Monday January 24
Two and a half years ago I was approached by a NGO from Holland with the promise of ethically mined gold. The first response from me was that we had been here before. It started well but after we had designed a small collection, which was to be made from this ethically sourced gold (for which we were paying a total premium), it became very clear that the flow was more like a trickle. We were told that between deliveries we may have to wait up to six months. I don’t care how ethical it is, if someone has ordered an engagement ring, putting off the big day while we wait for a guy and a knapsack to turn up for months on end just doesn’t wash. Anyway fast forward two and a half years and the Dutch chap assured me that the idea was to source a product that reached the jeweller in a timely and consistent way. I signed up.
Over the past two and a half years David (my brother) and I have adjusted our business to be able to accept the gold while carrying on business as usual. To cut a long story short, as my friend Gary Kemp, would say. We are there. On Tuesday, David and I fly to Lima to trace back to the source our supply of ethically mined gold.
The communities who mine the product have worked with Solidaridad (mouthful I know) for the past four years, in order to change their lives. The miners are paid properly and the women are paid for the first time. No child labour and no harmful chemicals. David and I are so excited about this trip I can’t tell you.
Tuesday January 25
Having finally hit the sack at 2.30am, the 5am call this morning was exactly what you might expect - painful. A lot of people would have had an early night ahead of such a long trip, but that’s most people and this is our trip not theirs. Also we would have missed a lot of fun at Hix last night, where apart from our party of seven there were by coincidence another 20 or 30 other friends being wined and dined by Louis Vuitton. Almost all of them had a bit of advice on what to do, what not to wear, who to call or what to drink while in Peru. I had no idea that so many could know so much about a relatively off the beaten track country. Of course no one had actually been.
Still a little inebriated David (my brother) and I were in terminal 3 by 6am.
Landed in Lima. Hot sultry and everything I imagined. The man parading my name up and down the concourse could have been there all night had Dave not deciphered what was written on his plaque…. SPEPHEN WEBFPER . So close.
Directed to the hot spot of town by our hotel; it soon became apparent that we were in the hot; fast food spot. The many fried options shared the area with hundreds of shoe shops. I guess it’s a good combo - high calorie food and the tools to walk it off.
Wednesday January 26
Met the whole Solidaridad team at breakfast this morning.
For reasons that later became clear later I was the only one who ordered coffee. I am open to the possibility that my new found fondness of Pret’s Flat White may have clouded my judgment as to what constitutes a good cup but the thick liquorice brew I was served should have come with a health warning. Even after adding the complete jug of milk the colour remained jet black. The mouth puckering bitterness and instant palpitations lead me to conclude it had been spiked.
My new Peruvian friends just laughed. I guess they had ordered tea for a reason.
Our long road trip to the mining area was to be made in a Hyundai mini bus, which with, seven adults and luggage, was leaning more towards the mini than the bus.
The road out of Lima followed the coast on one side and the sprawling slums on the other. Once out of the city, the landscape changed every few miles, the two consistent elements being the Pacific to the right of us and the Andes to the left; stuck in the middle we headed south. Soon, apart from irrigated areas, the terrain became desert; miles and miles of moonscape-like desert.
Then out of nowhere appeared a brand new development of condos, fashion stores and nightclubs; completely targeted at the young and affluent. Shabby trucks and mopeds gave way to Range Rovers and BMW’s. This was the new destination for the hedonistic Liman’s, it’s known as Asia.
We had lunch on Asia Boulevard. Ceviche, octopus, scallops - not peasant but definitely Peruvian we were told.
From lunch to dusk we drove making only one more stop at Nazca; a town in the desert famous for a phenomenon - centuries old carved lines in the rock depicting a monkey, a spider and circles so vast that they can only be fully seen from the air. No one seems to know much about why they are there or their significance.
Nazca ended up being our stop for the night. After 12 hours driving and with a further three and a half to go we stopped initially for dinner at an old Hacienda-style hotel. It was faded but beautiful. Complete with a pool table with two balls missing, an empty swimming pool and a couple of old noisy peacocks. We were so car sick, I for one would have settled for a couple of Pesco sours and some ethical fool’s gold rather than carry on that night to the mine.
Thursday January 26
Left our lovely hacienda totally oblivious to how gruelling and emotional the day ahead was to become.
The route into the Aurelsa mine was going to take two and a half hours. The riverbed had long become a dust bowl, a valley created millions of years ago by a glacial shift and now about as welcoming as Millwall is to the away fans.
Climbing up one of the mountains we got the first view of the sprawl of shabby dusty dwellings nestled in the dry valley. Dotted amongst the mix of brick, corrugated iron and straw single room houses (obviously following the three little pigs’ school of architecture) we could see the red brick wells where mercury is used to extract the gold from the rock. This traditional process is not only harmful for the workers but due to unregulated conditions the residue frequently finds its way into the earth and water table. To support an alternative kind of processing is one of the reasons we have been invited here by Solidaridad.
We headed to the office of the Aurelsa mine to meet the chairman of the board; Juan. He had arrived in this valley 25 years ago as a 15-year-old boy who had heard there was gold in these hills. As hard as it was for us to imagine living such a basic and remote life here today, 25 years ago there was nothing but the allure of rocks laced with gold. Over those years more and more prospectors had settled, starting families and a life. Juan and the others had built the school, the medical centre… everything.
The next part of the schedule we weren’t prepared for - a trip down the shaft. The mineshaft was full height (if you are no taller than me that is) and a two-person width straight into the mountain. As we entered we heard a series of thumps. This was either the sound of the 50ft woman coming toward us or the timed dynamite explosions at the business end of things hundreds of metres into the black abyss. There were no lights. Handing out canaries and Davy lamps it became obvious that Juan had every intention of revealing the full extent of his good business practice. We followed him in; every now and again we would stop and stare down another bottomless pit where exploratory work was being carried out.
Then our worst nightmare happened, right in front of us a load of rock fell from somewhere. Collectively the non-miners hearts stopped. Juan started to shout and a light came running toward us. A guy unaware that we were there was working in a parallel shaft above causing the rock to fall through one of the connecting shafts. Finally we got to the face. Miners were hammering holes into the bed rock and inserting sticks of dynamite and joining lengths of white detonation cable. My sense of self preservation went into overdrive right then. It was time to get out.
Friday January 27
Chala is the Wild West. Sin City on the Pacific south coast of Peru that services the thousands of predominantly men who mine or work for the mines in this whole vast region.
Needless to say by night when the gangs of men rock up by the truck load drinking Pesco till they’re banjo’d, business is brisk in the endless parades of whore houses, which make up Chala. Chala, by the way, in Quechua (the indigenous language here) means the bit you don’t eat of a corn husk once the corn has gone. I believe there are many people like that in Chala.
Yesterday’s journey to the Aurelasa mine was without doubt a rough crossing but nothing could have prepared us for the four hours we were about to undertake in order to reach the remote villages at 7000ft and home to the next mine working towards fairtrade certification.
How anyone could build anything up there is a question as big as how did the druids transport those rocks to the spot that became Stonehenge. Shops, one selling Honda motorbikes, a school, streets of the usual brick, wood and straw houses and of course a football pitch, but best of all a market stall selling CDs and DVDs. I bought Bruce Lee’s ‘Enter the Dragon’.
One of the unique things about the San Luis mine is that women are also among the miners, which is normally considered unlucky.
We met Maria. She had four beautiful children, a tiny black sheep and some chickens in her home\corner shop. Oh yes, and she was pregnant. She had been a miner for 20 years and her husband was a miner. I asked if there was competition between them about the amount of gold they find, she looked at me as though I was stupid and replied, “Of course there is, what do you think?” She also said that behind every man is a great woman, but in her case she was in front (we had no doubt). By now Maria, cautious at first was laughing and would not stop talking. About her life, her kids’ lives and the issues of life at 7000ft in a mining community (of which there are many). The main concern is the contamination of the village due to the use of mercury in processing the ore. Next on her list: a good chance in life for her children.
We stopped once back on the road and from a collection of road side stalls we bought chilli stuffed olives from the nearby olive groves and some cold beer. In some warped way we thought we deserved it.
Saturday January 28
We spent last night back in the Majoro hotel outside Nazca. After an excellent dinner of Peruvian bass, Argentinean wine and for some reason a lot of British toilet humour (you can take the boys out of Gravesend but… you know how it goes) we attempted once again to play pool on the table that resembled the terrain we had been driving on, only marginally greener. There was no black ball, no white ball and cues that made the local peach-coloured bananas appear straight. Despite the horrible odds, my brother and I challenged the table but of course never stood a chance. Then it was over to the ping pong table where we fared better until an inquisitive lama came from nowhere and took a fancy to the ball (which gave us a clue as to the whereabouts of the missing black and white pool balls).
Today we had the luxury of a lie-in. As a consequence David and I. who shared a room for the second time this trip and for the first time in over 35 years prior to that, woke at 11.45am. Perfect. With Peru entering the height of summer and now that we were not up a mountain we realised just how hot and beautiful it was.
We set out on the five-hour journey back towards Lima with an overnight stop at the beach house of our guide Gonzalo and his wife Alicia.
The beach community we were staying at for the night was so beautiful we had a fleeting moment of guilt after everything we had seen over past three days. Thankfully it was only fleeting. This was paradise in every sense - surfing waves, white sand and ceviche.