Among the Gilded Paupers

Among the Gilded Paupers

The quest for El Dorado, the mythic city of gold, is at the heart of the tumultuous history of the Americas.


The quest for El Dorado, the mythic city of gold, is at the heart of the tumultuous history of the Americas. In the decades after Columbus landed on these shores, the Spanish conquest grew only hungrier, more feverish in its search for gold. Hernán Cortés ransacked Aztec temples in Mexico; Francisco Pizarro

plundered the Inca kingdoms in Peru after capturing and murdering the Inca ruler Atahualpa in 1533. Then, the marches of his brother, Gonzalo, and his lieutenant Francisco Orellana across the Andes and into the Amazon jungle–half starved and lost, but still driven by a bloodthirsty greed. Each time, however, the location of the mysterious El Dorado eluded them, taunted them–literally drove them insane.

That’s what happened, also, to the most celebrated of the explorers on its trail, Sir Walter Raleigh, who in 1595 charted a course through the labyrinthine delta of the Orinoco River and into the highlands of southern Venezuela. Twenty years later he tried again but, frustrated and forlorn, barely escaped with his life and his wits (only to be beheaded when he returned to London). Clearly, a pattern had developed, and the all-consuming search for El Dorado, if at first quixotic, became a curse. And yet its seductive powers have lasted through the centuries and still exert a magnetic pull on imaginations across the region.

The hidden riches, buried deep in the soil and below the rivers, continue to draw the strike-it-rich dreamers, drifters and gunslinging prospectors–as well as the giant multinational mining companies. And still they search through the thick interiors of the Amazonian rainforest, along the Orinoco in Venezuela and the Essequibo River in Guyana, along the ancient trails hacked away by the conquistadors. “Five centuries after Columbus, nearly to the year, treasure maps in old history books and geological maps in modern investment newsletters were identical. The people who had searched for El Dorado had been right all along,” writes Marc Herman, a freelance journalist who’s been bitten by the gold bug himself. “About the time I was sitting down in the library [to research the subject], a billion-dollar gold mine was opening for business on the banks of the Essequibo at a spot in the jungle called Omai. Raleigh’s deputy Lawrence Keymis had passed the site in a longboat four hundred years prior, noticed nothing, and continued on his way blithely unaware.”

So, does El Dorado exist, deep in the jungle somewhere? And can the search for it sustain yet another book? In the late 1980s and early ’90s it certainly seemed so, and Herman was determined to find out on both counts. A footloose University of California, Santa Cruz, grad freezing his way through an upstate winter in the Catskills, the young would-be writer was desperate for a change of scenery. It was 1994, and without much in the way of work to tie him down, he jumped at a good airfare to Caracas, Venezuela, where he figured he could wait out the winter, play a little soccer and kick around on some beaches on the Caribbean coast. But on an eye-opening–and gut-wrenching–bus ride down to the Brazilian border near the end of his trip, he encountered a cagey American prospector and made a further discovery: There was a gold rush on, only starting to heat up. So, his head swimming with new plans, Herman returned home with a mission of his own: to get back down to South America and write about this new stampede in search of El Dorado.

It’s an intriguing idea that clearly inspired Herman, who seemed suited for the vagabond journalist life from the get-go. After hunkering down for some initial library research, he was soon ready to fly back down to Caracas and, hammock in hand, hitch his fate to that of the intrepid fortune-seekers beating a trail into the forest. What he discovered then, not surprisingly, was much more tawdry than any gold-tinged legend. In fact, he does find El Dorado: It’s a squalid little Guyanese town near the Brazilian border, a far cry from any glittering Oz. “It seemed like a cruel joke,” he deadpans. “The city of gold was a tense, dusty frontier town.” And later, standing on the great mounds of mud at the Omai mine, he shrugs: “El Dorado, in the end, was real, had been discovered, and was a pile of dirt.”

Herman has come to his story late, of course, and he recognizes that. It’s also a story that is bigger, perhaps, than he can handle in this small book. El Dorado long inspired writers of the past–how can one resist the grand and tragic dimensions of its tale? Charles Nicholl, the British travel writer and historical sleuth who’s written on the cocaine boom of Colombia in the 1980s (The Fruit Palace is still the most mind-blowing of adventure tales) and on Rimbaud in Abyssinia, also retraced Raleigh’s voyage in his dogged 1995 book, The Creature in the Map: A Journey to El Dorado. And, of course, the peripatetic, melancholic V.S. Naipaul laid out the framework with his 1970 masterpiece, The Loss of El Dorado: A History. Herman, aware of the mountains of literature, takes a more circumspect approach to the story, sticking close to the trail of the current gold boom he has come to investigate, with only short side trails into the history and politics of the region.

This focus leaves him, essentially, attempting to make sense of the two competing types of miners–the small-scale individual prospectors and the giant multinational companies. He’ll make several more trips over the next couple of years and become something of an expert on the whole methodology of mining–the effects of cyanide and mercury, for example, used in the leaching process of extracting the gold–as well as the arguments for and against the large mining companies’ presence (for: they bring jobs, roads, hospitals and at least an acknowledgment of environmental safeguards; against: they siphon out profits, displace peoples, ravage the landscape). Here’s where Herman really digs in, so to speak: His grasp of the issues of gold mining, from its process to its stake in national development, is impressive. (Contrary to popular wisdom, it turns out, the mercury used by the small prospectors is far more dangerous to the environment than the big companies’ cyanide. A UN environmental conference in Nairobi recently confirmed the global threat of mercury poisoning.) But this is also the book’s weakness–it is caught between an adventure tale and a treatise, dry when it should be most compelling, shallow when it should go deepest.

Searching for El Dorado certainly livens up when Herman dispenses with background explanations and closes in on the prospectors themselves (or “pork knockers,” as they’re called). These are the colorful characters who propel the book, a hodgepodge of rangy and hard-bitten men who rarely leave the pits with more than a fraction of a fortune. The gold, more often than not, ends up around their neck and wrists, not in any bank account. In fact, it’s their wretched struggle to wrestle anything of value out of the dirt and mud that prompts Herman’s deepest doubts about the whole enterprise. The central question, buzzing around his head like a swarm of flies, is this: How can a country so rich in resources be so damn dirt poor? And why are its people, decked in gold, so damn desperate? “It was a brutal paradox: some of the world’s poorest governments were wildly endowed with riches and had become dependent on them,” he writes. “If they stopped digging, their people starved; but while they kept digging, they seemed to starve anyway.”

That contradiction festers at the heart of Herman’s book, and what he ends up with is part travel story, part environmental and political muckracking, part social excavation. But no clear answers. As Herman picks his way through his story of small-time prospectors, big-time multinationals and local fat-cat bureaucrats and politicians, he finds no easy explanations. “It was a difficult story to tell. The conclusions were often ambiguous. The events were chaotic, and the effects equally a matter of public health, personal security, economics, environmental science and national sovereignty,” he explains. Clearly, things get a bit muddy for Herman, too.

Yet a few incidents along the way will drive Herman deeper into his story. In 1995 he is in Georgetown, Guyana, awaiting permission to visit the Omai mine, when he reads in the local newspaper of a waste spill that has turned the Essequibo River red with cyanide (triggering, incidentally, painful flashbacks to the Jonestown mass suicides of 1978). It turns out to be one of the largest environmental disasters ever, but it is hushed up by the mine’s PR flacks, both in Guyana and abroad. For Herman, it’s an irresistible story, even if it inspires only yawns from his editors in New York. Two years later, in 1997, he finally gains access to Omai (he is by now a bit more accredited as a journalist), and on his way stumbles upon another aspect of the story: the often violent confrontation between local prospectors and the National Guard, who are called in to protect the billion-dollar foreign operation from the scrappy intruders. “No one knew what to do when local miners continued to work on land leased to overseas miners, short of shooting at them,” Herman writes. “In El Dorado the lack of answer meant standoffs, beatings, shootings and tear gas. There were constant skirmishes and tensions around the mines.” This time, the river runs red with blood, and Herman’s story ups its stakes.

Of course, the book has sought the high ground from the beginning: Herman has done his research on the subjects of globalization, international finance and environmental politics; he has interviewed lobbyists and activists from Washington to Berkeley. He includes short, condensed digressions on Guyanese history as well: on its party politics and ethnic divisions after independence, and especially on the legacy of its controversial Marxist president, Cheddi Jagan, who made the deals to bring in the first big mines after his election in 1992. But, again, it is the local characters who cut to the chase. “Guyana, this place is a mess,” as one former Guyanese prospector puts it.

From these wizened miners and assorted hustlers, we start to get a different picture of El Dorado–or a different El Dorado, one whose analogues can be found in North American cities like Miami and New York, and not just in the Amazon jungle. Among the Guyanese, visas have become a sought-after currency far more valuable than gold. On a long, calamitous truck ride through the forest, Herman listens as his driver, a man named Waseer, rambles on about his dreams of escape. “The closer we got to the gold mine, the more he talked about North America as if it were a larger gold mine just out of reach,” Herman writes.

Meanwhile, the deeper into the jungle Herman gets, the more his story takes on momentum and life. Casually called “white boy” or “snow-boy” by the Afro-Guyanese, East Indian and Amerindians he encounters, Herman sweats out nights in old brothel rooms and seedy, dilapidated hotels, where rainwater creeps up around his ankles and mosquitoes hum through the night. He strikes up conversations with miners, loggers, ganja-smoking philosophizers, fruit-sellers and pimps. He moves, anxiously, through barrooms, malarial swamp grounds and misbegotten town squares (abandoned, for the most part, except for mangy dogs and the occasional truckload of army guards). He arrives in frontier shantytowns with a nervous suspicion of all shadows and with no clear map of action. But, most of all, he learns to hang his hammock in the middle of nowhere and succumb to the wild cacophony of a jungle night:

The first evidence of sundown in the forest even before the darkness was a steady increase in noise. During the day the primary sound is a faint crinkling like a constant drizzle. It is not actually rain; it is millions of leaves dropping continuously from the trees, bouncing off each other and settling into the floor. It’s lovely. But nocturnal creatures greatly outnumber daytime animals. After nightfall the sound of leaves is subsumed beneath a far louder din of hoots and screams. Within half an hour of sundown the sound grows louder until it is something physical and close, like a passing train. By an hour after sundown everything was awake and shouting at once.

The forest, then, brings out Herman’s most rhapsodic prose; the urban sprawl and stench of Georgetown, his most caustic. Here he finds the most glaring disparity between grinding poverty and hopelessness, on the one hand (the open sewers, the squatter towns of orphans, the ever-threatening crime), and the shiny but hollow promise of the gold hanging around everyone’s neck. “It was a woeful city,” he says of Georgetown. “A city of gilded paupers.” Where has all the wealth gone that has left this city, this country, so bereft? As one Guyanese tells Herman, “We got the purest gold. This is a rich, rich country.” A moment later, the same man bemoans the foreigners who have taken it all away: “This the slackest country, man. We let anyone in, do whatever you want, no papers.”

By 2000, when Herman returns yet again, the foreigners are leaving and the story takes another turn: The gold boom of the ’90s has gone bust. The mines are closing; El Dorado has been tapped out, its returns no longer worth its costs–social, economic and environmental (regulations have only gotten stricter since incidents like the Omai spill). Gaping pits remain in the forest where the mines have been abandoned; dusty and remote ghost towns teeter nearby. The world’s largest gold rush–Herman’s initial story–has ended, but the book has a fuller arc by now. Much has changed since his first trip in 1994. The environmental movement, for one, has gone beyond its early “Save the Rain Forest” rallying cry and been strengthened by the fiercer antiglobalization activism of the new century.

Ultimately, though, there is an element of the anecdotal fleetingness of journalism that limits this book, despite a story line that has deepened beyond its magazinelike beginnings. Searching for El Dorado doesn’t quite soar into the realm of the literature of Nicholl or Naipaul; it recalls more the bumpy, superficial ride of books like Bruce Chatwin’s episodic In Patagonia or Patrick Symmes’s freewheeling Chasing Che: A Motorcycle Journey in Search of the Guevara Legend. Since that bitter Catskills winter in 1994, Herman’s writing career has picked up, as he’s wandered from the Bay Area to Borneo to Chile, filing dispatches on ecological crises and politics for such publications as Harper’s, Mother Jones, Spin and McSweeney’s. But as Herman himself admits, he has just scratched the surface, writing here about his last few days in Guyana:

I am describing all this in the hope that it is clear that the gold mines and the statistics I have presented were not the country. Those were things that affected the country. They were the part North Americans could access and had reasons to involve ourselves in and form opinions about; it was the part in which I had involved myself. But I do not think I ever saw the country as it was beyond occasional glimpses, like those brief moments on those two days.

Those occasional glimpses are intriguing in themselves. As for deeper truths, one senses, Herman will have to carry on digging. Like so many before him, he hasn’t quite found what he was looking for.

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