One of the best things about travelling is the excuse it gives you to pre-read. Off to Colombia? Read García Márquez. Off to Chile? Read Allende. Off to India? Read Rushdie. Off to Cuba, read bloody everything. It is a bit like being in a book club – it forces you to make time for something you enjoy (Sometimes I wish I was in a “going to the gym” club – perhaps that would stop me walking past my gym each day, head down, eyes averted)
I was lucky enough to study journalism at university and I loved it. We spent a long semester learning to write, a painful process I did not excel at (and have remained haunted by) but it did involve studying the work of people like Gabriel García Márquez and George Orwell, the latter one of England’s greatest. I fell in love with Chronicle of a Death Foretold then and I had Orwell’s six rules for good writing branded on my brain (“Good prose is like a windowpane,” they said, over and over again) I break those rules all the time but who cares? So did Orwell.
Myanmar was a great excuse to rediscover the maestro, especially as the Myanmar people think Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984 are a prophetic trilogy of the history of their country. I’m sure they’re right. I bought a copy of Orwell’s essays, on a Rangoon street, while I was there and, of course, you can’t read the man without feeling inspired or indignant about something, can you?
So what do you think about this? Orwell explains why people write: “Sheer egoism, desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after your death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood… it is humbug to pretend this is not a motive and a strong one.” That is so accurate he probably should have kept it to himself eh? Just because something is true, doesn’t mean you have to run around and tell everyone.
What really got me thinking, though, were Orwell’s thoughts on dreams because they are not quite egotistical enough to be applied only to writers, but to all of us.
He said: “The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After about the age of thirty they abandon individual ambition – in many cases, indeed, they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all – and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives until the end and writers belong in this class.”
Really? The majority of people just give up their dreams and resign themselves to a life of drudgery at the age of 30? And that is a good thing? Are you bloody kidding me?
I went for dinner with a friend last week to celebrate the fact she had just turned 30. She is a smart and talented, but also extremely hard-working, entrepreneur who has been successful in the last year having battled her way through her twenties in Bogotá. She has the same story as most Colombians and foreigners I know here – fight, fail, fight, fail some more, fight, fight, fight, fail again. By the time you finally get somewhere you are so battle-worn all you can say is “Gracias a Dios” (Thank God) a million times over and look back on the days when you price-compared empanadas and negotiated renting “the maid’s room” even though it was too small for a bed.
I asked my friend if she had any dreams left – or was planning just to rest on her laurels – and she gave me a strange look and said: “Of course. I just turned 30. It feels like I am just getting started.”
A few days later I spoke to another friend of mine, a 35-year-old Colombian singer, and he said exactly the same: “Some people get to 30 and put their dreams on a shelf. But it’s ridiculous. Dreams don’t come with an expiration date. If you believe in them, they will happen.”
In my country though, your mid-thirties is pretty much “retirement age” for a lot of artists. The charts are full of skinny, spotty teenagers and ex-Mickey Mouse Club “divas” who are barely old enough to drive. Those who do manage longevity have to be “legends” or “icons” which means if you haven’t made it by 30, you probably won’t.
Colombia is a bit different – possibly because success is harder to achieve (unless you are born into it) or because Colombians need more time to fight, more time to find the money they need to succeed, more time to finish their education, more time to leave home. If you look at the Colombian charts, the bias is definitely on the side of age. Perhaps Colombians respect the struggle a bit more.
I feel the same as my friends. My twenties were a mess – okay, there was a lot of fun, travel, work and moving around – but I didn’t have a plan. I certainly didn’t have dreams. Turning 30 was great because I realised two things – that, yes, I could have dreams and, no, I didn’t have to give a damn what anyone thought about them.
But figuring out your dreams is only the first step. It then takes years of love and sweat and grit and luck to make them happen. Surely it’s impossible to get all that done by the time you reach 30? And then you are supposed to just give-up your self-centred selfishness and become, well, beige? I cannot believe Orwell was right. I cannot believe it is only the minority who are “determined to live their own lives until the end” I mean, if that is the case, whose lives are the rest of them living?
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.