Manaus, 8 August 2016
One hundred years ago, Manaus might have looked like a delicious piece of confection: gingerbready buildings of butter cream and chocolate icing, strawberry hued summer puddings, blood orange sherbet houses, pistachio ice cream bombs. Some of that heritage has been preserved, mostly in the neighborhood of the Opera. Most of it is derelict, abandoned, falling into leprous ruin. I first guess, and it is afterwards confirmed, that the Brazilian government in general, and Manaus in particular, are none too concerned with either the environment and even less with their architectural heritage.
We disembarked the M/N M. Fernandes by mid-afternoon. It was about time. Three night and three days is about the most one can stand of discomfort, bad food and boredom.
The harbor feels like a well-heated frying pan where we act as mosquito-catchers. We are trying to get another passage to Santarem in two-days time. I go aboard the N/M Nelio Correa and try to negotiate a price. I’m told we’d do better on the street. Non-stop back and forth with luggage, on and off the boat with a Brazilian couple that speaks both English and Spanish trying to help. Y. thinks he’s lost his glasses, which adds some spice to the situation (they were in his bag). The language is a bit of a problem to say the least. I had tried to learn some Portuguese, but the Duolingo class I followed on line taught me the most useless sentences, like “The tiger drinks milk” and “I have a butterfly”! Not many chances to use those with, the result being that I remain tongue-tied or trying to build a sentence with Spanish, Portuguese, English and Italian words (why Italian, I have no idea).
It’s all pretty chaotic until we decide to wait for the ticket and get into a cab. Manaus’ hotels are a sorry bunch. Looking for 5-stars on Booking.com (I feel ready for a bit of luxury), the one place with the highest rating happens to be a youth hostel. So there we go. No dormitory for us but an impeccably clean and comfortable room with full bathroom. They even made some effort to decorate it with simple but pretty rattan accessories.
The first impression of Manaus is pretty dismal: a beehive set in a sauna, decrepitude devouring most of the charm that might have been hers during the years of the rubber boom, a city in decomposition. Everything seems to close at 5 and our walk back towards the harbor to find tickets for Santarem is not exactly reassuring. Besides, being on a boat for three days has made me lose my land footing and I walk on the pavement as if on the river, swaying like a drunken sailor. It will take me a few hours and a coconut ice cream to regain my footing.
The area near the hotel makes up for the rest: parks, a huge plaza paved, as in Portugal with tiles creating a pattern of black and white waves.Young people play a soft combination of guitar and bongo, along with a lone violinist. And you can eat, drink a local caipirinha (local aguardiente with lime, sugar and egg white) or have ice cream on a terrace.
Nightime brings some relief from the heat and sitting on the plaza in the shade of the opera makes up for the rest of the day. The food doesn’t. The menu offers amazonian fish. I order pirarucu or dragon fish,a huge reddish fish with hard scales resembling a dragon’s.
We met some in Peru and their mouth is like a vacuum cleaner as they aspirate food with a great big rumble. It tastes like mud in a mucilaginous sauce that is supposed to be combining coconut milk and palm oil. It’s also sprinkled with plenty of coriander. I forgot to say: “Não coentro”.
Thank god for caipirinha that helped some of the mess go down.
August 9 – Manaus
The Teatro Amazonas, at first sight, seems somewhat ungainly. It is said to have been built to resemble the Opéra Garnier, but except for the dome covered with tiles in the colors of Brazil: green, yellow and red, it’s massive proportions bear no resemblance to those of its model in Paris. It was built at a time when the wealthy rubber barons strived to build their little Paris in the Amazonian jungle. Nice effort, but it might not have been entirely successful.
We visited the teatro which, inside, is a fine example of Belle Époque interior decoration: gilded stucco and faux finishes, frescoes with mythological subjects of nymphs and pudgy cherubim and, in the ceiling of the concert hall, a fresco of the Eiffel tower seen from below, just as if you were crouching underneath, the spaces between its four pillars bearing more pink-cheeked goddesses and muses.
A rehearsal is in progress. Marcelo Mourão Gomes is the danseur étoile of the Teatro de las Amazonas. He seems to be rehearsing sequences of steps without really tying them together into a real dancing sequence. A piano plays and he starts over and over: pirouette, arabesque, attitude, grand fouetté. A dialogue in English goes along with the steps between the dancer and the choreographer. He will perform solo for two nights, but we will be gone.
However, tonight, the Balé folklórico de las Amazônas is performing and it’s free, so we’ll get a chance to come back.
After an interminable documentary in Portuguese that almost sent us packing, the dancers swarmed onstage. Classically trained dancers interpreting modern choreographies improvised on Amazonian themes. Wide skirts (polleras) like butterfly, parrot wings or wild tropical blooms fly around, shimmering under lighting that gives them an unreal stained-glass transparency.
On the plaza afterwards, we find Alexandra and Thomas, our friends from Leticia who just flew in. A few more caipirinhas. They tell us of their jungle expeditions. We are keeping ours for Guiana.
Back on the river
The Nélio Corrêa is set to sail by 11:00, but it is unlikely that we’d stick to that schedule and we won’t leave until 2pm. At 9am, throngs of people have already invaded the ship and hung their hammocks helter-skelter and on top of each other. So close that you cannot pass between two hammocks. I don’t know what gave us the idea to hang one of ours, but I can’t see how we could use it. After an hour or so, we come to check on it and there is one hung above, one below and it’s flanked on both sides by displeasingly close neighbors. Might as well snuggle into any hammock with a stranger.
When I said the ship was invaded, I do not exaggerate, there is not one square inch of space left as porters bring in merchandise(bags of cement and plumbing tubing); families bide bon voyage to their loved ones embarking for Santarem or Belem and various merchants, screaming and haggling, ply their ware for last minute supply. The ship seems loaded to twice its capacity and you can’t move onto any of the three decks without bumping into someone. There is a tiny bar on the upper deck where music will be blaring at top volume for the rest of the trip, same songs over and over again. I seek refuge in our air-conditioned cabin where I might pass a good amount of time to escape the frenzy outside. As I try to enter, I see that a pink-haired woman traveling with her two children has installed her hammock right in front of our door. In the morning, she opens a cooler-sized box and carefully applies a full face of makeup. Thankfully, the Brazilians seem to be pretty good-natured and not that loud, but that promiscuity is not that easy to take when you’re not accustomed to it. I can’t imagine what the trip would have been like, had we not taken cabins. They might not be luxurious and smaller than my closet but they at least offer some privacy and quiet time.
No comment about the food except that the bar offers… sickeningly sweet ham and cheese grilled cheese sandwiches and ramen type noodles. That should do for two days.
However, the sunsets are spectacular and we’re pretty snug and happy in our air-conditioned closet.
We learn that O Cisne Branco, one of the two boats we might have taken to Santarem recently had an accident: 80 dead. It’s been repaired since and I’m sure the Nélio Corrêa is safer in spite of its overload.
Surprise this morning: no food will be served on the ship. Frugal breakfast of one tangerine, and one apple with peanut butter. Later on, when the bar opens, we buy some juice and a packet of chocolate wafers. This will be a long day.
The Amazon spreads in its full width here and we occasionally see the contrasted color of other tributaries throwing themselves in the big river but keeping their specific shade of black for the Río Negro or reddish brown, a clean line separating their waters that refuse to blend.
Stopover in Juruti. On the pier, a self-proclaimed comedian throws himself into a loud monologue. He must be good, since some of the passengers, men mostly, seem to find him irresistibly funny. For a while, I thought there was a fight going on.
We are not expecting to arrive Santarem until 00:30 and are allowed, therefore, to pass one more night aboard.