Sunday, November 2, 2014

Manaus: dancing in the middle of the Amazon Jungle

Q:  How cool is Manaus?

A: It depends. Literally speaking, it may be the least cool city I have ever been to.  And by this I mean, it is hot.  Hot as balls. Hot, sticky, sweaty balls.  I, a native Miamian with a strong aversion to air conditioning, can't recall the last time I sweat as much as I did during my recent four day visit to Manaus.  And mind you, this was in late October!

But figuratively speaking,  this is the coolest place there is.  It is a city that popped up squarely in the middle of the Amazon River Basin.  Remember the story about the 2014 World Cup Stadium that was so remote that all the building supplies had to be brought in via boats?  That was Manaus.

The Stadium is still there and occasionally put into use- we had a soccer team from Rio staying in our hotel to prove it- but that's just the tip of the sweaty iceberg.  There are stores, bars, restaurants and all the other things you would expect in a city with a population of over 2 million people, but what I loved was the constant reminder that, no question about it, you are in the middle of the jungle.  It is like this delicate dance between man and nature and at times, it is difficult to say who is leading.
One moment, you are walking down the street and since it is the middle of an election cycle, you encounter giant puppet versions of two of the candidates awkwardly waving to passers-by.  
Speaking of it being hot as balls, this poor guy's workplace is literally inside of a puppet crotch.
Then the next, you are in Parque Mindu, a local public park known for being home to the critically endangered bare-faced tamarin monkeys.  We visited with the hope of spotting them and possibly luring them closer with bananas swiped from the hotel's breakfast buffet.

Despite the help of a biologist working in the park, our plan failed.   The closest we came to a monkey sighting were the remains of a very recent feast.  Something tells me the heavily chewed and discarded seeds we found would have trumped our mushed up bananas.

We did however manage to spot some agoutis and dozens of alligators.  Initially, we just saw a couple of gators lazing in the river, but on one particular bank, two things became clear.  The first was that this sign is a gross understatement.

The sign should read "Alligators: They're all around you. Leave quietly.  Now."

We saw primarily wee cute little gators, but that can only mean that the mama gators were lurking somewhere unseen, waiting for us to screw up.  This being a park and not a zoo, there was nothing separating us and them, so the odds were very much in their favor.

The other thing that became clear is how polluted this waterway is.  As the river traverses through the city, it acts as  a dumping ground for the local residents.  The biologist we spoke to bemoaned the fact that without changing the mindset of the population, it is near impossible to keep this park clean, since all the garbage travels downriver and ends of settling in the middle of the gator habitat.  In this instance, man is leading the dance, all the while, stomping on nature's toes.

Pretty ungrateful considering that without the spoils of nature, specifically the rubber trees, there most likely would be no city.  Manaus put itself on the map as a prime exporter of rubber.  As a result, the rubber barons profited handsomely and eventually looked to bring culture to their remote outpost.  In 1896, the Amazonas Theater was completed.   From Wikipedia:

The theatre's architectural style is considered typically Renaissance. The roofing tiles were imported from Alsace, the steel walls from Glasgow, Scotland and the Carrara marble for the stairs, statues and columns, from Italy. The dome is covered with 36,000 decorated ceramic tiles painted in the colors of the national flag of Brazil. The interior furnishing came from France in the Louis Quinze style. Italian artist Domenico de Angelis the Younger painted the panels that decorate the ceilings of the auditorium and of the audience chamber. The curtain, with its painting "Meeting of the Waters", was originally created in Paris by Crispim do Amaral. The theatre's 198 chandeliers were imported from Italy, including 32 of Murano glass.

Something tells me that this project, which took place at the end of the 19th century, would make the stadium undertaking look like child's play.

But man can not live by opera alone. One also needs some fruits and vegetables every now and then (and also tacky tourist trinkets).   Luckily, they already had the Mercado Adolpho Lisboa, which was modeled after Les Halles in Paris, not surprising considering it was built in Paris and brought in by ship.

Of a more modern vintage, but probably not by much, was my favorite bar located in the same square as the opera house.  There is something about sharing giant sized beers while being watched by a family of paper-mache puppets (and possible former political candidates) that makes for a pleasantly surreal afternoon.

On our second day, we wanted to venture further from the realm of man and more into that of nature, so we booked a day trip on the river.
The river's capacity to rise and fall is demonstrated on this chart, which shows the highest levels reached by year.
But even on the water, the two worlds remain intertwined.  Shortly after setting off, it wasn't wildlife we were seeing, it was the local ice delivery boat.

Next was a stop at a floating mini-mart to buy beverages for our now ice-filled cooler.

But enough with the city stuff, we came for nature.  We soon got it in what has been described as one of nature's longest running grudge matches.  For approximately six kilometers, the Rio Negro and the Amazon River run alongside each other, both of them refusing to mingle.  This is due to differing water temperatures, density, speed and the fact that the Rio Negro made a snarky remark about the Amazon river's mother.

But since this is Manaus, man was still not far behind, this time in the form of three guys in a dingy with a mobile petting zoo.  It was kind of like the Life of Pi, but instead of a lion named Richard Parker, they had an anaconda, a gator and a sloth with no name.

They approached our boat and started handing out creatures, much to the distress of our guide.  As much as I would like to think his concern was out of concern for the animals, it probably had more to do on the fact that they were stealing the thunder from our next stop, a fisherman's floating home.

We were nominally there to see how the family lived in this Neptunian abode but in reality it was all about their non-human inhabitants.

Both the fisherman and the kids were quickly pushed aside when it was revealed that they had- wait for it- an anaconda, a gator and a sloth (possibly also with no name).

This is what true love looks like.

Cranky anaconda is cranky.

Once the little sloth had stolen my heart with his furry embrace, I could have called it a day, but next up was our lunch stop.  Behind the floating restaurant was an elevated trail which took you through a small portion of rain forest.

Walking through there, I now realized that my pet sloth would need a friend.  I also wanted a monkey. Think of all the hijinks my sloth and monkey duo, Slowy and Joey, could get into.  It would be enough to blow up YouTube.

The Manaus-Iranduba Bridge

Many years back, I had been in Manaus and had taken a trip similar to this one, only that time, instead of an organized tour with a multi-lingual guide, it was just myself, a friend and a Brazilian pygmy who spoke no English or Spanish but who happened to own a boat. How this came to be is a long story for another time.  Anyways, at some point, my friend and I had seen a rose colored thing poke out of the water.  In trying to communicate with the pygmy man, I did what I always do when pretending to speak Portuguese, I slurred my Spanish.  I wanted to ask what the pink thing was, so I kept saying "el pesssh-cado rosssshhhado" ("The pink fish") and pointing to the water.  He kept answering "something something delphin".  In frustration, I turned to my friend and said "This dude has no clue what I'm talking about.  He keeps talking about dolphins."

Later, looking up something else online, I discovered that the Amazon has pink river dolphins.  Go figure.

Now, we had a chance to actually swim with this mythical, slightly odd looking creatures.

Or better said, we would have had a chance had the Brazilian group that jumped in the water ahead of us not been a bunch of jerks and refused to come out of the water in order to give us a chance to jump in.  I hope they all got dolphin herpes.

Our final stop, was the obligatory shopping stop-slash- cultural show, where young guys in native attire, from the tribe of Calvin Klein, danced around for us before bringing out their trinkets (and by trinkets, I mean beaded jewelry and piranha masks).

We had left the city to get away from nature but had primarily been shown man's influence upon it. Now that we were back in the heart of the city, we sought out its pockets of nature.  We found one at the Bosque da Ciencia, a research facility located in a small forested area.

There were trails leading through the park and exhibitions featuring manatees and giant otters, who were being rehabilitated and were to be (hopefully) released.  These scientists were studying these and other Amazonian creatures and trying to find ways to preserve their vital habitats.  In doing so, they were also attempting to right some wrongs and lead by example in the ability of nature and man to co-habitate with mutual respect. They were dancing in tune and hoping to teach others the steps.

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