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LA RINCONADA, PERU—Stepping from a brothel into morning in Rinconada, a suppurating wound of excrement and garbage and fuel exhaust.
Rough night. No heat. No running water. Ergo: no toilet. The wooden floors and cracker-thin walls of the bordello had served as efficient sound vectors for the heavy boots of the importuning miners, orchestral hosts to their loud and meaty door-banging fists. The only detail missing was the jangle of brass spurs.
The floors of the “hotel” rooms — bordellos offer the only lodging in town — had been doused in germ-killing gasoline, the fumes infusing the atmosphere with acrid, lung-invading top-notes. Thus the head: woozy, thick-feeling. Can barely breathe, not that breathing in this fetid atmosphere holds much appeal.
A metre in the distance, a stream of effluent bisects the packed mud path that serves as a primary artery through town. There are no paved roads. Panfuls of slop are heaved into the street.
The mining town shakes off hours of half sleep. Morning triptych: one miner relieves himself with the force of a Clydesdale against a truck tire; one boozy adolescent sways on his pins to the sound of no music; one market woman lands a cleaver into the rib cage of a stripped and quartered lamb.
A moment’s silence: the compro oro — gold buying shops that litter the streets — are still shut tight.
Why here? Why this slap-down disaster of tin-shack homes and frontier shops settled at 5,200 metres in the Peruvian Andes? To the northwest lies Cuzco, the once-golden capital of the Incan empire, and beyond that, the ruins of Machu Picchu, Peru’s come-hither call to tourists. But here? Why on Earth?
Our off-the-grid story begins with a hitchhiker. A year prior, we had departed Ounaminthe, a Haitian garment factory town upon which a few noted economists had pinned a frail, T-shirt sewing future for that collapsed country. We were speedily making our reapproach to Cap Haitian when we spotted the backpacker and wondered: who hikes through Haiti?
The bespectacled traveller told many tales of fantastic adventures. There was a far-off land, he said, where men live higher than all others, pursuing a quest for gold under an Andean glacier, receiving no pay, until, by grace of the boss man, they are allowed to excavate for their own gain. He had journeyed from the cacophonous Peruvian city of Juliaca up to Rinconada by bus. He lasted a day. It was an execrable place, he said.
Mining for gold above the highest-known inhabited settlement in the world? Under the ice? Twenty-first century serfdom? Is there no limit to what can be born, if not nurtured, by a global gold rush?
In the bare dawn, we push higher.
Our altimeter does not work. Nor, often, do our lungs, as we try to keep our footing on slickly odorous paths, amalgams of unpleasantness in the thin air. Invisible hands compress our temples. An electrifying sensation charges through fingers and toes, sparked by the altitude medication we are taking. Having been pre-warned that working at such heights is like working with a hangover, photographer Lucas Oleniuk pondered: “I’m good at that. Having a hangover makes you sad and sadness makes me more perceptive.”
For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star website: http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/1098985–why-the-heavens-of-peru-are-a-hell-of-a-place-to-seek-a-fortune?bn=1