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The Amazon Conundrum

The Amazon 
Conundrum

She might have lost her cool and might have told him that it was
none of his business what she was doing or that maybe she was in love. She could have said
that he was nothing more than a scoundrel, an irresponsible, trying to prove something to
himself, putting at risk her life. This would just worsen things though. And the weapon
was still there within his grasp. Now that he was calm it would be better to keep him this
way. There was a chance to end the night without further damage.
By Brazzil Magazine

Amazonas, covering an area of over 1.5 million sq. km, is Brazil’s
largest state. Approximately 75% of its two million inhabitants live in the metropolis of
Manaus or in the much smaller cities of Manacapuru, Itacoatiara, Parintins, and Coari.
Amazonas state is one hour behind Brazilian standard time.

MANAUS

Manaus lies beside the Rio Negro—10 km upstream from the confluence of the
Solimões and Negro rivers (which join to form the Amazon River). In 1669 the fortress of
São José da Barra was built by Portuguese colonizers, who named Manaus after a tribe of
Indians who inhabited the region. The village which grew from the fort was little more
than a minor trading outpost populated by traders, black slaves, Indians and soldiers
until the rubber boom pumped up the town.

Although Manaus continues to be vaunted in countless glossy advertising brochures as
Amazon Wonderland, the city itself has few attractions. In addition, it is dirty, ugly and
becoming increasingly crime-ridden, while the flora and fauna has been systematically
despoiled for hundreds of km around the city. Many travelers now only use the city for the
briefest of stopovers before making excursions far beyond Manaus, where it is still
possible to experience the rainforest wonders that Manaus glibly promises but cannot
deliver.

There is a new governor of Amazonas, Armando Amazonino Mendes, who replaced the
long-standing Gilberto Mestrinho at the last state election, in November 1994. Mestrinho
styled himself as `the governor of men not animals and the forest’, and maintained `there
are hardly any healthy trees in Amazônia and they should all be used before the woodworm
gets to them’. Since Eco ’92, comments such as these are no longer considered politically
correct, but apparently the new governor has similar policies to the previous one, with
promises of jobs and development, and such exploitation of the natural resources as is
needed to satisfy business interests and win the popular vote. In the long term, this is
clearly neither a recipe for sustainable use of the region’s resources nor a viable option
for producing jobs and development. Critical observers describe such a policy as `smash,
grab and run’.

Although hunting is widely practiced, it is illegal. Hunting has already brought peixe-boi
and many species of turtles close to extinction. Fishing, however, is acceptable anywhere,
and is best from September to November. These are also the best months for
swimming—rivers are low and beaches are exposed.

History

In 1839, Charles Goodyear developed the vulcanization process which made natural
rubber durable, and in 1888 John Dunlop patented pneumatic rubber tires. Soon there was an
unquenchable demand for rubber in the recently industrialized USA and Europe and the price
of rubber on international markets soared.

In 1884, the same year that Manaus abolished slavery, a feudal production system was
established that locked the seringueiros (rubber tappers) into a cruel serfdom.
Driven from the sertão by drought, and lured into the Amazon with the false
promise of prosperity, they signed away their freedom to the seringalistas (owners
of rubber plantations).

The seringalista sold goods to the seringueiro on credit—fishing
line, knives, manioc flour, hammocks—and purchased the seringueiro’s balls of
latex. The illiteracy of the seringueiros, the brutality of pistoleiros (the
hired guns of the seringalistas), deliberately rigged scales, and the monopoly of
sales and purchases all combined to perpetuate the seringueiro’s debt and misery.
The seringueiros also had to contend with loneliness, jungle fevers, hostile Indian
attacks, and all manner of deprivation. Seringueiros who attempted to escape their
serfdom were hunted down and tortured by their pistoleiros.

The plantation owners, the rubber traders, and the bankers prospered, and built palaces
with their wealth. Gentlemen had their shirts sent to London to be laundered, while ladies
sported the latest French fashions. Manaus became Brazil’s second city after Rio de
Janeiro to get electricity, and an opera house was built in the heart of the jungle.

Despite Brazilian efforts to protect their world rubber monopoly, Henry Wickham managed
to smuggle rubber seeds out of the Amazon. Botanists in Kew Gardens (London) grew the
rubber-tree seedlings and exported them to the British colonies of Ceylon and Malaysia,
where they were transplanted and cultivated in neat groves. The efficient Asian production
was far superior to the haphazard Brazilian techniques, and the Brazilian rubber monopoly
eroded. As more Asian rubber was produced, the price of latex on the world market
plummeted. By the 1920s the boom was over, and Manaus declined in importance.

During WW II, when Malaysia was occupied by the Japanese, Allied demand created a new
rubber boom. The seringueiros became known as the rubber soldiers and 150,000 Nordestinos
were once again recruited to gather rubber.

In many ways the international port of Manaus is still the capital of a land far
removed from the rest of Brazil, and there has always been a fear of foreign domination of
the Amazon. As a result, the government has made a determined attempt to consolidate
Brazilian control of the Amazon by creating roads through the jungle and colonizing the
interior. It has also made Manaus an industrial city. In 1967 Brazil established a Zona
Franca (Free-Trade Zone) in Manaus, and multinational industries, drawn to the area by tax
and tariff benefits, have set up manufacturing plants. Although the Manaus free-trade zone
has not spawned Brazilian industry—Brazilian entrepreneurs have not successfully
competed with multinationals in the Amazon—the infusion of money has invigorated
Manaus. Since the Brazilian government relaxed restrictions on imports, the Zona Franca
has been less profitable.

Climate

Manaus is hot and humid. During the rainy season (January to June), count on a
brief but hard shower nearly every day—the area gets over two meters of rainfall per
year. During the rainy season, temperatures range from 23°C to 30°C. Dry-season weather
(July to December) is usually between 26°C and 37°C. The city is 40.33 meters above sea
level.

Orientation

The city of Manaus lies 3° south of the equator, on the northern bank of the Rio
Negro, 10 km west of the confluence of the lesser Rio Negro and the greater Rio Solimões,
which form the mighty Amazon River. Iquitos (Peru) and Leticia (Colombia) are 1900 km and
1500 km upriver, and Santarém and Belém are 700 km and 1500 km downriver.

The most interesting parts of Manaus as far as the traveler is concerned are close to
the waterfront: Mercado Municipal, the customs house and the floating docks. The opera
house is one of the most impressive reminders of Manaus’ past opulence.

Information

Tourist Office Emamtur (Tel.: 633-2850; fax: 233-9973), the state tourism
organization, has its headquarters at Avenida Paes de Andrade 379 (previously called
Avenida Tarumã), open from 8 am to 1 pm Monday to Friday. It’s a bit of a hike from the
city center, but worth a visit. You may also be able to get some information at the opera
house.

For details about national parks in Amazonas, contact either IBAMA (Tel.: 237-3710) at
Rua Ministro João Gonçalves de Souza, BR-319, Km 01, Distrito Industrial, or the
Secretaria Municipal de Desenvolvimento do Meio Ambiente (Tel.: 236-4122), at Rua Recife,
Adrianópolis.

Dangers & Annoyances

Theft at rock-bottom hotels is common—double keys are sometimes used to gain
access to your room. When travelling by boat, watch your gear very carefully. Taxi drivers
in Manaus have a poor reputation. Watch out for blatant rip-off attempts: spurious `extra
charges’, slack use of meters and cozy `deals’ whereby hotel clerks are paid a fat
commission by taxi drivers who are willing to pay for the privilege of being able to rip
off foreign tourists.

Escadaria dos Remédios Port

The Escadaria dos Remédios port, by the Mercado Municipal, is quite a scene, and
well worth a visit.

Mercado Municipal

Looming above the Escadaria is the imposing cast-iron structure of the Mercado
Municipal, designed in 1882 by Adolfo Lisboa after the Parisian Les Halles. Although the
art-nouveau ironwork was imported from Europe, the place has acquired Amazonian character.
In and around the market, you can purchase provisions for jungle trips: strange fruits,
old vegetables, several varieties of biscuits, sacks of beans and rice, lanterns, rope,
straw hats, perhaps some Umbanda figurines, powders and incense.

At the back end of the market, there’s a grimy cafeteria where you can have lunch and
contemplate Manaus’ complete ignorance regarding sanitation. The water which keeps
enormous fish and fly-covered meats cool, drains from the stalls, mingles with meat, fish
and urine, flows underfoot, runs off into the river and mixes with discarded meats and
produce and all the sewage of Manaus. Urubu vultures swarm around the refuse and
roost in the rusty ironwork of the cafeteria. Take the tables at either end for the best
view.

Arts Center Chaminé

Located off Rua Isabel, facing the Igarapé dos Educandos, this old water-treatment
plant has now been converted into an art gallery (Tel.: 234-7877), which often has some
interesting exhibitions. It’s open from 9 am to 6 pm.

Teatro Amazonas

Teatro Amazonas, the famous opera house of Manaus, was designed by Doménico de
Angelis in eclectic neoclassical style at the height of the rubber boom, in 1896. The
materials and artists were imported from Europe, and more than any other building
associated with the administration of Mayor Eduardo Ribeiro, this opera house is symbolic
of the opulence that was Manaus. Renovated in 1990, it’s now open daily from 10 am to 5
pm. Admission costs $4.00 and includes a compulsory guided tour. Opera and ballet
performances are held here throughout the year. Ask the guide about the schedule or check
the entertainment section in the local newspaper.

Palácio Rio Negro

The Palácio Rio Negro, built as a home for eccentric German rubber baron Waldemar
Scholz, now serves as the seat of the state government. It’s on Avenida 7 de Setembro,
beside the first bridge over the Igarapé de Manaus.

British Customs House

The British Customs House (Alfândega) dates back to 1906. This sandy-colored
building with its neat, brown trim seems out of place in such a dilapidated city. Imported
from the UK in prefabricated blocks, the building now serves as the Inspetoria da Receita
Federal do Porto de Manaus.

Porto Flutuante

The Porto Flutuante (floating docks), also installed in 1906, were considered a
technical marvel because of their ability to rise and fall as the water level of the river
changes with the seasons. It’s well worth a visit—you can watch the boats being
loaded with produce, and the swarms of people using river transport.

Instituto Nacional de Pesquisa da Amazônia (INPA) & Bosque da Ciência

The National Amazon Research Institute (Tel.: 23-9400) receives most of its funding
from the World Bank. One of the institute’s central projects is a joint study with the
Smithsonian Institute to determine the `minimal critical size of ecosystems’—the
smallest chunk of land that can support a self-sustaining jungle forest and all its
attendant creatures. Various-sized parcels of jungle are studied, first in their virgin
state, then later, after the surrounding land has been cleared to create islands of
jungle. Changes in plant and animal populations are carefully scrutinized. Initial results
suggest that the complex interdependence of plants and animals and the heterogeneity of
species pose a barrier to maintaining an isolated patch of jungle.

INPA scientists are also studying jacaré, fresh-water manatee, river otter and
porpoises. These animals are on display in the botanical garden and zoo. Avoid feeding
time at the jacaré enclosure if you don’t want to see live mice sacrificed.

The grounds, located at Bairro Coroado Alameda Cosme Ferreira 1756, Km 4, have recently
been expanded to include raised walkways through the trees. The Casa da Ciência has a
permanent exhibition of the institute’s activities. Other projects include: the
environmental impact of deforestation and of hydroelectric dams; mercury poisoning of the
rivers by gold mining; kit housing for impoverished locals; stingless bees; and the study
of medicinal orchids and bromelias. There is a giant leaf on display, measuring about two
meters high.

The grounds are open from 8 am to noon and 2 to 6 pm Monday to Friday. Call ahead
(642-3377) to find out the topic (and language) of Thursday’s seminar series. To reach
INPA, either take the bus marked `São José’ or use a taxi.

Museu do Homem do Norte

The Museum of Northern Man (232-5373), at Avenida 7 de Setembro 1385, is an
ethnology and anthropology museum dedicated to the lifestyle of the river-dwelling Caboclos.
It has an interesting display of Indian weapons, including the vicious furador de olhos
(eye piercer). It’s open from 9 am to noon and 1 to 5 pm Monday to Thursday and from 1
to 5 pm on Friday. Admission is $1.20.

Museu do Índio

This Indian museum (234-1422) is on Avenida Duque de Caxias, near the intersection
of Avenida 7 de Setembro. Displays include ceramics, featherwork, weaving, hunting and
ritual objects of the tribes of the upper Rio Negro. Bad luck if you can’t read
Portuguese! The museum is open from 8.30 to 11.30 am and 2.30 to 5 pm on weekdays and from
8.30 to 11.30 am on Saturday. Admission is $2.40.

Museu do Instituto Geográfico e Histórico do Amazonas

This historic museum (232-7077), at Rua Frei José dos Inocentes 117, has
archaeological objects, fossils and stuffed animals from the region. It’s open from 8 am
to noon and 2.30 to 5 pm Monday to Friday.

Museu do Porto de Manaus

This museum of the Manaus docks (232-4250), at Travessa Vivaldo de Lima, has
displays of maritime instruments, maps and projects of the Manaus docks from the beginning
of the century. It’s open from 8 to 11 am and 2 to 5 pm Monday to Friday and from 8 am to
1 pm on Saturday.

Museu de Ciências Naturais da Amazônia

Run by the Associação Naturalista da Amazônia, this natural-science museum
(644-2799), at Estrada Belém, Colônia Cachoeira Grande, has a comprehensive exhibit of
fish, insects and butterflies from the Amazon region, with descriptions in English and
Japanese. The aquarium has two-meter-long pirarucu fish. The museum shop sells
Indian crafts. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm, the museum is somewhat out of the
way, but it’s worth the trip. Take the `São José’ bus to INPA, then catch a taxi.

Parque Zoológico—CIGS

This military zoo makes you feel sorry for the animals cooped up in small cages. It
claims to have more jaguars born in captivity than any other establishment in the world.
The zoo is attached to the Centro de Instrução de Guerra na Selva (CIGS), a
jungle-warfare training center. The animals on display—tapir, monkeys, armadillos,
snakes and birds—were collected by Brazilian soldiers on jungle maneuvers and
survival-training programs. The zoo is on Estrada da Ponta Negra, Km 12, near the beach
and the Hotel Tropical. To get there, take a taxi, or a municipal bus marked `Compensa’ or
`São Jorge’. Zoo hours are 9.30 am to 4.30 pm Tuesday to Sunday. Admission is free.

Amazon Ecopark & Amazon Monkey Jungle

The Amazon Ecopark, a private nature reserve with a tourist center, is located half
an hour by boat from Manaus. The park runs survival courses in the tropical rainforest,
with a local rainforest ranger. Next to the Ecopark is the Amazon Monkey Jungle, set up by
the Living Rainforest Foundation for the rehabilitation of orphan animals. For information
about tours, contact the Amazon Ecopark office (234-0939), Praça Auxiliadora 04, grupo
103, Centro, Manaus. Half-day tours cost about $30.

Praia da Ponta Negra & Waterfalls Around Manaus

Praia da Ponta Negra is a popular river beach with a full range of amenities,
including restaurants and bars. The best time to go is between September and November (and
sometimes as early as July), when the waters recede, but it’s a popular hangout even when
the high waters flood the sand and cleanse the beach for the following season. From the
city center, take the bus marked `Praia da Ponta Negra’.

If you’ve missed the beach season, December to February is the best time to visit the
waterfalls near Manaus: Cascatinha do Amor and Cachoeira do Tarumã. Further west from
Manaus, near the opposite bank of the Rio Negro, is Cachoeira do Paricatuba.

São (Rabbi) Moyal 

In Cemitério São João Batista, the general cemetery of Manaus (Praça Chile,
Adrianópolis), is the tomb of Rabbi Moyal of Jerusalém. The rabbi came to the Amazon to
minister to a small community of Jewish settlers, mostly merchants who had established a
cacao, lumber and rubber-trading network. He died in 1910, and over the years his tomb has
become a shrine for an odd Roman Catholic cult. This cult, complete with rosary beads,
candles, coins, and devoted followers, probably arose with the Jewish custom of placing
pebbles on tombs when visiting grave sites. The people of Manaus, unfamiliar with Jewish
customs (of Brazil’s 120,000 Jews, less than 1000 live in Manaus), attribute the
mysterious pebbles to the miraculous powers of the dead rabbi. Followers believe that the
rabbi is a saint and insist that he performs miracles for faithful supplicants.

Encontro das Águas

An interesting phenomenon is the Encontro das Águas (Meeting of the Waters), the
point where the inky-black waters of the Rio Negro meet the clay-yellow waters of the Rio
Solimões, though it’s not absolutely necessary to take a tour—it can be seen just as
well from the balsa (ferry), which shuttles between Careiro and the Porto Velho
highway (BR-319). If you do include the meeting of the waters in your tour, you may lose
time that could be better spent exploring the more interesting sights further along the
river.

Escadaria dos Remédios Port

Most of the people you will observe at the Escadaria dos Remédios Port have Indian
features, with straight, jet-black hair and tawny skin. These thin, stoop-shouldered
stevedores lug barrels, casks and boxes between the trucks and riverboats. The curved
decks of the riverboats are filled with cargo and people, and draped with hundreds of
hammocks. Fisherfolk look on from the sidelines, while they smoke cigarettes and drink
beer.

Men toss banana stalks from their dugout canoes onto the shore and from there onto the
waiting trucks. A speaker blares nonstop love songs from warped tapes until the boats pull
out, at 6 pm. The boats leave one by one: bells ring, horns blow, and thin boys scurry
about selling their last lengths of rope to tie up travelers’ hammocks.

Serpent Support
for the Theatre

According to historian Daniel Fausto Bulcão, there was once a couple who lived in
the interior, far from the city. The woman became pregnant, and in the course of her
pregnancy, she had the misfortune to kill a cobra. When her nine months were up, she gave
birth to two cobras, a male and a female, which she raised as her own children.

As the cobras began to grow, the mother was unable to control her unruly offspring, so
she threw them into the river. The female cobra earned a reputation for being evil by
tipping over riverboats, devouring children and drowning adults—killing simply for
the pleasure of it. Her brother was of a milder temperament, and the two cobras fought
continuously One day, the male snake killed his sister, but not without suffering the loss
of one eye. He is still alive and well, and has grown considerably over the years. Caboclos
believe that he now lives beneath Manaus, his enormous head supporting the Teatro
Amazonas and his body supporting the many river beaches of the Amazon.

To be continued

Excerpts from Brazil – A Travel Survival Kit –
3rd edition, by Andrew Draffen, Chris McAsey, Leonardo Pinheiro, and Robyn Jones.
  For more information  call Lonely Planet:  (800) 275-8555. Copyright 1992
Lonely Planet Publications. Used by permission

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