Manaus – Gateway to the Amazon Nov.15 – 19
Manaus is a crowded, noisy, port city with a population of 2 million. The narrow sidewalks need a major public works project and the streets are clogged with cars and buses. Traffic lights are an endangered species so street crossing is perilous. The city is a duty-free zone, attracting major electronics, automobile, and motorcycle industries. Manaus only connects with the rest of Brazil via air or river transport ─ there is no major highway.
We begin with the1896 opera house, built in an era of decadence thanks to the enormous wealth of rubber barons. The lavish “Teatro Amazonas” was an attempt to create Paris in the middle of jungle. Searching for even greater wealth, one of the rubber magnates dissembled a steamship and brought it through the jungle to seize the Peruvian rubber market. A fictional version of this tale was adapted by Werner Herzog in his film “Fitzcarraldo” (1982).
Aside from yellow fever and malaria the rubber kings and their families led a luxurious and often self-indulgent life style including bringing major opera stars to Manaus, and bathing horses in champagne. All of this collapsed along with Brazil’s rubber industry in 1926 ─ closing the opera house until 1997.
Teatro Amazonas features opera, ballet, and orchestral concerts. The building is located on an immaculate square complete with swirling black and white Rio-style tiles. This pink and white neo-classic structure has Greek columns as well as bas-relief carvings over the main entrance. However, Randolph Hearst must have been consulted because the roof is crowned with a large, gaudy dome constructed from thousands of Italian tiles in screaming yellow and green.
Major events occur here with world renowned performers. The night before we arrived Baryshnikov was dancing ─ actually he did a little dancing and a film of his career was shown. For this all 701 maroon velvet seats were filled at a cost of $180 per ticket.
Our opera house tour begins with a sneak attendance of the Amazonas Philharmonic rehearsing “Holocaust Requiem” by the Israeli composer Boris Pigovat. The horse-shoe interior has four balcony levels and each has beautifully carved wrought iron fixtures. European artists painted the ceiling and the curtain, lavish French chandeliers are everywhere, and rare rosewood floors are protected by tourists skating in oversized slippers.
We spend a few days at the Amazon Eco-Park Lodge which is located on the Rio Negro, an Amazon tributary. Reaching the hotel is most of the “eco” part and requires one van, one motorized long boat, one sandy hill, one ancient bus (a relic which broke down frequently), and a thirty minute walk. We’re at the end of the dry season. Rivers and streams are low and humidity exceeds 100%. The largest number of staff is engaged in moving luggage in wheelbarrows.
Our guide Wedson is excellent on a jungle walk explaining all the medicinal and survival aspects of various plants. The lodge has a monkey rehabilitation center where an attempt is being made to assist injured or abandoned monkeys and return them to the wild.
We take a Mississippi-style river boat to the “Meeting of the Waters.” Here the brown Amazon River joins the black Rio Negro with a striking demarcation line. We do get to see a few fresh water dolphins. Unlike their North American cousins, these mammals are less active and do not leap out of the water.
Just as there are people who compete for the number of countries visited, the Amazon and the Nile vie for the title, “Longest River in the World.” At the last tributary count the Amazon rules with 4,200 miles.
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