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.
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.