The Cloud Garden
Tom Hart Dyke and Paul Winder
Lyons Press, 2004
Cloth, 323 pages, with 2 maps
Attracted by the remoteness of the Darién Gap on the Isthmus of Panama and motivated the possibility of collecting undiscovered orchid specimens, an English botanist named Tom Hart Dyke set off to cross this dangerous patch of jungle connecting Panama to Columbia at the top of South America. Along the way, in Mexico, he hooked up with an English backpacker, Paul Winder. Dyke was out to discover new orchid species, or at least see as many unusual orchids as he could find. Winder, who had traveled widely between money-earning stints London’s financial district, was keen to explore the famously dangerous Darién Gap.
They head off on foot into the jungle, somewhat haphazardly, occasionally engaging guides, telling people of their plans. Unprepared for the rigors of the terrain — it’s not clear whether they even had proper maps — the men were soon snagged by a group of guerrillas, an off-shoot of the FARC. The guerrillas saw them as bait for ransom and moved them from camp to camp. New guards would join and others would leave during the ensuing nine months.
The strangely compelling narrative is told from alternative points of view — Tom then Paul, or Paul then Tom. The authors, or an editor, have decently shaped what could have been repetitious scenes and each writer presents a different perspective on the events during captivity. At times, the story devolves to a portrait of idiocy, ignorance and machismo blunders on all sides. And machismo knows no gender; many of the guerrilla thugs were female.
The guerrillas fought amongst themselves and ultimately weren’t able to reach the men’s families, or anyone on the outside to relay the ransom request. As time passed, their families made inquiries through non-government organizations active in the region, which through the informal communications network must have exerted indirect pressure on the guerrillas to release the men. The Englishmen were a bit thick to have stumbled on purpose into the Darién in the first place, one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Surely they knew what they were getting into.
Still, the story moves along and I found myself wondering how I’d respond to similar hardship. These fellows were resourceful, keeping their spirits up through a variety of word games, garden making and calculated deceptions to test their captors’ attention. While camp routines repeat day in and day out, action picks up when the two decide to try an escape. With the end game in mind, they start stealing food and supplies, which they hide around the camp. Their machete blade is found, foiling plans. The escape logistics were further complicated because Dyke and Winder weren’t even sure where they were.
During the nine-month ordeal, they nicknamed their captors, the campsites and paths. The naming functioned as a diversion and also helped them exercise some control over the situation, however illusory. They called the last camp, where they were held two months, Inspirational Site because that’s where the idea of escape seemed an option for a while. In the last camp, there was time for Tom, the botanist, to plant a garden.
A few of their jailors demonstrate moments of kindness towards them, but most of the guerillas callously torture animals and humiliate their captives (the two Englishmen and two mestizos who are kept in a separate area of the camp). The women guerillas sometimes provoke the prisoners with sexual humiliation and one of the mestizos disappears, presumed dead.
My curiosity as to how their peril might resolve drove me to read faster towards the end. There are lessons in this book for other independent travelers who wander the antipodes of the earth.
Indeed their eventual release was also fraught with near slapstick ineptness. Their current set of captors releases them one December day, just sending them off into the forest and telling them never to come back. Dyke and Winder circle for nearly a week lost in a swamp, not able to find the path their captors had indicated was the way back to civilization. So the lads ended up returning to the guerilla camp for better directions, though they’d been warned they’d be killed if they returned. Eventually, they find a ranger barracks in a national park in Columbia and make their way home to England for Christmas.
-L. Peat O’Neil