Adventures of a Broken Foot: Namibia

Adventures of a Broken Foot: Namibia

I didn’t advertise my upcoming trip to Namibia because I had been forewarned. Yes, Namibia has a wealth of minerals just like most other African countries. In the gem trade, it is well known for its gorgeous blue and blue-green tourmalines, for example. But at this time, there is little to no production. Most of what is on the market dates from 10-12 years ago. The material is surely in the ground but at this time there are no larger ongoing mining projects for gems (there is some production near Karibib). There’s lots of ore production (copper, iron, zinc) and at times these yield bi-products of minerals, but as far as I was able to ascertain (and also confirm on site), the small amount of minerals and rough gems that come out find their way into the market through private hands. But more about that later in this blog – or the next one. I’m a chatty blogger, as you know. I always have a lot to say, so you gotta hang in there and read!

Let’s, therefore, start at the beginning. Last summer, my travel and gem hunting buddy, Jochen from Jentsch minerals, asked me to join him on his second – and last – trip to Namibia. He’s turning 80 in October and revisiting this beautiful country was on his bucket list. Back in 1966, when he was just 22 and working on his masters in geology, Jochen traveled to Namibia in search of minerals and adventure.

Namibia, in brief, was a German colony from 1884 until the end of WWI (1914) when it was controlled by South Africa. Namibia gained its independence in 1990, and it ended apartheid the same year. Namibia is now a peaceful and very modern country, perhaps the most modern in all of Africa. It derives much of its income from tourism due to its plentiful wild animals and national parks, as well as its unique geography: it has the largest coastal desert in the world, as well as beautiful canyons and red rock formations reminiscent of the American South West. And as mentioned above, Namibia also profits from its wealth of natural ore. A German geologist told me about projects under way for Namibia to increase ore production, but also learn how to manufacture metal for industrial use with these minerals so that more of the mining profits stay in the country.

In 1966, Jochen arrived in the capitol Windhoek after a 3-day flight from Germany with stops in Spain, Angola and South Africa, and then made his way north to the famous Tsumeb mine by riding a local train for 22 hours. We made the same trip by car, and it took approximately 4 hours, so you can imagine the speed of the train back then.

Now known as the Ongopolo mine, Tsumeb was discovered in 1893 and remained open until 1990 when it closed due to flooding. Attempts were made to pump the water out but they were unsuccessful.

The Tsumeb mine produced copper, lead and zinc (among other metals), but among collectors it is mainly known for its wealth of extremely rare minerals – over 240 different minerals, in fact. 55 of these are totally unique to the mine and have not been found anywhere else in the world. Among the more well known minerals found are gorgeous specimens of dioptase, azurite, calcite, wulfenite. Many of the finds are now in museums all over the world. No wonder, therefore, that the mine attracted Jochen’s attention, and he desperately wanted to explore it himself.

By a tremendous stroke of luck, the geologist that had previously analyzed the mineral samples had quit, and the person in charge offered the job to Jochen. He stayed in Tsumeb for five weeks! Each day when his shift ended, Jochen was allowed a couple of hours in the mine to find specimens; and this is how he started to scale up his collection. Had Jochen stayed in Tsumeb, he told me, he would now be a millionaire. Fortunately, money isn’t everything!

Anyway, Jochen had always longed to return to discover the rest of the country, and I am always up for adventure, so I joined him with great pleasure. Our third companion was another collector and hobby geologist, Klaus K., Jochen’s best friend.

We arrived in Windhoek early on a Friday morning from Frankfurt and headed straight to “Savannah Autovermietung” where we had rented a Toyota 4x4 with roof tents and full camping supplies. I’d recommend them to you but while their cars are in good shape, their roof tents are a mess. First, we almost lost a bracket because it was screwed on with a makeshift screw that didn’t really fit, and later in the trip when I was already in the hospital, one of the rails that held the tent broke in half and cost Jochen and Klaus 2 days of their trip to get it soldered. So Savannah is a no go.

We spent the first day in Windhoek at a tiny ‘hotel’ aptly called Tourmaline guest house that I do recommend: it had just four rooms overlooking a pool, free breakfast and mongoose visits for $25/night. We ordered food delivery for dinner just like in New York (Thai food, even), relaxed on our veranda. Saturday, we headed north.

Contrary to most Sub Saharan African countries, the main roads in Namibia are mostly paved. And even the gravel roads are very passable, leaving clouds of dust as they passed us going above 50mph. This made our travels so convenient that Jochen actually complained. “No driving challenge,” he said. But he’s been to Africa 300 times, I’ve been to Africa 3 times. I thought it was just fine.

We did get to face a challenge, however, just not one Jochen intended. An hour north of Windhoek, we were stopped by the police. The officer took a quick look inside the car and spotted Jochen not wearing his seat belt in the back. “This will cost you N$1000, and our receipt book is finished, so you have to drive back to Windhoek to pay,” he said. Shit.

Well. This is Africa. So we figured, let’s try the African way. “We would love to get to Tsumeb today,” Jochen responded. “I used to work there, back in 1966. This is a trip down memory lane.” “Is there anything you can do to help us?” I added.

The officer paused and then asked if we had N$500 in cash. We did. Of course. Five minutes later, we were back on our way. This is Africa!

Why am I saying this? Because Africans say it. They know their way is not that of what we call the West (no, Europe is NOT west of Africa). Labor is cheap because it is plentiful, and correspondingly most wages will not be sufficient to live on. A regular worker will make anywhere between N$1500 and perhaps N$6000 per month ($75-$300). A restaurant meal in the boonies is N$100, a doctor’s visit N$250. A typical supermarket bill N$500. Therefore, charging tourists more for a taxi ride, asking for money when pointing the way, and yes, negotiating out of a traffic ticket by requesting cash are a way of life. And a necessity for many. I do not always like it, but I no longer judge it.  

Less than three hours later, we arrived at our first geological stop to admire the world’s largest meteorite. The Hoba Meteorite, as it is called, is a big, shiny, black hunk of metal weighing 130,000 pounds. Found in 1920, it was so heavy that it has never been moved from its impact site. It landed exactly where it is now about 80,000 years ago and at the time, it annihilated everything within a 20-mile radius. It did more damage than Hiroshima, Jochen explained to me. I’m including some pictures, but if you aren’t a geologist, I’m not sure it is truly worthwhile checking it out.

Our next destination was Tsumeb. The town itself had lost its bustle but as a gateway for tourists heading into Etosha National Park, it provided great accommodations: the ‘Minen Hotel’ has a 100 year history. It offers modern accommodations, lush gardens and a pool, as well as excellent German and International cuisine. The rooms were less than $50 per person, and my fantastic T-bone steak was not even $10. Last time I had anything this good I paid $60 in Manhattan.

Early the next morning, I accompanied Jochen on a trip down memory lane. We located the old open pit and the mining shafts, taking some pictures. The main strip was devoid of people on a Sunday, but the local gas station turned out to be the hangout both for passing tourists like us as well as locals looking to chat with you and beg for cash or food to get through the day. The latter is commonplace in Africa and needs to be understood for what it is. People are poor and needy, they have to ask, they mean no disrespect. Of course this can feel scary or pushy but it need not be. Sometimes we give something, other times we clearly say no. Namibia has among the largest white populations in Sub-Saharan Africa, approximately 30%. But the white people have over 90% of the money. Economic disparity among racial lines is commonplace.

After we supplied ourselves with a full tank of gas and several bottles of water, we started north for Etosha National Park. Etosha is now Africa’s largest national park, with Tanzania’s Serengeti coming second. Contrary to Serengeti, you can drive through Etosha without needing to hire an expensive touring company. In addition, the entrance fees and overnight lodgings are a fraction of the cost of Serengeti. In fact, measured by the Euro or American Dollar, everything in Namibia is extremely affordable.

Most of Etosha’s camp sites also offer lodges, a restaurant and a pool. At Halali camp, our overnight stop, we spent the evening watching the animals at a watering hole, watching various groups of animals taking baths in succession based on rank. The elephants went first of course; they were later joined by 8 or 9 rhinos – a rare site for African parks. The zebras and gazelles kept a safe distance but circled the area until the rhinos were done, then they took their turn having fun. We watched during sundown, sitting in total silence so not to disturb, enjoying the elephants spraying their offspring and enjoying themselves. We then went to the outdoor restaurant for dinner: Kudu (antelope) steak with pepper sauce and potatoes.  

Our next destination was the famous Namibian desert. Our trip took us through an impoverished small town by the name of Khorixas, then to a gorgeous campsite in between red rock formations. We reached it just before dark. It is important not to drive in the dark, especially as a tourist because there are no street lights and animal crossings. You may run into an antelope, or even a giraffe (though less likely).

The camp was nestled between red rock formations reminiscent of the Arizona desert, which brighten up at night. The main lodge sits on an elevation and has a pool from which you can watch the sunset with the house cat and dog keeping you company. The dog, whose name I forgot but whose memory will stay with me forever, will become the protagonist in adventure of my left foot.

We decided not to set up our tent as it was late, and take advantage of the ‘glamping’ alternative instead. For $13 per person, we got to sleep in one of the lodge’s tents, fully furnished with beds and nightstand, table, chairs; and outside a patio complete with fireplace, even a sink with running water, and electricity. A brick outhouse with a shower, bathroom and warm water completed our setup. The water was heated by coal ovens that were started at 7 a.m. We had electricity and even a USB port next to the bed. For dinner and breakfast, we had the option of eating at the main lodge ($5 per meal).

The next morning, we set out to find a copper mine by the name of ‘Mesopotamia’. Our research suggested that it was the source of unusual bubble shaped opal crystals that Klaus wanted to buy. Guided by a young Damara woman named Tanya, we drove the 30 miles across small and uneven dirt roads into the Tundra. Shortly after passing a date farm we arrived at one of the dumps from the mine and stopped to look at the rocks. Mindful of the plentiful local snakes, we started looking through the rocks and chopping some of the more promising ones apart. We didn’t see the bubbly opal formations we were looking for but found lots of malachite as well as turquoise mineral that looked like chrysocolla and azurite (subject to confirmation by a lab as any visual analysis will get you only so far).

We gathered some of the nicer looking material and loaded it into the car. Then we headed another mile or so down the road until it ended at a group of makeshift buildings behind which, alas, we saw mining pits. A group of workers directed us to their supervisor, a small middle aged Chinese. We showed him the images from our mineral book. “Only find one time,” he explained in broken English, showing us two rather low grade rocks with the bubbly formations we sought. “Copper only but work stop because no water.” Indeed, water is a very precious resource in Namibia and uninformed tourists are always asked to be mindful. (At one point, Jochen and Klaus even donated 20 liters of water from our tank to a woman living in the middle of nowhere who helped them find another mine. She was eternally grateful.)

While we were skeptical that there was no opal, we decided to turn back. Often, the claim that nothing was found just boils down to there being nothing for sale. Quite possibly, there were other buyers before us, or the supervisor already has clients for it. After all, any collector’s minerals are bi-products, so the owners of the claim don’t have any interest in it and so this stuff wanders off under the table.

For the second night at our camp, we decided to do a practice run at setting up the tents, and after a swim to cool off from the 100-degree temperature, we enjoyed a dinner of fried and breaded Kudu (antelope) at the lodge.

Much to my surprise, I had a great night’s sleep in the tent. The 4-inch mattress was cushy, and the desert gets cool at night, even in summer, so when I woke up at around 7 a.m., the air was fresh and cool. Klaus was already making breakfast on the gas cooker: fried ham and eggs with sliced peppers and German rye bread. Jochen prepared coffee, and I supervised from above.

Before packing it in, I decided to take a short jog to the lodge for the Wi-Fi. I didn’t make it there, however. And what happened next changed the entire trajectory of not just the day but the entire trip!

I was in a slow and relaxed jog, enjoying the air, when the lodge dog darted out of the yard to greet me. He was wagging his tail so hard that his entire backside was moving. “I know you want to play with me,” he was saying. For whatever reason, I thought he’d run around me, and I do think that’s what he intended. I was so wrong. And so was the pup. Because his bum hit my left leg just as I had lifted it, and I took an accelerated dive over his behind, landing on my left shin and ankle.

I was more surprised than anything. I crash on my bike at least twice a year, I’ve jumped off slightly higher elevations while bouldering, and I regularly work on my reflexes by jumping off a wooden box in the gym. My late friend and coach Sebaj had left me the legacy of being strong and agile, with fast reflexes and sturdy bones. For eight years he trained me, relentlessly and often against my will, 3x a week. In 2020 when the gyms were closed, we trained at my house and started road biking together. He was a powerful sprinter, a local legend in NJ.

Well, Sebaj, I’m really sorry I disappointed you, wherever you are. I took one look at my displaced ankle and I knew it had to be broken. “Not good.” I thought. But I was calm and collected. My strong suit during an emergency. Total focus, decision making part of the brain fully on.

It didn’t hurt (then) but I decided not even to try to get up. “Jochen, Klaus,” I called, “something’s happened, I need help.” At first they didn’t come, I must have sounded way too, um, ‘normal’. I tried again, adding urgency to my tone: “I’m not kidding, I need help.”

Klaus jogged over, and right away I saw the worry in his face. “I think that’s broken,” he said (yeah, no shit). Stay put. Klaus was an EMT for a couple of years, and he took three semesters of medicine during his studies for his masters in sports science. When going to Africa, he and Jochen are always well prepared, because, as I am currently illustrating, when you are in the middle of nowhere and stuff happens, you are on your own.

Klaus dashed back to the tent and returned with two folding chairs, water and an 800mg tablet of Ibuprofen, Jochen in tow. They heaved me onto the chair, elevated the foot, and our German tent neighbor stood watch in case I’d pass out from the drop in blood pressure from the shock. My fingers were indeed getting cold and I was a wee bit dizzy.

And then? Well, the next step is to have a plan for the next step.

Which was? I will tell you in my next blog.

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Return to Emerald City: A Tale of Two Mountains

Return to Emerald City: A Tale of Two Mountains

 I really longed to go to Colombia again, even though I didn’t have a pressing reason to spend any more money on gems! But when my travel buddy Jochen asked me to come along on another adventure into the lush and rugged mountains of Muzo to hunt for emerald crystals, how could I say no? Getting up with the sunrise at 6 a.m., taking a cold shower, off roading on dirt roads of slithery shale to slalom down a steep mountainside in an SUV made for city driving, getting caught in the thick fog of the Muzo hills? Count me in.

The Boyaca mountains to the north of Bogota, its highlands and valleys, its endless green, the butterflies and low lying rivers and waterfalls are captivating even if one has never heard of an emerald. However, the history of the indigenous to those lands, the Muzo and Muisca Indians, know of little else. Their history has been intertwined with this green stone, a stone that is borne of the tears of the Gods, for over a thousand years.


Fura from Behind


According to the legend of the Muisca and Muzo, their creater god Are made Fura and Tena, Male and Female, the first beings. He threw them into the river to come to life, then granted them eternal youth. They had a son Itoko - the Itoko River, which separates Fura and Tena, is named after him. They also founded many generations of the Muzo and lived in happiness for hundreds of years.


Tena and Fura, side by side for eternity (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, attributed to "Josephmore") 


There was one condition to their everlasting youth, however. Fura and Tena could not commit adultery. Centuries went by but then a stranger showed up in search of a rare and mysterious flower. Fura offered to help this stranger, Zarbi. Fura and Zarbi eventually fell in love. One day, Fura noticed she had grey threads of hair, and then she knew that she and Tena had lost their eternal lives. Tena found out by following Fura, he confronted Zarbi, but rather than hurting him, Tena stabbed himself to death in front of Fura. Fura realized her mistake and turned to Tena full of sorrow but Tena was dying. Fura held him and cried for eight days. Each of her tears was turned into an emerald.  Zarbi pled for forgiveness with Are but Are turned Fura and Tena into rocks, forever separated by the river Itoko and forever facing one another.

Contrary to this rather sad story, the Muzo region actually bustles with life and there is quite a bit of money in the region (though a foreigner might not see this or know where it is). Everyone in Muzo is involved in the emerald trade or in supporting it. The same is true of towns near the other mining areas, like Santa Barbara near Cosquez and Chivor near the Chivor mine. Muzo can only be reached via stretches of dirt road (some is paved, some is not). The road is partly made of shale which is slippery as soap when it gets wet and frequently washes away. And yet, it is here where you find the largest Colombian emerald mining company, Mineria Texas Colombia (surrounded by wire fences and armed soldiers), as well as many other independently or collectively owned mines like La Pita, down to individual pits and indigenous peoples washing their river, rivera Minero, for emeralds.


The Muzo and the Muisca have inhabited the region for over two thousand years. Both were conquered by the Spanish Conquistadors but the Muzo, a warrior tribe, resisted an additional twenty years by retreating and fighting in the mountains. They were mining emeralds for over 500 years before the Spanish came, and they helped them mine emeralds during the occupation. When Colombia gained its independence in 1810, they regained control of the region and they are involved in every part of the trade. They mine independently, they own claims, they facet and sell to Bogota (or work for someone in the facet trade), or they are employed by one of the larger mining companies in some shape or form. We saw a group having dinner in the “restaurant”- kitchen we were in, wearing overalls with the mining company’s name. Men, and women, by the way.

The Muzo and Muisca also sell rough or collectors’ crystals, as we got to experience in Chalatta, a kind of town/trading post 15 minutes from Santa Barbara. Getting there was Jochen’s goal of the trip out of Bogota, where most of my own buying occurs.  Because he collects crystals and "gangas," the local term for emeralds in host rock, he has the most luck buying on location. He wants the stuff exactly as it came out of the ground so that’s what you have to get close to.


Trading near Santa Barbara


Because I asked for some slightly less rugged lodging conditions, we approached our goal from the town of Otanche, which is north of Santa Barbara and accessible via a paved road. We stayed in a rather decent tiny hostel, essentially occupying the top floor rooms which had bathrooms within, a kitchen, and seating area as well as a huge outdoor terrace overlooking the valley. The water was still cold but not icy, as it’s collected on the roof with a cistern. The nights were balmy, we just left the doors to the rooms open into the living area to catch the breeze. That’s how safe we felt there!  Breakfast was made for us (eggs, a bun, rice, soup with potato, and a chicken wing), for dinner we went around the block to the “restaurant” cucina for whatever they had that day. It was usually the same as lunch – the Indigenes do not eat as late as we do. Light is expensive. We would have pounded pork chop or chicken or beef (usually very tough beef) with yucca or fries or potatoes, or rice or plantains and perhaps a wee bit of a salad – literally a half tomato and three slices of onion. One evening I asked for three salads (for $50 cents each). And when you are there with company, people share as did we and our hosts.


Hotel Los Andes, Hostel in Otanche


Yes, we did have hosts, of sorts. We had met Don Honorio and his sister Lucila, respective husbands, wives, children, cousins etc. on our previous journey to Muzo. They acted as our brokers, taking us everywhere and helping us negotiate, translate, making sure we were fed, didn’t get lost etc., for the 2 days we were in Muzo last Fall. It is an implicit and worldwide understanding of sorts. You come, you don’t know stuff, you want to buy, someone offers to be your point person. They take 5%, on average, they don’t interfere with the trade, you have to know your stuff or you lose out. They guide you, or parade you as might like, but they will be your person for everything you need, including staying with them if necessary. You will not want for anything (you may be asked to pay or share the small and honest bill though). They drive with you everywhere and make sure you find the hotel at night. They also won’t let you out of their sight because of the commission. If they don’t attend the deal then they don’t get a share. But if you have separate connections and meetings then you say you do and that’s that.

We arrived late in the day but our hosts met us (coming from Muzo, a 60-90 minute dirt road drive) promptly at 7.a.m. They had first dibs to show us stuff of course, which they had collected in the month since we told them of our arrival. They came with two cars, lots of people, and I almost thought our hostel owners were gonna freak but apparently there was nothing even remotely unique about what they were doing. People don’t come to Otanche for sightseeing. Then we all drove to Santa Barbara for more trade, then Chalatta, then back at 3 in the afternoon, starved. The next day, more trading in Muzo and a private and guided tour of the emerald museum in Muzo (imagine something like the smallest kind of museum possible, and you are about there). Dinner in the market place, with fresh sausage and chicken, rice, plantains, yucca, you get the idea. If, like me, you really like vegetables, this is not the place for you. Apparently, not even beans are a very common food in these parts. Nor is it ideal if you think of a hot shower as an integral part of your day.


Emerald Museum in Muzo


Back in the womb of the king suite of the 5 Star Hotel della Opera in Bogota, I pampered myself with a hot bath, a more European-Colombian vegetable laden dinner, and I was ready for my tiny bit of shopping. I had prepared very quickly before the trip, but I was sure to contact the three parties I had previously done some business with. Before we left for Muzo from Bogota, I had already picked several stones that interested me, but I had these pre-certified at the local lab before even committing to a purchase. I paid the lab fees up front with no request for return, simply for my own peace of mind (each report was $20). Upon returning from Muzo, I made my buying decisions for three larger stones, two to three medium and a small lot of fancy cuts. Prices were up 20% from last fall, mainly due to fuel and supply shortages, and therefore lack of production. Also, in Chivor there have not been any bigger finds in some time (I believe it’s probably been a few years but I didn’t ask). Maybe they lost track of the vein due to a fault, I don’t know for sure. It can take time, even if the gems are there.


A selection of the beauties I brought home with me from Colombia 😍


Anyway, there was no reason I could think of for prices to come down anytime in the next few years, so I bought what I liked that pre certified correctly, and that I thought was affordable. Two come directly through my contacts with the la Pita mine, and another is sourced from my Chivor connection, and was from a little bit of an older find, not a resale but within personal ownership of producers in Chivor. I also got some lovely trapiches. The owner of one of the shops we had worked with before (who, paradoxically also exhibits in Tucson but charges more in wholesale than I do in retail), had a vast collection of them – apparently, he was just a real fan.

Trapiches come from Muzo, not Chivor, and they cannot be found anywhere else in the world - they are a very unusual phenomenon, and form part of the unique people connected to these gems for far longer than the present-day Americas ever existed. 

Here are some of the treasures I brought back with me from Colombia, currently listed in the shop (click the photos for direct links to purchase)




Colombian Emerald Trapiche Cabochon



1 Carat Colombian Emerald Pear from Muzo





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Adventures in Emerald City, Part II (Muzo, Cosquez, Guataque & Chivor)

Adventures in Emerald City, Part II (Muzo, Cosquez, Guataque & Chivor)

So here we were, the three of us, in the dark in a small foreign town, just following two total strangers into their shop, who are then joined by two additional strangers along the way.  No one spoke English. After we entered, the owners locked up the shop after us.  For a brief moment there, we all had this ominous feeling: did I make the wrong choice?  The locals offered us chairs and we all sat down.  Then they proceeded to show us lots of gemmy crystals in host rock, and the trading began.  Jochen made some slightly higher introductory offers and bought a few pieces.  The situation began to lighten up.  This was just a regular sales meeting after all, despite the slightly mysterious context.  Jochen then told our temporary hosts that he wanted to go to the town of Cosquez but didn’t know where the trading took place.  Our hosts offered to take us.  We agreed. 

We then all had pleasant dinner together at a small local arepas place, and we paid for the food as an opening gesture in return for their hospitality.  They accepted with thanks but offered to pay for breakfast the next day.  They then brought us some local scarves that would identify us as in the industry and as buyers, and requested that we wear those the next day.  Oh, and they drove ahead of us the way back to the hotel up the hill (I wondered at the time if they wanted to verify our whereabouts…).  This turned out to be helpful though, as we might have gotten lost in the dim street lights of Muzo.

Early Morning Departure from Muzo


Promptly at 5:30 in the morning, I got my wakeup text from Lucila, the female shop owner. I woke up a very groggy Diana not used to early morning travel, and at 6:00 we were – more or less – ready to roll.  Lucila, and who turned out to be her brother Jose, showed up in their 4 wheel drive together with their two companions (one of whom might have been Lucila’s husband but you know I never did ask…).  Jose joined us in our vehicle so he could chat with us, and together we drove for what I’d say was about 1.5 hours on dirt roads to a very small town (a strip of a few houses really) to have breakfast.  The restaurant, or rather, the tiny kitchen with a few outdoor chairs, was already expecting us, and we were offered sopa with chicken and yukka, maduros, rice and smoked beef (delicious).  The freshly made hot sauce took Diana’s speech away for a few minutes, but generally, on these trips we all thoroughly enjoy a hearty and spicy breakfast, and lots of coffee too.  It was arranged that we’d be back for lunch at the same place at around 2 p.m. on the way home  - to have fish grilled in banana leaves, chicken, and okra cooked in scrambled eggs.

Sopa with Pork for Breakfast


It was not far of a drive from the breakfast place until we reached another small gathering of buildings.  “This is it,” we were told - the Cosquez trading post.  There were some covered areas with plastic chairs and tables, a sort of counter with coffee and offerings of some chilled beverages.  This is pretty standard in tropical areas that experience a lot of rain.  Life takes place outdoors, during daylight, with the covered areas protecting you from the elements.  We ordered some café con leche and Coke™ and sat down with our new “family.” The latter had (obviously) called ahead and within minutes, we were surrounded by sellers with "gangas" (minerals in host rock).  There were no gems for me here as cutting takes place in Muzo, Chivor, Bogota or the nearby town.  So I just got to watch and have fun.  

Trading Post Near Muzo


Offers were made quickly and under the eyes of a couple of dozen locals.  Jochen rejected some of them, accepted others, made jokes; the local chatter being interrupted by silence as numbers were called out and the seller or Jochen were thinking and calculating.  Nobody wanted to miss a thing!  After about 2 hours the selling started to wind down.  This is typical as by then one has usually seen everything that’s on offer that week, or day, or month depending on what people have saved up at home.  

The Backstreets Between Muzo and Cosquez


Many of the local mines are owned by several people or groups, or a group and the town, or an investor and some locals.  Profits are usually shared in various percentages.  "Gangas" are often locally traded as they are not yet processed into gems or won’t ever be because they are too small or included.  But that makes it a heaven for collectors.  If one selects well, one can make good money in the trade.

Naturally, our “family” also collected a brokerage fee for each of the trades that Jochen made.  That was understood although neither side mentioned it – after all their services did not come free. Lucila and Jose were in many ways invaluable as we would never have found this place.  Initially their fee seemed high from what I could tell (about half).  Over time though, and as Jochen’s money dwindled and people still wanted to trade, the fee seemed to be shrinking into the acceptable territory of 20%.  Nonetheless for Lucila, Jose and crew, we were something of a jackpot, as you could almost say we fell out of the sky into their open but helpful arms.  By far most traders that come to Muzo are Colombian.


After the trading ended, we headed back for lunch.  During the lunch break there was a short but heavy downpour, and Jose got worried about the road conditions ahead.  He wanted one of his friends to drive instead of Jochen but Jochen is quite experience at this and refused.  Driving was indeed more treacherous as the black shale dirt is very loose and the road takes many turns along the steep mountainside – I had to close my eyes a few times.  Toward the end of the ride, Jose included a few more stops down unknown roads to see “relatives” who had more "gangas".  Each time our engine started, more people came running out of their houses, showing their "gangas" stored in towels, buckets and small pots to see if they’d fetch a few bucks. It was getting quite comical, but also quite late. 

We reached Muzo just before dark, and I was exhausted.  Lucila and Jose wanted to meet us again the next morning but we said “no.”  We really wanted a chance to explore on our own, without the brokerage fee and possibly getting cheaper deals, which meant going to the marketplace alone.  But Jose and Lucila were well aware of that.  We eventually agreed to meet in the afternoon and we spent the morning just sleeping in and working online. As agreed, the afternoon was spent with making more purchases in Jose’s office. Jose is a gem cutter, so I bought a few pieces from his shop, mostly Muzo crystal, which is lighter green emerald. 

The morning after that, we set off to the next leg of our trip, this time much earlier.  Back we went, initially 20 miles of hairpin curves on dirt road, then ascending from 800 to 3000 meters and going back down, across a bit of highway and then over the Bogota plateau to Guateque.  By then it was 4 p.m. and we decided to call it for the day, as the road to Chivor is also a dirt road alongside the mountain and those roads cannot be driven on after dark.  At El Gran Hotel Central in Guateque, we got two miniature style rooms but with a view AND with hot water. 

Diana Looking at Fossilzed Rock


We went out for dinner just before the restaurants closed at 5 p.m. - in some towns the restaurants close early to save electricity.  I don’t recall this being as much of an issue in 2019, so I am guessing that due to the lock downs there was a significant downturn in business. 


Guateque Boyaca Colombia


Diana vs. a Big Tamale


People in countries where not everyone can afford electricity spend their working lives between sunrise (6 am ish near the equator) and sundown (6 pm-ish).  Once you get used to it, it’s quite nice, as this is our natural pattern anyway and we produce sleep and wake hormones according to the light.  Workers get up before sunrise, may get to their job before breakfast, and break for a later breakfast and a late lunch, then for dinner it’s just a bit of bread and perhaps some cerveza (beer).  8 p.m. is bedtime. 

I can’t say that we ever really adjusted to this time table but we did our best.  In any case, we were up for a 7:30 breakfast in Guateque, with a view of the mountains to die for.  Huevos rancheros, a large corn tamale stuffed with all kinds of meats and egg, fresh guarana and mango juice (unsweetened), fruta, and fresh baked bread were the morning feast.  Plus hot cocoa and coffee!

Breakfast in Guateque
Tiny Market in Chivor

Right after breakfast, we set out for the 90 minute drive to Chivor.  The road took us along a recently paved road with many tunnels heading southwest, then south across the Chivor dam for which Jochen took the first measurements in the 1970s.  After another (very wet) and unpaved tunnel that opened to an amazing waterfall, we hit dirt road for the last hour or so.  It was a gorgeous drive.

Dam of Chivor
Waterfall Near Chivor


Hotel El Klein in Chivor (or the Lack Thereof)

We had tried to call ahead for a hotel in Chivor, a small town of perhaps 800 souls.  Although Google maps listed the hotel we used previously, Hotel el Klein, we couldn’t find a phone number for it that worked.  The hotel next to it which I had remembered was Hostal Anni never answered the phone.  Once we pulled into town, we realized why there was no number for El Klein.  It was gone, gone, the whole building razed to the ground.  It was unsurprising, really as it was half fallen in in 2019.

Hostal Anni was still there though, and they also had space for us; and, to our surprise, they had hot water heaters installed in the showers.  We were offered two rooms, one with an inside bathroom and three beds, which we turned into our dorm style bedroom, and an adjacent room which Jochen decided was the office.  That’s where he spread his goods from Muzo and took his measurements, photos, and made the listings in his Shopify when internet was speediest, at 4 a.m., while we slept.

Hostal Anni in Chivor

In Chivor, the experience we had in Muzo somewhat repeated itself.  We walked down the trading street (or just “the street”), and were quickly ushered into someone’s house for gangas and even a few small faceted emeralds.  We bought a few things but then quickly extracted ourselves and sat down in a café.  Soon, a few traders showed up.  Not that many though, not as many as in Muzo.  Over time I was shown some faceted pieces but at higher prices than I expected.  I did buy a small cab and the cutest little briolette from a cutter named Herman. 

We spent next morning having a hearty breakfast and making a few last minute deals.  The 4 ½ hour drive back that turned into 6 with traffic.  On the whole I found the traffic not as bad as in 2019 though, and of course the economic recovery is not like ours.

It did seem that many of the working people in Bogota seem to be immunized, and vaccines readily available at this point.  Mask rules are still strictly enforced, however, even outdoors.  Once, in Muzo, we were politely encouraged to please pull up our masks.  We hadn’t considered that many people there had not yet had the opportunity to be immunized and COVID testing was not as available. 

Back in Bogota we had just a couple of days left to rest up, finalize business.  We even used the hotel spa!  A connection we made in Muzo met us at our hotel in Bogota and I selected some amazing pieces, currently at GIA for batch testing the level of treatment.  We also met up again with Diana in the emerald shop.  This shop specialized in Chivor gems and they had sourced quite a collection of lovelies for me to go through.  My favorite purchase was a large, possibly no oil Chivor baguette that weighs four carats.  This gem is right now getting the full works at GIA.  And I bought another locally certified no oil emerald cut, also in the lab right now, from a vendor who also had some nice pieces in 2019.  It always makes me happy when I can strike up business as a repeat buyer.

And yes, of course. I will go back! 

Sundown in Bogota
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Adventures in Emerald City: Gem Hunting in Bogota, Part I

Adventures in Emerald City: Gem Hunting in Bogota, Part I

TWO years! That’s how long I had to wait to go to Colombia again. But I did it, and with even more emerald success than the previous time.  After my planned trip for April 2020 went poof, like you, I hunkered down with some of those closest to me and watched the world change on TV.  But this summer has marked a new dawn, with fully immunized and less restricted world travel.  So finally, late last month, I set off to Bogota, armed with loupe, tweezers and money (and yes, other stuff).  I took along my friend Diana to help me, she knows my business well and she speaks Spanish.  I have more of a 100 word lexicon from which I can produce words in no particular order as needed.  I do find myself understanding more than I expect because I speak French, sadly however, my active language skill barely rivals that of a 1 year old.

Once we arrived at our Bogota hotel – the Hotel de la Opera in Candelaria, we were warmly welcomed by my long time travel buddy Jochen from Jentsch Mineralien. Jochen hasn’t been able to come to the US since March 2020 and I had only seen him for one precious day in Germany some time in the fall of 2020.

The Hotel de la Opera, a Colonial style building with tranquil inner courtyards and a spa, rooftop dining and bright spacious rooms, is conveniently located in the historic district and just a 7 minute walk to the Casa Esmeralda where much of the trading for emeralds takes place.  On the way, you walk past dozens of small Joyerias where you can buy emerald jewelry and loose gems until you arrive at the plaza where a couple of hundred men show each other parcel papers with gems and negotiate over them.  Turn right and one block up you’ll find the emerald mall, Casa Esmeralda!

We had decided that on our first day, we would slowly peruse the Joyerias and possibly make smaller purchases, as well as look for some of Jochen’s favorites: “gangas,” emerald crystal in host rock. And of course we also went to my favorite ice cream store nearby: Waffles and Crepes

Bogota is very safe to walk around during the day, in the evening you should watch for pickpockets but the touristy areas are well populated. Still we were grateful for the hotel safe where we could store our purchases and passports when not needed.  As a rule, we never leave anything at a hotel in a less familiar country that prevents us from leaving that country, unless there’s a safe. 

On our first afternoon in Bogota, I also had an appointment with a small shop near the gold museum where I had bought some of my best pieces in 2019.  The owner’s assistant, named Diana just like my Diana – is fluent in English, which makes my life a lot easier!  Diana told us that the shop had been closed for over a year due to COVID-19.  During the closure, Diana had gone back to her small family farm where living was cheap, and the owner stayed back in Bogota trying to make ends meet.  Times were very rough, and our arrival was greeted with tears of relief that business would finally pick up. (And we did our very best to meet those hopes.)

(Side note: I did notice that about one third of the souvenir shops near the Gold Museum had closed down since the last time I was there, and on our final day, my Diana and I did our best to spend a few dollars at each and every shop in the little neighborhood so that everyone had a small benefit.  This is something I always do when I am in less wealthy countries, especially when I am the only one shopping.)

But let’s get back to the main thread.  After making more introductory purchases and discussing mining business here and there (such as which regions are currently producing interesting stuff), we headed back for dinner as we had to get ready for an early morning departure to grab our rent-a-car and get going.  Living out of a suitcase isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and even I had forgotten how stressful it can be.  But we were focused on travelling and on buying, and we had three stops to make in five days: Muzo, Cosquez and Chivor.

Jochen is an expert at actually using the four wheel drive of a four wheel drive, and that is what’s needed when you cover the last 20 miles of dirt road and hairpin curves down into the valley of the Rio Minero that Muzo is next to.  So we took an early cab to the car rental place at the airport, inspected our Renault Duster for dings (so that we would only get billed for the dings we would add, if necessary), and headed off.  I did most of the city driving as New York and Jersey City are my homes, so that kind of traffic stresses me much less than it does Jochen, who prefers off-road driving with cows and landslides as the main obstacles.

The drive to Muzo is about 5 ½ hours and GPS instructions and estimates are quite reliable.  Nonetheless you have to consider that not all roads in Colombia are highways and you can easily get stuck behind a truck for 10 minutes until you find a way to pass without risking your life. Or, if there’s construction and the crew is on their lunch break, then you may wait at a construction site for up to an hour. Yes, been there, done that! The final bit of the drive involves climbing nearly 6000 feet over a mountaintop; and then descending back down, on small, very partly paved slalom roads.

Because there’s some tectonic plate movement in the region, and because the dirt in the region is full of flaky shale, there are landslides every time it rains, some very large ones and countless very small ones.  And as it rains often in the tropics, there are landslides every day.  The local towns fix their roads constantly because many of them only have one road in and one road out. 

We had left a bit late that morning, the paperwork at the car rental took a long time, by then we all had to use the loo (and to enter the airport you need to go through passport control which is a long line), so we didn’t get really going until 11 a.m. With some traffic and road closures, we finally descended into the town of Muzo by 5:20 pm.  The 6 pm sundown is abrupt so we didn’t have much time to show our faces to signal our arrival. 

After dropping our luggage at Kolina Kampestre, a camping style hotel that only had cold running water but a big pool and a stunning view; we immediately drove down to the center of town and sat down in the square, where you can order basic food and drink.  A few yards over, we saw several men trading emeralds, so Jochen went up to them and said hello.  Someone recognized Jochen from last time, and within a minute or two a few people came up to him.  Jochen bought a couple of pieces of cheap rock, then explained that we’d be back in the morning.  (This type of news then spreads like wildfire and on the next day you can expect sellers to have populated the plaza or café where you said you’d be when you said you’d be there.  Some of these sellers might have travelled part of the night to meet you.)

As we were heading off to find a place to eat, we were stopped by a man and a woman who suggested that we come to their shop to look at stuff.  My friend Diana whispered to me: “really, is this safe?” and I said “sure.”  And it is.  People come to Muzo for one thing and one thing only, and that’s emeralds.  People who live in Muzo do one thing and one thing only and that’s emeralds.  The gem trade is based on trust.  Trust in people.  While it wouldn’t be wise to stray from the main part of town at night with a purse full of cash, if you go with locals in the gem trade, their primary interest is not to rob you but to sell you something (or try to rob you by getting you to overpay, lol).

Was Diana right?  Was I?  Stay tuned…



Emerald pair purchased in Muzo



Emerald Cabochon from Chivor



Emerald Sugarloaf Suite from Chivor


Emerald Cut Emerald from Muzo 


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The Emeralds of Chivor

On Thursday, our 6th day in Colombia, we got up early with the intention of managing the drive from Muzo to Chivor in a single day.  According to my GPS, the trip was about seven hours long with good road conditions for at least the first five hours. The locals in Muzo had given us some suggestions about which roads were best for the first part of the drive and I adjusted my map accordingly. Filled with a solid breakfast of coffee, tamales made of cornmeal, egg, and chicken, and some arepas with cherry jam (my personal twist on what’s otherwise a salty breakfast) we headed off, in good spirits that we would reach Chivor in the late afternoon.

I should have known better from my experience driving off road in Tanzania and Madagascar! We hadn’t left Muzo for more than 10 minutes when we saw the familiar sign of trouble ahead: a construction worker with a little flag and a handwritten sign that translated as ‘deviation,’ gesturing us toward a gravel road.  Deviations in less populated countries, unfortunately, are never a short thing.  They aren't really deviations at all, they are simply a different path to the next town, and in this case, a path that didn’t exist according to my GPS. As soon as we turned, the latter went into a downward spiral pointing in any direction and constantly asking us to turn around.  I shut the GPS down.  We forged on for an hour, asking along the way if we were still in the direction of the next town we hoped to get to, and eventually reached another paved road.  Precious time lost…

After another hour or more we reached the highlands of Boyaca, a region that reminded me of the Austrian alps without the sharp mountaintops dappling the horizon. There were lakes, hills, and large green meadows with cows feasting on juicy grasses that their American counterparts would dream of if they could.

The Highlands of Boyaca

Eventually we turned off the paved road again. This time the GPS was working, the bright happy voice announcing that we only had four hours left to go. After another hour of bumpy road, we heard a thump under the left tire. After that, a rattling every time we hit a bump. The rattling grew more and more insistent.  The GPS announced that it was seven more miles to the nearest highway with a gas station.  Six miles, five miles. “We can walk that if need be,” we mused.

But our Tiguan rattled on, the last bit of the road was downhill, and we made it to the service station. Jochen’s Spanish, together with his pointing gestures, sufficed to indicate the area where the rattling occurred but it wasn’t enough to pinpoint the problem.  So they went for a drive around the block and I went for a cup of coffee and fresh baked rolls filled with guava jam. 

Car Trouble

The news wasn’t too bad. We had a screw loose. “I know that,” I joked. Who else would go for this type of adventure but a bunch of crazies? Fortunately this loose screw was more easily fixed. The screw was part of the shock system and just had to be tightened. $10 and an hour later, we were back on the road. 

By about 5 p.m., we had reached the town of Guateque, which was a 90 minute drive from Chivor according to the not always reliable but insistent voice in my phone (she never sounds unsure, does she?). The voices in my head, meanwhile, said that we best stop here for the night.  My argument? It gets dark around 6:30 p.m. in Colombia during the summer (and the winter, too, since it’s close to the equator), and off road driving in the dark is even less fun than during the day. Plus Guateque is a fairly large town with 10,000 inhabitants, whereas Chivor, with just under 2,000 inhabitants, was at best going to have one hotel, or rather, by my estimation, one place to stay overnight for hire. “Hotel” in my view is overshooting it a little bit. According to my maps, there were supposed to be some places to stay as well, though the booking site showed only two and they were full. Well, we had to stop and ask in any case.

Guateque in Boyaca

Jochen, all gung ho to see more rocks, wanted to forge on. Klaus was being diplomatically silent in the back seat. “Too many cooks” was all he ventured to say as Jochen and I went back and forth. All the while Jochen drove on. This was not to last long, however. The debate got cut short as we got stuck in a construction traffic jam right outside of town. After 10 minutes in the same spot, Klaus finally weighed in. “Let’s turn around,” he said. Jochen caved – though I knew he was not happy.

At the next gas station, I got out of the car to ask for a hotel. Jochen, still grumpy, eventually came out to help. After the gas station attendant gave us an initial up and down, he decided to direct us to the “Hotel Grand Central.” That sounded just fine to me! We found the Hotel Grand Central in a small side street, the rooms small but clean. We got rooms with a nice view of the town and the mountain range just beyond it; and the shower had a hot water heater installed! We also found a supermarket where we got our tomatoes and some guavas, a shop that had wine for yours truly, and a chicken barbeque place for dinner. We sat for a while at the Piazza Grande overlooking City Hall and a small park, where Jochen had a couple of nice cool local beers and calmed down.

Hotel Grand Central

The next morning we made our second attempt to reach Chivor, a supposed 90 minute drive from Guateque with some traffic due to road construction. The first half hour went fine, then we had to turn onto a gravel road once again. And this road deteriorated quickly. The narrow winding path was full of mud and previous truck traffic had turned the regular tire tread marks into deep gashes. The mountain rain, heavy at times, didn’t help. We nearly got stuck more than once. And as we got closer to Chivor, the tire pressure began to deteriorate. Clearly we had a slow leak somewhere. But it held. A few more turns and we finally saw the town of Chivor across the hill in the rainy mist.

Driving to Chivor

Chivor in the Mists

With our slowly deflating tire, we just made it to the main town square, and parked in front of a building labeled “Hotel El Klein” – Fritz Klein, more of him later, was the re-discoverer of the emerald mines in Chivor. The location had been unknown for a few hundred years after the Spanish had abandoned it in the 1600s. Once we reached the steps of the place that was to house us for the coming two nights and turned around, we saw that the front tire had now deflated completely. We decided to leave it for now. In small towns like this, it’s pretty easy to get a tire fixed, and not uncommon either.

Car Trouble Again

Hotel El Klein

We greeted the young woman at the counter inside and asked her for rooms. She, too, recognized Jochen from the year before, as he had sat in her restaurant buying emeralds the previous November. She showed us her two best rooms, which even had bathrooms. The roof was leaky, there was no hot water, the beds small and soft, the paint was peeling off, but having had a hot shower just that morning, I again decided to yield to fate. I certainly didn’t feel like getting back on the road. (Chivor has another place to stay, Hostel Anni, but I can’t tell you how that is; we never went inside).

Cold Showers Only

After dragging our suitcases upstairs, we sat down at the small restaurant, ordered café con leche and waited. The young woman turned out to be the co-owner of the hotel & her husband was working at the mines. She showed me her small collection of emeralds her husband had found, all faceted.

Emerald Bought in Chivor

I was stunned. Never before had I seen such color. The pieces were more blueish than I am used to, and cleaner. A super bright cool neon color, typical of emeralds, yet somehow different. I told Jochen, and he explained that indeed, the Chivor emeralds had a unique color. He translated the differences I perceived to the young woman so she could appreciate my observations. As I was to find out later, most of this material does not come to the United States. The few foreigners interested in buying emeralds that show up in Chivor on occasion are usually Chinese, and even in Bogota, the material from Chivor is more often bought by the Chinese. The public, in my limited experience, does not usually ask if an emerald is from Muzo or Chivor, or anywhere else in Colombia. The selling point is that the emerald is Colombian, and that is all a lab can say as well, because the precise and numerous scans needed to make such fine grained comparisons are usually lacking.

Chivor Emerald Rough

I immediately bought the three pieces that were presented to me and asked for more. But after counting out my pesos, I saw a small problem ensuing. Not enough cash. Was there a bank? Yes, but it didn’t give out cash or exchange dollars. A bank machine? Yes, but it was usually broken. Luckily the bank that owned the machine was open, and the manager helpful. After about a half hour, the machine yielded cash, 400,000 pesos per draw (about $130). Between Jochen, Klaus and myself, I think we just about emptied it out for the weekend.

Meanwhile, the pace at which we were shown materials was slow. People trickled in one or two at a time. I saw a few more pieces and negotiated hard for them. I also bought some rough, mostly for the fun of it. At dinner – which consisted in a type of beef stew and arepas – the husband greeted us, brought more buddies with stuff, and over beer Jochen and Klaus found out that in recent weeks there had not been much production. In the evening, the shop owner from next door – a stout 40-something named Don Hugo, came over to offer us a tour of the mines for the next day. “Absolutely,” we said. Don Hugo took a (very steep) 50% advance of $100 US from each of us, but also offered to fix the tire and provide us with a miner’s style lunch at the end of the tour which he said would take most of the day and involve a trip inside an actual working mine.

As promised Don Hugo met us the next morning at 8:30 a.m. in a more suitable four-wheel drive (a Toyota), and we started up a dirt road once more. After a half hour drive, we stopped on a hill that was, according to emerald lore, the first spot where Fritz Klein rediscovered the mine back in 1911. Originally worked by an indigenous tribe called the “Chibcha”, the Spanish worked the mine from 1537 and abandoned it in 1675 due to mismanagement. 

Banco Klein

Fritz Klein, so the story goes, was obsessed with emeralds and traveled through Bolivia and other places before he eventually located old maps and stories that led him to this region, guided by the Chibcha. The stories had described a particular view from the mountain ridge, and “all” Klein had to do was find exactly that spot – Somondoco, it was called by the locals. In the 1920s, the town “Chivor” built up below it on the hillside. With the help of the Chibcha, Fritz Klein hollowed out soft wooded trees to build water pipes, running water down the hill so he could rid it of bush and debris. He then built terraces onto the mountainside, mining there for several years. The mountain ridge is now called “Banco Klein” but not many people in Chivor know the history of the name any more.

On top of Banco Klein

After our initial introduction to the region, we headed to one of the mines that is actively producing. The Don Pedro mine belongs to the community but we were told that the financial backing comes from other Colombians. From what I was able to gather, production in the area is very intermittent but was ok in the last two years. The community keeps 50-60% of the proceeds, the rest goes to the investors. In the shaft we were about to explore, about 20 kilos of emerald were found in the last two years, employing roughly 100 people. The quality is varying, ranging from terrible looking, unusable morsels to very fine quality rough.

Before we could get into the actual mine, we were equipped with hard hats and high rubber boots, both of which we very much needed as I was about to discover. I must have bumped my head more than a dozen times during the course of our visit. These mines were not excavated for tall people like me, and you often don’t know what’s behind you when you bend down and get up again.  Water drips from the ceiling in many places, turning the ground wet and muddy.

San Pedro Mine

After slipping and sliding down a large gravel hillside, we finally got to the unassuming looking entrance, leading 600 meters, or 1800 feet, into the dark and unlit mountain. The morning shift had just ended and the workers were breaking for lunch. Equipped with strong torches and of course, my cell phone flashlight, we headed in, accompanied by another miner who could explain things. For the first few hundred feet the temperatures were comfortable, similar to the outside: about 65 degrees. But once the natural ventilation ended and we got to where air was pumped in through 6-8 inch wide plastic hoses, it quickly got very hot and humid. I’d say the temperature shifted by nearly 30 degrees Fahrenheit within just 5 minutes.

We continued sloshing through the mud between the narrow walls. It smelled humid and a little smoky from recently used explosives. The miner occasionally used his hammer to poke the wall to show us the soft clay in which the emeralds are found. From what he said, this mountain ridge is where two faults are crossing and there’s a lot of tectonic plate movement.  The emeralds are trapped where the faults meet. Suddenly there was a fairly loud “boom” in the distance and my heart nearly stopped. “Oh, those are just explosives in a nearby tunnel” we were told. “Yes, it’s totally safe.”

Inside San Pedro

Jochen, Don Hugo and a Mine Worker


My only response: “do we turn around now?” Nah, of course not. My “boys” were far too excited. So we trekked on and I took video. We finally got to a freshly opened side tunnel called a “stope” – strongly smelling of fresh explosives. Klaus started to pick on the wall with his hammer and the clay easily came off. He pulled together a small heap which our guide shoveled into a net like bag to be sifted through, thank God, outside!

If we found anything, we were told, we could keep it. After a total of about an hour in the tunnel, we headed back. About a hundred feet before we reached the entrance, we were asked to stop and rest to acclimate to the outside temperature. Then, sunshine. Finally.

Once outside our netted bag was washed in the river and we picked through it. We found some morsels of emerald, but not much. Our guide was probably relieved because pockets are not opened every day, and tourists are rare, so the two coinciding and yielding a discovery would have ended in some debate over who gets to really keep it at that point.

We Found a Tiny Emerald

After we got back to town we got our promised local miner’s lunch: Chicken, beef, potato, rice, egg, cheese, plantains, beans and yuca all cooked together in banana leaves to make a giant tamale type thing, keeping it hot and moist. It was delicious. Dessert consisted of a soft cheese type substance, sliced and drizzled with honey (it’s called “cuajada con miel”). Plus fresh guava juice, all very very tasty. I probably shouldn't have eaten it all but I reasoned that the recently experienced fear must have cost me some calories.

Miner's Lunch

And Miner's Breakfast.  See the Beer in His Hand?

There were sad good-byes the next morning, and many hugs from the hotel owners, I think they hadn’t made this much money in some time. We promised to be back. When, I have no idea of course, but I really hope it happens!

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In the Muzo Emerald Mines: Getting Down and Dirty

Yvonne heads straight to the source for her latest emerald acquisitions: see the mines up close and learn how emeralds are mined, processed and brought to market. Continue reading

Colombia Part I. Bogota and Muzo

Colombia Part I. Bogota and Muzo

A lush countryside, a rich history of gold and conquest, delicate indiginous art, well-preserved ancient Spanish towns, and the lure of going treasure hunting for emeralds in Muzo and Chivor: who wouldn’t want to go to Colombia for all that? 

Boyaca Region Colombia

Looking for emeralds in Colombia had been a dream of mine for some years. But it didn’t become a reality until my travel buddy, Jochen Hintze from Jentsch Minerals did a scouting trip in November 2018, pronouncing it safe and accessible, all the way to the mining towns themselves. The guerrilla movement of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) which was responsible for the kidnappings, drug trading, as well as illegal mining for decades, had made a peace deal with the Colombian government in 2017, and had surrendered its weapons. Only a very small group is still active today. Pick pocketing is still a concern, as well as poor road conditions on the way to the mining locations, but I’m used to those things from elsewhere. 98% of roads in Africa are not paved, and in large cities like Nairobi you have to protect your belongings constantly.

So, on Saturday July 13th (yep), I took a direct flight with United Airlines to Bogota, where I was picked up by Jochen at the airport, together with his friend Klaus K., a burly 50 something private collector and seller, as well as a seasoned traveler of mining regions all over the world.  Between those two, I knew I would be safe and have fun on top of it.

Our hotel in Bogota, hotel Santa Marta, looked unassuming from the outside, but turned out to be a beautiful and recently renovated Hacienda style building, all rooms facing an inviting courtyard with comfortable tables and chairs, and lots of decorative plants. The rooms were small – so were all rooms in the hotels we stayed at, and there was little storage, but it was clean and safe, had nice bathrooms, comfortable beds and offered a solid breakfast (eggs, sausage, bread, pancakes, and local style breakfasts upon request). The cost: less than $50 a night for a room.

Hotel Santa Lucia

On our first day, Sunday, we decided to get acclimated with a visit to the museum Del Oro, the Gold museum of Bogota.  The museum is filled with thousands of indigenous gold artifacts collected since 1934. It was started by the bank of the Republic with the intent to preserve the gold art of Pre-Colombian times, dating back more than two thousand years. To the indigenous cultures, gold was a sacred metal, though it wasn’t perceived to have trade value until the Spanish conquest, during which much of it was melted down to make Spanish coin and fund Spanish wars. As we browsed through the floors filled with art ranging from the opulent to the extremely delicate, we got a glimpse of how rich the region’s history was before the Europeans arrived and wreaked havoc.

The gold museum is located just a block away from the Emerald Trading Center, a 3 story mall like building lined with shops and offices only selling emeralds in any form you can imagine: faceted and rough, trapiche, cabochons, crystals and specimens, emerald jewelry, and there are two gemstone laboratories as well. Of course we went to check it out right after the museum tour, but found it was only open on weekdays. We postponed for first thing Monday morning.

Treasures of the Gold Museum


We did, however, locate a smaller shop gallery across the street from the museum, filled with booths selling emeralds, jewelry, pottery and coffee, scarves, shoes bags and anything else a tourist could want. 

While Jochen and Klaus concentrated on the shops selling rough and crystals, I wandered through all the places that sold faceted gems. Most of the prices, it seemed to me, were too high, certainly for a wholesale buyer like me (though from the retail perspective, in my opinion, prices were quite good). As I found out later, the shops there mostly had items on commission, which accounted for the higher markups. One of the shops, however, seemed to have rather reasonable prices (as it turned out, their gems were mostly proprietary).

One of the sales people spoke a little English, so I started to peruse the gems while chatting with her about my trip. I pulled out my loupe and tweezer to signal some knowledge and they let me browse peacefully. The selection was small but well sorted and priced, so I bought a cabochon and a small but phenomenally clean pear shape to signal interest for further business. Meanwhile a family from Norway came in that didn’t know anything about emeralds, and I helped them select a piece that I felt was what they were looking for and made sure the price was good for them. Everyone was happy of course, including the shop owners. Another positive step toward trade, which was to become very useful in time.

.39 Carat super Clean Pear shape from Chivor

In the late afternoon we sat down to have a big steak, arepas (corn pancakes), salad and maduros (sweet plantanes, my favorite).  Bogota, as well as the rest of Colombia as far as I got to see, has amazingly tasty meat.  It tasted fresh and slightly gamey as it should when cows are raised outdoors as opposed to giant feed lots providing a diet with corn, hormones and antibiotics. Our plates were so large that we skipped dinner and spent the evening sipping beer in our hotel, making plans for the week.

Emerald Trading Center

Early Monday morning, and off to a fresh start, we went directly to the emerald trading center. The doors were protected by armored guards, and I was told not to take photos or video (I did anyway but very carefully). I perused the first floor but found it to be too expensive again. Instead, I went back to the same shop I had found the day before and bought two more emeralds there instead, chatting with the salesperson and absorbing knowledge. I told them we were going to visit Muzo and Chivor and asked their opinion.

Around lunchtime, we took the teleferico - the cable car - up to the local mountain called Montserrat, taking us from 2700 meters to an altitude of 3200 metres (9000 feet) and a beautiful view over all of Bogota.  We had lunch at an upscale restaurant, more steak of course, enjoyed the view and a home brewed beer. Before we knew it, it was past 3 p.m. and high time we got back to the hotel and check out.  We had reserved a 4 wheel drive at Europcar and needed to get to the airport before 4. Our intent was to make our way to Vila de Leiva to arrive there by around 7, have a nice dinner and enjoy a walk in the one of the most ancient Spanish towns in South America.


Teleferico going up to Montserrat

Views of Bogota

Needless to say, that didn’t happen, not exactly anyway.  We organized a cab driver to drive us to the hotel and then airport, but with three suitcases, a carry on and two backpacks, we didn’t fit until driver had to remove his mega size amplifier from the trunk (intended, we assume, to entertain several blocks with the music in his cab).  He left it in a parking lot across the hotel to pick it up later for a small tip.  It’s a curious thing, I think in the US that would not have worked, people fear it gets stolen or damaged, and parking garage attendants aren’t likely to want to store or take responsibility for large stereo equipment.

At Europcar we were given ample instructions on what not to do with the four wheel drive, instructions we mostly ignored, like not going off road and being careful and whatnot. Far too late in the day, we left for what we expected to be a three-hour drive according to my GPS.

And it might have been a three-hour drive, had my GPS not decided to stop collecting data at a crucial intersection, so we drove 30 miles too far north. With the help of an actual paper map that Jochen’s generation always has on hand, we located a different route. Located on the map, that is, we then had to locate same said route in the town of Tunja, which was another matter entirely. We discovered a few dead ends instead, and eventually stopped to ask at a gas station. A few wrong turns and several heated discussions later (“he said to turn here”, “no, that’s the wrong landmark,” “we are definitely not heading east”, “we should turn around”) we ended up on an unlit gravel road in the dark, which, in Europe or the US, would have led absolutely nowhere. But after several miles and a few very well hidden signs we did end up at our destination. It was 9:30 p.m..


Vila de Leyva

Vila de Leyva is absolutely worth the visit if you so happen to be in the neighborhood, it was built by the Spanish in 1580 but in contrast to European towns built around the same time, it is set up grid style, does not really have a fortifying wall except for a small moat, and has very wide streets.  As a European, I found the juxtaposition between a modern grid and wide roads with such ancient buildings quite extraordinary. The pavement and most of the buildings are original, only windows, doors and roofing being modernized. And of course, now that we are in the 21st century where there’s little of beauty left to be discovered, there were gift shops everywhere.


Piazza at Vila de Leyva

Unfortunately – at least for my taste in quiet and romantic old style towns – we arrived smack in the middle of a big festival. The central piazza was covered in booths offering anything from BBQ to hats and ponchos, and there was a stage with a band playing South American music. Fireworks began at 5 a.m. and woke us up, but when we finally got to have our only short daylight stroll at about 8 a.m. the town was fast asleep.  In another local hotel, I had a local milk soup with cheese and eggs and soaked bread. Jochen and Klaus were more adventurous.  They tasted horse steak in tomato sauce. It was pretty good actually, once I had sufficiently repressed my memory of one of my favorite childhood books: Black Beauty.


Caballo and Changua, Typical Breakfast Foods in This Region

Strengthened and ready for the next leg of our journey, we left for the bumpy ride to Muzo at 10 in the morning. Spurred on by a working GPS, we figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to get to Muzo. Thankfully the GPS decided to process data for the entire day or we would have never found it! 


Drive to Muzo

We drove down many single lane roads, the GPS would announce left, right, straight at nearly non-existent intersections of gravel roads suddenly turning paved then gravel again. For about four hours we were pretty much on dirt roads, ascending serpentines up to 3000 meters to highlands that vaguely reminded me of Bavaria, then descending again on more winding roads with sharp curves down to 800 metres with a view to of the river Rio Minero, the river in which the population of Muzo finds its emeralds. Meanwhile the vegetation changed slowly from lush and foggy meadows to thick and tropical. Colombia is the fifth highest country in biodiversity in the world, and we covered a good bit of that on our trip. 


Muzo, Colombia

Eventually, we saw the town of Muzo nestled between the mountains from afar. The GPS guided us straight to our hotel, Kalina Kampestre, named after a local vacation style that reminds of camping but without tents, in a very simple hotel with a pool instead. There was even a basic bar selling beer and water (the water in Colombia, for the most part, is not for human consumption); there was a grilling station where chicken and beef was roasting during the day, and the typical music blaring near the pool (we eventually asked politely to have it turned off as we appeared to be the only guests that night). The rooms were beyond simple. A bed, chair, no TV but a ventilator that we could put into the window, and a bathroom/shower, no showerhead, just a pipe sticking out of the wall with cold water only. Thankfully it was 90 degrees which was good for the shower, not so good for sleeping.

Hotel Kolina Kampestre

We had no time to waste and Jochen was eager to see green (rocks, not paper), so pretty much immediately after checking in, we drove downhill to the town square and sat at a lunch place that was a big open space, hoping for people to show up with gems.


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New Travels Ahead: Emerald Hunting in Colombia

New Travels Ahead: Emerald Hunting in Colombia

It's summer again and I am ready to explore a new location for gems: Colombia.  On Saturday July 13th, I am flying out to Bogota to meet my travel buddy Jochen from Jentsch Minerals and his friend Klaus, who also collects minerals as a hobby.  Jochen lived in Colombia when he geological surveys from 1968-1970 and speaks Spanish well enough to keep us all afloat.  (My Spanish is fairly non-existent, except what I picked up by osmosis from living in downtown Jersey City).

My Travel Buddy Jochen on his last trip to Colombia

Emeralds have been mined in Colombia for over 500 years but mining lore has it that the mining of emeralds in the area goes back as far as 500 B.C. In Bogota, we will pay a visit to the Gold Museum and of course the emerald market.  Then we head out to the town of Villa de Leyva, an old historical town, for an overnight stay.  The following morning our rented four wheel drive (much needed given the roads there) will take us to Muzo where we have arranged a mining trip via a local hotel. Muzo has lived off of emerald mining for hundreds of years, but not very many tourists go there.  On a trip Jochen took last fall, however, he did manage to buy various specimens and two trapiche pieces.  

I'm curious if there will be anything for me as the mining and selling of emeralds is firmly in government hands.  While of course there are plenty of ways to buy, I am not convinced that there's any reason to expect that a one time buyer like me with a fairly small budget will be offered anything but regular retail prices.  But we will see, and I will learn.  

Here are some images of Muzo and the two trapice emerald pieces.

After a two night stay in Muzo, our adventure continues with a probably all day drive to Chivor. Here's an image of the mining regions in Colombia.

The mines in Chivor are privately owned so we probably won't get to see them, but the area is supposed to be beautiful and of course, I can't wait to follow in the footsteps of history.  Chivor was the first mine to produce in the Americas, discovered by the Spanish in the 1500s, abandoned about two centuries later and the location lost until 1896, when it was rediscovered by Francisco Restrepo based on 300 year old maps.  As history has it, Restrepo searched for eight years before he found the exact location.

You can read more about the history and Chivor in this very informative GIA article, "In Rainer's Footsteps: Journey to the Chivor Emerald Mine."

I will try to keep in touch from Colombia.  Internet access is fairly smooth I am told, and I am in the same time zone as in NYC, which will help a great deal.

Looking forward to reporting back soon!  We will fly out of Bogota on the 23rd, rest up in the Dominican Republic for a couple of nights, and I arrive back on the 26th.


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Finding New Minerals in Kongwa

Finding New Minerals in Kongwa

So this is going to be a longer story, and it starts a few billion years ago.  As my geologist friends tell me, when you have a flat plateau and there’s a hill on it, you have two possible explanations.  Either there’s a young volcano on the plateau – where the word “young” has to be taken within a certain context - or there’s very hard rock underneath, rock that refused to erode over the last few million years.  In either case, if you are a geologist, this is interesting.  Fast forward to the late 1950s when a few British geologists found this interesting as well and decided to prospect one such hill: Mautia hill in southern Tanzania.  Said geologists blew holes into the hill and took samples.  The dumps created by the excavation were clearly visible via satellite – or rather, the satellite images show blotchy impressions indicating possible talc schist.  The geologists wrote some articles about the minerals.  Initially they thought they found something called glaucophane, but later this was identified as a new mineral called yoderite.

Mautia Hill

These old articles caught the interest of Jochen's friend Gunnar Faerber, a burly East German carpenter turned geologist who has a business selling rare minerals.  Gunnar proposed to Jochen to make an expedition to prospect the hill, and that was the story behind this trip, which I got to join.

Driving to Kongwa

We started towards Kongwa early morning together with Gunnar’s son Eric, Moustache – nicknamed because of his moustache but whose actual name is Wilson, and of course the driver, Benuel, in a minivan borrowed from Benuel’s family.  The closest “actual town” near Mautia hill is “Kongwa,” located about 50 miles southeast of the capital of Tanzania, Dodoma.  So Dodoma was our first destination, and “praise the Lord” the road to Dodoma was paved two years ago.  So there was no “Tanzania massage” as Moustache tends to put it – the shiatsu on your behind which starts to really hurt after about 15 minutes on a dirt road when your lower back tends to be fed up. 

Baobab Landscape

Sadly, while the road is paved, it is a single lane highway (one lane in each direction) and you can only go 100 km/hr, so about 70 mph, if that.  And since in Africa towns are built right near the highway for better access to bus transportation, you have to slow down to 35 mph every few miles.  We also got stopped for speeding (about 5 miles over the limit), the fine was about $12, a lot of money for a Tanzanian (he’s been reimbursed by me since).  There were police stops every few miles, sometimes they would wave us through, sometimes we had to stop.  Sometimes they’d ask for your license, sometimes they’d want to know where you are going.  There were new speed bumps absolutely everywhere in the towns.  Maybe the government is trying to make money, or maybe they are just trying to make the roads safer now that there are more roads.  Many chickens and probably not just chickens have lost their lives now that one can drive faster – on a dirt road car accidents are just about impossible because you can’t go fast enough.  Unless you can’t navigate them and end up in a ditch.  This is why we always have a local driver.   

Our drive took us past the turn to Manyara national park just south of the escarpment where the continent is drifting apart due to tectonic plate movement (no worries, it’s a slow process), past Tarangire national park and then slowly turning south to Dodoma.  The first part of the drive took us through flat land, then through a lush forested mountainous region with banana plantations and wild growing rice, and finally through 100 miles of wide open land with baobab trees.  Since it was winter, the baobabs didn’t have leaves, which made the area look very deserted.

By about 4 p.m. we finally got to Dodoma; we turned west to the (also paved) road towards Dar Al Salaam for another 75 minutes, then headed south towards Kongwa.  That road turned out to be partly paved as well, with much construction still under way.  In fact it was kind of funny seeing gas stations along the way and then a few miles of dirt road, then paved road again with gas stations.  I wondered how they managed to get the gas to those gas stations, not to mention the building materials to put it there in the first place. 

Kongwa Guest House

Near Kongwa

The town of Kongwa turned out to be a very sorry looking place, there were no hotels and just one small guest house for local travelers.  There were no restaurants either, just some huts where we could buy water, beer, white bread and cookies.  Luckily, next to the guest house there was a kind of “kitchen,” manned by Muslim women who cooked the traditional Swahili food.  Dinner cost $2 a person, on offer that night was rice and ugali (a mush made from white corn), banana in sauce with meat, red beans, a spinach kind of thing and cooked okra.  We picked up a case of beer only to find out that we could not drink it there – Muslim rule.  “Hakuna matata” – no problem.  We behaved.

While we were eating, Moustache tried to find out if there was any local person in charge of the area.  We had been strongly advised not to do any kind of digging for minerals on our own.  Someone told us there were arrests made recently.  Tanzanian prison is nothing fun, even U.S. prisons are a luxury hotel in comparison.  Jochen related the story of once being inside a police station and seeing prisoners beaten bloody, lying on the floor only semi-conscious.  “Prisoners don’t receive food in the prisons,” he said, “they have to be fed by their families or try to get food through a prison mate.”  So we decided to just go and look and not take anything, and also to enlist the company of a local who knew the local laws. 

After dinner, it was time to turn in for the night in our guest house. “Guest house” is a name given by the locals for places to stay for the locals.  Not really for Wazungu – white people – or at least not for this Mzungu (singular for white person)!  There were a total of five rooms, one of which was already taken by another traveler.  One room went to Gunnar, one to Eric (16 – had to have his own room!), one to Moustache and Benuel to share, which left one room for Jochen and I.  Each room had one full size bed.  Ugh. The rooms were tiny, electric was turned on only for us, one naked lightbulb in each room equipped with a glaringly white light energy saver lightbulb.  Running water was promised but never turned on.  There was a bathroom in each room, but only the size of a toilet (3x6 feet) with the “toilet” at the end of it – a hole in the ground with a “tread” on either side, and no shower.  In lieu of the running water, there was a plastic tub full of water with a little bucket for flushing or washing.  The floors were bare but tiled, in the corner a table and an old TV, a mosquito net over the bed, two small pillows, one blanket.  I asked for another pillow: “Amna” – don’t have.  The most common word in Tanzania.  This is also a typical response when you order from a menu in a restaurant.  A second blanket?  Another “amna.”

Well, having two beers on the porch before helped.  And the shot of whisky.  I was out like a light.  Apparently I stole the blanket during the night and wrapped myself in it 360 degrees, forcing Jochen to put his jeans back on because he was cold.  Sorry Jochen. 

At 7 a.m. there was a loud knock on the door.  It was Gunnar, fully dressed, ready to go.  Totally hot to get to our hill, right now!  But: we were supposed to wait for tea which meant waiting for the fire to be hot.  And for some chapati, a pancake made from corn flour.  (Tasty actually.)  And we had to wait for “the guy” as Moustache called him, the local in charge, who was supposed to come with us.  Someone from the local tribe, the Gogo. So Gunnar had to wait.

Gunnar Raring to Go

Eric Not so Much

Well the guy from the Gogo was a no show, and Gunnar grew increasingly impatient, so we decided “hell with it” and go to our hill without a local guide.  Meanwhile, enough time had passed by for the fire to get hot so we could enjoy the chai and chapati, together with a package of toast.  Eggs? Marmalade? “Amna.”

So off we went at about 8 a.m. Gunnar’s GPS, it turned out, was malfunctioning but we had the satellite printouts and my phone was loading satellite maps as well.  So we figured out which dirt road it was, drove down that road for about 10 miles, then found another dirt road toward Mautia hill.  The road wound past several villages of 5-6 clay huts each, some zebu cows, children herding goats, and we gathered a lot of stares on behalf of the Gogo tribe.  The roads we took were meant for carts, not cars (once when we got lost we were able to see our own tracks from earlier in the day to find our way).  We can only speculate when the last car had passed through that area, if ever there was one.  The surrounding area was quite beautiful, lots of open space with baobab trees, juicy red earth, dried up sunflower and maize fields.  Mountains in the distance, and views over a vast and far landscape. 

After another half hour or so we finally reached one side of the hill.  The van barely made it up the road, we thought once or twice that we had to get out of the vehicle so it could manage the next ditch but Benuel was used to that kind of driving.  At the bottom of the hill, where the white dirt clearly indicated the previous digging, we parked.  We changed into working clothes – shoes that cover the ankles for stability, thick jeans or any other pants that don’t rip easily, head cover for sun, hammer, chisel.  The area was totally deserted, all we saw were some shepherds in the far distance, but once we climbed up a little and then descended into the pits, we were not visible to anyone.

At the bottom of Mautia Hill

Mautia Hill

Maybe it was due to the lack of local interest in us – the arrival of Wazungu in a village normally makes cell phones ring across the entire region – or maybe it was due to the fact that there was nobody near Mautia hill when we were digging; in any case, less than a few minutes into our supposed “looking only” expedition, Gunnar and Jochen got the better of themselves and started collecting rocks.  First they filled ziplock bags, then the ziplock bags wandered into sandbags, bag after bag.  The bottom of the hill took us past deposits of talc schist with deposits of quartz, kyanite and the expected yoderite or what looked like it, dark violet crystals on black host rock.  After further prospecting, they also found quartz colored by piemontite.

After a couple hours of prospecting, and a nice nap on the back seat of the car on my part, Gunnar and Jochen seemed satisfied with their discoveries and we headed back.  On the way, we noticed more white piles of rock on the other side of the path, indicating another pit.  But it was too late in the day to explore it.  We were tired, hungry and full of dirt and sand.  Given the satellite image, we believed ourselves to be near a tarmac road so once we got down from the hill, we instructed Benuel not to turn in the direction of Kongwa. We also thought it better not to be seen back in town with all of our bags of rocks. 

Gunnar and Jochen Prospecting

Well, things didn’t go as planned.  Moustache had expected us to return to Kongwa and had consequently left his and Benuel’s bags in the guest house.  Initially we had expected the same as we didn’t think that the prospecting would go this quickly, but we had nonetheless packed our bags in the morning and put them into the back.  The guest house had also been reserved, dinner ordered, and we didn’t have the phone number of the owner.  So – we had to risk going back.


Thankfully, back in Kongwa things went smoothly.  Nobody seemed to be interested in finding out why we were there.  There were no officials, no police, just a disappointed guest house owner because we cancelled our reservation.  We did pay for Moustache’s and Benuels room (the damage: $6.50), had some food at the neighboring kitchen (more rice, beans, ugali, etc.) and democratically decided to return to Dodoma to look for more comfortable accommodations.  I have to say “democratically”, not “mutually” because Jochen was against, Gunnar, Eric and I were for returning to Dodoma.  Jochen’s idea turned out to be the better one.  As is typical for democratic systems, the “masses” don’t always know what’s best.  The drive back to Dodoma took us almost 2 hours with traffic, as we got stuck behind a lot of trucks on the way.  The first hotel we stopped at, probably the best in Dodoma, was not accommodating – they didn’t have any rooms left.  We had no choice but to look for another.  As a result, we got lost in Dodoma while I was desperately trying to download hotel options with crappy internet.  We finally ended up at the New Dodoma hotel at $65 a night with breakfast, fairly tiny and run down rooms but there was fast wifi, a pretty courtyard, regular toilets and showers with warm water!

Dodoma Hotel

While the warm shower was certainly worth it for me, two precious hours had been lost.  And since we had considered going to the Winza region the next day, which is much closer to Kongwa than Dodoma, two more hours would be lost going back the next day.  The other disadvantage: staying in Kongwa, or near Winza in Mpwapwa, would have meant that Moustache could have spread the word among local brokers that some Wazungu were in the region who wanted to buy stuff.  The arrival of Wazungu wanting to make purchases usually spreads like wildfire, but not necessarily at a fast pace.  Arriving closer to lunch, by contrast, meant we would not enough time to spread the word and not enough time go get good minerals. 

So, after a dinner of chicken, tomato and pepper salad (Jochen ordered tomato salad and I ordered Katchumber but we both got the same thing), grilled goat and “chipsy” (French Fries), and some locally produced wine we hatched a plan B: head to Winza to at least investigate a little and then return to Mautia hill and prospect the second pit if there was time.  Plan B also didn’t go as planned, this time it was my fault because I sat up front to navigate and missed the turnoff.  In my defense, we were all engaged in a slightly heated discussion about the value of a short stop in Mwpapwa and I wasn’t paying attention.  So the decision kind of made itself because after we finished arguing we had already reached the turnoff to Kongwa.  So that’s where we went (luckily as it turns out).  First we spent another hour at the already investigated pit, during which Jochen explored the top and collected 80 pounds of stuff to analyze, while Gunnar explored yellow orangy glimmer with a pink colored mineral (Jochen thinks it’s biotite, Gunnar says it isn’t) and green kyanite in quartz, probably colored by chromium as opposed to iron manganate. 

The rest of the afternoon was spent at the second pit.  This pit turned out to be quite a bit larger than the first, with oodles of the quartz piemontite of varying shades of peach, pink, and burgundy and quartz containing a black mysterious mineral.  I wandered around shooting some video and promptly got stuck in a bush full of burr.  It took considerable time removing those sticky little buggers.  In general, I found the prospecting somewhat challenging.  There are bushes armed with nearly two inch pointy pins that can punch a tire (and did punch ours as we found out the next day).  And other bushes aptly termed “wait a little” (subiri kidogo) in Swahili because once you get stuck, the more you pull, the more you get caught.  The rocks in the pit were so full of talc that you couldn’t get a proper hold with your boots and were constantly in danger of slithering down into the pit 10 feet below.  I opted out of too much climbing in the area and as the guys worked their way along the side wall of the pit, instead I walked the longer way through the bush and a dried up sunflower field to the other side.  

Eventually I got fed up with trekking through fields and climbing rocks.  I went back to the car where Eric was watching a movie in the back seat and Benuel was resting under a tree, occasionally talking to friends on the phone.  (Some things are the same everywhere.)  I took out my laptop and started writing.  Just as we were starting to think it should be time to return, Moustache emerged from the rocks and passed on the message that we were to drive around the pit to the other side so that Gunnar’s sand bags could be carried downhill, not uphill.  According to the satellite, there was another path on that side. 

Click below for second video of us prospecting Mautia Hill

Satellites can be incorrect sometimes.  Like this time.  There was no road, at least not all the way.  Benuel braved a sunflower field and then we gave up.  He got out of the car and walked the rest of the way.  Jochen, who had joined us already, stayed behind with Eric and me, and after what seemed like half an hour, Benuel emerged with a heavy bag, followed by Moustache and Gunnar with two more bags each.  We packed up the trunk and headed back, all the while musing over the now pressing question about how to get all this back to Arusha once the bags were joined by our luggage, and then the even more pressing question of what to do after that. 

After passing through the closest village, we turned right instead of heading back to Kongwa because the day before we had seen trucks driving in the distance at a good speed, so we surmised a tarmac road somewhere back there which should accelerate the journey.  And tarmac there was, not more than 2 miles away from the hill: the very tarmac road from which we had turned off miles earlier to take the much more arduous road through Kongwa.  Duh.

By sundown we had reached our hotel.  Again, we were full of dust and dirt.  We showered and headed for dinner.  I ordered “Indian” food, which turned out to be another misnomer.  Don’t get me wrong, it was excellent.  Lamb, or rather, mutton, in a kind of sauce with mixed vegetables and salad.  It just wasn’t Indian.  Two kittens came to request part of the meal, they were probably the best kept kittens in the region, living outside in comfortable climate, protected from the wilderness by the courtyard, and fed daily by tourists. 

The next and final morning in the not so impressive capital of Tanzania presented us with another challenge.  Getting the van loaded.  The challenge was two faced.  Getting everything and all of us into the van, and unloading and reloading minerals right in front of the hotel guard.  A small amount of “posho” (pocket money) did the trick and the guard watched us load with a big smile on his face.

We were off to an early start back to Arusha, or so we thought.  For the first time while driving us in the entire week, Benuel got lost.  All of a sudden the paved road ended and we were on a dirt road instead of the highway.  We were lost for a good 30 minutes – Benuel acted like he was taking a shortcut but it wasn’t very long before I figured out that he had engaged in what prejudice clearly identifies as male behavior: getting lost, not admitting it and not asking for the way.  I blew my stack. “That PISSES me off,” I said rather loudly in a serious “don’t xxxx with me” voice.  Everyone in the car got nice and quiet.  I pulled out my cell, checked google maps, found the blue dot, and Eric typed in Arusha.  Seconds later, the friendly American lady who lives inside my phone told us where to go.  Moustache and Benuel were impressed, the rest of us relieved.  We found our way, found a gas station, and found a puncture in the tire, caused by the previously mentioned long thorn.  One of the thorns that Benuel so carefully tried to avoid when we picked up Gunnar on the other side of the hill.  But Africans know what to do about that sort of thing.  The tire got plugged – from the outside, not the inside.  And it worked.

So, and hour later, we were back on the road to Arusha.  On our 7 hour trip, we consumed copious amounts of Ndizi, banana, one of the few things you can get everywhere on the road.  The peels were to go out the window but not in town as I figured out after Moustache screamed “no” when I almost tossed the banana peels in front of a policeman who was planted to stop suspicious characters.  Generally the trip proved uneventful.  We asked Benuel not to speed because we didn’t think getting stopped and getting the car searched was such a hot idea.  The highlight of the trip in reverse was two guys on a motorcycle with two live goats in between them.  The highlight was short, but admittedly extremely amusing to us Wazungu.   

It's a WHAT?

On Monday, the problems of transport was being resolved.  As we found out through, well, someone, goods are leaving Tanzania constantly.  For instance, Longido is located just 20 miles away from the Kenyan border…  People have to survive.  Business is slower than usual because via this classified venue (that we tried to know as little as possible about), not as much can be achieved but stuff appears to be happening behind closed doors on a daily basis.  Everyone seemed to know it, too.

Monday afternoon was spent in part at Moustache’s house.  His wife cooked Swahili food for us – chicken (kuku), chipsy (Fries – very popular here), salad.  According to custom, a bowl and a small pitcher were handed around for us to wash our hands before eating.  Most Masai eat with their hands.  We were all given forks (not a knife though) but we decided that eating chicken and fries with a fork was more cumbersome than helpful.

Moustache's House

Moustache’s house was surprisingly nice given what else I had seen.  It had running water, indoor plumbing (albeit the “squat down” kind), a dining and living area with a small fridge, a kind of kitchen (very small) and two bedrooms.  Like most accommodations for locals, it was located on an unpaved road, or perhaps path, because it was so narrow the car couldn’t drive all the way.  The unpaved roads are not well kept in the areas of the less wealthy, so the ride is extremely bumpy.  The house was located amidst banana trees however, with a small brook nearby, and it was quite peaceful there.  Jochen and Gunnar were sorting through their rocks from Mautia hill, and I was talking to Moustache about his daughter’s future.  She just turned 19 and got into college in Dar es Salaam.  Tuition is going to be $1000 a year, which is far too steep for the family.  So I am going to try to find her some sponsors. 

Our goodbye dinner was an invitation by Moustache and two of his broker friends to the local Barbecue area  - where the Masai eat we were told – for BBQ goat (nyama choma).  Down another dirt road we went at the outskirts of town, all the white people in the car wondering if we were going to want to eat this food.  But at the end of the rather longish and again bumpy drive we reached a street full of smoke, one open charcoal barbecue next to another, piled with meat, bananas and potatoes – but mostly meat.  Behind the barbecue stands there were raw goat legs and ribs lined up on butcher’s hooks dangling from wire.  Behind that, plastic chairs and tables.  The meat was served cut up on large tin plates that were set in the center of the table, and with a red dipping sauce.  There were no individual plates, no utensils, no napkins.  We were offered the customary bowl to wash our hands, and then we got to dig in.  We consumed 4 large piles of extremely tender and juicy goat until our bellies were bursting.  Moustache prevented me from eating salad because he was worried it wasn’t properly washed, but the meat, chipsy and bananas were all well cooked through so we were told not to worry.

BBQ in Arusha

The last and final challenge of our trip home, aside from the arduous trip itself (flight from Arusha to Nairobi, Nairobi to Amsterdam, overnight layover, then Amsterdam to Newark), was to get our gem “tins” from customs.  This required a boarding pass, so we had to check in, then go to customs for pickup, repack our suitcases, and then back out of customs and again to check in to check the luggage.  This slightly unusual maneuver requires a bit of posho and the customs official wasn’t sufficiently happy with the amount offered (25 Euro), but he didn’t pull any of the usual stunts: i.e. – “we don’t have the key to the room where it’s stored,” “nobody is in the office right now,” “there’s a typo somewhere,” etc.  My business class ticket to Nairobi was downgraded in the computer to coach, nobody knew why, and nobody knew how to change it, but it didn’t matter for the 45 minute hopper flight past Kilimanjaro across the border.  “This is Africa.” 

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Visiting Kenya and Tanzania

Visiting Kenya and Tanzania


Our next destination after Madagascar was Nairobi, Kenya, where I planned a long overdue reunion with my friend Doreen.  Doreen Kawira is the niece of a Franciscan sister whom I met during my teaching days at Felician University.  Sr. Francesca, as she was called, was born in Meru Kenya and belonged to the Nazareth Sisters of Annunciation congregation. She was sent to study at Felician through her sister institution in Kenya.  She took one of my classes and we quickly made friends. When she graduated, Sr. Francesca confided in me that when she came to the United States, she had hoped to find a sponsor for her nieces Doreen and Purity to go to secretarial school.  She wanted her nieces to learn a trade, like typing and letter writing, and have the opportunity to practice on a computer – which was far too expensive for the family to purchase.  The Franciscan sisters at Felician College were not very interested in this, and neither were any lay Franciscans in the community.  So my department decided to sponsor her nieces, and with combined forces we paid for Doreen’s and Purity’s secretarial school.  Over time I became personal friends with Doreen via email and Facebook, and Doreen eventually told me her dreams for a bachelor’s degree, something she could of course never afford to pay for with her secretarial job (and college loans don’t really exist in Kenya).  I decided, not having kids of my own and therefore no college bills, that this is how I could pay it forward.  

Doreen and Immanuel

Doreen and Immanuel (left)

Doreen completed her bachelor’s degree in 2016 and that year, I met her in person for the first time.  Now Doreen is the mother of a little boy called Immanuel whom she is raising on her own (yes, childcare or parental responsibility laws are not really known in Kenya). I really wanted to meet little Immanuel, and of course I wanted to see Doreen again.


Little Immanuel Playing

Doreen now works for Mount Kenya University in Nairobi (the largest private university in Kenya), and she lives in a small apartment about an hour’s bus ride away during rush hour.  She works from 9 to 6 p.m so she’s hired a live in nanny with whom she shares the living room (her apartment is about 200 square feet).  She and Immanuel share the bedroom.  Water is turned on twice a week, so the rest of the time, they have to store it for washing and such.  With paying for the nanny and food, there’s not much left for anything else.  So I had bought some children’s clothes for Immanuel, and a colorful box of plastic cubes to play with.  Almost the entire family came to see me, including Sr. Francesca as well as Purity whom I had never met before.  They had cooked a big meal for us: a banana potato mash, rice, chicken stew, chicken soup, and vegetables.

It was a pity for me, because something I ate on the plane didn’t agree with me and I barely managed a bite.  I almost threw up on the plane (one of the worst things I can imagine at least as far as throwing up is concerned, which isn’t high on my list!).  Maybe it was something I ate before but in any case, I felt like crap.  I ate a little bit even though I shouldn’t have and got even sicker.  By the time it was 11 I was practically passing out and Doreen found us a local hotel for us to go to, and her next door neighbor who drives a taxi for a living, took us there. 

The drive to the hotel near the University of Nairobi took us past a number of brightly lit billboards selling luxury items that very few people could afford (like beauty products, makeup, even cars).  I found this strange because here in America, you wouldn’t advertise to such a small social group – it makes much more sense to pitch to the middle class.  So who buys those beauty products and those cars other than a select few I asked myself?  For most, these billboards must just represent a life that they can scarcely imagine.  Even Doreen remarked that riding in an airplane was something they regarded as only being for the rich.  She said they’d point to the sky and go “that’s how rich people travel.”

The hotel was another example of an unimaginable life to most Kenyans.  By our standards, the hotel was slightly above a motel 6 with a hotel entrance, but it was located inside a walled complex with a guard, guardhouse and gate.  The price was $100 a night, which was a reduced rate that Doreen was able to get us through her connection to the university. Even by US standards, this wasn’t so cheap, but for Doreen it would represent a week’s pay.

At 4:30 a.m. we got up to make the flight to Entebbe Uganda (layover) and then Kia (Arusha, Tanzania).  I was totally dead in the morning, with not enough sleep and a sick tummy.  The cab driver ended up over charging us (asked for $100 USD for the two rides the day before and the ride to the airport).  But I was too sick to argue.  I slept in the lounge on two ottomans, I slept through the first plane ride (where I almost got sick again), I slept in the airport at Entebbe which is newly built (very small) but where they still couldn’t print boarding passes (we got handwritten ones).  I slept through the next flight as well.  Then I felt better.  After another long wait for business visas and a long discussion at the custom’s office where we needed to have our Madagascar gems held due to export restrictions in Tanzania (a catastrophe at the moment about which I will talk later), we finally got picked up by our arranged ride to the Mount Meru hotel.  We reached the hotel in 30 minutes, I went straight to bed and crashed for 12 hrs....

Boarding Pass

Handwritten Boarding Pass

Mount Meru hotel Mount Meru hotel Mount Meru hotel Mount Meru hotel Mount Meru hotel

Images of Mount Meru Hotel in Arusha


Current Trade Issues

On the first full day in Arusha, we had morning coffee with some of the master dealers to get caught up on the current export situation, which has changed drastically since last year.  In July of 2017, the new mining act was established, which made all exports of rough gemstone material illegal.  The act was not signed until November of 2017, so when Jochen was here last fall he was still able to export.  The new mining act supposedly excludes all mineral specimens (because they are not facet rough) but apparently the government does not have sufficiently educated staff to tell the difference.  They have hired professors of geology but these lack the practical experience, and while the mining office lab has asked the help of several of the more educated gem dealers, they have not offered to pay.  Hence, they have not received their much needed education.

And what is the reason for such strong restrictions?  Apparently Thailand exports over 4 times as much Tanzanite as Tanzania, which indicates that mineral rough is exported and cut elsewhere – and elsewhere is also where most of the profit is made.  The Tanzanian government hopes to have the gems cut in Tanzania so that it can increase its own profit margin. 

And profit margin there is: First, there is the revenue gained by hiring cutters and employing local workers, but second, faceted stones fetch more money than rough stones, even if one figures the loss of the weight after cutting into the comparison. 

The problem is, however, that there are not enough cutters available in Tanzania to cut everything.  One master dealer explained to us that he is cutting 60% fewer gems than before (mind you this particular master dealer has 11 cutters all of which are Sri Lankan, not Tanzanian – most cutters aren’t local and it takes years to become a good cutter).  This particular master dealer said that this is still enough revenue for him, but he has also stopped buying new material, and this creates a problem for the miners and smaller brokers. Many of the local miners, who tend to profit the least in any case, have stopped trying to find new materials (and have also therefore stopped making money).  Overall it is estimated that the  gem trade is down by 90%.  As a result, many small brokers and the miners are in financial trouble, and so are the families they support.  Jochen and I actually sent some money to our broker back in April because he could not feed his family.  His daughter, who just finished high school, wants to attend University but he does not know how to help her.  University is $1000 a year, and that is probably 5x a monthly salary for him.  I’m hoping that I can find them a sponsor, as I have sponsored Doreen.

Given the new mining act the government loses revenue of course, they make far more money from tourism, so for now, despite many meetings between the master dealers and the president, the government is holding steadfast and nobody knows when the situation will change.  The hope is it will change soon but the election cycle is 5 years and most presidents are elected twice, which puts the time frame for change at 7 years from now.  One person we spoke to is thinking of closing down, two others are thinking of relocating to Kenya, which would simply deprive the Tanzanian government of the gem trade revenue on a permanent basis.

From what the master dealers told us, – the main sources of Tanzanian Tsavorite, the Mererani mines (also pronounced “Merelani”) now have a wall built around them which is guarded by the Tanzanian army who controls every person and package going out.  Tanzanite block C, the largest producing area of Tanzanite, is closed.  Block A is inactive anyway (it has been for some time), and B and D are for small scale mining, yielding smaller production. 

Generally however, from what I have observed, the current government, and perhaps the previous, are doing a lot for the country.  Many of the main roads are getting paved, thus making transportation much easier.  Arusha now has 10 traffic lights, up from 3 from my last trip, and in Dordoma, the capital, new buildings are springing up everywhere.  So from my outside perspective, it is not all bad, but as is the case with most governments, not everything may be entirely thought through.  Since the lack of infrastructure is one of the main reasons why African countries have such trouble improving revenue and participating in international trade, building roads should bring a lot of changes to the country.  The Arusha airport is still in need of an overhaul, but the roads are helping a great deal.  If you saw some of the unpaved streets over here which are barely good enough for an ox cart, it is easy to understand why essentials like water, food, and gasoline cannot easily be brought to the villages.

More about Tanzania, the Longido mines, and my own purchases in my next blog!

Here are some of my ruby purchases!  The Small Oval and Pear Shape are AGL Certified already.

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