Organ Grind, A South American Food Journal, Part 2: The Eerie Charms of Mompox, Colombia
When traveling in a strange land with only a hazily defined sense of purpose to guide you, you find yourself pointed towards destinations based on some fairly whimsical pretexts. The one which inspired me to make a long, harsh journey over unpaved roads perched in the beds of poorly suspended pickups, down rivers on vehicular ferries, survive at least two hair-raising rides hitched on the backs of dirt bikes careening down be-sewaged country lanes was the promise of spending a few days in a tiny, isolated town situated along a slow, brown river which provided the ambiance for a novel by Garcia Marquez that I’d recently finished reading, Chronicle of a Death Foretold. The book concerns the brazen murder of a young man, a member of the ruling class of the somnolent town of Mompox, a place dripping with languid colonial grace and ageless snobbery, the latter deriving from an aristocratic legacy coupled with a central role in Colombia’s declaration of independence from Spain. The murder is witnessed by several citizens, who represent various strata of Mompox society. The novel has a prismatic quality resulting from the knitting together of these varied, contrasting perspectives on the event, each colored by the teller’s prejudices. It evoked vividly in my mind a singular place that I deemed worthy of a visit, which might seem like a thread of literary ephemera too flimsy to follow, but which was enough to impel me on its trail.
Which is not to say I didn’t question my choices as my voyage unfolded. It became to resemble, with all the means of transportation taken into account, some lunatic Rube Goldberg device stretching from the thronging coastal metropolis of Cartagena to the ramshackle, faded colonial backwater of Mompox vis a vis 200-odd kilometers of washed out roads swarming with pigs, oxen, dogs and bored members of Colombia’s Armed Forces idly fiddling with their automatic rifles while hassling tourists and locals alike to pass the time. I would have settled for a cot in a Bakersfield meth kitchen after that ordeal. As it was I found a picturesque settlement of white stucco and red-brown tiles populated by a friendly, mostly middle-aged and elderly population squinting against the dust and humidity of a blinding noonday sun, and a civilized little hostel with clean linen and a ceiling fan under which to drowse. The encroaching of twilight clothed Mompox in her finest atmospherics: the daytime squall of thousands of wheeling birds came to be replaced along the lanes by swooping bats picking off mosquitos, and the darting of phosphorescent gecko’s along the bleached walls ambushing gnats and beetles.
Along the perimeter of Plaza San Domingo the food carts are set up of an evening around six pm. I’ve come to be wearily familiar with the street food staples in Colombia: Salchipapa (see my preceding article about Cartagena), second rate hot dogs and piss poor hamburgers. Much more pleasing and unusual are the smoothies freshly juiced in the Plaza, involving the familiar (apple, banana, orange) and the bizarre and untrustworthy (tree tomato, mora, nispero and lulo). If you’re so cynical as to turn your nose up at fresh, unknown fruit juices, Aguila lager can be had for a pittance at any stand or corner store to be consumed wherever the fuck you want; just respectfully brown bag it in church while getting your fix of fire and brimstone.
Was it worth it? That’s not a question that a serious traveler should ask of his or herself. Every random lead followed doggedly to it’s conclusion, be it taken from a person or a work of art or an odorous funk communicated on the wind, is a small triumph in and of itself.
Plaza San Domingo,