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Searching for El Dorado


Searching for El Dorado































































































































































































































































































































  

It is a misconception that you sleep in a hammock with your feet at one end and your head at the other. You'll fall out. The proper way to do it is to lie diagonally across the hammock's width. In southern Guyana, where they make some of the world's better hammocks, people sometimes sit entirely sideways in their's. The best come from a group called the Wapashiana. The Wapishiana make their hammocks with cotton twine woven back and forth like a fishing net. Nothing special. But you could hang your entire family in one and it wouldn't break. The hammocks are also nearly impossible to fall from because the design is a long, luxuriant oval that will catch you no matter how you move. An example is in the British Museum and another in the Smithsonian's collection in Washington, D.C.

A North American hammock by comparison is small, tipsy and not appropriate for use in the forest. So my first night in Guyana I did not sleep well. I was hanging over the ground in a hammock made from a few strands of crudely-tied nylon. I had bought it in ignorance the prior month at a sporting goods store in Los Angeles. It proved too small to hold my legs and distributed weight badly. I also rigged it wrong from the poles in the shelter where some local gold prospectors and I were sleeping. It hung too low.

I was tired from riding to the camp all day in the back of a truck so ignored the problem at first.

However: "This hammock not a jungle hammock boy," a miner hanging to my left said.

He was only a few inches away but it was night and the shelter was very dark. Even when I shined a flashlight he was impossible to see through his hammock; rather than a net a miner's hammock is a large cloth rug, usually decorated with a colorful design, and the fabric obscured his head. He had a low, disinterested voice and his body was long and hung heavily.

"You want? Tie up higher boy?" he said from the depths of his hammock.

"It's okay." I didn't want to interrupt his rest.

He rolled onto one shoulder, the ropes strained and he stuck his head over the edge of the fabric. I shined the flashlight. He was a young man sporting a wild pile of dredlocks that pointed in many directions.

"Lot of snakes in Frenchman," he said. Frenchman was the camp's name, the legacy of two French prospectors said to have died in a cave collapse nearby.

People sleep tied to poles in a tropical forest rather than on the ground in tents because the forest floor is damp and filled with alarming creatures. It is preferable to hang at least a few feet out of reach.

"Okay. Okay," I said.

He got out of bed and showed me how to tie the ropes so they stayed as high as possible. He was a muscular young man wearing only some jockey shorts; he seemed sleepy and did not say much. He tied some loops into the ties securing the hammock and nodded with satisfaction when it raised higher, then sat back into his own hammock and gave a two-fingered wave goodnight over the edge.

I had come to be in a gold miner's camp in Guyana as the result of a chance encounter.

A little over a year prior I had been living in a family cabin in New York's Catskill foothills when a storm hit. Seven feet of snow fell, the furnace failed and my car died. By the end of the week it grew so cold in the cabin the water in the toilet bowl froze. It proved to be a very long, cold week.

But the previous Sunday's paper, which I dug from the snow and borrowed from the house next door included a chart called "lowest airfares." I scanned flights to the equator where it was warm. Venezuela's national carrier offered to fly from Miami, Florida to Caracas, Venezuela for only $200. I had not planned to flee the cabin but suddenly it seemed like an ideal option. I had just left the first job I had gotten after graduating college and had yet to find a new one. Two days later I climbed over a snowbank that surrounded the house and walked down the hill, hitched a ride to the train station and as soon as possible connected with a bus to Miami.

From there I was in balmy, dirty Caracas the next day. Because in most of the world life is easy if you hold American currency I figured I could afford to wait out the winter on Venezuela's Caribbean coast playing soccer and lying on the beach. That's roughly what happened in the end.

But.

Late in my trip I decided to head south by bus on a vague plan to see the Amazon forest. In North America the Amazon is associated most often with Brazil, sometimes Ecuador and Peru. However its north edge reaches into Venezuela and Guyana as well. Some of the jungle's least-known corners are across those borders. The first paved road from Venezuela to Brazil only went through as recently as 1991 and no road to speak of exists from either country through Guyana even today. Three days later I got off the bus at a town named for its milepost: Kilometro Ochenta y Ocho, Kilometer 88. I debarked to a clearing by the road's shoulder to get some lunch.

Halfway through lunch an American walked out of the trees. I knew he was an American because of his accent, which was glum and slow. He looked bad: he was a sizeable man who had not bathed in some time. A pot belly strained a white T-shirt stained with mud; he wore an unkempt beard; and his hands were pink with abrasions. His shoes were foam shower sandals and insect bites and welts covered his feet. He was one of those men whose age could have fallen anywhere ten years to either side of forty-five.

A young woman walked with him. She was Venezuelan and young enough to be a daughter but seemed by their manner to be his girlfriend. I said hello to them in my halting Spanish. The young woman appeared not to notice. The man said hello but was unfriendly. He wouldn't give his name.

They ordered lunch from a tin-roofed barbeque where I was eating; a tired-looking, young woman on the other side of the restaurant was cooking chickens over a fire in an oil drum. While the couple waited for their food I asked what they were doing in Km 88.

The man said — reluctantly, and in English — that he was a gold miner in Guyana. The border was across the street behind some low buildings he said.

Km 88 was obviously not an official border crossing. It consisted of a hotel with an aggrieved toucan shrieking in a cage, a small drygoods store and a cinder block garage. The town seemed too small to be more than a highway stop but the man said it was a supply outpost for a few thousand gold prospectors. The surrounding forest was full of them he said. A gold rush was underway in that part of the forest. One of the world's largest gold mines was under construction in the trees a few miles east of town and another was scheduled to open within a few months on Guyana's side of the border.

He leaned on the card table where I sat. It strained. The young woman with him had wandered off to gossip with the chicken cook in Spanish.

The forest around us held five, ten, twenty, maybe fifty billion dollars in gold he said. Thousands of people local and foreign were looking for it. His camp had only a few men digging so far. He had been there a few months. But if they discovered enough traces of gold he planned to head north to the U.S., talk to bankers and find backing to return with larger tools. Then he could hire more employees and mount a proper exploration effort. When he found enough gold he would make a claim with the government, sell the claim to an international gold company for millions of dollars and retire to the Bahamas. That was his plan.

After a few minutes he took a paper plate of chicken from the woman cooking over the oil drum fire, paid her a dollar in local bills and walked back across the road with his companion. They disappeared around the hotel, into the forest and crossed back over the border to Guyana.

When I got back to the U.S. a few weeks later I went to a library. It took about an hour to confirm the prospector's story. Geology journals and stock market reports — not anything in a respected newspaper, but those breathless newsletters Wall Street fetishists read for investing tips — were full of articles on gold discoveries in that part of the northern Amazon.

It took longer to find out how outsiders had even known of the gold there. It turned out they had followed a very old trail. History books said that four hundred years ago the part of the forest where gold was turning up was also the last presumed location of El Dorado: the city of gold from Conquistador myths.

How a golden city came to be located in an obscure patch of rainforest on the Guyanese border appeared to be a matter of some argument.

The story was five centuries old. El Dorado had been a person at first, not a place. A few years after Columbus a story had emerged in South America of what was likely a Chibcha or Muisca Indian king living in what is today Columbia. This king would cover himself in sap or oil to which he adhered a layer of golden dust. Thus the name El Dorado — "the gilded one" or "the golden man."

All aglitter El Dorado would be the image of a God walking the earth. On ceremonial occasions he would hurl gold and sometimes himself into a lake. The gold would wash away and the next morning he would cover himself in more from an apparently inexhaustible supply.

The Spanish heard the story and decided Lake Guatavita in Columbia was the site of the ritual. They tried to drain a number of Andean lakes; to do this required cutting away the stone on one side at great effort with hand tools, perhaps the first foreign attempt to excavate a piece of South America to recover something valuable. This was in the 1520's. Nothing came of it (modern archeologists, however, have found gold artifacts at the bottom of some of the same lakes).

The Spanish were happy for their agents to start looking elsewhere for the gold. Indians in Columbia had many golden objects so the Spanish presumed there had to be a gold mine somewhere. This was the germ of the eventual misapprehension that El Dorado was a place and not a person: that there was a single source for South America's treasure.

The effort to find this source drove the first European expansions through South America. Also North America. The word California comes from a similar Spanish myth of a utopian land of riches. The Seven Cities of Cibola, which the Conquistador Coronado presumed to exist somewhere in what is now the American southwest were mythical cities of gold as well. De Soto was looking for something along the same lines when he first saw the Mississippi. Other utopian myths existed concurrently. Francisco Pizarro seemed to think a gold land was adjacent to an equally miraculous land of cinnamon, or was itself a land of cinnamon. Spices were nearly as valuable as gold at the time.

Hundreds of searches got underway from the Columbian coast. Most went sharply awry. The explorers would hack into the unknown forest and get lost. They were facing the Andes mountains and the Amazon jungle, both basically impassible. Before long they had to ask the people living nearby for directions. Some of the locals cooperated; others had every incentive to send the invaders charging toward a rival village, over a waterfall or slugging into some forest of no return. Within a few weeks the explorers and their helpers and slaves would bog down in the mud and grind to a halt. The expeditions would fall into mutiny and disarray. Boats sank, horses died, disease spread. The resources on hand soon ran out and from there the only options were to straggle back defeated or never be heard from again. Both occurred.

The rest of the story is well-told and central to the conquest of the Americas. The Conquistador Francisco Pizarro packed a small expedition over the Andes in 1532 and arrived at the court of the Incas at Cajamarca. There he made a deal in bad faith with the Inca ruler Atahualpa and took him hostage in an ambush. Atahualpa offered to ransom a roomful of gold to have himself freed safely. Gold poured in from every corner of the Inca empire. This dazzled Pizarro and lent more credence to the possibility of a nearby gilded kingdom. The Spanish took the gold and killed Atahualpa anyway; Pizarro and his various brothers proved to be glorified thugs and in due time several succumbed to similarly treacherous deaths themselves.

Most of the gold Pizarro saw in Peru existed as religious or architectural objects. But there was still no gold mine apparent and still no source. The Spanish satisfied themselves with looting what the Incas had, melted the objects into ingots and loaded the ingots on galleons back to Europe. It was waste. Archeologists still lose sleep over the destruction of artifacts; economists, notably Peter Bernstein in The Power of Gold, point out that all the seized treasure did not help the Spanish finances very much in the end anyway. The discovery of silver mines in Bolivia soon stole the Spanish attention: they offered a way to dig up wealth from its origin and not just get it by sacking.

The myth of a golden empire persisted anyway. Its presumed location tended to move every few years to whatever part of South America was least mapped and most mysterious at the time. By then the continent's northwest was far better known to Europeans than the east. So suspicion began shifting eastward. In 1541 the youngest Pizarro brother, Gonzalo, decided he would make an expedition east from Quito, Ecuador to find the lost empire.

He and his lieutenant Francisco Orellana headed into the western Amazon forest with hundreds of men and slaves. Before long the effort stalled in the forest as usual and the two men split. Pizarro waited upriver and Orellana headed off downriver. Pizarro eventually got tired of waiting for Orellana's return and went back to Quito. Orellana had gotten lost and unintentionally navigated the whole of the Amazon, crossed South America, followed the Atlantic coast past Guyana and finally ended up in Venezuela. He did not find any gold empire en route but did stumble onto the world's largest river and cross the continent west to east. Information from Orellana's journey and others informed Spanish governors who continued writing guesses as to El Dorado's nature and location for the next century. Some already believed the golden city lay closer to the Atlantic than the Pacific — in the eastern jungle rather than the western mountains. Another theory suggested that the northern Amazon in Venezula was the Incas' ancestral home, and that's why no one had ever found El Dorado across the continent in Peru.

The Inca gold: was it El Dorado? There is certainly plenty of gold nearby. In the late 1990's, Denver, Colorado's Newmont corporation, an international gold mining company, developed one of the world's richest gold mines in Cajamarca near where Pizarro killed Atahualpa. Speculation continues that a mysterious cache of Inca gold remains hidden in the Andes, in a lost stronghold of the last Inca. A Reno, Nevada amateur archeologist named Gene Savoy claimed to have found what he termed El Dorado in 2000 in the Peruvian mountains. There was no gold there but Savoy, who has discovered several important pre-Columbian sites, believed the ruins he found could have been the seat of an El Dorado kingdom. More academically-minded archeologists are skeptical. Attempts to drain Lake Guatavita in Columbia continued for centuries meanwhile, the most recent in 1965; and the capital of the Brazilian Amazon today is the city of Manaus, presumably Manoa, another common name for El Dorado.

Most of the Spanish efforts ended by 1600 and the myth would have likely died with them. It didn't because England took up the search in the person of Sir Walter Raleigh. In 1595 Raleigh parked his ships off Venezuela and headed into the maze of swamps at the mouth of the Orinoco river. The Orinoco is the continent's second-largest river after the Amazon. Its delta is hundreds of miles of marshland and confusion. Today cocaine smugglers hide there. If you wanted to hid a golden empire, it would be a suitable place to do so.

This was not the first attempt at El Dorado from the Caribbean side of the continent. A Spaniard named De Vera had also tried it among others. But Raleigh's effort is the one people remember today because he wrote a successful book about the adventure after surviving. He intended to find El Dorado for Queen Elizabeth. He thought it was a mountain of crystal.

After making it a third of the way up the Orinoco and back over a few months Raleigh returned to England and wrote the book describing a paradise he claimed to have found: The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana. His deputy Lawrence Keymis made separate journeys and added his own diaries which are less well-known, but include the first known descriptions of trips along the jungles of the still-obscure Essequibo river in Guyana, a north-flowing waterway halfway between the Orinoco and the Amazon. In both cases the explorers faked plenty of details — dog-headed mer-men; headless tribes — but the claims made for good reading. Raleigh and Keymis alleged El Dorado lay somewhere in Guiana. (Guyana is the modern nation; Guiana is the region encompassing parts of Venezuela, Brazil, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.)

Raleigh was a celebrity in England at the time. This and the claims of knowing where a mountain of crystal was did not prevent him from ending up in prison on unrelated matters upon returning home. Released twenty years later in 1616 he sailed off again quite unadvisedly to South America and undertook a last search for El Dorado. A septuagenarian by then he was not strong enough to go up the Orinoco himself. His deputy Keymis and son Wat went in his place. Upriver a month later Keymis and Wat broke an English truce, senselessly attacked a Spanish camp and all ended up dead: Raleigh's son killed in the fight, Captain Keymis a subsequent suicide in his stateroom, Raleigh his head lopped off after returning to London.

With all this tragedy it is somewhat surprising that the myth of El Dorado survived the next four hundred years as a story of a utopia and not of a curse. But it is perhaps somewhat more surprising that at the end of the four centuries a gold mine finally turned up. Local prospectors had found something centuries later and then North Americans had come with money and bought the right to build the largest gold mine in South America.

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. About the time I was sitting down in the library, a billion dollar gold mine was opening for business on the banks of the Essequibo at a spot of 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. A little over a year after meeting the gold miner at Km 88 I went back to South America. I had not gotten much of a job after returning home after all and the story of the gold had stayed with me. I was also calling myself a freelance reporter by then based on some odd jobs at a newspaper in Montana and an apprentice job in New York. In truth I was not reporting much of anything and was "freelance" only in the sense of being unemployed. Still I had kept up with the few reports I could find out of that part of South America, and went back intending to write down what I saw. My plan was to head further south of where I had met the miner, continue to the Guyanese border and catch a ride through the gold mining areas the stock newsletters suggested existed on the far side of the forest. The capitol, called Georgetown was just north of that forest on the Atlantic coast.

In Georgetown I could arrange to visit the gold mine discovered on the Essequibo at Omai. It was the largest gold mine in South America at the time and was located four hours south of the Georgetown. Before leaving I called the American and the Canadian firms that owned it but representatives of each said I would have to talk to the mine managers in Georgetown if I wanted to see the gold mine. I headed south, fittingly I suppose, on speculation.

From Caracas it takes a day by bus to reach the Orinoco river. The river bisects Venezuela into its urban north and frontier south both literally and psychologically, in much the same way the Mississippi divides the east and west in the U.S.. From there the highway leads for two days into the gold-bearing areas. Once you're that far south it is possible to cross into Guyana as the miners do: directly from Venezuela by river in a small motorboat. But this requires bribing or ducking the patrols. Crossing is officially illegal because of a border dispute.

The dispute is a century old and also has to do with the gold. Venezuela is shaped like a mushroom on international maps but the local maps show an additional piece of land dangling from the southeast side of the country. Rather than note the rivers and towns there Venezuelan cartographers mark this tail with yellow stripes like crime scene tape and label it the Zona en Reclamacion, reclamation zone or zone in recovery. The area is a swath of jungle beside a high plateau and officially constitutes half of neighboring Guyana. Control of the land there means control of billions in gold as well as pricey timber and access to a potentially valuable Atlantic port: the mouth of the Essequibo. Unfortunately the argument over the area has no easy resolution. Europeans drew the contested border somewhat randomly in the 1800's and Venezuela probably lost the land unfairly. But Guyana was a colony when the original deal went through, the current government had nothing to do with it, and the claim amounts to half their country. Also, it's the rich half. The result is a stalemate with occasional hard words tossed back and forth between the governments.

Rather than get mixed up in all that I detoured further south and dipped into Brazil. From there a bus ran perfectly legally to the Guyanese border. The bus was a four-wheel-drive, high-riding thing: a cartoonish vehicle with knobby balloon tires like a child's bicycle. I was the only one on board after a stop in the first half hour. There had been forest to either side of the road in Venezuela but it had receded on the Brazilian side. The bus drove a dirt road that crossed a dry plains wide enough to see the curve of the earth on the horizon.

After two hours the bus reached a dusty town of a few hundred people. Nothing was there but some goats and a few old men and women playing dominos in a hot plaza. The driver said this was Bonfim, gruffly hurried me to get off — you don't make any money carrying a single passenger one direction — and pulled fast out of the plaza back the way he'd come.

There was no border in sight. I asked the people playing dominoes where to go. An old man in a baseball cap spoke a little English and directed me two miles out of town to a narrow river called the Takutu. The Takutu was the border, he said. I picked up my bag. It was afternoon and the sun was high as I walked.

At Bonfim the Takutu is an unimpressive, shallow gully and most people wade across. In the rainy season it swells just enough for a woman on the south bank to make a few dollars ferrying passengers in a motorized skiff. She charged one Brazilian Real to putter the launch across the river to a cracked plank set in the northern embankment. I stepped out of the boat and walked up the plank and was in Guyana.

I stood on the bank for a moment with my passport ready waiting for a border guard to appear. When none did I put my passport away and followed some goats across a yellow swale toward Bonfim's sister town just past the river. It was called Lethem; it said this on the wall of the post office at the bottom of the swale. It was a shack with a window made of chicken wire. An elderly man was there. I asked him how to get to Georgetown. He said there was no road to speak of but an old cattle trail once existed to drive herds from southern ranges to slaughter on the coast. The remnant of that trail ended at Lethem and headed north. Other than that the mail plane was the only way across the country from Guyana's south, and the mail plane had already left that day he said. He was a slender man who was stooped and walked unsteadily. The goats milled around him and when one bumped the mailman he yelled and shooed them off, and they retreated with the sound of the small bells tied with yarn around their necks. I headed off crosstown on the mailman's direction. A barn and a runway were visible about a hundred yards away. Some low bungalows sat a little closer. I walked up a dirt road toward the barn.

The border area had seemed on maps to be entirely within the Amazon forest. But that part of southern Guyana and northern Brazil is a broad sagebrush plains on a plateau rising above the rest of the jungle. It's gorgeous. To the west are a wall of mesas called the Pakaraimas. They create their own weather. Most days there are clouds twisting beside the cliffs like dropped scarves. On the other side of the plain a wall of smaller, green peaks, the Kanukus, which draw hot air from the rainforests below produce spectacular thunderstorms. After the storms it is common to see double spectra over the broad valley. Few have any reason to travel to the south of Guyana but those who do have called it a forgotten paradise for hundreds of years.

There was a drygoods store inside the barn and a green cargo truck parked outside. A few men were just past the shop's screen door playing dominoes. They slapped tiles down with violent slams on a card table and did not pay me any attention.

A woman named Shirley Melville was behind the store counter. Below her most of the front half of a goat sat bloodily in a display case below a white scale. The store had a pungent smell. Melville was a stout person with a direct manner. She said she could arrange transport for the next morning leaving at dawn, named a price and I accepted. It was to be with the truck parked outside. She went back to some book-keeping and brushed me off.

The next morning I headed north across the savannah in the back of the truck and that was the night I rigged my bad hammock in the miner's camp at Frenchman.

There are two kinds of gold mines in the Northern Amazon forest. They are easily distinguished. The first kind is the local mines. They are subsistence operations run by a few men with crude tools; the men who stay at Frenchman and dozens of camps like it work at these mines. The second type of gold mine is a large-scale, internationally-financed operation. These are enormous factories producing gold with advanced geology and chemistry and millions in heavy equipment. Omai was a large mine.

On the cattle trail I was amid the small ones. After sleeping a few hours in Frenchman we left early the next morning in a convoy of three (two other trucks had come late in the night). The savannah was behind us by then. The prior night we had crossed into the jungle behind the Kunuku mountains. The trail that had been a good dirt road on the plains but was now a ditch hardly wider than the truck and to each side was a wall of forest: an indistinguishable mass of vines and leaves that reached close and sometimes brushed the truck loudly with a branch as we passed. From time to time gold mines were dimly visible visible behind the trees to each side as we went. They were in side creeks and in narrow swaths of cleared forest.

The cattle trail was their supply line. We stopped at every few mines, picked someone up, dropped someone else off to work and delivered spare parts as we picked our way north: five miles an hour was a good speed on the rutted trail.

The miners worked in teams of five or six. On the creeks and the river they used rafts made from scrap metal. The rafts were slow, square vessels that floated low in the water and looked questionably seaworthy. Each raft was perhaps twenty feet long and the crew lived cramped in hammocks strung from poles that held up a roof in the center. They looked like cruder versions of the puttering houseboats vacationers rent at holiday lakes. In the center each had a loud engine and a pump. A fat black hose went over the side and a diver took it to the bottom to suck up the silt and soil on the riverbed. The diver breathed through a small rubber hose gripped in his teeth. The pump pulled the dredged bits of riverbed to the surface and dumped them in a steel hopper. There the other members of the team treated the mud with mercury, the liquid metal most called quicksilver. It is simple chemistry: the mercury bonded with the gold and formed heavy nuggets that dropped out of solution in the mud. The miners strained out the nuggets and dumped the rest of the mud back in the river. Other men recovered the nuggets. Another man stayed busy pumping oxygen down to the diver.

Gold mines on land were similar. The miners would cut away a patch of trees beside the road with chainsaws and machetes and dig holes ten or twenty feet across in the forest floor. They cut the trees haphazardly and many of the clearings still had a few feet of tree trunk sticking up around the clearing here and there. The trunks were cracked in half jaggedly. The clearings had an uneven, violent look to them, like a bomb had gone off a few feet about ground. In the center of the clearing a few men would be in the bottom of a shallow crater wetting the dirt down with water from buckets or hoses. Others sifted mud from the hole with wide pans like chinese woks. When they found a promising amount of gold, and if they had the right tools — some fire hoses hoses and a pump — they streamed greater amounts of water at the pit to blast away at the ground until it filled up to their knees with mud. They hauled out the mud in buckets, dumped it in a long box with metal sides and mixed in a pint of or so of mercury from a heavy bottle. As on the boats the mercury bonded with the gold, the miners strained the mud, pulled out the nuggets of gold and mercury and dumped the rest of the muck they'd made somewhere off to the side.

When they had several pieces of gold they put them in a pan — frequently in the camp kitchen and heated them with a blowtorch. The mercury boiled and floated away into the air. Often the miners breathed in some mercury during this step. It was severely toxic but few did much to protect themselves. Sometimes they would have put a rag over their mouth but rarely. When all the mercury was burned away the gold was left in the bottom of the pan like melted butter and solidified into nuggets as it cooled. They would squeeze the last bits of mercury in a rag and reuse what was left. The gold nuggets were asymmetrical and flat. They were quite small usually, perhaps the size of a tiny earring.

It was hard work. The men were muscled from fighting the currents in the river, lifting the buckets of slurry and hauling hoses all day. There were also no police in the forest and they had to keep their treasure close at hand. Some kept it inside their mouth: they had gold teeth that glinted when they smiled, plus large rings often one for each finger. When the truck pulled past the camps one or two miners would hop on or off for a short distance. Many of the men would lack shoes or shirts but had a fat piece of jewelry somewhere on their body. This was their bank account.

It took two days to cover the hundred miles from Frenchman to Georgetown. The road improved the further north it went. For most of the way it was hardly a road at all and more like a trench worn deeper into the soft forest soil by the passing trucks. It amounted to driving down a creekbed. We hauled the twelve-ton truck up muddy hills with a winch on the front bumper connected to a steel cable. The driver tied the cable to the trees and dragged the truck like a sled rather than drove, sometimes for hours at a time. But after two days of this the truck reached a good dirt road, a few hours later macadam and finally a two-lane highway. It arrived in Georgetown by early evening and pulled past some wooden churches and squat government buildings into a square near a grand wharf. It was just past dark.

The capitol was a shock of noise and activity after the days in the forest. Thousands of people were shopping at a night bazaar. There were jewelry shops with currency traders idling in front, thick wads of local bills held cavalierly in their hands. Minibuses with their destinations through the city painted on their hoods waited nearby in a line. Crowds pushed through narrow avenues to wooden market-stalls selling clothes and electronics. The bazaar was audible throughout much of the surrounding area. The most modest watchmaker or seller of plastic kitchen implements had a public address system to raise their stand's profile above the din. Speakers were stacked to wobbly heights and blared trilling Hindi music from Bollywood musicals if the shop's proprietor was of East Indian descent; fast Soca or American R&B if the owner was black. The music blared and mixed badly at volumes sufficient, I was sure, to cause the tropical birds for sale nearby in small wooden cages to fall dead from their perches.

When the truck stopped at an intersection I hopped over the tailgate with my bag, pushed through the crowd and forced open the door of a cab. It was waiting in a line of mule carts along one side of the market square. We headed across the capitol to a wooden hotel called the Tropicana I'd had recommended to me in Lethem. It was a few rooms in a third story crudely added to a family home above a karaoke bar. The proprietor was an East Indian man who greeted me barefoot and bathrobed in his living room with a newspaper in one hand, scowling at having been interrupted from his reading. He fetched one of his daughters to bring me upstairs to a wooden hallway. I took the first room offered and dropped my bag just past the threshold. It was a spare chamber made of unpainted wood planks with a sagging bed in the center. I was exhausted from the ride north and did not care where I slept. I lay down in my clothes.

I could hear the bar through the floorboards. The singers were not bad but seemed to be competing with each other, so sang the same songs over and over in indistinguishable renditions. The most popular were Billy Ocean's Caribbean Queen and Larry Graham's One in a Million You and soon I had the lyrics of both memorized.

The cattle trail takes as long as two weeks to travel that time of the year owning to rain, so four days from the border to the capitol was not bad. But it was still four days in the back of a cargo truck. I was exhausted. I passed out on the mattress that looked and felt like a piece of sodden plywood.

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Excerpted from Searching for El Dorado by Marc Herman. Copyright © 2003 by Marc Herman. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.