Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Monday, December 10 – Rain + Forest =  Rainforest


We are farther upriver today in the thriving metropolis of Manaus, Brazil, population 2 million.  This is quite a change from Boca de Valeria with its 75 people.  Manaus was once the largest and richest city in the Americas during the early 19th Century; it was in the heart of the rubber tree forest, the only place where rubber trees grew naturally.  The city expanded rapidly with the industry but started to die when an Englishman stole 80000 plants and the British started their own rubber plantations in the East Indies.  The whole house of cards tumbled with the introduction of synthetic rubber in the 1930s.


Manaus is still a major industrial center and a 50 year supply of natural gas has been discovered nearby.   Because of its position in the middle of Brazil on the Amazon, it is a perfect place from which to ship agricultural and mineral products as well as manufactured goods; there are over 500 manufacturing plants of some type in Manaus.  Brand-name electronics are assembled here from imported parts and then shipped to Miami and elsewhere.


Despite its economic importance, it is in the middle of nowhere.  Its outskirts appear suddenly as one travels west up the river and disappear even faster once on is past the new western bridge.  It’s like someone turned out the lights a mile past the city.


Our group of thirteen met at 9 a.m. and made our way ashore where we were met by Daniel, the owner of today’s tour company, and Favio, our guide.  We were to travel by speedboat up the river to walk in the rainforest.  We had to take a shuttle bus from the Prinsendam to the speedboat’s dock, a journey of perhaps 5 minutes.  What made the trip interesting was the steep grade from the pier to the city roadway.  Remember, students, we are in the dry season and the river is low; the pier is a floating pier which rises and falls with the river level.  During the rainy season, the grade from pier to roadway will approach being level, but today it was much lower than the road.


When we got to the speedboat we were dismayed to find that access to it involved some agility because there were two steep steps down to the boat and then a tricky entrance which sloped once on the boat.  MA asked Daniel if access and egress would be this difficult all day and he assured her that it would only be the same 2 steps in each direction, so we boarded the boat.


It was almost 2 hours later when we came ashore west of Manaus for our first experience in the high rainforest [the low rainforest being those areas which flood each year].  We developed our first problem when MA tried to get off of the boat.  In her hurry to sit on the prow and sort of shimmy to the ground, she wrenched her bad knee to the point of a snapping sound and a lot of crying out.  She was helped down but our troubles were not over.


We had a steep climb from the river’s edge to our assembly point above the high water line. This was a situation we would face all day, but one which we had not considered earlier.  We all made it almost to the crest of the hill where we were introduced to Manuel, our local guide.  We were at the home of his son and daughter-in-law so we had to pretend to say hello to them.  Manuel was going to guide us through the rainforest for 30 - 45 minutes, an easy task since we were literally in his backyard.


We had started up another slope when MA lost her footing, at least partly because of her prior mishap, and went tumbling.  Any part which did not hurt before hurt now.  She was assisted up by another passenger; she looked a fright and was almost in tears, but she imitated her younger grandson and said, ‘I’m okay.”  This near-calamity prompted Manuel to cut a stalk for MA to use as a walking stick.  Before we could go any farther, he had made four more.  Finally we were ready.


The Amazon rainforest is not so different from any old-growth forest.  The concept is the same and only the individual species differ.  We had a tall tree canopy which blocked out most direct sunlight but which seemed to trap the high humidity.  There were fallen trees and limbs, and fallen, dead leaves under foot. It had that old dirt smell.


What it did have were vines strong enough to choke a tree to death.  What it did have were pineapples growing in the midst of this forest.  What it did have were trees we assumed were chicle because the sap was used as chewing gum.  And it had rain.


Shortly after we entered this little section of the forest primeval, the rain started, slowly at first, then eventually torrentially.  We were all soaked.  There was not a dry spot on any of us.  Our barefoot guide continued as if nothing was wrong, and frankly, there was nothing wrong.  As naturalized Floridians, we are used to high humidity and sudden isolated storms.  Rationalizing it did not make it better.  Still, we all laughed when two members of the group remembered their ponchos after returning to the speed boat.


When we finished the circuit, for we had simply walked a big circle back to the house, we worked our way down the steep slope to the boat which was still sitting nose-in on the beach.  MA was not the only person to have trouble climbing aboard, but she was the most injured.


Our next stop, once the rain let up, was for a buffet lunch.  On the way, we had to stop the speed boat because the pilot could not see to steer.  We finally pulled up on the shore again, literally on the beach. Almost everyone jumped down to get lunch, but MA could not get down to the beach so D stayed with her.  Favio offered to send food from the buffet, but we were in a collective funk and declined.  Luckily, we had made a peanut butter sandwich before leaving the ship, so we did not starve. 


While the rest of the group ate chicken, beef, fish and other goodies, we watched guinea fowl in the nearby grass.  There were several boys who arrived in a motorized canoe and a large crocodile or caiman near the water’s edge.  D took pictures of all of them and realized later, when he enlarged the photo of the crocodile, that it was neither dead nor sleeping; it was driftwood.


The group reassembled after a while.  The group who went to lunch had obviously been in no hurry, nor were most of them curious or solicitous about MA.  Can you say “self-absorbed?”


Our next stop was to swim with the dolphins, which is not the same as sleeping with the fishes.  When we read about this segment of the trip, we conjured up images of walking into the river and swimming while pink dolphins cavorted with us.  We had decided even before MA’s mishap that we were not going to swim but that we would not stop others in the group who wanted to; we would relax, we thought, in the shade of a tree.


Swimming with the dolphins was nothing like what we imagined.  Our boat pulled alongside a floating concession which was in the middle of the Rio Negro.  It reminded us of the Jumbo Seafood Floating Restaurant in Hong Kong.  In its own way, it was just as touristy.  There were several dolphins in a confined area.  They had plenty of room to swim and play, but they could not pass an underwater barrier.  We could see floats on the surface delineating the area’s limits.


Employees of the concession entered the water and stood on a subsurface platform.  They stirred up the water a little and then slapped small fish in the water.  The pink dolphins made for the fish which were then lifted high in the air, forcing the dolphins to leap out of the water to retrieve the fish.  It looked like great fun for everyone except the dolphins.  “Swimming with the dolphins” entailed getting into the water and waiting for them to jump.  It was really more “Dodging out of the way of 400 pound fish” than it was swimming.  Nonetheless, three members of today’s group tried it and thought it was time and money well-spent.


MA stayed in the boat rather than press her luck.  As it turned out, this was the only stop today where she would have been able to negotiate the exit from the boat, but better safe than sorry.  The pilot, however, did reposition the boat so she could see the dolphin taunting.


What she could not witness was another big fish/little fish battle.  Of course the little fish always loses but this was more spectacular than the pink dolphin feeding.  The same small fish used in the dolphin feeding were tied by string or rope to a stout stick.  When the fish was dropped into a “pen” on the floating concession, a large barracuda would literally assault it.  With any luck, the fisherman could pull it a bit out of the water, but the red barracudas were big – almost 9 feet long!  They made a noise like a rifle shot when they snapped their jaws around the poor bait fish.  It reminded D of bear baiting from Shakespeare’s time.


Favio seemed anxious to get us back to the ship by 4 p.m., but we insisted on the whole 8 hours we had contracted.  We found out later that his wife had phoned him [yes, cell service in the Amazon] to tell him she had taken their 18-month old son to the hospital.  Her mother was with her, so Favio stayed with us.


Next on the agenda was another indigenous village.  It was in sharp contrast to Boca de Valeria.  Once again, MA stayed on board the boat and avoided not only the awkward dismount but the steep climb up to – and down from – the town.


This village had about 400 inhabitants in contrast to Boca’s 75.  The locals must be used to the arrival of tourists because everyone went about his/her business and paid us no mind.  In Boca, you may remember, the whole town turned out to hustle us for dollars.


There was a church, of course, which overlooked the river as well as a relatively new school [which we did not see].  We did see a community soccer field which doubles as a setting for local festivals and pretty little houses on the main walkway.  The village had electricity and satellite television, of course.  The houses were constructed of wood with pastel-painted corrugated-metal siding.  We passed the clinic/pharmacy which is visited by a doctor once a week and then spent a bit too much time in the “artisan” gift shop.  Getting these people to move along was like the proverbial cat-herding.


It was starting to get dark by the time we reached our last destination, a cultural show of local Indian dances and rituals.  Again, MA stayed back; here there was a solid plank walkway from the boat to the shore but there was not a sturdy railing.  Several of our tourists had difficulty, especially in the near-dark return.


Favio had called ahead [even the indigenous peoples have cell phones] to let them know we were running late.  Rather than make us climb a steep cliff to their usual performance area, the tribe members came down to the river level.  We still had a short walk from the water’s edge, but it was nothing like the shlep we would have had.  We could not imagine what coming down from the cliff would have been in the dark.


We were greeted by the village elder, the shaman.  Favio translated when he could, but the shaman also said some things in his tribal language and Favio admitted not knowing it.  We saw several dances performed, accompanied by pipes and small drums.  MA said she could hear the music from the performance.


The women of all ages were topless, but there was no sexual connotation to their lack of costume.  We had seen slides of similarly unencumbered women at the talk last Friday.  All of the performers had designs painted on their bodies and the women’s body paint acted almost as a costume, affording them some pseudo-covering.  The audience was more self-conscious than the natives.  In fact, one of our group complained later to the effect that “This is the 21st Century.  They should be dressed properly.”  This woman showed no cultural awareness or sensitivity.


Interestingly, there was no singing during the show.  We saw a dance dedicated to the north, south, east and west and another in honor of fried fish.  The final number involved the natives picking tourists to dance with them.  D was among the 2 not chosen perhaps because he was trying to take pictures in the dark.  We finished with a visit to the “gift shop” where almost everyone bought something as a “thank you” to the villagers.


During the souvenir shopping, D struck up a conversation with one of the girls.  She surprised him by giving prices in flawless English.  She revealed that she had finished school and was dancing five shows a day because she wanted to.  She liked to dance and wanted to help keep her heritage alive.  She had no ambition to continue her education, but she had her priorities straight.


It was finally time to return to Manaus.  By the time we were loaded on the boat, it was almost pitch black, but there was no traffic to the west of Manaus and we made good time.  Even so, it was 7:15 by the time we got ashore.  We were worried that the shuttle bus from our pier to the Prinsendam might have stopped running, but Favio spoke to a port official who called the shuttle to come for us.  We had to wait a little while and it was 7:40 when we got to the room.


MA was still wet from the morning’s rain plus the spray from the speed boat.  In fact all of us were at least still damp.  Vicky from Trivia had also fallen and she and MA looked like war casualties.  While MA showered, D went to the MDR to alert the waiters that we would be late; he returned with MA’s vodka since we would not have time for the OB tonight.


We compared trips with Pedr and Manoot and repeated our hope that they would be able to join us tomorrow.  They will not know until right before our departure tomorrow and we are not optimistic.


It had been a long, hard day and we returned to the room after dinner, read and then turned the lights out.


Tuesday, December 11 – More Manaus

For our second day in Manaus, D planned [i.e., contracted for] a 4-1/2 hour city tour.  We are pleased to announce at the outset that no injuries were reported in the making of this trip.


When we disembarked a few minutes before 9 a.m., we were pleased to see Pedr and Manoot waiting with the other early arrivals.  Favio was there and we waited for the last group member and the bus to arrive.  By 9:05 we were on our way.


We didn’t have very far to go for our first stop.  We were still within sight of the Prinsendam and yesterday’s speed boat dock.  Favio pointed across the street to a public market.  Much of it is closed for renovations, but some stalls have been relocated outside so business goes on.  This market is an architectural replica of Les Halles in Paris, once that city’s premier market but now closed.  We walked through a mini-market, really, with a few fishmongers, butchers and vegetable sellers.  There’s nothing like the smell of fresh fish on a hot morning.


We probably spent more time in the tchotchke section looking handicrafts similar to/identical with the ones we had bought yesterday.  Maybe that nice old lady who ate live bugs didn’t make them after all.  There was a lot of haggling but only a few sales, none ours.


We continued walking along decaying sidewalks and 2x4s until we reached the “real” market.  It was a large, crowded shed with rows and rows of fishmongers.  It was still early morning for most shoppers so the workers were preparing their fresh fish for display and eventual sale.  Most were selling the exact same products, but customers have their favorite merchants even if the same fish is available from a dozen sellers at the same price.  Pedr and Manoot, who used to own a restaurant in Brugges, were in Heaven.


The rows of barracuda, piranha and other denizens of the deep gave way to a smaller number of butchers.  Like the fishmongers, they were preparing their displays of meat, mostly beef.  There are fewer butchers because the Amazon and Rio Negro do not supply beef, just fish.  We rounded a corner and were surrounded by fruits and vegetables.  The hot crowded market started to get to Mary so we moved as quickly as we could to an exit where we could see truckloads of bananas and pineapples being delivered.


Manaus reminds us of several other cities we have visited.  First, it reminds us of Lisbon, Portugal, because the entire city could use a coat of paint.  Lisbon looks like it has not been repaired or repainted since a horrific earthquake hundreds of years ago.  Manaus is similarly decrepit except it is also covered in graffiti.  In this, it is like almost every major city except Singapore.


Manaus is a jumble of tangled electric lines.  Fermin says it is the result of people stealing power from their neighbors; that may be so, but the giant nests of wires make much of the city look like Shanghai, China.


The streets and sidewalks are filled with automobile, truck and foot traffic.  Sidewalks in many areas are further crowded by kiosks reminiscent of Bangkok or Jakarta.  Many side streets are clogged with merchants in the middle of the roadway making them impassable.  This makes Manaus look like many African and Asian cities such as Dakar and Pnomn Pen.


The area by the docks is filled with cage boats going up and down river.  There is a steady stream of people going to and from these boats.  It is hard to see a pattern and one can only wonder if the Brazilians really know which boat is theirs.  In the way the crowd moved, Manaus looks like Dakar where we saw ferries bringing people across the harbor so they could go to work.


Most of all, it is alive.


We spent a few minutes at a cultural center but were not able to see much.  The building had earlier been a government building after it had been converted from a private dwelling.  There were magnificent wooden floors made from local hardwoods, striped light and dark, and a marvelous freestanding stairway in front of the entrance.  The risers were also alternating light and dark wood so that even though they were carpeted, the wood of the back of the risers was visible.  The city is pocked with sumptuous former dwellings which have been repurposed.  We had time to take a few pictures but do any in-depth sightseeing.


As was said earlier, Manaus was the center of the rubber industry and made the robber barons of the 19th Century immensely wealthy.  Whenever they built a public building or a private home, it had to be European in design and use European materials if possible.  The original Customs House, which still stands near our dock, was made of British stone cut in England and assembled in Manaus; it was the first pre-fabricated building in the city.  Several German families were especially well-off before the collapse of rubber.


While we were really in the Amazon rain forest yesterday, many of our shipmates were being taken for a literal and figurative ride by HAL.  Their visit to the rain forest disappointed many of them, especially after they heard about our walk in the woods.  [This is why we avoid ship’s tours]  They could have learned as much if they had simply gone to the Bosque da Cienca [the science museum] and INPA, the Amazonas National Research Institute.  This center was our next stop.


The grounds of the Bosque da Cienca house both programs.  While here is not the sensation of walking in the rain forest, the trees and plants are well represented.  What is missing is the reality of slippery leaves, vines, tree roots and stumps.  The outdoor sections of INPA we visited are better than nothing and serve for people who cannot get into the real rain forest.  We saw several animals on display – a river otter and several manatees – and Manoot got to shop in another artisan gift store.


We escaped the heat and humidity by going to an exhibit of life in the Amazon.  Here we saw reproductions of workers tents from the rubber industry and another which showed how rubber was made from the tree sap.  There were samples of rubber, too.  The displays included butterflies and moths, beetles, snakes and spiders. And air-conditioning.  When we finally went outside again, we stopped at the concession stand and bought Cokes, the drink of the gods.


If this were a horse race, we were coming off the backstretch and heading for the ¾ pole.  We had only two stops left today.  The first of these was the provincial palace which now is home to several small museum-type collections.  Several of us visited the camera collection and pointed out which ones we had owned earlier in our lives.  There were other displays as well, but we had little time and D tried to hurry his charges in and out in 10 minutes.  The plantings around the building were especially colorful and featured several plants we are familiar with from Florida.  The Provincial Palace is now fronted by a newly rebuilt park.  Favio says it was created to clean up the area because homeless people had been living there.


Speaking of homeless…Earlier, just before stopping at the cultural center, we stopped on an overpass to see a beautiful park spread out on both sides of us, albeit 40 – 50 feet below us.  The park looked as if it had been created out of a dry wash or gully because of its shape.  To the far left, we could see modern brick townhouses.  Favio told us that the park had been built on the site of a torn-down slum and that the residents had been moved into the new brick houses.  This a one of several relocations already made in Manaus; our observations suggest that there is still a long way to go.


We had now driven all over Manaus and discovered that it is very hill in a San Francisco sort of way.  Very little of it seemed to be level.  In addition to bouncing up and down with the hills, we bounced a lot because of the condition of the city’s streets.  To call them rough would be to compliment them.  Our transfers around Manaus probably gave us all permanent kidney damage.


And down the stretch they come!  Approaching the wire and with time winding down, we finally got to the famous Opera House.  The Opera House dates from 1896 and, like so much of “old” Manaus, was built with European materials and funded by another German robber baron.  It is a great stone edifice with a tiled cupola.  The cupola’s tiles are the green and blue of Brazil, representing both the forest and the river.


The interior is in need of repair and restoration, but that seems to be an ongoing project.  We saw workmen in a reception hall adjacent to the second floor boxes.  The auditorium itself needs to have all of its decorative details repainted because the originals have faded over the past century.  The overall light is dim despite the presence of electric lights and a central chandelier.  Many of the light fixtures were undoubtedly fitted for gas or even candle light.


The outer walls contain three tiers of boxes rising above more at ground level.  The presidential box on the second level [first tier] is draped with faded red velvet curtains.  Fronting the first tier boxes are busts with the names of noted composers and librettists.  They are hard to distinguish in the dim light.  The interior space which the boxes surround would normally have additional seating but was set up for an orchestra when we visited.  The empty stage was at the same level as the first floor seating rather than raised. 


Despite the heat of Manaus, the auditorium was moderately cool; certainly we could feel the difference between the performance area and the surrounding hallway.  Favio said that there was a system for bringing in cooler air built into the original theater.  It makes sense – the air would be cooler in the evening when there were performances and could be used to cool the building made hot in mid-day.   Since heat rises, the opera lovers in the higher boxes would be warmer than those on the first level.


The Opera House opens onto a public park which reminded us of the Henry the Navigator monument in Lisbon.  This one was also a tribute to explorers around the world.  We could read “America” and “Africa” from our meeting place in front of the hall.  The tile in this park was a series of parallel wavy lines in white and black tile meant to represent the meeting of the waters.


We looked in on the reception hall on the second level.  Here, too, we saw magnificent wooden floors with some areas of parquetry and the rest in striped planking.  Craftsmen were working on restoring sconces while we were there.  The room was not especially large but was given the perception of size by the use of mirrors on either end.  Close to the ceiling was a small balcony where musicians could play without being seen.


Favio delivered us safely to the ship and we were “home” by 1:40, pretty much on time.  We stopped by the room to leave our bag [including the rain jackets we should have had yesterday!] and went to the Lido for a special barbecue lunch.


Although MA got a sandwich from the outside burger bar, D took advantage of the barbecue and had a small piece of beef, a piece of chicken part of a small sausage along with some veggies.  Before MA could join him at the table, Fermin asked if he could eat with us.  How could we say no?  We enjoy his company and he is a marvelous story teller.  We made idle conversation and he insisted that we both try the special drink of the day as his guests, so we did.  The caipirinha is made from what can best be described as the local version of light rum and a whole lime.  It was tart and refreshing and even D enjoyed it.


After lunch, we were back in the routine: Trivia, nap/read, and dinner.  Five of the six of us were on tour yesterday, so we do not count that in our statistics.  We won again today with a perfect score of 17/17.  Carlos the CD has run out of prizes for us; we have already carted off 3 different pins [all of which we have at home already], golf balls & tees, and travel mugs.  Instead of a prize, we got a promise that he would try to find something else.  We suggested HAL coasters [which we won last year] because the others on the team covet them.  The target on our back is getting bigger and Carlos seems to be encouraging the other teams to boo when we win.  We’ll see what tomorrow brings in Parintins.


We went to the Pinnacle Grill the other evening after dinner to try to reserve a table for lunch on Dec 21, our 44th anniversary.  Alas, the restaurant was closed for lunch for a private function.  We declined the chance to reserve for the 20th.  Ferdie, the assistant Beverage Manager and Cellar Master, was there and he tried to talk us into coming to a special wine-pairing dinner despite his knowing that D does not drink very often.  He and Roger, the PG host, tried there hardest but all they could get from us was laughter.  Tonight, we saw them both talking to another passenger while we were in the OB.  D flagged Ferdie down and said, “We know what you were doing.”  All poor Ferdie could do was laugh -- we had him cold.  In return, he called Roger over and the four of us just laughed about their double-teaming this passenger.  Well, at lunch today, Roger appeared at our table in the MDR and said only, “I got him.”  And again, all we could do was laugh.


At dinner, Pedr and Manoot were again appreciative of our including them in our trip today.  They liked the small tour much better than the Big Bus tours which HAL provides.  Fermin walked in and asked permission to dine with them; it would have been interesting to see his face if they had said no.  While he spent most of the meal talking to them in Dutch [Flemish?], Fermin included us enough to keep us all laughing. 


Tomorrow – Parintins, Brazil


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