Mompox, far from Everything or at the Center of Nothing
HalloCasa is proud to host Richard McColl, professional journalist and hotel owner in Colombia.
HalloCasa: “Good afternoon Richard, thanks a lot for being our guest today. For the ones who might not know you, can you introduce yourself quickly?”
Richard McColl: “Yes, sure! I am Richard McColl a journalist and conflict resolution specialist here in Colombia who has fallen into additional trades such as those of travel guide and hotelier.”
HalloCasa: “Ok, interesting, what brought you to Colombia?”
Richard McColl: “Colombia has always been of interest to me even from before I moved here full time in 2007 I had been sent here by the environmental NGO WWF.
My father had worked here in the 1970s and had warned me away and so being the black sheep of the family, I suppose, it was even more enticing!”
HalloCasa: “What are you dedicating yourself to in Colombia?”
Richard McColl: “At the moment I am pursuing a Doctorate at the Javeriana University, I write freelance articles for the foreign press about the peace dialogues, host a weekly radio show called Colombia Calling, I do some guiding and I run a small hotel called La Casa Amarilla in Mompox.
Aside from that I am a fulltime father and husband.”
HalloCasa: “That sounds like a bunch of things with a very wide variety. Let´s discuss the elements step by step and let´s start with your hotel business, how was it when you started your hotel business?”
Richard McColl: “To keep it brief!
I arrived in Mompox in Semana Santa 2007 to write a travel article for a US magazine and saw an opportunity for business there as I think there were only two foreigners at that point visiting the town during its most popular event.
By the end of the year I had bought a house and by February 2008 the Casa Amarilla was up and running with four rooms. Now we have eleven rooms and run at a 75 per cent year round occupancy.”
Santa Cruz de Mompox, Bolivar
HalloCasa: “That reminds us of one of your articles where you were woken up in the hotel by a police officer and who accused you to be involved in drug trafficking. But that was in Santa Marta. So, let´s stay with Mompox: tell us a little about Mompox. Where is it located? What makes it special?”
Richard McColl: “You can either think of Mompox as far from everything or at the center of everything since it is really one of the last authentic colonial towns in Colombia.
I realise that as a foreigner I am contributing to change but you can say that Mompox still belongs to the Mompoxinos and therefore has a special if not different ambiance. The town is five hours from the coastal cities of Cartagena, Barranquilla and Santa Marta and is located along the banks of the Magdalena River.”
HalloCasa: “Ok, sounds very exotic! Mostly like something what most foreigners think of when they hear “Colombia”. Running your hotel, who are mainly your customers?”
Richard McColl: “During the Colombian holiday season the majority are overwhelmingly national tourists getting to know their country. Outside of this, we mainly receive Europeans.”
HalloCasa: “So a great mix of both domestic and international tourists. What can people do in Mompox and why should they visit it?”
Richard McColl: “Mompox is not a disneyland, it’s more of a place to spend time rather and soak up the atmosphere than to sign up for activities.
You have to walk the antiquated colonial streets which are like an open air museum, you should check out the silver filigree jewellry on offer and if time permits take a boat trip out into the wetlands to enjoy the birdlife.”
HalloCasa: “Brilliant, sounds as if time had stopped elapsing in Mompox. For potential visitors, when is the best time to visit the colonial city?”
Richard McColl: “It is hot all year round, this really doesn’t change too much. I would suggest avoiding the crowds at Semana Santa, the October Jazz Festival and during Colombian holidays in December and January.”
HalloCasa: “Recently, you wrote an article about how El Niño affects Mompox. How do you expect the situation to evolve and to affect Mompox over the long run?”
Richard McColl: “I would hope that something gets done about it, but, who knows? There is so much corruption and a real lack of a necessary sense of belonging which allows these problems to continue.”
HalloCasa: “Are you facing some particular challenges / attributes running your hotel? Maybe something special for Colombia (which you wouldn´t expect in the UK)?”
Richard McColl: “Hehe, yeah, there is one. A rival hotel owner placed a black magic spell to try and ruin our business once! But to find out more about that you”ll have to buy and read my book when it is published!”
The Mompox Project
HalloCasa: “Oh, now we got curious, you are launching a book! It takes place in Colombia? Tell us about it and when and where will it be available?”
Richard McColl: “Yes, at the moment the English title is, “The Mompox Project” and it is more or less finished. I am considering releasing it first in Spanish though.
You can read small snippets of it on my blog richardmccoll.com, but if you are more interested in the magical realism of Colombia, then please check out a book that I contributed to and edited released in 2015 entitled: “Was Gabo an Irishman? Travels in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Colombia” which is available on amazon.
HalloCasa: “Ok, we will definitely check it out! About running businesses in Colombia in general: do you think you have advantages / disadvantages running a business here as a foreigner? If yes, how do you feel it?”
Richard McColl: “There is no doubt that foreigners definitely are well-received in Colombia and this comes with benefits as well as drawbacks. I think that having an international background makes me a good administrator and good at managing people.
Buying and running a hotel in Mompox
A drawback is that we are always seen as “the rich foreigner” and so there will be those people trying to squirrel further money out of you at times.”
HalloCasa: “You mentioned that you bought the hotel in Mompox. How was the purchasing process and how did you experience the entire buying process? Are there things to improve?”
Richard McColl: “As I was buying in Mompox in 2007 it was not as straightforward as say, buying in Bogota. My mother in law is from Mompox and she was fully involved in the negotiations.
It was quite a long process ensuring that all the paperwork was in order since there were roughly 38 people with a claim – however small – to a part of the funds from the sale.
But this is a problem with an old house in an old town, things can be very informal and you have to accustom yourself to this before leaping to any decision.
Thankfully, having family in Mompox, a good lawyer and a good accountant really made the process much easier.”
HalloCasa: “Interesting insights! Talking about your other dedication, your journalism, how did it evolve?”
Richard McColl: “I cut my teeth at a newspaper in Costa Rica and then pursued a Masters in Journalism from City University in London in 2002. I spent stints at various news outlets in the UK before becoming freelance.”
HalloCasa: “What are your fields / projects?”
Richard McColl: “I mainly cover the Colombian conflict and the peace dialogues but have done plenty of cultural and travel writing as well.”
HalloCasa: “Ok, the Colombian conflict is an often-discussed topic with diverging opinions, often times. Before talking about the conflict, how do you see the freedom of speech / press in Colombia?”
Richard McColl: “It’s all about self-censorship here. You do have to be careful what you say and write.”
The Peace dialogues in Colombia
HalloCasa: “So, you are an expert when it comes to the Peace talks in Colombia. For people who don´t know anything about it: what the peace talk about, who is involved and how has it originated?”
Richard McColl: “The current peace dialogues have been running since November 2012 in Havana, Cuba between the Colombian government’s negotiating team and members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC rebels).
The FARC has existed since 1964 and were founded as a Marxist Leninist group.
There are too many intricacies to explain at once but with the guarantor nations of Chile and Norway and the host nation of Cuba, this is the furthest that any peace dialogue has ever reached with this guerrilla group and there is the hope that a final agreement may be signed on March 23rd 2016.
President Santos has gambled his whole political legacy on achieving peace with the FARC and there have been some sizeable obstacles in the way but both sides appear to have reached conditions deemed favourable regarding the issues of Political Participation, Agrarian Reform, Illicit Drugs and Victims of the conflict.
Now it’s about implementing said agreements and bringing the conflict to an end.”
HalloCasa: “Ok, great information! With respect to the latest advancements and the hope that there will be peace between all the parties involved, do you think it will really change something or will new parties evolve with new names simply doing the same things again?”
Richard McColl: “I think there will be a power vacuum and that crime will rise as is the case with the aftermath of most peace accords when you have a steep increase in unemployment from the demobilization of an armed group.
Will there be a flood of FARC members switching over to the rank and file of the other guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (ELN rebels)? I don’t know, but, it will be complicated.
What we don’t need is a repetition of the peace accords in Guatemala which were rushed through in an unbalanced manner and left a society fully armed and with all sorts of bad blood. Just look at the time spent and difficulties in bringing Efrain Rios Montt to trial (again).
There will be positive change with a peace accord with the FARC but for real change to be appreciated we’ll need to check back in a generation or two!”
HalloCasa: “In a recent article, you mentioned that “the Colombian conflict has, since 1964, caused the deaths of more than 300,000 victims and displaced more than five million more.” (Link) and that “The attorney general’s office here is set to soon accuse the FARC of more than over 500,000 crimes during the Colombian conflict, including crimes against humanity and war crimes” (Link).
In your opinion, who is actually benefitting from that violence and who might be interested that it keeps going?”
Richard McColl: “This is one of those moments where I choose to exercise my right to self/censorship!”
HalloCasa: “Ok, another question: which role does the narcotrafficking play and which parties are involved?”
Richard McColl: “Drug trafficking is a major problem in Colombia as it is widely known to have funded illegal groups in the country and indeed extended the shelf life of the conflict.
To think that the FARC is still spouting rhetoric that was abandoned by other groups in other conflicts when the Cold War ended is testament to that. I would venture that every side in Colombia at some level is involved in the drug trade.”
HalloCasa: “Let´s say the peace will be signed. Suddenly, there will be a lot of previous terrorists having done their entire lives nothing else than that. How could they be re-socialized and ensured that they will not become terrorists after all again?”
Richard McColl: “This is something that I am investigating for an article at the moment.
It is another of those tricky questions but, for inspiration and belief in real peace one needs to study the reasons behind successful accords such as in South Africa and Northern Ireland. I think it is up to the Colombian people to react appropriately towards their countrymen.
Signing a peace accord is the easy part, implementing the agreements and promoting reconciliation in a country for so long afflicted by such violence will not be straightforward.”
HalloCasa: “Ok, we are looking forward to hear more about that” Now, our closing questions: first question: what are the things you love about Colombia the most?”
Richard McColl: “As a journalist I am continually amazed by the wealth of stories and wonderful people here in Colombia.
By working diligently and honestly I have been able to set up a small business that has served as an economic stimulus through tourism and has brought about social change in Mompox, this has been an unreal experience.
Colombia has given me so many opportunities just by following my heart and knowing what I want, far more than the UK. I have found people to be open and receptive to ideas which sometimes is not the case in the old world.”
HalloCasa: “What a statement! And things you would like to change?”
Richard McColl: “The air quality in Bogota. Why the use of low grade fuel has been continually permitted for public transport buses and the Transmilenio system is a mystery to me.
You would think that the introduction of a new system such as the Transmilenio when it was inaugurated would have heralded in a greener outlook, unfortunately contracts were signed to benefit only a few to the detriment of many.”
HalloCasa: “Richard, thank you so much for all your valuable insights! Once again we are so proud that you took your time to give us an interview from your perspective! How can people contact you in case they have follow-up questions?”
Richard McColl: “Well, as always people can contact me through richardmccoll.com and they can hear about what is going on in Colombia through my weekly podcast Colombia Calling which is available to download on both Stitcher and iTunes.”
- La Casa Amarilla
- Overseas Radio
- Richard McColl
- Colombia Calling
- Wikipedia: Mompox
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