Memories from Brazil: Once Upon the Amazon

Brazil's Opera House of Manaus “No way will that building be a grain warehouse,” Charlie said as he walked away, snapping pictures randomly with his Leica M3. Enrico Caruso’s voice as Radames in Verdi’s Aida trilled silently in my ear as I gazed, breathless, on the magnificent opera house in Manaus. O Guarani of Carlos Gomes was also performed here.

That imposing structure with its manifestations of Italian marble, built in 1896 a thousand miles up the Amazon River, still resonates with music and the arts. Use it as a common armazém to store wheat? Never! I thought.


I was elated to have been asked to join Mr. Charles Harris, veteran development engineer of the United States Operations Mission to Brazil (U.S.O.M.) on a trip to Amazônia to assess the feasibility of locating grain warehouses, the first prospect being Manaus.

We planned the trip in our offices in Rio de Janeiro, and consulted our Brazilian counterparts and appropriate experts. No interpreter was necessary as my conversational Portuguese was improving rapidly, and my sotaque Brasileiro a strong point. One morning in August 1956 we boarded a Varig DC-7 for Belém, then a Panair do Brasil Caravelle to Manaus.

No sooner had we hit the ground than “What-a-picture!” Charlie began to snap slides and photos, which would number into the thousands before our return. I wonder where they are now? My own film library contains some memorable scenes from that experience, and I bring them out occasionally to indulge my saudades do Brasil.

Our flight up the Amazon, at an altitude of but a few thousand feet, provided unforgettable scenes and fodder that would fill a modern You-tube movie. My imagination began to explode as we made a stop in Santarém and I thought of that irrepressible Rebel Confederado, Lansford Warren Hastings, who in 1867 led a group of disgruntled Southerners to settle there.

Five generations later a few of their survivors still exist, uma humanidade mesclada. Some of the descendents witnessed the rubber boom and Henry Ford’s folly, and perhaps still wander about the upper reaches of the Tapajós, carrying a Confederate flag!


Dr. Benedito Ferreira and his fellow agrônomos picked us up at the hotel Amazonas and began an intensive series of visits, lectures, and talks which would provide information for our report and the ultimate decisions about Brazilian grain storage. Charlie, not a very good linguist, learned how to pronounce correctly armazém (arm-a-zane.)

Along the way, I got a first look at some tropical plants: seringueira (rubber), castanheira (Brazil nuts) and abacaxi (pineapple.) Three days later we completed our official visit. Our hosts were well informed and, like all Brazilians, pleasant and socially generous.  All the facts and arguments, however, didn’t budge Charlie and me from our first conclusion:  No grain in the opera house!

All was not work and one day we took a tour of the intricate waterways of the rivers around Manaus. I say rivers, because one soon learns that the black and beautiful, gigantic Rio Negro – we could see it from our hotel window –  flows into the reddish Amazon at Manaus.

It is impossible to describe a water-world that is home for thousands of species of bird and aquatic life, not to mention millions of the species Homo sapiens, and which carries twenty-five percent of the fresh water of the globe from the Andes and the north downstream to the Atlantic.

Manaus was founded in 1669 as the Fort of São José do Rio Negro, and many pioneers have tested their crafts here, including religious divines. Some Baptist missionaries entertained us one evening and they didn’t seem worried about the flourishing Pentecostals, nor about the Candomblé of the city. This was decades before I came to know of the splendid work of historian Betty Atunes de Oliveira, who lived and worked in Manaus.

Our return trip to Belém involved a smaller amphibian plane, and more stops, Parintins, Óbidos, and Macapá in addition to Santarém. At each stop a small pirogue carrying passengers or freight would carefully approach the plane and after a rapid exchange of papers we were on our way down river.

The scenery was as breathtaking as that when we went upstream, with colorful huts hugging the riverbanks. Without doubt, the massive force of water flushes tons of garbage direct toward Belém. At each cranking of the plane’s motors, I held my breath in hope the rotors would lift us out of the inland sea.


It is now,  more than a half-century later and with some remorse,  that I write this “reflection.” Charlie Harris and I had the opportunity to return to Belém leisurely in a Belgian yacht that was subsidized by the Brazilian government for “special guests.”

Our fare for that entire trip would have been US$ 27.00 each, gourmet meals included. Three days of floating luxury. My puritanical conscience overrode Harris’s human impulse, forever to my regret.

The choice of a lifetime squandered by naiveté and determined innocence. I ponder: “What a picture” we could have taken. Another memory erased, before it was born. Old Charlie, now in heaven, is nodding!

* Dedicated to Betty Atunes de Oliveira, whose life and work in Manaus evoked this memory.

Jimmye Hillman was born in 1923 and grew up on a subsistence farm in southern Mississippi. He received his Ph.D. at the University of California Berkeley, and has been associated with the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he served as Head of Department of Agricultural Economics for thirty years while doing ground-breaking work in agricultural and trade policy. He is now Professor Emeritus.

He has also served as the Executive Director for the National Advisory Commission on Food and Fiber under President Lyndon Johnson and as Consultant on U.S.-Japanese agricultural trade policies during the Reagan Administration.  Hillman’s other honors include: Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University; Fulbright Fellow, Lincoln College, New Zealand; and an honorary doctorate from the University of Ceará, Brazil.


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