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Manaus Moment

João Canziani A riverboat docking

Photo: João Canziani

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."


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