Peace Corps Writers
Howls from a Hungry Place

Part I
Living Poor

Part II
The Farm on the River of Emeralds 

To preserve and to learn
Howls From a Hungry Place, Part III
Mortiz Thomsen’s
The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers

My Two Wars

by Mark Covert

 More Peace Corps history:

A Peace Corps Test    

 Establishing the PC   

Living on the Edge: Paul Theroux   

The Marjorie Michelmore Postcard

Outward Bound -
Puerto Rico training

2/15/62 - PA newspaper doubts future
of Peace Corps

PCV Accused of
Murdering His Wife

The Real Job of the Peace Corps - a ’60s staff member’s view

March 1, 1961

Schickele Peace Corps film

The Museum of the Peace Corps Experience

Moritz Thomsen’s Living Poor

MORITZ THOMSEN WROTE HIS FINAL BOOKS in the years after he left his jungle farm near Esmereldas, Ecuador. He made good on a promise made at the end of Farm on the River of Emeralds by buying a large tract of land across the river from the farm he shared with hisPrinter friendly version partner, Ramón Prado. For four years, he attempted to eke out an existence raising corn, tropical fruit, and coconuts, and other failed ventures. Whatever intentions he may have had to free Ramón from his role as Good Son to Thomsen’s Big Daddy, the new farm’s location made it necessary for Ramón to come across the river by boat nearly every day to bring groceries, cigarettes, newspapers — any of life’s necessities that could not be raised on a remote jungle farm.
     The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers is a memoir written by Thomsen partly to tell the story of the disintegration his relationship with Ramón. For all practical purposes, he was a part of Ramón’s family, a grandfather to the Prado children — daughter Martita and son, Ramóncito (“Little Ramón”). Thomsen sets his tale as part memoir, part travelogue, and part devastating commentary on the rapacious practices of a capitalistic world bent on destroying huge chunks of South American society. The title is taken from a line in Picture Palace by [RPCV] Paul Theroux (“Which Frenchman said, ‘Travel is the saddest of the pleasures’?”); in fact Theroux wrote the Introduction to Saddest Pleasure.
     Thomsen is sixty-three years old at the time of his journey; the year is about 1978 or 1979 (Thomsen’s style pays little attention to concrete dates, he makes you work to keep your bearings, and gleefully plays havoc with chronological order when it helps the narrative; he at least warns the reader in advance). He wastes little time in getting to the reason for his extended trip:

    Ramón, my best friend, my partner, that jungle-wise black who was supposed to support me through the crisis of my sixties and at the end see me decently buried, had lost his nerve. He had driven me off the farm. The details were so outrageous that now, almost a year later, I still cannot bear to think about it.
          . . . Kicked off the farm, I went to live in Quito. . . . I found a small apartment with a view of a cement wall . . . I bought a bed, a table, and four plates, three more than I needed. How awful it was to be of no use to anyone, to awaken in the mornings and be unable to think of a single reason for crawling out of bed. One day out of desperation it occurred to me that finally I might make a trip.

The Saddest Pleasure
The trip turns into much more than that. Thomsen, in his usual self-mocking style, downplays his relentless curiosity and love toward South America and its people, portraying his journey at first as little more than a way to take up time. But time soon becomes a heavy burden as it dawns on Thomsen that he is now an old man, and his sense of doom and impending death begins to close in on him as he notices the invisibility that his advanced age has bestowed upon him. Out in the airports and busy streets of South America, he is regarded as little more than just another old, white-haired gringo. But time spent waiting for flights or sitting alone in hotels and restaurants give rise to some of Thomsen’s most compelling writing. In one passage, he remembers a game of “The Worst Thing I Ever Did,” played with friends in Quito around a large table:

    I had to confess first and could tell without thinking back about a Halloween night when I was ten years old. A tiny white-haired woman had come to a door whose bell I had rung. . . . I had stood outside her vision and thrown an egg at her — heard it smash against her face — and rushed wildly away in horror and self-loathing. (Fifty-three years later I can still hear that dreadful sound; my flesh still crawls.) . . . it had never occurred to me to mention instead an early afternoon in 1943 when I had led some groups of bombers to a now-forgotten German target where either three or thirty thousand people were reported to have been killed. I have truly forgotten both the target and the number of dead . . .. When I stand before that old charlatan, God, am weighed on the scales, found wanting, and am hurled into hell’s fires, it will not be for those thousands of people that I killed, it will be that goddam egg.

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