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Peace Corps Volunteer Moritz Thomsen's unpublished book "Bad news from a black coast"
Peace Corps Volunteer Moritz Thomsen's unpublished book "Bad news from a black coast"
Bad news from a black coast
Salon Wanderlust presents exclusive excerpts from the unpublished memoir of writer Moritz Thomsen, about his life in Ecuador from the 1965 to 1991.
By Moritz Thomsen
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July 14, 1998 | RIOVERDE, 1966: The town is a single street of collapsing houses built on a sand-spit thrown up by the sea and the river. The heavy seas and the high tides at the equinoxes tear away at the beach or build it up; a half a dozen times a year sea water pours into the street, and sometimes in the morning one walks through Pablo's cocal to find that another three or four coco palms have been uprooted by the swirl and pound of the ocean. Or a thirty-foot-long tree trunk lies across the trail in the salt grass still glistening with ropes of seaweed. The town then strikes one as being impossibly vulnerable, as fragile as mist, a town that at any moment might be swept away. (In a single week Rocafuerte, three miles to the north, lost all the houses on one side of its main street, and Palestina, just across the river, ended up with a dozen houses less in that same monstrously awful week of lunar tides in full resonance.)
The winter storms batter away at the beach tearing off great chunks of the earth's flesh like a starving animal; during the long months of calm, the dry season, the sea lies as tranquil as a sleeping woman slowly breathing as she dreams, sweeps up the sand and silt from the river, and almost secretly tries to repair the ravages of its rages, its bad manners.
At high tide all through the year the sea breaks at the very edge of the salt grass flats. Sharks and porpoises cut through the water no more than thirty feet from the grass and the cocos and the piles of balsa chunks and the great corpses of trees tossed up from the flooding river. And because there is an almost imperceptible slope to the beaches, at low tide the ocean moves away, and the beach at Rioverde pitted with tide pools becomes for a time a half a mile wide. The sound of the ocean fades away as though one were hearing it through a shell held to the ear. In these long hours the beach lies naked, and a light mist rises from the tide pools as the sun draws the water back into the sky, a silver haze hangs over the sea, the horizon disappears, sea, earth, and sky glow under an identical light, and it is impossible to distinguish sand from water, water from sky. In a distance impossible to judge the figures of old women dressed in black rags, carrying sacks and machetes, and hunting for mussels float in the air, and the floating figures of men walking toward you through the sand at the edge of the water, never come closer. Shrimp boats and canoes hang in the sky drifting through mist. Everything is benign illusion, unbearably tranquil, like a forgotten dream of some endlessly protracted moment out of childhood. One thinks that a God kinder than the one who has promised to end the world with fire would end it like this.
I go out often and walk the beach looking for this timeless and misty arrangement of the elements; I don't know why except that it fits in with my feeling that my life is over. Each time, standing alone I am overwhelmed with nostalgia for that life in California that I have left forever, that life that while I lived it gave me so little pleasure. Now I am oppressed with anguish. Standing before the immensity of sea and sky, I am reduced to my proper dimensions, dissolved to a nothingness in this glowing infinity.
For the first six months after I came to live in Rioverde my Spanish was incredibly bad, or rather, the very little that I knew had almost no connection with the lazy, black, ribald, country Spanish of the farmers and fishermen. Most of those illiterate and poverty-stricken people, to whom I could only stammer out a few simple and boring phrases and to whose simple questions I could answer nothing, thought I was dim-witted. They mocked me shamelessly. Against my inclination to hide away and nurse an impulse toward catatonia, I forced myself week after week to engage in awful and childish conversations that often ended when the poor victim, shaking his head and muttering to himself, simply walked away and left me. The Teniente Politico, an aged and evil little man, used to hunt me out to humiliate me; he was graced with that profound stupidity that revealed itself in arrogance. He had strong prejudices against gringos and was convinced that their presence in his country destroyed his chances. "So you're here with all that North American science to show us how to live, and you can't even talk to us." This was almost the first Spanish that I learned, a sentence I heard some twenty times in twenty days. Ah, that evil grim behind the gray stubble.
There is nothing harder than struggling with a new language in the face of such constant humiliation; by late afternoon during those months I would be dazed with exhaustion, and I was as ready as the most opinionated to agree that I was hopelessly stupid, far stupider in fact than these people whose brains had been destroyed in childhood by malnutrition. To preserve my sanity I made a daily tactical retreat. I fled from the town street or the dock where the young men lolled away their lives, locked the doors to my house, and hid myself on the back porch where I could at least pretend not to hear the gaggle of little children as they pounded on the front door for the exotic but idiot stranger to show himself and go through his clown's act yet another time.
The back porch was a simple outside floor made from lengths of bamboo that had been spread open; it overlooked a small grove of salt-stunted cocos, the river, and the far beach across the river. Directly opposite the town of Rioverde, separated by two hundred feet of water and years of local hatreds and suspicions, the town of Palestina was like a mirror reflecting a street of shabby, leaning bamboo houses whose rotting walls were pocked with holes as though the town, at night, perhaps, as we slept, were being invaded by moths with the wing spans of condors. I sat alone in the shade made by the house nursing a beer, reading, or scratching around in my psyche for a little fertile space where I might plant the seeds of self-respect.
During that time for about ten days or two weeks, across the river a daily drama was enacted; each day, identical in its repetitions, it took on qualities of grandeur and meaning, and since, as far as I could tell, I was the only audience, its meaning was highly personal, as though it were something secret meant for my eyes alone. It was a message about anguish and grace, grown out of my desperate need to make sense out of this situation in which I found myself.
Each day at the hour of the highest tide a large white sow would appear at the end of the street in Palestina. With calm, slow dignity, threading her way between the chunks of balsa and the trunks of trees that had been torn away and flung up on the beach by the winter storms, she would stand finally for a moment where the last waves spilled around her feet; then, head held high, staring intently toward the north and oceanic curve of the horizon, she would move out into the water and stand there in profound meditation up to her shoulders in the sea while the breakers crashed over her head. Something deep and awful drove her into the sea; something deep and awful, poetic and unpiggish drew her daily to contemplate the vastness and mystery of the Pacific. Her eyes were drawn to the northern edges of the earth at the limits of her vision as though, the first pig in the history of the world, she were realizing the roundness of this globe upon which she was imprisoned. Almost immediately I identified myself with that old white sow, envied her that dignity and that impulse toward transfiguration that drove her into the breakers. I could only give her my own qualities; we were both strangers on a savage coast, both of us burned with longings, an awareness of mortality, a sense of having arrived at that point when we would harvest our own destinies.
Never did I identify with her more than on the day when she died. I awoke that morning at four o'clock to hear across the river the wild shrieks of an animal being slaughtered. I lay in bed trembling with terror as though it were my own throat being slashed, my own hot guts spilling into the sand.
How had I come to this place, this sordid village, a nothing, an X formed by the line of coast and across it the equator? Why did I have such delicate feelings for a pig? Years later when I had cured myself of all that sadness -- or found deeper reasons for being sad in the lives of other people -- I could never really believe that it hadn't been all a dream. I could never wake up in the mornings, to the sounds of dry palm fronds rattling in the wind or the rusty shrieking of a hundred insane roosters or the dry rusty hopeless scraping of the little hand pump in the center of the only street, without a sense of shock. Until I came fully awake it was like the obverse of life -- awaking from a sweet dream into a nightmare, for these were the sounds I had heard the morning when my doppelganger had her throat cut. And then I was awake and flooded with relief but now living in a kind of childishly invented world. The desperate world of poverty, a more brutal world than anything I might have imagined in those twenty years after the war when as a farmer I had gone down out of my safe middle-classness into bankruptcy and disgrace.
In 1945, with an almost $40,000 inheritance I had come back from the war with the plan to spend my productive years as a farmer; in 1965, having lost about $2,000 a year for two decades, I fled into the Peace Corps; when I arrived in Montana to begin training for foreign service I carried all of my assets with me. If I remember correctly, they added up to a little more than $36. People of my class (and certainly I accepted their standards at that time) could only judge me by my financial worth. In a sense, by once having had money and lost it, I was judged more severely than if I had always been despicably insolvent. For twenty years my father with shrieks and groans had insisted that I had no business sense, that I was an idiot when it came to handling money. My God, he was right. In that same period, and I had lasted longer than most, Eisenhower's dog-eat-dog free enterprise philosophy had driven eleven million of us out of agriculture, but this was small consolation and no excuse. I could hardly look at myself in the mirror, an unmanned failure who had lost everything, including my credit rating and a great many other things that defined my humanity. To many of my better established farm friends I became invisible or, when our eyes met, briefly with intense embarrassment, as though I were guilty of some obscene crime against society, visible to their quickly lowered glances as a pair of boots, mud-spattered and stinking of the hog pen.
I left the country and was sent to Ecuador, and after a time ended up on a black coast in a little town of thirty houses; it was there that I began to learn what being poor was all about.
It was a world of suffering and early death, of open sores and hunger, of drunken men, the dull, angry faces of women, the vacant faces of children losing their intelligence but too wise to weep, of rags and rages and foolish fights, the explosive violence of irrational men who have no power over their lives; of malice, envy, jealousy, brothers stealing from brothers; in short, a society under such unbearable pressures that it had begun to disintegrate and as I was to learn later, was kept from some awful and final dissolution by the courage and nobility of the women.
To be thrown into close contact with this deprived population, who lived very much like sixty percent of all the people in the world, was a shock as painful and surprising as though I had suddenly been beaten with clubs. And this universal suffering, what a rebuke to the rage and self-pity that had driven me from my country. Gradually and to the limits of my capacity to live a brute life, I began to share the local humiliations. I earned $100 a month and was by far the richest man in town, and when this fact became generally known, that contempt which I had been shown for being unable to speak in a decent intelligible sentence was replaced by brotherly forbearance. It was a pitiful transparency but fascinating to contemplate; the whole world of poverty glowed with its special fascination, the terrible interlocking elements of which it was constructed -- hunger, filth, disease, ignorance, the exploitive nature of those who preyed upon the poor, a hundred other little pieces of which not the least were those qualities which defined man's capacity for evil.
Little by little for reasons that were not entirely pure, I embraced this kind of life that mystified, horrified, and enchanted me. For a time, I thought that I was beginning to understand something about poverty, but this was illusion. After four years in that awful place where I had never been so happy or so miserable, it dawned on me when it was time to leave that I had been changed forever.