Monday, May 19, 2014

What to do at the 2014 World Cup in Manaus, Brazil between soccer games

As the media ramps up to the World's Cup soccer games in
Brazil, we will soon be hearing a lot about June 18-25 matches in the "jungle city of Manaus." We will hear that they built a big stadium there just for this event, and that the stadium was actually completed before the event! The announcers will probably be talking about the heat and wondering whether the Swiss team will be disadvantaged relative to the Hondurans. Airborne cameras will pull back from the field to show viewers the space-age stadium surrounded by a cluster of midrise buildings . The cameras will pan along waterfront shantytowns and into a broad expanse of water dotted with the occasional boat. And that may be all that the world of soccer fans gets to learn about that jungle city called Manaus.

Meeting of Rio Negro (foreground) and Solimoes
(background) rivers, forming the Amazon

Fast passenger lifts bow wave of black water of the Rio Negro
with the skyline of Manaus in background

Thus I am inspired to devote a blog to this interesting city, which I explored as part of my boots-on-the-ground research for my mystery-thriller, Amazon Gold. The Amazon is the perfect setting for a story of mystery and adventure, and Manaus has had its share of both. The city lies about 800 crow-flight miles and about 2,000 winding river miles from the Atlantic ocean, yet it is a port for ocean-going freighters. It lies on the north bank of the Rio Negro just a few miles from where its black waters dump into the muddy red waters of the Solimoes (upper Amazon), in a visually dramatic "meeting of the waters."

The merger of these two rivers gives full strength to the Brazilian-named Amazon. And what a mighty river it is! As my protagonist Ben Candidi said in Amazon Gold

"Of course my river was bigger than Tom Sawyer's. The Amazon is a heck of a lot longer than the Mississippi and it puts out 12 times as much water. Even the Rio Negro, its northern tributary on which I was standing, puts out more water than the Mississippi."

From the late 19th Century to around 1912, Manaus' fortunes rose with the world's demand for Brazilian rubber, which became essential with the growing use for tires and hoses. To harvest it, Indians opened the bark of rubber trees and collected the milky sap, which they dripped on a large stick and evaporated, coagulated and scorched over an open fire to produce large balls of black latex, which they trekked out on foot and then dugout canoes.

Manaus became the ultimate trading post and large fortunes were made, giving rise to colonial mansions, high society and even an opera house. But the rubber boom fell apart when Sir Henry Wickham "smuggled" out 70,000 rubber tree seeds and the British established their own plantations in Malaya (as it was called back then). Commercial life in Manaus is now sustained by government-subsidized manufacturing plants, free-trade, regional administrative activity and tourism.

In Amazon Gold,, Ben Candidi wonders whether the discovery of new drugs in the rain forest could create a pharmaceutical boom.

The Manaus Opera House (Teatro Amazonas)

A soccer fan can find many interesting things to see in Manaus between the games. Colonial-style houses and churches are encountered by just walking around. A must-see item is the Opera House.

Italian chandelier and ceiling
(Manaus Opera House)
Hall of Manaus Opera House

Fresco of Manaus Opera House

It is a grand old hall, as stately and artistic as what was found in those days in Europe. A ceiling fresco expresses revelry. A wall painting shows the wonder of an ocean-going steamer sighted through a curtain of jungle. Another painting renders an operatic abduction in Amazon Indian costumery.

Indigenous-Inspired Fresco
Manaus Opera House

Painting in Manaus Opera House



Behind the Opera House, a portion of its original rubber-brick pavement is preserved. This was installed so that the enjoyment of performances would not be disturbed by the clatter of carriage wheels and horses hooves.
Rubber-Brick Pavement
Manaus Opera House
Author Dirk Wyle
at Manaus Market
Another relic of a bygone age is the Parisian-style market constructed from black filigree iron. A collection of boutiques, it functions as the city's grocery store. It is also a good place for a quick lunch or just a beer.
Manaus Market, exterior
Manaus Market, interior

The soccer fan interested in old-style architecture can also visit the public library, which has a quaintly outdated collection of economic books by English authors and a handsome iron staircase. A painting expresses the theme of  New World beauty and abundance as a gift to the gods of the Old World.
Filigree iron stairway, Manaus Public Library
Classical painting depicting bounty of New World
Manaus Public Library

The next item on the agenda should be a walk down to the waterfront. Yes, it is a walk down because Manaus sits on an elevation. The river has a seasonal variation of about 40 feet. In places it is 20 miles wide, with broad and variable flood plains (and inundation forests) that are fed or drained by inlets called ingarpes. Thus the commercial boats receive and discharge passengers and cargo at floating docks located along a high seawall. And tanker ships discharge fuel at special mooring sites.
Floating dock at commercial harbor, Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil
Manioc ready for
eastward transport, Manaus
Bananas for eastward transport, Manaus
From the vantage of the seawall, one can also see families arriving to visit the market -- in outboard motorized boats, as shown, or paddling a traditional five-plank boat. After hanging around long enough, one usually finds a sympathetic soul interested in conversation. Hopefully, the World Cup experience will not change this. My Spanish was good enough for his ear to convert to Portuguese, and vice versa.
Transporting groceries home by boat
Author Dirk Wyle with citizen of Manaus
Regarding port activity, the smaller cargo and passenger boats that travel still farther up the river pick up and disgorge at the Sao Raimundo landing, one mile up river. There is no floating dock. The boats simply push up onto the mud bank and hang a gang plank to shore through a rubber tire. Heavily laden stevedores and passengers alike walk the plank to and from the muddy bank. Destinations and departure times are posted on a banner draped in front of the pilot house. To continue my tennis-shoes-on-the-ground research for Amazon Gold, I took one of these boats up river. (More in the next blog.)

Author Dirk Wyle at Sao Raimundo landing (Manaus) seeking westbound boat
As the reader may have guessed, the riverboat is the major form of transportation in these parts. Yes, Manaus has an international airport. And, yes, it has automobiles and even a highway that goes north to the city of Boa Vista.  But to drive south you need to put your car on a ferry, and from the Amazon's southern bank you will have only a few asphalt-surfaced miles before you are driving on clay. Such roads become quite unreliable after tropical rainstorms.
Thus the riverboat is king in Amazonia. It is the combination semi-trailer and Greyhound bus, packed with cargo in its hold and lower deck, and carrying passengers in the one or two decks above. There are few "staterooms." Almost everyone travels hammock class, which I found exciting and not uncomfortable.
Returning our attention to the city, Manaus' government-run zoological garden has many interesting creatures. The most entertaining were the river otters, who played so wildly and continuously that a still photograph was next to impossible. The aligator-like caiman was more patient, as were the manatees, who have much narrower snouts than the ones I know in Florida.

Playful Amazon river otters at Manaus Zoological Garden

Amazon Manatees
Manaus Zoological Garden
Caiman at Manaus Zoological Garden
But the most interesting animal was a fish at the Natural History Museum, located at the edge of the industrial district. To get there I had to take a cab. Yes, the museum has a good collection of anthropological exhibits and preserved animals. But it also has an enormous fish tank that houses several six-foot specimens of pirarucu, a fish that lives in these rivers. The largest one caught was, as I remember, over 20 feet long. In my backcountry travel I saw a small one, freshly caught. The pirarucu has an extremely vertical hind section, which transforms to cylindrical in the mid section. The head is still narrower and looks like it could belong to an eel. But the eyes of these big creatures peering back at me through the glass were both placid and curious. They seemed almost human-like. I will confess to having spent half an hour gazing into them and pondering the Confucian question of what sort of thoughts could this fish be capable.

Pirarucu (two-foot specimen)
Traditional five-plank boat in background
Amazon backcountry
Pirarucu (6-foot specimens, live)
Natural History Museum, Manaus
The photo showing the freshly caught pirarucu was taken during my travels in the Amazon backcountry. That will be the subject my next blog installment.
In the meantime, I invite you to visit my website where you can take a look at Amazon Gold and read sample chapters that describe the river- and landscape a couple of hundred miles west of the big soccer games.

If you are going to the games in Manaus, afterwards you might want to drop by Iguana Turismo at 10 de Julio Av. and make arrangements for them to take you into the rain forest outside the city.

Iguana Turismo (highly recommended)


Rua 10 De Julho,679 | Centro, Manaus,
State of Amazonas 69010-060, Brazil

Amazon Gold, fourth in the Ben Candidi Series

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