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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Gem Buying in Tanzania: Rubies Rubies Rubies

Gem Buying in Tanzania: Rubies Rubies Rubies

As promised, let me tell you about the gems I saw, or didn't see, in Tanzania: on my second day, I spent rather a lot of time inside the little gem and jewelry shop owned by one of the few Tanzania retailers, a Greek immigrant named "Reno", born in Kenya.  The shop is right inside the Mount Meru hotel.  After sipping some excellent Greek coffee in his office and discussing current politics and Trade issues with Reno, his daughter Despina showed me their entire stock, where I was allowed to pick at wholesale prices.  

As you know, I am by now more seasoned at buying gems, and I no longer jump at anything unusual at first sight.  Nevertheless, the old ruby stock Reno had in his trays peaqued my interest.  There were mainly cabochons, but also several faceted pieces that I loved.  The cabochons were certified unheated by Despina's lab in Arusha, and so were the faceted gems.  By the time this blog entry appears, I have already had AGL recertify two of the cabochons, and I am waiting on the rest.  Getting (certified) unheated ruby material these days is tough going, and the Kenya material that I got is pretty rare.  

John Saul Ruby

In General, from what Reno told me, not many people right now are acquiring new stock, Reno included.  But that makes it equally interesting.  I saw a few super strongly saturated Mandarin garnets, of which I bought two (one is since sold), but I passed on unheated pink and purple Tanzanite.  All of it is also older material, and maybe I should have bought it, but I thought the ruby was still more unusual.  I also sourced a small parcel of unheated sapphires, a peach colored one as well as purples and a pink purple, all of which have the liner silk so typical of material from the Mozambique belt (most likely they are from Garba Tula Kenya).  I also got a pair of Mahenge spinel that is super saturated that I am quite happy with.  My export was facilitated via Bimal, the uncle of Jaimeen Shaw, owner of Prima Gems USA.  Bimal had us over for some amazing Cardamon tea and cookies, he still ships a lot to the US but only larger goods, not gemstone melee.  And he stocks almost nothing.  Like everyone else, he's waiting for the situation to either improve or fall apart entirely.

Kenya Sapphire

Faceted Ruby

While selecting my gems, I chatted with Despina, who provided another perspective on life in Tanzania.  Born in Kenya to Reno and his Greek wife whose name I don’t know, she led a childhood of luxury for Africa.  She went to a Greek school, got a college education, and speaks fluent Swahili, English and Greek.  But she never felt like Africa was her home.  Despina hopes to go back to Greece where she spent almost two decades of her adult life.  Back in Tanzania now for 4 years, she says she would leave tomorrow, “as I am” she said.  Just with the clothes on her back and her little 8 year old daughter Emma.  “I want to live somewhere where my windows do not have to have bars, she said.”  “Where I can go anywhere, and just walk, not have to drive, not have to worry about security.” And Kenya is now worse than Tanzania she said, especially Nairobi.  It used to be the other way around when she was young.  She feels European, not African, and of course Greece is one of the most beautiful places on earth, so I couldn't blame her.  And as much as I enjoy the visits, I could not live in Tanzania either.  The “rich” (consider it the upper middle class in the US and Europe), live in protected compounds, and white people have difficulty moving about freely because they stand a higher chance of being robbed.  They belong to no tribe and thus have no tribal protection.  I look at Tanzania and I see the United States' future, hopefully a far away future, where there is virtually no real middle class, just poor, very poor and well off, with the latter being the top of the pyramid and in need of protection because of the scarcity of resources.  Some day we will have scarcity of resources as well, if we keep multiplying as we have.  The middle class is already getting squeezed and I do not forsee it getting better.  But I digress….

Ruby Zoisite and Expedition to Longido

On our second day in Arusha, we focused on ruby, in particular, ruby in zoisite, not for cutting but for carving.  Jochen had a request from a German buyer for several hundred kilograms so he had to see what’s around and make a deal for material to be held here until hopefully the export of specimen rough including this ruby zoisite will resume.  He had one offer from one of the Master Dealers - Tony Frisby, aka the “doctor” because he has a Ph.D. to look at something at Tony’s property.  Tony, a white Kenyan in his 60s with short shaven hair and a mumble, has been dealing in Tanzania for decades.  We took a cab to hi son's house in Arusha to look at large lumps of ruby in a huge pile in the yard.  Tony now resides in Arusha downtown with his “young wife” as he explained – this is his 9th one.  Tony converted to Muslim so he could marry more than one.  He’s divorced from some, not others.  Interesting character.

An example of ruby in zoisite carving

Jochen got a pretty low price for the ruby – possibly because of the export problems.  But he decided to pursue one more lead in Mundarara (not far away from the town of Longido) about an hour north-west of Arusha.  So we headed there, we were driven by one of the guys interested in making the deal.  I found that in Tanzania it was often very unclear who actually owns the material or who is negotiating for it (or if more than one person owns stuff). 

Longido Region

On our way to Longido On our way to Longido On our way to Longido



We turned off the tarmac road (the paved road) just past Longido onto a dirt road which we followed for about another hour (25 miles or so) to the actual place where the ruby zoisite was mined – Mundarara.  Jochen noticed that in the years since he’s last been here, there had been a lot of change for the better: a lot of nicer houses had been built – brick houses with actual roofs, larger in size – and the mining area itself was closed off properly.  There were a lot of new buildings and many of the original huts were empty.  Of course it was still on an unpaved dirt road and from our perspective it looked extremely poor, but it wasn't what it was for the people a few years ago.  So the money that was made from selling the ruby was actually going back to the town itself which was extremely nice to see!  Anything and everything was being sifted through, old pits close and new ones open at a high pace.

For Jochen to make a transaction with anyone here, we first had to make ourselves known to the person in charge, possibly the chief of the area.  We drove to the end of town and Moustache our broker, a Masai who was well known among the locals for his connections to dealers in Arusha, figured out who we need to clear our presence with. As we waited, consuming copious bananas and fresh pineapple, several people pointed at my cell phone to be photographed.  I did that not realizing they were hoping for money.  Duh.  I had no Tanzanian shillings on me so I couldn’t pay but the issue wasn’t pressed.  This was a good thing.  I felt kind of guilty.  Generally though we were asked not to take photos until we talked to the person in charge.  The mining areas are fiercely protected.  I took some secret video though with my cell phone.


After some time, possibly close to an hour, of waiting around, a guy appeared, shook hands with us and said everything was all good and we could proceed.  So we went to a property where the ruby was piled up (imagine a construction site about 30x10 feet) and Jochen stomped around on it looking at various pieces.  He decided it was good enough and so negotiations could commence.  No actual trade was facilitated at the time however. 

Ruby and Zoisite

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A Little Trip (Madagascar Part IV)

A Little Trip (Madagascar Part IV)

Thursday afternoon two interesting bits of news reached us.  The first: There had been a new find of tourmaline near the mine of Ambatonapetraka (near Ibity) by the local bandit tribe, the Dahalo.  The news spread like wildfire.  The material was in crystal form only, possibly some cutting grade material also, it was pinkish and very pretty.  Nobody knew exactly how much was found, but after many phone calls many of the brokers disappeared to Ibity to try to acquire some of it – as Vazahy (white) it wasn’t safe fo us to go.  Jochen managed to buy one piece on Friday and haggled over the price over an hour via phone with the owner.  It turned out to be his most expensive purchase but probably worth it for him.  

The other and perhaps more promising news that the local fluorite mine (near Malaimbandy) had started yielding crystals (before that, there was only fluorite “massif” which was used for making eggs and such).  This had actually started earlier in 2018, and someone that Ando knew had acquired 600 kg of the stuff, which was stored in town.  Jochen was super interested in taking a look, so we took a drive across town to where the entire stash was.  In typical local fashion, and because the material easily breaks, it was stored inside someone’s house on the floor, shelves, and the bed.  And these houses are not exactly big.  Jochen loved the pieces and wanted to buy all of it.  Only we were leaving within just two days, so how to negotiate shipping, packing, and get prices for overseas freight in such a short period of time?  Unless you have an established international seller who does this type of thing all the time, you have to piece it together slowly, not via the internet but via phone calls and in person meetings.  (Things like this are the reason why Madagascar has not yet been so well explored for mineral mining – a fact that I expect will change in the next few years).

Jochen Hintze Examines Fluorite Crystals

Inspecting FluoriteInspecting Fluorite Inspecting Fluorite

Well, after some negotiations over the price, a sum was reached that was satisfactory to everyone.  Ando would get a cut, Gael maybe a small cut, Ando’s brother Thierry would also get a cut, and the owner would get the lion’s share.  The largest immediate problem first how to pack the stuff, and then the transport.  Where to get barrels, how many, how to ship and where to ship? 



v Fluorite

I went to the market with Ando to try to locate bubble wrap.  That was a total failure.  Bubble wrap, which is one of the few things that don’t tear (newspaper doesn’t work) turned out to be unknown to the population of Antsirabe, despite me showing photos of it on the internet.  Ando and I finally settled on mattress foam (cheap stuff, about ½ inch thick – I guess it’s what I slept on only thinner), and bought out a tiny store, much to the surprise of the owner.  We also needed to get a “caisse” – a metal box with a lock – for my purchases and for some stuff of Jochen’s that was being shipped to the US for the Denver gemshow in September.  These tin boxes are actually made one at a time by hand.  Mine was pre ordered but the second one for Jochen had to be bought finished – we ended up with a big iron box which was probably two kilos and which seemed to have been used as a piggy bank.

After that the serious work begun.  The repurposed mattress foam had to be cut, each of the couple hundred pieces wrapped and stored in the barrels that had been located elsewhere in the meantime.  The process took several hours with the only disturbance being an upset rooster who kept walking between the fluorite.  I should add that by now the fluorite had been moved outside!

Packing Fluorite

Packing Fluorite

Meanwhile, the transport problem was never fully settled and is still not fully settled at the time of this writing.  What I do know is that the material was carted off to the local harbor, but transport costs turned out to be unexpectedly high – meaning that various pockets were clearly being lined with the extra.  Export papers needed to be gotten from the mining office, and the freight costs established.  The recipient of the entire lot will be my garage, where the fluorite gets to wait until January when I can ship it to Tucson.  Lucky me!


Sunday morning it was time to say good bye, we had to leave at 7 a.m. for Antanarrivo.  It was a sad goodbye again, Maria couldn’t join us for the drive: she was explaining a family issue I could’t understand.  My French, although much improved after a week of digging up vocabulary from my teenage years of French study, often wasn’t enough for deeper conversations.  Most people we dealt with spoke French because most schooling is still in French, but they too have an accent so it takes a bit of getting used to.

In the car, Gael and I had a long conversation about what he might do with his life, and how I might be able to help him.  He has a computer science degree but no job, so he occasionally drives for his dad.  His friends and him built a website trying to sell advertising for small businesses but that’s not very successful.  I suggested to him that he could be a tourist guide if he improved his English, since it is virtually impossible for a foreigner to get around Madagascar without local help.  Road conditions are unreliable and constantly changing, all transactions are done in cash, banking is impossible, the locals in small towns don’t speak French, cars are nearly impossible to rent.  Finally, you don’t want to do anything to get in trouble with the law (and you may not know what that is).  It’s way too risky to be a lonely traveler here unless you just go to the bigger hotels in Tana and Nosy Be.  And it is also too confusing. 

Anyway our conversation ended on the following note: I would see if I could put together a kind of “Madagascar gem buying guide” and then have him build a small website for that.  He could be the driver/guide and Ando could organize the purchasing and transactions.  They wouldn’t need a lot of clients each year, as a salary of $200 per month, so $2400 a year, is sufficient (though not great).  Jochen and I make for a few hundred dollars in commissions in one trip. 

As you have already learned, gem buying in Madagascar is not for the uninitiated, and the export hurdles we faced in Tana are yet example.  Technically, it is totally legal to export any gems and there are not export restrictions or taxes (as compared to Tanzania, for example).  That is a good thing.  All you need is a stamped paper from the mining office in Tana which you present at customs at the airport when you leave.  But the realities are another matter: even with the export papers you will get stopped.  The airport employees will tell you there’s something wrong with the paperwork, maybe something’s misspelled, or whatever, and make you wait.  And wait.  And wait.  Until you miss your plane.  Or alternatively, until you catch the drift that you are to pay a “cadeaux”, a small gift, to the custom’s officers. 

Jochen has arranged for this “gifting process” to take place ahead of time, by meeting with an officer of the mining office at the hotel Mirandav before we go to the airport.  There, we presented our invoices, and we brought our boxes for viewing in case there are any questions.  Ando and the customs official have a nice discussion in Malagasy over tea, with us sitting there smiling, until some numbers start to surface that guarantee a speedy export process.  The magic number, in our case, was just under $100 a person.  Is this legal? Ethical?  Touchy question, legal in Madagascar, yes.  According to International Law, well it’s a small amount, and it is paid to accelerate business, so while you might be teetering the line here, I think it’s a yes.  Ethical?  I think the only ethical difference is that the fee structure to accelerate business (i.e. a rush fee for a passport) is part of an official structure.  In Madagascar it isn’t, and there’s very little pay, very little by way of organized jobs.  People in my view deserve to have more than they have in such a poor country.  But there’s a sliding scale between a small gift and a large bribe, and therein lies the problem.  I do think it can and often does lead to corruption.  It leads to corruption in the US, and we have ample illustrations of that in daily news.  There’s no reason to assume it’s any different elsewhere, and the bigger problem is that here we have better enforcement. 

Incidentally, we still got stopped at the airport, but not by customs.  It was a security agent who didn’t like the metal boxes going through the scanner.  We almost missed the plane but Jochen called the mining officer who works at the airport anyway, he showed up to disentangle the mess, a long discussion in Malgasy ensued and just as the final boarding call was made Jochen was “set free to board.”  We didn’t really know what was going on but we made the plane, that was the important thing.

Life in Madagascar - this is where the rich people live



Our Breakfast Place with Expensive Goodies - Sadly Behind Bars 

Life in MadagascarLife in MadagascarLife in MadagascarLife in MadagascarLife in MadagascarLife in Madagascar

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Madagascar Gem Shopping (Part III)

Madagascar Gem Shopping (Part III)

On my second day gem shopping in Antsirabe, I bought one piece of purple spinel from Ilakaka, 1.1 cts, and a small parcel of 3mm-ish spinel rounds that will need to be sorted and parceled.  I saw a lot of very dark aquamarine, quite included but super pretty otherwise, not sure what the price should have been but asking prices were high in my view, so I passed on almost all of it.  And I passed on gobs of the lighter aqua because I still have some from last time.  Ditto with all yellow beryl and morganite, as well as white beryl (goshenite).  I also ended up passing on almost all Madagascar demantoid thanks to Dudley Blauwet’s email advice who told me it looks muddy in indoor lighting (tested and confirmed). Demantoid is a hard resell unless it is Russian.  Lastly I acquired a little bit of sphene and a little bit of chrysoberyl, some more spessartite, a little lot of blue apatite, and a couple of lots of color change garnets from Bekily – I saw lots of color change garnet in fact but most of it changed from some sort of brownish to another sort of brownish, so I didn’t see the point of the investment.  I like the blue-purple change and what I got changes well so I was happy.  A warning though, all the nicer stuff was under half a carat.  

You can see a lot of the gems that I bought on my trip on Etsy.

Madagascar Emerald and Pink Tourmaline

My main investment on the Madagascar part of the trip were the sapphires, which must go to the lab to be checked for heat (I also got another pink piece that is probably from Ilakaka and which looked unheated but it’s hard to be sure about that).  The last time I got sapphire in Madagascar none of the material turned out to be heated, which is a good sign. 

Pink Sapphire from Ilakaka

By day three I was over budget, or rather, I spent more than I brought in USD, so I had to negotiate a Western Union transfer from home.  Real credit is hard to get in Madagascar because there’s not money to float anyone. Everyone needs “un avance” or the entire amount paid once the purchase is completed.  And there are no returns, only exchanges if the broker mis-informed you about the item or didn’t know what it was (brokers do not have GIA degrees, and many also lack experience).  For my sapphire trade I was able to negotiate a wire transfer for a later point because Ando has finally managed to get a bank account with the Bank of Africa to grow her trade.  A novelty around here.

Madagascar Aquamarine

Of course I brought as many gifts for my friends as my suitcase as possible, among them 3 clinique gift bags which I get every October and March.  Ando’s cousin Mamavelo was thrilled to receive one, I saw it in her purse all week.  I gave the other two to Ando and Maria.  I gave away two smart phones, even with a cracked screen it was accepted gratefully.  I had a suitcase full of old clothes and I gave them away a little at a time (some had to be saved for Doreen in Kenya – of whom I will tell in a later blog).  Anything and everything was needed and used. Absolutely positively nothing is thrown out.  When we went to restaurants children would wait outside for leftovers and eat them on the spot.  It’s very hard to come to the realization that it is impossible to equalize things.  People are simply at a financial disadvantage and nothing can change that. 

Here’s a little anecdote that helps illustrate. When Gael drove up from Antsirabe to pick us up, he asked Jochen if he could bring his friend up to Nosy Be.  Jochen said sure.  However, the (not understood) implication was that said friend would drive back with us during the two day drive back down, thus taking up space in the back seat where we intended to sleep during the voyage.  Also, said friend was unknown to Jochen and we had a lot of cash with us, so it wasn’t really ok with us to have to have another “guest”.  Gael didn’t exactly ask if he could bring his friend back with him in the car, so the matter had been left unclear until the last moment (well, Gael said he had made it clear, Jochen said he did not, and I wasn’t there to hear the conversation…).  So when the friend got into the vehicle at the Ferry Terminal, Jochen got angry, and the friend ended up staying behind and taking the bus.  This meant that the friend incurred a travel cost of $30 – a lot of money in Madagascar.  This was unintended of course and I have since reimbursed the cost.  Jochen was against this as he didn’t feel Gael was being polite.  My view was that in Europe or in the US this is true, but this is not so in a country in which people have no choice but to rely on one another because there’s no money.  (And the government, regardless of who is in charge, takes in taxes and keeps them pretty much, it is a system of making oneself rich, not a system for the people, despite the appearance of democracy: people who can’t read vote based on photos with numbers provided by their local politicians).


The People

The people here are extraordinarily friendly and helpful.  Both Gael and Ando, the two people I know best, are highly intelligent and curious about the world.  Ando has a memory for numbers that I can only envy, and Gael can fix anything to do with technology (he has a degree in computer science, also a rare thing here).  I get lots of hugs from Ando and her daughter Maria, and Ando’s youngest, Tia, has adopted me and Ton Ton Jochen as their aunt and uncle.  It is the friendly way of accepting their fate that tugs at me.  When we give, it is most welcome, but people ask for things (like a coke or a glass of wine at dinner) with care, and I almost feel that they worry not to anger us to ask too much, yet if they start asking maybe it never ends (Jochen feels that this has already happened in his case, at least on occasion).  Jochen sometimes worries being taken advantage of and I don’t blame him, but it is hard to call it that when such dire need exists, and the need can only be mitigated by us. It is a predicament that cannot be resolved, I feel.

Ando's Daughter Tia


Little Tia Plays with Big Yvonne

Gem Market

On Thursday afternoon, we took a trip via “pousse pousse” (rickshaw) to the two local gem markets. 

Pousse Pousse in Antsirabe

Pousse Pousse, Antisirabe

For Jochen, and now for me, the custom had become the custom to visit every single booth so that nobody would miss out on the chance to make a little money – for not much money is made at the markets here with just an occasional tourist wandering in a few times a day (and there were a couple of dozen shops!).  I had also adopted the custom of letting Ando know which “boite” (box) of the various shops I am interested in, then politely remove myself from earshot so she could negotiate the price and her commission – removing myself is kind of silly because I don’t speak Malgash but it indicates that I am not trying to find out the price directly.  Ando would then take the boxes I like, get the phone number of the owner and the price, and we take them back to the hotel for me to look at and consider more carefully, i.e. loupe and weigh the gems.  

The Gem Market in Antsirabe

Gem Market, Antisirabe Gem Market, Antisirabe Gem Market, Antisirabe Gem Market, Antisirabe

Making money selling gems is very difficult for the locals in Madagascar.  The infrastructure is poor, the internet connections are poor, the banking system is poor.  And there is a constant need to cover other expenses, so that when you try to provide a loan for a business to get started, the money may not end up in the right place.  Case in point: Last summer, Ando asked me for a $2000 loan. Her family owns the land where calcite is mined. Calcite is a blue mineral, not good enough for faceting but good enough for “eggs” and slices and other nicknacks to be sold overseas.  She needed to finance transport with an oxcart as well as a faceting wheel.  The owner of the business interested in transacting with her was not willing to loan her the funds to get started.

So I sent the money to her via Western Union with the agreement that I could trade it for gems so she could make an additional commission.  We agreed.  In November, I let her know which gems interested me and in January Jochen brought me a bunch of stuff when we met up in Tucson.  I picked what interested me, then let her know what I would be returning, only to find out that Ando actually bought all those gems with her first incoming profit when I thought she just memo’d them. Ando then confessed that she didn’t quite have the “street cred” to borrow gems to send overseas.  Or perhaps what was really going on was that people pressured her to pay right away because they all need money, so she took the risk and it backfired.  Her profit was gone and she had made a poor purchase that was hard to turn back into money.  Stories like that are typical I’m afraid.

Well, you probably want to know what happened next.  First, I decided was to ask my friend Dudley Blauwet from Dudley Blauwet gems if he wanted what I didn’t need at my cost at a trade for his merchandise at his wholesale price.  I figured he might have other clients than I do and that way I could turn the merchandise into other merchandise with a higher chance of selling it.  Dudley agreed to the trade, and I threw in some phenakite I had laying around to sweeten the deal. 

But I had another bad surprise waiting for me.  Dudley did RI texts on the grandidierite and some of the chrysoberyl, neither of which I had looked very carefully.  The grandidierite turned out to be mixed together with aqua, two chrysoberyl turned out to be sphene and another was a weird color zircon. So Dudley returned the goods but I was stuck with the trade ($1600) – or rather, after that I didn’t dare to ask for that trade back and send him a check instead!  I told Ando what happened and she was mortified.  At this point, we had already planned for my summer visit so she asked me to bring the materials back and we would sort it out during my stay.

Fast forward to my day at the gem market.  Ando and I had taken the goods that I brought back into her possession with the plan to show the original sellers and facilitate if not a return, then at least a trade.  I also enlisted Jochen for a “good cop bad cop” game.  When we got to the booth of the sellers, I showed them the little bags onto which Dudley had written what the gems actually were.  Jochen did his job acting “tres facher” (angry) because my reputation in America was now (supposedly) tainted, and I was conciliatory, saying I was sure it was a mixup (and these mixups DO happen because many of these brokers don’t have much gem expertise).  A trade was facilitated.  I now own a shitload of rhodolite garnet but at least it is that: garnet.  And some real aqua.  Now that I am back here, I have to try sell all that.  But ok.  Hopefully nobody in Madagascar got too hurt.  Because the thing is that every party has to make a little bit of money and I feel responsible for producing the lion’s share of cash because I am the connection to the “big” money in the United States.  Sidenote: my reputation really isn’t tainted but that was only because I didn’t try to sell the stuff on Etsy.  So there really was that risk.

Garnet from Madagascar

Lunchtime at the Nearby Market

Market in Antisirabe Market in Antisirabe Market in Antisirabe 

And Where are the Rich People? Behind These Gates

Here's a little Video of the Local Market in Antsirabe - Where you buy just about anything because stores are not very common around here

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Travels to Antsirabe and Local Gem Buying (Part II)

Travels to Antsirabe and Local Gem Buying (Part II)

After a 4:30 a.m. morning rise (for which neither of our alarms rang but Jochen appeared to have an internal clock), we made our way to the ferry terminal for the 6 a.m. ferry to the mainland town of Anify.  The ferry was big enough for exactly two cars, and it went as fast as a turtle.  So it took us two hours to reach Anify which was perhaps a distance of 10km.  But it allowed for a beautiful morning view of the sunrise and a nice nap on the backseat of the 4-wheel Toyota with the “tuk tuk” of the ferry engine and the slight waves lulling me to sleep.  Upon arrival we bought some (non Dunkin) donuts, freshly made from rice flour and soaked in sugar syrup.  Beats Dunkin any day – not that anyone over here had ever heard of Dunkin Donuts, or any other chain for that matter, including McDonald’s. So lovely...

Sunrise ferry ride to Anify, Madagascar

Here in Madagascar, street food is available in abundance.  Not everyone here cooks for themselves because it’s quite a bit of work to start a charcoal fire, mix fresh dough and cut and wash vegetables at 5 a.m. Refrigerators are a rarity in Madagascar and so is running water.  This is why just before sunrise, when the day begins, people cook rice and meats, make their rice cakes in shallow pans, fry sweet donuts and vegetable or meat pakoras, which they offer on the street in little booths, together with bananas and fresh cut salads of cucumber, cabbage, tomato and carrot.

The first part of our treck took about ten hours, first leading tropical forest with cocoa and ylang-ylang plants, then through open areas past half dried up rivers (since it’s winter here and dry season).  Just after dark at around 7 p.m. we reached our stop for the night, a tiny town called "Ambordromamy."  Gael stopped on the side of the street and asked a local about a hotel for the Vasahy, the whites.  After chatting with the local for a bit, he arrived at two options for where to stay.  One was more of a hotel meant for Vasahy travelers, the other more of a spot for Malagasy.  We were advised however to stay at the latter.  The reason: there are Dahalo, a bandid tribe, in the countryside and when whites stay in the nice(r) hotel sometimes one of their lookouts makes a cell phone call when they leave to organize an armed highway robbery.  It is especially dangerous when you leave before sunrise.  So we heeded the advice and stayed in the not so nice place (but I think the nicer place wouldn’t have been much nicer).  And we didn’t leave before sunrise either.

The Streets and our Hotel in Ambordromamy Madagascar

Ambordromamy Ambordromamy Ambordromamy Hotel

Once at the hotel, the owner proudly showed us that he had availability of a shower across the yard (one shower for the entire guest house which had perhaps five or six rooms).  There was “kind of” a shower – a narrow room with a sink and a pipe leading up a wall, a fixture at the end of a pipe and a lever to turn on the water.  When I tried it, however, it didn’t work.  A closer look revealed a blue plastic barrel next to the shower with a little bucket in it and a sign in French which said something like “one barrel per person only."  Once my brain had fired up and I had absorbed what a "shower" would therefore entail, I was also able to reason that the water would not be hot.  It was wet, that is all.  So I skipped the shower.  The toilet “stall” was across the yard also.  Another barrel next to the seat indicated the flushing method.  Lighting was provided by the lantern in my back pack.  The door was to be barricaded with a broom, the high gate was locked at night.  Gael slept in the car to protect the luggage.  Well, it was a short night anyway, sleep assured with a beer and a couple of shots of whisky from the bottle secured in Duty-free at Nairobi.  At daybreak around 6 a.m., we had nice filling street food breakfast (banana fried in sweet dough, fresh rice cakes, nescafe with sweetened condensed milk since regular milk doesn’t last).  I took a long and restful morning nap in the back of the car once we hit the road.

Breakfast in Ambordromamy

Ambordromamy Breakfast

The first part of the drive ahead of us was about five hours, back to the capital Tana, so we could stop at the hotel Mirandav, where the rest of our luggage had been stowed as a courtesy of the owner, who has known Jochen for many years. 

The drive slowly lead uphill through a more mountainous region and into more dry lands.  At one point during the drive, I saw Jochen throw his plastic water bottle out of the window and went “tsk” to chastise him for littering. I should have known better than to make that accusation.  What I hadn’t fully processed was that just seconds before, a little boy who saw Jochen drinking the water called out to him “rembourser” – reuse.  So Jochen tossed him the bottle.  In the poor countryside, plastic bottles are of great value.  They can be refilled with water from the local wells, they can be used as funnels, who knows what else.  They are especially valuable when they still have a cap.  After that realization, we tossed all our empty bottles out the window; of which there were many because we were advised not to drink the local water.  Since there are little villages all along the single lane, the “highway,” you always see people walking along on the side, either on the paved road, or in the red dirt.  They pick up anything you toss.  It is the perfect recycling (in fact I did not see a single garbage dump anywhere here).  But it is also a sign of the immense poverty that exists in Madagascar.  Most people are barefoot, many have ripped clothes, you see people pushing bikes so old and rusty that they are only good for carrying water bottles or jugs, and you see many many women balancing huge loads of various stuff on their head, walking for miles and miles every day bringing things back from town or from the fields.  Kids on the road often pointed to us, calling out “Vasahy” – white person.  While there were some cars on the road, and many trucks, most do not have white people in them.

North-East Madagascar

We reached Tana just a little bit before noon and stopped again at “Chez Maman” for pork chops and duck, excellently spiced grilled vegetables, and madeleines, all again for under $10 for three of us.  Food is quite impressive in Madagascar, and very fresh.  You only need to worry about things like fish or mayonnaise sitting in the sun too long, or shrimp hanging out on the boat before being delivered.  So that’s why you best eat things well cooked and cooked right before consumption.  I had many fresh salads in Madagascar however, they just looked too appetizing.  And many of the open kitchens work hard to keep things clean and well washed, which belies the dusty and sometimes dirty looking context.  Pots and pans are old because they cost money, and they get black from the charcoal cooking.  Most cups and plates are made from aluminum.  You only see glassware in restaurants for Vasahy.

After picking up our luggage, we started our drive to the final destination of Antsirabe, the city of gem trade and the stop for us for five nights.  Other than the fact that we got slowed down trying to pass dozens of large trucks and taxi-bus’ filled to the brim with people and luggage piled on their roofs, we traveled with just one incident to report.  There was seemingly dead or injured body lying in the street, partially covered by tarp, and bringing traffic on the opposite side to a dead halt. He was illuminated by the headlights of the truck trying to get past.  Nobody appeared to get out and help.  We drove past slowly.  Gael explained that since it was after dark, it might be a trap so nobody wants to risk stopping.  Plus there’s not really any police or ambulance to call.  This reminded me of a story Jochen once related to me: many years ago, on one of his car trips through Africa, Jochen gave a ride to a young women in labor who was clearly in distress.  He dropped her at a hospital a couple hours away.  Without his help, the woman may have died.  Out in the middle of nowhere, help to the injured is not an available convenience.

Houses and a Rice Terrace North of Antsirabe

We finally arrived at the Green Park Hotel in Antsirabe a little after 7 p.m. only to find out that our rooms were not ready because either Jochen, or the owner of the hotel, or Ando had confused the dates.  So we were given other huts (each room at Green Park is actually a little brick hut), smaller than the ones booked, and though they have running water, it was cold on that day.  The water is warmed by the sun on the roof and it had been an overcast day – or maybe the hot water was just out for the day.  I didn’t brace the shower until the next morning, and it was the fastest shower ever! 

Green Park Hotel and a Pousse Pousse Outside the Hotel

Green Park Hotel, Madagascar Green Park Hotel, Madagascar Green Park Hotel, Madagascar

We started buying gems almost immediately the next morning after breakfast.  Ando had organized wooden table and some chairs, right outside the hotel on a meadow.  Brokers were already waiting in a kind of line, chatting with one another, then unpacking their wares on the table once it was their turn.

I was shown quite a bit of interesting material.  I haggled over a small lot of 6mm cushion mandarin garnets from Mahaiza for quite a bit.  The initial price offered, which is always “a discuter”, was very high in my opinion.  Since I didn’t have too much equipment with me, I was careful in my choice.  But bright orange garnets are a fairly safe buy, they are unlikely to be anything else.  I also purchased two small parcels of color change garnets, a little bit of rhodolite garnet and two matched pairs of sanidine (a Feldspar), a bigger lot blue and teal blue sapphires between .8 and 2 carats from Diego and Ambatondrazaka, as well as a little bit of pink tourmaline (rounds only).  I eye balled some green tourmaline but found it muddy in color, nothing special.  I was actually shown a lot of tourmaline but nothing really stood out.  Since I try to do a little bit of business with each broker and not everyone shows you useful stuff, I bought just a very small bit.

Grandidiarite, one of the 10 rarest minerals on earth, turned out to be widely available because there was a big find a few months or year ago.  I guess it won’t make that list anymore in the near future, given how much there is.  The price had dropped accordingly and as it sometimes goes in this trade, those who bought at the high got caught with their pants down, including our friend Ando (a sad story that needs to be covered in the next blog).  Grandidierite is just not pretty enough to fetch high prices except for rarity, even the nicer blue colors.  And having made the mistake before of buying what I thought was grandidiarite which turned out to be muddy aqua, I only got two cabochons which I can test at home – and of which I am fairly sure they are what they are supposed to be (update: both cabochons have since been tested and are indeed grandidiarite).  I also risked small funds on two tiny local emeralds which will need to be tested.  We saw a beautiful piece of faceted bottle glass which someone tried to sell for about $800 as an emerald.  I kind of knew it was fake just looking at it, the microscope did the rest.  (I saw a bigger piece around a carat which I didn’t think is fake but the initial asking price was fairly high and I just wasn’t going to risk it). 

Gem Buying in Antsirabe

Gem buying in Antisirabe, Madagascar Gem buying in Antisirabe, Madagascar

I also examined a pretty ruby oval with bubbles under magnification which indicated it was glass filled.  I did get a couple of tiny pieces of ruby that looked more promising (but too small to test on location), but I didn’t spend much just to be on the safe side.

There was one lot of peach pink supposedly Malaya garnet and some rather similar looking zircon – a gem with a peachy yellowish tint (the ones in Tanzania are more peachy, here most Zircon is more yellow).  I bought some of both for telling apart back at home, the lines of people to show us things were long and it was very important to us to give everyone a chance because you never know how long they travelled.  Also, the gem trade in Madagascar is in it’s infancy (or maybe “childhood”) compared to Arusha.  While minerals have been available here to buy for some decades, it’s the huge sapphire finds of the past few years that have put it on the map, and the other discoveries are just following.  The difficult travel conditions, and the lack of easily available large funds are slowing the development.  The law forbids non-Malagasy to enter mining regions, the lack of security makes it unadvisable.  Some locations can only be accessed with a 2-5 day foot march, which few non-locals are willing to subject themselves to.

Gem buying in Antisirabe, Madagascar Gem buying in Antisirabe, Madagascar

The gem brokers in Madagascar are an interesting bunch.  They are 90% female, and they borrow their wares from various “proprietaries.” They come armed with a price list (though they usually have an excellent memory for numbers and don’t need it), then start negotiating with a high asking price or ask you to make an initial offer for discussion.  No price is fixed, ever.  The brokers live off the commission so the higher the prices we pay, the better for them.  Whenever my idea of price and theirs was just too far apart, I would explain that middle price is impossible.  My exception for that were stones from Maria or Ando, whom I want to support.  In their case, I would to figure out an honest price but slightly on the higher side.  I would also try to explain what my clients like or what I can sell, but that often fell on deaf ears because the need to make money simply has priority.  There is an urgent need here to earn some sort of a living and for these small brokers there isn’t a big clientele, which is why I sometimes overpaid.  The downside to that is that money ran out faster.  All deals are cash based, credit cards don’t exist except in the expensive hotels and even there they prefer the credit card just to hold the reservation (even at the Vanila spa, which was $150 a night, we ended up paying cash). 

Once everyone is through and first choices are made, the women return the gems they borrowed and get others from different people or from their supplies.  Often the result is that you see the same stuff presented by different brokers.  But I have a good memory too.  Not always for prices, but I rarely forget a gem that I have seen before.

More about gem buying next time...

Below are some of the gems I brought back from Madagascar and that will soon be in the shop.  I have set up a section on Etsy for Africa Gems, all of which will be discounted durig the sale.

Unheated Sapphires (Tested)

Mandarin Garnet


Color Change Garnet, Strong Change but not pictured


Sanidine, a Feldspar

Grandidierite Cabochons (Tested)

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