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A 1982 diary account of a visit I made to the then, illegal gold mines of Nambija, in Ecuador ’s southern Cordillera, with John Wright, photographer and an American Character called Cameron.
Saturday 20.August 1982
Arrived in Guayaquil – rough air trip from Quito; the air hostesses joined in the screaming – A white-faced pilot smiles sheepishly at us as he prepares for his return flight. – Had a few drinks in a shop cum bar the city and back early to the hotel – Old BBC film of a Chippendale, children’s’ circus (in badly dubbed Spanish)on hotel TV.- early to bed.
Flew to La Loma, then took a taxi to Loja – trouble with a taxi driver who wants 1000 Sucres. We pay him off and he loses a trip to Zamora, which is worth three times the amount; strange mentality. Arrived Loja in middle of the Virgin de Cisne festival – 80,000 people, some who have walked overnight to get here – Meet up with Juan Fernandez, our guide and protector to be, who should have been in Zamora – his partner, Marco Espinosa is also here in Loja – We are to leave for Cumberatzo tomorrow at 5 am- It is still only 8.30 am- lazy day – 6.30pm, met with Juan and Marco at hotel- had good dinner in an Argentine meat restaurant, which we are told is the only decent eatery in whole of the province of Loja – Good company – Marco tells of problems with the MPD (Ecuadorian Communist Party)and how they are being disruptive in Nambija. – Marco wants us to stay longer than planned to visit and photograph the ruins. (first, we have heard of any ruins). Marco says the Incas lived near the mines but I had read nothing of this in any textbook – we got excited at the idea of discovering something new – we now decide to stay until 27th.
Up at 6 am and go to church – breakfasted. John and I go to buy supplies – returned to find Cameron in agony on the hotel dining room floor. His leg had given up on him. John takes him by taxi to the hospital. – Marco and Juan arrive with Ecuador Espinosa, a local journalist – we all sit around drinking Spanish brandy while he interviews me for Radio Centinel de la Cordillera, describing me as a ‘famous BBC reporter’. John got a good pitch as an International photographer. – John collected Cameron from the hospital. He cannot walk. Sad news, he will have to remain in La Loma until we return from Nambija.
Taxi to Zamora, arrive at 4.30pm – dust all the way – John and Marco visit someone to give them the bad news that a close friend and fellow miner of his was recently killed in a mining accident – They return with news that 15 people have just been killed rushing across a primitive bridge to catch a bus, when it collapsed into the deep gorge it spanned.
Interviewed Prof Umberto Delgado, governor of the province – first scary news – he fears for our safety and will not give permission for us to enter Nambija – There have been problems with a Swiss archaeologist and gold hunter, Juan Moritz. – The miners think all gringos, meaning us, work for Moritz. – A miner arrives and Marco and I try to convince him of our good intentions.
We spot Cameron walking by the governor’s office – A friend of Marcos, a masseur for the local football team, had treated him, giving his leg a good twist and it was now as new – with this good news the governor relents and we can collect his safe conduct letter tomorrow – As Marco later explains, the letter will only serve to let the 6 man police contingent in Nambija, know of our imminent arrival. For the miners, a piece of paper will not make any difference, as none of them can read anyhow. Bed at 10.00pm.
Tuesday, 23 August
Go to the governor’s office to collect the safe conduct letter. Governor not arrived – 30 minutes later, the secretary arrives – Informed us the governor was on holiday and could not officially sign documents – wait another hour until his replacement is convinced to sign the letter – Marco and Juan went ahead to Zamora check for possible problems – we sit around drinking beer for 2 hours until M and J return- taxi to Cumberatza our starting off point.
We have more beer and a lunch of gristly meat in a cafe before setting off. – Arrive at a bridge, the Puente de Namirez, where the governor’s letter is gravely inspected by a solitary policeman – M and J are obviously known to him – Marco tells me the police are there to look for criminals and that 90% of the miners in Nambija are on the run from the authorities. We are told a good percentage of these delinquents are chauffeurs or bus drivers who, having been in accidents in which their passengers were killed, are escaping justice or the wrath of their victims’ next-of-kin.
Set off walking, shortly entering into the jungle and struggle for miles along a mud and stone path – we meet a group of apparently friendly miners coming down from Nambija and are offered slugs of evil-tasting aquadiente alcohol from their bottles.- Two and a half hours later we arrive in San Carlos – meet Calisto, vice-president of the mining corporation of which Marco is president. Calisto claims to be one of the first miners to find gold in Nambija (1970) and at one time had been falsely arrested by the police for drug trafficking. They did not believe he could have panned so much gold. – He now has money, owns six block built houses, including the first one to be built in Nambija. He also has a small farm but is still happier mining with his children and will not move away.
Marco wires up a bullhorn he had brought along and gives the 50 villagers a political speech, conservative in content – As late as 1975 there were still Jivaro and Shua Indians living here but left when the miners started arriving – We meet Fabian, a teacher who was posted here two years ago and is happy to stay another two as he converts his monthly salary of 500 Sucres, to gold and says he is winning. We are to stay the night, sleeping rough on Vincente’s mud floor.- Now at 780 metres altitude – cleaned up in the cold, cold river and friendly villagers offer more aquadiente.-Tomorrow we start the second leg of the journey and must leave at 6 am, to arrive at our destiny before dusk – The miners do the Zamora to Nambija leg in one day.- Continually warned of the bad and dangerous people we expect to meet on the way – hopefully, there are also a few good ones.- Given, and cannot refuse, more aquadiente by the locals, who will not even allow us to buy a bottle in return. Typical Ecuadorian hospitality – when we are alone Calisto produces three bottles of Johnny Walker Black label whisky and we empty them, drinking out of a chipped, half pint mugs – Drunken sleep.
Wednesday 24 August
Up at 6 am. Woke up definitely still inebriated – Calisto does not want to accompany us blaming some obscure personal problem – I believe he does not want to be seen at the mines with us Gringos – We hope the police have already learned about our imminent arrival. – Breakfast, Calisto produces yet another Bottle of JWB “for the cold”.- I am quite drunk when we eventually set off at 8.30.
Two strenuous hours of an up-hill slog sweat the alcohol out of my system- getting tougher as were ascend – A trail was cleared during a Minga, (a Quechua Indian word for a village or group project – in this case the miners) – a couple kilometres of 2 metre long, logs have been horizontally laid, forming steps, reminiscent of those old Klondike Gold Rush films I watched as a child. – they’re murder on my knees – I am grateful at the end of these and the track is once again deep clinging mud. – We trudge up and along a river bed, is used as the trail during dry weather and I pray there will be no flash flood – Differing reactions from miners passing us on their way down to Cumberaza – some friendly but most are spoiling for a fight – passing a hand across the throat is a frequent gesture made to indicate what we might later expect.- I realize we would be in for harsher treatment if M and J were not with us – Two prostitutes on their way to Namibja laugh at our group as they overtake us on pack mules.- Getting more worried when a passing miner tells us a hanging committee is awaiting us. – M and J no longer so confident.
We arrived at El Tambo, a halfway house which could have been straight out of a bad western film. Probably the prostitutes proceeding us had warned them of our impending approach. Despite being accompanied by M and J, our arrival is not greeted with any sign of friendliness. – Learn from Juan there is a great rivalry between the miners and their many groups and cooperatives and this leads often leads to violence.- We hoped to rent a mule to carry our packs but despite the half dozen tied to a rail outside the house, none were available to us.
Marco insists on speeding up our progress. We cannot arrive in the dark, he says.- Two more shatteringly exhausting hours and with the approach of dusk we top the last hill. – Beneath us, smeared across both sides of a deep canyon is Nambija. I now see why it is called the Plastic City. Except for a few shacks roofed with corrugated iron, there are literally hundreds with blue, black or white plastic sheeted roofs.– We are hit by the frenetic noise of drilling, banging of metal against rock, people shouting and two claps of thunder, which I realize are dynamite explosions.
Suddenly, almost simultaneously, the noise ceased. We had been spotted. The din started up again but this time it was people whistling who was causing it. I Likened it to a football crowd’s anger at a referee’s bad decision but growing in crescendo. It is quite frightening and I don’t remember ever being as worried for my safety as I am with 4 to 5 thousand people (estimated population of Nambija) strenuously objecting at our presence. Fortunately, a group of Marco’s brother Fernando and a group of his miners came to our rescue and to escort us down into the valley.- Crossing a river, four men, stopped their panning to glare threateningly in our direction – We passed through a maze of primitive shacks, the occupants now displaying their hospitality to us with silence. We are relieved to reach Fernando’s unfinished house on the far side of the valley. His wife and friends assure us we were safe as long as we are with members of their cooperative but we must not to venture out without the protection of one or two members.
A meeting must be arranged this night between M and J and the Nambija miner’s committee to try and ease the tension. We are told that the situation is serious, not just for us but for M and J who had brought us here unwanted.
Fernando’s house, a two-storied affair, the rear of it embedded into the side of the cliff and at the front, two 2,5 metre wooden stilts supporting the weight of a wooden floor. The one room is separated with plastic sheets, like Marco, the three of us others, Fernando, Marianeta, his wife and two children are to share the five by four-meter floor space. Marianeta cooks for us all on an open fire beneath the construction. Despite our frightening welcome, we are made to feel immediately at home.
We are left under the protection of one-armed, hard looking but a friendly villain, while M and J, accompanied by Fernando and with Marco’s bullhorn go to meet the committee. They need to persuade everyone we were not working for an international mining company but to just there to photograph the miners and highlight their hard way of life. Our enquiries regarding possible police protection are laughed at. It seems the four men we had seen panning at the river are the police.
Thursday 25 August
Exhausted – Slept for a solid 10 hours, oblivious to the hard floor or the shouts of “Ladrones, ladrones” – thieves, and gunshots which, during the night, had woken everyone else. – Good news for breakfast – The trio had returned at midnight after winning the committee over, except the MPD (communist) contingent, who in the end had been shouted down. – But Fernando, M and J will have to escort us everywhere. They were well pleased but hung-over.- Apparently, It had taken a lot of alcohol to charm the opposition.
Nambija centre, with its primitive shops, stalls, bars and brothels (around 200 prostitutes work here) has been scrambled together on a less steep part of the valley but everything here is on an incline. – The word appears to have gotten around. – many people are friendly but there are others who are resentful and turn threateningly away as John attempts to take photos. – There are three stalls where gold is purchased. (930 -50 Sucres per Gramme) The buyer and his bodyguard sit behind a plank table on which is a Bunsen burner, a metal bowl and a set of scales are the only objects. Gold nuggets, in some cases just gold dust is heated to a high temperature to test their purity and to burn off any residue, then weighed and the buyer gives his price.- Men, women and children queue to sell the most minute bit of yellow stuff. The buyers offer tins of tuna, sardines and even single cigarettes in exchange for a speck of gold. The buyers made no objection to being photographed.
The mining is done on the opposite side of the valley, which denude of vegetation is riddled with holes, where the gaucheros, miners, hew and drill into the cliff face. The chip, chip and clang, clang of metal against rock is continuous and for a moment I imagine the noise put to the tune the Slaves Chorus from Verdi’s Aide. – Spasmodic, muffled thuds as dynamite is used to blast away the rocks inside the caves which they call mines. – Safety is unapparent, little or no warning given of the imminent explosion. It is only afterwards, as a cloud of dust billows out of a mine that you realize the danger.
Seemingly regardless of the height, men and even young children carrying sacks of rock move like ants up and down and along the harrowingly narrow tracks hewed out of the cliff face. – We visit a few of these small caverns and enter to take photos. – John and Cameron are unperturbed. I, a lifetime sufferer of vertigo, am petrified and cling to the cliff wall as a procession of sack carriers squeeze past me, unconcerned about the 30 meters, straight drop below us. For every 15 sacks (US flour sacks) they deliver to the grinding mill, they are allowed 1 sack for themselves. After work, their one sack is taken to their hut or shack. Then begins the work which will continue well into the night. Utilizing a crowbar and a round metal tube, usually an empty artillery shell, which seems to be in good supply here, the rock will be pounded into dust. From this dust, using mercury (My God!) to separate the gold from the dirt, they hope to find sufficient gold to keep them in food, booze and cigarettes.
Friday 26. August
A horrible and embarrassing occurrence. – Obeying an urgent call of nature, I am directed to a cesspit, a short distance from Fernando’s house. This is a large hole with the remains of a solitary bush, the only one I saw in the valley, to hang onto while attempting to relieve oneself. With trousers still around my ankles, I attempt to stand up. – Branch breaks and I fall backwards into the pit full of shit – Immediate terror with instant visions of cholera, typhoid and other unknown diseases flash through my head. – Worse to come.- I scramble out of the waist-deep filth and as there has been no rain for days water is at a premium. – I have only a shallow, stagnant puddle of water in which to clean myself. – I did not report my experience and incredibly no one complained of any smell.-
Our guides offer to take us to the Inka ruins. We clamber out of the valley and up to 1800 meters through the primary jungle to reach a wooden cross the miners had erected above the town.- Nearby were some ancient stone works but we were disappointed with our “discovery”. Probably they are from the original Inca mines.- The day spent wandering around Nabija, taking photos, making notes, chatting with those who would talk to us and inevitably, drinking from a seemingly never-ending supply of beer. The amount of alcohol available is amazing, considering, like the prostitutes, it has to be transported here by mule.
Wake up to rain, lots of it – Say our farewells to everyone – considering what little these people have to offer, their hospitality has been overwhelming – Some whistling as we clamber out of the valley but mainly good wishers. – The four policemen, again panning in the river, wave a friendly goodbye to us. No doubt glad to see the back of us..- At El Tambo we manage to hire a mule for our rucksacks, this time without problems. Weather now atrocious. The dry river bed by which we ascended is now a fast flowing river, making the descent extremely difficult.
Calisto waiting at San Carlos for us, with a bottle of Black Label. Decide to push on to Cumberatzo – Farewells to Marco and Juan, who are returning next day to Nambija – We will meet again in Quito in 15 days. The lone policeman at the Puente de Ramirez looks relieved to see us go. Offered a lift to Zamora by two prospectors we had met in Nambija. – Landslides in the Cordillera. No buses to Loja. – Overnight in a hotel – Have first showers in 5 days. Cold water but what the hell!. Slept on rock hard bed but between clean sheets, Heaven.
Got a lift to Loja but the road is still blocked. Cameron’s leg playing up again. – John and I cross a landslide and on the other side get a lift to Loja, leaving Cameron to follow when the road is clear. Arrive at the TAME airline office. No flights to Guayaquil until next week.- Book into the Hotel Imperial and wait for Cameron.- He arrives and the three of us celebrate our trip at the Argentinian restaurant, where we are treated like long lost customers. – 3 steaks, 2 bottles of wine 1700 Sucres. – Arrange taxi to Guayaquil for 4.30am Sunday- 5-hour journey for 7000 Sucres (US$ 65).
Awful road conditions. 7 hours to Guayaquil.- Tip driver extra Sucres – Catch last flight to Quito – a smooth one – by skin of our teeth.
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