Travel literature review: Tequila Oil

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Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico by Hugh Thomson

2 star

Rating: 2 out of 5

Reviewed by TAH

TAH has worked as an editor at LP for the past 5 years, and has also authored several guidebooks. His travels have taken him throughout Asia, Africa, Central America and Europe.

Set in the late 1970s, Tequila Oil follows a precocious, punk-loving 18-year-old Englishman's journey through Mexico to Central America on an ill-judged mission to sell a car. Hugh Thomson's story begins on a plane (never a great way for a travel book to start) where, within moments, he is upgraded to first-class, falls in love with an air stewardess and is accosted by a well-to-do Mexican who proposes the hare-brained idea of buying a car in the US and selling it for a handsome profit in Central America (which forms the basic premise to the story).

The rapid-fire pace of events sets the tone for the rest of the book, and proves to be its downfall. The author simply tries to cover too much too quickly, making it difficult to engage with any of the places he visits or the people he meets before he's off like a jack rabbit, racing somewhere else. Within the space of 80 pages, he has his car impounded by the police, has to work as a translator in a sawmill to reclaim it, works in a bank in Mexico City then at a golf course, takes magic mushrooms at a theme park, goes on drunken camping trips, climbs volcanos, goes to the races and attends a chilli-eating contest with a friend's boozy uncle — all of which make great stories on their own, but they come and go at such breakneck speed that the reader is left dizzy and reeling.

Tequila Oil features some good writing, as well as genuinely amusing moments (particularly his several run-ins with foul-mouthed cops, and his increasingly emotional attachment to the car). It's also well researched, effectively drawing upon various literary and historical references to provide a backdrop to the places he visits.

The second section of the book sees Thomson return to Belize 30 years later, which really has potential to make things interesting — yet turns out to be a totally pointless exercise that confirms this book is much more about the author than the destination. Despite some interesting moments, Tequila Oil is a pretty disappointing read — though this can be potentially attributed more to poor editorial advice than the author's failings.

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