Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 1987

Recollections of a Nomad

by Richard O'Mara

[If you wish to print this out, I suggest you use the copy HERE which will save paper.

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 boundary 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, preferring 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

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-
60's, I occasionally felt I was manning one of the final outposts
of civilization. Beyond Buenos Aires, sparkling and
complete 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 office 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
saddlebags 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 batteries. He liked to listen to
local stations as he pedaled 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, they seemed so wrapped up in what they were

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 had 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

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 airshaft 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
reinforcement. "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 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 around 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
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 60'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

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 wole 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, Lawrence 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

"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 kerosene. 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 friendships (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 towards
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 accessible 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 rattlesnake 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 then 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

"The conquest down here was violent, brutal and short. Then Spain
sent its bureaucrats and shunted the Pizarro brothers and 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

"With all American kids I grew up steeped in the Black Legend of
Spanish cruelty, greed, and cowardliness, 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 the first up 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 occurred 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, a 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

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

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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