Peace Corps Writers
Mortiz Thomsen’s Living Poor (page 2)
Mortiz Thomsen’s Living Poor
page 1, page 2, page 3

      Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle, published by University of Washington Press originally in 1969, was Thomsen’s first book, and is considered to be one of the best accounts of the Peace Corps experience to this day. You find no easy answers to the problem of poverty in this or any of Thomsen’s works; what you do find is his unparalleled ability to observe what goes on around him, even as he becomes more and more a central figure in the mad yet beautiful, heroic, often tragic cast of characters in the coastal Ecuadorian village of Rioverde (Green River).
    Thomsen writes sparingly of his motivation for joining the Peace Corps in 1965. That comes later, when we are introduced to Charlie Thomsen, Moritz’s father, a man who comes off ultimately as a monster and a source of endless torment and self-loathing, brought horribly to life in My Two Wars. He is mentioned only once in passing in Living Poor; we will get to know him better soon enough. For now, Thomsen speeds the narrative along through his initial Peace Corps training in Bozeman, Montana, and mustering out to Ecuador, where the first problem is where to send him.
     His first trip into the country gives us a glimpse of one of Thomsen’s lifelong grievances: rather than being dazzled by the stupendous terrain of the Ecadorian interior, his gaze is riveted on people below the lowest rung of the social ladder: “Superimposed like a black shroud over this mountain area of natural splendor is the situation of the Indians who, since the time of the [Spanish] conquest, have been robbed, murdered, and exploited; now, centuries later, their situation is basically unchanged . . . . Since in the past all change has been for the worse, they resist all change now.” A burning rage toward the state of two-thirds of the world’s population permeates Thomsen’s work, a rage he was never able to tuck away safely for any period of time.
     His initial stint cut short by a life-threatening lung infection, Thomsen re-enlists in the Peace Corps and this time finds himself in Rioverde, a small fishing village on the Ecuadorian coast, and the drama unfolds in earnest. Here he meets people who will shape his narrative not just in Living Poor, but in his other books as well: Alexandro Martinez, his neighbor and “guide” in his first weeks in Rioverde; Bill Swanson, an old gringo expatriate who never tired of bending Thomsen’s ear with tales of how “a month after you’re gone, nobody will ever know you were here”; Alvaro, the local storekeeper turned bitter enemy when Thomsen’s efforts to establish a cooperative threaten his monopoly and power; Wai, the town hero and best boy, with his perpetually pregnant wife, scrabbling hungry horde of kids, and frightening widowed mother; various minor characters like Wilson, Jorge, Pancho, Ricardo, Ernesto, Clever, and others.
     Here we meet Ramon Prado, a poor young fisherman who is to figure prominently in the course of Thomsen’s life and therefore his books, in ways neither could ever have known then. Ramon comes forward as the first Rioverde resident to face up to his fears of great change and ask for help; Thomsen sets him up with half a dozen chickens and Ramon’s life is never the same. Immediately Ramon and Alexandro are seen as Thomsen’s favorites, set apart from the people of the town.
     In Living Poor, Thomsen first displays his gift for understanding what it is like to live in absolute, crushing poverty, poor in a way no American will ever know:

    Craziest and most interesting is the problem of incentive. Many of the people of Rioverde, for instance…didn’t want anything. To talk to a man about tripling his income was to fill him with confusion; he got nervous; he started to laugh; he wanted to go get drunk. The poor man from the moment of birth was so inundated with problems, so deprived, that to end up wanting things was a sort of insanity. What he wanted was to stay alive another day to tell jokes and visit with his friends in the sweet night air . . . he wanted ten sucres from time to time so that he could drink and dance and feel cleansed of life.

     Another telling paragraph:

    Living poor is like being sentenced to exist in a stormy sea in a battered canoe, requiring all your strength simply to keep afloat; there is never any question of reaching a destination. True poverty is a state of perpetual crisis, and one wave just a little bigger or coming from an unexpected direction can and usually does wreck things. Some benevolent ignorance denies a poor man the ability to see the squalid sequence of his life, except very rarely; he view is rather as a disconnected string of unfortunate sadnesses. Never having paddled on a calm sea, he is unable to imagine one. I think if he could connect the chronic hunger, the sickness, the death of his children, the almost unrelieved physical and emotional tension into the pattern that his life inevitably takes he would kill himself.

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