Book review: Inside the Belly of an Elephant

Inside the Belly of an Elephant by waterfront. The death of a loved one is difficult to endure. But when you’re in Africa, sharing an epic journey with your amazing older brother, only to witness him dying from malaria, it is almost unbearable. When that brother dies from a disease, the prophylactic mediation you both agreed to forgo, there is a chest-clenching guilt you carry with you.

Inside The Belly of an Elephant is the telling of a years-long motorbike journey, and Todd Lawson’s tribute to his brother Sean. Like a boat without an anchor, after Sean’s death, Todd struggled to remain moored to life. After a chance meeting at a mutual friend’s home in Whistler, Christina becomes Todd’s constant, and when he asks her, will you ride a motorcycle down to South America with me to keep my brother’s dream alive? she says yes. The fact that she’s never ridden a motorbike before does not deter Christina’s adventurous heart, and so after saving for a year, the two embark on ‘the journey’ with no planned route, no guidebook, no cellphone, no GPS, no schedule, no timetable, no responsibilities. The journey fills Todd with a sense of purpose as he works to process the weight of guilt he carries.

In reading Inside the Belly of an Elephant, Todd brings us in gradually, laying down the brother’s early years. Of life growing up in a small town, of the search for adrenalin fueled fun, of travelling, and then the horrendous days before Sean’s death in an intensive care unit in Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto.

Todd, Sean, and their younger brother Brad grew up in Alberta, with summers spent on their grandparents’ farm. The grandkids of immigrants, the Lawson boys knew the meaning of hard work, but they also pushed the limits. The farm was the incubator for daredevil feats on their bikes, their small town, a place to push the limits at school or at the bar.

Sean was …a quirky small-town kid with big dreams and a wild heart ready to explore the world in his own way. Straight out of school, Sean headed to Rossland, BC, and this was the place he would return to between journeys. Like many ski towns Rossland seemed made up entirely of young ski bums whose purpose was to party and ski as much possible. Sean fit right in.

We learn that travelling became Sean’s essence. To him, the adventure wasn’t real if you had to pay for it. So, rather than getting drunk in the expat pubs and sleeping off the hangover, he’d rent a cheap motorbike and venture along dusty roads deep into the countryside as early as four a.m. to catch the first rays of light as they bathed the centuries-old rice terraces on both side of the Katmandu Valley. Here. Surrounded by tiny farms, sacred temples and Buddhist monks, Sean found his own spiritual nirvana, which for an Alberta boy without spiritual upbringing, was a big deal.

This journey to Nepal changed Sean, …he loved walking barefoot though the maze of rice terraces…bought a few family-sized portions of mom (steamed buffalo-meat dumplings packaged nealthy in little bamboo baskets) and hand delivered them to a family of new-found farmer friends. The farmers, not sure how to take this foreigner speaking little Nepalese, with cupped hands and gentle Namaste, would down their sickles to enjoy lunch with this white guy on a motorbike. Few words were spoken, but their faces stretched toothless smiles. Sean was no longer the loud rebellious teenager with a reckless fuck-you attitude. Travel had become his mentor, and he began carrying a new, benevolent attitude into the far reaches of the world.

Todd and Christina’s journey to South America was to honor Sean, and in sprinkling his ashes along the way, they brought him on this epic ride. Through Todd’s words and his camera lens, we experience the dust, rain, the amazing cultures, poverty, and kindness, in this astounding and sometimes chaotic motorbike journey as he tries to outride his guilt. When nineteen months later they reach Conception, Chile, we learn that the journey has allowed Todd to understand that forgiveness is the great liberator of the mind. But Todd also knows that the journey is not over. Africa beckons.

When Todd connects with the Against Malaria Foundation, the African trip becomes a reality. Christina and Todd now have a solid purpose, to deliver mosquito nets to African children. To prevent others dying from malaria. The beauty of using a motorbike is that you can travel anywhere, and as many villages are inaccessible by road, Todd and Christina’s ability to fulfill this purpose is high. After travelling through fifteen African countries from January to December of 2008, and experiencing many wonderful and generous people as well as harsh conditions and unsettling encounters, Todd and Christina deliver and often supervise the installation of many of the ten thousand donated nets over children’s beds.

Inside The Belly of an Elephant is raw, honestly worded memoir. It is a book that pulls readers in, as we share the road less travelled with Todd and his resolute partner Christina. We are with them, cringing at dreadful scenes, worrying about bike breakdowns, but always cheering them on, as they forge 38 countries, almost 80,000km, to ultimately finding a place of ease.

In this book, Todd has truly honoured his brother and his legacy. 

Todd Lawson believes in passion, diversity, and the search for freedom outside. He’s an avid world traveller, husband, brother, father, son, writer, photographer, creator, storyteller, mountain athlete, humanitarian, adventure-seeker, and lover of life and all its wonderful ways. Todd is the publisher, producer, and photo editor at Mountain Life Media, and Co-Founder of the Rise and Sean Foundation. Inside the Belly of an Elephant is his first book. He lives in Whistler, British Columbia.

Lawson will be joining us at the Whistler Writers Festival for the reading event, Writers of Non-Fiction Panel and Show Don’t Tell Me: A Non-Fiction Workshop (In person & Online). Tickets are available now.

Review by Libby McKeever. She is a retired Youth Librarian, avid reader, and writer of both fiction and creative non-fiction.