On a glorious early morning in Rio de Janeiro, the long beach is dotted with curious figures. Men, some wearing trash bags, are wielding long-handled contraptions, which they work rhythmically into the sand.
The men stand knee-deep in the churning water. The surf explodes all around them, splashing brilliant white in the morning sunshine. The guys work silently, dragging their tools, known as rapinas, wiggling them, then staring intently at the contents of a curved, meshed bucket at the tool’s end.
These are Rio’s urban "gold miners," known as "garimpeiros." They’re a loose tribe of part- and full-time treasure hunters who roam the city’s beaches searching primarily for jewelry, but also for anything of value, from sunglasses to GoPro cameras to gold teeth.
They seek the bling the beach has claimed: The diamond ring lost to the ocean as a finger shrank in the cold water; the gold necklace flung into the depths by an errant wave. And they also hunt for superstitious and religious offerings left on the beach by the faithful: The coins tithed for good luck; the thin gold chain left as a sacrifice in the hope a cancer will go into remission.
Oswaldo Pintos de Oliveira, a 52-year-old trained accountant from nearby Copacabana, first caught the gold-mining bug 18 years ago. He’s been combing the city’s beaches ever since, surviving full-time off the gold and treasure he pulls from the sand.
“For me, finding gold is better than an orgasm!” Oliveira says. “Why? Because when you find gold you get that orgasm right when you find it, and then afterwards, you get to keep the money too!”
The way Oliveira tells it, the money ain’t bad, either.
He says he averages a few grams of gold a day, or about an eighth of an ounce. On the morning I speak with him, he’s been working for a couple of hours and he’s already pulled an estimated 5 grams of gold, along with a handful of coins, from Barra da Tijuca beach. He says he earns about 90 Brazilian reais ($28) per gram, meaning he’s made the equivalent of about $140 today.
In a country where the minimum wage is about $880 a month, that’s a good living. Sort of.
Oliveira cautions that this job isn’t for amateurs. There’s the danger — he says he’s nearly drowned twice, after being pulled out to sea — and there’s the fickleness of the rewards.
He says the most valuable items he’s ever found were gold Rolex watches. He’s found two over the years — one men’s and one women’s, each worth thousands of dollars. But sometimes he can go weeks without finding anything.
“We’re not just out here enjoying the beach,” he says. “Look at the callouses on my hands.” He rolls back wool gloves to reveal palms corroded with sores from salt water and the relentless grinding of the sand.
“Yeah, this life isn’t just about checking out the women on the beach and enjoying the sunshine,” he jokes. “You’ve got to work at it. You’ve got to have discipline and you’ve got to be committed to learning how the ocean works.”
The garimpeiros have chosen Barra da Tijuca, at the western end of Rio, because the beach is being eroded. During Brazil’s winter (during North America’s summer), it’s plump and stocked with sand from large storms. At high-tide the sand can wash up onto the road. But in the summer, which is coming, Barra’s beaches become flatter and wider, as a different current pulls the sand back out to sea.
During this transition period, the ocean gouges great chunks out of the beach, leaving a mini-cliff of eroded sand a few feet high. It’s these exposed layers of summer beach that are, literally, a gold mine for Oliveira and his treasure-hunting colleagues.
Despite having a good run this month, Oliveira recalls the past fondly as a time of greater abundance in the sands of Rio. There used to be so much more gold, he says wistfully.
Other garimpeiros agree. One, who would only give his name as Luis, says the 1980s especially were a gold rush.
“These days, people are scared to wear jewelry down to the beach,” he says. “There are so many robberies, and the arrastoes.” That's the local Portuguese word for mass robberies committed most notably on Rio’s posh Ipanema beach. A crew of thieves lines up on the beach and works down the sand, robbing beachgoers of anything valuable.
Farther down Barra’s beach, however, Ivandro Nunes doesn’t buy into the idea that there’s less treasure to be found today.
Nunes, who works in the early mornings cleaning windows at a nearby mall, usually shows up at the beach around 10 a.m. He says the problem isn’t a shortage of bling in the sand, it’s an excess of treasure hunters.
“There are just more gold miners now,” he said. “Maybe you used to have 10 or 12 of us, now there are 60 or 70. So while you used to find 10 pieces of jewelry, now maybe you’ll find two, because there are so many people doing this.”
Nunes puts his positive attitude into action. He plunges his rapina rake into the sand about a mile down the beach from Oliveira. After filling the net bucket with wet sand, he swivels it and lets a wave wash the sand out again. Then he reaches into the rapina and holds something aloft.
“Look at that!” He exclaims. “A gold ring. A gold ring on my first pass!”
He pockets the ring with a grin and then turns to me.
“Do me a favor,” he says conspiratorially. “Don’t tell the other garimpeiros I found that ring, or they’ll all be down here in a shot.”
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