At 18 the lure of oblivion is compelling, especially to a hippie-hating punk happy to uphold that the difference between a vulture and a condor is only luck over a haircut, or that Pancho Villa is a joke Mexican name like Speedy Gonzales. Hugh Thomson, now a successful documentary film-maker, writer and explorer, headed to Mexico in his Chelsea boots and punk-lite clothes in the 1970s, not to find himself but to lose himself in the spiky wilderness.
Evelyn Waugh said about Mexico: "Anything may happen there; everything has happened there. It has seen every extreme of human nature, good, bad and ridiculous." A stranger, wearing a signet ring "the size of a bull's testicle", suggested Thomson buy a car in Texas and sell it for a chunky profit in Central America. He picked out a beaten-up 1972 electric blue Oldsmobile 98, despite having no licence and not knowing how to drive. This was no problem when cruising sedately along open roads, but a multi-storey car park in Chihuahua City presented him with lots of other cars, most of which he hit.
After racing another car, unaware it was full of armed cops, Thomson took his driving test in Mexico City. The instructor, initially offended by his blue eyes, passed him after a chat about the weather and the offer of a cigarette: "man it doesn't matter, no one in Mexico knows how to drive anyway".
Thomson fell in love with the rowdy beauty of Mexico: "so moral when you needed help, so amoral when you wanted wildness". A contest of manliness was decided by a chilli-eating bout; a friend could have shamed a Beckett hero with his endless lassitude. Thomson took a fairground ride, high on magic mushrooms, and his head started to open up like a Leonardo cartoon.
He forged his papers to enter Belize, "the armpit of Central America", as Aldous Huxley put it. But he could not sell his car, and was mugged in a church. It rained incessantly but he consoled himself by playing the Sex Pistols' "No Fun" at full volume.
In a movingly elegiac second part, Thomson returns to Belize 30 years later. He has lost his marriage, house and most of his money. He's dislocated and adrift, wandering among the ghosts and the haunting calmness of sea and coral. The self-annihilation of his youth is replaced with a desire to rebuild, to find a life. Perhaps we are all hippies at heart.
This is a beautiful book, full of appreciation and aphorism, an unashamedly personal story. It's soulful, very funny, thoughtful, with a deep romanticism at its heart. And it takes the reader to places we may not have dreamed of going – places of geography, the spirit and the emotions.Reuse content