Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman (62 page)

BOOK: Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman
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These are the things that make it impossible for me to enjoy anything, even if there were anything to enjoy. It compares very favorably to the way we were received in St. Louis that ugly time. And if you can imagine that sort of thing dragging on for three months you can understand how I feel and why I am nearly at the end of my rope.

On the other hand, I am trying to resist the temptation to go into a funk and quit because I know it cannot be as bad as it seems. To begin with, I have three drastic handicaps: 1) my knowledge of Spanish is still almost nil, 2) I keep moving from one place to another and never have time to sink into a place, and 3) I am forever broke to the point of madness, and in this economy that is disaster.

It seems to be possible to live with the natives over there, but here it can't be done. They are unbelievably primitive. I have tried and that is reason one for my present condition. Nor can a poverty-stricken man live with the white people; he simply can't afford it. So I am stuck somewhere in between with no company and I'm getting damn tired of it. I have not met a soul on this continent who was not either desperately poor or making $150 a week at bottom. Now that I think on it there was one exception in Bogotá (a Fulbright lad) and one in Cali (a Canadian teaching English). Also two young Americans in Barranquilla, but that was for 3 days and they were hardly wad-busters. The others are spiritual [J. P.] Morgan trainees, and for that matter the majority are real bankers.

I retain a mad faith that Rio is better, primarily because I have heard it is bad from people who would not know a good thing if they swallowed it.
I have also had a good exchange of letters with the editor of the paper there, saying flatly that I need not worry about money although he is not sure where it will come from. But he sounds hip and the atmosphere is at least that uncertain and besides he says it is cheap even by my standards. Perhaps it is just these rotten indian lands that are this way. Colombia was different, although I did not have enough sense then to appreciate it. I have begun to have a great belief in the effect of climate on personality. It has held true 100% so far and that is one of the few things that moving fast can tell you. Lima, for instance, is the gloomiest place I have ever seen with the possible exception of Bogotá. The
is on the land and has been here since May; they say it breaks in October or November, but that doesn't do me much good. It is hard to believe this town could ever be anything but gloomy. Maybe if I could find a white girl even to chat with over mineral water it would not be so bad. As it is, I don't talk at all and it is frightening what this kind of living can do to a man.

None of this does you much good, of course, since I doubt you'll be getting to Lima anytime soon, even if you aim this way instead of niggerland. I hesitate to recommend it, yet I intend to stay down as long as I can stand it. Rio will be the boom-or-bust point. If that is bad I will have to give up in spite of my firm conviction that there is a lot to be learned here, and—for somebody else—a lot to be done. I suppose I will look back even on Lima some day as a good and worthwhile episode where I got a little closer to seeing life as it is. But it is hard to see anything when your eyes are bloodshot and your cheeks are hollow and your bowels are rotten and your head spins when you get up and your prick is falling off and you barely have the energy or even the inclination to get out of bed in the morning. That is exactly the way I feel.

I think Bone is going to Rio to work on a CC [Chamber of Commerce] magazine. It is something that editor mentioned to me while I was in New York, and I passed it along. Bone wrote several weeks ago saying it had come through. I give you that for what it is worth, as far as pondering your move is concerned.

As for me, I hope to finish this story in the next few days, and if my health permits, shove off by bus and train for La Paz. I think I will have enough money to get there, and if the
pays quickly for the Lima thing, I will then have enough to shove on to Rio. That is a two-week train journey, and it should just about do me in. What I think I need more than anything else is a chance to settle in where I at least know somebody, and act like a human being for a change instead of a traveling stenographer. And to recover my health, which I had never lost before this, and let me assure you it is a hellish thing to contend with not only on the physical side but more on the mental. This letter, plus my last, will undoubtedly provide ample evidence
of my mounting hysteria and general inability to focus. I am having to work hard as hell to keep it from showing up in my journalism.

Hah! Exhibit A—the thing I had in mind when I started this letter was to tell you I was canceling that swing up through Mexico and the Carib. Here I have rambled three pages and not mentioned it. Anyway, it's off. I haven't told the
yet and am a little worried on that score, but in my present condition I could no more undertake a thing like that than I could swim around the Horn. So I hope to be in Rio by September 1, probably in rotten shape but with things looking up. I hope. (It is a good sign that I remembered to say this; maybe my brains are warming up.)

There was no mail when I got here (another thing I'd meant to say earlier). They had forwarded it either to Guayaquil, as I requested, or to Quito, which I didn't request, or they had sent it back as unclaimed (at which point I nearly shit)—but they couldn't remember which, and didn't much care. Embassy people are shits; Consulates are better—that is a rule. Anyway, I didn't get your earlier letters. Nothing from Hudson either; I wrote him today, demanding to know his plans. When you write, use the New York box; at least there is hope there.



After spending a week in Ecuador writing
National Observer
pieces, Thompson landed in Bolivia exhausted but in good spirits. A letter from Semonin was waiting for him at the U.S. consulate in La Paz

August 28, 1962
La Paz, Bolivia


Yours arrived today, jack, and I'm going to whip this one off in hopes of catching you before shoveoff time. Fat chance, considering the fucking mails here. Your hideous pansy envelope almost prevents me from answering—yet I was encouraged by the rich paper and all appearances of a new t-writer ribbon. You must be working for the govt.

I for one see definite humor in the rape of nuns.
And while we are humoring, I would advise you not to laugh too hard at those who rank themselves by how far they have wandered in search of work—nor at scavengers, for that matter. We are all members of one another, eh?

For my part, I am about to be dismembered here in the Andes for the issuing of ugly checks in a far-off town called Lima. They are trailing me like golf balls, coming low and hard on all the walls. In a phrase, I have fallen from grace. That being a pun of sorts, because the Grace Company
has been backing me in the check-cashing business and suddenly we are all stung. I have, in short, over-extended myself.

I was also stung, quite literally, by a poison bug in Cuzco, which paralyzed my leg and put me in great pain for 3 days—not to mention the awesome doctor bills. When they get a gringo down here, they really get him. I support most of the medicos on the continent, and those in Brazil don't know what a good thing is coming their way. I am trying to get out of here on the jungle train, but the hotel won't take my check so I can't leave. I just sit in the room and ring the bell for more beer. Life has improved immeasurably since I have been forced to stop taking it seriously. Frankly, reality here is too much to handle. I have given up politics and have publicly declared myself an
, which has contributed heavily to the making of new and foreign friends. I am at last cracking the language barrier, using sex as a wedge and drink to dilute the ignorance. Next is the Santa Cruz, which is supposed to be the Cali of Bolivia, which means I will probably never get to Rio. (Cali is the Valhalla of Colombia, which in turn is the Valhalla of South America.) La Paz is good enough, fine sun and snow-capped peaks all around. I am sitting at 13,000 and the snow runs up to 23,000. Electricity is rationed and I have to go up five flights of stairs on one leg to check my mail at the embassy, where they have no elevators and are working by Coleman lanterns. Bolivia is not quite real, but they have good beer and white girls and, god help us, a sense of humor. All the Brazilians I have met have been zanies, to use your (and Mencken's) term and I am looking forward to it if I can ever scrape up the loot to pay this awful hotel bill. Now that I am finished with Ecuador and Peru things are picking up. Both should be dynamited into the sea. I am thinking of ordering a barrel of lobster sent down from Maine and giving a reception in Santa Cruz, courtesy of Dow-Jones. The Grace
[boss] here is a good friend of Barney Kilgore's, and Barney is
of Dow-Jones. I was treated well until the golf ball story was published. They are sweating, though, because they have vouched for several hundred here, which I spent on drink and native gimcracks. Send word to Rio, and keep loose over there. I think the testicles are descending. Hello to Africa. I remain,
con bombas


At last Thompson arrived in Rio de Janeiro, where he would stay until May 1963. Ridley had written to him that his
National Observer
articles were winning high praise throughout the journalism community. Although not on salary, by the time Thompson arrived in Rio he was selling the
National Observer
regular stories

September 17, 1962
Rio de Janeiro

Dear Ridley:

I've been trying to get off a letter to you for about a week now, but have been hopping across jungle & Mato Grosso, touring oil camps, spending all my $$ on antibiotics, etc., and ain't been near a P.O. to get anything sent.

Hope you got the packet from La Paz. It cost me $10, but I figure it's better to buy a little insurance than lose the whole works—or have it long delayed like the Peru piece. As long as I have cash I think I'll keep spending like that. […]

Let me know what you think of the Indian story. If I have enough good stuff for a photo story, I'll ship a 1500-word text. If you can't get a photo layout from what I sent, I can expand the thing to normal (7 or 8 takes) size. Anyway, I have it & await some word as to size requirements. It will not, by the way, be a “Bolivia story,” but split just about evenly between Bolivia, Peru & Ecuador—very much along the lines I first suggested.

Sorry those were so long. From now on I think I can hold them down; within reason, anyway. I will not have the compulsion here to get everything in one chunk, as I've had in these other countries. Brazil is simply too big, and besides that I'll be here long enough to let some things wait.

Elections here are October 7. I'll get a comparatively brief background piece to you before then. The situation here is pretty wild. This is a hell of a country & a relief to finally be here. Rio makes the other cities I've seen look like garbage dumps. More on that later.

Sandy also said that you (& “the board”) were worried that I am not writing “mostly for the
” Also that the board might be under the impression that I am not “mostly depending on them (the

Man, I have not depended on anybody for a long time like I've depended on the
down here. I just assumed you knew this. Not since Bogotá have I sent anything to any other paper. They were using my stuff through the Caribbean & early Colombia, but paying disgracefully. When you came through with white man's wages I figured first things first, and put the rest aside.

And money was only one of the reasons. You've given me enough space (yeah, even with the editing) to really deal with these things I've been writing about, rather than merely hitting one or two high spots like I would have to do for other papers. Naturally I'll bitch when you cut things, but I think I'd be remiss if I didn't. I'm not down here to make money or to get by with writing as little as possible; if I were I'd pick up a
stringership or something on that order. As you can probably tell by the stuff I've sent, I work like hell on it, almost always to the point where my expenses are way above what I finally get paid. But I figure every extra week I've spent in these countries is a week I won't have to spend the next time I go back. An investment, as it were, and now that I've survived this much of the thing I think I'd be kicking myself right now if I'd just skimmed through with an idea of picking up enough surface stuff to pay my way. As it is now, I have a lot of notes (and names) that don't pertain to anything I've sent, but which could prove invaluable sometime in the future.

(Another note here: September 14
says Comibol produces a pound of tin for $1.25. My figure is $1.35, which I got from the Minerals Attaché at the U.S. Embassy. I don't know where Luce got his, but if I had to bet I'd go with mine. At a guess, I'd say
asked the Bolivian embassy in Wash., which, like Comibol, would be inclined to exaggerate their wages and minimize their production costs. I didn't get my correx on the daily wage until I checked my final draft with the labor man from USIS.)

(Note again:
's total USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] figures also disagree with mine, but maybe they're already adding in this year's grant. I have the entire USAID breakdown as to figures, and their book says that from '42 until December 1961 the U.S. chipped in $184.7 million. Another $80 mill. was made available this year, but so far Bolivia has only come up with plans to spend some $42.5 mill. of it. It is highly doubtful that they'll manage to dispose of the entire $80. Anyway, it all goes on fiscal years & is hard as hell to calculate accurately.)

BOOK: Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman
4.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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