My Colombian Death is the entertaining, yet frequently disturbing tale of US-born, Australia-based journalist Matthew Thompson’s adventures in Colombia during a trip in the mid-2000’s.
When a Medellin Living reader suggested I check it out, I headed over to the book’s page on Amazon to see the reviews.
They were split 50-50. Readers either loved it, or were disgusted by it.
I rarely pay $10 for a book from an unknown author (this was his first book), but curiosity got the best of me.
The story begins in Sydney, where we’re introduced to a 35-year old Thompson. He’s a married man, first time father and journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald.
Despite the newborn baby on his hands, he finds himself feeling extremely bored with work, and the safety of life in Australia. He decides a six-month trip to Colombia, which was still perceived as one of the world’s most dangerous countries, is in order.
The timing for this decision alone boggles the mind, but his wife Renae seemed to understand that this was something he had to do, though it also doesn’t seem she had any say in the matter.
His reasoning, and soon to follow actions, reek of machismo for the sake of testing his own masculinity and ability to survive in a foreign environment. He essentially says at much at various points in the book too.
Thompson goes on to purposefully seek out a series of dangerous situations. Unfortunately, this results in a very negative portrayal of Colombia and segments of the population, though at the same time, it highlights many unpleasant realities of life here.
En Route to Colombia
The adventure begins in Manila in the Philippines, while the author is in transit to Colombia. He meets an Israeli named Josef who warns him in no uncertain way that he’s going to be at a big disadvantage traveling alone, and knowing only the basics of Spanish.
His first warning is not to start a fight, with his point being that if one person starts it by throwing punches, the other can easily end it by shooting the opponent. Game over. Josef goes on to advise that he turn over his possessions if robbed, as it’s better to lose the money than get shot or stabbed.
He tells him that he’ll be watched carefully, that the bad guys work in teams and thus maintain the advantage over him, and that it’s important he maintain situational awareness to head off any potential problems.
Josef also warns him not to ask “penetrating questions” because in a country waging war against both armed rebels and drug traffickers, it’s better to keep the topics light, like the weather and women.
Bogotá and Bullfighting
Concerned but undeterred by these warnings, Thompson then flies to Miami, and finally enters Colombia via Bogotá. Here, he takes readers along as he attends a bullfight.
To his credit, he finds there’s little to no sportsmanship involved in the battle. The bulls are simply bleeding to death as they fight an unfair fight against the Matador.
I have to admit, after reading his detailed account in the book, and then later noticing some televised bullfights on TV, I have no desire to attend a live one or support that activity to satisfy what was previously a similar curiosity.
Carnival in Barranquilla
Next, he visits Barranquilla for Carnival, staying in the old and sketchy downtown area like I did in 2009.
He gets drunk, he has a pistol pointed directly at his head, and amongst the madness, manages to make time to email his poor wife Renae at home with their baby.
(Warning: This video features violent imagery)
Las Corralejas de Arjona
After Carnival, it’s on to the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena. During his month in the city, he takes an interesting side trip to Arjona, a pueblo a few hours south of the city known for hosting an annual festival, Las Corralejas.
Unlike the professional Matadors in Bogotá, the men who get into the ring with the bulls in Arjona’s rickety wooden stadium are farmers, laborers and anyone else with balls big enough to risk their lives running around (drunk) with bulls who fear for their lives.
Every year, dozens if not hundreds of men participate, and every year, many are injured and killed. The author, after having run inside the stadium himself, later witnesses a man die while receiving medical treatment under the bleachers.
The whole chapter was almost too hard to believe, until I saw Thompson’s photos, and mentioned it to Viviana, who was well aware of it. As I was writing this review, I was also easily able to find videos on YouTube.
Edited “best of” videos show guy after guy being gored and tossed around like rag dolls in slow motion to upbeat vallenato music. It’s so brutal and disturbing, you wonder what the f*ck these people are thinking.
Cocaine in Cartagena
It’s in Cartagena that Thompson also gets his first taste of cocaine as he tries to build local connections in order to set up a meeting with Salvatore Mancuso, a paramilitary leader (AUC) based in Montería.
Why is it a goal of his trip to meet one of Colombia’s warlords?
Because it was a challenge, and the polar opposite of what the average tourist would seek to do.
While it seemed outlandish to me that he risked being kidnapped, or worse, while trying to dig up leads, it certainly made for an interesting part of the book.
The Darien Gap
Of course with a title like My Colombian Death he had to tempt the fates by going for a hike in the notorious Darien Gap, the thick jungle isthmus separating Central and South America which is known for harboring armed groups like the FARC.
And finally, he finishes his trip in Medellín, where he spends much of his time hanging out downtown in Parque de los Periodistas, befriending locals, drinking and doing more drugs.
He also has a bout of what he calls “barrio boxing” when he some local gang members give him some grief while he’s visiting a Colombian friend’s little tienda in the slums.
His last adventure in Colombia is his most powerful. Attending an ayahuasca ceremony at a shaman’s home in Guarne, a pueblo just outside of Medellín, he comes to an awakening, but only after facing what he believed to be his own death.
Hallucinogenics will do that to a person.
My Colombian Death by Matthew Thompson is available for Kindle on Amazon.