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Manaus Moment

João Canziani A riverboat docking

Photo: João Canziani

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.

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