Peace Corps Writers
Mortiz Thomsen's Living Poor (page 3)

Mortiz Thomsen's Living Poor
page 1, page 2, page 3

     The story in Living Poor unfolds essentially as described above, with one hopelessly complicated situation following the other, and would be depressing as well were it not for Thomsen’s ability to capture the sublime and ridiculous, often in hilarious fashion. Like most Peace Corps Volunteers then and since, he stumbled into Rioverde with the noblest of intentions and soon found himself on the receiving end of astonished, uncomprehending stares; his ideas and plans and offers of assistance were seen as sheer madness, rebuffed time and again with “the people aren’t accustomed to doing it that way.” His ventures in raising chickens, breeding pigs, planting coconut trees, and ultimately organizing the town into a cooperative are an unending roller-coaster of backbreaking labor, precarious success, and horrible defeat.
     Just as the reader begins to think Thomsen has managed to become a part of Rioverde society he points out the gulf that always existed, even after years of living and working in the town. He constantly struggles to find enough to eat, paying exorbitant prices for what few eggs, cans of tuna fish, sacks of rice, and bottles of beer he can scrounge. Still he has to travel to Guayaquil every month or so to gorge himself on hamburgers, milkshakes, pork chops, and green vegetables. He realizes that, no matter what he tries to tell himself, he is never going to be a real part of a town where everyone subsists on rice, plantains, and the occasional pile of fish, while he can just pack up and go to town and stuff his face with protein. How can he consider the prices he pays to be outrageous when the money he pays is all that separates entire families from physical or financial ruin, and the eggs on his plate are desperately needed by protein-starved children?
     Living Poor is simply too wonderfully written to put down once the reader becomes wrapped up in the horrifying, hilarious, heartbreaking, fascinating story that unfolds around Thomsen and Ramon, as they find themselves further and further distanced from the people of Rioverde. Thomsen’s book is not exactly a groundbreaking work — Peace Corps Volunteers have written of their experiences since before and long after Thomsen’s stint — but it stands alone by virtue of Thomsen’s unique insights and writing style. Some have found his work oppressively dark, especially the books he wrote near the end of his life, but Thomsen’s cynicism is tempered by his obvious love of people, a love he fights terribly to keep in the face of betrayals and disappointments.
  “Moritz Thomsen’s Living Poor” first appeared in the November 2001 issue of Smokebox ( and is published here with the permission of the author.
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