Born in 1915 to great wealth in Seattle, Moritz Thomsen died miserably poor in the tropics, of cholera, in 1991. He served as a bombardier in WWII, farmed in California, and at age 44 gave it all up to join the recently-formed Peace Corps. His book about that experience, Living Poor, is ranked as one of the best Peace Corps memoirs ever written. When his service was over, he chose to remain. He started a farm with an Ecuadorian friend, but that too ended in defeat. By then Thomsen was 63, and his health was already in decline.
The Saddest Pleasure takes Thomsen from the tattered remains of his failed farm in Ecuador on a journey to Colombia and then Brazil, where he travels up the Amazon River. As he moves through scenes of desperate poverty, the author also journeys back through his own life and failures, reflecting on his struggles and emotional pain with brutal honesty. He spares the reader nothing — his most scathing observations on the places he journeys through, unapologetic assessments of his life, and beautifully rendered portraits of the land and people he has come to love. It’s all in there: life stripped down to its essence, just as Thomsen lived it.
Like any great travel classic, the ground he covers is large: history, culture, human nature, autobiography, growing old, friendship, family, dreams and their dissolution. But what elevates his story to a classic of the genre is the beauty with which he tells it.