Surveying with the Yanomami, Part 2

Read Part 1  Read Part 3

Juan the surveyor learns to survey around large trees in the Amazon 
basin and finds an interesting new cook for the mining camp.

by Juan B. Plaza

The previous night’s dinner with Gomes, our Brazilian mining neighbor to the east, was still fresh in my mind. I reached in my pocket and examined the contents—the large diamond and gold nuggets Gomes had given me the night before to secure my “professionalism.”

“Hey, sleepy head,” was the cynical comment from Rodolfo, my professor and employer here in the Amazon basin who was standing at my door, wearing that obnoxious yellow poncho he loved so much on rainy days like this one.

“What’s up?” was all I could mumble, listening to the heavy raindrops and calculating my chances of getting anything done in such weather.

“No measuring today, right?” he asked.

“Nope,” I answered. “I wouldn’t take my transit out of its sealed case for all the money in the world. It wouldn’t survive.”

“Okay, let’s have breakfast and then you can join me and the guys at the mine site,” he said enthusiastically while turning around and walking to the improvised kitchen.

That woke me up in an instant. I had not seen the mine site yet, and had heard it was amazing with all the machinery and usual excitement of gold diggers. I jumped out of bed and in a few seconds was running behind Rodolfo to the kitchen.

In these mine camps the kitchen was the social center where all the important events took place. We gathered there twice a day for our meals and on Fridays for payday; it was also the place where I did my calculations.

I entered the kitchen, and already all the miners were there, gulping their eggs and fried fish. Rodolfo walked straight to the head of the table and sat down. The miners turned around and acknowledged his arrival with a slight bow; he really enjoyed being the big boss.

The Molinillo

I found a place near the stove and saw the cook, Manuel, frying eggs and fish and preparing dry milk, all with a single cooking utensil.

“Wow, Manuel, that’s a very useful piece of equipment,” I said, in awe of his agility with the elongated tree branch.

“Yes, it’s a molinillo!” he exclaimed, proudly showing me the cooking utensil closely.

I took it from his hand and noticed that it was basically an 18-inch-long tree with five truncated branches at the top. The wood was very firm and reminded me of cedar.

“It’s amazing that you can fry fish and prepare milk at the same time,” I added, returning the molinillo.

“Yes, sir,” he added. “My molinillo and a good knife is all I need in the kitchen.”

“I would love to have one,” I said casually. “Where did you buy it?”

“No, ingeniero, you can’t buy molinillo. You have to make molinillo,” he said, very serious.

“Can you make me one?”

“Of course!” he exclaimed, turning around, grabbing his machete from the floor, and walking out of the kitchen into the thick jungle.

I walked back to sit beside Rodolfo and wait for my fried breakfast. As I waited, I heard some commotion and then smelled something burning. It was the now-unattended stove, from where thick smoke billowed.

“Fire!” shouted one of the miners near the stove.

Three miners jumped from their seats and poured water into the frying pan.

“Where’s Manuel?” asked Rodolfo.

“I don’t know. I was chatting with him, and all of a sudden he walked out,” I said defensively.

“What?!” shouted Rodolfo, “What did you tell him?”

“Nothing, I just asked if he could make me a milinillo, or whatever the name is,” I answered.

“Did you ask him to make you a molinillo?” he confirmed, this time smiling.

All the miners started laughing, exchanging comments in their native tongue.

“What?” I asked, a bit frustrated.

“Well my dear ingeniero,” said Rodolfo, standing up and approaching my seat, “you just asked a Yanomami Indian to drop everything and focus entirely on providing you with a molinillo. That’s what you just did.”

“Me? I didn’t ask him to drop anything!”

“Well, these guys interpret your wishes as orders. I should have warned you; my mistake,” he added. And that was the last we saw of Manuel.

With the fire contained and one of the locals doing a decent job of feeding me and the crew, it wasn’t long before the guys were heading for the dugout canoes to begin the 30-minute ride to the mine site. The sky was beginning to clear and a strong sun was making its way to the jungle floor, increasing the temperature and my chances of getting some surveying done.

“I guess I’m not going to the mine site today,” I said to Rodolfo, looking at the rising sun.

“Correct,” responded Rodolfo emphatically. “You are doing some surveying and also going to Salvador to get a new cook.”

“You must be kidding!” I said.

“Nope,” he said. “You sent ours into who knows where, and now you have to find a new one. Go to Salvador and talk to Don Fernando; he probably knows a good cook who can help us for a few days. I can’t spare any of my miners and you have work to do.”

And with those words Rodolfo jumped into the dugout canoe and disappeared into the mist covering the Parupa River.

Surveying Around Trees?

I turned around to see that the only two people left in the kitchen were my faithful companions, Benito and Ladislao, drinking their coffee in silence and looking at me as if waiting for something to do.

“Okay, guys, let’s get the equipment and walk to the last point. We have work to do,” I said while walking out of the kitchen.

In 30 minutes we arrived at the last stake, and while I leveled my transit, Benito and Ladislao began clearing the brush in the general direction of our line. I zeroed in on our previous stake and gave them directions on where to clear.

Everything was going well, when suddenly after just one station we arrived at a large tree. It was at least five feet in diameter, and its canopy was easily at 50 or 60 feet, entangled with all the other trees.

“We need to cut it,” I said with my best authoritarian voice.

Ladislao and Benito looked at each other and then looked at me with disapproval, but they walked in the direction of their large ax anyway.

“What?” I asked.

“Many hours and many trees to cut,” was the succinct response from Benito.

“What do you mean, ‘many trees’?” I asked.

Benito explained that the trees in the Amazon have very shallow roots; their support system is at the top, in the canopy. We walked around the large tree as he showed me the other five or six trees that needed to be cut in order to bring down the obstruction.

“We can’t do that just to have line of sight!” I exclaimed, horrified.

The bush around the tree was basically undersized palms and sporadic shrubs that were easily cleared with the machete, so I decided to clear those instead so I could survey “around” the tree 
using straight angles, hence forming a square around the base of the trunk.

I explained my idea to Benito, and he translated to Ladislao, who began cleaning around the tree immediately. In order not to lose too much precision I asked Benito to clear a rectangle of minimum 30 feet on the short side, so my target with the transit would not be too thick on the crosshairs.

I showed Benito how to hold the stake at the exact 90° 00’ 00” while I measured the required distance, but he and Ladislao caught on to the technique pretty fast. It took us a few minutes to establish every new corner of the rectangle, and we spent most of the time finding the best place for the stake and the correct distance.

Next Adventure: A Cook

That morning around 10 o’clock, after having bypassed our first large tree, Benito reminded me of the cook in Salvador.

“Oh, my God, I forgot!” I said, adding, “Okay, guys, let’s pack the gear and head for camp.”

The trip to Salvador was a quick two hours downstream instead of the grueling four hours against the powerful current of the Caroni.

A little after noon we arrived at a dirty wooden pier that smelled of something cooking, mixed with fuel oil and rotting vegetation. The dugout canoe heaved against the river flow, and we needed to be careful not to fall in the muddy river as we disembarked. Once on firm ground, we walked a couple of blocks, with macaws screeching in the background, to “the” grocery store in Salvador for some quick lunch and information on where to find a cook.

Don Fernando, the store’s owner, offered us a delicious local delicacy (I’d learned not to ask anymore) and sat down to talk.

“The only people in Salvador from Monday to Friday are the prostitutes,” he said seriously. “I’m sure you can find one who’s willing to cook for a few days.”

Benito and Ladislao smiled.

“You’ve got to be kidding!” I said, standing up.

“I’ve heard that Dorothea Smith is looking for some extra income,” he said sarcastically. “Her business has been a bit down lately.”

“This is a set up!” I said loudly. “I’m sure Rodolfo is behind this.”

“No, ingeniero, Dorothea is a great cook,” he said. “She’s from Jamaica, and I’m sure she’s willing to go with you today. She was here yesterday, and she asked me for a job during the week.”

“Okay, okay. Where can I find her?” I asked, giving up any hope of alternatives.

“It’s the third house—I mean hotel—to the left,” he answered.

Main Street in Salvador was the closest there is to an old-west town in a Hollywood movie. The road was just dirt, and there were wooden houses on both sides. People were sitting outside, under a precarious shade with improvised fans fighting the merciless heat.

When we got to the third hotel to the left, three women were outside, whispering to each other and laughing.

“Yes, good afternoon ladies,” I said shyly. “I’m looking for Dorothea Smith.”

“Dorothea?” they asked in unison and began laughing hysterically.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Doesn’t she work here?”

“Yes, darling, but you need someone younger like me!” one of the women said, standing up and swirling on the wooden terrace.

I blushed like a child, and then Benito and Ladislao joined the three women in laughter.

Suddenly the door to the hotel opened, and a woman stood there with a furious expression. Dorothea was heavy, about 65 years old, and dark skinned.

“Who’s looking for me?” said Dorothea.

“Are you Dorothea Smith?” I asked, sheepishly.

“What do you think?” was her rude response.

“Well okay, I’m here to offer you a job as a cook at the Parupa mine camp.” I was relieved to have mumbled my speech in one shot.

We discussed the wages, and a few minutes later she came out holding a small bag and wearing a large hat.

“One condition though,” she said, stopping in her tracks.

“What?” I asked.

“Everyone will call me by my artistic name, Samantha,” she said, and then she walked briskly in the direction of the canoe.

Benito and Ladislao looked at me and smiled.

That evening after a delicious meal of beans and rice with some unnamed meat, Rodolfo approached me outside the kitchen.

“Good job on the cook; congratulations,” he said, lighting a cigarette.

“Well, I also managed to advance about 100 yards on the northeast line by applying some creative surveying techniques,” I said proudly.

“I’m sure you are dying to tell me all about it, but I’m too tired for technicalities,” he said, as he walked away.

I went back into the kitchen for a last black coffee before bedtime, and I saw that Samantha was busy cleaning up the mess.

“Ingeniero,” she said.

“Yes,” I responded politely.

“You don’t like me, do you?” she asked.

“Ur, hm, I don’t know; I haven’t thought about it,” I said really, really embarrassed.

“You are too young to enjoy a good thing,” she said, turning around and leaving the kitchen.

I stood there with my coffee mug in my hand, wishing for good weather the next day so I could get as far away as possible from that kitchen.

Part three appears in an upcoming 
Juan B. Plaza is the author of the book Juan the Surveyor (soon to be published); he holds a degree in geodesy, a master’s in digital photogrammetry, and an MBA in finance from Florida International University. Juan lives in Boca Raton, Florida, and is the CEO of Advanced Flight Support, a maintenance management company of Latin American-based aircraft. Juan can be reached at juan.plaza@

» Back to our July 2011 Issue