It was not my intention, or even desire, to go on a bird-watching tour, but I needed something to do. Mompox has the reputation of being a colonial town where time has stood still, and that’s exactly how it felt. I would wake up early, it would already be hot and humid, and then I’d go outside and the day would not end. My chest was so tight with anxiety that I could barely breathe.
Someone at the hostel mentioned something about the tour, and I realized it would at least break up the day, so I bought a ticket. Shortly before three, I walked down the riverwalk toward the double-decker boat for sunset tours. On the opposite side of it was the narrow, wooden one used for bird-watching. It had been raining when I pulled into Mompox, but sunny since. Now, in the twenty minutes between arriving at the launch and the tour beginning, it clouded over and began to rain.
There were only seven of us onboard the boat. I ended up in the front, sitting next to the guide. She spent most of the time talking to the couple behind us. It was raining so hard it was difficult to see the banks of the river, let alone one of the three hundred species of bird life that were allegedly in the vicinity. There were a few white cranes, and what looked like a kingfisher, but what drew the most attention were the iguanas, stuck out on the branches in the dismal downpour, looking as forlorn as Gaugin’s Yellow Christ.
We came to a small village and then started up a small channel, eventually making our own trail through the dense, aquatic plant life. One man stood in the front with a pole, pointing out the best way to go, and using the pole to push us free on the times when the engine seized up. It was beginning to feel like an adventure. We stopped at a lagoon where half the other passengers began to change into swimsuits. I hadn’t known swimming was an option, but couldn’t resist once I saw the others leaping over the side, and stripped down to my underwear, cautioning the guide to cover her eyes.
The water was warm, almost as if we were in the presence of a thermal spring. As I floated on the surface, little fish began to nip at me. I said something about it to a French woman and she looked alarmed. There were supposed to be crocodiles in the river, but I hadn’t heard anything about piranhas. The water was about ten feet deep. Sinking all the way to the bottom, I could feel the black silt squish between my toes.
Something about the swim revived my spirits. Heading back to Mompox at dusk, straight into the rain, felt like we were returning from a combat mission. There were no real tales to tell, but a small battle had been won, by engaging with a group and being a good sport about the weather, rather than isolating on a bench somewhere, fixating on everything that was going wrong.
That night I was revising the sample galleries I’d just posted on my website, when outside the hostel there was a sudden commotion, the banging of drums, and what sounded like a flute. I stepped outside and found that five musicians, a cumbia band, had appeared out of nowhere and were giving a performance beside the river. Cumbia is a form of music that has its origins in Colombia, a combination of African drums and Indigenous wind instruments. The five musicians were all dressed in white, wearing cane sombreros. Three of them played drums, one shook the maracas, and the other played a long whistle with one hand.
A group of Colombians on a weekend outing had hired the band to perform and were dancing all around them. I’d met one of them, Andre, that morning. He’d already been tipsy, and by now was a roaring mess. He recognized me and came running over to pull me into the dance circle, insisting I do the mambo with him. I was in no position to deny him. How often do you get to dance the mambo to a cumbia band beside the Magdalena River? I’m not sure it was even the mambo we were doing. The Tevas on Andre’s feet were slapping the pavement so hard he could’ve been a sixth member of the band.