"POR UNA PEPA DE ORO" -- THE MINERS OF EL CAJON

"My heart aches when I see the river all dirty, it's true. I don't know how to put it, but when the river, when it's clean and sparkling, I feel good. I can't explain the sensation exactly, but it's strong, I know that."

I sat across from one miner and his friend, a kerosene wick flickering between us. It was 'Perico's' house we were camped in: a corrugated zinc roof and a cold concrete floor. They'd brought down the remains of the bottle of Cachaša we'd bring drinking earlier, and we had a tin of Diablitos and crackers. Conversation flowed and cigarettes were passed round.

"At Easter we asked the miners working up-stream to not work for a while when the tourists came. They wanted to have a break anyway, so it worked out alright. And I was so happy to see the river not so dirty any more. It looked so beautiful, like it used to. But now it's muddy and brown again."

Perico interrupted, saying all miners wanted was their bottle of rum and that was that. Life was hard on the miner, he said.

"I'd rather be doing something else, I would," continued the other. "I've applied for credit in town to start up a poultry business here. But they say I have to wait. So I go back to the river and pan. Tourism is good but it's only at certain times of year, and the road's too rough for most people to make it this far."

"Yeah, the road's a shit. That road fucks us up," added Perico, swigging from the fast-emptying bottle.

"But the road's being improved," I said. "They're only a few kilometres away from here now. More people will come then."

"You're right," said Perico. "But life's so expensive here. These shoes cost double what you'd pay in town. And they're rubbish anyway, look. Everything costs nearly double. Any money you do get from mining you spend on food and a bit of fun at the weekend. And then it's back to the river."

We'd arrived on a late Friday afternoon. I'd realised we were Friday when still on the far side of the hill, we were greeted by calls and hoots. I'd called back, and then remembered it was most likely the local miners would all be drunk by now.

Don Ramon, the old man who I remembered from other visits, was pretty out of it. The others were enjoying the entertainment he was providing, stumbling from his chair to urinate vaguely in the direction of some bushes. One bottle had already been downed, and they were persuading him to contribute the best part of another. I noticed Don Ramon's eyes were clouded over and his hands shook, symptoms of mercury poisoning.

The evening shadows drew in and our hopes for a lift down the road faded. Perico offered us a house to stay in, as did another older miner, a Brazilian, who was on the way to joining Don Ramon in the out-of-it stakes.

"Come to my house," he kept on saying. "I won't charge you a penny, not a penny. I've got a chicken too," he said, but I doubted he was up to cooking the thing.

The owner of the bodega store, an amiable man in his mid-thirties in shiny sports shorts and ample pot belly had given my companion a tiny diamond since she'd asked whether he had any she could see. I thought it a bit over generous, and wondered silently whether it wasn't in fact glass.

"It's a beautiful place here," continued the first miner, his face re-arranging its features depending on the light shed by the wick. "There are more waterfalls further downstream, deep in to the forest. I've taken loads of tourists down there. That's where I work when I go panning. I have to. The land's so poor here, it's hard to grow anything. You have to go looking for those diamonds and nuggets if you want to eat. I hate it sometimes, I really do. And there are more miners all the time, and the river gets worse, all brown and dirty."

He knew there was a great conflict in him, fighting out some mental battle. Clean river, dirty river. We both knew it was there, we both knew what mining in rivers does and how ugly it can be. I wanted to be able to sum it all up for us, to round up the contradictions and conflicts into a verbal corral and keep them there, safe and sound, where they wouldn't trouble us any more. But I was as inarticulate as he, unable to reduce their life into neat black and white, labelled and ledgered categories which people are so fond of. So we struggled on from one strangely incomplete, suspended sentence to the next. He was sensitive to all this. More sensitive than most miners I've met.

And yet he'll be back up to his knees tomorrow, bent double with hope and contradiction, swirling his weather-beaten pan as the river flows on, impotent.

 

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