Searching for El Dorado
by Matt Falloon
August 24, 2003
Most people want a stable life and family in one place. They concentrate on building a career out of school and develop security as they earn. Some people don’t. Meeting Marc Herman, journalist and adventurer, is enough to make anyone’s mortgage adviser curse.
A Jewish-American from the West coast of the United States, Herman is an engaging, sometimes manic, man. His debut, Searching for El Dorado, was inspired by his disbelief that a country could start with a priceless resource of gold in its interior and come out several decades later in a worse state than it started. Of course, he wrote about Guyana, a country he had stumbled into while touring Venezuela.
For two months, during early 2001, I shared an apartment with Marc in central Georgetown as we both got to grips with an alien country. While he was spending most of his days hanging on the end of a phone line trying to get hold of someone who didn’t want to be got hold of, or trekking out into the city to examine gold in the Stabroek market, I was learning the ropes at Stabroek News. In the evenings, we would sit wide-eyed relaying our experiences from the day, drinking rum and listening to the immense sound system across the street.
With the release of Searching for El Dorado this year, and the inevitability that a book about Guyana will never be released here, I decided to get in touch with Marc (if I could actually find him) and ask him a few questions.
I knew he was in Indonesia but I hadn’t heard from him in a while. He had been trying to entice me to join him so we could “watch each others’ backs” as he researches the follow-up to El Dorado. As tempting as it sounds, money dictated in the negative and I resorted to e-mail. Fortunately, e-mail is highly recommended by the mortgage adviser.
“It was a great story,” he said. “That people would discover billions in gold after five centuries of searching, then fail to profit from it very much is a good tale, don’t you think?”
The book traces Marc’s own personal journey of discovery in search of miners, mining companies and any signs of broad wealth generated from the large mining concessions across the interior of Guyana. Although the positive impacts of gold mining in Guyana appear to have evaded him, Herman still remembers the people he met, and the book is full of enigmatic encounters and strange, exciting episodes.
“My enduring memories are of the people being very kind and generous when they had every reason to be suspicious of my motives,” he said. “Obviously there are problems with street crime in Georgetown and banditry in the interior but at no time did anyone seek to take advantage of me.”
“Everyone spoke his or her mind with surprising candour, Prime Minister Hinds gave me over an hour of his time, and he has a government to help run after all,” he said. “The officials in the interior seemed to find me amusing, a lone white boy ambling around in the jungle, so they were very helpful.”
“The mining company officials were less forthcoming, which is roughly to form for them. Omai’s spokespeople did grant me access to the mine once, but were generally hostile and evasive,” he said. There is a memorable section of Searching For El Dorado which sees Herman participate on a trip to Omai’s main pit. He joins a school group and the scene is set for an absurd mix of bored children and an ever- increasingly frustrated Herman trying to glean anything other than propaganda from the caustic guide. The search for truth, or gold, is often accompanied by the absurdities and mundane elements of reality and its stubborn refusal to carry you down a smooth, logical path.
One evening during our joint tenancy in Cummingsburg, we took in the Sherriff night club on Sherriff Street, the street that never sleeps, of course. While we were sat there in the almost empty bar, Marc’s eyes flitted constantly around the room, suspicious of all and everything. Two foreign businessmen danced with local prostitutes, some Far Eastern men stood crooked at the bar. Marc leant over to me, “Loggers, probably Korean.” He had his theories about the two businessmen also. Marc was not just interested in the adventure, he was always interested in the story behind the adventure. If the Bedford he hitched a ride south in broke down 50 times, it wasn’t just awkward, it was a sign that development was not happening wherever they were going. El Dorado is not just a quirky and entertainingly absurd travel story, it is a passionate discourse on the global economy and the global environment and how it actually affects individual, normal people.
“Environmentalists can be intrusive, condescending and moralistic,” he said. “But I also saw cases where they played a useful role in the broader national development debate. In the US, we spend billions every year to clean up toxic messes from fifty years ago. Environmental organizations may be in a position to help Guyana avoid these costs.”
“There has been some co-operation on limiting mercury pollution already, like the introduction of retorts and experiments with centrifuges at gold mines,” he continued. “Certainly that’s preferable to saddling the treasury with millions in future costs to clean up places like Frenchman or Mahdia.”
Despite the damage done in the interior, Herman remained in awe of the noisy beauty of the jungle. “The Guyanese are lucky to have such a place at their doorstep,” he said. “Guyana’s [interior] is so, so loud. The nights are just rip-roaring. The animals certainly don’t tip-toe. It’s beautiful.”
He identified strongly with the frontier feel to interior life, his narrative tinged with comparisons between Guyana and California’s own gold rush.
“The coast and the interior need each other,” he said. “It’s a bit like the US, where the idea of having a frontier and the chance to remake oneself remains important, even if you never leave New York your whole life. Guyana has that same geography and maybe a similar attitude toward its frontier. I often heard pork-knockers compared to American cowboys.”
That sentence affected me deeply. It is not just an American thing, the frontier. It is something that fascinates us all. It was what took me to Guyana myself; I wanted to push back my own frontier. It is what takes a young bus driver from Georgetown to Mahdia at risk of life and limb. The desire to go beyond what we are, to improve ourselves or destroy ourselves in the doing. And it is precisely that which petrifies the mortgage adviser, and no doubt, Herman’s editors.
“Truthfully, I got lucky. I get paid to indulge my curiosity. Hopefully what I produce is useful to someone besides me, but I can’t do much about that one way or another, so I just poke along and figure time will tell what was valuable and what was selfish,” he said, quite openly.
“I would love to hear from West Indians and specifically Guyanese, particularly if it’s constructively critical,” he said. “I mailed some copies to Bartica, where the guys who gave me a ride south in the Bedford live. I haven’t heard back but hope the books reached them.”
For now, Herman is stationed at another frontier out East. Indonesia itself has immense problems and remains a mystery to much of the western world, which is why Marc is there, scraping out the frontier image. “Like Guyana, there aren’t many books about Indonesia available in the US,” he said.
It’s a fascinating, inspiring life marked by the reliance on the good will of others and fearless curiosity. In 2001 in Georgetown, we spent many evenings discussing the addiction of adventure and what it does to you. We spent many evenings in heated debate over what was wrong with the world and how it could be made better. It struck me that for all the nights discussing abstract ideas that would eventually find flesh in El Dorado, Guyana’s true golden route to rack and ruin accompanied us all the way. That was the gold flurry of sweet rum.
“Which is better Marc, El Dorado or D’Aguiar?” I asked in our e-mail interview, trying to wind it up in a light and breezy manner. Not for the first time, he trumped me.
“Even a foreigner knows better than to answer that one. More research is required.”
Searching For El Dorado is published by NanATalese/Doubleday. You can reach Marc Herman via e-mail through the website http://www.nanatalese.com