not B’s strength. Seagulls, he suggests, and falters. Heron. He’s making an effort, but A. guesses B. doesn’t know or care much about the birds. After all, as a fisherman (if he is indeed a fisherman) they are his direct competitors. But B. does know that other tourists come to see the birds, so why shouldn’t this one.

A. does not see any other tourists, however, and this is a little worrying. He feels like the only tourist in Colombia. No, no, says B. Many tourists here. Italy, Spain, Gringos. He points to a half-built house back from the beach. This house people of Italy, people of Spain.

At this point they are standing by a group of eight or nine dilapidated wooden canoes. Three of them are waterlogged, and half-submerged in the swamp. The others look suspect. A. is thinking: I’ve known this man for three minutes and he wants me to get into an antique wreck with him and paddle into the mangrove swamps, alone. A. isn’t overly concerned about the possible dangers of this. The guidebook states that local fishermen offer canoe trips through the mangroves and this man seems safe (though you can never tell), and besides, A. feels (perhaps foolishly) that he can look after himself. No: A’s problem is that he knows, if he sets off in a canoe with B., he will be insanely bored, and more than a little uncomfortable at having to make light conversation while being paddled through the swamp.

All of these canoes are mine, B. lies. All of them. You choose. Half an hour. You look at birds. I paddle. I give you good price.

A. decides it is time to speak out.

B., he says, using the fisherman’s name to assert his intention. I do not want to get into a canoe with you. I do not want to get into a canoe with anyone, however agreeable the mangrove swamp. Nor do I wish to watch the birds, however gracious they may be. I simply wish to take a walk along the beach and later, when I return, I will eat the food that you have promised to cook in your restaurant.

B. thinks about this, brightening.

But, he says, you cannot walk down that way (nodding away from the thatched huts).

Why not?

It’s dangerous.

How is it dangerous?

The water. Down that way the water is dangerous. And the rocks. This way (gesturing back towards the thatched huts) this way is not dangerous.

B. can scent victory. He points at a couple of canvas sunshades pitched near the shoreline. These small shelters dot the entire length of the beach. You walk, you rest, you swim, says B. I make you food for two o’clock.

A. looks at the sunshades. The sun is not shining. It is not yet ten thirty and it is overcast but hot. He could sit in a chair under the shade and read and write, which is what he intended to do by coming to the beach. He might swim in the warm surf. B. will have won, but at least A. will probably be left alone, and he will not have to go looking for lunch. Besides, there doesn’t appear to be another restaurant, at least not one that is open.

Which sunshade will you take? asks B.

Cartagena, the Inquisition and slavery, all in a day

11 Sep

Cartagena square

 

On my second evening in Cartagena I take a stroll around the old walled city, which despite its colonial style and nostalgic elegance is sadly heading in the same direction as every other tourist destination in the developing world. The old triangular square that contained the slave market for over 200 years is now used by the descendants of those slaves working in the sex trade (female, as far as I could determine but, I have been informed, you can never be sure until the moment of truth). They congregate in little groups and totter around on heels, checking mobile phones sheathed in brightly coloured holders.

But even watching the rituals of the night unfold can be exhausting in this heat, so I head back to my small hotel in Getsemaní, just outside the old walls.

I arrived the day before yesterday and had been in Cartagena for three hours and been through as many changes of shirt. The air was like hot soup, and, once settled in my room, with the air-conditioning finally working, I foolishly left my haven to wade through the soup on a shopping mission. I went to one of the many stalls selling phones and electrical accessories in Getsemaní market to buy batteries. The girl serving me broke into a smile, told me to wait, and went to the back of the shop, returning with half a dozen tissues, gesticulating towards my face. I thanked her nervously. I remember that I was once referred to as a ‘sweaty Welshman’, but that was a scurrilous euphemism and I do not think I perspire more freely than most. But this heat is something else.

And air-conditioning, for all its ecological hazards, is a blessing. Last night I stayed up writing and at 2.30 a.m. stepped out onto the veranda running past my room to be wrapped at once in sweetly florid heat. The flowers and creeping plants had taken over the air, and the streets outside were silent apart from the barking of an insomniac dog.

This is the Caribbean, and there is a more laid-back and open attitude among the locals than one generally finds among the rather dour highlanders in Bogotá. People are immediately welcoming, and this is done in such an entirely guileless way that early suspicions are soon erased. A young man wants to show me where to get a charger for my camera: he leads me down an alley, across a park, into a shopping mall, introduces me to the shopkeeper and then leaves, shaking my hand and wishing me well.

 

cartagena window

 

On my first evening, strolling in the old town, I had noticed a strange little window in the side of an old palace. An inscription plate informed me it was at this spot that informers could report the misdeeds of their neighbours to the inquisitors, for this was the Palace of the Inquisition. So, any grudge against the person next door, I imagine – or if one’s cow stops giving milk, for instance – might be twisted into an accusation of witchcraft. The next day I visit the museum that now occupies the Palace. It is a chamber of horrors, peculiarly filtered through rhetoric which claims that the Inquisitors were nicer to people here than they were elsewhere, and that although their methods were not always pleasant, their ultimate intention was a good one: to help heretics make peace with god before meeting with him in person. My guide book tells me that over 800 were executed by the Inquisition between 1776 and 1821. The museum information mitigates this by saying that ‘only five’ heretics were burnt to death and the ‘the Inquisition did not oppress the Indigenous population.’

The commonest accusations were concerned with heresy and specifically, witchcraft. A list of the 33 questions routinely asked in the interrogation of suspect witches hangs on the wall of the museum. Examples include: ‘What animals have you killed or put under a curse and why have you done it? ‘On which children have you cast the spell of the evil eye, and why have you done it?’ ‘Why does the devil strike you blows at night?’ ‘How do you fly through the air at night?’ I am not a lawyer, but I believe that these might be termed leading questions.

Some of the instruments of torture used to extract confessions are also on display. They include the two devices shown below. The first, called in Spanish the Fork of Heresy, prohibited all movement of the head but offered the victim the chance to murmur his or her confession; the second, an invention horribly called the ‘Breast Piercer’, was used on women ‘who had committed heresy, blasphemy, adultery, or other libidinous acts such as provoking abortions, practising erotic magic and other crimes.’

 

La Horquilla del Hereje

La Horquilla del Hereje

 

El desgarrador de Senos

El desgarrador de Senos

 

As though to cleanse myself of these horrors, I wander down to the Convent of the good priest San Pedro Claver. For almost forty years, this Jesuit from the Catalan village of Verdú, a contemporary of Shakespeare and Cervantes, worked in Cartagena, apparently defending, protecting and nursing newly arrived African slaves in the city. His munificence was legendary, at a time when black people were regarded as little more than beasts of burden by their dealers and owners. Here he is, the great white guardian, a placebo against all the terrors and ignominies of slavery:

 

San Pedro Claver, Catalan Saint

San Pedro Claver, Catalan Saint, and friend.

 

The museum that honours him in the old convent reconstructs his modest cell, his living quarters, and houses an exhibition of the most terrible paintings imaginable – so terrible they are fascinating – celebrating his good deeds among the slave population – who are here depicted as almost imbecilic caricatures:

 

Cartagena Pedro 1

 

Cartagena Pedro 2

Cartagena Pedro 3

Cartagena Pedro 4

 

But at least there is a way out. On a wall, apparently unrelated to anything around it, I find the sign ‘Portal de las Animas': Portal of Souls. Now, where’s the damn switch . . .

 

 

Cartagena portal 2

 

 

 

 

Bolívar Square

9 Sep

Bogota homeless man

 

I caught sight of this man crossing the Plaza de Bolívar, and from a distance something looked very wrong. He had a strange loping gait, and was clutching a small white ticket in his right hand, and what looked like sheets of parchment in his left. I am sure they were not sheets of parchment, but they could have been, in another story. His eyes were gone, into the lost territories of the crack addict or the madman. I had the sensation that something or someone was speaking to him, and he was attempting to respond, talking aloud, although not shouting, and waving the sheets of parchment as though they had a particular meaning. He seemed accustomed to the fact that people turn away from in the street, and dogs follow him nervously, but no longer paid it any mind. Like many homeless people in Bogotá he lives mainly off the things he finds in refuse bins, eating food that people have thrown away, searching the same street or group of streets again and again in the course of the day, occasionally confronting an intruder on his territory, at which point the two will face off, possibly come to blows, and then one will shuffle off. I saw this happen earlier in a park at the top of Avenida Jímenez, where the San Francisco river once came down from the mountain and is now channelled via a concrete waterway, where it accumulates debris and rubbish and plastic bags, and is left that way. The mountain beyond is nearly always covered in mist. The weather is complicated, and the late afternoon and evening, inexplicably, is colder than the night.

bogota cathedral

 

Bogota up the hill

 

 

 

 

The Two Worlds of Bogotá

8 Sep

 

homless

Photo by Juan Arredono

 

Navigating Bogotá can be an exasperating business, on several levels. Certain aspects of life in the city are perplexing. The street system – while appearing quite logical on paper – is practically incomprehensible. Yesterday we spent over an hour in a taxi whose good-natured but confused driver was unable to find the address we had been directed to in the elite outreaches of the city. We took so long arriving our hosts had begun to worry we might have been abducted. The city sprawls upward and outward, housing the upper reaches of society in the north, while to the south dismal shanty towns, without fresh water, sanitation or electricity and spewing sewage into the muddy streets, have been occupied over the years by a stream of refugees from the violence and poverty in other parts of the country. This was a violence that claimed so many lives that it makes the losses of other countries on the continent that suffered brutal regimes in the 70s and 80s look almost paltry in comparison: two million certified dead, several million more disappeared or displaced The number of refugees has swollen the population of the city – officially around 8 million, but generally acknowledged to be well in excess of that figure.

Meanwhile, as in so many other cities, the comfort and privilege of the few are considerable. If you walk or drive around these smarter streets, you will, however, come across the most desperate beggars imaginable. I don’t know why that is: the homeless shouldn’t be on a sliding scale of depravity and wretchedness, but somehow the street-dwellers of Bogotá seem more lamentable than anywhere I have been. They are often so moribund that they are too far gone to put out a hand, or mutter a supplication: many of them just sprawl flat out on the pavement, or hang onto a railing, gurning toothlessly as the world passes them by. The victims of poverty, rampant drug abuse and despair, these sorry individuals, caked with grime, shoeless and utterly beyond concern, stagger around the streets as though returning visions from hell. And today, as I pass by a newly opened Dunkin Donuts, one of them stares at me briefly, glazed, uncomprehending, covered in the filth of centuries, clothed in colourless rags, and to my shock I realise that this ancient vision is actually a young man, probably still in his twenties, and I shudder.

 

 

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