In the Shadow of the City

March 1, 2014

Manaus, Brazil

Manaus is the starting point for treks into the Amazon rainforest.  It sits were Rio Negro flows into Rio Amazon.  The Amazon is swift, muddy, coffee colored, and cooler than the Negro.  Rio Negro is slower, warmer, clearer, looking almost black but often reflecting blue sky and it is acidic.  The Amazon fosters wildlife, has lots of fish, and deposits silt along the way as it recedes after the rainy season.  The Rio Negro has less life in it.  It does not deposit silt but rather takes soil away.  It’s harder to make a subsistence living on the Rio Negro.  But it has one big advantage, the acidic water means it has fewer mosquitos and less malaria.  It is healthier but less abundant to live along the Rio Negro.

The rivers meet below Manaus and flow side by side, not mixing, for about 12 kilometers (8 miles).  On the Amazon side of the line there are floating rafts of sod traveling with the river.

On the lakes and sloughs between the rivers that are fed by both rivers interesting things happen.  January Lake is about a 45 minute boat ride from Manaus and has rafts of floating restaurants and markets.  It’s also a place to grab a motorized canoe to enter the protected sloughs and lakes to watch wildlife.  We took a riverboat to January Lake switched to canoes to enjoyed watching wildlife and gliding past river towns on stilts and floats.  You can feel remote one minute, then you round a bend and see Manaus.

The “Rubber Museum” is an hour from Manaus by speedboat.  It is set up to look like a rubber plantation from the early 1900s.  The site is really a former movie set.  Some of the big balls of rubber, if you look closely, are black painted Styrofoam.  The museum does a good job of interpreting how the rubber (robber) barons exploited workers who traveled through the forest to tap rubber trees through payment in script that could only be redeemed at the company store which overcharged, driving workers deeper in debt. (To learn more about Manaus rubber history click here).  The interpretation is particularly honest about how the barons used the church and, what the guide called “fake priests,” to spy on workers, betraying the confidence of the confessional.

The other trip we took from Manaus was to an indigenous village.  There are several villages up the Rio Negro from Manaus.  Those that invite visitors fly a white flag.  As we cruised along the boat operator wanted to visit one village but the guide wanted to visit another.  The guide won.  These villages give the feeling of being remote, off the grid and primitive, but from the end of the pier you can see the high rise condos in Manaus’ most exclusive neighborhood.  These villages are well within the reach of TV, radio and cell phone service.  A yellow school boat takes the kids to school in a village nearby but the people maintain a largely subsistence life.

The villagers demonstrated some dances for us.  Tribal members are not allowed to marry within the village but must find a spouse from another village.  The villages invite each other over for social dances that last more than 24 hours where young people can meet each other and older people make deals.  They demonstrated the dances for us.  The young men wore speedos with a loin cloth over the front and bits of bush covering the rear.  The women wore grass skirts and were topless.  Most of them danced unselfconsciously but one young woman looked sullen and then angry, especially when visitors took pictures, which we were encouraged to do.  I couldn’t do it and put down my camera.  Suzi said “there’s one kid who is out of here as soon as she can get out.”

At the end of the performance we were invited to dance.  A little girl, perhaps a little bigger than Liam, but probably older, grabbed my hand and pulled me into the circle.  When we got there she was not sure what to so.   So I watched the others and started dancing.  She followed the steps I was making.  One toddler, who had gotten a hold of a drum, was randomly and loudly beating it in no relationship with the rest of the dance.

At the end of the visit we were free to wander the village, take pictures and buy handicrafts.  The most popular item seemed to be a blowgun that shot darts.  “Something for the grandkids.”  I suspect Liam would love it, Liz — not so much.

During the walk around the village we saw hammocks strung between house poles.  Several had rigged mosquito nets to protect the sleepers.  One hammock had a kids “security blanket” in it.  The cooking gear was a combination of traditional and modern.  As we walked around one woman from the ship said “they have fresh food, fresh air, a healthy lifestyle, why would anyone want to move to the city.”  I thought; “they may want to live past 60,” (the life expectancy of a male of this tribe.) I also thought about how that sullen teenager at the dance might answer that question.

While the women and girls wore grass skirts to greet the tourists on the clotheslines we saw shorts, tank tops, and t shirts.

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