Peter Lourie

A gold mining area in Brazil is called a "garimpo." Marcos, Marlui, and I wanted to see
Tamborete, the "city of rafts," the largest of the Rondonian garimpos on the Madeira River. Five thousand gold prospectors, called "garimpeiros," camped at Tamborete. Five hundred rafts were anchored in the middle of the Madeira while the garimpeiros pumped air down to divers
who sucked gold off the bottom of the river with big suction hoses. 

It was muggy and hazy. We rode an aluminum boat with an outboard motor upriver into the
rapids of Hell's Furnace. We passed over strong whirlpools and through narrow channels in the rocks. The boat rocked and kicked back and forth like a bronco in the white water. Our pilot wore a bright orange lifejacket but had none to offer us. Marlui was a little nervous because she did not know how to swim. 

One gold miner in our boat with ragged clothes and sandals had come to the Amazon from the hot, dry coast of Brazil in order to get rich. His name was simply "Diabo," Devil. The only teeth in his mouth were gold, and they gleamed when the sun hit them. 

The dangers in garimpos were great. In Tamborete ten men had been murdered last month, and the fever that comes from the sickness called malaria was common. 

Before we reached Tamborete, for miles along the high banks of the river we found huts and
crude lean-tos and men with spades and shovels poking at the wet gravel. Some wore wide-brimmed hats against the brutal sun; others wore faded green army caps with little visors. Most had beards and serious faces. 

We had come at a bad time. Spirits were low, tension high. The river had risen suddenly in the night with the rains that fell last week upriver in Bolivia. So now the men panning for gold might have to wait days or even weeks for the river to drop, so they could get to the best gold-bearing gravel. 

A few miles upriver we came finally to Tamborete. Suddenly we were among the crude rafts,
called "balsas" in Portuguese.  Lashed together with their yellow and blue plastic awnings, they shimmered in the sunlight like one long mirage. The rafts were loud with divers and compressors. Most of the divers had an air hose for their mouth. They had no scuba gear. They dove with a larger hose to suck up the gold-laden gravel from the bottom of the river. One of these rafts could dredge as much as fifty grams of gold in a seven-hour period, fifteen kilos a month. In four months, the partners on a raft could take sixty kilos of gold from the river. Marcos photographed the men onboard the balsas. The muck was sifted through a large sieve called a snake, and the gold flakes were separated from the coarser sand. 

A black man from the coast told us he had come to the Amazon to get rich. He had long
fingernails, meticulously groomed, clean like pearl. His hair was wild and bushy. He said proudly, "I am a diver." He said he dove fifty feet down, completely in the dark. He said many divers were getting killed out there in the river. Some had no wet suits. Most had little experience. 

"Down there," he said as he pointed to the water, "you can't see two feet in front of you, it's so
dark. With all these balsas above you, the air lines tangle up, but the worst danger of all is when another diver cuts your air hose because he thinks you have found gold, and he wants to get there first." 

It is difficult to describe the blast of sunlight on the Madeira River at midday. It was almost
volcanic. And the pesky "pium," little black, biting flies devoured any bare skin they could find, ankles, neck, arms. The pium left little red welts that itched constantly and left scabs that bled at night. 

On shore, from a thousand hammocks strung around hundreds of fires, the men talked and sang songs and slept until it was their turn to join their partners on their raft. We met a one-legged diver named Lazarus. We were told he was the best diver in the whole city of rafts. On land he needed crutches to get around, but in the water he was like a fish. He could stay down longer than any diver in the garimpo. Lazarus had a neatly trimmed black beard and shiny eyes. He was only twenty-six years old, but was perhaps the most dignified man I have ever met. Every movement he made was precise. Even his gold necklace gleamed with precision. 

Lazarus' crutches leaned against his chest as he talked about his work. He said, "When you first enter the water, it is yellow. But very quickly the water gets cloudy and cold and then black and blacker as you drop down. And then you can't see anything. You work alone in the pitch blackness. When the lines get tangled, some men panic and even die because they try to surface too fast. Some divers sing to keep themselves company. And the current is strong. Only one line holds you from going down to your death." 

Lazarus told us he was a watchmaker back home in the city of Ceara on the coast of Brazil.
Unlike most of the garimpeiros we met in Rondonia, Lazarus had all his original teeth. They were good white teeth that shone brightly when he smiled. Lazarus made us feel the excitement and the enchantment of the garimpeiro's life. But while we talked to him, a large group of men came up from the shore carrying the body of a diver. He was cold and white and limp. Someone tried to revive him, but he was already dead. 

That's the way it was on a garimpo on the Madeira River. You might get rich, but there was
danger in doing so. After the gold buyers flew into the jungle in tiny airplanes to buy gold, most of the garimpeiros would take their big earnings to a city like Manaus or Porto Velho. They'd party for days, and soon their earnings would be spent. Poor again, they headed back to the garimpo and take their chances. 

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