An almost certainly apocryphal story about Queen Victoria’s defacement of a map of South America which gives the superb Crossed Off the Map: Travels in Bolivia its title. According to the legend she crossed out Bolivia and declared that no such country existed after her ambassador to the country experienced some cruel personal indignity at the hands of its president in 1867.
In ten enthralling chapters, Shafik Meghji puts Bolivia back on the map and guides the reader through its historical, cultural, and geographical terrain. A country twice the size of France is shown to have had as decisive a role in shaping the modern world as that mother country of revolutions and to be a theatre where many contemporary environmental and social conflicts and impulses intersect.
A land that boasts Lake Titicaca, so high up and so large that it can give you altitude- sickness and sea-sickness at the same time, and huge tracts of the Pantanal, the largest tropical wetlands in the world and inspiration for Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and yet was also home to the silver mine that financed both the expansion of colonial Europe in the Sixteenth century and the Great Wall of China!
Then came the Jesuit Missions, followed by what the author wittily called the Rubber Barons- he has a great line in puns in his chapter headings- and the cocaine trade. Now it is a place where indigenous people strive to make a livelihood out of eco-tourism while governments and businessmen seek to exploit the same rich environments for energy and commerce.
Bolivia is now apparently an unmissable destination for those following the ‘ Gringo Trail’, but Meghji never lets the reader lose sight of the people of the place and its other creatures. Their challenges and travails are centred, whether he is talking about their rich past or complex present.
And did I mention Che Guevara, llamas or the dinosaurs?
Crossed Off the Map: Travels in Bolivia is a fascinating book, which I will certainly return to over and over again.
- Crossed Off the Map: Travels in Bolivia by Shafik Meghji is published by Latin America Bureau (£14.95). To order a copy go to lab.org.uk
Ian Tattum is a priest in the Church of England who writes occasional pieces about the people who shaped the history of science and human and animal travel-real and fictional.