Surveying with the Yanomami, Part 3

Read Part 1  Read Part 2

While working with a pile driver for a diamond-mining team, Juan the surveyor learns encompassing lessons in the Amazon jungle.

by Juan B. Plaza

The air was thick with humidity and almost-unbearable heat. The rains had arrived, yet I wasn’t even halfway through surveying the Parupa mining concession, the job given me by my geodesy professor Rodolfo, for which I had travelled to southern Venezuela three months ago.

One evening, as I was walking from my hut to join the miners for our last meal of the day, I heard in the background a distant rumbling that presaged a storm. Rodolfo and his crew had just arrived at camp from the mine site, and their spirits were high, even though their tired expressions told the story of just another difficult day in the jungle.

Rodolfo was unusually chirpy as he led the men into the large kitchen hut with smoke rising from it: the dinner announcement.

“Hey, Surveyor!” he shouted from across the table, raising his hands in the air.

“Shut up,” I whispered under my breath, upset at the lack of progress of the last few weeks.

“What’s wrong?” He placed a friendly hand on my shoulder.

“Oh, nothing, really. I’m just very frustrated at not being able to advance towards the northwest corner with all this rain.”

“Don’t worry, I have great news!” he exclaimed. “Tomorrow we are going to Salvador to pick up the pile driver machine. It finally arrived from Caracas.”

“The what machine?” I asked.

“It’s a hammer pile driver to get geological samples from the regions of the mine that you have reached with your measurements,” he said, munching on some crackers.

“I’m not a geologist, I’m a geodesist!”

He laughed and drank some rum from his thermos.

“Oh, come on Mr. Geodesist, you could use some exercise and some time out of this camp. Take your surveying equipment with you, and if there’s good weather you can stop the geology and continue with the geodesy.” He laughed at his own wittiness.

“You are hilarious,” I said softly, taking a drink from the thermos.

“No, I’m serious, this machine could tell us things about this river that we can’t even imagine today. Your north line goes straight through an old Parupa riverbed that might be loaded with gold and diamonds,” he said excitedly.

I was cynical. “Sounds like I’ll be doing something important.”

“Oh, come on, Juan!” He raised his arms in the air, exasperated. “Look at the bright side: you will be out there with your friends Benito and Ladislao doing something that we need, and you’ll be ready to survey if the weather improves.”

“Yeah, sorry, Rodolfo. It’s all the wasted time that’s driving me nuts,” I responded.

“Plus,” he added mischievously, “you could definitely position the sampling holes with the transit while you’re at it. You are the perfect man for the job!”

“Yeah, that needed to be done anyway, you’re right,” I said, caustically, helping myself to the rest of his rum.

(1) How to Pull a Pile Driver by Canoe

Transporting the one-ton, hammer-pile-driver contraption from Salvador was no easy task. The machine was basically a powerful diesel engine mounted on a skid and tied on one end with a 20-foot-tall crane.

Rodolfo, anticipating the difficulties of moving the pile driver to the mine, had commissioned a small steel barge from a local welder, to be hauled upstream by his largest dugout canoe. The driving stone easily weighed 200 pounds.

We used long boards to drag the pile driver onto the barge. It was an operation that required careful coordination on both sides; any imbalance would make us drop 2,000 pounds of steel to the bottom of the river.

Once the driver was on board, the journey upstream took eight hours as opposed to the normal four; the dugout canoe was particularly unstable and we broke the tow rope several times.

(2) The crew for surveying and sampling was much larger than my usual close trio of Yanomami brothers Benito and Ladislao plus me. There to operate the pile driver were three brothers, Tomas, Eduardo, and Ricardo. Tomas and Eduardo were in their mid-20s, but Ricardo was about eight or nine years old and very quiet. He rarely spoke but occasionally honored me by answering a question. He was a very skilled boater, though, and always piloted the dugout canoe when we were busy measuring or sampling.

Our first task once the pile driver was mobile was to locate the surveying monument that was closer to the prospecting place. Rodolfo gave me a map with about 25 places from where he wanted me to bring samples. Each red dot on the map also had the depth written in meters.

I showed the map to Benito and Ladislao, and they both agreed that the closest monument from our polygon was C4. This particular monument had a great advantage, which was being closer to the riverbank, therefore making the transport of the pile driver to land shorter.

We headed in the direction of that monument when I noticed excited conversation amongst the five Yanomamis.

“What’s up?” I asked, casually.

“River very high,” Benito responded. The other four assented with nodding heads and worried looks.

“What’s wrong with that?” I asked, knowing that I was missing something.

“Monument under water” was Benito’s dry response.

“Oh my God ….” I felt a sudden rush of adrenalin.

This was the never-ending story in the jungle: Every time I thought I was getting close to a goal, events happened that derailed my plans. The trick was never to despair and always look for alternatives. My universal first reaction was to ask the Yanomamis for advice; for them these “white folk” tasks were merely a job, so they didn’t have my predisposition to jump first to the worst-case scenario.

The slow advance of the canoe and the following barge gave me plenty of time to study the map and gauge my options. We were about a half a mile from the monument and just a river bend away.

What if the monument was under water, as they said? What if the marked sites were under water too? What then?

Suddenly, it hit me! Pile driving can be done underwater. All you need is a platform: an offshore prospecting platform.

As the canoe began the slow turn to the right that would put us squarely on the vicinity of monument C4, I turned to Benito. “Benito, if the monument is under water, can you help me build a platform?” I asked, excitedly.

“A platform?” he asked, with a confused expression.

“Yes, you know the kind they use for offshore drilling,” I said.

“Huh?” He looked at the others for help.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “You probably haven’t seen one yet. Let me explain.”

Ricardo took control of the engine while I explained to the others what a drilling platform was. They spoke to each other in Yanomami and sounded excited.

The canoe finished the turn around the corner, presenting us with a bleak view: what used to be a river with defined banks was now a huge lake.

A Yanomami Platform for the Driver

Benito looked at me and said: “Yes, we can build platform.”

“You can?” I asked, hopeful.

“Is not too deep, and we reach bottom,” he elaborated, which was something unusual for a Yanomami.

“Perfect!” I said.

We spent the rest of the afternoon looking for the monument, until we found it under five feet of murky water.

“We will use Caraoto,” said Benito, who then jumped into the water with a long piece of wood to stake the monument. I tied a red bandana to the top of the long stake and went ashore with the barge.

“Why a Caraoto?” I asked. (It’s a type of tree in the Amazon.)

“Very strong under water” was his short response.

Benito and Ladislao walked into the jungle looking for a Caraoto tree while Eduardo and Tomas prepared camp. I had planned for a week in the prospecting site, so an area needed to be cleared and prepared for the night.

Morning brought a flurry of activity: Benito and Ladislao took the ax to the Caraoto tree while Tomas, Eduardo, and Ricardo gathered a very specific vine that, according to them, was particularly strong. Around noon we heard a loud crash, and Tomas told me it was the Caraoto tree in the distance.

(3) In order to build the platform, the Caraoto needs to be cut alongside its axis eight times in order to make long boards with a cross section resembling a piece of cake. They hammered the six long boards into the river bottom to form a rectangle; they built the top of the platform using the vine and the rest of the logs.

Once the platform was firmly planted on the bottom and could withstand the weight of all five of us, we cut a hole directly on top of the monument and leveled the transit vertically over it within a few inches of the submerged bronze plaque; it was good enough for geological positioning.

Eduardo, Tomas, and Ricardo went to find another Caraoto for the second platform, while Benito and Ladislao took the measuring rod and found monument C3 on land so I could zero in and locate the prospecting places.

I had calculated angle and distance for each hole on my map and was now ready to determine these spots on the ground. Most of them fell on water, so we built three more platforms over the course of one week.

(4) Putting the machine on the platform was an entirely different task. This was the fire test for the rudimentary structures. The pile driver weighed almost a ton, and it worked by hammering a large steel hammer into the ground repeatedly. We were very relieved when the platform held.

With the pile driver on the platform, we assembled the large crane that held the steel barrel and began hammering tubes into the ground for days on end. Once every few hours we took the tubes out and placed the retrieved cores inside plastic bags, which we labeled with the pile-driver site-number and the depth. Each depth had two bags: one was destined for a geological laboratory in Caracas; the other was for a local examination by the miners.

After almost a month on the lake, we took several-hundred bags back to camp. Half the bags were sent to Caracas as planned and half were opened locally, their contents carefully examined by the miners near the river.

(5) In one of the bags we found a small diamond, so Rodolfo immediately ordered the crew to the site corresponding to the sample. The prospecting canoe contained a mini vibrator to separate the diamonds and an air-pumping device for the diver. It was a crude contraption, but it worked.

(6) Back at the site, Benito put on the diving mask and jumped into the murky water. I couldn’t believe the jobs these Yanomami men were willing to undertake in order to satisfy a thirst for riches so alien to their culture.

The search for gold and diamonds in the Parupa mining concession was successful and also, predictably, ended in tragedy. I lost one good friend to the malice and greed that the Brazilian miner Gomes had predicted months before, and I witnessed how mercury polluted the once-pristine environment. But I also saw Benito and Ladislao quitting the mining business and returning to the deep jungle, where they belonged.

As for me, I returned to my city life and a successful career in the surveying field. The eight months I spent on the Parupa River taught me many lessons and showed me hardships that, until then, were unimaginable to me. I will never forget my faithful Yanomami companions, Benito and Ladislao, who helped me survive in their environment, in their house, the Amazon basin.

This is the final part in our series on surveying with the Yanomami. For more of these stories, look for Plaza’s soon-to-be published book, Juan the Surveyor.
Juan B. Plaza holds a degree in geodesy, a masters 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.

» Back to our August 2011 Issue