Friday, October 09, 2009

Short take: The Man Who Swam the Amazon

[Did this for Outlook Traveller]

“At times I’m convinced he’s some sort of swimming robot,” river guide Matthew Mohlke says of Martin Strel, and it’s easy to see why. Strel, the Slovenian endurance swimmer, is a fearless conqueror of great rivers, the holder of the Guinness records for swimming the Yangtze, the Mississippi, the Danube and finally, in 2007, the Amazon. The Man Who Swam the Amazon is an account of the last of those marathons, a potentially deadly 3,274-mile journey that took 66 days.

This isn’t a travel book in the conventional sense; we learn the names of various anchoring spots along the river in Peru, Brazil and Columbia, but no real details about most of these places – which are hardly regular tourist attractions anyway! It’s more a collection of diary entries recording each day of the swim. Few of these entries run longer than two or three pages and this makes for a quick read, but it also means that things get repetitive – for all the fear of river pirates, crocodiles and other predators, there are days when nothing very exciting happens. Mohlke gets around this by detailing the many challenges facing the crew on the support boat: outdated maps (in a terrain that can barely be mapped anyway); the need to store buckets of rancid pig’s blood to divert attacking piranhas, and condoms to protect against the notorious candiru fish, which have a nasty tendency to make themselves comfortable in the human urethra; constant bouts with illness; the shifting moods and personal equations on board.

I wished the book contained more passages like Mohlke’s warm description of a logrolling competition between him and Strel during a rare, lighthearted moment in between swims. But he does give us a few snippets about Strel’s life and describes how the swimmer deals with the exhausting sessions in the water: by telling himself stories for long stretches of time, cutting himself off from the world around him and retreating into personal memory palaces. Even as the support crew is armed with laptops and other modern equipment (something Mohlke admits to feeling ambivalent about, because it seems to take away some of the purity of this primal journey), Strel single-mindedly ploughs on, spending up to 12 hours each day in the water. “It’s just him and the river. It’s like the whole world collectively sleepwalks through their day-to-day routine and he’s the only one left on the planet who’s still living like a caveman.” This is a very lightweight book, but in these passages at least it creates a portrait of a portly, middle-aged man who dreamt a mad dream and then went on to live it.

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