Saturday evening in Mompox. I bump into our driver, William, and he invites me to come for a bite to eat with some members of his family. We sit out in the Plaza next to the church of Santo Domingo. William’s brother-in-law, Carlos, finds it extremely amusing that the family is seated around a table with a foreigner, and occasionally leans over in an attempt to speak a word or two of pidgin English. I have no idea why he does this. I speak perfectly good Spanish. But there is a certain type of individual who finds foreigners inherently funny (perhaps to deflect from the fact that he finds them threatening) and it comes as no surprise to discover he is a member of the Colombian police. A rather junior member, I would hope, but you can never tell.
We eat several plates of meat and potatoes – a variety of potato with a thick fibrous taste, which William tells me is called papa yucca. It is accompanied by Aguila light, a practically alcohol-free beer. Although Colombians like to drink, like the Russians they do not really consider beer to be a form of alcohol. The favourite tipple of Carlos and William – indeed of Colombians in general – is aguardiente, an aniseed based firewater. When, after supper, we retire to the discoteca – a forlorn establishment, in which couples of a certain age dance in each other’s arms – William and Carlos put away a bottle of aguardiente between them within an hour. At the end of the evening William refuses to let me walk home – although we are only three blocks from my hotel – and we hail a mototaxi – basically a motorbike with a small bench for two passengers attached, and six of us pile on. This is quite illegal, but we have the police with us, so I guess it’s all right.
When we get to my hotel Carlos leaps out and hammers on the thick wooden door with the iron knocker, invoking all the authority of the law. William has invited me to lunch with the extended family (and parents-in-law) after mass the next day. I say I would be happy to come but will skip mass. Whether for this reason or another (Carlos’ suspicions that I may be an intellectual and therefore probably a leftist – or the fact that while in Cartagena I was staying in the comparatively disreputable barrio of Getsemaní rather than the historic centre –where hotels cost from three to six times as much) I do not know, but William doesn’t come to pick me up at the arranged time (I later find out he had to make an unscheduled chauffering trip to Cartagena at midday). It would have been nice, but I think I garnered enough of the conservative, Catholic agenda to have predicted the course of the lunchtime conversation.
First and foremost on this agenda is an unshakeable faith: churches in Colombia are packed and religious paraphernalia everywhere. William crosses himself every time he passes a church, and at random other moments while driving his truck. Secondly, and not surprisingly given the country’s recent past, a deep hostility to both drugs and drug users. In a certain sense, the drug trade and all who sail in it are seen by the Catholic right as responsible for the multiple woes that Colombia has suffered. The following evening, sitting in the park, I am approached by a young dreadlocked type who taps me for a few coins. I give him a few pesos – the equivalent, literally, of around 20 p – and he goes off happy. Two drunks sitting nearby, sharing a bottle of aguardiente tell me off, explaining that the boy will spend it on la droga. This incenses them. They wave the bottle around in their rage at the very thought, and they are clearly oblivious to any inconsistency between their attitude to drugs and their own benighted state. But it has always been this way: the ‘legal’ drug of the Christian West somehow fuels people with moral indignation about other intoxicating substances. With Islam it’s the other way round.
On Sunday I try to arrange a boat trip up the Magdalena. The banks are thick with wildlife – especially birds. I know very little about birds, but it seems a shame to be on the river and not take the opportunity to explore a little. A young entrepreneur, Lazaro, offers to find a boat for me. Unfortunately he doesn’t have a mobile phone, and has to borrow mine to speak to his contacts. This seems like a poor start, but I give him the benefit of the doubt. He tells me to meet him at 3 pm in the Plaza de la Concepión. He finds me having lunch at the nearby Comedor Costeño and waits for me to finish. When we leave he tells me that paying 14,000 pesos (about £4.50) for a meal of oxtail soup, fresh fish, rice, plantain and salad, and a home made fruit juice was excessive. I think I have his measure. He borrows my phone to speak to his contact again, and the price I was promised this morning – 25,000 for three hours on the river – has gone up to 35,000 – he hands me the phone to speak to the boat owner just to prove he is not making it up. We stop a mototaxi and set off for the outskirts of town, downriver. When we get there, there is no boat. Lazaro, a little frantic now, borrows my mobile again. He furrows his brow. I can tell this is not going to be good news. The boat trip is off: the other two passengers that were lined up have postponed until tomorrow. I have a friend, begins Lazaro, with a boat, good price . . .
I have given up, lost all interest, but we have to return to town anyway, so off we go in the same mototaxi. When we get to the Plaza San Francisco, Lazaro strides to the bank and yells across the river to a single farm building on the other side. Miraculously, a couple of minutes later I see a man come to the shore. He is accompanied by a man in a red shirt and a young girl of around ten. After considerable discussion between the two men, they unrope the launch – little more than a canoe with a small outboard attached, and cross the river. We fix a price, a quarter of which goes to Lazaro, who then departs, happy. I am not sorry to seem him go.
Pedro, the boat owner, introduces himself. He is courteous and sober. His companion, Edgar, seems exceedingly dim, until I realise that his exaggeratedly slow speech and movements are due to the fact that he is completely off his face. The girl sits on the prow at first, but is deposited on the far bank before we set off, first down river, then upriver. Pedro is fairly astute and good at pointing out animals and birds. Edgar is completely vacant, occasionally turning to me and asking if I speak Spanish, and when I reply in the affirmative saying no more but simply nodding to himself sadly. He even ventures to ask me where I am from, and when I tell him he clearly has no idea what on earth Wales is, and I can’t be bothered with an explanation – so he again nods to himself sadly, perched precariously on the edge of the launch, a position he maintain majestically throughout the trip. There are no further attempts at conversation, except when Pedro calls out the name of an animal or bird and Edgar waves his arms frantically in the requisite direction, of which the only effect is to scare the creatures away. The biggest thrill comes with the iguanas, which I cannot see at first – they are so well disguised – and Edgar rouses himself from his moribund state to gesture frantically at the river bank. Unfortunately there is a lot of riverbank, and by the time I have got the iguana in focus, it moves. Same thing happens the second time. Fortunately I am luckier the third time.
That evening, my last in Mompox, I wander around the town. I can pick up something of the mystery of the place, especially along the old riverside buildings, which once served as warehouses and workshops. Some of them look as though they are being turned into bars, but haven’t quite opened. My unhelpful guidebook tells me the ‘zona rosa’ is a pleasant place to take a nightcap, but I can neither agree not disagree, because it doesn’t seem to exist. However I have a flavour, I think, both of what Mompox once was, and what it might become if tourism gets a firmer toehold. Certainly there were properties for sale that could well appeal to a certain kind of nostalgic and world-weary European or North American with an urge to sink into timeless reverie on the banks of the Magdalena.