Rocking chairs are made for relaxing, says Hernan, a carpenter who lives in Mompox. It’s an important thing to say, since the people in this town seem to have mastered the art of being relaxed. Obviously, they also know what hard work is: for example, residents of Mompox are famous for excellent jewelry making. But if you take a walk here in the late afternoon, you will just see people who just know how to enjoy life. They talk to their neighbors, laugh very loudly and complement female tourists who pass them by. They drink, they eat, they don’t rush. And they sit on their rocking chairs.
Maybe that’s idealizing, but when I walk in Mompox I can’t get rid of the impression that people here are simply happier than in any other place I’ve ever been to. Maybe it’s the proximity of the Rio Magdalena, the principal river of Colombia with over 200 fish species; or the beauty of perfectly preserved colonial architecture; or maybe it’s just the excellent food and incredibly hot, sunny weather. Regardless of the actual cause of this joy, which vibrates on the streets, I find it almost impossible to imagine that anyone - including me - would ever want to leave this town and go back to the misery that seems to exists everywhere, but not in Mompox.
Where do perfectly happy momposinos get their rocking chairs from? In Mompox there are probably 20 carpenter’s workshops. And the business is going well: workshop owners sell the chairs to momposinos, to residents of other towns (e.g. Baranquilla) and to the tourists who come here from all the parts of Colombia. In the workshop where I meet Hernan, they make 200 chairs per month. And they sell them all out easily.
Momposina, reina, quinceanera – these are types of chairs which are being made in Hernan’s workshop. Momposina was designed here; it’s a simple chair, but with a lot of charm, as the arms are gently bent and the hole is cut in the middle of the arm. It makes the chair look lighter and more elegant. And this says a lot about people of Mompox. Because they care about simple things: they smile to you if you pass them by (which is not common in bigger cities, like Cartagena), they listen to you carefully and kindly while you’re buying something in a shop and have trouble with articulating your needs in Spanish; and they also say “si, seniora” which makes you feel like you’re the most important guest in this town.
But as it turns out in Hernan’s workshop, momposina is not even the beginning of the story. First is quinceanera: middle-sized chair which is dedicated to young adults. During my walks in Mompox I didn’t see many young people relaxing in their quinceaneras - but I suppose that buying this chair is more like an initial ritual and introducing young citizens to an important tradition.
And then there’s a queen. La reina, the most beautiful chair that you can buy in Mompox. Reinas are heavier than momposinas and usually painted in dark brown. Slats of the back in la reina look like little sceptres and the decoration that is put on the top of the backrest is shaped like a crown. They are also quite expensive (one queen costs 160 thousands pesos; the cost of regular momposina is only 50-60 thousands pesos). That’s because the process of making a queen is complicated. Slats and ornaments, which ore often round or fancifully bent, have to be cut with an enormous precision. That’s why, Hernan explains, the workers of the manufacture are able to make only one reina during the day. In the same time they can make 5 or 6 momposinas.
Queens are rarely seen on the streets. Instead of that I noticed them inside the houses, put one after the other in the exact order. Reinas seem to belong to a pleasant cool of the house, not to a dust and hot public space. They decorate the houses and demonstrate the resident’s wealth.
After leaving Hernan I have one more place to visit.
In the same street there is a house, where 75-year-old mother and her daughter are making the backs and sits of the chairs by weaving the wicker straws. During the day they are constantly leaning over the chair in a very uncomfortable position. I asked them if it was the worst part of their work. No, it was not. Both of them have problems with vision, strong pains in the neck and burnt fingers (they use wax to make the straws softer). But the problem that really bothers them, it’s how they are treated by the carpenters who pay them only one thousand pesos for weaving the back of the chair. When I ask why they don’t protest and demand to get paid better, they said they already did – but carpenters in Mompox not only ignored them, but also threated that if they protest again, workshop owners won’t give them any chairs to make. So they are not only poorly paid, but also completely dependent on the carpenters.
I asked them how is it possible that other momposinos treat them that way. The fact, that they are momposinos, doesn’t really matter, the older woman explained. People just care about themselves and about the money they make, she added.
Mompox doesn’t seem so perfect anymore, but to my own surprise, I feel more relieved than disappointed. Things that I noticed in the beginning, like the smiles and simple joys of life, are still there. But there is more to that. Also, before I left, the younger woman grabbed my hand and insisted on showing me the chair that was left in the corner of the house. This 30-year-old momposina is now broke, but it still belongs to the family. Someday it’s going to be fixed, she explains, because they can’t imagine throwing it away.