La Fortaleza

Day 8.  I am finally back home in Edinburgh. Still recovering from the tiresome pace of the last week and my insides are cramping to the point I find myself actually moaning out loud every so often. It takes some proper time and experiences in a 3rd world country to realise how luxurious your life at home is. I have never been so happy to be able to drink tap water, hot showers, never has my bed felt that comfy like being swallowed up and cuddled by joy itself, actual roads, cars that have doors that don’t just fly open randomly, central heating, uninterrupted Wi-Fi, understandable and flavoured food, ease of communication, working electricity, washing clothes, Netflix, the list just goes on for everything that we don’t question on having access to.

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Day 5. Woke at the usual 6am and I jumped around a cold shower while screaming like a little boy with Francesco laughing in the background. We headed off without breakfast and went straight to our 3rd and final mine visit. We had played musical cars and squeezed in elsewhere as to not have to go with Speedy, which was a welcomed relief. Arriving at La Fortaleza, the third and final mine, we had breakfast all laid out buffet style with fruit and bacon. It was raining, or rather was a wet jungle air, in amidst the cloud and mist in the mountains. Another two mines dogs greeting us eagerly in the hope of some fallen food for their breakfast as well. This place had been given some serious TLC to it by the miners.

Whilst still on a steep hillside, La Fortaleza was on a flatter clearing with a river running through it at the bottom. We were given a clear sense of care in its ecology right from the start and Rolberto Alvarez, the mine owner, was very passionate about his work and the positive impact they had on the surrounding environment. They cared for trapped fish from the river, built supporting walls with their waste rock, created a jungle walk along the side of the river as an eco-tour for visitors. This walk took them to the old mine waste area that his father had worked that still had a waste pile of mercury that he was elf appointing in actively disposing of it in as best possible and responsible was as he could. This was no mean feat that lay ahead of them, despite being told how to in a report from the mining ministry, it was up to him to fund this and take care of it. His eco-tour was to show people the ways of the past and how they were dealing with past problems. This hit Christina as she began to ask about the costs involved in dealing with this problem and we could all see her gears start to turn in thinking how she could contribute towards the clean-up.

It was clear from the go how important the mine site was to Rolberto and what becoming Fairmined certified had meant to him. While we didn’t go into this mine, it didn’t matter as actually the plant and external mining areas were what was much more important into what Fairmined had helped and the mutualistic symbiotic relationship between the miners and the certification. Rolberto’s plant was cared for and run beautifully as was the surrounding area. The fact that he had made a feature of the old irresponsible mining ways and was actively dealing with it had impressed everyone there.

We were shown some gold in the panning sluice and even a few round nuggets that had been recently poured on site. My first ever responsibly mined gold held in my hand in Colombia. That was gold I was interested in and would look forward to working with in the future. I hadn’t been one for the use of gold in the past, mainly due to its price, but this was so much more valuable and important than any other gold I had touched in the past. This was truly, a precious metal and one worth fighting for.

As done in the other mines and cooperatives, I presented Rolberto with a gift from my first Fairmined silver, this a forged small spoon. Again I was touched to see the genuine delight in his eyes at this at the importance of this for him, family and employees. Everyone wanted to speak with everyone at the site, interviews and photos galore and yet again we had to literally tear ourselves away in order to make sure we got away on time and it came as no surprise that our journey back to the airport wasn’t without problems.

Snaking our way back down and through the mountains we found one particular corner problematic and had to slow in order to not hit the vehicle in front. That meant we went dead in the mud and ended up going sideways when trying to move. Now sideways is fine, if there isn’t a huge drop off a narrow muddy road. Thank fully we then went sideways towards the hill and away from the verge, but ended up in a bit of a ditch which resulted in a rather awkward descent out of a door the pointed up towards the sky when opened. There was no real issue and a few of us marvelled at the over complicated ways I which too many cooks tried to move us on, but after about a half hour we were back in convoy and heading for the airport.

Check in was where it all went wrong, little did we realise at the time. As we waited, a few of us were called over to the second attendant and checked in individually, while the main queue appeared to be checked in as a group. The plane had been delayed due to the earlier one not running again so we ate and waited in the food hall. As the plane came in, those who had their tickets from the small check in queue went through security and the rest went back to collect their boarding passes. When Maddy appeared through security and joined the 5 of us already there, she said pale faced “The rest aren’t coming. . . !”

No one quite knew how to process this info, we were silent and perplexed. It wasn’t clear what had happened but she said that they weren’t being allowed on the plane. Thoroughly confused, we weren’t allowed to go back through security either to see what was happening. Turned out that because of the morning no flight there was a back log and the side queue of us were issued with seats and the rest were put on standby, but we hadn’t been told this. So here we were, suddenly split into two groups and unable to say bye. Some of us were leaving that night from Bogota, some early the next day and the next plane they could get would be dependent on the morning fog, which, even if got in on time, wouldn’t be early enough for this now family to say bye to one another.

We were all heartbroken and in disbelief. We had met as strangers, over a short and intense time become family and now cut in two at the end. There were tears in both groups as this hit home and as our group boarded the plane I felt sickened and cheated by the unfortunate circumstance. What a truly ugly anti-climax to what had been an epic adventure. I was gutted and furious, not even bejewelled on the games screen was going to help this.

Landing in Bogota, Herlain managed to speak with Kenny and Patricia (our right ARM organisers) who with the other few remaining party members got a place to stay for the night and despite the situation were all fine. We got our bags and headed outside for our bus, which never showed up. Taxis were the next best option and so we jumped into 3 or 4 of them and headed for the hotel. Thinking that the whole ordeal was over and we were about to get hot running water, cold beers, comfy beds and Wi-Fi, I relaxed and leant against the door and pressed my head to the window to look out at the night scape. Then the door opened, which would have been fine if we had been stationary and not speeding down the motorway in a cab without seatbelts. Thankfully it was a near miss and I managed to lean back in, grab the door and slam it shut before I or it was hit by another vehicle. It did however make me think back to our recent eventful drives round the mountains where I might have put a little too much confidence in the 4x4 (or 4x2 as our turned out to be) while leaning on the door filming the ravines flying past feet from our wheels.

Getting to the hotel was great, as was the cold beer and hot shower. The now small group met for dinner and there was quite a sombre mood amongst us all. Lisa to her credit was brilliant at changing that and insisting that she was going out dancing and persuaded a few to join her. I was done in however and opted for the cosy bed. The next morning Susan, Francesco and me were picked up by Ana and we were taken to a local jeweller’s workshop and then visit the gold museum.

This was a really good way to end the trip as we were shown how this guy has invented his own process to crush and fuse waste emerald together with the other minerals in the stone (mainly pyrite) and produce a beautiful rock as a result that he then cabs and makes other forms of jewellery with. It would have been criminal to not walk from there without some of his work. Thankfully Susan was on hand to lend me some dollars to pick up a lovely pair of drops for earring s, as I was out of all cash.

The gold museum was also wonderful. I love seeing how civilisations, thousands of years ago, knew how to find, access and refine gold and produce it in ways that we seem to need advanced machinery to do. Thin sheet, wire, filigree and the lost wax casting, with nothing more than fire and rock to use as tools, just mindboggling.

When we got back to the hotel there was a delightful surprise to find Christina and Kenny had made it back, so there were at least a few hugs and byes that I didn’t think was going to happen. It became clearer that day however that Susan had read the time of her flight wrong and was out salsa-ing when she was meant to be on her plane!

That afternoon I sat down and started to put my thoughts together for documenting this trip. I had tempted fate that morning or lunch when stating that I had seemed to escape any serious tummy-bug issues, unlike a few others and that evening then began one of the worst nights I remember of no sleep, a fever and yo-yoing to the bathroom every half hour. Kenny called dial-a-drug for me and got me delivered hydration juice and a sachet version of Imodium, but things just got worse after they were taken. I was not looking forward to flying home the next day.

Fever was in full flow I the airport and I had thought I’d find a chemist after security to get some paracetamol but there wasn’t one and it became clear I wasn’t allowed back though to find one. Security then called the paramedics and told me to sit and wait for them. This was embarrassing, I just needed some paracetamol, but two really friendly paramedics arrived and I did my best to tell them I just had a fever, bad stomach and wanted paracetamol. After a half hour of misunderstood questions and badly spoken answers they were happy to give me the two little pills that made a world of difference. Amazingly the plane journey passed without issue and I was never so happy to find a Boots in Heathrow to start the recovery process that was clearly just about to rear its ugly head again.

Home. Exhausted. Picked up at the airport by my amazing Saira and driven back to the flat. She was probably disappointed by my lack of energy and conversation seeing as we hadn’t seen each other in near 10 days and had barely been able to communicate while we were separated, but she didn’t show it to her credit. Never has my bed felt so comfy and I literally melted into all night, unable to get out of it the next day. It took me about a week to get myself back to a healthy working system again, still with my head and heart recounting the whole trip and how significant it had been for me and everyone on it.

Producing gold in under 60 seconds! This is the processing plant at La Fortaleza that Fairmined took us to.