A Writer Writes

My Memories of Moritz

by Dennis Bangs (Ecuador 1970–72)

    AT MY TRAINING for Peace Corps Ecuador in Montana during the summer of 1970 I started hearing about Moritz Thomsen who, at the age of 54, had been a Volunteer in Ecuador from 1965 to 1967. I can’t remember if I read the account of his Peace Corps experience, Living Poor, that summer or just heard about it. I have since read it many times so my memory of the first time is a little fuzzy after these 38 years. The book was published in 1969 and was required reading for a number of Peace Corps Latin America training programs, so I may have read it that summer.
         I was preparing to work at a cattle project near a town called Santa Domingo de Los Colorados, which was close to where Moritz had bought a farm and settled down after his Peace Corps years. He recounts this experience in his second book, The Farm on the River of the Emeralds.
         On my arrival in the Santa Domingo area I had forgotten about Moritz because I was dealing with my own challenges of being a PCV. At that time, the fall of 1970, the Peace Corps had a big presence in Ecuador with many established and respected programs. I had the good fortune to work in a successful cattle program where we worked with local cattle producers. In the beginning it distributed purebred Brahma bulls into the local farmer’s herds. Our job was to establish an education program for the prospective recipients of these bulls.
         At the same time, another program just a few kilometers away, and on the same road, had a similar program working with pigs. Because Moritz was a pig farmer in California, and pigs were an integral part of almost any new farm in the jungle, he had a lot of pigs, and a lot of problems with his pigs. I didn’t know him as well as the Volunteers who worked at the pig farm, but I did see him a few times. I also visited with these Volunteers who told me about Moritz, what he was like, and what he was up too.
         As I remember, no one was quite sure whether Moritz kept coming to the pig farm to get “expert advice” on pig farming or he was just hungry for contact with fellow Peace Corps Volunteers and North Americans and a chance to speak English. Regardless of his motives, he spent quite a bit of time with some of the Volunteers in the pig program, entertaining everyone with his intellect, sarcasm and cynicism.
         Moritz was a fascinating character. He was trying to create a place for himself in the jungle in between Santa Domingo and Esmeraldas, but was facing frustration at every step. In a way he seemed almost as much an Ecuadorian farmer as a North American writer. The frustrations he faced with the farm seemed to roll off him like many of the farmers we worked with. If something didn’t work and all of his pigs got sick he would shrug his shoulders and say something to the effect of “asi asi,” a local expression meaning, “well that is just the way it is.” One of his other favorite expressions was “todo esta jodido” or “everything is fucked.”
         I do remember one story more than the others. It is a story that turns up in The Farm on the River of the Emeralds. He liked to tell stories of his own failures, and this one was about trying to find a good inexpensive source of protein for his pigs instead of buying expensive feed. He discovered peanuts grew in the area of his farm so he thought he had an answer. He would grow his own pig feed.
         The problem was that when he converted his pig’s diet to an exclusive diet of peanuts many of the pigs got sick and a few even died. He ended up with sick pigs and a mountain of useless peanuts. This was one time that he had to turn to the Peace Corps pig “experts” to solve his problem.
         After he figured out how to nurse the pigs back to good health, he decided he could start a peanut butter business. He found a way to create peanut butter from his piles of peanuts, but then he couldn’t find anyone to buy his butter. I’m not sure how all of this turned out, but this story does demonstrate his dramatic flair for failure.
         The trouble was that Moritz really didn’t want to be a farmer. He wanted to be a writer. He wanted his friend Ramon and his family to run the farm. He would then have a comfortable place to hang out in the jungle and write his books. As his story in The Farm on the River of the Emeralds demonstrates, his plan didn’t work out.
         When I met Moritz in 1970 or early ’71, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the old man. Partly this was because I was young and cynical and I wasn’t easily impressed. Moritz appeared to me like one of the numerous crazy gringos living an unrealistic dream in the jungles of Ecuador.
         It was only after I left the Peace Corps and started to travel and read, and to read and reread Living Poor, and then River of Emeralds, that I came to understand how great a writer, and how great a man, Moritz Thomsen really was.
         In 1980 and 1981 I returned to Ecuador to see how things had developed in our projects in the Santa Domingo area. After a month or so in Ecuador, I travelled to Peru and Bolivia to see more of South America, and on my way back from Peru, in the spring of 1981 I had a chance encounter with Moritz on the plane back to Quito.
         I was waiting in the departure lounge and saw a white haired, tired looking gringo who looked strangely familiar. When we got on the plane the gringo was seated right behind me, and I suddenly realized who he was.
         At the time, I was keeping a journal, and scribbled down some notes about that chance encounter.

    Friday, May 6, 1981: I met Moritz Thomsen, the author, and he seemed his old sarcastic self. He said he was in a bad way because he was trying to quit smoking . . . but I never saw him in a good mood about anything. We had a little conversation about him living in Brazil part- time and the trouble he is having with his last book, and the problems he was having trying to get his new book published. He actually looked pretty good for a harried ex-pig farmer, ex-Peace Corps Volunteer and ex-writer of about 70 years old. His hair was pretty white but his gaunt look was still that of a fighter. He was thin but looked strong and determined in a hopeless sort of way. He has the look of someone who knows that everything is all fucked up, but is going to hang in there anyway. One comment that he made really confirmed this. When asking me about trying to quit smoking I told him that my dad had quit after the doctor had told him to after his heart attack. Moritz said that wouldn’t work for him because he would smoke just to prove the doctor wrong . . ..

         One other thing I remember him telling me — though I didn’t write about it my journal — was that he really was mad at his publishers because he had just written the best book of his life and they weren’t smart enough to recognize what a brilliant piece of writing it was.
         The book was finally published under the title of The Saddest Pleasure. It is a fascinating travelogue recounting a trip up the coast of Brazil and part of the Amazon River, along with an intriguing introspective look at his life and philosophy.
         I never saw Moritz again, but have over the years heard more and more stories about him, and read his posthumously published book, My Two Wars. He was a remarkable person, a remarkable writer, and one of those legendary PCVs whose story is passed on from one generation of Volunteers to the next. I am honored to add a few tales of my own to the life and legend of this famous pig farmer from Ecuador.

    Dennis Bangs recently retired after owning and operating a Spanish language school in Missoula, Montana for 12 years. For over 15 years he has been involved with the local National Peace Corps Association affiliated group in Western Montana and is currently the president and newsletter editor for the group.