Jumping off the back of the truck that had delivered me deep into the Amazonian heartland, I was instantly greeted by the intense heat and a sharp painful sting to my right deltoid. For umpteenth time I swatted another dreaded mozzie, leaving a fresh red streak, staining my moist tanned skin. To locals, the mosquitoes are the true state bird and not the beautiful toucan.
I’d arrived in Manaus, the capital of the Amazon on the banks of the mighty Amazon River, 1600km from the Atlantic coast. Manaus was not the sleepy tropical village hidden deep in steamy, dark jungle that I had imagined. Where were the scantily-clad natives living a traditional subsistence life of hunting along the banks of the river? Where were the wild animals, monkeys, piranhas and colourful parakeets that this region boasts?
Instead I was standing at an intersection in the centre of a bustling modern city with a population equal to that of Perth. All around, there were modern high-rises, neon signs, cars and trucks noisily whizzing past. Waiting for the traffic light, a bus zooms past leaving a cloud of black smoke and a distinctive diesel smell in my face. I couldn’t help wonder if this was the same place they called the lungs of planet Earth.
Swinging my rucksack onto my back, I felt a stream of perspiration running down my spine. This place was hot and muggy, and the sweat dripped from every pore like a soaked sponge under a constant gentle squeeze.
My first mission to change money was not going to be as difficult as I had expected. Stopping to ask for directions, two sisters, Joici and Dylla, excited at meeting a “gringo” – westerner – were pleased to guide me toward the business centre along avenida Sete Setembro. Lined with banks, offices and cafes, the sidewalks were crowded with businessmen rushing about in their wrinkle free suits. Standing in line waiting for my turn on the blue and gold ATM of Banco do Brasil, I noticed the trademark names VISA and Nescafé appeared on billboards that seemed to loiter high on every corner as if to announce their sponsorship rights to the city. It didn’t quite fit, but for now I was glad to know that the golden arches of Ronald McDonald had yet to plant any foundations in this unique jungle heartland.
Joici and Dylla were returning from an appointment with their doctor and with spare time offered to take me on a short tour of the city. Turning up the hill away from the city centre we encountered the jewel of Manaus, the “Teatro Amazonas”.
Dylla proudly explained that during the 1890′s the discovery of latex, tapped from the ancient giant rubber trees in the rain forest, turned this tiny military outpost into a booming frontier town. The extravagance of the 100 or so barons who monopolised the rubber trade, was demonstrated by this opera house built in neo-classical style to entertain families and guests with the best operas imported from Europe and North America. This period of extreme exuberance lasted only 30 years, collapsing with the emergence of rubber plantations in Asia grown from seeds clandestinely smuggled out by Englishman Sir Henry Wickham.
Heading back to the commercial district around rua Dr Moreira and Eduardo Ribeiro, locals dressed in singlets, cotton shirts, shorts and thongs, meandered slowly and happily as if in rhythm to the melodious sounds of samba music that escaped from the stalls that lined the busy mall. Stopping to try on some shirts at a tiny stall, a woman of an exotic blend of African and Indian blood complements my choice of colour and beckons me to buy. Convinced, I hand her 5 reals ($3) and with the warmest smile, she thanks me and welcomes me to Brazil. “Oi, Brasileiro”, laughed Dylla, remarking I now looked like a local. Dressed in my new shirt, we passed a German couple negotiating the price of a blowgun at a stall selling various indigenous artefacts, jewellery and stuffed piranhas.