I don’t especially like emeralds, and knew even less about them, when I received the invitation to be a speaker at the First World Emerald Congress, in Bogota, Columbia. I was asked to speak on the subject of marketing gemstones on the Internet, and the sponsoring organization—ProExport Colombia—was offering to pay all my airfare and lodging expenses to attend. No one had ever offered to pay all my travel expenses for delivering a speech, and I was vain enough to find this flattering. Plus it involved travel to a foreign country—one I’d never been to—and that was irresistible. I accepted instantly.
“Colombia!” said my wife, Derry, on hearing the news. ” Isn’t that where they have all the drug lords and violence and everything? Some weird group wants to fly you down to Colombia to give a speech? I don’t think so.”
But I’d already accepted. As the date approached, Derry became increasingly nervous. “Who are these people?” she asked. “How do we know they’re legitimate?”
Several weeks before I was scheduled to depart, Derry and I were attending the Tucson gem show. One of the booths was—to my surprise—ProExport Colombia. They were actually exhibiting at the AGTA Gem Fair to promote the World Emerald Congress in Bogota. On some level this seemed to validate their legitimacy. The GemFair is quite restrictive in terms of who is allowed to exhibit. I approached the ProExport booth to introduce myself and found it staffed by a beautiful young woman—dark hair, bright eyes, very exotic looking. Her business card said: Anna Maria Lleras, Director, ProExport Colombia, Gemstone Division.
“I’m one of your speakers,” I explained.
Glancing at my name tag, she flipped hurriedly through some documents.
“Ah, yes! Mr. Voorhees. The Internet. I’m very glad to meet you,” she said in heavily-accented English, smiling warmly and shaking my hand.
We reviewed some details of my flight schedule, the date and time of my speech, and the equipment I would need. I’d be arriving at the Bogota airport at 9:30pm, and was scheduled to deliver the speech at 10:00am the next morning. A bit tight, but do-able.
“Now, Jacques, I need to know if you wish to come on the tour of the emerald mines. We’ll be flying by helicopter out to the Muzo and Chivor mines, staying overnight in Paipa, and returning to Bogota airport the next morning. We charge $900 for this, but there is no charge for our speakers. It’s free, if you want to go.”
“I want to go.”
“You’ll love it. It’s going to be lots of fun. We only have room for a very limited number of people, so I’ll make sure you’re on the list.”
“You know, I hesitate to ask this, but my wife’s a little nervous about me going to Colombia. Everyone hears about the drug wars and violence and everything. Is it safe?”
“Oh, yes, it’s very safe. You’re thinking about the days of the Medellin cartel. That’s all broken up now. And there will be very good security at the Congress.”
Anna Maria also explained that ProExport Colombia was a governmental organization, charged with promoting the exports of Colombian products. 65% of the world’s emerald come from Colombia, and one group within ProExport was solely in charge of promoting emerald exports. Anna was head of that group. The purpose of the Congress was largely to increase the profile of Colombian emeralds to the world jewelry markets.
Derry and I encountered Anna Maria at a party the following night, sponsored by ICA, the International Colored Gemstone Association. I introduced Derry to Anna, and then said “OK, Anna, please explain to Derry how safe Colombia is.”
“Oh, don’t be silly!” said Anna, reassuringly to Derry. “Look at me, don’t I look normal?” She turned around in a full circle, so we could see how normal she was. “I live in Colombia. How could a normal person like me live there if it wasn’t safe!”
The two women hit it off instantly, and after half an hour of conversation Derry was reassured that these people were not drug lords, or criminals plotting a complex kidnapping.
“Don’t worry about your husband,” said Anna again as we were preparing to leave. She took me by the arm. “I will personally take very good care of him. He will be under my care the whole time.”
“Yeah, I bet he’s going to love that!” agreed Derry, smiling.
But disaster struck the day of the trip. Not having studied the travel arrangements closely I’d failed to notice how tight the connection was in Houston. Now, arriving at the Denver airport, I found the flight to Houston was already delayed fifteen minutes. There would only be a 40 minute connection in Houston for an international flight. And it got worse, as flight delays always do. The plane finally left the gate a full 50 minutes behind schedule. If no time was able to be made up in enroute, we’d arrive in Houston 10 minutes after the flight to Bogota had left.
And so it proved.
There’s only one flight a day from Houston to Bogota, and Continental Airlines had automatically scheduled me on the next one. But that would do me no good. I’d arrive in Colombia after the Emerald Congress was over. I’d miss my speech completely. ProExport had paid for my tickets. It seemed wrong to use them to fly to Colombia for no reason, when they could probably get a full refund if I just gave up and went back to Denver now. So much for visiting a new country. So much for helicopter flights. So much for seeing emerald mines while under the personal care of Anna Maria Lleras.
But there was one slight hope. Continental could arrange to fly me to Miami that night, where I’d board an American Airlines plane the next morning, arriving in Bogota at 12:00 noon. Clare, my assistant, went into high gear back in the office, placing calls all over Bogota to track down the congress organizers in what was now night-time in Colombia. But we were running out of time. If I was going, I had to board the flight to Miami in just a few minutes.
With not much more than seconds to spare, Clare was finally able to give me the word that she’d been successful. The Congress schedule was going to be re-arranged. A car and driver would be dispatched to meet me at the airport. I’d be whisked to the Conference Center at the hotel. I would deliver the speech tomorrow at 2 p.m.
The next morning, in Miami, I dressed in my business suit and tie, knowing there would be no time to change once we landed. The American Airlines 757 flew directly over the island of Cuba on its way to Bogota, and I looked out the window with interest, never having seen Cuba before. From 35,000 feet, I didn’t really see Cuba this time either, but I did see roads and farms, and fields of crops, and it looked like a pretty normal place. Then we were past the island and again flying over the deep blue of the Caribbean Sea, with its coral reefs—beautiful from the air—and low sandy cays scattered about. Here and there a sailboat could be seen, or a freighter, but mostly the Caribbean was a vast expanse of empty ocean. I turned back from the window and reviewed the notes for my speech. Eventually I glanced out again and realized we’d left the ocean behind and were now over land. This was no island. Green fields and forested mountains stretched in all directions. We were flying over the continent of South America, and what I was seeing—no doubt—was Colombia.
* * *
The Bogota airport was more modern than I’d expected. No chickens or hogs were wandering about, as had been depicted in the movie “Romancing the Stone.” Of course that had taken place in Cartagena, on the northern coast. Bogota was far inland, and high in the mountains. Beautiful Incan sculptures were set in spotlighted alcoves along the wall leading to immigration and customs, along with signs explaining their meaning and history. I’d managed to carry-on all three pieces of my luggage, knowing I’d have no time to wait at the baggage carousel. In addition to my normal luggage I was also carrying an expensive LCD projector, and one whole suitcase had been devoted just to this. Twice in the last few months I’d given speeches in New York where the local, rented LCD projector had not been compatible with my laptop computer. If I was going to be flown first class to a different continent just to give a speech, then I was determined to have an LCD projector that worked. The chance of finding one in a third-world country like Colombia seemed slim to none.
The driver was there to meet me, and—as planned—did whisk me through Bogota and out to the far northeast section of the city where the Congress was being held. Bogota seemed like a very pleasant place as we drove through it. The sun was shining. Traffic flowed smoothly. Forested mountains rose up just to the west of the city. The air was warm and dry. The architecture was characteristic of South America: mostly painted cement block structures with lots of painted signs on them.
As if reading my thoughts, the driver gestured at the ugly buildings.
“Where we’re going, the northeast section of the city, is very nice. Nice buildings. Good neighborhoods. This section, not so nice.”
But it wasn’t that bad, either Graffiti seemed to be at a minimum. The buildings looked well organized, and efficient. Everyone was scurrying about on important errands, not lounging sullenly in doorways. There was a pulse to Bogota, and I found it exhilarating.
“Bogota, very high elevation,” explained the driver. “You probably get tired here, very easily. Lack of—how you say—oxygen?”
“Yes, how high is it?”
“Bogota, she is about 2600 meters.”
About 8,000 feet, in other words.
“Actually, that’s low for me. Where I live is about 3200 meters.”
“No kidding? 3200 meters? So you came down, to get to Bogota! You must have lots of energy, with all this oxygen!”
“Yes, I feel very awake and alive. I’m really not used to so much air.”
When we reached the northeast section of town it certainly was much nicer: tall, modern buildings, lots of trees, manicured lawns—everything more tidy. We were closer to the mountains now, and the terrain was becoming quite hilly. We pulled at last into a drive beside a very new, very modern, hotel/office-park/conference center complex.
The hotel was beautiful, as Anna Maria had promised, and in a few minutes I was able to drop my bags in my room. I had slightly less than an hour before my speech, and headed immediately to the convention hall to set up the equipment. Not quite knowing where to go, I exited the elevator when it stopped on the mezzanine level, turned right, and almost collided with Anna Maria.
“Jacques, you made it! We were so worried about you!” She gave me a big hug.
“Well, I’m glad to finally be here.”
“But it’s too bad you missed last night. We had a great party—dancing on tables, a great band, lots of fun!” She raised her arms out to her sides, and began doing a little samba step right there in the corridor, just to show me what I’d missed.
“Well, there’ll be other parties, right?”
“Oh yes, every night we have a party. Tonight, we’re all going out to dinner. You come too.”
“Sounds great, but right now I need to get to the conference hall to set up my equipment…”
She gave me directions and I hurried off to find the Emerald Congress itself. This required exiting the building and walking to a different part of the complex. I was still carrying my LCD projector, and laptop computer in a travel pack on my back.
My first clue that I’d arrived at the Emerald Congress was a guard holding a sub-machine gun. I rounded a corner and behind him were more guards, and more machine guns. Anna had promised she’d arranged good security. Apparently “good security” in Colombia meant a full platoon with automatic assault rifles.
I was directed to the main entrance and here were more guards, not standing around, but actively checking people’s credentials, checking handbags and briefcases and—actually—frisking everyone who walked in.
I would not have made it past this checkpoint since I didn’t yet have my badge had it not been for one of the conference organizers who came to my rescue after hearing I was one of the speakers.
“Ah, you’re Mr. Voorhees!” He spoke some words to the guards, and they were now willing to let me in without a badge, but even so they made a thorough check of my travel pack and then, dutifully, frisked me top to bottom, to check for concealed weapons. To my recollection it was the first time I’d ever been frisked and I breathed a sigh of relief when no weapons were discovered.
Of course they hadn’t checked everywhere.
It was now thirty minutes before speech time, and I clearly was not going to have the full hour I’d hoped for to set up the projector and make sure everything worked properly. As my guide escorted me down the hall we passed twenty or thirty trade-show booths, and several hundred people—I estimated—mingling about. These booths were generally emerald exporting companies and, not surprisingly, the people staffing them were selling emeralds. Apparently this Congress was part trade show as well. In fact, this Congress was already looking much larger and more impressive than I’d expected.
We entered the main Meeting Hall, where I was to deliver my speech, and my eyes widened as I looked around the vast room. Over 300 chairs had been set up, theater style. Maybe 400. A raised dais in the front contained a long, draped table, chairs behind, and name plates and microphones in front of each spot. As we walked closer I noticed that one of the name plates had my name on it. Obviously that chair had been empty up until now, and I began to worry that I really hadn’t taken this whole thing seriously enough. I was expecting a small “break-out” conference room, with seating for maybe fifty people, and only half the chairs filled during the speech itself. Less than half would not have surprised me. Yet this room was more like the General Assembly of the United Nations.
I’m just as comfortable speaking in front of large groups as small—in fact more comfortable, in some ways—but the stakes are larger with an expanded audience. If my computer or projector didn’t work properly, it was now much more serious. But what did we have here? Near the front of the room was a long table, set in a cavity amidst the audience chairs and, on it, was every type of electronic projection equipment ever invented: overhead projectors, slide projectors, video projectors and, towering over all, the largest, most modern LCD projector I’d ever seen. Along one side of this massive piece of equipment were dozens of different types of input plugs, and it was quite clear that this industrial-strength projector could handle input from anything: an IBM, a Macintosh, a cell phone, a toaster oven—anything. Not only that, I now also noticed that there was not one large projection screen in the front of the room, there were three.
“How do you feed those other two screens?” I asked the technician, who sat behind all the electronic wizardry.
“All from same machine,” he explained, showing me an elaborate splitter box which sent signals to the other two “slave” projectors, flanking us fifty feet out on either side.
I groaned inwardly.
“I don’t believe you have all this equipment here,” I confessed. “I brought my own LCD projector down from the states, just to make sure I had something that worked.
“Heh, heh,” he laughed. “It’s OK. You leave your LCD projector here, we’ll find something to do with it!”
In fact, I didn’t even have to unpack my bag. I flipped on the IBM laptop, plugged it into the LCD projector from hell, and instantly the room was bathed in the glow of the Polygon Jewelry Industry WebCenter, reflecting back from three over-sized screens at the front of the hall.
Wow. This was going to be a great speech, if anyone bothered to show up. It was now ten minutes to speech time.
“Do you think anyone will come in to hear the speech,” I asked the conference organizer, who was still in attendance, making sure I had everything necessary.
“Oh yes, this room will be full in a few moments. We ring a little bell, and everyone comes in.”
Apparently someone had just rung the bell, for people began pouring into the large room and taking their seats. Alice Keller, editor of GIA’s Gems & Gemology magazine, and apparently one of the coordinators of the meeting schedule, rushed up to me and asked if I had any kind of little biographical blurb so the moderator could introduce me properly. I found the one we’d faxed down to them earlier, and Alice went off to review it with the moderator. Lights were coming on, up on the stage, and a man with a large video camera moved into position, apparently ready to film my entire presentation. This was getting ridiculous. What next—a makeup artist?
Actually, next came a woman who introduced herself as my translator. She asked me to try to speak as clearly and carefully as possible, although I like to think I always speak clearly and carefully. I also reviewed a few Internet words with her that I thought might not translate all that well into Colombian Spanish—words like “hits.” I’d noticed that the translation would be handled simultaneously, and broadcast to the room via FM radio to tiny “Walkman-size” receivers that each attendee carried with them, along with headphones. Channel 1 was Spanish. Channel 2 was English. Take your pick.
The technician asked me what kind of microphone I preferred: desktop, portable, cordless, or lavaliere. I chose the cordless, and then took my seat up on the dais, behind my name plate.
The room was completely full now, and some people were standing against the back wall. Other than Alice Keller, I’d seen only four people in the audience I recognized: Tom Chatham, of Chatham Created Gems; Bob Weldon, colored stone editor for Professional Jeweler, Gary Roskin, colored stone editor for JCK, and Bill Boyajian, president of the GIA.
The moderator was introducing me now in Spanish, but I didn’t bother to turn the radio translation device on. I was pretty sure I knew who I was. I caught a few words like “Polygon” and “Internet” but everything else was gibberish. Then he nodded to me, I grabbed the cordless mike, and walked into the center of the room.
“OK, quick show of hands. How many people think the Internet is going to change your business?”
That got their attention.
About two thirds of the hands went up.
“And of those who think it will change your business, how many think it will change it for the bad?”
“And change it for the good?”
The other half raised their hands.
“OK. Well that’s why we’re in this room. To make sure the Internet changes our business for the good. So here’s what we’re going to cover today…”
Everything worked: the laptop computer, the LCD projector, the canned websites, even the microphone. An hour later I brought it to a close, and took my seat back up on the speakers’ table. It was a good speech, perhaps one of my better ones, but the pressure was severe. Was it good enough to have justified ProExport flying me to Bogota first class, and paying all my expenses while I was here? I found myself wishing, on some level, that’d I’d paid my own expenses, and had only had to address a small group of fifteen or twenty.
At the next intermission a man introduced himself to me, Andres Solano, also of ProExport. He was the guy in the organization responsible for all their Internet marketing activities: websites and such. I was determined to sell a “Virtual-Boutique,” one of Polygon’s new Internet products, to the government of Colombia for the purpose of promoting Colombian emeralds, and clearly this was the man I had to convince. I’d discussed the concept briefly with Anna Maria in Tucson, she’d been intrigued, but I knew the time to close the deal would come in Bogota.
Andres and I moved from the Main Hall to the Congress’ small administration office, I pulled out my laptop again, and began explaining the concept of how Colombia was certain to increase its exports of emerald through the use of Polygon[‘s Virtual Boutique technology. He was fascinated, and finally excused himself briefly, and then returned in a moment with Mr. Lazaro Mejia Arango, his boss. Mr. Arango was the Director General of ProExport—the head guy, whom even Anna Maria reported to. So I went through the whole thing with him and he liked it even more than Andres.
But he was especially fascinated with my little business card holder in the shape of a miniature briefcase, which my sister Beth had given me for Christmas. I’d already discovered how popular it was at both the Tucson and Orlando shows. No longer shy about it, I now use it as a major icebreaker.
“Careful,” I advised, as he gingerly flipped the locks. “Open them the wrong way, and you’ll get hit with a cloud of teargas.”
“OK,” he finally said, winding up our meeting. “This is very, very good idea. I think we will want to do something like this. We will study your proposal [I’d prepared a written proposal] and get back to you soon.”
The door opened and Anna Maria stepped in.
“Anna, thank you for bringing Mr. Voorhees to the Congress,” said Mr. Arango. “He is very interesting person. This was a very good meeting. I’m glad he came. You were very smart to find him!” He spoke in English, perhaps wanting me to hear the compliment
Anna beamed, and I felt I’d justified my ticket, even if the speech had been lousy. But I was slightly annoyed, nonetheless. Why couldn’t I close this Virtual-Boutique deal on the spot? It was a lousy $3,500 we were talking about. They’d spent almost that much just to fly me down for a one hour speech. And they’d flown over two dozen speakers down here, not to mention all the other costs of the event. I knew in my soul they’d get more real promotional value out of a single Virtual-Boutique than they’d get out of the entire World Emerald Congress—and for one percent of the cost. But maybe in South America decisions just aren’t made on the spot like that, as they are in the States.
The other guy I needed to talk with was Tom Chatham. I’d discussed VB’s with him briefly in Tucson, and we’d agreed to continue our conversation in Bogota. If I couldn’t make an immediate sale to the Colombian government, maybe I could make one to Chatham Gems.
As luck would have it, I sat next to Tom on the bus that took us all to the big dinner that night.
“So,” he began, “I saw you talking about the Virtual Boutique concept during your speech. I wondered if that went right over the heads of most of the people there.”
“Sure it did,” I agreed. “During that part of the speech, I wasn’t talking to them, I was talking to you.” That was true, actually.
“Yeah, I kind of figured as much. Let me ask you a couple questions.”
As the bus drove towards downtown Bogota, Tom and I discussed the VB concept in depth. Finally he’d heard enough. “OK, let’s do it,” he said. “Sign me up.”
We shook on the deal, and after that I could relax. One out of two wasn’t bad. And I’d get the other one later.
Chatham Gems is the largest, and by far best known, supplier of synthetic gemstones to the trade. Not to be confused with “artificial”, synthetic means that it’s the real thing, just made by man rather than nature. Tom’s father had been a chemist, and had figured out how to grow sapphire, emerald, and ruby in a laboratory, rather than dig for it in the ground.
One of the hot topics at the Congress was trying to find the right material to use for filling fractures in imperfect emeralds—a process that makes them much more beautiful. But the filler-material often isn’t compatible with the emerald itself, or expands later when heated, or does other things that cause problems. Half a dozen chemicals were in use, and the merits of each had been debated during the Congress. No consensus had been reached, but I’d heard from others that Tom Chatham had dropped a bombshell on the group the prior day, by making a radical suggestion.
“Well, it was no big deal,” he explained to me now. “They need to use some material to fill emerald. I suggested they consider emerald. You know, synthetic emerald. It’s real emerald, and is chemically compatible with natural emerald—because it’s the same chemical. All the problems go away. Also, it works. We’ve tried it in our laboratory.”
“Sounds like an obvious solution.”
“Yeah, it is obvious. You need to fill emerald. Use emerald! Like, duh.”
The dinner was served buffet style, in a large convention-center complex, and was followed by speeches and a promotional video tape about emeralds. During dinner, exquisite female Colombian models wafted among the tables, showcasing emerald jewelry and demonstrating just how beautiful South American women can be. The evening culminated in a forty-five minute performance by the “Ballet di Calle” dance company, up on stage, and it was after midnight when I finally got back to my hotel room. It had been a very long, exhausting day.
It was nothing compared to the next one.
* * *
Here’s some advice: If you have to fly in a third world country in South America, try to stick with one of the well-known airlines like Viasa or Avianca. If you can’t use a well-known airline, than try to find one that at least uses modern, late-model airplanes. And if you can’t find that, at least try to make sure you’re actually in airplanes, not helicopters. If you do have to fly in helicopters, again try to make sure they’re modern, well-maintained helicopters staffed by efficient, competent, flight crews.
About forty of us had gathered at the El Dorado airport that morning. We weren’t at the main International terminal. Quite the opposite, we were on the other side of the airfield, among a cluster of hangers and various types of aircraft. . We’d been instructed to bring only small bags with us as luggage, and to put everything we’d need into them. Our larger suitcases had been checked back at the hotel, and would be brought to the airport the following day to meet us on our return. We’d been told to wear jeans and t-shirts, and to bring a change of clothing. I was able to fit all that was needed into my small daypack, but many of the others had brought suitcases the size of carry-on luggage.
Anna Maria, looking very chic in tight-fitting jeans and a white halter-top blouse, called all of us together and explained that we couldn’t take our bags with us. We were asked to place them in a pile, and were promised that they’d be taken directly to the hotel in the town of “Paipa,” where we’d spend the night. “But don’t leave any money, or airline tickets, or passports in them,” she admonished. “Take those things with you.”
Well how was I supposed to do that? I was going to be crawling through emerald mines wearing jeans and a T-shirt, with my money, airline tickets, and passport stuck in a pocket? That sounded like a guaranteed way to lose them.
I showed Anna my small daypack, and she said that would be no problem—I could bring it on the helicopter.
We divided up into groups of about twenty for the first helicopter ride. In my group were Tom Chatham, Bob Weldon, Charlie Carbonna (a gem dealer and Poly sub), Nanette Forester (president of AGTA), and fifteen others I didn’t know.
We were pointed towards a very large, very shiny new helicopter 100 yards away, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I love helicopters, but I’m a little nervous about them. Airplanes are like birds and fly in harmony with nature, soaring gracefully through the sky. Helicopters fight nature every step of the way, and lift off only by thrashing the air so furiously that something has to give. They tend to rattle and vibrate, and one suspects they’re held together only precariously by the right combination of bolts and screws. But modern helicopters are really quite safe, and the one we were approaching looked brand new.
As our group of twenty reached its destination I was surprised to see that the door was closed, and there was no flight crew around to tell us what to do. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a man way down the tarmac waving urgently to us. Apparently we were at the wrong helicopter, and were supposed to keep going.
I gulped. The man waving to us was standing by another helicopter . But this one looked like it was a reject from a salvage yard. Ancient, fading paint was peeling off of it. A large, unsightly oil stain streaked back from the main engine rotor. It’s large blades drooped despondently almost to the ground, like a swayback horse ready for the glue factory.
All of us groaned in unison. “Don’t worry,” I reassured the group. “That thing will never get off the ground. They’ll have to find something else.”
We boarded it cautiously. After climbing up the little steps we found ourselves in a large, aluminum tube, with a spartan aluminum bench running along each side. Large patches of faded vinyl had come loose from the ceiling, and bare, slightly rusted cable could be seen through these holes, running like spaghetti every which way. I was assaulted by the rank, weathered smell of ancient, cracked upholstery, oil-soaked cables, and aviation fuel. The lower body of the aluminum tube was attached to the upper part with bolts, and, directly aft, this connection had not been well made: sunlight was shining in through a crack.
No doubt about it: this was a surplus military aircraft. It had never been designed to carry paying passengers. Feeling like I was living in a World War II combat movie, I took my place along one side as the others climbed in.
Bob Weldon came up the ladder, lowered his head as he stepped inside, sniffed, and then announced: “Ah, I love the smell of—fuselage—in the morning…”
But by now I’d seen something on the wall that really scared me. Mostly worn off with age, aluminum instructional placards had been riveted here and there around the helicopter, as one sees on military aircraft. But they weren’t written in English. And they weren’t in Spanish. They were in—Russian!
The facts were inescapable. We were about to be flown across the Colombian mountains in a helicopter so old and battered it had been discarded by the Russian air force!
Tom Chatham, who’s spent quite a bit of time in Russia, noticed it as well. “Yep, this is one of the old Russian ‘Hind’ choppers. Real workhorses, back in their day. You gotta love ‘em.”
“But do I have to fly in them?” I asked, becoming more nervous by the minute.
As if in response, a low-pitched whine came from somewhere above, and out the window I could see the ancient, drooping blades start to rotate. Protestingly, reluctantly they moved, gathering speed with painstaking slowness, clearly annoyed at being woken from their long slumber. It took nearly ten minutes for the main rotor to reach lift-off speed, and all the while the helicopter was groaning and whining and rattling and threatening to come apart. It had not been used for so long perhaps it had forgotten how to fly.
One could hope.
But at last the roaring over our heads reached a new level of intensity, the craft bounced around on its wheels for a moment as if needing to go to the bathroom, and then suddenly launched itself straight up in the air. Higher and higher we climbed, with no forward motion at all, until we hung there—suspended—perhaps 500 feet over the airport, the engine noise now completely deafening, the rotors beating the air furiously, and the rivets somehow holding together for at least a few more minutes, despite the awful vibration. Then the Hind tipped forward slightly, and we began moving over the ground, faster and faster, until I guessed our speed to be perhaps 100 knots: about the same as a small, single-engine Cessna.
Conversation was impossible, so loud was the din, but I could twist around and look out the small porthole window behind me. We flew over hilly countryside, with farms, and streams, and meandering roads. From the air, Colombia could have been most any country. But the terrain became more mountainous as we continued, and soon we were flying over an uninhabited landscape of forested peaks and valleys—probably velvety green in summer, but now cloaked in the brown pastels of the dry season.
We’d been half an hour in the air, and most of us had by now grown accustomed to the vibration coming from the main rotor and shaking its way through the fuselage and into our souls Perhaps the helicopter wasn’t going to come apart after all. Perhaps it was so old that everything that could break already had. And what was left was a kind of “survival of the fittest” collection of bolts and rivets that were so rusted together nothing could dislodge them.
It was a theory.
Now the helicopter began descending, closing in on the high forested peaks, curving downwards out of the sky. We completed two full circles as we spiraled lower and lower. The mountains were largely above us now, and we were in a deep valley whose bottom was still far below. Rising up out of this valley was a tall, narrow hill—almost a cone—set like an island near the spot where several streams seemed to merge. At the very top of this hill a clearing had been made, several structures had been built, and in an open, grassy area—right at the edge of a precipice—was a helicopter landing pad. The Russian Hind swooped down towards this hilltop and as it closed upon the landing pad a hurricane of wind assaulted the trees and bushes. Dust and debris exploded in all directions. We felt a few small bumps, the helicopter edged forwards, away from the precipice itself, and then the roar of the engine ceased and the monstrous blades began coasting to a stop.
There had been no stewardess on this flight of course, nor any member of the flight crew who cared to even glance back from the cockpit and make sure we were buckled in. We were cargo, nothing else. And if the helicopter crashed, seatbelts weren’t going to save us.
But one of the crew opened the door now, and we dutifully stood up and climbed out into fresh air and sunshine.
The little hilltop was perhaps an acre and a half in size, with sheer walls dropping away on all sides to the valley floor 500 feet below. An extremely steep jeep path somehow managed to navigate a torturous route down to the riverbed at the bottom of the valley, and half a dozen Toyota Land Cruisers were parked near a shed. The several buildings I’d seen from the air now more clearly defined themselves. Two were sheds, one was a more substantial building, and into this we were now ushered. About a dozen private guards stood about, all of them carrying sub-machine guns and eyeing us warily. A vicious Doberman was locked up in a large ten-foot by ten-foot cage—which was nonetheless big enough to provide space for him to go apoplectic at our arrival. He was snarling and barking, and clawing at the bars, desperate to attack us, and contorting himself in somersaults and other gyrations as he flung himself repeatedly against the walls of the cage in hopeless fury.
Inside the cement-block building, we found several small, bare rooms. A long table had been set in one of these, and on this table a lavish breakfast awaited us: scrambled eggs, papaya, oatmeal, croissants, various cheeses, raisins, fruit juice, and of course limitless supplies of coffee.
We were hungry, as only people can be who have journeyed far in a Russian helicopter. We served ourselves buffet style and—most of us preferring not to sit down—walked casually around the little hilltop as we wolfed down the food. A mariachi band appeared from somewhere, and begin singing songs and playing guitars. It was by now very warm and humid—much more so than in Bogota.
We’d been there only a few minutes when the Russian helicopter lifted off again, heading back towards the city, perhaps. Several minutes later we heard the sound of another helicopter, and as it approached I noticed enviously it was a late model Bell JetRanger—kind of the Rolls Royce of executive helicopters.
It landed amidst a storm of wind, the door opened, and out came Bill Boyajian and five other GIA luminaries. The message was unmistakable: ProExport was sucking up to GIA. They’d sent the commoners in a discarded Russian troop transport. The GIA staff had been flown in style.
But I wasn’t bitter. It made good sense for ProExport to suck up to GIA—a group which held the power of life and death over colored gemstone grading. The important thing was that I’d already finished off the good papayas. The GIA brass would be stuck with dry croissants. We all get even in our own way.
Bob Weldon and I were exploring the grounds when I noticed another hilltop island no more than a quarter mile away, slightly lower than our present position. The buildings that had been placed on it looked more substantial, however, and the architecture was quite impressive: adobe brick with beautiful tiled roofs. I could see a swimming pool, tennis court, and another helicopter landing pad. Guards armed with machine guns patrolled the grounds, but that was expected. Armed guards are everywhere in Colombia.
“Wow, look at that,” I motioned to Bob. “Doesn’t that look just like some drug dealer’s personal fortress?”
Bob looked at me strangely.
“Uh, JV, don’t you know where we are?”
“Sure, we’re at the Muzo emerald mine.”
I’d learned that the Muzo mine was considered the finest emerald mine in Colombia, which is to say the finest emerald mine in the world. In terms of quality of emerald, and quantity of emerald, Muzo was #1 and famous among gem dealers everywhere. A genuine Muzo emerald always commanded a premium.
“Yeah, but who do you think owns the Muzo mine?”
“I have no idea. Who does own it?”
“Victor Caranzo owns it, and that’s his house over there.”
“And who is Victor Caranzo?”
“Jeez, don’t you ever read the papers?”
“I guess not, I don’t recognize the name.”
“Victor Caranzo is one of the biggest drug lords in Columbia. He’s amassed his own private army down here. He’s been fighting a battle with the Colombian government. Finally they caught him, and now he’s in jail.”
“But he still owns this mine?”
“Yes, all this is his property. He runs it from prison.”
“But are you telling me this breakfast, all this hospitality…”
“Yeah, you just had breakfast compliments of one of the major drug lords in Colombia. And now you’re being given a tour of his mine—solely at his pleasure.”
“Wow, I can’t believe Anna Maria was able to arrange all this.”
“Yeah, well, if anyone could, she could.”
I looked at him, puzzled.
“Oh, I get it,” he said, as if suddenly understanding my confusion. “You just arrived yesterday so you don’t know a lot of this stuff, right?”
“What else don’t I know?”
“You don’t know who Anna Maria really is.”
“I was told she works for ProExport, and is in charge of their emerald division. She’s the main organizer of the conference, right?”
“Yeah, but she’s more than that.”
“What else is she?”
“Anna Maria Lleras is the daughter of the president of Colombia.”
“Well, that’s not quite right. She’s the daughter of the former president. She grew up in their equivalent of the White House.”
I paused, letting this all sink in.
“So let me see if I’ve got this straight. We’re being ushered around by the daughter of the past president of Colombia, and right now we’re having breakfast compliments of one of the country’s primary drug lords, who now happens to be in prison.”
“You got it.”
I thought about this a moment, and then finally said: “Cool.”
* * *
The first group was ready to head for the mines. We’d already had breakfast and consumed the best of the papaya. About 15 of us climbed into a covey of Land Cruisers and headed down from the mountain-top eerie. The precarious jeep trail wound its muddy way in serpentine fashion around the island fortress, dropping lower and lower until at last we’d reached the valley floor. Here, where several small streams converged, emerald miners were busy at work with pickaxes, shovels, and wheelbarrows, scooping up the (hopefully) emerald-laden dirt and carting it off to be examined.
But of course this was alluvial mining: sifting through river banks in the hope of finding a sole emerald that might have been carried downstream from the mother lode. That’s the key in mining: finding the mother lode. And for that you have to do more than sift through river bank sand. You have to go underground—deep underground in most cases.
The Land Cruisers passed through a gate in a high, barbed wire fence, where two machine-gun toting guards held the doors opened for us. Fortunately Victor had told them to expect us. We came at last to an industrial area. Small, tin-roofed brick buildings were scattered about. Various pieces of machinery of uncertain purpose littered the ground. Off to one side a large hose was pointed into the air, and from it cascaded a never-ending torrent of clear water. This, no doubt, was some kind of drainage system for water collecting down in the mine itself.
We were taken into one of the small buildings and provided with large, almost knee-high, rubber boots, and hard hats. Leaving our shoes and daypacks behind —we were told they would be safe and certainly with all those guards it would be a brave burglar who would try to steal them—we were guided next over to some machinery that surrounded a large hole in the ground, perhaps fifteen feet in diameter. A rail fence surrounded this hole, and now all of us intuitively went over to this fence, and peered down.
You couldn’t see much. The hole dropped into nothingness, and dropping into it was a single cable. This cable was moving, pulling something up out of the hole, hoisted by a large winch which was one of the pieces of machinery here above the ground.
At last, emerging out of the hole, was a platform of corrugated iron—kind of an elevator without sides—and on this platform were two ore carts and two miners. It took both miners to push each ore cart off the little platform and into the sunlight. The carts were filled with a blacker-than-black oozy, greasy mud. They were taken about twenty yards away, and their contents unceremoniously dumped onto a conveyer built. What this conveyer belt did with them was unknown, and it wasn’t moving. Perhaps we’d find out more about it later.
Meanwhile, back at the hole, we were asked to move onto the little elevator contraption. Obviously we were going to be lowered down in to the mine, in place of the carts. As the fifteen of us jostled for position on this tiny platform, about to be dropped into oblivion, social etiquette took over and those of us who were strangers begin introducing ourselves. It was a first-name basis environment, and I met a Mark, and a Dottie, and a Rosanna, and a Bob and several others. I identified myself as a Jacques.
“Weren’t you one of the speakers?” asked Mark.
“Yeah, I gave the speech about the Internet, yesterday.”
“The Internet?” said Bob (who had also been one of the speakers). “You mean you’re Jacques… Voorhees? Of Polygon?”
I confessed that this was the case.
“Wow, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” said Bob, shaking my hand again. “I’ve heard about you for years.”
“That was a great speech,” said Dottie. “It was definitely the most interesting of any of them.”
The fifteen-foot wide disk of iron began dropping into the darkness, with us on board, and I felt very honored to think that people actually recognized my name, here in the depths of a Colombian emerald mine. Of course we weren’t exactly in the mine yet, and the people I was talking with were from the states, not Colombia, but those were only details. I basked in the warmth of someone saying they liked my speech. Speakers are always so insecure, they need all the compliments they can get…
But the warmth of compliments was about to be overwhelmed by the warmth of the mine itself. It was hot down here, and getting hotter. I glanced up and saw that the opening to the hole was now only a tiny circle of light—like the end of a telescope looked through backwards.
Down, down we went, all of us trying to be lighthearted, and occasionally making a weak joke, or carrying on a minor conversation. We tried to do these things so we wouldn’t be nervous about being lowered 500 feet under the surface of the earth. Actually, one of us had changed her mine. Nanette Forester, president of AGTA, decided this dark hole in the ground wasn’t for her. “I get claustrophobic easily,” she explained to me.
And she’d obviously made the right decision. This would be hell for anyone susceptible to claustrophobia.
We stopped eventually, with an abrupt ‘clang’. At the bottom of this long hole was a tunnel leading outwards. There was electricity down here, and every fifty feet a solitary lightbulb hung from the ceiling. It really did look like a classic mine tunnel, with large square timbers holding up the ceiling, spaced every ten feet or so. As we walked along it was disconcerting to notice that many of the timbers were cracked from the pressure of five hundred feet of dirt and rock overhead.
And it was hot. Incredibly hot and humid.
“I’ve been in saunas that were cooler than this,” noted Dottie.
After several minutes of walking we came to a wooden ladder nailed to one of the timbers. Our guide went up first, and disappeared into a dark hole in the ceiling. I followed. It required contortionist skills to get through the little hole at the top, and then twist around and squeeze backwards under a low overhang, and then climb through another hole, and then climb through some broken timbers, but at the end of this obstacle course was another small tunnel, and here were some Colombian miners—mostly shirtless—holding pickaxes. They all looked quite similar: yellow hard hats, moustaches, and covered in mud head to toe.
Of course by this time I was looking pretty similar too—except for the moustache.
One of them handed me his pickaxe and nodded towards the end of the tunnel itself, where they’d been working away. Needing no encouragement—for we’d been told we could keep anything we found—I slashed away at the dirt for several minutes and succeeded in making a big mess on the floor, but no emeralds lay there glistening. I handed the pickaxe to Mark, who was anxious to try his hand, and navigated myself back through the timbers, under the low overhang, through the holes, and down the ladder to the main tunnel.
I was pleased to discover that I was thoroughly enjoying this emerald mine, and was not in the least claustrophobic. I’d worried earlier that, with my fear of heights always a problem, fear of depths might kick in as well. But perhaps they’re truly opposite. If you suffer from one, you are guaranteed not to suffer from the other. Here I was 500 feet underground, in a tiny, dimly-lit mine shaft, broken timbers holding up the ceiling, and temperature that must have been over110 degrees—and I didn’t feel claustrophobic at all. I felt snug and cozy.
Long tubes of visqueen, that clear, plasticky stuff, carried fresh air from the surface down in to the mine, and here and there one could find a vent hole in the tube, or at least a rip in the fabric. From such holes poured utterly delicious, refreshing, cold air, and standing under one of these vents was like taking a clean shower on a hot summer day. We wandered down among the mine tunnels for a long time, and crawled up more ladders, and through more holes, and swung more pickaxes, until soon we were all utterly filthy, and sweating like pigs.
“You know,” I said to Dottie—a colored stone dealer from Los Angeles, and a very attractive woman before being covered with mud—“this would be a great place to film a commercial for Ban Ultra roll-on anti-perspirant.”
“Oh, yeah, it’d be great!” she agreed. “Let’s see, the caption could be: Strong enough for a man, made for a woman, and tested under extreme conditions here in the Muzo emerald mine of Colombia. If it can keep you dry down here, you know it will work back at the office…”
“Or how ‘bout a testimonial,” I suggested. “Yep, it was two days ago that the mine shaft caved in, leaving us trapped down here in this hell of heat and humidity, waiting to be rescued. Our clothes are drenched clear through from the perspiration. But by God our underarms are still dry…”
Bob, the other speaker, had chosen to bring down into the mine his fancy Nikon camera, with half a dozen interchangeable lenses, filters, spare film cartridges, a couple of flash units, and a big bag to keep it all in. At first I was envious, because in truth there were lots of good opportunities to take great photographs down here in the emerald mine. Once I’d been a camera addict too, with my own collection of professional-looking gear, and a big bag to keep it all in. I’d even taken some good photographs. But after awhile I realized that it was an awful lot of work, and I could prove I’d been somewhere exotic more convincingly and obviously by just buying the T-shirt. Bob hadn’t yet discovered this truth, and I watched him now with sympathy, struggling to keep the sloppy, muddy wetness of the mine out of his exposed camera equipment. I was happy with my tiny zoom-lens, point and shoot, weatherproof Olympus that was so small it could fit in a pocket, even though the pictures it produced wouldn’t be quite as dramatic.
Finally we all gathered back at the little elevator and I admitted to myself I was actually glad to be leaving. It wasn’t that I was starting to get claustrophobic, exactly. It was just, well, awfully hot and humid in these tunnels and it had been a long time since we’d breathed clean air. The elevator lifted up with a jolt and we began the long ascent back to civilization. I was very anxious, now, to get out of the mine, and I watched the approaching circle of light with eagerness. Closer and closer it came, and larger and larger it grew.
Then the elevator stopped.
We had come to another tunnel, leading out horizontally away from the shaft itself. Apparently this was a new floor, a new section of the mine, that we were now supposed to explore. I wasn’t really up for this. I looked longingly at the disk of sunlight above us, with it’s promise of dry, cool air and began to miss that world desperately.
But we all dutifully walked off the elevator and meandered down this new corridor. One emerald mine tunnel was looking much like another. Here we found more mud, more cracked timbers trying to hold up the ceiling, more visqueen-tubed air-shafts and—here and there—little streams of water running under the wooden walkways.
I was becoming thirsty, so thirsty that visions of cold beers danced continuously in my head. Whole six-packs of beers. Cases of beers. Budweiser trucks filled with beer. But I was experiencing another symptom possibly more worrisome even than thirst: a very slight dizziness and weariness that had nothing to do with being tired. I’d experienced this symptom on other occasions when I’d been perspiring heavily for hours, and I knew it’s cause: salt depletion.
When you sweat, you use up your body’s supply of salt, which is essential to human chemistry. When you’re low on salt you can drink gallons of water and still feel thirsty. That was happening to me now.
Plus I wasn’t getting the water.
It was OK. I knew what the problem was. I could continue for a good while yet, although the symptoms would get worse. But c’mon. This tunnel was proving identical to the first. Mud is mud. Let’s get back to the elevator and head upstairs to the bar.
Salt-encrusted marguerites, each with a pitcher of ice-water on the side, had now replaced cases of Budweiser in my fantasy.
We were guided eventually to another dead-end, and another pickaxe. Charles Carmona, who is a very short man, and who looks almost like one of the seven dwarves, and who thus looked more like he belonged in this gem-mine than did all the rest of us normal sized people put together, took a mighty swing with the pickaxe.
The entire ceiling caved in. Dirt, mud, rock, and debris came tumbling down about us. This was not as serious as it sounds, for we were all wearing hard hats. We brushed off the dirt and grime, smiled gamely enough, all of us trying to prove to the others that we hadn’t been terrified. And then an emotion more powerful than fear took us all by the throat. Greed. More or less simultaneously, we suddenly realized that emeralds could be here, and what we found, we could keep! Eight pairs of hands begin sifting frantically through the newly-fallen dirt, hoping to find that one gemstone that would make our 401k plans unimportant. This was, after all, the Muzo emerald mine. A $500,000 stone might be found anywhere!
We didn’t find it. Charles should have swung his pickaxe a little harder. But, as we all retreated sheepishly back down the corridor, we did find something that was arguably of greater value—at least in our present circumstance: a thermos full of Tang.
Tang. There’s a word from the past. No one has heard of Tang in the northern hemisphere since the late sixties, when they used to brag about it being used by the astronauts. Tang is a powdered orange drink. It’s not the most delicious beverage on the planet. This is especially true when it’s warm, and been sitting for perhaps days in a previously-lost, dirt-caked thermos. But we’d found this thermos hanging from one of the mine shaft’s broken timbers. To get the Tang out, you had to push one of those little button things at the base of the Thermos, and whatever was inside would flow out a miniature spigot. In other words, it was the type of Thermos where you couldn’t just open the top and drink outright. Given the geometry of the mine, and the corridor ceiling, you couldn’t position your mouth and the thermos and the spigot in a way that would get any Tang into your throat. Fortunately, a mud-smeared, saliva-stained cup–perhaps placed there by Victor Caranzo himself, hung from a rusty nail. Like cornered animals, we all now eyed this cup with avarice, each challenging the other to make the first move. But, to my credit, I was quicker than all of them and grabbed it first. Laughing in victory I filled the raunchy vessel to the brim with the orange, tepid liquid, and downed it as if it had been a shot of chilled Perrier. Dottie reached out next, pleadingly. Refilling the cup, I performed what is no doubt the most chivalrous act I’ll ever perform on this earth. I gave this second cup of muddy, warm Tang to Dottie—my friend—rather than keep it for myself. The others waited their turn, but soon our guide was motioning us urgently back down the corridor.
Having lost all sense of direction when the mine tunnel collapsed, I was now only mildly surprised to find we had come full-circle and were now back at the miniature elevator platform. None too soon. My salt deprivation was becoming severe, and my thirst had hardly been—shall we say—slaked, by those few unsatisfying drops of warm orange liquid. In truth, I was getting claustrophobic. This mine was no longer snug and cozy. It was cramped. And dirty. And hot. And suffocating. And saltless. We all now climbed back on the elevator and up it rose. There, waiting above us like the promised land, was that tiny disk of sunlight. More than a disk, now. It was growing, coming nearer. All our faces were turned upwards, as if in ecstasy, as if bathed in the glory of heaven, desperate to feel that sunlight on our own bodies, desperate to breathe the clean, dry air that no doubt was waiting above us, desperate to find warm Tang, or maybe even (it could happen) actual water. If salt awaited us, it would have been proof of the existence of God…
Then the elevator stopped.
A collective groan uttered from our parched throats. No proof of God here. Proof of the opposite, maybe. We’d arrived at another underground corridor. More mud. More broken timbers. Our guide ushered us urgently into the tunnel. Twenty minutes later, no emeralds on this level either, we were back on the elevator and attempting once more to escape this pit from Hell.
This time we made it.
Dizzily, we staggered off the metal platform and were directed over to one of the little huts. Several cartons of cold, bottled water appeared as if a mirage, and each of us consumed three or four bottles of this heavenly nectar almost in an instant, before reality began asserting itself and things started seeming almost normal.
But, in truth, there was nothing normal about what was now occurring. Stepping back out of the little hut, back into what should have been the sunshine on this cloudless day, we found a dark shadow had crept over the Colombian country-side. The miners themselves, mud-caked as ever, were gesturing urgently up into the sky.
Ana Maria Lleras appeared from somewhere, daughter of the former president (where had she been, by the way?) and I noticed she was wearing very strange, cardboard sunglasses. She took these off now and handed them to me, pointing up at the sky.
As I looked, a black disk slowly made its way across the bright yellow circle of the sun itself. I remembered having heard something about an impending eclipse being visible in certain parts of South America this month, but I’d forgotten all about it.
What strange irony, I thought. Here we just were, buried hundreds of feet under the ground for hours, desperate to get back into the world of sunlight, and when we finally arrive out of the pits of doom, God plays the ultimate trick on us and turns off the sun.
“Go back!” He seemed to be saying, in a scene from the Old Testament. “Back, ye fools! Ye have doomed thyselves utterly to the nether regions, and here there shalt be no respite for thy wretched souls! If thee darest climb from the pits in whose bowels thee have earned everlasting torment, verily I say to thee in such case shall I destroy even the sun!”
But Don Panzer, a geologist from California, wasn’t caring about the sun. He’d heard a rumor that our next stop was the Chivor mine, apparently just as famous—perhaps more prized even—than the Muzo mine itself. Melodramatically he went down on his knees in the dirt, supplicating himself before Ana Maria.
“Oh most gracious one!” he pleaded. “Take us to the Chivor mine and I will marry you!”
This was quite funny, actually, coming from Don Panzer. Here was a short, somewhat ugly, man, with a deformed cauliflower ear, on his knees in the dirt, offering to marry beautiful, elegant Ana Maria Lleras, daughter of the former president of Colombia.
As if to complete the joke, he stood up now, dusting himself off, and declared magnanimously: “Actually, Ana Maria, you could probably do better than me. Much better. In fact, I’m sure you could. Don’t be too quick to accept my proposal…”
Ana Maria laughed, and her laughter bathed all of us in a radiance that more than made up for the missing sunlight.
“It’s OK,” she smiled. “I will take you all now to the Chivor mine, and no one needs to make the ultimate sacrifice of marrying me!”
Selfishly, I wasn’t thinking about marrying Ana Maria. I was still looking for salt. I’d never hunted salt before. Yet my body needed it, and my brain—on some atavistic level—knew my body needed it. Having ransacked the little cottage and having found no salt, I joined the others in the two Land Cruisers which headed, now, back to the little island in the sky. We’d been served breakfast on that island, I recalled. There had been a kitchen. Kitchens have salt…
We had only minutes before the ugly Russian helicopter would lift off. I used these minutes to dart into the kitchen, and began flinging open the cupboard doors. The cooks had no idea what I was doing, and asked me in Spanish what it was I needed. They were happy to provide it. Just say the word.
But what was the word in Spanish? I knew it in French, and in Japanese. How do you say “salt” in Spanish? Then, at last, I spied some, and reached for it hungrily.
“Ah, ____, _____, the cooks said, reminding me what the word was in Spanish. Presumably they had no idea why I wanted salt, but they could see I was desperate for it. It was a large salt shaker that I found. Grasping it eagerly, I pulled off the top, and poured several tablespoons into a cup I’d found nearby. Then I filled the cup with water. All of them watching me curiously, I chugged the whole thing—one swallow—and set the cup back down with a flourish of satisfaction.
A person would normally gag if forced to swallow such heavily salt-laden water, but my body in this case found the drink delicious. I prepared one more and gulped it down, then ran for the helicopter. The blades were already starting to turn.
By this time I was beginning to trust the helicopter. Its rattles, creaks, desperate croaking noises, and bone-wrenching vibrations were familiar to me now as we once more climbed straight up into the sky, from Victor Caranzo’s fortress on the hill.
The mountains of Colombia are rugged and uninhabited and we flew above them for half an hour without the scenery changing much. No towns or villages could be seen—just mile after mile of shrub-covered mountain hillside, with sharp peaks, prominent ridges, and deep valleys. Each valley contained a winding stream at the bottom, the water reflecting back sunlight with renewed vigor, now that the eclipse was over. Again, conversation was impossible, but it was mostly the same group that had been together in the Muzo mine. Bill Boyajian was no doubt relaxing in the comfort of a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter.
We’d traveled 100 miles, perhaps less, when the Russian Hind began losing altitude. Apparently we were nearing our next landing site. Off on our left could be seen a long, mountainous ridge, almost horizontal, and located on this ridge was a village. It seemed a strange place for a village: perched atop this knife-edge, forested arm of a mountain. Yet being so-situated, the village had no choice but to be very long and very thin. We passed this strung-out village clinging to the mountain’s arm, and began circling down towards another island in the sky, similar to Victor Caranzo’s eyrie. The topography was becoming confusing, but it seemed possible that our landing site was actually the mountain peak itself—the very tip—of the mountain which had provided that ridge for that village we’d passed.
Another hurricane of wind from the Hind’s powerful blades threatened to blow all the dirt and debris off this mountain top as well, as we settled onto a dirt landing field actually smaller than the diameter of the blades themselves. Two more Land Cruisers were here and, after we’d all taken our seats, they began cautiously weaving their way down the tiny jeep trail back to the village. From living in Colorado I know something about steering 4-wheel drive vehicles down precipitous mountain roads and what was being accomplished here was difficult, and bordered on dangerous. The level of incline must have been close to thirty degrees for the road itself, and the side off the mountain dropped almost straight down into nothingness. If the Land Cruiser were to hit a bump and drop over the side it would go into free fall before crashing into the jungle near the valley floor hundreds of feet below. But the drivers seemed to know what they were doing and soon the road leveled out and became merely steep as we approached the village from along the top of the ridge.
This clearly was a village, not just a mining outpost, and here at last was the third world ambience portrayed so colorfully in “Romancing the Stone.” Here, in fact, were the chickens wandering aimlessly and pecking away at grubs in the middle of the dirt street. A hog or two could be seen, snouting about, with no owner in sight or at least concerned over them. Small children were playing a game with sticks, and chasing each other in circles. The buildings, if you can call them that, were all one story, made of weathered masonry and corrugated tin roofs. Some had even used corrugated tin for the walls as well—making them reminiscent of those old Ford tri-motor tin airplanes from the ‘30’s. There was no landscaping anywhere. The entire village seemed quite disorderly, as if the streets and paths had been based on the original wanderings of the hogs and the chickens. The houses were packed quite closely together, but in complete disarray. This mountain-top village was not spoiled by any pavement. There were neither paved sidewalks nor streets. Everything was dirt and dust. And this was the dry season. A few months from now, when the monsoons came, this would all be mud. And, realizing that, I suddenly perceived why the village had to be located on top of the ridge. Looking out at the surrounding mountainous terrain, whole areas were devoid of trees, and the evidence of past mudslides was quite visible. The villages could not be set on the sides of the mountains for the sides were too steep and the villages would have slid off. And they could not be placed in the valleys for the valleys are periodically buried by the mudslides from the surrounding mountains. The only choice was to place the villages at the very tops of the mountains, on long, almost-horizontal ridges, such as this one. But the logistics of trying to supply these remote, mountain-top communities with food, water, and other necessities seemed daunting. And what was the economy here? There were no fields, no agriculture, no apparent reason for the village to even exist.
And then I remembered the emeralds.
In the Wizard of Oz, there is—of course—the famous, glittering “Emerald City,” but in real life the true emerald city is the village of Chivor in Colombia, perched precariously on a hillside of mud.
It was noon-time and Chivor seemed very awake and active. Near the center of town, if it could be called such, was a large open area of perhaps two acres—comparable to a village square, perhaps, except that there are no squares or straight lines in any direction in Chivor . This open space opened up directly onto the abyss. That is to say, one side of it was the edge of the precipice itself. But on all other sides were the single-storied masonry and tin structures set about in careless disarray.
Perhaps 50 vehicles were parked around this “square,” and all of them were four-wheel drives of various persuasions: Jeeps, Land Cruisers, Pathfinders and the like. These were rugged, well-used, well-appreciated machines, and they seemed happy here, as if they knew their importance. Back in the states, close relatives of these vehicles were parked in protected luxury in the garages of suburban executives, and the most they would ever have to face would be an inch or two of fresh snow on an otherwise well-ploughed road. It was like seeing real sheep dogs in New Zealand, actually herding sheep every day for a living, and loving it, as opposed to their kin curled in front of a gas-fireplace in an urban condominium.
I wished I could have flicked my fingers and have summoned my own pathfinder here, to the mountaintop eyrie of Chivor , where it could be introduced to—and inspired by—these lusty, macho, dust-encrusted 4-wheel drive specimens. Certainly it would complain less, the next time it had to drive over the hump in our driveway created by the snowplough.
All about this open area were Colombian men of various ages, all with mustaches, all looking quite macho and dust-encrusted themselves. They were clustered in small groups, urgently engaged in conversations or discussions of some kind, a feeling of excitement, of importance, permeating the air. As we descended form our own Land Cruiser and began walking among them it became obvious that they were showing each other things. Small leather bags, or in some cases envelopes of paper, were being secreted away in trouser pockets, or brought forth and revealed, furtively.
“It’s market day. This is the emerald market,” explained Dottie as we walked slowly through the town. These guys are all buying and selling emeralds”
“So this is where all the tourists come?” I asked. “Is this the place if you want to see emeralds?”
“Jacques, I’ve been an emerald dealer all my life, and I’ve come to Colombia a dozen times, but no one ever, ever, gets to see Chivor . And certainly no one ever gets to go inside the mines themselves. You don’t realize how lucky you are. I’ve heard about this place for years, but never thought I’d get to see it. This certainly isn’t a tourist spot.”
“Why? Is it difficult to get to?”
“Well, it is difficult, but it’s mainly security. I’m not sure who owns Chivor . I don’t think it’s Victor Caranzo, but if it’s not it’s probably another warlord like him. They just don’t like strangers around here. This is a forbidden village. We’re brought here only as VIP’s, because of the Emerald Congress. But you can see how tight the security is…”
Dottie nodded towards a group of men fifty yards away, at the edge of the square. They weren’t in uniform. They weren’t soldiers. But they were holding machine guns and keeping a close eye on everything about them—including us. Other groups, similarly armed, could be seen throughout the town.
While trading emeralds was obviously the main activity, all those emerald dealers had to be fed. Off to one side of the clearing a large, open fire had been built, now reduced to coals. Around this fire a dozen yard-long sticks had been pounded into the dirt, and upon each stick was impaled some large unrecognizable carcass of meat—perhaps pig or lamb or even dog. It would not have surprised me if it had been dog. These spits were turned occasionally, so that all sides of the meat would be exposed to the hot coals of the fire. For a few pesos, you could have a chunk sliced off of one of these carcasses and handed to you on a paper plate. Certainly it smelled delicious, and I was tempted to buy some, but Dottie pulled me away and explained that we were being taken inside one of the buildings for lunch.
Bordering the square, a primitive restaurant/bar occupied one of the corrugated tin structures. A very long table had been set out, on the verandah, and the emerald congress attendees were now ushered over to it where we dutifully took our seats.
“Ready for a beer?” asked Dottie, and she returned in a few moments from the bar with two ice-cold mugs containing whatever was on tap, here in Chivor . At least they had refrigeration, which was surprising.
There were about twenty of us at this table, on the little verandah, and various waiters and waitresses scurried about bringing us plates, and then large serving bowls of various food. I had reached a level of hunger where I didn’t really notice or care what the food was, which was fortunate as I couldn’t recognize it. This has happened to be me in South America before, where most of their vegetables seem to be unique to the continent, and unknown to North Americans. There were slabs of meat too, which I suspected had been cut from the flame-broiled carcasses roasting on the sticks.
Dottie and I tried to clean ourselves up for dinner. In truth she looked like a coal miner, and so did I. Taking a paper napkin from the table, I dipped it in water and wiped it across my forehead. I looked at it and was appalled to see that it had become utterly black with that one swipe. Another swipe, on my left cheek, with another napkin produced the same result. Looking around the table it was obvious that the others had fared no better. But in truth it made us all feel less like tourists and more like we belonged here in this emerald mining town. Half the people in the square still had their hard hats on, and were coated head to foot in mud, just like we were.
The one person who looked completely out of place was Rosanna, seated to my left. Somehow she had remained clean—or nearly so. She was a very young, very pretty blonde girl, and her business card had indicated she was from Idar Oberstein, Germany. Certainly she looked German, although her accent didn’t exactly sound German.
“Do you know any Spanish?” I asked her, finding myself envious of anyone who was able to communicate with the natives.
“Of course I know Spanish!” she replied. “I’m from Colombia.”
“I thought you were from Germany. You live in Germany. You’ve got blonde hair. You look German.”
“I know!” she laughed. “Everyone makes the same mistake. I work in Germany now, for ProExport Colombia. But I’m 100% Colombian. I grew up in Bogota and have lived here most of my life. I’m trying to learn German, but I’m not very good with it yet.”
“So Spanish is really your first language?”
“Yes, of course. But it’s really funny. Because I look so ‘non-Colombian’ everyone in Colombia starts off talking to me very slowly and carefully, like maybe I won’t understand them! It freaks them out when I reply with a perfect Colombian accent.”
No wonder I hadn’t recognized the German accent. It was a Colombian accent.
After lunch we had time to walk around the town a bit. I found myself over near the precipice, gazing down almost dizzily, a bit scared of the heights like always.
A man came up to me and started speaking in Spanish, questioningly. He looked like everyone else in the square: non-descript clothing, deeply tan, a mustache. He was asking me a question, and he kept re-phrasing it, trying to find words I would understand. He didn’t seem to accept the fact that I didn’t speak Spanish.
This was not surprising, actually, the more I thought about it.
In Europe, for example, it’s a familiar problem and no one is shocked if there’s no language two people have in common. The same is true in major tourist destinations like Tokyo and Hong Kong. But here in Chivor , Colombia, we were thousands of miles away from anywhere where Spanish is not spoken. And we were perhaps the first tourists to ever come to Chivor . The man just couldn’t grasp the fact that I could not speak at least some amount of Spanish. It was entirely possible—it was even likely—that I was the first person he’d ever met who didn’t speak Spanish.
And I felt so helpless. I’m not one of those Americans who assume everyone will speak English. I could have spoken to the man fluently in French. And even in Japanese we could have carried on a primitive conversation.
“Doesn’t anyone around here even speak French or Japanese!” I wanted to shout, my frustration and embarrassment growing by the moment.
And then something happened which made language unnecessary. The man pulled a small leather bag out of his pocket and emptied its contents into the palm of his hand. A dozen uncut emeralds lay there, glimmering dully yet tantalizingly in the sunlight.
The man was offering to sell me emeralds.
At last understanding that I didn’t speak Spanish, he selected one of the emeralds, pointed to it specifically, knelt down and then—using a stick—drew the number 2,000 into the dirt.
The exchange rate was 1,000 Colombian pesos to the dollar. He was offering to sell me this uncut emerald—about three carats, I judged—for two dollars.
Damn! I glanced around hastily, checking out the position of the guards armed with the sub-machine guns. What was I supposed to do? That was probably a 500 dollar stone, wholesale, back in the U.S. Cut and polished it would probably fetch $2,000 in a retail jewelry store. Or not. I’m not really an expert on emeralds. The color looked good, but of course it was not possible to judge clarity without polishing at least one of its facets. But who cares about clarity in an emerald? All emeralds are lousy clarity.
I thought back to my wife. I knew that Derry had no particular desire for an emerald. If this had been a diamond, the situation would have been different. But I knew that Derry wasn’t desperate for an emerald, and was probably even less desperate to have her husband locked up in a Colombian jail for illegal gem buying.
But was it illegal gem buying? Wasn’t this Chivor , the emerald city? Isn’t this what everyone else was doing—buying and selling emeralds.
I could have tried to find Ana Maria, and asked her advice. But she was no where to be seen. In truth, I just didn’t like the risk-reward ratio. The man with the emeralds was behaving extremely furtively—as if worried he was about to be caught. It seemed very likely that he wasn’t even supposed to have these emeralds. Perhaps they’d been smuggled out of the mine under the eyes of the local drug lord, and he was now trying to fence them illegally. Certainly the low price would imply something of that nature.
No doubt the emerald market was heavily regulated, either by the government through taxing and/or licensing the buyers, or by the drug lord himself, in terms of fees or bribes paid for the privilege of buying here.
And then there were the armed guards, still standing around, looking for someone to shoot at. It was probably foolish, I reasoned, to be fantasizing about prison. This was Colombia. What do they need prisons for? They probably shoot first, and ask questions later. Or perhaps they just shoot first and that way they don’t have to waste time with questions.
My appetite for the emeralds was growing less the more I thought about all this. Finally I excused myself politely from the man and drifted away to other areas of the market. Three more times I was approached by suspicious-looking men in mustaches, and three more times small handfuls of emeralds were offered to me. Perhaps I was passing up my chance at a fortune, but I just didn’t like how hesitant and secretive they were being. There was something not right about it and—being unable to ask questions even in Japanese—I wasn’t going to take the chance.
And there was still a possibility that I could find my own emeralds, when we went down in to the Chivor mine itself. That, in fact, was where we were now headed.
Re-boarding the Land Cruisers, Dottie, Rosanna, Tom Chatham, Charles Carmona, and I now headed out of town—presumably towards our second emerald mine of the day. I braced for more mud, humidity, and heat.
At first it seemed we were being driven back up to where the Russian helicopter waited for us on the mountain-top landing pad, but just before reaching the top the road crossed a pass and now we were dropping back downwards into the valley on the other side of the mountain. We were descending rapidly, despite being slowed by the continuous turns and switch-backs of the dirt track we were following. As our elevation dropped, the heat and humidity increased. I realized it had been artificially cool in the town of Chivor , perched so high on the mountain. Now the foliage encroached from all sides, and we were once more deep in the jungle.
Plodding towards us, on the opposite side of the road, was a mustached man in a broad sombrero hat, a wool poncho flung over his shoulders, and a donkey trailing along beside him. The donkey was carrying two large panniers, or baskets, woven from palm fronds.
“Hey, look!” said Charles “It’s him!”
“Yeah!” agreed Tom. “Stop the car. We have to take a picture!”
The driver stopped the car, not quite understanding what the fuss was all about. Rosanna didn’t understand either, and looked questioningly at me. I shrugged my shoulders, equally puzzled.
But once the jeep had pulled over to the side of the road we all got out. It was cramped enough in the back of the land Cruiser that we were happy to use any excuse to stretch our legs. As the man and the donkey came closer, everyone began taking his picture.
“What’s the deal?” I asked Charles. “Is it just a picturesque guy with a donkey, or is there something here I’m not seeing?”
“Are you kidding? It’s him!”
“It’s Juan Valdez!”
“Juan Valdez? Who’s Juan Valdez!”
“Oh, I get it!” said Dottie, suddenly. “You’re right. It is Juan Valdez!” She was laughing, and struggling—now—to get out her camera and join the photographers.
“Who’s Juan Valdez?” asked Rosanna.
“I’m not sure,” I confessed. But the name rang a bell. Why did it sound familiar? Juan Valdez.
“You know!” said Dottie. “Juan Valdez. The guy in the coffee commercial. Folgers. Mountain grown. All that stuff. He’s their logo. And this has to be him!”
Suddenly it all came back. Of course! The Folger’s commercials. And they were right. This was Juan Valdez! The mustache, the sombrero, the poncho, the donkey with the panniers… If it wasn’t him it was his twin brother. And the donkey’s twin brother. But it was too late now to get a picture. He’d smiled shyly and waved, but was now walking away down the road, no doubt perplexed at all the attention. I felt guilty, worrying that we’d been a bit rude. We should at least have purchased some of his coffee..
We arrived at last at a clearing in the jungle, and two other Land Cruisers pulled in shortly behind us. It was more than a clearing, actually. A small settlement had grown up here. But these were mere wooden shacks, covered with palm fronds. Even the technology of corrugated tin roofs had not made it this far into the mountain jungle. Our group was down to about fifteen, and a guide passed around hard hats. I was experienced at emerald mining by now. I knew what to do with the hard hat, and placed it deftly on my head. I awaited the rubber boots they were certain to pass out, and was a bit surprised that none were provided. Well, it wouldn’t break my heart if this mine were drier and less muddy.
Following our guide we walked from the clearing about fifty yards to the opening of a tunnel. Ore cart tracks—miniature train tracks essentially—ran out from this tunnel and stopped just past the opening itself. There were people here—emerald miners, presumably. About thirty of them were standing around, looking as hot and dirty and sweating as we ourselves had been earlier in the day. Clearly more of the same was in store for us.
“I was told they’ve given the miners half a day off,” said Tom Chatham, “because of the tour. They must love this!”
“You know, Tom, I don’t get it,” I said. “Here you are, the king of synthetic emeralds, and the government of Colombia pays for you to come down here to the emerald congress. I mean, they must hate your guts. You’re their biggest competitor, in a sense.”
“Yeah, that’s true. I didn’t’ get it either. But since I’m here, I figure it’s a great education. It’s a good chance to learn from Mother Nature. I’m real curious about this Chivor mine. It’s starting to really produce. Maybe I can pick up some hints.”
One by one we headed into the mine. Mark was one of the first into the tunnel, and the opening was narrow enough that we needed to stay in single file. I was behind Dottie, and she was just behind Tom Chatham. Rosanna followed me. Certainly the opening was narrower than what we’d experienced at Muzo. A thin stream of water trickled out of the mine, and because of this a narrow boardwalk of sorts, made of single planks stretched end to end, had been established between the rails of the narrow gauge mine-cart railway. Not only was the tunnel narrower, there was also less headroom, at least here at the entrance. I looked forward to getting past the confines of the opening and into the real mine itself. This part was quite uncomfortable. And dark.
We walked along in single file, keeping to the planking, the river under our feet seeming to grow larger the deeper into the mountain we delved. Soon the river had expanded to cover the entire floor of the tunnel. Only the two rails, plus the narrow plank boardwalk, rose above it. Altogether I was liking this tunnel less and less. It was narrow. It was wet. There was insufficient headroom. It was dark. And for that matter it was not well ventilated. A visqueen tube hung along one side but there seemed to be no air going through it. It hung there limp and purposeless.
Furthermore this tunnel was not socially enjoyable. Here I was with Dottie ahead of me, Rosanna behind me, and I really could talk to neither of them. All we could do was keep walking single file, trying to keep our feet on the boardwalk, and—at least in my case—my head slightly bent to avoid the overhanging rock.
But I was willing to endure it because this was, after all, the Chivor mine, one of the most fabulous in the world, and clearly we were being ushered deep into it to see something of special interest. Soon, very soon now, we would emerge out of this initial passageway into a cavern worthy of our attention, and be shown spectacles few have ever seen.
Baaam! My head smashed against a low overhanging rock, my hard hat was knocked to the ground, and I almost fell over, so abrupt had been the collision. Rosanna almost collided with me in the darkness, not realizing I’d stopped.
“I hit the ceiling!” I explained. “It’s too low!”
“Yes, this mine isn’t very much fun so far, is it?”
“No, but this ridiculous tunnel can’t go on much longer. We’ll get to something eventually I’m sure.”
I hit my head a dozen more times as we continued deep into the mountain, and things got worse and worse. The boardwalk at last disappeared under the water and a person had to choose. Either you continued walking on the now-submerged boardwalk and let your feet get wet or you walked on the rails—one foot on each. This wasn’t quite as impossible as it sounds because—being a narrow gauge railway—a person could actually walk with one foot on each rail if they balanced carefully. But about every ten steps your foot would slip off and be plunged ankle-deep into the muddy water. At least if you stayed on the boardwalk, the water would only just come up to your laces. I tried one technique, and then another, and then back to the first, alternating consecutively, and with my misery increasing with each step, as we continued into the Chivor mine.
What kept us going was knowing that we must almost be there. We couldn’t be expected to endure this underground and to some extent underwater torture for long. At first it seemed that we might be subject to it for several minutes. Then I’d revised my estimate and guessed perhaps a quarter of an hour. Then maybe half an hour.
But the longer we were required to run this gauntlet, the more important it became that there be something at the end that justified the ordeal.
Shortly after entering the mine I’d been hoping and expecting that soon we would come to a wider area, perhaps a small room, and there would be several miners and they would hand me a pickaxe and encourage me to try my luck. I’d done that before and was ready to try it again. And then head back outside. But we didn’t come to a small room with several miners and a pickaxe. The tunnel continued deeper and deeper into the mountain. And as it did so, my requirements for what it would take to make the whole affair worthwhile increased. I was no longer interested in a small room and the chance for a few swings with a pickaxe. My misery had reached a level that could only be compensated by coming at last to quite a large opening, and finding a couple of dozen friendly miners, sitting around a rough-hewn table and being invited to join them for a beer and perhaps a full meal. Such a thing would be worth writing home about, and would perhaps make up for this dreadful tunnel, and having to walk for what by now seemed like miles, in a hunchback position.
But we came to no such opening, and the tunnel continued. I was becoming angry. No longer would I be satisfied with a nice opening and some friendly miners with food and beverages. No. After all this walking, most of it through water, I was going to insist on something like a cavern—a cavern covered with emeralds, and with more emeralds lying about on the floor. And as my torment increased so did the necessary size of this cavern. If I was to be appeased, this emerald cavern was going to have to be spectacular. It would need to be huge: something akin to the interior of St. Paul’s cathedral in London. This cathedral-sized cavern was going to need to be covered top to bottom with stalactites and stalagmites—made of emerald of course. Kerosene-soaked torches fastened to the walls, were going to need to provide elegant yet subtle lighting, making these emerald stalactites and mites sparkle and illuminate in most entrancing ways.
But we didn’t come to this cavern. Instead the tunnel continued, deeper and deeper into the mountain. The river at our feet seemed, miraculously, to be growing larger the further “upstream” we went. Even the rails were barely above water now, and I had discovered through much unpleasant trial and error that a person might as well walk down the middle of the stream, and not care about their feet, because you can only get so wet after all, and we’d long since passed that point.
My thin grasp on sanity was held in place now solely through the act of fantasizing increasingly on what it was going to take to make me feel that this trek through the bowels of hell had been justified. The emerald encrusted cavern had long since faded in my imagination. Now, I was certain, what must await us was something quite altogether superior. We’d been walking through this tunnel, single file heads bowed, footwear ruined forever, for perhaps an hour. To make me feel anything other than outrage there was going to need to be a vast emerald-cavern that would dwarf any mere cathedral yet built by man. Inside this cavern, awaiting us, were going to need to be an army of beautiful Amazon women in white togas and emerald tiaras, who would serve us green, alcoholic refreshments as we soaked naked in underground thermal hot springs pools, kept temperate by the even flow of a waterfall plummeting down from a fissure in the ceiling 300 feet above us.
Yes, all that would be required, for starters, plus…
A rumble began in the tunnel, and then—increasing in intensity, it came rushing towards us, a solid wave of sound, the most horrible, the most unspeakably terrifying noise that can possibly be heard deep in a mine shaft: the collapse of millions of tons of rock and dirt. It was a cave-in! We were going to be trapped, miles under ground, never again to see the light of day, waiting hopelessly while our oxygen gradually gave out. Assuming, of course, that we survived the cave-in itself.
Rosanna screamed. Then I heard Dottie ahead of me cry: “Oh my God…”
The noise was upon us now, a physical force that we could feel as well as hear, the deep rumblings of over-stressed rock and breaking timbers collapsing as the weight of millions of tons of earth crushed in on itself.
And then… nothing.
We were still standing. The tunnel—at least the part we were in—was still intact.
“What the hell…” I heard Tom exclaim, from somewhere beyond Dottie.
“Oh, look!” said Dottie. “It was just the visqueen tubes! They’re full of air now. That noise was just the sound of the air rushing into the visqueen tubes. Someone must have decided to pump air in, finally.”
She was right of course. It was merely a cruel coincidence that the sound of air rushing full speed through miles of visqueen tubing makes precisely the same noise as a mine cave-in of catastrophic proportions.
We trudged onwards, glad now to be alive, the pettiness of our earlier discomforts having been put in perspective. Soon I was back to my fantasy of what needed to await us at the end of this tunnel. The terror of the would-be cave-in had hardly lessened the requirements. In fact…
Here came Mark, returning from far ahead. He’d reached our destination, and was now on his way back out.
He, at least, could tell us what fabulous sight awaited us. He, at least, could give us something to hope for, some vision of awe that would make all this torment bearable.
“What was up there?” asked Dottie. “How far ahead is it?
“There’s nothing up there,” explained Mark. “There’s just a section of rock wall they’ve scraped away. If you look closely you can see a pronounced color shift in the crystal matrix layers. They could have shown us one rock, back at the opening, and it would have been just as good. I’m out of here.”
And with that he was gone: sloshing his way back down the miles of underwater railroad track.
“To hell with this,” said Tom. And he followed Mark.
In unspoken agreement, Dottie, Rosanna and I did likewise. We didn’t need to see some stupid matrix color shift. If it hadn’t even impressed Mark, the geologist, it certainly would mean nothing to us. I didn’t even know what a color shift was, and would have been hard-pressed to define the word ‘matrix,’ for that matter.
So much for the Amazon women, the crystal encrusted cavern and the green liqueurs. After an hour and fifteen minutes of following this underwater railroad track, we turned around and began retracing our steps.
That was the most ridiculous, most worthless thing I’ve ever done,” said Dottie, as we sat together back in the aluminum fuselage while the helicopter blades began winding up again.
“The problem is just what you were talking about: tourists never come here. So they didn’t know what to do with tourists. The Chivor mine is just one long tunnel into the side of a hill. If tourists want to visit it, let ‘em. There’s the tunnel. Enjoy! That’s how it must have looked to them.”
“Yeah, I guess a sucker is born every minute.”
The Russian Hind lifted once more into the sky, with a cargo of very wet, dirty, and exhausted Congress attendees aboard.
At first we tried to look out the tiny portholes and enjoy the landscape, but it was late in the day, and the incessant vibration and thump-thump of the helicopter blades soon took their toll. Most of us fell asleep, right there on the aluminum bench, leaning against the curved fuselage or just lying over on each others shoulders.
The helicopter flew for more than an hour, and then finally dropped down to an airport—a real airport this time—in the city of Paipa. I had, by this point, become utterly confused about our location. The helicopter had seemed to fly west from Bogota this morning, and then perhaps northwest from Muzo to Chivor . Now, I was guessing the long flight to Paipa had been generallydue north. Or due south. Somewhere in there. The city of Paipa had seemed to be substantial, with a mile or so of suburbs that we’d crossed during our approach. Yet several days later, after returning home, I could not find Paipa in any of my world atlases. We were spending the night here, I knew, before being flown back to Bogota first thing in the morning, where we would connect to our international flights.
A small shuttle bus delivered us now to the resort hotel where we would spend the evening. A “fiesta” had been planned for this elite group of Emerald Congress VIP’s, but at the moment—being still covered with mud and wearing clothes that might never again be clean—none of us felt like dignitaries.
Fortunately, much can be accomplished given access to a shower and a change of clothes, and when the fiesta was ready to begin, so were we. The hotel itself had been shiny and new in the early sixties, I judged, and no one had bothered to re-decorate. It sprawled over perhaps many acres, and there were tennis courts and a pool, and that kind of thing. Poised on a hillside, the resort overlooked a lake, and we were told that Paipa was quite the tourist destination for wealthy Colombians. Yet we had little time to see the grounds because dusk had fallen and it was time to gather on one of the lawns for the Congress’s final blow-out party. I was prepared for most any kind of theme to this party, but was surprised even so. Decorating the grounds were a dozen very large inflatable replicas of various liquor bottles. Here was a 10 foot tall inflatable Remy Martin. Nearby was a fifteen foot high Noilly-Prat Vermouth. Perhaps most impressive, towering over all, was a gigantic Beefeaters’ Gin. If these things had been filled with helium we could have staged our own Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
But the message to the attendees was clear: drink up. And so we did, feeling like we’d earned it after the disappointment of the Chivor mine. A mariachi band appeared and began strolling among the guests and the pneumatic liquor bottles. This was our second mariachi band of the day—the first having played during our breakfast at Victor Caranzo’s fortress in the sky. Glittering tiki lamps provided a nice touch, and a ring of lights had been strung out on poles, somewhat defining a dance floor in the grass. A buffet dinner was served, and while we ate we were entertained by a local native dance troupe, gaily leaping and twirling under the stars. And finally a real band arrived and began playing traditional Latin dance music: sambas and rhumbas and such. The dancing continued late into the evening, and I was grateful that my wife had been a former Latin dance instructor, and had been able to convey at least a few concepts to my perennially dance-challenged feet. That, plus the effects of the open bar, and the darkness, made me feel like I wasn’t embarrassing myself too greatly.
Finally, Ana Maria went up on stage, took the microphone, appropriately thanked everyone for the Congress, and announced we would end with fireworks.
Yes, well, that made sense. I always try to end my parties with a fireworks display. True to her word, the sky illuminated with fifteen minutes of beautiful rockets and pinwheels and star cascades and the like—altogether worthy of most any 4th of July celebration in the states. I know how much those things cost, and I again felt that the government of Colombia could have been better served by signing up for Polygon’s virtual boutique program. How, exactly, did they expect to increase their emerald exports by shooting fireworks into the sky over Paipa? Or perhaps it had been arranged hastily, to make up for the horror of our long trek down the tunnel of death back in Chivor . If that was the case, I found myself at last somewhat mollified.
As I sat with Dottie and observed the explosions overhead, she made one comment that perhaps best illustrated the wisdom of the conference organizers.
Well, there’s at least one thing I’ve learned from all this,” she noted, philosophically
“As an emerald dealer, I’ll never complain again about the price of uncut emeralds. Whatever we have to pay, it’s cheap. Those miners deserve every penny they can get for their little green stones.”
And, as if to underscore her remarks, a beautiful green star shell burst overhead, bathing all of us in an emerald glow.