Alejandro Stern is a gold and diamond merchant in the small Venezuelan town of Santa Elena de Uairen on the nation's southern border with Brazil's Amazon region. His office was a small non-descript one storey shop building on a side street of Santa Elena. Not a lot outside except a sign that spelled his name and address, and another that noted that English is spoken. A bored man in his late 40s sat just outside the door, his pistol partially covered by his jacket.
Frank, our guide, spoke briefly to the guard, then spoke to the intercom device at the door. There was a window with dark glass on the wall next to the door – the sort that allows the people inside to see those outside but not the other way round. A buzz and then Frank turned the door knob. We got into the small dark room.
A burly, fiftyish man with short white hair sat at a dusty desk with table lamp and piles of papers and a few unfamiliar boxes and devices. This was a strange setting, definitely not the everyday jewelry shop one would expect. The only sign of the trade were a few posters with photos of gold crystals. The décor made it looked like a home office of some sort but the atmosphere resembled that of Hollywood's impression of the office of a mafia chief's accountant.
"Welcome, I am Alejandro Stern. I trade in gold and diamond." He spoke in clear precise English, without any Venezuelan accent. And obviously he also traded stocks and currencies. Stern had a screen on the wall with jumping counters and currency quotes.
As it turned out, Stern was a fourth generation Venezuelan with English roots and had come to Santa Elena more than a decade ago, due to the rich deposits of minerals – specifically gold crystals and diamonds in the plains and jungles of the Gran Sabana. If Venezuela was the legendary land of El Dorado, then Gran Sabana and the greater Guayana region were the crown of EL Dorado. Stern, however, was more interested in gold crystals, rare creations of nature that welded gold into strange shapes. "Only 1% of all gold are in the form of crystals and most of these are found in the Gran Sabana," Stern said. "And I have a fantastic collection that many envy."
Stern showed us a few exhibition catalogues, pointing to selected pages, "I sold them this. I found that. That was mine." Pointing to a framed-up poster with a blown-up shot of a gold crystal almost resembling an exuberant grove of trees, "I sold that to a German dealer and now they are going to hold an exhibition in Cologne." He pulled his drawer and pulled out a few small plastic bags of tiny golden coloured bits and assorted clear crystals. He waved his magnifying glass over them and showed us the wonders of the world of gold crystals and diamonds. "I can give you a good price if you are interested."
Stern could sense we were not overly keen in gold shopping while on a natural expedition but was nonchalant about it. "Let me show you something more interesting," he smiled. He opened another drawer and took out a strange hard object the size of a bulky SLR camera. "This is a 5 million year old fossilized teeth of a giant shark. This whole region, the Amazon basin, was an inland sea and there were sharks here." He laughed and passed me the stone teeth.
"Show them your gun," Frank said. Stern laughed again and produced a respectable silver magnum from another drawer of his desk. "Santa Elena is a safe place, you know, but this business is a dangerous business. We have to be ready all the time" He placed the pistol on his desk, next to the plastic packs of gold crystals and diamonds.
"That would make a good picture," Frank said.
"Let me add some banknotes. That would be a better composition." Stern said, then laughed. He walked over to a cabinet, took out a bundle of green 20 Bolivares notes and placed them on the desk too.
We went snapping away with our cameras. "Hey Alejandro, show them the mafia chief in you." Frank suggested.
Stern grinned and then held the gun in his hand. Wow, what a show!