Venezuelan Gold by Barnaby Rogerson

We took coffee of a jaguar hunter who lives alone in his commodious hut in the jungle, the woven wattle walls of his three rooms decorated with cast-offs from the odd bits of the materialist civilization that he had need of out here, so that there were a line of worn out toothbrushes used as pegs, and metal toothpaste tubes artfully twisted around a beam above the bucket basin. Ten hunting dogs dozed in the shade and several old machetes were distributed around the shack….because as everyone around here knows…”un hombre en la selva..sin machete vale nada !” [A man in the jungle without a machete is worth nothing]

My brother drops of a bag of coffee and a bag of sugar whenever he passes, and stays to hear the jungle gossip, about who is digging where, who has split up with who, and who has found gold or diamonds. So we were made very welcome. I had not yet sorted out all the skin shades of Venezuela into the very matter of fact coffee-coded colour scheme that the locals use, I never have, apart from smiling at my nephews nickname – El Gringo Negrito. In any case, I would have got Mister King`s wrong, as he was a recent immigrant from the Gambia (jumped ship in La Guaira).

My brother told me later, “I have never asked him what drove him from his home to come here. He always wins the annual Marathon race, and spends what-ever money he makes from the jaguar skins and diamonds that he pans for on women in the town before returning here. He is respected”.

Back in El Callao in the woods behind the Revemin Tailings Dam, my brother put us on the right track for one of the squatter mines. Again we were made welcome, for my brother gives his knowledge of the dip and strike of quartz veins to who-ever asks it of him. Three canvas huts had been made, no tent pegs here, just branches that had been cut to order to form a house-shaped frame and ropes tied taught to neighbouring trees. One to house the mine-kitchen, one to house the sacks of gold-bearing rocks and one for supplies. They laughed at the idea that any of them would sleep under these canvas rooves, they slept in hammocks with one eye open and a machete to hand.

After another weak sweet coffee and more talk, they agreed to let me down into their mine. I was given a line of knotted rope and then descended down into what looked like an old fashioned well that plummeted straight down into the deep-delved earth. At the bottom there was a chamber in which a man could stand and where the sacks were fixed to the rope. Off to the side twisted a number of galleries which you could just crawl through at a stoop. There were comparatively few wooden props but the earth at this level Looked reddish and compact, like a discoloured limestone. Elsewhere wooden trays allowed you to scoot along the galleries which were lined with wooden rails polished by the movement of sacks, which every now and then had been Widened so that a lamp cast some light:the tunnels were lit by candles placed in nooks cut into the walls. The form of the mine was simple, they dug down until they hit a seam of gold bearing quartz, which they hacked away at with pick, hammer and iron chisels. They followed the seam for as long as they dared.

Hauling me up on the well-winch required two men, who complained that their visitor weighed more than two sacks full of rocks. When they accumulated enough quartz, they would hire a lorry to come with an armed guard who would transport the load (with them all sitting on top) to one of the semi-legal mills. There the quartz was ground into powder, and mercury used to take off the gold, which was then either burnt off, or semi-extracted leaving something highly poisonous behind like amalgam. Then they generally spend the money on women in the town before going back to their mines for another couple of months.

This would be a good way to make marriage more meaningful – if all men had to earn the gold for their wedding ring this way.

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