Published: April 2009
By Mark Jacobson
Starting with its famous 19th-century opera house—in the Brazilian rain forest—Manaus is a study in contrasts, an electronics mecca on the Amazon.
No knock on Rodeo Drive, if that's your (very expensive) cup of tea—and for sure Wal-Mart
has its conveniences—but for my (limited) money, give me a shopping experience a bit
more off the well-heeled path. The Russian Market in what passes for suburban Phnom Penh,
Cambodia, fills the bill, especially for those who crave french-fried tarantulas and ready-rolled
packs of legal marijuana. In Luanda, Angola, the Roque Santiero, a thieves' market like none
other, splays out for miles, a phantasmagoric open-air emporium where mango vendors muscle
for selling space with hawkers of AK-47's. But for sheer, seedy Conradian romance, few bazaars
compare with the fish market in the frenetic river port of Manaus, smack in the middle of
the Brazilian Amazon: the biggest city in the world's biggest forest.
The best time to catch the action is just past dawn. That's when the fishing boats, a hundred or more, round-bowed and belching black smoke, tie up at the Terminal Pesqueiro de Manaus, a quarter-mile-long floating pier built atop metal drums that allow it to rise and fall with the level of the mighty river.
The Amazon and its many tributaries contain at least 3,000 (they haven't counted them all
yet) species of fish, most of which are found nowhere else in the world. Many of these swimmers
have nasty reputations, but the piranha, for all its terrorizing tabloid press, isn't particularly
feared by locals, who sneer at the fesh's relatively diminutive dentition. Far more
formidable is the toothpick fish, known for swimming into the opening of the human penis,
creating such pain that the afflicted party screams for the organ to be sliced off. The pescadores of Manaus, however, ignore all such dodgy exotica, choosing to hunt the 100 or so varieties
people will pay money to eat.
"Tambaqui!" shouts Jose Ferreira, captain of the Jerusalem 2, a 40-foot trawler, as he points to a Styrofoam box containing a dozen or so of the 50-pound
grouper-like fish, reputed to be among the tastiest of all Amazonian swimmers. A genial, sun-blasted
man in his late sixties, Captain Ferreira sports a shocking-pink eye patch and a screwdriver
stuffed in his belt. He has piloted the Jerusalem 2 since the demise of the Jerusalem
1, which caught fire on Rio Madeira in 1990, killing four of Ferreira's men, including
one who was eaten by a crocodile. Despite nearly 50 years as a Manaus pescador, Captain
Ferreira doesn't claim to have navigated "even half" of the rivers of the Amazon basin. To
do that, he says, he'd have to live "until I am five thousand." But experience does teach
where they're biting. The Jerusalem 2 has just returned from four weeks on the Rio
Urucu, and her decks are stacked with product.
"Tambaqui! Cuiu cuiu! Tucunare!" Ferreira yells again, his creak of a voice joining
the hawking calls of dozens of other captains on the bustling pier. Pushing his wares, the
captain holds aloft a three-foot surubim, a snakish, blunt-snouted fish with zebra-striped
skin so thick it is used to make handbags.
Not that the pier porters need such inducement. Outfitted in official, if tatty, green mesh vests with soccer-style numbers on the back, elbowing one another for position, the porters dump the boats' catches into four-foot-square, two-foot-deep wooden boxes. Then they lift the crates, which must weigh at least 250 pounds apiece, place them atop their heads (protected by thickly woven, flat-topped woolen hats), and start running.
Ropy calves pumping, the porters jostle their way through the Boschian throng, dead fesh flying from the crates as if suddenly resurrected. Sprinting past the dozens of riverfront bars and go-go places serving large-sized Antarctica beers even as the sun rises above the shantytowns on the hillside, the porters keep running until they reach the giant Manaus fish market, where men in bloody aprons stand waiting with long curved knives.
With its soaring tin roof and stained-glass windows, the century-old Manaus fish market is
nothing if not a temple dedicated to Amazonian biodiversity, a museum of the soon-to-be-eaten,
illuminated by strings of hanging 15-watt bulbs. Fernando Gomes, a squat, smiling fellow with
a gray handlebar mustache, has spent the last 20 years working here, shaving off scales with
a steel bristle brush and meticulously arraying exotic creatures like the arawana (called the "water monkey" for its ability to jump as much as five feet above the river surface)
on beds of crushed ice. Today is a good day, Gomes says, because just this morning a fisherman
brought him a pirarucu.
The pirarucu (taxonomic name: Arapaima gigas), a shovel-faced fish with creepy dot
eyes, a mouth like a World War II landing craft, and a long, bony, barbed tongue that is used
by the locals as a rasp to smooth hardwoods, is the largest freshwater fish in the world.
Until the early part of the 20th century it was not uncommon for Manaus-based pescadores to catch 400-pound, 12-foot-long pirarucu. Gomes's pirarucu was barely five feet, with a flat,
reddish tail. Big for Citarella, but pygmy for a pirarucu.
Still, Gomes says, it is good luck to have a pirarucu. Regarded as a "living fossil," the pirarucu is among the world's most venerable species, dating roughly back to the time the supercontinent Gowandaland split to form Africa and South America, the geologic cataclysm that likely formed the Amazon basin in the first place. "The pirarucu is the soul of the River," he says, leaning over to plant a kiss on the fish's blackish, magnificently hideous head before chopping it off with a single blow from a cleaver.
"The pirarucu will be here long after you, me, and Manaus are gone."
Many think the total disappearance of Manaus wouldn't be a bad idea. This is Amazonia, after
all, probably the globe's most important biome, a photosynthesis zone of more than 2.5 million
square miles (about the size of Australia) that produces an estimated 20 percent of the planet's
available oxygen. If the Amazon is "the lungs of the world," there are Gaia-conscious individuals
who regard places like Manaus as fuming Marlboro coffin nails, jammed into the heart of future
existence. Since the Brazilian government declared this city a tax-free zona franca in the late 1960's, what was once a remote jungle outpost has turned into a vast commercial
center, complete with belching smokestacks and Bangkok-esque traffic jams. Over the past 20
years the population here has increased tenfold, to about 2 million.
Aside from the fact that I'd heard the market sells Viagra Regional (an herbal sexual enhancer mostly composed of guarana-berry extract, a coca-like natural speed consumed by almost everyone down here), it was this strange dichotomy that brought me to Manaus. Looking at the map, you realize that the city has always seemed bizarrely placed, an uppercase set of letters plunked down on a page of thick green. But there are reasons why humans set up shop in some places and not others, why certain cities expand and others die. I wanted to see what the biggest city in the biggest forest looked like—i.e., why Manaus?Why here?
A satellite view, not available when the priestly-plunderer minions of the conquistador Francisco de Orellana first came this way in 1540, offers an initial clue to the origin of Manaus (the name comes from the Manaõs, a typically wiped-out tribe that once inhabited the area). It is here that two great rivers, the Rio Negro from the north and the Solimões from the west, come together to form the mighty Amazon.
Except that they don't come together. Not exactly. Not immediately.
Instead, the two rivers run alongside each other for miles without mixing—the nearly jet-black waters of the Rio Negro distinct from the yellowish flow of the Solimões, as if separated by an invisible barrier. Science offers reasons for the phenomenon, citing the differing temperature, turbidity, and speed of current of each river. But these hydrologic snippets are not what catches the tourist's imagination when he's ferried to the Merging of the Waters (high-definition postcards of the scene are available all over town). It is a mystery, this unmerging of the waters, a work of spirit. When choosing a place to build a home, humans are often encouraged by the apparent presence of spirit.
Geography may make history, but in places like the Amazon there is also the unforeseen convergence
of botany and commerce. In a continent rife with sagas of armored white men clanking through
the malarial underbrush hunting for untold, often illusory riches, the Manaus Rubber Boom
at the end of the 19th century ranks as a neglected tale of El Dorado. Europeans who watched
Amerindians extracting a milky substance from tall, skinny jungle trees (Hevea brasiliensis),
were aware of the springy properties of the Amazonian rubber plant from their earliest exploratory
days. However, it wasn't until 1839, when Charles Goodyear discovered the process of vulcanization
(which tempers the rubber so that it doesn't turn sticky in heat or brittle in cold), that
the boom began in earnest. With the invention of the automobile in the 1880's and the subsequent
demand for rubber tires, the fortunes to be made from the sap were so enormous that steel
magnate Andrew Carnegie is supposed to have said, "I ought to have chosen rubber."
"I found a village and made it a modern city," said Eduardo Ribeiro, the visionary, cravat-wearing
governor of the state of Amazonas during the fenal decades of the 19th century. Dreaming of
an Oz-like empire in the jungle, Ribeiro presided over the electrifecation of Manaus's street
lamps. He built a system of electrically powered trolley cars, the ferst in Brazil. Ribeiro's
constituents, mostly European and American adventurer-entrepreneurs known as "the rubber barons,"
lived lives of outlandish luxury. As whole populations of Amerindian societies endured conditions
near slavery as rubber tappers, the barons ate French pâté de foie gras and biscuits
shipped in from Boston. Waldemar Scholz, who kept a pet lion in a Manaus mansion that still
stands, was said to regularly send his laundry to Paris so as to ensure a proper crease in
the equatorial air.
The crown jewel of this rain-forest Xanadu was Ribeiro's celebrated opera house, the remarkable Teatro Amazonas. Confident that Manaus would surpass Rio de Janeiro as the cultural capital of Brazil, Ribeiro commandeered an army of European artisans to create it. Iron framework from Scotland was steamed up the Amazon; crystal chandeliers came from Italy. The looming cupola (done in the yellow, green, and blue of the Brazilian flag) required 60,000 tiles, ordered from Alsace-Lorraine. Surrounded by the planet's largest lumber supply, Ribeiro chose to import almost all of the flooring and hand-carved ﬂuting from Germany's Black Forest and other far-flung locales. After 15 years of construction at an unheard-of cost of $2 million, Teatro Amazonas opened on January 6, 1897, with a full Grand Italian Opera company performing Ponchielli's Gioconda.
Ribeiro's ﬂorid determination to bring "light into the dark forest" (which felmmaker Werner Herzog referenced in his 1982 drama of cracked Amazonian overreach, Fitzcarraldo) would succumb to a typically modern act of industrial sabotage. At the turn of the century, Henry Wickham, a British soldier of fortune in the Henry Morton Stanley mode, was commissioned to steal 70,000 rubber-tree seeds and bring them to the Royal Botanic Gardens. As a result of Wickham's sensational "seed snatch," rubber plantations took root in Malaysia. The price of Brazilian rubber plummeted. The boom was done. By the end of World War I, Manaus was well on its way to becoming a backwater once more, the mansions of the erstwhile barons rotting away in the sodden air. Eduardo Ribeiro would not live to see the deterioration of his beloved opera house. He committed suicide in 1900.
Now, more than a century later, the free-trade zone has created a second boom here, even if the new barons tend to be technocrats from Japan and Silicon Valley. Lured by the promise of tax relief, multinationals have settled in Manaus, and signs bearing their familiar logos jut into the sky to create a new kind of rain-forest canopy. Mitsubishi, Sony, Motorola, Samsung—if they make electronics or sell software, they're here. If you want to understand where much of the American economy has gone, it's to places like Malaysia and India. Places like Manaus.
Where there's work, workers follow. Almost all the "new people" of Manaus's exploding population have arrived from the brutally poor Amazonian interior. Less than a generation away from life in remote villages more likely to be visited by anthropologists than job recruiters, many of Manaus's new citizens live in Stalinist-style apartments or in slums, favelas. (One favela is called Hill of the Hairless Monkeys because the residents supposedly cut down the trees and skinned the monkeys, which they ate.) Suddenly turned into city people, the workers shop at the Hipermercado DB and spend hours on fuming buses heading to and from the city's sprawling distrito industrial. With three eight-hour shifts a day, the new boom goes on 24/7.
"They are like robots, sticking their ID into the slot," says Oberson da Silva, who has been driving us around for nearly a week.
A faithful member of the Traditional branch of the Pentecostal Assembly of God who nonetheless knows where all the (many) brothels are, da Silva, like most of Manaus's lifelong residents, has mixed feelings about the town's resurgent economy. It is a hot topic of conversation here in the biggest city in the biggest forest, a sort of day-to-day existential discourse on what globalism feels like here on the ground.
For one thing, da Silva has an ample supply of electronic equipment, purchased at deep discount. His Volkswagen features both a CD changer for listening to Christian hip-hop and a DVD player so he can watch his favorite rock band, the Scorpions, when negotiating Manaus's frantic traffec becomes a bore. But materialism has its limits, he says, leaning on his horn in the middle of a crowded intersection.
"I feel it is a blessing from God to live in the Amazon," he explains. "We cannot let Manaus become another totally artificial place like São Paulo. My parents grew up in the hinterlands. They had nothing. But at least they knew where they were. When I was a boy, even in downtown, I knew I was really in the forest. Now it is hard to tell where the city stops and the jungle begins."
Still, even if it seems that you have to go a little farther every day, you can get away.
And one sunrise I fend myself where there is no hint of the city, about 20 miles upriver on
a 12-foot boat, powered by the two-stroke Honda engine whose put-put is the standard
sound of rivercraft everywhere. The boat belongs to Aldemir Souza de Mello, a genial dark-haired
man with Indian features. Thirty-three years ago, he brought his family from Fonte Boa, a
small village near the headwaters of the Solimões, on the Colombian border. "Back then,
everyday I fesh, with this," he says, as he flings an eight-foot-long harpoon into the wall.
Once he snagged a 13-foot pirarucu with his harpoon. Now, he says, the big pirarucu are gone,
and he is "too old" to go out on the river each morning.
Instead, his son, 15-year-old Aldison, pilots the boat on the Amazon, so wide here that the far shore is invisible in the light early-morning haze. Leaving a school of river dolphin, who have been amusing themselves trailing the boat, Aldison turns into a muddy bayou and shuts down the engine. A heavy crush of absolute silence descends. In the unbroken thicket, it could be any time, or place, before the beginning of history. The stillness is claustrophobic. Whether a steady diet of such primordialism is a path to nirvana or insanity is hard to tell.
"Aqui!" Aldison's shout sears my reverie. Right here, this is where the fesh are,
he declares, twisting his skinny body to fling his finely twined net into the coffee-and-cream
water. Again and again he repeats the process, each time bringing up dozens of squirming fesh.
Aldison was hoping to catch a pirarucu, but none of the monsters are finding his net. He does,
however, snare several hundred jaraqui. Identified by their distinctive aquarium-style
black and yellow tail markings, the foot-long, oval-shaped jaraqui are much prized
at the market for their delicate taste. A kilo of jaraqui can fetch as much as 15
real at the market, or about $7—a nice price.
Onshore, the father packs his son's jaraqui in ice so it can be picked up and taken
to Manaus, just as he's done for years. Moments later there is another morning ritual, a newer
one. Shirt changed, hair combed, Aldison grabs his books and walks across the dusty road to
wait for the school bus. Pausing to look at his youngest son, Souza de Mello says, "He will
be an engineer, working for a company, not a pescador. That is why we left the interior,
for the future."
This faith in jungle progress recalls Ribeiro's dreams of a rain-forest empire. Indeed, tonight there is a show scheduled at Ribeiro's Teatro Amazonas. The link between Manaus's two booms, the Teatro, the undisputed centerpiece of what the town fathers hope will become a nice little tourist industry, has been restored to its original grandiosity. The gold leaf interior gleams, and so does the series of masks that adorn the orchestra, depicting heroes of uplifting Western culture—Aristophanes, Goethe, Wagner, Mozart, Rossini, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Verdi, and others. Also refur- bished are the opera house's ample approaches, which Ribeiro had covered with a mixture of rubber, clay, and sand so that the clatter of late-arriving carriages would not disturb audiences.
Yet even with all this updating, as you sit in your velvet seat an eerie echo of the past
becomes palpable. This opera house feels haunted, full of ghosts, as if rubber-boom phantoms
lurked there. The chill was noticed by Jack White of the White Stripes, who played the Teatro
in 2005. According to witnesses, White stopped in the middle of "St. James Infirmary Blues,"
looked up at the chandelier hanging from ceiling, with its impressive murals of Roman nymphs,
and pronounced the hall "totally awesome... really weird, but awesome."
This evening's concert, described on the bill simply as "chamber music," turns out to be one more jungle surprise. Two severe-appearing gentlemen clad wholly in black, a pianist and percussionist, perform an hour's worth of exceedingly spare music by John Cage and Elliot Carter. The percussionist has brought every manner of drum, including a huge six-foot-wide Ludwig tom-tom that, in the spirit of massive items hauled deep into Amazonia for dubious reasons, he hits exactly once. Explaining the program, the pianist labels the works "experimental and surreal." The audience, a mix of local schoolchildren and tourists, is nonplussed. But likely Eduardo Ribeiro, that thoroughgoing modernist and municipal surrealist whose name is embossed above the soaring proscenium, would have approved.
The show over, it is time to indulge in one last Manaus ritual. This is to walk across the
wavy white-and-black stonework of St. Sebastian Square (meant to invoke the Merging of the
Waters) to Armando's bar. A rail-thin expatriate Portuguese gentleman who would not look out
of place as the headwaiter at Rick's Café (or as Citizen Kane's butler), Armando has
been popping the tops off Antarctica beers at his open-air, elegantly run-down establishment
across from the Teatro Amazonas as long as anyone can remember. Moving to the languid rhythm
of clacking dominoes, played by four antediluvian-looking drunks, Armando might, if he feels
like it, make you a pernil sandwich, or, when available, a slab of pirarucu.
So what does Armando think about the future of Manaus?Will the city eat the jungle, or vice versa?
"Hmm," Armando says, puffing on a cigarette, ignoring the hookers who are using his restroom
as a personal makeup room. "Not too long ago you could see the forest from the second floor
of the opera house. Now there are only buildings, skyscrapers." Then, noting a surprisingly
large snake slithering across the sidewalk and into the road, he adds, "But we know how it
will end up."
When to Go
Equatorial Manaus is a year-round destination. November through April, Montana-based Sweetwater
Travel Co. (866/532-5790; www.sweetwatertravel.com)
runs weeklong Amazon fly-fishing trips 200 miles northeast of town, where the best peacock
bass are found ($4,200 per person, including shuttle flight from Manaus, accommodations, and
Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano S.A., or LAB, is the only airline to offer direct overnight flights to Manaus from the States (departing from Miami). For the best service, fly TAM Brazilian Airlines from Newark or Miami to São Paulo. Brazilian carrier Varig and American also fly these routes; Varig operates a four-hour connecting flight to Manaus.
Visas and Immunizations
Visas are required—visit www.brazilny.org for details. An immunization for yellow fever is essential, and if you plan to travel even a short distance outside Manaus, malaria pills are strongly recommended.
Manaus is difficult to navigate—use taxis or a private car service, such as Acara Viagens
e Turismo (55-92/3673-2523; email@example.com).
Where to Stay
Outside the main city, but the town's best accommodations—with a great breakfast buffet
and impressive river views. 1320 Avda. Coronel Teixeira, Ponta Negra; 55-92/2123-5000;
Best Western Lord Manaus
Nicely situated downtown. 217 Rua Marcilio Dias; 55-92/ 3622-2844; www.bestwestern.com;
doubles from $85.
Mango Guest House
Upscale backpacker digs. 1 Rua Flávio Espirito Santo; 55-92/3656-6033; www.naturesafaris.com;
doubles from $70.
Where to Eat
Bar do Armando (Armando's bar)
593 Rua 10 de Julho (across from the Teatro Amazonas); 55-92/3232-1195; dinner for two
Canto da Peixada
River fish and regional cuisine. 1677 Rua Emílio Moreira; 55-92/3234-3021; dinner
for two $35.
What to Do
Mercado Municipal Adolpho Lisboa (the fish market) 46 Rua dos Barés;
Teatro Amazonas Praça São Sebastião; 55-92/3622-2420.