Friday, June 27, 2008

Gold and Funerals

My friend's uncle used to own a clothes shop in the town of Paranaita, at the Southern edge of the Brazilian Amazon, during the time of the gold rush maybe twenty or thirty years ago. A steady flow of garimpeiros - gold-diggers - would come through with their clothes, which were made of the cheapest material, hanging from them in shreds. The uncle would invite them to make use of his bathroom, wash off the thick wet dust caking them, and leave their worthless rags in a corner.

Once the shop had closed in the evenings, the owner would collect the old clothes and burn them in the bath-tub. A sieve he had installed inside the plug collected the unnoticed gold fragments from the clothes, along with those the garimpeiros had washed off their bodies, which formed a clot of the precious metal. He quietly accumulated his fortune in this way.

On occasional days somebody would unearth a sudden explosion of wealth but, as most had no experience or skill with money, more often than not it would be gone the next. The entrepreneurial mentality was stubborn and hungry. The mines employed garimpeiros who descended underground, applying mercury to separate the coveted gold from the dirt, and he relied on a machine at the surface to supply him with air. After months of work an employer standing up above might choose to shut off the garimpeiro's air and so economize his salary.
The corpses wouldn't go to waste though. Becoming a currency of their own, they would pass through the funeral parlour in their scores. At that time the undertaker's house was the grandest in Paranaita.

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