Friday, March 2, 2012

Gold Fever

There was a basic rhythm to what may seem, at first glance, a madness of motion. One man stood waist deep in a trench he had dug out of the wet earth, his upper body flashing up and down as he flung to the side on the ground above him spadefuls of what looked like wet gravel.  His partner, a short distance away, was sluicing pails of muddy water on an improvised water trough made of wood and sheet metal, essentially washing the gravel clean of sediment and dirt.

A third man squatted by a small stream, a small plastic basin on hand, both hands alternately dipping and lifting the basin with its sample of the same gravel in and out of the water while occasionally pouring excess water out to flush away impurities.  A small lad kept rushing back and forth carrying pails of exhumed earth, his bare legs sinking almost up to his knees as he trudged through mud and muck.

They were just one group among many scattered all over the ruined landscape which to my eyes seemed to be more greenish-yellow muddy water than actual land.  Clumps of scraggly coconut trees and low scrubs complete the whole scene but water dominated everything whether pooled in stagnant mud holes or rushing about in swiftly flowing discolored streams.

I was in a car parked on the side of the highway near the vicinity of Barangay San Vicente in the outskirts of the town of Barobo which is about 18 or so kilometers to the southwest of Lianga and watching what is fast becoming a common sight in many remote areas in this part of the country - ordinary men, women, children and even entire families, using traditional and age-old techniques, vigorously engaged in the laborious and desperate search to find traces of that elusively rare and immensely valuable metal that is gold.

Of course, Barobo has always been, since I can remember, a gold town.  When I was a young lad going around the then dusty roads of the province with my father in the 1970's, the sight of men and women walking on the roadsides and carrying on their heads hemp sacks packed with dirt was quite common as one approached the outskirts of the town,  It was my father who patiently explained to me that the gold bearing earth, dug out of placer deposits, was being painstakingly brought to rivers or creeks where it was panned for the minute specks of the precious metal.

This was and still remains, of course, gold mining of the most personal and amateur kind. The kind immortalized and romanticized in literature. television and the movies.  Ordinary men pitting stubborn persistence, sheer muscle power and the minimum of equipment against a hostile and challenging environment for the remote chance of striking it rich in a sudden shower of gold nuggets or gold dust.

Yet there was nothing even remotely glamorous or romantic about the reality in front of me in San Vicente.  Nothing but mind-numbing drudgery and backbreaking labor.  Nothing but the filthy wallowing in mud among the leeches and the other vermin of the earth. Nothing but the relentless toil and ridiculously sublime effort for the few precious yellow metallic grains that could mean the difference between abject destitution and hope. No other form of gambling has much greater stakes or, for that matter, much higher odds.


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