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Manaus Moment

João Canziani A riverboat docking

Photo: João Canziani

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.

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