Caracas, May 28 (EFE).- Ronaldo takes a deep breath and dives into the great sewer that was once the clear blue Guaire River, feels around the bottom, looks among the slimy stones and comes up again. He’s found nothing of value, so he must keep diving in these putrid waters until he comes up with something he can sell.
The 19-year-old man’s routine is like that of hundreds of other young people, and some not so young, all desperately seeking a source of income because of the nation’s economic crisis. They have therefore turned to the polluted waters of the Guaire River that at one point Caracas made into a dump for urban and industrial trash, where they search its depths for objects that might have slipped down drains in the nation’s capital and that still have value.
“Some cousins told me about working in the Guaire. I thought about it and said, ‘I’m not going there because it’s pure poo-poo,'” Ronaldo, whose mother never imagined what her son’s future would be when she named him after the soccer star, told EFE.
However, the lack of jobs and the meager minimum salary drove him to the river, where he luckily came up with a piece of costume jewelry on his first try, and convinced himself that this could be a way to earn a living and feed his family.
“These are the sewage waters of Caracas and everything that goes down people’s drains, washbasins and toilets ends up in the Guaire River, where we gather stuff to sell,” the young man said.
The smell as he spoke was the kind that has people holding their noses until they get used to it after several days down by the river, which has the Francisco Fajardo Motorway running for a certain distance beside it.
Colonial records say that the Guaire, which apparently competed with the Manzanares in Madrid as the first river navigable on horseback, was one of the reasons why Caracas was settled at 900 meters (3,000 feet) above sea level, despite being close to the Caribbean.
It was in the 20th century that it became the great sewer and in the 21st the great promise for the capital. In 2005, then-President Hugo Chavez promised to launch a cleanup project that unfortunately remained just a promise.
The environmental drama of pollution would not have reached the dimension it has without the current hunger of Caracas residents.
“The country’s needs are what lead people to work those waters. I myself have been doing it for six years and it still makes me gag, but I don’t have any other work or any money, so this is how I support my family,” Ronaldo said.
Along with him, dozens of youths compete in the fetid waters to find grams of gold, silver, bronze or copper in the form of earrings, necklaces, medals and other decorations.
If they find a gram of gold, they’ll be paid between 130,000 and 200,000 bolivars – $23 to $35 at the official exchange rate, though the hyperinflation and the devaluation of the bolivar lead them to change the prices almost every day.
Upriver, Jose, 22, shares the pickings with Ronaldo and his hopes as well.
“I’d love to work at something else, I dream of leaving here with a good salary, because with a minimum wage, you can die of hunger in a week
– it doesn’t buy the basic food supply,” the young man, who preferred not to give his family name, said, adding that he has spent four years working the river.
The paradox of the Caracas crisis is nowhere more evident than on the Guaire. Those earning a living in its filthy waters work in the shadow of buildings once proudly constructed in the capital of a country that competed to be the richest in South America and that still has the largest proven oil reserves in the world.
“I want to make some money in the Guaire and then get out of this country,” Ronaldo said.
Meanwhile, he continues of plunge into waters that once helped support Caracas and today demonstrate its decadence. It has not been a good day for this valuables hunter.