Reflections 2011
Series 13
April 3
Amazon II: Amazon River & Rainforest - Manaus


Brazil is the largest country in South America, and the fifth largest in the world, both in area and in population. There are many ways of looking at a trip here. I was in Brazil in 2004 as part of the Caronia trip around South America. My travel diary reminds me that we stopped that year on February 24th in Rio, on the 28th in Salvador de Bahia, and on March 2nd in Fortaleza. But this is not a story of coastal Brazil.


It is not a story of economic Brazil, given its growth and frenzy to improve infrastructure in anticipation of the World Cup and Olympics. Even with the large numbers of indigenous people in the north, it’s not a story particularly centering around them, either, nor of the ecological dangers to the rainforest. A person who had enough of that information handy--not I--and who had a story to tell about it could write books.


Based on my interests and the events of this trip, there are two stories here to tell. The geographic one describes the amazing superlatives of the Amazon River and the Amazon Rainforest. The historical one tells the boom-and-bust story of Manaus and its rubber barons, a world of human folly that went from improbable highs to gut-wrenching lows, and a world that disappeared almost overnight.


Amazing Amazon Geography   It’s appropriate that both those words start with AMAZ-. This is an area meant for superlatives. Months ago, when planning this trip, I amassed a set of facts to reduce the writing burden while en route.


AMAZON RIVER The Amazon River (digest these facts first before we look at a map below) is the largest in the world by volume of water. It discharges more water than the next six/ten [sources differ] largest rivers combined. It has the largest drainage basin in the world, covering about 40% of South America, and accounts for about one-fifth of the total river flow of the world. Its width varies between 1.6 and 10 km (0.99 and 6.2 mi) in the dry season, but in the wet season [during the time of this trip] to 48 km (30 mi) or more. Every year the river rises more than 9 m (30 ft), flooding the surrounding forests [I was able to observe this in Manaus]. At its mouth, it enters the Atlantic in a broad estuary of about 240 km (150 mi) wide. However, the mouth of the main stem is 80 km (50 mi). The Amazon is the largest reservoir of fresh water on Earth and is responsible for about 20% of the freshwater on earth flowing into the ocean. It pushes a plume of freshwater into the ocean that’s about 400 km long and 100-200 km wide (250 mi; 62-120 mi). The freshwater is lighter and overrides the salty ocean. Before the mouth of the main stem, some Amazon waters flow around Ilha de Marajó/Marajó Island into the Pará River, making the Pará, near the city of Belém (Bethlehem) an alternate mouth of the Amazon, hence the reference to the “mouths of the Amazon”. Marajó is the size of Switzerland, and is the largest island in the world completely surrounded by freshwater, including the plume of freshwater entering the Atlantic.


The Amazon River is crossed by no bridges, not because they couldn’t be built, but because it passes through rainforest with no roads, so no fixed crossings are needed. It is unclear if the Nile or the Amazon is the longest river in the world, as it depends on how they are measured. Roughly, they are each just under 7000 km (4300 mi). The Amazon is roughly the same distance as from New York to Berlin. It is almost twice the length of the Mississippi and five times the length of the Rhine. The main river is navigable for large ocean vessels for 1500 km (930 mi) from the mouth upstream to Manaus (ma.NOWSS, rhymes with “house”). Smaller ones can reach Iquitos (i.KI.tos), well into Peru. Keep those two names in mind.


AMAZON RAINFOREST The Amazon Rainforest (here a satellite image with the river in the center) is the largest in the world. 60% of it is located in Brazil, 13% in Peru, and smaller amounts in seven other countries. It represents over half of the world’s remaining rainforests and comprises the largest and most species-rich tract of tropical rainforest in the world. More than 1/3 of all species in the world live in the Amazon rainforest, including insects, plants, birds, mammals, fish, amphibians, and reptiles. The diversity of plant species is the highest on earth. One square kilometer may contain over 75,000 types of trees and 150,000 species of higher plants. Hundreds of thousands of plants of economic or social interest have been registered in the region, with many more waiting to be discovered or catalogued. Jaguars are the biggest cat in the Western Hemisphere and are far-ranging. One in five of all the birds in the world lives in the Amazon rainforest. There are about 30 times more fish species in the Amazon than in all European rivers.


Speaking of fish, the best-known Brazilian fish is the piranha (pi.RAN.ya, often mispronounced in English as pi.RAN.a), of which there are several species. The most notorious stories refer to the Red-Bellied Piranha of the Amazon basin, which has the reputation for being the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. They have razor-sharp teeth capable of stripping flesh from prey and dead animals. They grow to 33 cm (13 in) and weigh up to 3.5 kilos (7.7 lbs). Their reputation is greatly exaggerated to the point of mythology, as they are normally scavengers, like vultures. They usually feed on dead animals, although they have been known to attack healthy ones, and people, especially when their regular feeding has been poor, such as in the dry season.


[Note how in recent years, long-standing words referring to the ecology, such as “jungle” and “swamp” are used less and less, presumably because of their negative connotations of danger, mystery, remoteness, perhaps even evil. They have been replaced, respectively, with “rainforest” and “wetland” in most ecology-minded conversation, but the older words are still used for effect. For instance saying “They built an opera house in the middle of the jungle!” is a much more effective stylistic way to show your amazement than using “rainforest” in that case.]


The Name “Amazon”   In Greek mythology, the Amazons were a nation of all-female warriors. The name of the river that in English is Amazon, in both Spanish and Portuguese is Amazonas. It’s worth looking into why there are two forms, and it turns out to be very simple. One form is based on a plural and the other on a singular. Referring to the mythological figures, Greek calls them Αμαζόνες (Amazónes). Look at the Greek letters carefully, and only the Z and N are markedly different. All in capital letters, it looks even more similar: ΑΜΑΖΟΝΕΣ. The singular is Αμαζών (Amazōn), which for some reason I don’t know uses the other kind of O (it uses omega instead of omicron). All in caps, with the omega, this one is: ΑΜΑΖΩΝ. Therefore, it could be interpreted that the Spanish and Portuguese name (Rio) Amazonas means (River of the) Amazons, while the English name Amazon (River) only refers to one such mythological figure. I also thought it was worth checking what Greek itself uses, and the answer is: neither. The Greek name for this river is Αμαζόνιος. See if you can figure out how it’s different before you read the answer in the next paragraph.


Αμαζόνιος all in caps is ΑΜΑΖÓΝΙΟΣ, and both say: Amazónios. Other languages use either Amazon or Amazonas either directly or with slight variations. For instance, French uses Amazone, but German uses Amazonas. No language using the form derived from the plural considers it to be a plural--or even realizes that it had been a plural originally. The exception to that seems to be Italian, which calls the river “il Rio delle Amazzoni”, which strikingly uses Italian grammatical structure to make it perfectly clear that it’s “the River of the Amazons”.


In my opinion, the most fun version of the name is the one used in most--but not all--Russic (Slavic) languages. The Russian name for the Amazon is Амазонка / Amazonka. It’s the same in other languages using Cyrillic, such as Ukranian, Byelorussian, and Bulgarian. Czech and Polish use the Roman/Latin alphabet and also call the river Amazonka. At first it confused me that the name SEEMED to use, of all things, a diminutive, -ka, to describe this river of superlatives. (The nickname Миша / Misha means Mike. It can add a diminutive ending and become Мишка / Mishka and mean Mikey.) Then I realized that that’s not the case. Words describing women often add -ka as well: where a Finn (a Finnish man) is also финн /finn, a Finnish woman is a финка / finka. Similarly, we have американка / amerikanka and итальянка / ital’yanka. Therefore, the mythological Amazon, being a woman, is an Амазонка / Amazonka, and so is the river. I still think it’s the cutest version of the name.


We can also try to go a step further back to determine where the Greek mythological figure got its name, since one tends to hear a rather icky story involving breasts. Actually, there are many thoughts, without any definite answer. The Online Etymology Dictionary describes the mythological Amazon as “one of a race of female warriors in Scythia," and says that the name is probably from an unknown non-Indo-European word, or possibly from an Iranian compound *ha-maz-an- "(one) fighting together". The dictionary then goes on to mention another theory that the word derives from “a-”, meaning “without” (as in amoral) plus “mazos” meaning “breasts”. From this theory comes the story that Amazons cut off one breast to be able to draw bowstrings more efficiently. But the dictionary declares this long-standing theory to be pure folk etymology, and without basis in fact.


The Amazon River, on the other hand, was given that name, based on Greek mythology, after an explorer had an encounter with female warriors of the Tapuyas. However, others say the encounter was actually with beardless, long-haired male tribesmen. Still others hold that the name derives from a native word in Tupi or Guarani meaning "wave". So there’s no real answer here.


Amazon Map   I purposely held off showing a map of the Amazon River itself until one had a little more feeling about what the area was about. This map shows the Amazon drainage basin. It’s more appropriate than just a map of Brazil, since the basin covers a very large area both of and beyond Brazil. First notice the location of the coastal cities of Rio and São Paolo and how distant the Amazon is from them. I’d always pictured the Amazon as coming up from the SW, but in actuality, the main portion comes much more from the west to the east. Actually, if you locate Iquitos in Peru, you might be able to see that the river is L-shaped, since its early tributaries come from the south, and only then turn east. You’ll also see that, while the drainage basin covers a number of countries, the Amazon proper is almost exclusively in Peru and Brazil. However, with sharp eyes, you can catch, right under the word “Putumayo”, where a slender piece of Columbia actually does reach the Amazon on its north bank. But other maps show that the Columbia border also includes the riverbed up to the south bank. On the south bank is a sliver of Peru, so when the Amazon enters Brazil, there is a tripoint on the south bank.


Then there is the matter of change of name. As I reflect on rivers, most keep their name for most or all of their length. The Mississippi has that name from its point of origin, long before the Missouri and Ohio enter, among others. The Rhein/Rhine starts with the Vorderrhein and the Hinterrhein (Front Rhine and Back Rhine), but the name remains obvious. This is not so with the Amazon AT ALL. It has a half-dozen names in Peru and two more in Brazil. Most amazingly, about half of the stretch within Brazil itself (the first half) is not even called the Amazon. Most of the below names can be found on the above map.


In Peru, what is considered the headwater of the Amazon comes down the Apurimac, Ene, and Tambo, which form the Ucayali. 100 km before (south of) Iquitos, the Ucayali joins the Marañón, and here the river is for the first time actually called the Amazonas. It keeps this name as it passes Iquitos and for the rest of its time in Peru and Columbia. But once it crosses into Brazil it loses that name. Here it’s called, for a very long stretch up to Manaus, about half its length within Brazil, the Solimões (not mentioned on the map). Manaus is located toward the very end of the Rio Negro (check this river out on the map), and when the Rio Negro joins the Solimões is where the name Amazonas is used once again, all the way to the sea. Thus Manaus, the most important city “on the Amazon” is technically not on the Amazon at all, or even on the Solimões, but on a tributary, the Rio Negro.


I heard orally--but cannot corroborate--an interesting reason why the Amazon is sometimes described as “a river trying to be an ocean”. The explanation goes back millennia. If what I heard is true, before the Andes were formed, northern South America was separated from the rest by a pre-Amazon ocean connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic. When plate tectonics caused the Andes to rise, the western outlet to the Pacific was blocked, and all the rivers that had flowed north and south into that early ocean instead formed the Amazon, which would be a reasonable reason to explain the huge volume of water it has.


Amazon Visit   Let’s look at this same map again of the Amazon drainage basin and locate our last stop before the Amazon, Trinidad, that large island right off the east coast of Venezuela (even Tobago is shown). While we traveled in three different time zones, Eastern (North America), Atlantic, and Greenland, we only had two changes, since Eastern had gone on daylight time already (EDT) and was the same as Atlantic standard time (AST), which is what the islands through Trinidad were on. But leaving Trinidad in that large loop that was the lower half of the figure 3, we crossed over into Greenland time for a short while. But you’ll note that Manaus is pretty much due south of Trinidad, so we had to cross BACK into AST while there, and then on leaving make another foray into Greenland time for a while before returning finally to AST. Put another way, the entire trip would have been on EDT/AST except for the short bit, on and off, of Greenland time while entering the Amazon--but then on and off leaving it again.


Leaving Trinidad along the northern South American coast, the trip got bumpy, and we were shaking quite a bit. One evening they even had barf bags set out in public areas for the queasy, but it really wasn’t bad. We sailed off the three Guianas, two of which aren’t named on the map, including French Guiana (Guyane), the unnamed Guiana furthest east on the map, which would be our first stop immediately after leaving the Amazon, on Devil’s Island.


The seas did slow us down, though, and the captain announced that we were hurrying to “cross the bar” to enter the river in time to make it to Macapá (ma.ka.PA) before 7 PM. This is where Brazilian officials checked out the credentials of the ship (and passengers’ visas, I’m sure, which were on file with the ship) so that we could proceed up the river, and if we didn’t make it before closing time, we’d have to wait there and lose a day. We made it. However, sunset being sixish, it was really too dark to see and appreciate the width of the mouth, which I’m sure would have been like being on open ocean anyway. I believe we also took on a river pilot at Macapá, although I also heard it’s not impossible even then for a ship to gently nudge a sandbank in the river. A week later, when we left the Amazon and dropped off the pilot at Macapá, it was too dark again to judge the width of the mouth.


We can now take note on the map of the Pará River that leaves the Amazon and swings over to join some other rivers at Belém. This is the other “mouth of the Amazon”. That land north of the Pará River is that Marajó Island we spoke about, the size of Switzerland, and the largest island surrounded by fresh water, since the Amazon makes the nearby Atlantic fresh around the island.


When one crosses the equator by water, one expects it to be on the ocean, but the equator crosses Brazil immediately south of Macapá, so we made a river crossing of the equator, which was fun and different.


The next day, being on the river in daylight, the impression hit me: it’s wonderful, but not so exotic; not exotic at all, actually. I could have been on the Mississippi. The river carries a lot of sediment, and is brown. It’s wide, but not incredibly so, and greenery could be seen on both banks, and on long, narrow islands in the river. The normalcy of the experience was almost startling. Let me put it in the stylistic sense: on the shore was rainforest, not something weirdly unusual, like jungle. Of course, I’m sure if you went off on an expedition inland, it could become exotic, but that could happen anywhere.


We made three stops on the river other than at our main destination, Manaus, where we spent two days (one overnight). Going upriver we stopped at Santarém (on the map), which is a medium-sized city, and Boca de (Mouth of) Valéria was a flyspeck of an indigenous village. Downriver we stopped at Parentins, another flyspeck known for its big festival in June/July, but otherwise unremarkable. From my point of view, these stops are additional fillers added by the cruise line, such as the odd uninteresting island like Saint Lucia, to give bulk to the trip. How could they sell an Amazon cruise making only a stop at Manaus, even if it’s the most interesting area? Others, on the other hand, did want to buy trinkets “for the grandkids”--I won’t comment--or did want to make forays into the rainforest. This latter I respect, although I planned on my rainforest forays more compactly right around Manaus. For instance, Pete, who plays (well) on our trivia team, went with his wife to Peru just this January, on a trip that included the Upper Amazon around Iquitos, and also canoeing up rivers. For those that deeply interested and adventuresome, I applaud their deep interest. They are not vacationers but travelers, although they don’t do quite my style of travel. At any rate, at Santarém I just got off the ship at the dock for a few minutes, and I didn’t get off at all at the other two stops, which didn’t interest me. I could tell from later comments of those that did get off that some liked their experiences, and others didn’t. I made the right choice for myself.


I was really surprised that it wasn’t too hot or humid, being right at the equator. If I went to read on deck, I preferred the late afternoon, but even earlier it wasn’t to bad to just sit back and relax for a bit outside. This is where the reader might like to hear about the bugs.


After Trinidad and before the Amazon, we were told that any souvenirs brought on board should be handed over immediately to be fumigated against bugs and spiders, so as not to bring them on board. We were also told to keep veranda lights off at night to avoid attracting insects. The outdoor terrace of the buffet restaurant was closed evenings for the same reason, as were the two outside deck areas down on deck 5. At stops at Santarém and Manaus, at the end of the gangway you couldn’t avoid stepping onto a soggy mat when going in or out, which I’m sure was full of disinfectant for one’s shoes. Most amusing was when we were warned in advance about the “crunchy decks”, we’d have around the pool during the entire Amazon transit, since one would be stepping on bugs all the way. So what happened?


Nothing. There were no bugs! In one week on the Amazon, I saw maybe four bugs, not even at once, but one at a time. There was also a large brown moth drying its wings on the railing one day with a wingspan of about 10 cm (4 in). I also saw a small black butterfly. But this you could have seen anywhere. Otherwise, no bugs, no crunchy decks.


It was a requirement to enter Brazil that one have a yellow fever inoculation. I’d gotten mine, with a number of other shots, several years ago (it’s good for ten years) at the immunization center run by the county in Tampa, so my yellow form was already filled out and ready for presentation. A number of the trivia players on our team did say they were taking malarone against malaria, as I was. I’d just gotten my malarone pills, which I’d earlier also used in Africa, in Tampa right before this trip. You cannot be vaccinated against malaria, but if you have malarone in your system, you will have resistance to it if a malaria mosquito bites you. You have to take a pill two days before entering a potential malaria region to get your system started, then each day while you’re there (8), then for seven days afterward, just in case, making a total of 17 pills that each of us had gotten. The pills are expensive, and the others had each paid $138 for their 17, but they were surprised to hear that my prescription plan had covered mine, and I had paid only the $20 copay. Anyway, the only bugs I did encounter were indeed mosquitoes, but only for a few minutes when our motorboat stopped at one place while in the rainforest near Manaus. All in all, the trip was bugless.


Finally on the map, again note the location of Manaus, which is as far up the river that larger ships can sail and is as far as we went, meaning we covered all of the river within Brazil that actually bears the name “Amazonas”, even though we all know that the river is actually much longer than that. Ships dock directly downtown in Manaus, which lies 1450 km (900 mi) upriver from the mouths of the Amazon. I enjoyed doing this river voyage round trip, so that, after visiting Manaus and its nearby region, discussed below as a magnificent destination in its own right, we had a repeat performance of enjoying life on the river, but this time, downstream.


Daily Life Onboard   Although this trip is not on a par with the trip with what was then Cunard’s Caronia around South America, it really is quite good, as long as one adds up all the interesting people one has met and discounts the ultra-vacationers and ultra-geriatrically-minded crowd. I dined with trivia team friends in the Grand Dining Room (only my second visit there) and the service was impeccable, and conversation delightful. They asked about Beverly, after which they were kind enough to toast her memory.


I do not understand people who insist on eating three meals in shipboard restaurants, anywhere. I don’t know how they have any time to do anything else. Breakfast and lunch to me are always to be taken at the buffet. As for dinner, on Cunard it’s a set-time, set-table dress-up affair in the main dining room, and I always go. On other ships where time and table are amorphous, I stick to the buffet and only go on occasion. As I explained it to friends dining with me in the buffet restaurant, the buffet is like eating at home; you want dessert, and you get up and get it. At home one goes out to a restaurant only on occasion, and that’s the way I like to handle the three large restaurants on a ship such as this.


Our afternoon trivia team has so far only once missed coming in first, second, or third, since we’re a well-matched group--and that only by chance. Once in a while some members are on a tour, and we still manage. I only took two tours, both in Manaus, and on the afternoon one I hadn’t said I wouldn’t show up for trivia, thinking few would. I was surprised that, not only was I the only one missing that day from our team, they had phoned my room and left a message asking if I’d forgotten to come. It’s nice to be part of a team.


In regard to that story I told earlier about a price being “in Portuguese”, the old term “ugly American” comes to mind, and I suppose that still can hold. While the majority of passengers on this ship are American, many are not, and as good a cruise manager and trivia host as David is, I had to remind him that numerical answers shouldn’t just be in feet and miles, but also in meters and kilometers. He’s been pretty good about that, although yesterday he asked how many quarts, approximately, are in a magnum. That’s a dually-loaded question: you have to know that a magnum consists of 1.5 liters, and that a quart is slightly less than a liter, so the answer is two. Yet, a non-American mentioned to me he didn’t know how large a quart was, so he couldn’t get the answer. I cite this sort of thing as the arrogance of Americans, who not only insist on maintaining their own antiquated system of measurement, but insist that others use it as well. It’s not a good international policy.


Use of the computer room and satellite online service is very pricey, too much so. I bought a large package of minutes, and still I’m paying fifty US cents a minute. Regular email and web surfing is reasonable, but downloads take time.


I asked the reception desk to schedule a get-together of German speakers. That was a mistake. Around a table in the lounge sat seven German-speaking German-Americans, plus two German ladies, and me. I spoke a bit with the German ladies, but all the others insisted on speaking English, and how they enjoyed life in Marco Island (Florida). What a waste of my time. I don’t like to lie, but after a short while I said I had to meet someone, and left.


The last day on the Amazon was a “sea day” and was perfect spring-like weather, which was unimaginable being right at the equator. For the first time, I sat out on the back terrace connected to the buffet restaurant. However, I was joined by this older American woman who insisted on telling me how teacher pensions were ruining states’ budgets and that teachers should give back their benefits. As with a number of other conversations I’ve had on this ship, I thought my ears would fall off. Afterward I got my book and sat on a lounge chair near the pool. The lounge chairs had been turned outward with a view through the window wall of the café-au-lait Amazon and green shoreline, which made it a very nice afternoon indeed.


Manaus’s Boom-and-Bust History   Manaus (once again, ma.NOWSS, rhymes with “house”), was founded in 1669, and is the capital of the large state of Amazonas and, with a metropolitan area encompassing about two million people, is the largest city on the Amazon. I hope attentive readers would have caught that lie--well, exaggeration--since, as we’ve said, Manaus is not on the Amazon at all, but really almost at the end of the Rio Negro, just before it joins the Solimões to form the Amazon. So we have to say Manaus is the largest city almost on the Amazon. Manaus’s two million represent about half the population of the state. However, it vies size with Belém, on the far side of the Pará near the coast, whose metropolitan area is about the same size.


Just as maple trees produce a sap that is collected in North America to produce maple syrup, rubber trees, growing naturally in the Amazon region, produce a sap that is collected in a similar way to become raw rubber. Manaus had its biggest growth from 1890 to 1920 during a worldwide demand for rubber, when it was the center of the Amazon’s rubber boom and produced 75% of the world’s supply. The demand was caused in part by the invention of the process of vulcanization. Uncured natural rubber is sticky, deforms easily when warm, is brittle when cold, and cannot be used to make articles with a good level of elasticity. Vulcanization is a chemical process where natural rubber is cured by adding sulfur, converting it into a state where it can be made into more durable materials, such as tires, shoe soles, and hoses, as well as hard articles, such as hockey pucks, bowling balls and mouthpieces for musical instruments. It is less sticky and has superior mechanical properties.


As Manaus prospered as a rubber boomtown, immigrants flooded in seeking riches in the rubber trade. But the sudden wealth caused by the boom in turn did funny things to human nature. There developed up to 42 extravagantly wealthy plantation and estate owners called “rubber barons” who tried to outdo each other spending on gaudy, often decadent, extravagances. The two stories of decadent extravagance usually told involve rubber barons sending their laundry to Lisbon or Paris to be cleaned, and feeding the best champagne to their horses. Buildings had fancy balconies and domes, and were built with special materials, such as marble, crystal, tiles, and glass imported from Europe. The most prominent result of this was the world-famous Manaus Opera House, whose actual name is the Teatro Amazonas / Amazon Theater.


But what goes up (suddenly) must come down (just as fast). Brazil’s boom was due to it having a monopoly, but around 1910, an Englishman named Henry Wickham smuggled rubber seeds out of Brazil to Kew Gardens near London. These were then planted in Malaysia and elsewhere in vast plantations, and Brazil’s monopoly was destroyed. By 1920, the invention of synthetic rubber and the growth of plantations elsewhere caused a drastic plunge in the price of rubber, and disaster arrived in Manaus.


It’s so strange when the bottom falls out of a monopoly. We discussed in 2010/10 the Malaku/Spice islands in Indonesia, where the British yielded Run, the major spice-producing island there, to the Dutch in exchange for the Dutch yielding Manhattan to the British. Yet once spice plants and seeds were smuggled out to other locations around the world, the spice economy collapsed in the Malakus and the islands, including Run, lost their importance.


The story of the collapse of the spice monopoly and boom in Indonesia is very much the same as the story of the collapse of the rubber monopoly and boom in the Amazon. Wealthy Manaus actually slipped into poverty. For instance, the rubber boom had brought electricity to Manaus, including to its opera house, before it reached many European cities. But with the collapse, there was no money to import coal for the generators, and they were too expensive to run, so Manaus was literally plunged into darkness and remained without electricity for many years. The opera house closed and the magnificent building later suffered multiple indignities, including having its auditorium used as a warehouse for many years (more below).


However, since the 1950’s the area has become a duty-free zone and a reasonable degree of prosperity has returned, particularly due to tourism.


Fitzcarraldo   The night before reaching Manaus, they showed the film “Fitzcarraldo” in the Regatta Lounge. I knew there was a good reason I’d never seen it, and I was right, but, just like you have to take your malarone pills and get your Brazilian visa, you might as well see Fitzcarraldo the first time in your life while on the Amazon. When it was over, I went straight to the ship’s library, which had a book of Leonard Maltin’s film reviews. He praised it, but ended with four word’s one should not forget: “Not to everyone’s taste.” Indeed.


Werner Herzog directed it in 1982, and it starred Klaus Kinski and Claudia Cardinale. Kinski’s natural facial expression and acting style are that of a wild man, so I suppose he fit the part well. The opening credits were in German, and so I expected subtitles, but instead, they all spoke English. I later found out Herzog shot all the dialog scenes twice, once for a German version and once for an English one. Interesting. We saw a German film actually made in English.


I have no intention of telling the whole idiotic story, just some minimal facts. Carlos Fitzcarrald was a Peruvian rubber baron, based, interestingly, upriver in Iquitos. He had multiple ancestry, part of which was Irish, and the family name Fitzgerald turned into Fitzcarrald, then, even more Spanish-like, into Fitzcarraldo. He was a real person, and I read there’s a province in Peru named Fitzcarraldo, but I’m really not interested enough to double check.


I’ll divide my interest in the film into two parts, the interesting (short) and the boring (long). Fitzcarraldo is fascinated with opera, and he wants to bring opera upriver to Iquitos, so the opening scenes show him arriving at the Manaus opera house wanting to hear a performance. While there, the two decadent facts already known come up: a conversation is heard mentioning that the rubber barons send laundry to Lisbon, and a groom opens a bottle of champagne and feeds it to a horse pulling a carriage, while mentioning it’s the best champagne. So much for bolstering the decadent image. The film was actually shot at the restored opera house, and you see the gorgeous interiors, including the chairs used in the auditorium, plush, freestanding dark-wood easy chairs with red upholstery, probably velvet. This part of the film runs about the first fifteen minutes, and is interesting because of the opera house and life in Manaus.


The film in its entirety runs 157 minutes. I’ll do the math for you: that’s seven minutes over 2 ½ hours. For the rest of the film, Fitzcarraldo works on a business deal based on rubber, one that involves sailing a riverboat up a river, schlepping it over a mountain (!!!) using the labor of a hostile indigenous tribe, to another river, and sailing it back down that river, through rapids, to Iquitos. This part of the story goes on for hours and hours. It goes on for so long you feel you want to get out and help pull the ship, just to get it over with.


The only interesting part of this main part of the film is the way that “art outdid life” in the filming of the story. I looked it all up--you’d never know unless you’d researched it--and what the idiot Fitzcarraldo did was dismantle the river boat and bring it over the mountain, on a cleared pathway, in pieces. That’s weird enough.


But that wasn’t good enough for the second idiot, Werner Herzog. He actually had a huge area cleared on a mountain, and had people, using a system of primitive winches, pull an entire riverboat over the mountain. In other words, filmmaking idiot # 2 did much more than rubber baron idiot # 1 had done, so art outdid life.


The beginning of the film was invaluable to gaining additional insight into Manaus and the opera house. Beyond that, I’m glad I finally saw the film, just like I’m glad I’ve already had my wisdom teeth pulled. They’re both done and over with.


Visiting Manaus by Water   Manaus was the highlight of the entire trip. This picture shows the Port of Manaus, with typical wooden riverboats along the shore. Of the two days we stayed there, with one overnight, I’d decided long in advance I’d take two tours, one by water the afternoon of the first day (just in case the ship had gotten in late that morning) and the second one by land the morning of the second day, leaving the afternoon free to compose my thoughts on the experience before leaving. Since I collect points on the new Visa card I have, points that can cancel travel expenses on the card, I cancelled the charges for these two trips, so they were free on points, just as I’ve gotten hotels free on points on my AmEx card. In the end, all went well on the tours. Although the water one almost came apart at the seams, it was straightened out, and the land one was so great that it “made” the entire trip to the Amazon.


THE RAINFOREST WITH WATER LILIES My rainforest adventure was to take place, not during earlier stops, but right in the vicinity of Manaus. We boarded a two-level wooden riverboat (pictures later), of a type that might have had Mark Twain at the helm, and putt-putted southbound on the Rio Negro. It was slow going, first down, then across the river to the other side, ending up in Lake Januauri (a native word that does NOT mean what you think), which was surrounded by an ecological nature park in the rainforest (this picture I found is actually near Manaus). We tied up at a floating dock and divided up to enter a number of motorized canoes, which were roofed over and had five two-seater benches crosswise.


It being the rainy season, the lake had only come back to life a few weeks earlier. We passed indigenous villages that had either houseboats or houses on stilts, that can accommodate the annual rise and fall of all the waterways, including the flooding of the forests mentioned earlier, forming “wetlands” (otherwise “swamps”, but just for effect). We cruised narrow channels through and across large areas of floating vegetation (sometimes getting stuck), that nourish bird life above and fish life below. To see how the land had recently been dry, but now was flooded, we pulled over and stopped under some trees (this picture I found is really the Rio Negro shore west of Manaus--I’m showing the real stuff here). When we stopped here for five minutes was the only time mosquitoes started to bother us, which is why I’d worn insect repellant and had taken my malerone.


We then seemed to be going back toward the dock, and I asked the guide about the water lilies. No, we wouldn’t be seeing them--they’re somewhere else--and we docked. Well, it turned out that others on other canoes had ridden right into the lake with the lilies, and my bile began to rise. On the pier, when others went into the trinket shed to shop (!!!) I started to argue with the guide, a skill I’d learned from my mother when I felt wronged. It didn’t take much. He said, OK, I’ll take you. I felt bad that he didn’t take others, but as far as I knew, the riverboat would be leaving in a few minutes, so I followed him up onto a wooden boardwalk for a five-minute walk into the forest behind a sign saying we were going to a lake called Lago Victória Régia, so I knew we were on the right track. The boardwalk came out about one story above lake level, and I saw my fill of giant water lilies, many overlapping each other. As a bonus, he pointed out a caiman (like an alligator or crocodile) sunning itself below in the middle of the lake. This was apparently where some canoes had come directly. I was sorry others missed it, but was glad I’d spoken up.


The victoria amazonica is apparently now the preferred name, which makes sense, but the older name--apparently still in use--is the victoria regia, after Queen Victoria. It was not surprisingly named by an Englishman, and is the largest of the water lilies. Its leaves/pads are up to 3 meters/yards in diameter above a submerged stalk 7-8 meters/yards in length. It is native to the shallow waters of the Amazon River basin. The underside of the pads have spurs for protection. This picture shows cultivated specimens of the victoria amazonica in a European botanical garden. It shows particularly well the iconic upturned edge of the pad. The ones I saw were all about one meter/yard in diameter, similar to those in this picture of victoria amazonica growing naturally near Manaus (really!).


Not stopping properly at the lilies was their fault, but what happened next was not. One of the canoes broke down, and we ended up sitting at least a full hour on the riverboat at the floating dock, bored out of our minds, until matters were settled. It was then a long ride to the Meeting of the Waters (below), although at one point there were three victoria amazonicas among the vegetation on the way, so I hope that satisfied just a bit those who had missed them over on the lake.


Given the delay and the long ride over to the Amazon (this aerial view shows a riverboat southbound on the Rio Negro out of Manaus sailing towards the Amazon), we got to the Meeting of the Waters shortly before sundown, so you could see the phenomenon, but not ideally in the weakening daylight. Fortunately, we saw it again the next day when the Regatta left Manaus, but under an overcast, and at a bit of a distance. Some of us had seen the phenomenon a few days earlier as the Regatta arrived in Santarém, where the phenomenon also occurs, and saw it as perfectly as the pictures below show it.


THE MEETING OF THE WATERS The Encontro das Águas / Meeting of the Waters occurs most famously in Manaus, but also elsewhere, such as in Santarém (above). The annual flooding of the forests by tributaries of the Amazon such as the Rio Negro / Black River causes vegetation to decompose and deposit tannin into the rivers when they recede. Because of this, the Rio Negro is so dark that divers need headlamps to be able to see.


On the other hand, we have the muddy or sandy waters of the Solimões coming down from Peru (Sol- is from “solo”, meaning “soil”, so think “mud”). Where these join, they don’t mix, but run side-by-side for over 6 km (4 mi), each keeping its own identity. This is referred to as the Encontro das Águas / Meeting of the Waters. It’s based on the differences in temperature, in flow speed, and in density and salinity of the two rivers. The Negro is slower, flowing at about 2 km/h while the Solimões flows at 4-6 km/h. The Negro is also warmer at 28° (82° F) than the Solimões at 22° (72° F). This phenomenon is really even more spectacular than it sounds. The Amazon remains brown for the rest of its length to the sea.


Look first at this satellite picture of the Manaus area. North is about at the ten o’clock position, and the black Rio Negro comes in from the eight o’clock position past Manaus in white on the north bank. Moving downstream, that indentation on the south bank is where Lake Januauri is, so you can see the triangular route of our riverboat from the city to the lake, to the Meeting of the Waters and back. Entering at six o’clock is the muddy Solimões--let’s call it café au lait / coffee with milk--and as you can see, the Meeting of the Waters is even visible from space. Do remember that this Meeting of the Waters is considered the start of the Amazon (although we know better), which remains café au lait in color as it flows out at two o’clock.


When you see it up close, you can only gasp--it seems unreal. We see here again the two-level wooden riverboats, and given the water colors, you can identify that we’re looking UP the Rio Negro here, with the Solimões coming in from the left and the “Amazon” leaving to the right. Still find it hard to believe? Take a closer look still. This view has to be downriver toward the “Amazon”, since the brown Solimões is on the right.


Visiting Manaus by Land   I had to get an early start the next morning for the tour by land, which was to make four stops. I was very pleased to see us stop--just outside--at a very attractive mansion that had belonged to a German rubber baron. He had paid millions to have it built, and then sold it to the government after the boom for a pittance. It was made first into a government office, and now into a cultural center and museum. It was fulfilling to see the opulence of the period, preserved today at least in this building. We then stopped at the Museo do Indio / Museum of the Indian, which was a dusty, musty collection of anthropological artifacts, of which I had seen enough after five minutes and went back to sit on the air-conditioned bus. The last two stops were the highlight of the day, the Teatro Amazonas and the zoo, with native animals.


TEATRO AMAZONAS The Teatro Amazonas / Amazon Theater is of course the world-famous Manaus Opera House. In Paris or Rio, it would be just a pretty building, but in Manaus, it’s a remarkable landmark, built in the midst of the Amazon jungle (“jungle”, used stylistically to emphasize remoteness, rather than “rainforest”) during the period when fortunes were made in the rubber boom. It was meant to create a jewel in the midst of the Amazon rainforest, and to make Manaus one of the great centers of civilization. To my mind, it succeeded fully, despite its later decline. Its subsequent rehabilitation is fully to its credit as a continuing great center of civilization.


It was built slowly over a decade and a half, in eclectic neoclassic style, and opened in 1896. Decorated ceramic roofing tiles came from Alsace; furniture in the style of Louis XV came from Paris; Carrara marble came from Italy for the stairs, columns, and statues; steel walls came from England; from Italy also came Murano glass for 32 of the 198 chandeliers. The wood is Brazilian, but even some of that was sent to Europe to be carved. Even its bricks were brought over from Europe, and to make the theater state-of-the-art, electric lighting was installed.


The theater was not too long in use, perhaps a decade or so, given the collapse of the rubber boom. Despite periodic restorations, it was silent for almost nine decades, until opera began again in the late 1990’s, when it was thought that Manaus deserved a major arts center once again.


To keep expenses low, there’s been an unusual cultural migration, but one I’ve seen before. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, given the high quality of the skill level of many musicians in Eastern Europe, major cruise lines started hiring musicians and performers from those countries. Similarly, Eastern European performers and musicians have been lured to Manaus because of higher wages. Almost ¾ of the musicians of the Amazon Philharmonic are from Russia, Belarus, and Bulgaria. I understand there is now a push to get more local musicians.


Our tour bus dropped us off in the Praça São Sebastião / Saint Sebastian Square, named after a church on one side. The square has been restored, as well as the surrounding buildings, at government expense. Replacements in this historic district have to conform in style.


On the west side of the square sits the Teatro Amazonas in all its restored glory. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The lobby is in the foreground of the narrow end, with a ballroom above, which exits onto the high-ceilinged balcony in the façade. The auditorium is behind the lobby. A prerequisite for the construction of the dome was that it had to show the colors of the Brazilian flag, and thousands of special enameled tiles were manufactured for that purpose in France (the dome is not yet restored).


Notice the ramp that goes up the side of the building. It runs around the back, and exits symmetrically down the other side. It’s paved with cobblestone-like bricks, which became a problem when horses’ hooves clippety-clopped by, followed by noisy wagon wheels. How would the rubber barons have solved that noise problem?


With rubber, of course. Each brick was fitted with a rubber overlay. Although most of that is gone now, on the part of the ramp around the back of the building is a large section where they have been maintained for historical purposes. The century-old rubber--vulcanized I’m sure--is somewhat cracked and shows its age, but is still serviceable.


We visited the auditorium first (described below) and the upstairs ballroom second. The ballroom was baroque, as was the auditorium, with columns that were steel inside, sent from Glasgow. Right under the ceiling and completely encircling the room was an area for musicians. The inlaid wooden floors, assembled of many kinds of woods without nails or pegs, were delicate, and we had to step into slippers over our shoes to protect them.


The main auditorium was exquisite. While there were once over a thousand seats, now there are about 700. There once was an elaborate cooling system that had air blowing over tanks of water to create a vapor, but a modern air-conditioning system is now hidden away. As I saw in Fitzcarraldo, they really do use dark-brown wooden armchairs rather than theater seats, with deep red upholstery.


The venue was quite petite. We sat in the center of the main level, where each row consisted of at most just ten chairs on each side of a center aisle. The room was horseshoe-shaped, and there were boxes surrounding us on the same level. Above that were three horseshoe balconies with wrought-iron railings. The room had a cream-colored interior with muted reds and blues. There were chandeliers hanging from a ceiling covered with a huge painting.


There were columns on the lower level between the boxes, each with a large plaque on top. The plaques proudly bore names of dramatists and musicians, and, as I an inveterate copier of signs, I copied them down, except for a few I didn’t recognize. Starting on the right, they were Shakespeare, Molière, Goethe, Lessing, Corneille, Beethoven, Mozart, Verdi, Racine, Wagner, Rossini, Lope de Vega, Schiller, Calderón, Aristófane, Ésquilo.


All names were in their original languages, except for the two ancient Greeks at the end, whose names were in Portuguese. The first one is easy to figure out. How about the second one, which would be pronounced


The first would be Aristophanes, and the second Aeschylus.


The beauty of the structure was enhanced by the inclusion of so many international names, but it got better. Our guide had told us that, with the season starting next month, rehearsals would be going on during the mornings this month, and the whole 15-20 minutes we sat in the theater, a young conductor (we learned later he was an assistant conductor) was leading a full stage (albeit a petite one) of musicians in street clothes, and also a full chorus standing behind them. I was so busy trying to look around and listen at the same time. What they were rehearsing was in a very distinctive, modern style. Could it be Carl Orff? Was it Carmina Burana? I’ve never heard the whole thing (it’s a cantata that I understand runs about 45 minutes), but I’ve heard bits and pieces of it, enough to recognize it. It was. (German composer Carl Orff [1895-1982] wrote his best-known piece, Carmina Burana, in 1937.)


The simultaneous visual and auditory, combined with the historical, made this visit almost an out-of-body experience, and the highlight of the entire trip.


English Wikipedia had only the exterior picture above. What do to? When in Rome, do as the Romans; when in Saint Barts, look at the longer articles in French and Swedish Wikipedia; when in Manaus, look at the longer article in Portuguese Wikipédia, where I found two interior shots.


This view shows the proscenium and left balconies. Realize that it is overexposed, and the walls are not made of gold, but cream-colored, as mentioned. You can see the wrought-iron railings on the three balcony levels, and also two of the boxes on the ground level. Right above the lights on the lower level you see two of the plaques, this one to Aristófane on the left and Ésquilo on the right.


This is the painting on the backdrop of the stage. Seeing that all the figures are in the water, care to guess what very appropriate Manaus topic it might portray? It’s the Meeting of the Waters, with the two men presumably the Negro and Solimões, and the woman the Amazon.


THE ZOO The final stop was at the Manaus Zoo, which became much more interesting once I realized that it specialized in local fauna. There were monkeys, parrots, and caimans, all of which I’d also spotted (rather poorly) in the rainforest, as well as tortoises, which I hadn’t.


But I can say I saw all the following nine animals, not in their actual habitat in the surrounding rainforest, but up close (a big advantage) in the zoo, and I found some very nice pictures of them, with a bit of additional information I considered to be of interest.


I’m not sure I ever saw a toucan up close before. I know I never encountered a harpy eagle before, this pictured one in flight. I read now that they are the largest and most powerful raptors found in the Americas, with a wingspan of two meters/yards, and they are also among the largest species of eagles in the world today. They usually inhabit tropical lowland rainforests such as in the Amazon, in the upper canopy layer.


We saw a Brazilian tapir, which is related to elephants and hippos. Nearby was a pig-like peccary, also called a javelina.


One expects snakes in the Amazon, and we first came to a boa constrictor in a tree, but they also can be found in the water. The head of the one in the picture is on the right, over the body. The next cage held an anaconda, which was in the water. The head of this one, too, is on the extreme right, almost hidden.


Finally, we saw the big cats. The ocelot is similar in appearance to a domestic cat. Particularly typical, especially culturally, for the Americas is the jaguar, which is the third-largest feline after the tiger and the lion, and the largest in the Western Hemisphere.


Finally, we saw a black panther. Or did we? As I was collecting this picture, I found out an amazing thing. There isn’t really exactly any such thing as a black panther. So what are we looking at? Let’s look at the situation in sequential order, to make it clearer.


Melanin is the dark pigmentation in the skin, and also in the eyes, hair, or feathers. The root comes from Greek μελανός (melanós), which means “dark-colored”, and which we last saw in the Pacific, when we said that Melanesia was named after its dark-skinned inhabitants.


Albinism is the condition of having a white appearance caused by a lack of melanin. Leucism is caused by a reduced--but not total lack of--pigmentation, including both melanin and other pigments, such as in the case of white lions. Melanism is just the opposite of these. It’s a condition caused by an overabundance of melanin, resulting in a black coloration.


What is called a black panther is simply a melanistic color variant of any of several species of larger cats.

  In Asia and Africa, melanistic leopards are called black panthers.
In North America, melanistic cougars (or jaguars) are called black panthers.
In Latin America melanistic jaguars are called black panthers.

I find it odd that this grouping together of different species under one name happens with melanistic (black) animals and not with albinistic (white) animals. In any case, the umbrella designation of black panther is the prototypical example of melanism. And by the way, the black panther in the above picture is indeed a black jaguar, so compare its picture with the picture of the normal jaguar before it.


A few hours after we saw the opera house and the zoo, the Regatta sailed away from Manaus downriver. After the trivia game was over, some of us went up to the Horizons Lounge, with its picture view of the route ahead, for happy hour. We were in the middle of the café-au-lait Amazon, but way to the left could still be seen the inky Rio Negro’s waters. It had drizzled, and a complete rainbow appeared across the Amazon, end to end. Right after I asked if anyone had ever seen a double rainbow, a faint second one appeared behind the first. It was an enjoyable end to our visit.

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