Apr 14, 2012

Montería, Colombia. Sinú's Pearl.

The hottest place I've ever been on Earth and probably one of the hottest places on the planet. Montería has an annual average temperature of 28°C, while the Sahara desert has an average temperature of just 30°C, only two degrees above Montería! And while in the Sahara nights could reach freezing temperatures and during the winter the average temperature is just 13°C, Montería is freaking hot every single day of the year, every minute of every hour. If you ask me, what the first thing is when I think about Montería, my immediate answer is, “hot”. I was born there, 1983, and lived there sixteen years until I finished high school. Truth be told, I have mixed positive and negative feelings about my hometown; but if you ask me if I'd like to live in Montería for the rest of my life, or if I'd like to die and be buried in Montería, my answer is an absolute no. This is my Montería experience, what I bring with me are memories and experiences of a child and teenager and on that I base this post. An extremely subjective opinion.

Montería has 324 000 inhabitants according to wikipedia and its sources; a medium sized city that actually feels like a small town. It's located in the Atlantic region of Colombia. There's a big river, the Sinú river, that divides the city in two, the city and 'the other side of the river'. People call Montería, Sinú's Pearl, because of its supposed beauty. However, I must say that the city itself is not very remarkable, there's nothing special about its architecture or history, and I dare to say that there's little remarkable about its people either, to a certain extent. And when I say there's nothing or little remarkable I mean that Montería doesn't reach globally, it feels isolated and sometimes even closed. But perhaps I'm wrong, perhaps my story and my family's position in my hometown wasn't very remarkable, that's because my family wasn't from Montería, so they didn't share most of the traditions and the cultural heritage that was typical from my hometown. It was my grandparents on my mother's side who arrived to Montería the year 1957. They were from another region of Colombia that, by Colombian standards, is very different culturally. I can imagine that such cultural differences were big enough to create a gap between local people and my family, which in turn was passed down to me at an unconscious level; so that my relatives would consider theirselves above the locals and thus distanced themselves from people and the local cultural heritage. I must say I've never felt particularly proud of being born there, maybe I'm a fool.

During most of Montería's history there was only one bridge to cross to the other side, so most of people that was on foot would cross the river using small boats called planchones. The planchón is a small hut built over two canoes. It's connected to a steel cable that bridges the river and gives direction to the planchón so that it crosses the river in a straight perpendicular line, powered mostly by the river's current. It's kind of funky and in my opinion the most interesting touristic attraction of Montería: that is, if there is ever someone that would visit Montería as a touristic destination. The fastest of all planchones was called Sinú's Bullet, and to my surprise it's still there after many decades.

Sinú's Bullet - First Avenue by night

One of the reasons why I think Montería is disappointing as a touristic destination is because even though the city is at the coastal region of Colombia, there are no beaches in the city. So close but so far... the refreshing breezes typical of the cities at the Caribbean coast, like Cartagena de Indias, don't reach the city, so from 9:00 to 17:00 the city feels like an oven, and if you want to take a swim in one of the many beautiful Caribbean beaches, you have to drive out of the city to the next touristic beach spot about an hour-and-a-half driving, named Coveñas. It isn't so far away, but far enough so that my family would drive to the beach only once or twice a year. There are many more beaches around but they're pretty much wasted, either because it's scary due to guerrillas or paramilitaries, or because there's no the infrastructure for tourism. What I mean with lack of infrastructure is unpaved roads to get there, unkempt beaches, no hotels or restaurants. Probably good for young people that like to be in the wild, but no very convenient for families with children.

During the 80s and 90s there was only one cinema with one single screen in the entire city. They showed the Lion King for three months straight! A second cinema was opened in 1997 and I know this because the inauguration was the day of Titanic's premier. Both those cinemas went bankrupt and are closed now. The situation changed a few years later with the dawn of the new century and the opening of the biggest shopping mall in Montería's history, Alamedas del Sinú.

Another funny thing about Montería is that people measure progress by the chain stores you find. So when someone asks if the city has changed, people say: “yes, Montería feels like a city now, there is Carrefour, a homecenter, and a new McDonalds”.

Definitively, the most beautiful spot in Montería is the First Avenue or Avenida Primera. It's a park that extends along the riverside. There are huge trees with very luxuriant canopies. I used to play there when I was a kid and collect little red seeds, the one artisans use to make necklaces and bracelets. Every once in a while it was possible to spot monkeys in the trees. After so many years it deteriorated and became a place for the homeless and drunkards. Now during the new century it was completely refurbished and families and kids are once again able to stroll and play around. Very positive. However, as I said there's nothing remarkable about the city, there's nothing else to see around. The architecture sucks, most of the traditional architecture from the Coastal cities in the Caribbean are no more; the traditional houses were beautiful, huge, tall roofs, long windows that reached the floor, indoor open gardens, very cool and fresh, very colorful. Most of them don't exist anymore and the ones that remain are falling apart. They've been replaced by concrete boxes, hot and suffocating.

When I was a kid (in green) at the Old First Avenue

The average Monterían, in my opinion, is pretty narrow minded... sorry. This is something I had to experience myself  many times. For example, if someone sees a guy with long hair, that would be enough cause for screams and scandals in the street. People would look at you with wide-opened eyes as if they had never seen anything so abominable and indecent. Imagine how they looked at me when I had dreadlocks! Don't be surprised if someone calls you satanic because you listen to some Rock & Roll. On the other hand, I've had the chance to meet very intelligent people from Montería. I must say too that some of my closest friends are some of the most intelligent people I've ever met in my life and in the world. There's something there mysterious, I think the new generations from Montería will play a big role in the destiny of Colombia and the world in the future decades. I have high hopes.

The history of Montería is pretty uneventful in my humble opinion. I don't remember anything in particular that should be mentioned, nothing epic, nothing important, nothing crucial in the history of the country, needless to say, the world. I've never been very interested in history, so it's just my biased impression. Perhaps, the most interesting part of history in the region was the presence of the Zenú people. They were the native American people that inhabited those lands, they were to certain extent, very advanced agriculturaly and reached great prosperity. They were very skilled goldsmiths and dominated the land as it has never been done ever since. However, by the time the Spanish arrived they were already disappearing. Their native language and traditions are lost forever, little remains, only the names of some towns, some handcrafts which are already very influenced by the westernized Colombia, some gold pieces, and maybe a few gastronomic traditions.

Montería's gastronomy is not that bad, but it could be much better. There are plenty of fruits and vegetables, there are rivers and oceans, but the food people eat doesn't really reflect such diversity and natural wealth. There might be hundreds and thousands of different fruits, hundreds and thousands of exotic fishes, molluscs and crustaceans... but you wouldn't even known by the way people eat. I believe the gastronomy of the region should be one of the best and most delicious in the world, but it isn't quite there yet. It doesn't even stand out among Colombian gastronomy. You'll find a lot of unhealthy fried foods, very starchy, and very little or no vegetables at all you'd get in a traditional dish from the region. Fruits aren't used at all for cooking, not even to make an exotic sauce, they are mostly used for juices and sweets. Why, I wonder? There's only one fish that is typical and unique in the region, it's called bocachico, and although tasty it's boney and small. There should be hundreds more, I think! There are many snacks and sweets from the region, many made of fruits and very exotic, made of guava, tamarind, coconut, papaya, mammee apple, and many more; that's indeed remarkable! There are also some exotic snakcs made of yam and cassava. Perhaps in the recent years, Montería has stood out also because of its meats. There's a lot of land used for livestock owned by the few. Other exotic edible things you could find around in the streets are iguana eggs, I've never tasted that; a huge ball of pop corn, about the size of a fist, hardened with caramel, it was called Alegría (happiness); you find also something called butifarra, which is a spiced meatball enveloped in some kind of skin. Butifarra has captivated the imagination of people because they were sold in the street by boys of poorer communities, usually from the slums... so people wood say it was meat from dog and the skin was the testicles of some other animal: it was delicious nonetheless. Other exotic foods are turtle, people eat it a lot during Easter; a soup made with the stem of some palm tree, I don't really like that though; there's another soup made of cheese and yam, called mote de queso. Everything accompanied with rice boiled in coconut milk! My favorite type of rice.

It's been four years since I visited my hometown and I must say that Montería is doing pretty good, public transportation is a lot better and more modern that say for example, Lima, Perú. The streets and sidewalks are being restored, which I hope will be done for the entire city. However, there's only two or three traffic lights in the entire city and very bad signalization! I hope the city will be completely modernized and improved in the near future. I remember when I was a kid water from the aqueduct was available every other day, now it seems it flows almost every day. Progress is coming, slowly but surely.

Perhaps the darkest side of Montería are what they call, “subnormal” neighborhoods that had been created from the homeless people displaced by the violence of guerrillas and the paramilitary, or by natural disasters like floods. In this subnormal neighborhoods, the slums, great misery and unimaginable poverty are the norm. I saw some statistics that estimate the population in the subnormal neighborhoods to be about 100 000, many would say it's a lot more, so about a third of the entire population of Montería. I had the chance once to visit one of these neighborhoods and to meet one of his inhabitants. He was in his mid forties and had recently been displaced by FARC... he still had open wounds where he was cut with a machete repeated times, almost to death, by the guerrilla. His home was four walls made of wood planks, and less than ten square meters. The floor was bare ground, one bed, and I don't even know where they went to the toilet or where they cooked. In that little place lived the entire family, husband, wife, and several kids. To top it all, the owner of that miserable home used to go everyday with a meter to check that they hadn't stolen a single centimeter, if he thought they had, he would rise the rent. I've never seen such misery anywhere else. I hope today conditions are better in those neighborhoods, but I'm sure many of them have no access to basic services, clean water, electricity, internet, healthcare, or good education.

It's the paradox of our Country. Montería and the region are very rich in natural resources, there's the Atlantic coast, there are many rivers, there's jungle, there's a huge diversity, and people say it's one of the most fertile places on Earth, yet most of it is underexploited, yet there's many people living below the poverty line. People are starving living in a palace made of gold. When is this going to change, once and for all?

All in all, I think Montería has potential to become a great city, touristic, open, beautiful, and quickly. There are resources, there is the hope, the desire. If it wasn't because of corruption, the narrow mindedness of people with power, and the infestation of criminal groups in the region, I believe the panorama would be a lot brighter.

2 comments:

  1. Tanai, thanks for your very complete description of Monteria. For the past five years, my family and I have provided assistance to three girls living there. Two of the girls live south of Monteria, in Barrio 2 de Septiembre; and the other lives north of Monteria, in Barrio Mocari-Sector Camilo Torres.

    I had no idea it was so hot there! My family and I plan to visit Colombia in April, 2013, and will be seeing the girls while we're there. I believe they will be brought to Bogota by their church, to see us. I had hoped we'd be able to visit Monteria, but it seems that would be too far away.

    These girls live in very deep poverty. Can you think of something we might be able to bring to them that they would like, but that would not put them in danger of having the item stolen? Clothing, perhaps?

    Again, I thought your description was so enlightening, and your English superb!

    Sincerely,

    Dave B.
    Colorado, USA

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  2. I really appreciate your candid article. I have lived in various Colombian cities for years and returned to the States. Cartagena is my favorite and I have visited the city 15 times in the past few years. I think I'll extend my vacation there.

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