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Manaus Moment

João Canziani A riverboat docking

Photo: João Canziani

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.


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