By Mark D. Walker
Moritz Thomsen was an iconic author and figure to his devoted fan base, and before his death in 1991 he had written five extraordinary books. Although we were of different generations and never met, we both shared some similar life experiences as Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) involved with agricultural development work in Latin America. I would get to know the man through his books, and he would become my literary “patron saint.” As it was for thousands of PCVs, his first book, Living Poor, became a must-read for me.
The village Thomsen lived and worked in as a PCV, Rio Verde, on the Esmeraldas River, is located on the northwest coast of Ecuador and the population is largely made up of descendants of slaves. This population was (and is) one of the poorest, most isolated groups in the country, and Thomsen lived and worked among them for most of the last quarter-century of his life; he also spent periods of time in Quito and Guayaquil, where he died.
In my case, I am among the more than 5,000 PCVs, and close to 250,000 worldwide, who have served in Guatemala over the last sixty years. I arrived in Calapte, a small village in the highlands of Guatemala in 1971, seven years after Thomsen reached Rio Verde; I joined at the age of 23 while Thomsen was 48. My site was near the highest volcano in Guatemala, Tajamulco, at over 12,000 feet. Each night I froze as the temperatures plummeted; during the days, I would get frustrated because I couldn’t understand most of the population since they spoke a Mayan language. Many of the communities I worked in were only accessible on horseback, while on the tropical coast of Ecuador, where Thomsen worked, river transportation was more common.
Years after reading Living Poor, I discovered Thomsen’s third book, The Saddest Pleasure, whose title originated from a quote in Paul Theroux’s Picture Palace: “Travel is the saddest of the pleasures. It gave me eyes.”When asked about the phrase’s true meaning in an interview, Thomsen said,
Well, we have illusions about the new places that we visit; they are almost always false to reality. And the places we know change so rapidly that to go back is many times quite wrenching. Being bored with ourselves, we take a trip sitting within that boring person we thought to escape. I haven’t seen any here yet, but I understand there are T-shirts that say, “Life’s a bitch. And then you die.” Maybe it is sad to travel and learn that life’s a bitch in Nairobi and Manaus and Tokyo and Sydney. And Samarra…
The Saddest Pleasure is a story of a trip Thomsen takes from his home in Quito to Rio de Janeiro and then to Salvador, Bahia, and finally up the Amazon from Belem to Manaus. And, as you might expect from a quixotic trip up an exotic river, it was a failure in practical terms, although this can be ignored by the reader because the real journey is more internal and totally compelling.
Thomsen heads north from Rio to Salvador, Bahia de Todos os Santos, where many of these contradictions and disappointments abound:
Although I have scarcely stepped into its streets and have already seen terrible sights of decay, overcrowding, widespread poverty, and public corruption, I have been seduced in this city. I gaze down into the tiny harbor with its star-shaped stone fort or sit in the meltingly beautiful evening light thinking with amazement, “It’s the most beautiful city in the world, the most real city in the world, the only city I could learn to love.”
Many of his most interesting memories emerge during a long bus ride along the coast, from Rio de Janeiro to Salvador Bahia,
On Tuesday morning after the long weekend, still coughing, still a little disoriented, I walk up Rio Branco to a tourist office and buy a ticket for Bahia. Twenty-eight dollars for a thirty-hour bus ride, almost a thousand miles along the Brazilian coast. The way I’m feeling if that doesn’t kill me, nothing will.” This would prove to be an arduous trip filled with fascinating stories and delusions.
Similar to Thomsen’s bus ride north to Recife, I experienced my own endless bus trip on my way from Salvador, Bahia to the national capital of Brasilia, which took 39 instead of “only” 30hours. The driver took two hours to change a tire which he eventually retrieved from another one of the company’s buses that had broken down. The driver slept through most of the repair when he wasn’t peddling t-shirts, he had purchased the day before.
Salvador, Bahia was one of my shared destinations with Thomson. I was there in 1973. Thomsen visited in 1979, when he was 63. This would be the northernmost point of my trek through Brazil, which was part of a five-month trip through Latin America. Until 1763, it was the capital of Brazil and a living museum of the past.
I found Salvador to have a strong Caribbean, Black flavor. At the local market, El Modelo, I walked by the food stalls where the locals consumed the parts of animals available to people lowest on the economic food chain: stomachs, intestines, eyeballs, and hoofs, to name a few. I also came across a group of locals playing the bongo and percussion music; a large group began dancing and drinking. I felt I was witnessing the special energy and spirit of the community. And I, like Thomsen, walked through the favelas [slums] where trash was piled by the front doors, and open sewage emptied into the ocean. And children played outside of carton homes. Both Thomsen and I were mesmerized by the cultural vibrance and energy that emanated from northeastern Brazil, as well as being repulsed by the abject poverty and filth we were confronted with.
Although Thomsen’s Spanish was not that good (forget Portuguese) and he read the Latin American classics in English, he was determined to meet Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro, author of Sergeant Getulio and one of the great novelists of the hemisphere, to interview him for a publication in Quito. After several weeks searching for him in Salvador, he managed to set up a meeting and, much to his surprise, the author spoke to him in English: “Tonight he sounds like an Iowa farmer; later I will listen to him as he mimics Southern redneck, Texas drawl, and Shakespearian rhetoric, mixing it all together, showing off.”
One evening when Ubaldo takes Thomsen to several parties, Thomsen realizes that Ubaldo thinks that he’s famous. Initially Thomsen glows “like a heat lamp, a writer with an international reputation,” but soon feels the need to set the record straight: “My fame is surely local and has never spread out past the Peace Corps family, where for a time my book was required reading. ‘You are making a terrible mistake,’ I say finally, in a grumpy voice and feeling that I am being trapped into a very false position.”
“Nevertheless, I will come and see your pictures with much pleasure,” says Ubaldo and then it dawns on him, “You are not famous? You are sure? Are you not a doctor who has written a great novel about practicing medicine?” “Oh shit, perhaps you are thinking of Morton Thompson,” I say coldly, “He is dead, I believe; I can understand your confusion, but I am not a doctor, not a writer. I’m a farmer; I raise cows and bananas, oranges, things like that. I apologize. I’m sorry I’m not famous.”
Thomsen gets drunker as the evening progresses and after watching Ubaldo flit from one beautiful girl to another, Thomsen is with him at dinner and according to Thomsen, Ubaldo is “sitting between Lilian and Beatrice, and looking like a younger, fitter Henry the Eighth than the one he knows, as interpreted by Laughton, and is carried away by delight. He has more interesting things to do than talk bookish things with a drunken old man. Screwed again.”
By 1:00 a.m., Thomsen observes,
I am sitting at a table talking English and eating curried chicken with two beautiful women and a great writer. There is nothing else for the rest of this trip that will prove to be quite so dramatic—or so it seems to me in my drunken state. But it is certainly not the drama that I had imagined or a drama that I can use. I had come five thousand miles to see Ubaldo out of an invented need because it had seemed somehow shameful to make so long a journey without some kind of object.
Thomsen sums up the extent to which his encounter with the Brazilian author met his expectations with, “Talking to Ubaldo and making an article about him had been, aside from my conviction that if anything were going to happen to me it would happen on the Amazon River, my only excuse for making a senseless trip that so far had proved to be about as pleasant and revealing as falling through space from the observation deck of the Chrysler building.”
Traveling in Tandem
Traveling with someone else can reveal things about the place you’re visiting and your inner self that you were never aware of. His relationship with Ramon Prado, a Black fisherman Thomsen befriended when first entering Rio Verde as a Peace Corps Volunteer, provides a real lens during one of the rare return visits Thomsen made to the U.S. after arriving in Ecuador. Thomsen took Ramon on a trip to San Francisco, despite the challenges that entailed, as expressed in a letter to “Sheilababy,” a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, dated June 21, 1967.
In the letter, Thomsen speaks of his frustration when he purchases the airline tickets and obtains Ramon’s passport, only to be told by the U.S. consul that Ramon was too poor and would probably not come back but “hide in the States,” which meant that Thomsen would have to get him bonded. After waiting for the bond to arrive, Thomsen learned that he couldn’t travel on Ecuador’s national airline, which would have saved $500.
Moritz claims that Ramon was a little prince in California and that everyone loved him and “spoiled the hell out of him.” Evidently, he told off Moritz’s sister for allowing her husband to cook supper for them and she waited on Ramon “hand and foot,” which he accepted as his due. At one drunken party he told off everyone for screaming and fighting, which, according to Moritz, was “noble.” He also took Ramon to the African ballet, which set Ramon “on his ears, but the best thing was the anthropological museum in Mexico City, which was a “special trip in itself.” Moritz goes on to say,
I did enjoy traveling with him, though. He came out of the bathroom in Mexico City and said “boy, that water is really hot. I had to keep running over to the water basin to pour cold water on me.” I then showed him how to regulate the hot water.
The author was amazed “to see mi pais con los ojos de Ramon [to see my country through Ramon’s eyes]; in fact, it was frightening. We spent two weeks there out of the month and then in a sort of desperation headed south of the border.” The trip strengthened the relationship between the two and offered Ramon a peek into Moritz’s family, although upon returning to Ecuador, Moritz experienced the ultimate downer when his new camera was stolen.
I experienced my own “traveling in tandem” revelation after obtaining my master’s degree at the University of Texas in Austin. My Guatemalan wife, Ligia, and I left our daughter with my in-laws in Guatemala and set out on a four-month trek through Europe.
After flying into Amsterdam, we headed to Belgium by train, but it didn’t take us long to figure out that at $4 a kilometer, our budget would not last for the entire trip. At that point, I decided we should hitchhike and stay at youth hostels, much to the chagrin of my wife, who had never been to Europe. The hitchhiking was an adventure of its own and some of the hostels were dicey at best (sleeping with twenty other unbathed hikers could be less than optimal), but we eventually made it to Scotland and from there headed south to the renowned Lake District of England. The most popular national park in the UK, millions hike the Lake District every year. Like the Romantic poets of the 19th century, its postcard-perfect panorama of craggy hilltops, mountain pools, and glittering lakes stirred my imagination, and I very much desired to share it with my wife.
Unfortunately, when we arrived it was very hot, and the area was packed with cars. High vacation season! All the hostels and hotels were full! So, there we were, standing on a roundabout, nobody picking up two stranded, frustrated hitchhikers. It occurred to us that there was no feasible way we could venture into and explore the Lake District. With that, Ligia totally lost her patience. “Bruto!” she yelled and threw her wedding ring down. It took us over an hour but, fortunately, we were able to find the ring, and Ligia calmed down. I apologized (groveled):
Mi Amor, I don’t know what I was thinking. I’ll find a bus and we’ll go visit Michael and Sarah Barton, British friends I met in Bolivia years ago. They live on the south coast where it will be cooler. How does that sound?
“Okay,” she responded, “but NO more hitchhiking. Period.” And so it went, and so it goes. From that point on, it has only been well-planned trips, including some wonderful river cruises.
Following Moritz Thomsen through his books and collected letter correspondence, to Latin America and beyond, with all the surprises and potential disasters, have been insightful. They have helped me understand and appreciate my own travels, and the disconnect between my expectations at the outset and what I experience, including the disappointments. Thomsen’s transparency and commitment to living and traveling among some of the most abandoned people in the world, and the different ways he described what he saw, has been an inspiration, and something worth emulating. And yes, life is a bitch, and then you die, but I don’t think either of us would have had it any other way.