Bad News From a Black Coast: Part Two

Salon Wanderlust presents the second installment in an exclusive excerpt from the unpublished memoir of writer Moritz Thomsen, about his life in Ecuador from 1965 to 1991.

By Moritz Thomsen
Published July 15, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

TACHINA, 1986: There were two roads in my life at that time -- the one that passed the house and the other, a gravelled road along the property line that separated the pastures from the airstrip. From the upstairs room, an open area with the breeze from the ocean moving through it, sometimes screeching through it, I could sit at the typewriter and watch the people on the airport road some six hundred feet away as they went back and forth between Tachina and Las Piedras, the road fitting neatly into the north side of the house from corner post to corner post the whole length of the property line. The moving figures from the distance, losing their particularity -- their age, their sex, their poverty -- were simply plainly dressed rural people displaying the grace and beauty of their movements. Can you tell the thief from the saint in the black flowing rhythm of a walk?

This particular stretch of road is considered mildly dangerous. Perhaps for this reason, hiding fear, the women, scarcely ever alone, and the young men pass across my horizon with a brave, strutting daring. How beautiful the walk -- the high lifting legs, the generously swinging arms, the head highly held, glancing neither to the left nor right. The hidden thief or the rapist crouched in the grass are symbols of the menace and the possibility of violent and unplanned surprises in the lives of very poor people. The walk across my vision is a symbol of how that life is confronted -- with arrogance, grace and courage. Barefoot, vulnerable to stones, to thorns, they have created out of walking a mythical ballet.

Old men and women, seen as old for the conservative color of their clothes, having nothing that anyone would want, not even a body, move alone with strong but less flamboyant steps. Almost all of them carry half-filled sacks: the younger women in red or turquoise, long legs dancing, daring; the fishermen in scarlet shorts and carrying plastic buckets of fish or shrimp or tomorrow's bait; the children drab and serious in dark school clothes, black pants, blue shirts, the small ones, the workers, walking in pairs with rowed catfish on a bamboo length between them -- on a lucky day they will earn more than their fathers.

These people, bright against the grass, are too far away to identify. I have all the pleasure of watching them without having to know them -- another way of saying, yes, they have beat me; I don't want them too close anymore; coming close they have hurt me too much.

A man in a big straw hat and white shirt moves proudly up the road with the high-stepping walk of a young man; it is pleasant to watch him, to see his future stretching before him. It is only when he has turned in and walked past the house to the river that I see with a shock that it is Benedito, a neighbor. Like so many here who have been badly raised on brain-stunting food, he is mentally retarded, his body is starting to collapse and wither; each day he is a little less able to do the decent day's work that makes him proud. Strange to see him dressed in his men's clothes; he likes the pink or yellow pants, the wild shirts, the silly hats of a thirteen-year-old.

On that distant road, the high road, where detail shrinks, the silver glitter at the wrists of the man with no hands would be no more than the glitter of bracelets, the fancy gee-gaws of a man impelled to celebrate his irresistibility; the bursting rags of the women would be bright pure colors moving sweetly across the landscape; the pot-bellied children half dead with ascariasis would turn into scamps and angels; and the crazy woman and her drunken husband would no longer sadden the day with their torn dirty clothes, her goofy shrieks, their wrinkled faces. From a distance their faltering walk would turn profound from the beauty of their humanity.

You take the low road if you want; for me from now on it's the high road every time.

RIOVERDE, 1967: During that first year when I was learning to speak the crude half-witted Spanish that after 25 years I still speak, I would be so lifted out of my isolation, so enriched by being allowed to share Ramon's emotions, made more mysterious, exotic, and magic by being told to me in a soft, new language, that it was never necessary to examine the stories, to try and determine if they were true. They were given to me with great patience, and I accepted them at their face value. In that first year he had said to me once, "Let's be brothers." He had said to me once, "I want to tell you everything about me, everything, both good and bad." I had been tremendously moved by the simplicity and innocence of these remarks, so like declarations of love, and I wanted to honor him for having the courage to speak with the purity that I knew I had lost growing out of adolescence when friendships tended to be idealistic and passionate. Listening to Ramon I felt that I had a power over him that would make it easy as a Peace Corps volunteer to change his life and make him rich. Why, I must have thought, would someone who wants to share all the good and the bad of his life with me ever feel that it would be necessary to create false images of himself?

I was at that same stage in my cultural education as I had been at four when I seriously entertained my grandmother's suggestion that the moon was made of green cheese. Grandmother? My own grandmother? Why would she fool me? Why, for that matter, did she leave me to ponder through countless afternoons, trying to nail down the real facts concerning an owl and a pussy cat and some kind of goddamn sailboat?

Being a slow learner I let the stories pile up unexamined; they were part of Ramon's background that helped me see him with a certain privileged clarity. I knew things about him that nobody knew, not even his wife. I knew things about Ramon that not only explained Ramon but that whole beach culture which had caught and almost destroyed the few surviving children that it hadn't killed at birth.

Here is one of Ramon's stories. For years I thought that it illustrated nothing more than the pure rage of a poor kid brought up and abandoned on the beach. Later I thought I found a little madness hidden in the action; it began to illustrate a certain sadism that allowed Ramon, that drove Ramon at times, into cruelty. Asked today if I thought the story true 25 years after having been told it, I wouldn't know what to say, though there is one little detail that makes me question its value as family history.

On the shoreline for that 50 or 60 miles between Esmeraldas and Muisne the sandy beach revealed by a falling tide was for years the only road south along the coast. I have never been toward Muisne past the tourist beach at Sua and Atacames and for all I know there still may be no road. If it is anything like the old beach road to the north, to Rioverde, it is a fine one, the best highway in the country, constructed anew each time the tide comes in. Much of the coast here is dry desert with few houses, hillsides of thorn trees and stunted guayacan, and shallow streams that go dry during the six-month dry season. It was through this frightening area that Ramon, then 15 or 16 years old, found himself walking at the edge of the ocean late one afternoon. He was still more than ten miles from Muisne where he had been sent by his father with a large plastic fertilizer sack full of braided rolls of tobacco to be offered for sale in the town's stores. He had been walking all day, and he was hot, thirsty, depressed, and frightened at being so alone and walking through strange and hostile country where the dead would surely walk beside him once that red sun rushing to extinguish itself in the ocean would have given over the world to darkness and evil.

But no, he is about to be saved. From far down the beach through sea mists and tropical shimmering mirage, through rainbows and the glowing afternoon light, a jeep, made real by its sound, floats toward him on heat waves. Ramon yells, drops his bundle of tobacco and laughing with delight does a little dance, and after a time the jeep with a priest behind the wheel arrives and stops some 30 yards from Ramon. For a priest he is young, though his youth is almost obliterated by a fanatic look and by what seems to be the ravages of an old sickness. Most likely he is a newly arrived Italian priest who has been to the brink of death for the awful culture shocks built into his situation. His face is yellow and prematurely lined, his hair looks like he has cut it himself with a butcher knife, and everything about him seems to say, "I love God, but I'm beginning to feel that God doesn't much love me."

"Oh, father," Ramon calls, smiling and moving toward the jeep. "Am I ever glad to see you."

"No closer, muchacho," the priest calls. "Stop right there, please."

"I'm not going to hurt you, father. Honest. Are you going toward Muisne? I need a ride to Muisne; it's getting dark, we're miles away." Without thinking, he begins to walk toward the jeep.

"All right, all right now," the priest yells. "I warned you. One step closer and I'm taking off. I can't give you a ride; that's church policy on this stretch of beach. I'm sorry, but that's the last word."

"On my mother's honor," Ramon yells. "How could I hurt you? Please just give me a ride." He takes another couple of steps toward the jeep, and the priest, his face tight, guns the motor, rushes, feinting, toward him and then circles around him and away. The tires throw up long shining arcs of spray along the narrowing beach disappearing in the rising tide. Ramon, not believing what is happening, has not yet had the wit to wipe the smile from his face. Later thinking of that idiot smile, he will be overcome with self-loathing, horrified by the possibility that the priest might have found cowardice in that face too stunned to rearrange itself to mirror his anger. He is falling into an ecstasy of rage, stars exploding before his eyes, a dizziness that threatens to drop him like a heart attack.

This is one of those rare stories by Ramon where he gives himself a happy ending.

Part two. It is an hour later. The sun is now very low in the sky, a violently red and purple disk so softened by sea mists that you can look directly into its blazing heart as it throbs and leaps and throws itself into the sea. Rage has given Ramon new strength, and he is now, still walking very fast, within five miles of Muisne. It looks as though he might arrive just that minute before the blackness of full night takes over. He is tiring with the exhaustion that has helped to burn away his rage. Coming around a little curve in the beach he sees the jeep a couple of hundred yards ahead. It is sweetly, oh so sweetly, stuck in the sand. The priest, stripped down to t-shirt and black pants, is wildly digging behind the back wheels where he hopes to jam a dozen boulders that he has hauled up out of the water. The tide has just reached the jeep and the first waves swirl and spread around and under it. Ramon's heart is roaring in his ears with a joy that makes him dizzy, his eyes do pinwheels shooting out stars like a comic book character. He comes up to the jeep and passes around it and keeps walking, and the priest pausing for a moment sees him and chases after him.

"Muchacho, muchacho, help me," he cries. "Look, look at the tide; it's coming in and I'm going to lose the jeep." Ramon has lost his hearing, he keeps walking. "I'll pay you," the priest says. "Help me get her out, and I'll pay you three hundred sucres, more than you could make in a month." Ramon says nothing and suddenly the priest begins to wail; he runs, passing Ramon and bars his way with his arms spread out like Christ crucified. "Forgive me," he cries. "I sinned against you, and I repent. I beg your forgiveness, forgive me." There is no expression on Ramon's face yet. He walks around the priest and keeps going. "I will pay you a thousand sucres," the priest yells after him.

The sandy beach turns rocky and it is here where the road on the beach ends and the man-made road into Muisne begins. Ramon leaves the shore, climbs through the first dunes spotted with salt grass, low bushes of mujujo, and a rejected fringe of balsa chunks from a nearby sawmill spread out at the high water mark like an impossibly miles-long cubist-surrealist drawing of cubes, squares, hexagons, the mad dream of an interminable lesson in solid geometry. At the top of the dunes Ramon stops and turns for his last look -- the whole spread of ocean afire in the sunlight, the priest stuffing rocks under the back wheels, and the jeep, its tires almost under water now looking like a metal dingy drifting loose in a foaming lake, drifting and sinking.

Is this a true story or not? Did it really happen or was it born out of Ramon's fantasies? How is it more terrifying, as fact or fiction? Writing it down it occurred to me that it was like a twentieth century version of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado." Thinking that, I had wanted to steal Poe's very words and give them to the priest: "For the love of God, Montesqu" (or whatever that bastard's name had been). True or not the story has a moral to be found in one of my half-invented details -- the look on his face as he turned to the beach for the last time. I hope the moral doesn't wreck the story.

Ramon is 15 or 16 years old. He hasn't had a full life yet, but he has suffered a lifetime of powerlessness: abandoned by his mother, half-abandoned by his father, cheated of wages, sleeping for months in city streets looking for work -- his life had been shaped by the power that other people had over him. He was typical of billions of young men and women, perhaps the great majority of all the young people who lived in the world and as yet had found no place in it. And that is what is so terrifying about the moral to Ramon's story, true or not -- that there are billions of faces that would in Ramon's place exactly mirror that smile of his as the jeep slowly disappeared into the ocean. It is a smile and a snarl, the joyful look of a tiger tearing off chunks of living flesh. I imagine that seeing it the blood freezes in one's veins. And I imagine that it may well be the last thing that many of us will see, that liberating and awful smile as the knife comes down, as the poor rising up at last begin to take possession of whatever we have left them of the earth.

TACHINA, 1982: So I would have to make that trip to the coast to tell Ramon to meet his children at the airport. It was that trip that I had thought never to make again.

The next day the plane took me to Tachina -- seven hours on the road, thirty minutes by air. I stepped out into a tropical ambience that until I took a first rich breath of coastal air, I had only half known how much I mourned having lost. From the plane's door -- out past a wall of pasture grass and scattered trees, ebony, amarillo, guayacan, past a few tall coco palms that grew at the river's edge, the town of Esmeraldas across the river, white and spreading, throbbed in the brutal light, its squalor hidden by distance. It looked in the squareness and whiteness of its buildings and the vivid green of the pastures in the hills above the town like a child's invention made of blocks and match-boxes. To the right across the whole horizon, the Pacific spread, mud-colored near the shore, farther out clear tropic greens and blues. Behind us lay the gently curving hills cleared on their lower slopes of trees and planted to pasture, the white spots of brahma cattle sharp against the green. The hills had the curves of sleeping women. Nothing had changed; everything was just the way it used to be -- warm, soft, languorous, sensual. It grabbed my heart and lifted it up, and I stood in the door of the plane, ten seconds into my coastal journey thinking, "But what the hell am I doing living in Quito when here is where I belong?" -- and the conviction was instantly born that I must come back immediately and live here by the river until I died.

Ramon lived near the ocean-river beach on the other side of the airport, but I didn't know just where. I walked around the end of the airfield to the old dirt road that runs up the coast and where years before as a Peace Corps volunteer I had walked in and out from the fishing village where I lived. It was April or May and the grass was tall and just barely beginning to turn yellow; it leaned out over the road spilling seeds. Everything caught in the thick luminous light of the tropics glowed in a kind of super-color, new, improved, Ektachrome. Puddles in the road emerald green at the edges with algae caught and held a brazen sun like a scattered line of stars thrown down ahead of me. I began to sweat.

A black man in his sixties walked toward me on the road -- torn pants and shirt, barefoot. Two or three long branches, firewood, lay balanced across one shoulder. "Buenos dias. Can you tell me where Ramon Prado lives?" "Claro, just keep walking down this road; about a mile. It's a yellow house with a TV antenna and with a tall fence around it. But Don Martin, don't you remember me?"

It had been 15 years since I had walked down this road on the edge of Tachina, but didn't I almost remember him? I took a wild guess. "But, claro, you used to take me across the river in your canoe when I was trying to get to Rioverde." He grinned at being remembered and grinning lost that little itch of familiarity; he had lost all his teeth. "Yes, and don't you remember, you gave me some of those fine gringo chickens." Ah, yes, I thought, and you were one of those who never paid. But I forgave him now; it made me feel good to be remembered, made me feel famous.

We talked for a few minutes about how it had been then, and he said that all in all it hadn't changed much, at least not for the better. The town was still poor, poorer even now because the river had carried half of it away, all the river gardens on the bottom land, the groves of coconuts, most of the mangos. "And where do you live now?" he asked me. "Well, the truth is, I'd like to come back here and live. Aren't there some little farms around here for sale?" "Why, yes," he said, pointing just across the fence to the land that I would later buy. "This, right here, Valencia's pastures. He's old now, a disgraceful old shit, but I think he'll finally sell. They robbed him of all his cows a few months back. He's mad and disgusted." "Ah," I said, "so Tachina is still a town of thieves." The old man nodded. "He stood in the window one midnight with a full moon, old Valencia, and watched them steal his cows, stood there with a loaded gun afraid to shoot because one of the thieves was his own son."

I moved around past the man and started off again. "Listen, Don Martin, we're in a more dangerous time now; old veterans like you shouldn't be walking alone like this. The young scum from Esmeraldas paddle over here in their stolen bongos and do just about anything they want. Not two weeks ago here on the road just after dark a man was beat up and robbed, and back there at the edge of town one of the fishermen's wives was dragged into the bushes and raped."

I walked up the road toward Ramon's yellow house feeling more excited than I'd felt for months, thinking, "Oh man, this place is wicked," and the two reasons now why I wanted to come back -- the child's reason, that river on my left swift and tropical that was a symbol of free flowing freedom and innocence, and the old man's reason, the mystery, the appeal, the excitement of living close again to man's capacity for evil -- lived side by side giving color and drama to one another. There is a kind of softness in the tropics, a slack, disorganized beauty that loosens the brain, that dissolves moral tendencies not tightly held. For me without this new other thing, this hint of menace, living here could turn out to be as tiresome as living within the pinks and golds of a ten-cent postcard. And so now to be reminded that I would be returning to a place where I would live in the shadow of violence hit me with a little shock of joy; it brought me to life.

If on one level my pleasure in anticipating the possibility of danger was a little like the thrill of a race-car driver who feels more alive when he offers his life to fate; this was probably the least important of the reasons for coming back. I was an old man rushing toward my sixty-eighth birthday, and I had not aged gracefully. My feelings about life were sour, cynical, filled with despair. I no longer believed that man was essentially good or that he was capable of creating a decent world. What man could create with exquisite efficiency was hell; man with his Hitlers, his Stalins, his atom bombs. For twenty years feeling at first that poverty was simply a manifestation of our inability to forge a humane economic system, I had tried to write about poor people as victims of other's greed. To a degree this is still true, I think, but each year I understood less and less about why a quarter of the people in this world so often sleep with empty stomachs.

It now occurred to me that it was man's evil that interested me much more than his poverty. After you had lived with poor people for so many years it finally became as hopeless, as inscrutable, as boring as having to listen to the screams month after month of your neighbor as he very slowly died of cancer.

Poverty was a thing, a permanent condition; evil was like chancres, the symptom of a social disease.

Living in the high altitude of Quito where I found it more and more difficult to breathe, moving among expatriates in the complacent and goofy foreign colony, I felt half dead, like an old Ford truck with a 150,000 miles behind it rattling down the identical streets on a foolish and useless route. We don't know how we are going to die, but at the end of my route I thought I could make out a wheelchair, a trained nurse, and that bottle labeled Overdose. Going back to the coast would open up my life to the possibility, at least, of a surprise ending. Man's badness, that badness that might touch me, but probably wouldn't, had now become fascinating. I wanted to go back where I could observe evil in its primitive state and close to the poverty that spawned it. That extreme poverty that strips a man of even the clothes to cover his body also strips him of social pretenses, his hypocrisies, his disguises, his graces. Reduced to nothing but needs, wants, hungers, powerless, faced each day with possibility that he will go hungry or that his children will sicken with diseases he will be unable to cure, half sick always from malnutrition, intestinal parasites, or chronic malaria, he must find solutions to the problem of existing in ways that do not necessarily exclude thievery or violence. And because in all probability he has lost a part of his intelligence during those early years of childhood malnutrition, his solutions are sometimes as pure, direct, unsubtle, and painful as the slash of a machete.

A light breeze from the ocean moved over the grass, and a long line of pelicans appeared off on the left flying just above the trees on the shoreline. I walked up the road another kilometer and found Ramon's house and Ramon inside eating lunch. He lived in the yellowest house I had seen since leaving Brazil. Yellow inside, yellow out. That terrible woman who had stolen him away turned out to be, as Ramon had said she was, a sweet, simple, very serious country girl -- and what he hadn't thought to tell me, beautiful.

I gave them the news that the children were coming down. Ramon was delighted, Carmen frightened of this meeting in which she might be cast as the temptress, the destroyer of happy homes.

Finally I told him I was sick of Quito and asked him what he thought about my buying the Valencia pasture and coming back to live on the coast. "I like the idea very much," Ramon said. "I never thought you were very happy up there. And I know the place is for sale. The old man stopped by here a month ago and begged me to buy it."

In twenty minutes it was all settled, even the details: I would remain in Quito, hidden, while Ramon bought the land; if Valencia smelled a gringo the price would double. We would put the title to the farm in Ramoncito's name to screw the government out of death taxes. There was no sense in repairing the old house by the road, better to build a new one. With iron grates at the windows. "Get used to the idea," Ramon said. "When you move down here they are going to rob you of everything."

Moritz Thomsen

To find out more about Moritz Thomsen's unpublished memoir, contact Mary Ellen Fieweger by fax at 593-6922-504 or by letter at Casilla 17-12163, Quito, Ecuador.

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