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Recollections of a Nomad

ISSUE:  Autumn 1987

It is difficult to travel around the world as a journalist, prying into other people’s lives, without developing an appreciation of the idea of freedom perhaps somewhat more varied than that most people have. You will come to understand that all people desire freedom, though they desire it in different ways. They want political freedom, economic freedom, freedom to move about as they wish, freedom frequently being associated with travel. People want specific freedoms, such as the freedom to exploit the opportunities they encounter, freedom to associate with whomever they please, publish or speak as they are inclined to. Some people will risk their lives for, even die, for an idea of freedom. A few people even strive for the freedom to crush the freedom of others. Only the anarchists believe in undiluted personal freedom, but recognize that the territory of their freedom extends only to the boundry of the next person’s. The anarchists make a religion of freedom, and they may be the only ones who truly understand it. Some people seem not to desire freedom at all, prefering instead to cultivate their security. There are convicts who decline to leave their prisons. But, what is security but another word for freedom? Freedom from want and hunger, freedom from the indifferent and cold blast of the elements.

Freedom is an illusion, for it is an idea with so many different faces. It can satisfy us or, in its perceived absence, depress us. Paradoxically, one can become a prisoner of freedom. That is what this is all about.

During the years I worked on the Buenos Aires Herald, in the mid 1960’s, I occasionally felt I was manning one of the final outposts of civilization. Beyond Buenos Aires, sparkling and complete a city that it is, lay the storied grasslands of Argentina, the pampas that run with an undeviating flatness west to the Andes and south to the edge of the desert of Patagonia, a dry, wind-raked wasteland where Darwin’s mind was first opened to his great destiny. If you continue on beyond Patagonia you come to the stepping stone to Antarctica, Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire, and then, literally, to the bottom of the world.

The desolate parts of the earth have a mysterious appeal for many people, and Patagonia is among the more remote. Those moved enough to visit and explore it, and places beyond, would come through Buenos Aires in their journeys back and forth. They would refresh in the city, get their bearings before heading down, or heading back North. If they were English speakers—Australians, North Americans, Irish or English, and especially if they were down on their luck— they would stop by our newspaper. In the English-speaking world people often turn to newspapers for help when the official agencies have failed to satisfy. We had some odd visitors at the Herald.

Once, four fat Australians came by our offices on Rivadavia street. They were on their way to Tierra del Fuego in a Volkswagon Beetle. They had driven this car, brown and mud-splashed, from White Horse, Alaska. They showed me pictures they had taken all along the route. I could not understand, first, how they all got into the car, and second, when they did, how the car moved after that. But they did, and it did, I came to learn.

Another character showed up at the paper one day, a stringy fellow in his sixties, who had made it from somewhere in Texas to Buenos Aires on a Schwinn bicycle. He had it equipped with saddle bags and a metal basket on the handle bars. In the basket he carried a portable radio, a bulky thing of vacuum tubes. His major expense, he told me, was for batteries. He liked to listen to local stations as he peddled along.

Of this man I remember two things: he had calf muscles that I thought would break through his jeans, and he was thoroughly depressed by the fact that he had achieved his goal. His determination had carried him through but having arrived in Buenos Aires he was totally spent, psychologically as well as physically, and I would not have bet on his living another five years (despite his excellent physical condition) unless he were to develop a new and even more rigorous way of testing himself. I imagined him taking up channel swimming.

They came and they went. I remember them not as people of genuine accomplishment so much as people determined to test themselves in insignificant ways, to perfect useless skills, like those who build Taj Mahals and Eiffel Towers of match sticks. As a group they made an impression on me; but it was the impression that eccentricity leaves, a mild if enduring curiosity about what it was that moved them. Yet I recall that I was always deferential to them, they seemed so wrapped up in what they were doing.

Vincent was a visitor of a different sort. There was no gimmickry about him: no bicycles, no tiny cars inappropriate for great journeys. He was the most serious traveler I have ever encountered. He covered his ground on foot and came to know the territory through which he passed as intimately as those who lived in it. He was the freest man I have ever known. But he was not free either: he was the Flying Dutchman, a man who could not rest.

It was raining the night I met him. The wind drove in off the South Atlantic and assailed the spiked towers and green domes of Buenos Aires; you could hear it moaning in the air shaft of our building. I had just stripped the Reuter wire and was heading back to my desk with the copy when I saw him there, standing just inside the door. He was dripping wet; his ginger hair was plastered to his head; he hadn’t shaved in days and his eyes, well, they told me he was the tiredest man I had ever seen.

“Hello,” he said, “My name is Vincent.” He stepped forward, offering his hand for a shake.

“Pleased to meet you. What can I do for you?”

The eyes went ceilingward, as if searching there for some kind of reenforcement. “Could you write a story about me?”

“Why would I want to do that? What have you done?”

“I walked here from New York.”

I looked him up and down. He certainly appeared like someone who had just walked eight thousand miles, Vincent had a worn look to him, the glacial look of a stone that had traveled a long distance down an ancient stream bed. He wore jeans that were faded and a heavy plaid shirt, a dark blue jacket and leather boots with flat heels. Everything was scuffed: the boots, the elbows of the jacket, the knees of the jeans. He even had an abrasion on his forehead.

“Why?” I asked, realizing immediately that I was not being informed by my experience with itinerant people. The question was inappropriate, insensitive. If you invest yourself so thoroughly in an enterprise, dedicate the energies of your life to it, shouldn’t its purpose be apparent to anyone? Perhaps it should be, though frequently it is not. At least we owe it to such people to make our inquiries with a measure of delicacy.

“Why?” he repeated experimentally. “Why should you write about me? Or why did I come here?”

“Both.” I had to proceed down the path I had chosen.

“I would like you to write about what I’ve done because maybe somebody will read the story and offer me a place to stay. I’m tired. I have no money left. I was robbed not far from Buenos Aires. (His finger went to the bruise on his forehead.) I tried the English Seaman’s Mission (which I was just about to recommend) and they told me they could not take me in. I’m not English and I didn’t come in a boat.”

“They have their rules.”

He nodded, as one only reluctantly prepared to accept rules. Vincent’s eyes moved dully round the room until, spotting the decrepit black leather couch in the corner, they fairly ignited with desire.

“Of course, sit down,” I said.

Instead of falling asleep instantly, as I had expected he would once off his feet, he grew more animated.

“As to the second “why”, that’s even simpler. I came down here to see what South America is like. I’ve already walked all over North Africa.”

“So you did walk.”

“I’m afraid of airplanes.”

“How long have you been on the road?”

“Two years. I’ve been down south into Patagonia. I think I’ll head back soon. Visit Brazil.”

Our conversation that first night in the newsroom went on for about an hour, during which time I got a sketchy idea about Vincent. He was about 27 years old. He came from New York, the Bronx. He had been an English teacher in the New York school system. Perhaps it was there, doing that work, or maybe it was simply the experience of living in New York in the 1960’s, but somehow, at some point, the idea of decadence—social decadence, human decadence—imbedded itself in his mind. And once there it became the point of reference to his life. Vincent was determined to live as simply as he could, without artifice, without the complexity that naturally grows up around a permanent relationship.

Looking back over 20 odd years, I can also say that Vincent was probably one of those searching children of the 1960’s, one of the vanguard of that gilded horde that spread itself over the world, from Katmandu to Mazatlan, in search of the Faustian perfect moment, the exquisite unpreconceived sensation.

But who could have known back then what was coming?

Vincent had a flat and simple way of speaking, though he was passionate when making his points. He told me how he had left his teaching job in New York, got a cheap flight to Europe, made it down to Spain, then over to Morocco. Before long he was in the desert, living in a tent—his own tent, he emphasized—and moving about with some Arabs. “They accepted me with a kind of indifference. They didn’t know why I was there, and didn’t seem to care. I didn’t know why I was there either and couldn’t have explained what I was doing if they had asked.”

“I didn’t communicate much with the Arabs, but we had something, a bond. One morning I woke up and looked out of my tent and they were gone. There I was in the desert. It was beautiful. The desert in the morning is like a great bowl of golden light, and you’re right in the middle of it. It gets into you, the light, and animates you. I can say now, I was happy at that moment. It was a special, transcendental happiness. I have never been so happy as I was on that morning, but I think it was the happiness that precedes the instant of death. I was frightened, too, and that was part of my happiness. I was alone in the desert and that meant I would probably die.”

“Right at the height of that peculiar ecstasy, Ahmed came. He was one of the Arab boys. He had been sent back to get me. I had become such a part of the group that they simply stirred themselves in the mornings as they always did and moved on without actually thinking about me, and they assumed I had moved with them. When it occurred to them that I had not, they sent the boy back for me.”

“They were a part of the earth. They moved across the desert without disturbing it like the shadows of the clouds. But they did leave their signs. In the spring they would remove their heavy cloaks and hang them on the acacia trees. They would pick up these clothes months later on their return migrations. I was with them for four months and if I came away with any special understanding of them it was that they were eternal, everlasting out there in their black tents. Never disintegrating. Never changing. Never wearing down. A lapidary process had worn the Bedouins down to their hard essence. They were irreducible. Of them, Laurence wrote that they “seemed hostile to the material blessings of civilization rather than appreciative of them. They met with a ribald hoot well-meaning attempts to furnish their bareness.”

“When I returned to New York I stayed only two months. I found I did not like the complicated way people lived, and I found I could not live in a house. I went to the jazz festival at Newport. Had a hotel reservation even. I left the room in the middle of the night and slept on the grass. Something had happened to me I’ve never been able to explain.”

Vincent got up then; he moved slowly, but with no evident stiffness. He had a rolling gait, like a sailor’s is supposed to be. He picked up his knapsack which he had left just inside the door, dragged it back to the couch where he unsnapped it.

“This is my tent,” he said. It’s a small shelter and I’ve lived in it for four years and in nothing else. I’m like a turtle, slow and purposeful; I carry my house on my back.

There was a rasp of sarcasm in his voice, but I couldn’t perceive the source or cause of it.

I spied two corked bottles inside the olive bag and asked him about them. “One for honey, the other for kerosine. My two forms of instant energy.”

Vincent lifted his head, tilted it a little. “Will you write the article?”

“No,” I said. “Won’t need to. You’re coming home with me.

He was genuinely surprised; he had not expected it I really did not know him. I had thought that was what he had been after all along, trying to angle a room. But Vincent was innocent, I came to learn, and the most unmanipulative person I’ve ever known. He would not give advice, even if asked, nor raise a doubt about any decision anyone else made. This quality at first came across like an attitude of chilly indifference to others, and probably was one of the reasons he had no really close relationships (that, and the fact he was always on the move). But later I came to appreciate that it reflected his ultimate faith in human beings, in their right and responsibility to make their own choices. Freedom lives in a cold place. Vincent was an anarchist of the spirit; he would perpetually refuse to accept authority over anyone. He would have made a terrible father.

I had finished my work for the early part of the evening. I suggested we go around the corner for coffee.

At the coffee shop we met a colleague of mine, a Canadian journalist named Paul Kidd, who kept an office near our building. Kidd was also in his twenties; he worked hard at his job, displayed that kind of fitful, nervous energy all ambitious people do who are uncertain of their talents. He spoke in abbreviated sentences and was known for his exaggerated fastidiousness; he was forever wiping away the rings made by the espresso cups.

Over coffee it came out that Vincent had spent two weeks in a hospital in Panama where he had been treated for amoebas. At mention of that the Canadian pushed himself away from the counter top, held his hands forward defensively toward Vincent, as if to ward him off, and said: “Amoebas! Amoebas are bad. Two weeks. You need more than that. If you do not get into a hospital right away, friend, you will die. Amoebas.”

It was clear, the man was deeply impressed.

Vincent was never dismissive of anyone. He did his best to give the impression that he took the warning seriously. He ran his hand over his stomach and allowed: “You might be right, I’ll have it looked at. (I knew he wouldn’t. I knew that • much about him already, that he had a stoicism that would simply never allow him to pamper himself, and that he listened himself to the messages his body sent rather than ever trying to anticipate anything that might go wrong.) It’s just that I haven’t had any bad news from that direction in more than a year.”

At that time my wife Susana and I lived in a small, ground floor apartment at the back of an old house in the Belgrano section of Buenos Aires. It had the tiniest parlor, a kitchen, a bathroom and a bedroom downstairs, a patio garden and another bedroom upstairs only acessible by an outside stone stairway. We arrived home at two in the morning, my usual hour after putting the paper to bed. We had some food and Vincent went upstairs to sleep. In the morning my wife and I awoke to find him sweeping the patio. The patio did not need sweeping.

There were wild canaries in the garden. They were all over the city in those days, flitting like apostrophes scattered in the sky. The canaries recalled to Vincent the magnificent birds of incandescent colors he had seen in the Peruvian Amazon. He had eaten monkey meat there. “It did not taste like chicken,” he said, which seems to be the point of comparison for every exotic culinary adventure from rattle snake to Aztec dog.

He told us stories of his travels. He said he had walked from La Paz in Bolivia down the full length of the altiplano and descended into northern Argentina. A year earlier I had made that trip on the train and I remembered the incandescence of the high altitudes, the images of the place. I remember seeing from the train a funeral procession for a child, the father carrying the small coffin on his shoulder followed by several women and younger men walking toward the horizon, their hatchet like faces pressed into the never ceasing wind of the altiplano.

When I described this to Vincent, he told me of the squalid villages he had passed through, where the women tried to sell half-cooked llama meat to the passengers on the trains that occasionally stopped. He said he had stayed in one of these villages for several days and spent some time drinking with the Indian men, who welcomed him at first but later tried to attack him. But they had been stuporous on pisco and coca, and so he escaped from there unharmed.

Vincent said he thought the Indians of the Andes were more removed from the world as it was than the Bedouins had been. Despite Lawrence’s romantic assessment of them, made forty years earlier, “They would have traded their camels for trucks, I think, if they could have afforded it, or if the trucks could go where the camels go.” But the Indians, Vincent described as “blind refugees in history.”

Vincent told me he spent much of his time trying to clear his head of the distortions put there by his teachers when he was young. “The lies of specific, national histories,” was the way he put it. He had some thoughts on Latin America that ran counter to the history of the region taught to this day in Anglo-Saxon America.

“The conquest down here was violent, brutal, and short. Then Spain sent out its bureaucrats and shunted the Pizarro brothers and all their rough ilk aside. The story of this part of the world is not the story of conquistadors; it is the more mundane story of the Spanish bureaucrats. The fact that their administration endured more than 300 years without significant resistance is evidence of their skills. The Spanish colonial period was a true golden age. They had the Inquisition, of course, but we burned witches in New England.

“With all American kids I grew up steeped in the Black Legend of Spanish cruelty, greed, and cowardness, the stories that passed for history of how the Spaniards came to the New World only for gold and treasure and not to settle the land the way the English did. Then why are the oldest universities in Spanish America? The oldest houses and the oldest towns? No, it wasn’t necessarily that way at all. We in North America, we killed Indians and displaced entire peoples. Our predecessors were not necessarily more virtuous because the Indians in North America had no gold to seize. They had land. We took that.”

Vincent had no destination. I had the feeling he never would have. His movement needed no justification; his life was a journey without an end, and if he is alive today, perhaps he is still on the move. But, then, perhaps not.

Constant movement, being destinationless, is a state of mind foreign to most people, and to myself as well. Having a destination for most of us is like having a purpose. Wandering for relaxation, vacation, relief from the routine of a settled life, this is understandable. Wandering for the sake of wandering itself, or for the sake of knowing a different place, on and on, endlessly—this I found curious and more than once asked Vincent where the source of its appeal lay. His answers never satisfied me: “I look. I watch. I look for myself. I find myself, and every time I do I find I’ve changed.”

Consternation would fill his face. Then he would say: “This is not babble. I’m being descriptive. The settled state has its advantages. Things are made by rooted people; books are written, buildings and bridges built, crops grown. Nomads have something returned to them as well. They are tested; their understanding of things grows. The most impermanent of people come to appreciate the idea of permanence more thoroughly. They come to understand what an illusion it is, though a useful illusion, but an illusion nonetheless. Traveling people learn. Every mile is a page, every new place a book. The more you travel the more difficult it is to stop traveling. I remember the Arabs and what I thought was curious about them, but which I understand now. It was the old men who were always up first in the morning when we were leaving. Not only because old men cannot sleep the way young men can. They had a restlessness about them. They wanted to get up and get on, to see what was coming up next. I suppose they felt they had less time than the others.”

The day Vincent left a coincidence occured which I’ve always regarded as curious, only that. Susana and I awoke to find him sitting on the margin of the garden in the patio. He was poking a stick into the damp, black earth and looking diffident, as he often did. It was going to be a hot day; I could feel the sun heavy on my neck. His worn backpack was at his feet. His intentions were clear, clear by his attitude, clear by his very posture. He was leaving.

“Maybe you ought to think about a new pack?” I said, feeling plainly uncomfortable at the prospect of his leaving, and not too embarrassed to tell him that.

Vincent picked up the pack. It was very light. It contained one blanket, a sheet of waterproof material, his tiny tent, a very sharp knife in a scabbard, a clean shirt, pair of jeans, some socks, underwear and soap. I saw him take his two bottles and stuff them into the bag. These two solid things gave it form. Then he held it up, as if showing it off, and said: “Bandera vieja, capitan bueno.” (Old flag, good captain.)

It’s odd, I remember his going but little of what we said to each other in those last few moments. I say odd, because I remember so much else of what we spoke of during the two weeks of our acquaintance. We had talked about the feasibility of damming up the Amazon River for power. Not possible, Vincent insisted; it has no high banks. What did we know of such things? But at a certain age such conversations are not embarrassing, only because we are not aware of the limitless territory of our ignorance. Meat eating! There, in the heart of the Argentine, where we all gave ourselves over to the pleasures of the carnivore, Vincent ate little. He only picked at the ribs done on our grill, ate only the smallest of the filets that Susana cooked in the iron skillet. These were our staple, these delicious cuts. They were cheap.

Vincent’s stomach had shrunk, my wife insisted, and I am certain she was right. But it was a good thing, in view of the way he lived. Abstemiousness was not a matter of choice but a regimen he knew he had to adhere to if he were to avoid while traveling the pain of hunger of which we all had so little experience.

We had arguments over this. The meat will give you whole protein you need for strength, I would insist. Vincent, with utmost deference for my opinion, would wave his jerky, prefer his beans. “And what will I tell my stomach when I no longer have it?”

What did I know of such things? Such a life as his? Vincent was a stone, a polished, hard stone of the earth.

We all had coffee, and it was ten in the morning when he rolled down the covered hall and out the door of the house. We stood together there on the street under the plane tree and shook hands. Vincent looked both ways, then asked me with perfect seriousness: “Which way to Chile?”

I pointed in a more or less westerly direction and Vincent wandered off down the street, hiking up his pack.

And the coincidence? That evening when I arrived at work, my editor at the Herald and friend, Robert Cox, asked me, “Hear about Paul Kidd?”


“He’s in the hospital. Got Amoebas.”


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