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Monday, 23 April 2012

Potholes and a River Crossing in Colombia

Written by Matt Milloway
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It felt like a rodeo. The car bounced and my head met the top of the car. Another pothole—rather, a small crater, came into view as I cursed at my too-tall-for-foreign-cars frame.


Street In MomposLeading into the interior of Colombia, the road was battered from years of neglect and heavy rainfall. I left the coastal city of Cartagena hours earlier in a shared taxi heading to Santa Cruz de Mompox, or simply Mompos, a lazy river town best known as the staging ground for Simon Bolivar’s revolution in 1812.


Victor, a quiet local visiting family in Mompos, occupied the passenger seat and knew our driver, a veteran of the road named Freddy. Narrow and unmarked, the road’s uneven surface tossed my body like a ragdoll in a rusted Isuzu SUV in dire need of new shocks.


We soon stopped for a motionless car anchored to the terrain, its driver fruitlessly stomping on the accelerator as mud shot up onto the clothes of children gathered by the edge of the road. Freddy quickly took charge of the situation and instructed the driver out of her car. The middle-aged woman obliged without hesitation as he motioned the youngsters to take up positions behind the car. The children began rocking the car back and forth and Freddy worked his magic from the driver’s seat, soon freeing the vehicle from the abyss. He folded his large body back into the Isuzu and gave me a smirk as we sped off.


The other recurring theme on the trip, after the mud and humidity, consisted of a heavy military presence along the roadside. The checkpoints were far less frequent once pavement gave way to dirt and gravel, but simple army checkpoints, as common as rest stops in the United States, remained prevalent as we bounced along towards the halfway point. Given the violence in Colombia throughout the previous two decades, troops along the roadside provided an oddly reassuring sensation.


Midway into the journey we pulled alongside an open-air restaurant and stopped for lunch. The establishment consisted of rickety wooden tables and chairs under a rusty metal awning, with dozens of patrons crammed together, attempting to enjoy a few moments of shade with their meal. I noticed the stares, not hostile but curious, from many of the restaurant’s patrons. Cartagena is a tourist hot spot by Colombian standards, but this dusty eatery was far off the beaten path and I couldn’t help but feel a little self-conscious.


Freddy and Victor shouted out their orders in the direction of a waitress as I rummaged around for my packed lunch. The next half hour was lost in small talk amidst the sticky mid-afternoon heat.






Back on the road, the bumpy terrain became an accepted tribulation of the ride. We reached a small town that, lacking electricity or running water, looked like a random outcrop of buildings. The lack of a river or other desirable physical characteristic in the immediate area was surprising and I was struck by the abundance of pool tables. Building after building looked like an open-air lounge, built for the sole purpose of congregating for conversation and drinking. 


Instead of passing through the town, no more than four city blocks long, Freddy stopped at the only intersection in town. The prospects, both left and right, looked less than promising as he scrunched his face in thought. Everyone around the intersection watched our car with halfhearted interest as a young man came jogging towards us. Freddy accepted a handful of money and a package wrapped in a black garbage bag, throwing the latter in the backseat before driving onward (add courier services to the Freddy’s many talents).


An afternoon haze enveloped the air. The road was somehow bumpier than before and a handful of children (shouldn’t they be in school?) soon barred our path, using a simple rope held across the road. Freddy flipped a coin out the window and passage was granted. I asked Victor if the practice was common in Colombia and he nodded yes; our single coin might be their only reward for the whole day. It took days to shake the image of young children, as enterprising as they were, left to collect coins on the side of a dusty road.


The final portion of our journey was fast approaching, and I knew Mompos sat on an island surrounded by rivers. The only bridge happened to be at another point of entry, making our crossing options an intriguing mystery. The intrigue turned to apprehension as we pulled up to the waterfront. A small barge-like boat bobbed up and down with little more than a foot of rusted metal protruding above the water. A handful of men readied two wooden boards to be used as a ramp and beckoned our car forward.


Nearly twenty men helped with the task at hand, half of whom simply acted as onlookers trying to act useful. The commotion over our lone vehicle bordered on amusing as men knocked and kicked the boards into place. Freddy calmly steered the car up the makeshift ramp and onto the boat.


The barge sputtered to life and began to cross the river. I gingerly stepped outside to stretch my legs, standing inches from the water. The fifteen-minute journey unfolded and I strained to hear the sounds of birds and other wildlife over the boat motor’s rickety drone.






I sensed the journey was nearing an end as we disembarked from the barge. Back on dry land, a large wooden stadium came into view. The crowded event looked like a mob scene, with patrons hanging onto wooden railings and diagonal support beams underneath the stands. The street was packed with men and women who were unable to get closer to the action. Freddy carefully inched forward. He told me the event was a cock-fighting tournament and quickly added the area was to be avoided.


We arrived on the edge of Mompos. Victor’s relatives lived in a nondescript one-story building on the main street leading into town. We shook hands in the car and parted ways. 


Public transportation in Mompos consisted of bicycle-powered taxis. The modern era’s paved roads and stoplights were replaced with dusty paths and intersections. Cars gave way to foot traffic and locals moved along at a leisurely pace or sat chatting in rocking chairs on the sides of the street. The town certainly exuded a relaxed ambiance at first glance.


Freddy made a few turns down dusty side streets and followed the river along a tree-lined road. We passed a charming colonial era church and pulled up to my hostel, nine hours after we sped away from my hotel in Cartagena.


Admittedly sore and tired, I was still reluctant to leave the confines of the taxi as I thanked Freddy and grabbed my bag. The sun crept below the horizon as swarms of bugs danced along the water. I turned and headed towards my hostel, hoping my stay in Mompos provided as many colorful memories as my trip to get there.


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Matt is a freelance writer and historian. He travels obsessively, packs lightly, and knows enough Spanish for party tricks. To date, his writing has appeared in The Miami Herald, Verge Magazine, and Next American City. Matt's published writing and musings can be found at www.mattmilloway.com.
 
   

(c)Matt Milloway



Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012