[This blog post has been Chuck Norris Approved™.]
Some people go to a beachside resort to try and get in touch with themselves. Their escape from the daily humdrum does not seem very active. They lie languidly on the sand and sip a mai tai or a rum punch and read some “airport novel” and try to relax before returning to their own personal version of the real world of jobs and bills and other obligations.
Others take a slightly proactive approach by jetting to a third world destination and proceed to park themselves in the pub and spend their entire vacation getting utterly legless on the local brew, drunkenly chatting up the local women, and making dickheads of themselves generally. They then return to their homeland with tales of how “fucken awesome” a time they had when most of it was spent throwing up in the pub’s dirty squat toilet.
Not Matthew Thompson.
At a point when he felt as though the world was dull, he sought a life less ordinary. He took a leave of absence from his comfortable domestic life in Sydney (which included a reporter’s job with the Sydney Morning Herald, a wife, and anewborn daughter, a comfortable home in nondescript suburbia) and headed to the wild frontiers of Colombia. His mission was to shake himself out of the safety and security and drudgery of the First World. His quest was to walk along a path not previously beaten (at least, not beaten by many visitors to Colombia).
The book is told in a fairly rollicking style, and one gets a very good sense of some of the extremely shady characters that inhabit the “cocaine capitol of the world”, as well as some people whose hearts are not as tarnished. Thompson starts off stable, safe, and essentially bored out of his mind. By the end of the book, equipped with a healthy respect for the “here and now”, he learns to cherish every moment.
I’ve not travelled to Colombia, but I’ve been to a few third world countries and this book puts forward a convincing portrait of the desperation, poverty and violence that is a part of the lives of many in poor nations. Beggars and thieves and black marketeers seem to be as common in South America as they are in Southeast Asia. The same goes for warm smiles and generous hospitality and gentle caring souls.
It’s probably quite telling, and a little scary, for me to realise how much I identified with Thompson’s existential crisis that drove him on the crazy 6-month adventure chronicled in My Colombian Death. While the book ends with Thompson essentially where he started, this too is a typical of many quests taken throughout the ages.
It’s not the destination that matters, but the journey itself. And this is one hell of a trip.
[My Colombian Death by Matthew Thompson, Pan McMillan/Picador, ISBN 978-0-330-42392-2]