The Saddest Pleasure, Moritz Thomsen: A Personal Reflection from a Former Peace Corps Volunteer, by Mark D. Walker

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The Saddest Pleasure

Moritz Thomsen

A personal reflection from
former Peace Corps Volunteer,
Mark D. Walker

Moritz Thomsen was an iconic author and figure to his devoted fan base, and before his death in 1991, he had written five extraordinary books. Although we are of different generations and never met, we shared some similar life experiences as Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) involved with agricultural development work in Latin America. I would get to know the man through his books, and he would become my literary “patron saint.”

The village Thomsen lived and worked in as a PCV, Rio Verde, on the Esmeraldas River, is located on the northwest coast of Ecuador and the population is largely made up of descendants of enslaved people. This demographic continues to be one of the poorest, most isolated groups in the country, and Thomsen lived and worked among them for most of the last quarter century of his life. He also spent periods of time in Quito and Guayaquil, where he died in 1991.

I am among the more than five thousand PCVs who have served in Guatemala over the last sixty years (there are close to 250,000 worldwide). I arrived in Calapté, a small village in the highlands in 1971, seven years after Thomsen reached Rio Verde. My site was near the highest volcano in Guatemala, Tajamulco, at more than 12,000 feet. I arrived during Guatemala’s “winter,” so each night I froze as the temperatures plummeted and during the day, I was frustrated because I couldn’t understand most of the population since they spoke a Mayan language. Many of the communities I worked in were accessible only on horseback, while on the tropical coast of Ecuador, where Thomsen worked, river transportation by motorized canoe was the norm.

Like so many PCVs, I met Thomsen through his classic Living Poor, which the Peace Corps purchased 100,000 copies of to prepare volunteers for their experience. I picked it up at a Peace Corps office and commiserated with so many of his observations like, “As for the depression, I figured that it was a normal reaction to living among the very poor.”

Eventually, I discovered Thomsen’s third book, The Saddest Pleasure, whose title originated from a quote in Paul Theroux’s Picture Palace: “Travel is the saddest of the pleasures. It gave me eyes.” When asked about the phrase’s true meaning in an interview with John Coyne of the Peace Corps Worldwide, Thomsen said,

Well, we have illusions about the new places that we visit; they are almost always false to the reality. And the places we know change so rapidly that to go back is many times quite wrenching. Being bored with ourselves, we take a trip sitting within that boring person we thought to escape. I haven’t seen any here yet, but I understand there are T-shirts that say, “Life’s a bitch. And then you die.” Maybe it is sad to travel and learn that life’s a bitch in Nairobi and Manaus and Tokyo and Sydney. And Samarra …

This basic supposition would inform and put my own travels into perspective. It also helped me appreciate the miscues, disasters and disappointments I’d experience on the road and make me a better traveler and writer.

The Saddest Pleasure is a story of Thomsen’s desperate departure from Ecuador at the age of sixty-three on a soul-searching journey through Rio de Janeiro and then to Salvador, Bahia, and finally up the Amazon from Belem to Manaus. And, as you might expect from a quixotic trip up one of the largest and longest rivers in the world, it was a failure in practical terms, although this can be ignored by the reader because the real journey is more internal, and totally compelling.

Thomsen heads north from Rio to Salvador, Bahia de Todos os Santos in the northeast region of Brazil, where many contradictions and disappointments abound:

Although I have scarcely stepped into its streets and have already seen terrible sights of decay, overcrowding, widespread poverty, and public corruption, I have been seduced in this city. I gaze down into the tiny harbor with its star-shaped stone fort or sit in the meltingly beautiful evening light thinking with amazement, “It’s the most beautiful city in the world, the realest city in the world, the only city I could learn to love.”

Many of his most interesting memories emerge during the long bus ride along the coast, from Rio de Janeiro to Salvador, Bahia:

On Tuesday morning after the long weekend, still coughing, still a little disoriented, I walk up Rio Branco to a tourist office and buy a ticket for Bahia. Twenty-eight dollars for a thirty-hour bus ride, almost a thousand miles along the Brazilian coast. The way I’m feeling, if that doesn’t kill me, nothing willThis would prove to be an arduous trip filled with fascinating stories and delusions.

Similar to Thomsen’s bus ride north to Recife, I experienced my own endless bus trip on my way from Salvador, Bahia to the national capital of Brasilia, which took thirty-nine instead of “only” thirty hours. The driver took two hours to change a tyre with a spare, which he eventually retrieved from another one of the company’s buses that had broken down.

Salvador, Bahia was one of my shared destinations with Thomson. I was there in 1973 when I was 25 years old and Thomsen visited in 1979, when he was 63. This would be the northernmost point of my trek through Brazil, which was part of a five-month trip following my stint in the Peace Corps through Latin America alone with a backpack and limited funds (I had recently married and had a newborn child, as well).

I found Salvador to have a strong Caribbean, Black flavor. At the local market, El Modelo, I walked by the food stalls where the workers consumed the parts of animals available to them such as stomachs, intestines, eyeballs, and hoofs, to name a few.  I also came across a group of locals playing the bongo and percussion music; a large group began dancing and drinking as they swayed to the beat. I felt I was witnessing the special energy and spirit of the community. And I, like Thomsen, walked through the favelas where trash was piled by the front doors, and open sewage emptied into the ocean. Children played outside of carton homes. Both Thomsen and I were mesmerized by the cultural vibrance and energy that emanated from northeastern Brazil, as well as being repulsed by the abject poverty and filth we were confronted with.

Although Thomsen’s Spanish was not that good and he understood little Portuguese, he’d read the Latin American classics in English, and he was determined to meet Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro, author of Sergeant Getulio and one of the great novelists of the hemisphere, to interview him for a publication in Quito. After several weeks searching for him in Salvador, he managed to set up a meeting and, much to his surprise, the author spoke to him in English: “Tonight he sounds like an Iowa farmer; later I will listen to him as he mimics Southern redneck, Texas drawl, and Shakespearian rhetoric, mixing it all together, showing off.”

One evening, when Ubaldo invites Thomsen to several parties, Thomsen realizes that Ubaldo thinks that he’s famous. Initially Thomsen glows “like a heat lamp, a writer with an international reputation,” but soon feels the need to set the record straight: “My fame is surely local and has never spread out past the Peace Corps family, where, for a time, my book was required reading. You are making a terrible mistake, I say finally, in a grumpy voice and feeling that I am being trapped into a very false position.”

“Nevertheless, I will come and see your pictures with much pleasure,” says Ubaldo and then it dawns on him, “You are not famous? You are sure? Are you not a doctor who has written a great novel about practicing medicine?” “Oh shit, perhaps you are thinking of Morton Thompson,” I say coldly, “He is dead, I believe; I can understand your confusion, but I am not a doctor, not a writer. I’m a farmer; I raise cows and bananas, oranges, things like that. I apologize. I’m sorry I’m not famous.”

Thomsen gets drunker as the evening progresses and after watching Ubaldo flit from one beautiful girl to another, Thomsen is with him at dinner and according to Thomsen, Ubaldo is “sitting between Lilian and Beatrice, and looking like a younger, fitter Henry VIII than the one he knows, as interpreted by Laughton, and is carried away by delight. He has more interesting things to do than talk bookish things with a drunken old man. Screwed again.”

By 1:00 a.m., Thomsen observes:

I am sitting at a table talking English and eating curried chicken with two beautiful women and a great writer. There is nothing else for the rest of this trip that will prove to be quite so dramatic—or so it seems to me in my drunken state. But it is certainly not the drama that I had imagined or a drama that I can use. I had come five thousand miles to see Ubaldo out of an invented need because it had seemed somehow shameful to make so long a journey without some kind of object.


Following Moritz Thomsen through his books and collected correspondence, to Latin America and beyond, with all the surprises and potential disasters, has been insightful. They have helped me understand and appreciate my own travels, and the disconnect between my expectations at the outset and what I experience.  Thomsen’s transparency and commitment to living and traveling among some of the most abandoned people in the world, and the different ways he described what he saw, has been an inspiration, and something worth emulating. And yes, life is a bitch, and then you die, but I don’t think either of us would have had it any other way.

Mark D. Walker

       Mark during his time as a volunteer in the Cuchamatanes
mountains, Guatemala

A contributing writer for Literary Traveler and Revue Magazine, Walker has written sixty book reviews and twenty-five articles, including one recognized by the Solas Literary Awards for Best Travel Writing. His memoir is Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond. For more information go to Million Mile Walker

‘A man capable of breaking your heart in a single sentence and making you laugh out loud in the next.’  Tim Cahill

‘A travel book that makes most other current examples … seem hopelessly shallow and insipid.’  Richard Lipez, Washington Post

Travel book as memoir, memoir as novel, novel as polemic: that was how Moritz Thomsen described The Saddest Pleasure. He threads together a journey to and down the Amazon with a series of crystalline recollections of the events that have shaped him: a privileged childhood presided over by a bullying patriarch, combat missions in WWII and a life-changing Peace Corps experience in Ecuador, from which he never went back to the US.

‘I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: The Saddest Pleasure is an astonishing book, and in the middle of it comes a piece of writing I’ve thought about more than any other in the last year or so. A reflection on America seen from a distance, and on aging – by an aging American. It’s striking in its own right. But it’s the way Thomsen shows us what he’s doing as a writer – without any hifalutin nonsense – that gives it an uncanny electricity … Just flat-out brilliant.’ 
Tim Hannigan

A visit to your local bookshop this January or February!

If you are lucky enough to live anywhere near Petersfield (local for some of the Eland team), there is the vibrant One Tree Books with a brand new cafe, a lively Waterstones branch and the Aladdin’s cave that is the secondhand and antiquarian treasure trove The Petersfield Bookshop.  We’d like to recommend the latter’s Dead Poets Salon, a monthly gathering where a poet is summoned from beyond the grave, their poetry is read and the audience are then invited up to the mic to read their own work.  Not to be missed.  Sign up to their newsletter for event listings here

We were delighted to hear that fellow independent publisher, Persephone Books, has relocated to Bath. Visit them at their elegant new home and enjoy their newsletter celebrating neglected twentieth-century female writers.  Sign up here

A travel book may be many things, and Moritz Thomsen’s The Saddest Pleasure seems to be most of them – not just a report of a journey, but a memoir, an autobiography, a confession, a foray into South American topography and history, a travel narrative, with observations of books, music, and life in general; in short, what the best travel books are, a summing up.’ 
Paul Theroux
Listen & Watch
with ELAND

‘A beautiful and moving book.’  Times Literary Supplement

Recently picked as a Good Read on the Slightly Foxed literary podcast, Gamel Woolsey’s Deaths Other Kingdom is a first hand account of the Spanish Civil War, seen unusually through the eyes of a female writer. As Malaga goes up in flames in 1936 and the war begins its monstrous destruction, Gamel Woolsey, an American poet married to Gerald Brennan, watches fear stalk through a traditional Spanish village. This humane and sympathetic account puts the people of Spain first, whatever their political persuasion, and gives a gripping and harrowing account of the emotional effects of war.  To listen to this episode of the podcast, featuring Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler and Harry Mount, editor of The Oldie magazine, click here


Peru: A Journey in Time at the British Museum

11 November 2021
– 20 February 2022

Marking Peru’s bicentennial year of independence, this exhibition highlights the history, beliefs and cultural achievements of the different peoples who lived here from around 2500 BC to the arrival of Europeans in the 1500s. For more information click here For background reading we have Ronald Wright’s Cut Stones & Crossroads: A Journey in the Two Worlds of Peru


A Moroccan Trilogy and Bengal Lancer will be the first two books you will receive now if you sign up to our 2022 annual subscription. Our 2022 subscription is available on our website. For more information click here

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