On maps, the Darien Gap doesn't look like a hotbed of armed guerillas. But you have to ask yourself why the Pan-American Highway, which runs otherwise unbroken from Alaska to the bottom of South America, takes its one and only break between Central and South America at the Darien Gap. The gap's jungles have been effectively off-limits even to the hardiest backpackers for the past 10 years. Guidebooks and Central American officials alike have just two words for it: "Don't go."So why would Tom Hart Dyke and Paul Winder, two well-brought up British lads, disobey so many direct orders and venture into the Darien Gap with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a couple of packs? In their "true story of adventure, survival, and extreme horticulture," The Cloud Garden, Dyke and Winder explain themselves. Dyke's passion is orchids. For him, the untrammeled jungles and wetlands of the Darien Gap represent a botanist's dream an opportunity to see rare flowers undocumented by any other scientists. Winder, an escapee from a boring bank job, is in search of the ultimate adrenaline rush. The fact that almost no one dares traverse the gap makes it an irresistible challenge. Both adventurers get what they are looking for and a lot more than the original bargain.
Just as Winder and Dyke are about to cross into the relative safety of Columbia, they are kidnapped by a band of FARC guerillas. What follows is a harrowing tale of torture and a fight for survival. The young men know enough Spanish to hear the kidnappers talking matter-of-factly about murdering them on an almost daily basis. For months, Winder and Dyke are marched from one makeshift camp to another deprived of clean water, threatened and humiliated.
Cloud Garden is not, in the end, a travel documentary or an orchid study. Nor do Winder and Dyke take any position on South American politics. Their tale is one of two men figuring out how to make it out of the jungle alive. What makes the book interesting reading is the sense of humor the writers bring to even the most sordid aspects of their capture. While making an outward show of cooperation, Winder and Dyke assign belittling nicknames to their captors, like "Tank Bird," "Space Cadet," "Nutter," and "Lost Cause." When asked for English lessons, they teach their kidnappers obscenities. When the opportunity presents itself, the captive Brits even pee into their tormentors' drinking water. By maintaining an invisible, inner resistance to their capture, the two men keep their high spirits intact, even in the face of constant death threats.
But Dyke and Winder emerge, in the end, as more than just adolescent pranksters; they are also incredibly brave. Their kidnappers form the wild notion to ask for $3 million dollars in ransom. Dyke's family could, technically, raise that amount of money and more by selling Lullingstone Castle in Kent, their ancestral home. When ordered to write home, demanding millions for his return, Dyke writes: "Dear Mum and Dad. Our kidnappers are all idiots. They are a bunch of gits. Give them absolutely nothing. We are well. Don't worry about me."Readers will find themselves turning pages and delaying dinner while Winder and Dyke slowly blossom into the heroes of their own misguided adventure.