Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sadness in Rio Verde

I continue to read of Moritz Thomsen's misadventures as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador with frequent shocks of recognition. But I have found living among the poor to be a more expansive and inclusive experience. There are innumerable little things that have to be lived with - the heat, the insects, the ubiquitous crowing roosters, the scrawny, miserable dogs, and small screaming children everywhere - not to mention all the things that you must learn to live without. But I have learned that you not only have to learn to live with them, eventually you have to find some way to embrace them. The following is excerpted from Part Three of Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle.

I had signed up to extend my time in Rio Verde another two years, and one day the enormity of the obligation hit me. For the first time I felt frightened; it seemed that in the first two years I had accomplished nothing, that it had all been por gusto. I thought of sad Rio Verde, lost and forgotten on this forgotten stretch of beach. It was just as screwed up now as it had been a year and a half earlier when I arrived. I woke up early one morning and lay there wide awake, impaled on those terrible 3am horrors, sinking deeper and deeper into depression.

Ramón came by the house in the morning to discover me drinking coffee, but speechless with feelings of self-pity and futility. He began to study me nervously.

"What's wrong, Martín?" he asked me. "Are you sick?"

"No, I'm not sick, just sad. Boy, I'm really sad."

"But why? What's wrong?"

I told him that it was a sadness without reason and he gave me a puzzled look of incomprehension. We drank coffee, and Ramón kept studying me. He was seeing something new in me that frightened him. He tried to make jokes; he turned up the radio and danced lewd dances for me. Nothing worked.

In the afternoon, still feeling completely withdrawn, I walked up the beach with Ramón. We sat down finally on a balsa log, and he began to talk about sadness. He told me about a three-month period in his life when he was twenty years old and living in Guayaquil.

"I was in love with Ester, but she lived in Machala. On weekends I used to take the night boat down to see her. About two weeks before we got married I went down to Machala one Friday night. Well, you know the boat and how you sleep in hammocks on the deck. I woke up in Machala and my wallet was gone - all my money, about fifteen dollars, and all my papers. I had just quit my job with the electrical company because they hadn't paid me in two months. I figured on finding a job in Machala near Ester, but I couldn't without my papers.

"'I've lost everything,' I told Ester, and without a word she gave me ten dollars. That was when I decided to marry her, because of the nice way she loaned me the money. Monday we went back to Guayaquil, and that same week the company paid me my back wages, almost a hundred dollars. I decided to go into business and invest my money; I had this friend with a motor canoe and we went down the coast to Peru, as contrabandistas, and bought matches, but the sea was very rough. I got back with ninety dollars' worth of wet matches, everything completely ruined. This was the week after I was married and I didn't have the money to feed my wife. I had bought some dresses and gifts for ester in Peru, and we sold them to eat.

"'I've got to go to Quevedo and get a job in the bananas,' I told her. In Ecuador that is what you do as a final act of desperation when you can't find work in the city; you take up a machete and go back and clean the weeds in the banana plantings. Oh, how I cried. She wanted to come with me, but I said no.

"There was no work in Quevedo, or in Daule. I joined up with a gang of men all looking for work. We heard about a hacienda back near Machala where they paid thirty sucres a day, a dollar and a half a day, for clearing trees to plant pasture. This was very good wages, almost unbelievable, and we went down in a group to work on this new hacienda. It was all a lie. The owner didn't pay by the day but by the number of tree trunks you could hack out of the ground with an iron bar. He paid thirty sucres for seventy trees, and if you really worked hard in a day you could maybe hack out seven. He gave us each a pound of rice a day, a platano, and a package of brown sugar. We lived out under the trees like animals. After the first day my hands were so bloody that I had to sleep with my hands wrapped in banana skins. By the sixth day I couldn't hold the bar; the skin had split here between my thumb and first finger, my hands were getting infected, and my wrists had swollen up to twice their size.

"I was sitting on the ground one morning with my hands over my eyes. My God, I was twenty years old, young, strong, anxious to work, and look where I was ending up. I was crying, and the tears were running down my hands and into my wounds; it really burned. I was thinking of my destiny, of Ester waiting for me in Guayaquil without money.

"The owner of the hacienda rode up on a great white horse and stopped before me. 'What's wrong, countryman?' he asked me.

"I put my hands out and showed him the blood; I showed him my wrists. I got up; my clothes were in rags, torn and filthy from working in that damned jungle. 'I'm thinking of my destiny,' I told him. 'I'm thinking of my life and of how it's going to be. The truth is I can't hold the bar any more; my fingers won't close on the bar any more.' I looked into his face and he had turned pale; his lips were trembling. 'Look at my friends, look at those poor men, cooking underneath a tree. Wouldn't we all be better off dead?'

"I talked without looking at him, and then I looked at him again and he was staring at my hands, and the tears were pouring down his cheeks.

"'I swear before the Holy Virgin,' he cried, 'I haven't got any money nor will I have any before Saturday. I am doing all this with the bank.' He was crying like a child. He gave me ten sucres, that's what I earned that week, and he rode away weeping, and I didn't even say good-by but began to walk toward Guayaquil. My clothes were in rags, the shoes rotting off my feet. It took me six days, I walked six days and begged food along the road to stay alive.

"I was twenty years old, married less than a month, and I was dying. I knew that I was dying. I can't remember those days very well now, just a blackness in my mind with everything running together like a great madness, a delirium of fear and hopelessness.

"Now I was walking in the street in Guayaquil, and I met my aunt. This was before I went home to Ester. I think I did not plan to go home to Ester. My aunt saw me walking in the street and she began to scream and weep. 'Oh, my God, my God, what's happened to you?' She took me by the hand and led me to her house and fed me, and I slept. She was also very poor, but she bought me clothes and took me to another aunt who wept when she saw me and bought me shoes.

"I went back and stayed some days with Ester. I looked again for work in Guayaquil and then hopped on a banana truck and went north again. I had some luck; I met a man near Daule who had a savanna of mangoes. 'Look,' he said. 'I can't find anyone to pick my mangoes. I haven't any money, but if you want to pick mangoes I;ll give you half the money and also the trucking into Guayaquil.'

"I picked mangoes for ten days in his savanna, first fifty boxes for him and then forty-seven boxes for me. He was an honest man, and he paid the trucking. I sold my share for sixteen hundred sucres in Guayaquil. Ay, but I was a king. I took the money home to Ester and piled it in front of her on the bed, a mountain of money. 'Look,' I said, 'over fifty dollars; our troubles are over.'

"'Ramón,' Ester said, 'my grandmother is dying; my parents can't afford to take care of her any more, and I want her to come and stay with us.'

"'Yes,' I said. 'This is something that you must do.'

"We hired a taxi and brought the grandmother to our room. She stayed with us for six weeks. Every day we paid five sucres for a taxi to take her to the clinic and another five sucres to bring her back. And we bought all the medicine that the doctor wrote down on a piece of paper. One of us was with her always; we cooked very special things for her. We even bought meat.

"And you know, that old dying woman never liked me. She kept telling Ester that she had married badly, that she had married beneath her. But I think what is important is how you feel about someone, not how they feel about you, don't you think that's true? I had a great deal of respect for that old woman; she died with a great deal of dignity.

"Finally, when the money was almost gone we took the grandmother back to Rio Verde to die in the country where she had lived; that's how I came back to Rio Verde by accident, but I'm not sorry, because when I walked in the streets of Guayaquil, I walked in a sort of terror of life. Well, that's the story of my sadness. I've never told you before, but I think now that I want you to know everything, even the worst things that have happened to me. And I want to understand your sadness too. But it is a great problem to understand this sadness that arrives in the night without a reason."

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