Share This

Sonia and the Gringo

With coffee in place, good Colombian coffee, tipo exportación, on my desk, I settle down to write a journal entry. At the moment of writing I am hoping there’ll be no interruptions here in Mompós. And why should there be in this sleepy town? Mompós, a backwater with its laconic pace of life in rural Colombia, has captivated my imagination since 2007 and everything about the town is literary and beckons me to put pen to paper. Speak to anyone here and they’ll mention the cultured nature of their kin; they’ll say that, in the past, there was a university—the first on the Colombian Caribbean coast—that this is the mythical town of Macondo of 100 Years of Solitude, that the great liberator of northern South America, Simon Bolivar, raised an army of 400 Momposinos (as the townsfolk are known) to march on Caracas to fight in the noble cause of independence and loosen the shackles of colonialism held by imperial Spain.


One can reflect on the turns that a life takes. Who would ever have thought that I would have ended up here? And, as a foreigner, a guest among them in a country that has opened its arms to embrace me as if I were one of their own, that I would suggest that of the 400, precious few actually made the journey from the soporiphic lowlands and extensive wetlands where Mompós is found—landlocked yet amphibian due to the presence of water everywhere—over the foothills of the Andes as far as Merida in neighboring Venezuela and on to Caracas? Legend has it that these Momposinos who, despite believing in the cause, upon feeling the chill of the altitudes about Merida, preferred to return to their homes and busy themselves casting their nets for the plentiful bocachico and bagre river fish to provide for their families as the struggle for independence settled on focal points elsewhere.

Today, visitors can admire a plinth located in front of the Palacio San Carlos in the center of Mompós, remembering those fearless 400, and Momposinos are quick to inform that theirs was the first town to declare absolute independence from Spain. A neighbor also claims to have a family tree in his home showing, nay proving, that his lineage extends back to a medieval town in Spain and that his forebears were none other than the conquistadores themselves.

Inspired by the writings of Nobel–prize winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the wonders of the Magdalena River, I arrived in Mompós to pen an article on the austere Semana Santa celebrations and ended up staying. Colombia el Riesgo es que Quieres Quedar, a promotional slogan for Colombia that could have been written for me, was a careful play on words setting up a long-running debate on whether the publicist behind this bold statement should have played off tourism against the risk of kidnapping, an image that Colombia has been trying to shirk for more than a decade now. Audacious and controversial.

Wherever you stand with regard to the statement and its duplicitous nature, it’s a strong catch-line, and I, like so many writers, travelers, authors, and wandering souls, am testament to this positivism spun out of a negative international perspective. It’s Colombia through and through, it’s the search for a postcolonial identity and levies the question of how one society can move forward against a mountain of contradictions, a justifiably poor reputation, and a sense of inferiority in a globalized world. For me, hailing from a country still struggling to cope with postimperial designs and its role in the world while weighing in on the importance of schooling, surnames, and heritage, Mompós and Colombia’s struggles have been easily recognizable and strike close to home.

Closer to home there are more pressing immediate problems, which I cannot help but feel are connected to larger societal issues stemming from the town’s feudal past and its struggles.

The trash piles up in front of my guesthouse when we have people to stay; there is no refuse collection at the moment in Mompós. There is supposed to be, they just don’t come. Sometimes they come, maybe once a week, at best, despite the fact we pay for it and our water mains will be shut off if we don’t. This is Mompós and this is Colombia. Don’t ask and be careful if you complain. Someone somewhere is benefitting from this, but it’s not at my Casa Amarilla hotel.

That our waste collectors prefer not to work during periods of high water and when the dump is flooded is understandable. Simply put, there is nowhere to put the rubbish except in front of colonial homes, creating an unpleasant frieze of twenty-first-century consumerism set against a backdrop of stately homes dating back to the sixteenth century. But now, these waters have long subsided and we have gone a year without a formal refuse collection. Our UNESCO world heritage status is being challenged due to the current administration’s failure to resolve the issue.

Now the floods have ceased and the dump is dry. Why aren’t they coming around? People have resorted to tossing their black bin bags full of daily detritus into the river. And this practice has been going on for eons. My mother-in-law and extended family no longer fling their black plastic bags full of rubbish into the river after my rebuke at their behavior. At least they no longer do this when I am around. But, the people here, and I am not defending their actions, are only doing what comes naturally to them after centuries of conditioning.

Alongside this absence of waste collection, as with so many parts of the developing world, an informal economy has sprung up activated by our needs. Unfortunately, there’s no recycling of discarded materials here, but the most hardworking humble folk have brushed off their old bicycles, adapted them to push a front-loading cart, and now do the rounds collecting what is cast away by others. But there are other methods as well.

For one resourceful señora Sonia, and her family, the lack of refuse collectors is just fine. She makes a good income coming around with her carro mula (horse-drawn cart) to pick up our trash and take it to the dump. The pay varies according to the quantity.

Obviously, I am appreciative of her service and always give a little more. I like to think that she comes with a smile and a cheery remark due to the fact that here she is treated like a person rather than a refuse collector.

¨GRINGO,” she bellows through the window of our sala that looks onto the road and the Magdalena River.


Her smile reveals silver-capped teeth. She sees me at my desk. I look up over my laptop at Sonia and am happy to see her.

Obviously, there’s rubbish, this is the land where the toilet paper does not go down the drain, it collects in baskets and then needs to be emptied. Our drains cannot manage sodden triple ply. I refer to these soiled paper towels affectionately as “shit tickets.” The terminology used in bathroom humor always garners a smile from younger tourists and, then, just perhaps, they’ll remember not to throw their toilet paper in the loo and block Mompós’ tragically fragile drains.

Today is no different.


Yes, there’s three bags. I hand over a little more than US$2. She has come with her husband.

He says, “El no es gringo, el Inglés es Momposino.”

I am pleased. This has taken just over three years.

And on the following day.


She comes and hollers through the colonial ironwork on the window. She waits. She knows I’ll appear. Her very appearance brightens my day. My staff jokes that these are visits from my “novia,” a frequent caller who comes to take away the trash every other day here in Mompós.

¿Como estás mi gringo?”

I am well, I am happy, I am happy and married, the Casa Amarilla is full, reservations continue, the restoration of a new room is complete, and we can accommodate more guests now.

Sonia tells me that she has had to move house.

Her home flooded more than two months ago when the Magdalena and Cauca Rivers that pass the island started to swell. With incessant rains in the Colombian interior the situation got so bad that Bogotá was pretty much cut off from the rest of the country. The country’s capital was as good as incommunicado.

She now lives in a barrio called La Feria in a tent provided for her family by the Colombian Red Cross. La Feria is not really even a district; it’s a section of a playing field at a neighboring high school. The land is slightly higher and so will not flood so fast there. If it continues to rain, she’ll have to move again.

Of course, she’s not my “novia”; I have already mentioned that I am happily married. But, in jest, she is referred to as my “novia,” just as I know that secretly she has told my staff that I am her “novio” but that it’s a secret.

“Mi gringo,” she begins, “ ¿Cuando vas a tener gringuitos con tu esposa?” When are you and your wife going to have children?

Not right now, I say, looking wistfully at the rising water levels outside, sometime in the future.

“Pero, ya, así que tu gringuito puede casar con mi hijita.” But, have them now so that your little gringo can marry my daughter.

We both laugh, her capped teeth shining.

Her visit always brightens my day.

Then, one day I decided to ask Sonia after her family and where she is now living. “And your daughter? How is she?”

“What daughter?” Sonia responds.

I relate her tale of months back, during the flooding. A grin appears across her face as her eyes pucker. She remembers.

“I don’t have a daughter; I just wanted to chat with you.”

La Casa Amarilla

I really don’t mind, there’s a naiveté and innocence and pleasant familiarity when talking about one’s family here. All she wanted to do was engage in a social interaction. I try to always save my garbage for Sonia but perhaps due to her advanced years she is not making the rounds so early anymore. Now there’s a young entrepreneurial type, maybe in his early teens, who gets to the Casa Amarilla at around 7 am, usually before the guests awake. As you can imagine it’s a benefit to me and for the business to have the ripening waste from the previous day out and rid of before breakfast.

Where does the endless flow of stripy bin bags go? Along the highway to the east, an area easily identified by the prevalence of skulking vultures. It’s a sad state of affairs but it’s either here or in the river. You can decide which is more damaging.

Over time, our friendship grows and clothes left by guests are routinely donated to her family living on the edge of ruin.

“Where are your new shoes?” I ask of the trainers gifted a few days previously. Her smile is contagious, I cannot help but follow suit. She is immensely grateful.

“These are good shoes, hardly used. When you take me dancing I’ll put them on.” And then she cackles into her riotous laughter.

We never go dancing, but I do get invited to her home with Alba and Esther. It is the afternoon following her grandson Juan Felipe’s baptism. We bounce over rutted dirt pathways to reach her barrio on the other side of the highway. Our arrival in this neighborhood turns heads. It is unusual to see a gringo and people from the colonial area visiting here. Corrugated shacks make up the neighborhood; haphazard wires, strung perilously about, tap into the main grid to supply power to a single bare lightbulb that hangs in the main rooms; and, of course, there are the ubiquitous sound systems.

Sonia’s house is spotless and I can tell that everything is just so for us, for we are the guests of honor and the godparents to Juan Felipe, her grandson.

I have but one godson. In a baptism, organized for multiple children and families, beneath the wooden carving of a black Christ in the Iglesia San Agustin, Alba and I swore to care for Juan Felipe in the event that anything should happen to his family. As we stepped out of the church for photos, I reflected on the nature of this ceremony. Eighty years ago, when the river last flooded, the black Christ was lifted from its place above the altar and led in a short procession along the callejon to the river where the priest bathed its feet and asked for the waters to recede to spare the town. Alba’s grandmother still remembers the event; she was a little girl at the time. The whole town participated.

Only two weeks prior to our attendance at Juan Felipe’s baptism, the Christ had once again been paraded as far as the river. The water levels began to drop a day or so later. While the rainy season had come to an end, hundreds of people were present at this event—you can find it on YouTube if you search hard enough. Alba’s grandmother, even in her advanced age, attended once more. Along the riverbank, human detritus and plastic bags poke through the surface of the water.

But my period of introspection continues afoot beneath the eaves of the yellow-painted church and under the glare of the semi-equatorial sun, threatening to scald my pale northern European skin. Without this natural disaster, in part worsened by human activities and waste, I would never have met Sonia, we would never have become godparents to Juan Felipe, and my ignorance of the town beyond the ornate bubblegum-colored confines of the colonial center and its claims to Colombia’s history and independence from Spain—debatable and dubious or not depending on what you choose to believe—would have continued uninterrupted.