Moving Limbs – Manaus, Brazil

Moving Limbs

Manaus, Brazil

The meeting of the waters
The meeting of the waters
In a tiny retail space at the foot of an office building, fifteen young men sat elbow-to-elbow, playing military-themed video games at computer terminals cramped along the walls. They appeared to be regulars, with the laconic body language of weekend gamblers pulling dollar slot machines, hour after hour. Their headphones cocooned the sounds of gunplay exploding across their monitors, so that we could only hear the reggae on the speakers, and below that an orchestra of dull keypad clicks.

We had happened upon this space on our way to dinner. The darkened, black-walled room had no windows. Looking through the frenzied magenta glow from the screens, we made eye contact with the twenty-something guy on duty and I prepared for the challenge of expressing, with my limited Portuguese: “we thought this was an internet café; do you know of one nearby?”

This was our first night in the Amazon.

The city of Manaus, population over 2 million, sits in the metaphoric heart of the Amazon rain forest, just 10 kilometers from the point at which the Negro River joins the Solimoes River to form the Amazon, which runs 1,700 kilometers east to the smaller city of Belem and, eventually, the Atlantic. In preparing for our trip, I had to adjust to the idea that a large metropolis exists in the middle of the Amazon. The notion was incompatible with my uninformed mental image of the forest, which featured, among other things, Toucan Sam from the Froot Loops box. But we had flown in just that morning to Manaus’s international airport, and by evening, standing amidst the video gamers, the reality of Manaus had descended on me, perhaps a little heavily.

Manaus, as it turns out, has a more than full complement of urban discomforts: drivers that seem to aim for pedestrians rather than avoid them; air-conditioners that polka dot the city buildings and drizzle onto your sidewalk path; a sharp, burnt odor – coming from, I believe, the ovens of street vendors selling “pizzas” and salgados – that permeates the air. It soon became more difficult to conceive of a rain forest surrounding Manaus than the other way around.

Manaus bills itself as the “Paris of the Jungle,” which is true in the same sense that Newark is the Paris of New Jersey. And yet, walking past the dirt-streaked apartment buildings, past the chincy clothing stores with girls posted at the entrances like so many doormen at Fort Lauderdale bars, you see signposts of the city’s faded glory.

Earlier in the day, my girlfriend and I had toured the Teatro Amazonas, an elegant rose colored opera house built with profits from the rubber boom of the latter 1800s. Inside, white marble columns shipped from Portugal glisten against the scarlet curtains behind each of the boxed seating areas, of which there are three tiers ringing the theater. The effect is one of intimate grandeur. One of the more spectacular drawing rooms in the wings has flooring of such rare wood that visitors are required to wear slippers before entering. Katayoon and I did, and then looked to the muraled ceiling. It was a fine example of perspective painting, we had been told – and indeed, as we crossed to a balcony on the far side of the room, the eyes of a crowned angel followed us and the limbs of a nude cherub, reclining on a cloud at her feet, shifted dramatically.

The opera house, the city’s architectural centerpiece, continues to host performances. Despite this, and despite its well-maintained condition, it is tempting to think of the construction of the Teatro Amazonas as a kind of grandiose folly. To commission the structure of an opera house that took 15 years to build, made of materials imported from Europe and transported by the modes available in 1896 to Brazil’s dense interior, suggests an audaciousness of vision for the city’s future that well outstrips its present circumstance.

But whatever shortcomings Manaus may have, its people are Brazilian. Which, I had learned from our week in the country, meant that we could expect them to receive visitors with an astounding, head-shaking – almost embarrassing – kindness. I was not surprised, then, that the clerk listened patiently to our broken Portuguese, showed us to the lone open terminal, and insisted that we use it to access the internet.

And when we were done, he refused to be paid.

I had come to the Amazon with a certain ambivalence. Though eager to experience it, I struggled with certain questions – of whether our trip would contribute to the degradation of the forest, no matter how careful we were, and of whether any contact we had with impoverished Amazonians would inevitably have a boorish, voyeuristic quality. A bar near my home in Washington, D.C., displays pictures of third-world peoples wearing beads and standing against stark landscapes. The pictures are beautiful, as are the people in them, but they are also malnourished and wan. I think the pictures are meant to represent some kind of exotic authenticity, which you might find refreshing if you are busy and rich in America, and if you feel trapped in the confines of your own privilege. Drinking your mojito, you can gaze and the pictures and be reminded that there is something more elemental to all of us than our email traffic. But the pictures feel to me like exploitation, like poverty porn.

Sunrise on the Negro River
Sunrise on the Negro River
Landing in Manaus, I focused on our selection of a responsible tour operator, one that didn’t feel Disney-fied. The tour outfits had small offices at the airport, one of them occupied by a young Israeli couple with an absurd amount of baggage, grilling a friendly faced woman behind a Playskool-sized desk. Katayoon and I grabbed some pao de quiejo, the cheesy pastries that had become our new favorite Brazilian food, and waited. After the Israelis left, the woman at the desk, Lucia, greeted us like friends and described a lodge that floated on the Negro River where we could stay for the next three days. Her manner put us at ease. We signed up, and Lucia gave us a ride into town, entertaining us with asides about her layabout boyfriend and complaints about rain, which she somehow made fresh even though she had been living in the Amazon for years.

At eight thirty the next morning, we arrived at the harbor, where a joyless energy came from the men unloading crates from vessels clogging the docks. A collection of eight or ten others, including the Israeli couple from the airport, joined us on our pastel-green-trimmed boat. It felt good to be on board, heading for our excursion. We cut loose from Manaus and headed to the “meeting of the waters,” the point where the dark Negro River and the pale waters of the Solimoes funnel into each other and create the Amazon. But instead of mixing together, as you would expect, the two strands of water resist each other. And so as far as you can see, the Amazon river has a light side and a dark side, as distinct as the vanilla and chocolate stripes in Neapolitan ice-cream.

After we lingered at the sight, a heavy rain started and we huddled on the bottom deck. We had all gotten to know each other a little by then, helped along further when the Israeli man shared a bottle of wine all around. He had a loud, entitled way about him, but he was also jolly, and I found myself thankful for his presence. The rain slapped at blue tarps the captain had pulled down to curtain us against the weather. I felt an electric charged comfort, like I had as a kid when retreating into the basement of our Midwestern home during a tornado warning.

We called our guide Superman. The remnants of his previous group, still at the floating lodge when we arrived, called him that, so we did too. He was a guy you wanted to joke with; he had a lazy coolness about him and couldn’t keep a smirk off his face for thirty seconds if he tried.

The lodge itself was an expanse of floating wood flooring with a roof of dried leaves, picnic tables up front, and maybe ten rooms – glorified wooden cubicles – in the back. The Israeli had been shocked at first by the lack of excess. On seeing the lodge, he told Katayoon this couldn’t be it, he was going to call Lucia from the airport and ask for a refund. The rain made the mattress damp so we slept nights in our sleeping bags. It felt like a camp that would make parents nervous, but the kids would love.

I felt good about our choice. I was glad for the lack of conveniences, the minimalist nature of the lodge. Superman, and the rest of the small staff, had an obvious respect for the environment, and a warmth that closed the distance between us. It seemed to narrow further the next day, when we returned from a day trip to find that one of the lodge’s larger boats had almost sunk while we were gone, filled with rainwater. A couple of Dutch guys and I did what we could to help. One side of the boat had dipped below the water line, and it took a long time to figure out how to lever it up so they could pump the water out of it. After a week of vacation, the physical work felt refreshing, especially doing it alongside the Amazonians, who retained their relaxed cheer throughout.

When we finally got things right, I was positioned in another boat, lashed behind the sinking one, with a member of the staff who had lost the lower part of his right arm. He had served many of our meals, and perhaps because we could not communicate verbally, he underscored his graciousness with vigorous head-nodding and twinkles of his eye. I found his largeness of spirit inspiring, as anyone would. Katayoon and I had cringed when the Israeli man spent a lunchtime complaining about the lack of beef while he stood feet away, placing food on the table. I liked being with him then, being able to share a smile when the pump flowed and boat started rising, as the last of my concerns slipped away.

Superman supervised our trips the way the most responsible kid in detention watches over the others. We took our excursions on what he called “Amazon time,” which meant when we got around to it. He gave some of us pet names; the Israeli became “Abacaxi,” which means pineapple, or, in slang, stupid.

Superman took us fishing for piranha, on a jungle trek – where we learned about Amazonian plants and took turns swinging over a hillside on a vine – and on a canoe trip through a “flooded forest.” We had come in the rainy season, and with the watermark forty feet above the forest ground it felt like flying as you paddled past half-submerged trees. We saw a tarantula and dolphins and a glorious sunrise.

On the last day of our trip, Superman told us how the rubber boom ended. It was quite simple: on orders from the director of England’s Kew Gardens, one Sir Henry Wickham smuggled thousands of rubber seeds from the Amazon out of Brazil. Eventually, the English discovered that latex could be harvested from rubber trees more easily in Southeast Asia than Brazil. And that was it; the end of the wealth that had brought the Teatro Amazonas, and such pride, to Manaus.

The group stood around a rubber tree as Superman related the history. He struck his machete into the tree, which goes by the Indian name “caoutchouc,” or weeping wood. A thin stream of dirty-white latex poured over the bark, resembling tears. Superman didn’t call Mr. Wickham by name; he called him “some English fuck.” He said it harshly, with his face to the ground. Only then did he turn his coy eyes up to us – backpackers from colonizing nations of Europe, Israel, and the United States – with the ghost of a smile on his lips. His anger was not a put on, but his eyes read: I’m having fun. Get over yourself.

The floating lodge
The floating lodge
I had. We walked from the rubber tree to the ramshackle home of a family on whose property it stood. Without Superman, I would have been worried that the visit would not respect the dignity of our hosts. I had no qualms about it, though, even when the Israeli called out – in his most plaintive voice, with the man of the house standing right next to him – “where are the Indians! – Before we left, the host was playfully wrapping a leathered snakeskin around the Israeli, and everyone was getting a laugh.

On our way to our departing flight, Katayoon and I stopped to thank Lucia. She hugged us and told us the news she had just received. After we left, one of the workers at the lodge had been in an accident. His arm. She didn’t have the full news yet but she believed he might have lost his arm.

We left her, shocked and saddened. Of course we were. But that other emotion – not unlike guilt – that I carried to our plane, that overtook my other feelings, it was misplaced. Wasn’t it?

John C. Ford is a writer from Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at jcford at stanfordalumni dot org.

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