Tambara in-storeIt was huge. Fist-full huge. No-one could believe it at first, but there it was, glinting away like a multi-coloured million-dollar traffic light. They sold it to a guy who seemed to be offering them the deal of their lives. The sum was so large they were incapable of thinking straight anyway, or even pretending to negotiate a better price. It was more money than they'd ever handled, seen, or dreamt of. They were rich.

The guy who'd bought it later split the stone into three pieces, and just one of those sold for more than he'd paid them for the whole thing. Now there's a profit margin. The three friends started celebrating, and celebrating, and er, celebrating. Then one of them, the one whose name stuck to the stone's, ran off with the best part of the money. And that was that. The second largest diamond in South American history. One hundred and fifty four carats of sparkling billion year-old carbon.

It took me ages to get the story out of Tambara. I used to ask him regularly if he'd tell it to me, and he'd smile wryly, say it was a long time ago, and tell me to come back when it was quieter, around midday. But at midday it was too hot, or he was tired, or a customer turned up just at the crucial moment.

He told me, eventually, (after a few beers), they'd been working for weeks down on the river Surukun without much luck, digging, panning and arguing. They were getting pretty desperate. One day the other friend was discarding large stones from his pan, chucking them nonchalantly over to one side where Barabas was having a cigarette. One of the stones happened to clang on the side of Barabas' shovel. He looked down and thought he saw the stone glint. Then glint again. He picked it up and examined it. Then examined it some more, until the realisation finally dawned that he really was looking at a diamond.

They were all young then and weren't that experienced, so they weren't sure what to do, or who to go to. In the end they sold it more to get the weight of responsibility off their backs than anything else.

Tambara remembers the day they sold it with mixed feelings. He was richer than he ever thought he would be, and yet his life would never be the same. You can't go back to panning in a river once you've found that size of diamond. You know you're never going to find something like it again. No-one's that lucky. And no diamond is going to get you excited once you've handled a stone as large as your fist.

Miners aren't known for their business acumen. They tend to blow it quick if they don't get out of the mines quick. There's an unwritten rule that they have to share their luck with all the other miners in the area. When all the local miners in a five hundred mile radius know you just hit the big-time big-time, you end up buying more than one round at the bar.

"It was fun for a while" says Tambara. "I drank loads, had all the women I wanted, and I'm thankful for that."

But he doesn't sound that convinced. Barabas' betrayal hurt him a great deal, he confides. He thought they were better friends than that. "But money does strange things to a man."

Tambara now shuffles - runs would be misleading - a general store in a village on Venezuela's border with Brazil. Nothing much happens there. Miners come and go, cashing in their gold or diamonds, stocking up with supplies, and downing beer and rum. Indian children sent by their mothers come in clutching a few notes to buy some candles or a packet of rice. The odd tourist wanders in confused. Locals exchange gossip and conflicting weather predictions.

It's dark inside the store. Your eyes have to re-adjust for a few seconds before you can make out the shelves stacked floor-to-ceiling with everything from sweets to baseball caps to kerosene. Exhausted-looking vegetables squat on a metal rack, plagued by buzzing flies. Potatoes languish on the bottom shelf, silently sprouting shoots in the dark. Newly arrived fruit, a rare commodity, is displayed on the worn wooden counter, and piled-up yellow salted fish stinks away in a corner. An old fridge from the fifties, painted blue like most of the shop, rattles and hums malignantly. Music sometimes distorts from a transistor radio perched between packets of pasta and lighters, usually Brazilian country and western. Rusting metal scales hang from the ceiling above the counter.

The money is kept in a shallow cardboard box over to the left hand side of the shop, which means Tambara is constantly having to shuffle back and forth with every purchase. You make sure you ask for your goods in one go.

Tambara's maths are somewhat erratic, and his skills on the calculator dubious. If your shopping list exceeds eight items or so, you're in for a long haul. Since prices go up all the time in Venezuela, you never know whether he's conning you, made an honest mistake or whether he really does know what he's charging.

He must have suffered a lot of abuse over the years. The village is very remote, and therefore prices high. They're not as astronomical as some gold-rush villages, but they're still a good twenty percent higher than in the nearest town; which gives people the right to call him a thief, a robber-baron and whatever else comes to mind when they can't afford food for their family's dinner. But when you look at his house, at the state of him, it's hard to follow that line of argument. If he had a Mercedes parked outside, I'd be right behind the abusers. But he doesn't even have a car.

His clothes are ragged, holy and make you wonder whether they know what better days are. He is permanently stooped from years of panning, as if he were always about to pick something up off the floor, and his house consists of a room with a hammock, a room with a gas stove, and a metal sheet-boxed hole in the corner of the garden. A friend of mine once told him a swim in the river would do him good. He answered he couldn't remember the last time he'd even had a bath.

He's been ill quite a bit lately too. He's had to get other people in to run the shop. I find that very off-putting, since they serve you far too quickly and get the prices right nearly every time. It somehow takes the fun out of spending my money. When Tambara's sitting outside on his use-sanded once-blue (I think) tables and benches, you feel guilty about asking him to get you something. I've offered to get the things I want myself but he won't have it. He cranes his way to his feet, using the creaking table for support, and gropes his way into the darkness of the shop. The transaction over, he sits back down with a thump.

He must have been a handsome man when he was young I reckon. His features are fine still, his eyes have a definite sparkle and his skin is a rich dark brown. I don't know whether he ever got married, or had kids. I've got the feeling he never did, which is why he's so grumpy at times. But maybe he's grumpy because he did.

He's there every day without fail, opening up at eight in the morning and closing the shop at nine, in his own time, in his own inimitable way. After that you have to go down to the other general store if you want a beer.

He must be in his sixties now, and I wonder what will happen to him as he slowly deteriorates. Will he sell the shop and move on -- to where? Or will the new owners allow him to live on in the house? I wonder whether he knows what a pension is. And how things could have been different if he'd been careful with all the thousands he had all those years ago; or if Barabas hadn't run off with the booty.

But Tambara doesn't seem to worry about such things. Anyone who calls their shop La Lucha por la Locha ("the fight for the fiver" or "the duel for the dime") must know something about life and the cards destiny deals.

I read something about Barabas a while later. He said he had no regrets about blowing all his money on booze and women.

"I had the time of my life, and wouldn't have had it any other way," he said.

That's my boy...


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Travels in the Lost World -- © Dominic Hamilton 2002-7