"There were fears in there too, of course. Fear of ending up with a conventional life. A feeling that I'd never really lived. And the fear that unless I did something about it, I would forever live my life in the third person, reading about other people's adventures without ever having one of my own."
Even as he struggles to get his bearings in Panama at the start of his Central American odyssey Vagabond Dreams, Ryan Murdock is travelling to test and understand himself as much as the world he has come to see. And what he wants to know is: how much of your life is really what you want and how much do you accept because it's easy? Is there ever a possibility of being a different person in a new place?
European Editor-at-Large for Canada's travel magazine Outpost, Murdock is an uncompromising adventurer. In other travels he has taken on some of the most inhospitable places, from North Korea to Mongolia. He's an engaging tough-guy lyricist, and his writing in this volume is as poignant and immediate as ever. In Costa Rica he paints a vivid word picture of a bus station, capturing the scratched plastic containers of pineapple dragged by vendors and the particular discomforts of heat and noise, sing-song sales pitches and harsh blaring horns of departure:
"I'd slept in and missed the bus I wanted, and so I waited there for two hours, reading on a crowded bench of slatted wood, elbow to elbow with the other patient waiters. When I was finally able to leave, it was a one-hour ride to the Pacific Coast, past mile after mile of crippled cacti swept by the invisible serpents of a desiccating wind. In the fields, bony cattle grazed on patches of burnt grass: their hips stuck up beneath their skin like dinner plates covered by a towel on a dish rack. It was the end of the dry season and the land thirsted for rain."
All along the way - the Mosquito Coast, Nicaragua, the tiny Corn Islands and on - he has full command of the telling sensuous detail: the sweet stickiness of mango juice in a dark kitchen, the dark icing sugar of windblown volcanic sand that sticks to the sweat of a body, the the metallic tap of the steps to board a plane.
The people he meets along the way are captured on the page with a novelist's eye. In the end, the strangers he encounters and befriends are the key, for they hold up the mirror to the changes in him.
"The greatest gift of travel is [the] ability to reinvent yourself. I had the freedom to try on hats and costumes of my own choosing because no one out there knew me. They couldn't shove me back into the context of my past."
Out on the road there are no boundaries imposed by well-meaning family, friends and associates at home. Murdock is a literary romantic who discovers that he can be at ease anywhere in the world when he is at ease with himself. "Central America had become a state of mind, a mental construct, a place of no fixed geological borders. It was something I carried with me."
This is a book that teems with life, not always pretty but vivid and painfully truthful at times. It will open your eyes, but take you willingly along for the bumpy ride to acquire "road wisdom". Because I think we all wonder, at times, what it would be like to dare to drop off the map and see what we find.
To find out more about Ryan Murdock's work, click here for his website.