Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman (61 page)

BOOK: Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman
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I am going to miss the Peruvian elections due to poverty, and undoubtedly there will be enough killing and violence there to make me a rich man in mob-photo circles. But I will have to read about it with my fucking dictionary, then hump around the streets waiting for
Time
to tell me what happened. The only way to grasp these things is to settle in somewhere and find out what is going on before the noise starts, so that you at least know which way to run. For that reason I am thinking seriously of making tracks to Brazil and getting hip on the October elections so that by the time they happen I won't be lost in the mud. After that, god knows. Two months of steady, penny-pinching travel has worn me down a bit, and there is at least two months more before I get to Rio, even at the earliest. And if I get there and find they don't believe in humping, that will be it. I will one way or another make it back to the Magnum country and lay in a
stock of beer-makings, there to bitch and grumble in comparative peace for as long as I can stand it. Hudson's boat is a definite possibility, but it will be fall before he knows anything definite. I think I said this in my last boat-letter (god that was an awful trip) and there is no reason to bat it around again. I can't face another sheet of paper so I'll quit here, imploring you to give some notice as to your plans and movements. Also a bit of what it is like living in Madrid. Details, you know. Those are the big things. Yeah.

Hunter

TO AL PODELL,
ARGOSY:

Constantly photographing images of Latin American life, Thompson pitched some photojournalism pieces to the editor of
Argosy.

June 26, 1962
Cali, Colombia

Al Podell:

I can't remember if I wrote to say the boat-crossing shots were pretty bland and not much in your line. That's what PIX
17
said, anyway.

Two more possibilities here. Let me know as soon as you can if you think you can use either one.

1) I just looked at a bunch of contacts that are about the goriest goddamn things I've ever seen. There is a hell of a problem here in Colombia with what they call Rural Violence. This means that out in the countryside there are a good many people who pass the time of day whacking off their neighbor's heads with machetes. They also have an interesting trick called the
Corte de Flanella
, which they accomplish by cutting the throat and jerking out the tongue. Lots of other kicks too—like ambushing army patrols with submachine guns. I've done a lot of talking about it here and am pretty well up on the background. I also have access to these rotten photos. They are ones taken by local press photogs after the massacres. Severed heads, pregnant women cut open and cats stuffed into their wombs, long lines of mutilated bodies on the ground, dead soldiers in heaps, etc. I think it beats the hell out of
The Monster of Lake Balawaca
and that stuff, because this is real as hell. Cali is the center of the violence area. It has been going on for 12 years, but calmed down a bit during the regime of dictator Rojas Pinilla. Now it is getting worse. So bad, for instance, that nobody goes to the big country club on the edge of town after dark. I came over the mountains in a taxi from Bogotá, right through the center of the bad area,
and people here have yet to get over it. I came at night. They have got me so much on edge that I am buying a pistol, because I do a hell of a lot of wandering around at night, against all sane advice. The Colonel in charge of the Cali garrison told me the
bandeleros
, as they are called here, are all communists bent on taking over the country. He says his men are simply outgunned. The bandits, he says, get a steady supply of Red arms from Panama and Ecuador. There is probably some truth to this, and if it keeps up there is no doubt that the Reds stand to gain by it and will certainly help it along. What it now amounts to is a bloodthirsty nucleus for a guerrilla army, and all it needs to make it a real threat is a Castro-type leader. The men and the guns are there, just waiting. People in Cali are upset as hell over it and blame the army for not being tough enough. Some say the army is not trained to fight guerrillas, which is true. This is an old problem, of course; witness the U.S. difficulties in SE Asia. Another thing worrying people here is the presence of another guerrilla army (small) in the mountains on the other side of the country near Venezuela. That one is definitely Castroist, but so far they have not raised much hell. Again, it is a thing that could suddenly explode with the right help.

Anyway, that's the idea. If it interests you let me know c/o the U.S. Embassy in Quito, Ecuador. In the meantime I am gathering dope for a small piece on the thing for the
National Observer
, which is buying enough of my stuff to keep me moving. So I will have the info and I can get all the photos you can stand. I will catch a batch of possibilities and if it interests you I'll have the photog here send them along to you in NY. But let me know as soon as you can. I will, for enough money, go out after photos of the actual
bandeleros
, but if I do anything like this it will have to be on an assignment basis. Nobody here will do it and I would have to go with an army patrol that would stand a better than even chance of getting ambushed. So I leave that aspect of it for you to ponder. There are plenty of shots of past massacres, but not many of massacres in progress. None, in fact. Anyway, let me know what you need to make up a good photo feature. The writing will be no problem, as I already have plenty of dope.

2) Another and far less risky idea is a feature on South American whorehouses, which are patronized here like bars are patronized in NY. I got some shots in a house in Barranquilla, and as far as I know the contacts are either at PIX or Motal Lab. That would be just a beginning, but it will give you an idea. I have more shots from Cali, better stuff I think, and will undoubtedly get more as I move down south. Cali, by the way, is famous for its pretty girls, but you would have to see to believe. Walking the streets here can drive a man up the wall in ten minutes. It is virtually impossible for me to get any work done and I am half-mad from trying. Some of the whores will knock your eyes out. Most of the bachelors I have met here (all
of them, in fact) have their whorehouses, their “Numbers” (supposedly “nice girls” or
“senoritas,”
who sneak out for a quick hump at night), and their
Contrabandista
, who supplies whiskey and cigarettes. Most of them also have special taxi drivers, for all-purpose work. The peg would be the wholly different sexual climate, with a vast gulf between nice girls and whores, and virtually no middle ground. None for public consumption, that is. As always, there are a lot of sneakers. Yet even then the line is still drawn. Once a girl moves over the hump, so to speak, she is socially done for and might just as well move into a whorehouse if the word ever gets out, because marriage is out. Unless she marries a pimp. All this tends to make whorehouses socially acceptable; the logic being that as long as the good girls are kept locked up, the others can do what they damn well please. And, as in all Latin countries, the sexual code for men is totally apart from that of the women.

Ok, that's about it. Number one I would like to know about pretty quick. Two can wait, because I have full confidence that I will always have plenty of material for good shots.

Let me know as soon as you can.

Thanks,
Hunter S. Thompson

TO BILL WILLIAMSON,
BRAZIL HERALD:

Stone broke in Peru, Thompson appealed to the editor of the
Brazil Herald.

From the extra bed in the flea-ridden hotel room of …

 … Hunter S. Thompson
   August 3, 1962
   Lima

William:

[…] I recently arranged with the
Observer
to go from here to Mexico City, then across the Caribbean and down to Rio via the Guianas and Recife. Fortunately, I am too broke at the moment to even consider such a thing, so I will proceed as planned from here to La Paz to Rio. It will involve a mad, headlong, poverty-stricken rush across the continent. I have a panama hat and 200 pounds of excess luggage, so the trip should be a killer. It cost me $38 simply to get my gear from Guayaquil to Lima, via Panagra. It goes without saying that I have taken my last plane in South America, at least until I can deposit some of this worthless junk.

If Rio is no better than the places I have visited thus far I will beat a hasty retreat to the north and write this continent off as a lost cause. For the
past month I have felt on the brink of insanity: weakened by dysentery, plagued by fleas and vermin of all sizes, cut off from mail, money, sex and all but the foulest food, and hounded 24 hours a day by thieves, beggars, pimps, fascists, usurers, dolts and human jackdaws of every shape and description. If these are Pizzaro's ancestors you are goddamn lucky he never got to Brazil. All this time I have had in the back of my mind an unreasoning certainty that Rio is a decent place where a man can sit in the sun and drink a beer without having to put on a frock coat and carry a truncheon to ward off the citizenry. If this is a delusion I will probably have a breakdown when I arrive and the Embassy will be forced to ship me home like an animal, with “No Dice” scrawled across my passport.

At any rate, your note was the only ray of optimism I have found in as long as I dare remember. My last communication from Bone was a letter threatening my life, I believe, and the rest of the mail has been no cheerier. I will be here long enough to divine the nature of Peruvian politics, then push on to La Paz for a bout with whatever diseases are currently fashionable in that country. After that, I face the 2-week train to Rio, which should just about finish me off. If there is an Alms House in Rio I trust you are on good terms with the proprietor, so I can enter without delay.

Until then, I remain, yours for the broadening aspects of travel,

HST

TO PAUL SEMONIN
:

Disappointed by Lima, Thompson nevertheless wrote one of his finest
National Observer
articles there: “Democracy Dies in Peru, but Few Seem to Mourn Its Passing.”

August 4, 1962
Lima, Peru

Niggerboy:

As I recall, my letter from Guayaquil was done in a fit of drink, and since there is no chance of that happening now, I will try to explain some of the things that I didn't say too well.

It alarms me to think you may come over here on my say-so, because I am not sure myself just what I think. One sure thing is that since leaving Colombia, which is a good country in a lot of ways, I have been getting steadily more depressed until I am seriously beginning to wonder if my personality is being undermined. As a matter of fact, every place I have been except Cali, Colombia has been a pure dull hell and full of so many nagging discomforts that I am tempted at times to write this continent off
as a lost cause. Lima is the worst so far; I have done nothing but sit in my hotel room, which is like something on the main street of Flora, Illinois, and smoke. Now and then I go out to eat or to be snubbed at the Embassy. I have spoken to no one except the AP man in four days. Perhaps I should say I have talked to no one; there is a lot of talking done here but it means absolutely nothing—in a way that makes it an easy place to write about, because all you have to do is line up all the facts, note how they refute everything you are told, and simply ignore all the shit people ram in your ears. And the facts line up very simply. They made a show of having free elections here, a queer won, the army didn't like it and the army took over. The fact that the army and the bankers are still very much on speaking terms sort of speaks for itself. The only ones who think democracy is going to work here are the people in Washington—and perhaps the U.S. Ambassador who was virtually drummed out of the country when he voiced his displeasure with the takeover. He is now in Washington too, and will probably stay there. Meanwhile, business goes on as usual.

That may give you an idea of what I mean when I say you can learn a lot here. (They are throwing rocks at the window again; it is driving me into a black rage but in my weakened condition I dare not go into the street and tackle a pack of thugs drunk on pisco.) The machinations of politics are so obvious and the types of people are so extreme that you understand very quickly how life works. The grey areas are so extreme that you understand a lot more about the U.S. but it is not simply that I have got away from it geographically but in a lot of other ways as well. Maybe Spain is the same way, but I am sure France and England and Germany and Italy are not. What I mean here is that people down here have not the faintest idea what I'm talking about. If they have a sense of humor it focuses not on the ridiculous or even the improbable, but on the sadistic. Frankly I have seen no evidence of any sense of humor at all; I have heard them laugh like hell all the while. I am beginning to think that my coming here is like an Abolitionist going to the Old South and trying to communicate with the people there. And considering the relations between the indians and the wealthy (there is no other group) I think the comparison is fairly apt.

Frankly, I don't like the bastards. Nor do I like the Americans I've met down here because they go to extremes to ape the locals, explaining that “it is the only way to get along in business.” Naturally, the only Americans down here are businessmen. Occasional reformers, but they don't last. As I probably said in my last letter, I have not had human contact since William Kennedy in San Juan.

All in all it has been like being in jail and I think I am beginning to crack under the strain. I note a wailing, paranoid tone in my letters, a complete lack of anything like vitality or a decent feeling for life. None of
which I have, of course. I am so goddamn wracked by dysentery and several other heinous diseases that for the past three days I have not been able to leave the hotel due to constant vomiting, shitting and dizziness. I finally hauled my ass to a doctor and spent all day in a clinic getting tested, jabbed, poked and all the other tests that rotten specimens are given. The report will come on Tuesday and I fear it. Meanwhile I am trying to write a story on Peruvian politics but it is rough going when I cannot think clearly. And with rocks clattering off the windows. I hear a woman's voice in the hall now and it nearly breaks me down with lust. Having my sex life cut off is probably the worst of it. Or was until recently, anyway, when I was cut off drink indefinitely. Also off pepper, spices and fried foods. This is my second drink-stoppage and since that was my only pleasure I am not sure how long I can stand up under it. For the first time in three months I have been able to get tobacco—at $1.25 for four ounces. I cannot drink the water, the milk, the beer, or anything but mineral water. Nor can I eat anything but maize and unpeppered meat. Vegetables are out, of course. The whole continent is covered with indian shit and everything that grows is poison. Beware everything, that is the motto.

BOOK: Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman
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