The Washington Times - August 13, 2008, 06:12PM

By Francisco Collazo

In preparation for the festival of the bulls, also known as “la corraleja,“ an endless number of vendors set up their stands, like members of a circus traveling from one town to another, in search of an opportunity to sell their wares.

The diversity of the vendors and the products they sell are as varied as the fauna and folklore of Colombia, especially here in Mompox, a town located 175 km from Cartagena along the banks of the Magdalena River. 

The festival and its attendant preparation are in the air even though the event has not officially begun. Cumbia music is pumping loud, competing with the sounds of the “pelaos” (a slang term for kids), motorcycle taxis, squeals of pigs strapped to the backs of bicycles, the slap of dominoes on a table, loudspeakers announcing or offering products, and sounds of carts being pulled by different animals or by human strength.

It is here where two members of the Gonzalez family have set up their mobile stores, which are mounted on wheeled platforms. One vendor refers to the carts as their new “Toyotas.” The vendors’ stories are as fascinating, tough, and moving as the people of this town.

A Columbian Hat Vendor (Photo courtesy By Francisco Collazo

Emirto Javier Gonzalez, or “Emirito,” as he’s nicknamed, is the son of Emiro Rafael, also a hat vendor. Emirito is perhaps the youngest of the vendors. His work days are long, starting when the sun rises and ending only when dusk falls, a shift that’s at least 12 hours. His cart is loaded with hats of all types, typical ponchos, sweaters, shirts, and other goods for women, men, and children.

Emirito is only 21 years old. He was a moto-taxi driver for two years before joining his father and his uncle, Benjamin Mendez, who is also here with his mobile cart. According to what Emirito told me, he left school two years ago after finishing 11th grade. He tells me that he still lives with his family, “who are all men.” Six in all.

His brother wants to begin school to become a policeman, and the cost is 50 million Colombian pesos (about $500.00 USD) per semester, a considerable sum when one considers that the typical salary here is around 300,000 Colombian pesos (about $175.00 USD) a month. Emirito is here to help his family; he thinks everyone in the family should help his brother first and then him. 

In the future, Emirito would like to study veterinary medicine; a course of study that costs 800 million Colombian pesos every semester for the five years one must study to achieve this degree.

About his experiences as a moto-taxi driver, Emirito tells me that the profession is hard and dangerous. Occupational hazards include accidents, skin cancer due to the intense sun that beats down on one’s arms all day, and problems with hemorrhoids and infertility due to the constant shock absorbed by the body as the motorcycle makes its way across unpaved streets. On top of this, moto-taxi drivers must add the costs of renting the motorcycle—about $6.00 USD— plus gasoline, about $3.87.

Quite simply, life here is hard, but is particularly so for the hat vendors. They lodge in cheap places without air conditioning or fans. When they can’t find lodging, they sleep in cardboard boxes alongside their carts, exposed to mosquitoes, rain, heat, and all sorts of risks and dangers.

Every day involves fixed and inevitable expenses, such as food, lodging, and the loss of products, to mention only a few. But perhaps the hardest cost is that of being far from their families. The fact that they can’t share their meals or their nights with their loved ones is a burden that is difficult and painful, one which is only relieved—somewhat—by a cell phone, if they have one. It’s either that or quit selling and go home, as Benajmin Mendez, Emirito’s uncle did, after selling hats for 20 years.

Not all of the stories are bad, though. There are also funny and memorable stories. Emirito tells me that in the past, there was a rancher who arrived at the festival with a bull that was possessed by the devil. The bull had been named “Seven Boxes” because it had already wounded seven in the arena. One year, the rancher wanted to put “Seven Boxes” back in the ring, but the town opposed and the rancher had to load up “Seven Boxes” and go home.

That same day, the celebration continued with the other bulls, but soon enough an enormous dark cloud took shape over the bull ring and stayed there. It rained so hard that the stands began to float. All the spectators fell to the sand, many sustaining serious injuries.

But in the end, Emirito tells me, the town got its revenge against that bull. Someone decided to kill “Seven Boxes,” perhaps to avenge the death or injuries suffered by a family member.

It’s this type of story that has reached mythical proportions among the participants and neighbors of the corraleja, and one that doesn’t sound so different from the incredible tales of Macondo (the mystical town in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude.)

Hats are important in Colombia, whether it’s a hat in the coastal style, or the so-called “little man,” a hat between 15 and 19 or 21 (the descriptors given to the types of fibers or threads in each hat). The Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez even donned a traditional hat to represent Colombia when he received his Nobel Prize for Literature for One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Wearing a typical guayabera shirt and a tradicional Colombian hat, Garcia Marquez was quoted as saying, “If Indians receive their prize in typical garb, why can’t I wear my guayabera and my Colombian hat?”

The day of the official opening is getting closer and closer, and with it, the possibility of a good sale. The other kiosks have been built with their columns of wood and their grass roofs, ready to open and offer their varied products.

The “pelaos” have already prepared a space where they can rent out parking spots for motorbikes at 1000 pesos a pop ($0.55 USD). The Gonzalez Family, too… they’ve got their hats on display and have invested their hopes in the idea that perhaps this will be a corraleja to record in the history of Mompox.

Francisco Collazo, a private chef and multimedia producer, is a contributor to Donne Travels and Donne Tempo and maintains Collazo Projects.  He is currently traveling in Colombia.