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GO: Jungle metropolis

September 16, 2009
by Kenneth Brower
aerial photograph of a ship

Manaus, Brazil, is Sodom to some, but one exile to its banks finds a beguiling mix of European elegance and tropical funk.

My first sojourn in the city of Manaus, at the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Amazon, the remotest metropolis on Earth, came at the invitation of Brazil’s air force and was instigated, according to one theory, by Margaret Thatcher.

I had been camped on Rio Cuieiras, a blackwater tributary of the Rio Negro, in the company of a team of French biologists studying the flooded forest. The French, anxious to begin work, started collecting specimens before our research permits were finalized—a mistake. The next morning, with a thunderous whopping of rotors, a helicopter circled our clearing. We stared stupidly upward until one Frenchman cried “C’est un hélicoptère de l’armée!” at which we scurried about camp, hiding butterfly nets and sweeping plant-presses and other gear off the table. The helicopter landed. An air force captain exited and shut the camp down. We were sent downriver in disgrace, banished to Manaus.

My French colleagues insisted that there must be more behind the debacle than the tiny technical indiscretion of our premature research. They blamed Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady, never famous for her subtlety and tact, had recently declared that the Amazon Basin was too important to planetary health to be managed by Brazil alone. Enraged, the Brazilians had retaliated. Or so the theory went.

My room in the Hotel Anaconda looked past the ornate façade of a once-fine house from the rubber era, then over the tin roof of a derelict waterfront warehouse, abandoned to the black vultures perched along its peak, and finally out across the Rio Negro. The Black River was a pale early-morning blue when I opened the curtains for my first look at Manaus by daylight. Small hyacinth rafts drifted on the current. Above the water the vault of the sky was cloudless and vast. I stepped out onto my narrow wrought-iron balcony. The day smelled of woodsmoke, dust, and wide expanse of water. Pirogues were tracing their delicate wakes on the igarapés, the creeks and channels that insinuate the city from the river. More pirogues moved on the Rio Negro itself, some powered by oars, others by small outboard engines with very long shafts. A riverboat, one of the double-decker motores that are the workhorses of the Amazon Basin, all superstructure and no freeboard, chugged downstream. In the distance its two-stroke marine diesel ponk-ponked faintly but resonantly within the hollow of the hull.

The river traffic all seemed to hug the shore, leaving the middle channel completely empty. What was happening on the far side, I could not say, for the river here is more than five miles across. At its confluence with the Amazon, just below Manaus, the Rio Negro discharges four Mississippis, the biggest tributary of the greatest river on earth.

Raising binoculars, I spotted a floating dock and focused on a bright yellow fuel drum in the mid deck. The Rio Negro fluctuates about 50 feet between the wet and dry seasons. I tried to imagine the low-water river of a few months ago, with the yellow drum and its dock fallen about seven stories beneath where they levitated now. I found I could not.

Rise and fall seem endemic to this spot: The fortunes of Manaus are subject to the same sort of wild fluctuation. The place began as an army outpost on the sandbar at the mouth of the Rio Negro, a fortress called São Jose da Barra. The settlement grew into a town called Villa de Barra, and finally into the city of Manaus, capital of the gigantic Brazilian state of Amazonas. It was a city built on the rubber boom, and, soon enough, a city undone when rubber trees were introduced to India, Malaya, and Ceylon. Manaus was moribund for a half-century after the rubber crash, then in 1967 the government declared it a free port, and the population boomed again. The 1980s saw another decline, but since then the city has rebounded once more and now has a population of nearly 2 million. Manaus has become the trade center and central ganglion for Brazil’s development plans for the Amazon Basin. For those worried about the disappearance of rainforest, it amounts to a sort of Sodom.

Manaus is not one of those sequential cities, like Troy, that episodically make themselves over from scratch. The boom times do not pave over the busts; new edifices just spring up alongside the ruins of the old. Manaus presents all its periods simultaneously; the bones of the rubber era stick out everywhere. Here stands a fine rococo façade with nothing behind but 20-foot saplings growing up through charred beams. There stands a palatial turn-of-the-century residence divided, in this poorer age, into residential units where each owner responds to a territorial imperative by daubing his little stretch of housefront a different hue. The caboclos, the local people of Amazonia, like the Indians before them, are slash-and-burn agriculturalists, and the city planners of Manaus seem to have adopted this principle. When a building falls to ruin, the architects move on like caboclos, leaving that clearing on the block to heal itself.

The Brazilian air force had banished me from the rainforest, but not from nature, which tends to leak into the city from the wilderness outside. Ornithology is rewarding in Manaus. The black vulture, the urubú, tends to gather in big, social gyres over the church steeples and other salient points of the city, sometimes a hundred birds or more. Flocks of parrots pass overhead and herons work the riverfront. My binoculars were more in play in these streets than they had been in the trees.

Ichthyology, too, is easy. There are more species of fish in these waters than in all the rivers of North America combined, and a good portion find their way to the riverfront Municipal Market. The tables of the fish market are piled with the big species, pirarucú, tucunaré, tambaqui, and jaraquí, along with dozens of smaller species whose names I never sorted out.

In the banana market the same dizzying profusion prevails: great drifts of eating bananas of many varieties, assorted cooking bananas, and big plantains stacked like artillery shells. The market is so ripe with good tropical smells that the olfactory sense overwhelms the aesthetic. It was not until an off-day visit, with the market closed and its tables hosed off, that I was able to notice the architecture: black wrought-iron latticework in the signature style of Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, architect of the Eiffel Tower. Commissioned by Brazilian rubber barons to design the market, Eiffel laid it out on the plan of Les Halles in Paris. The market is Manaus in microcosm: Old Euro-Brazilian elegance meets tropical funk.

I pursued my investigation of Rio Negro fish in restaurants, where I ate all the large species mentioned above, and anaconda and caiman besides. Now and again, to clean my palate for renewed appreciation of fish and reptiles, I visited one of the city’s fine churrascarias, or meat grills. Brazilian beef is as good as Argentinian; even better, many think. The waiter keeps coming with spears of beef and lamb and sausage until you must wave him off.

My favorite fish was tambaqui. This species grows to 70 pounds and has the horselike molars unique to a few groups of South American seed-eating fish. Its staple food is the exploding fruit of the various rubber tree species. The fibrous capsules of the fruit constrict in the midday heat and detonate, throwing the seeds as far as a hundred feet across the flooded forest, and the tambaqui swims toward the plop. It is a fish built, like Manaus itself, on rubber. It tastes of Rio Negritude.

My exile to the city, I came to understand, was lucky. Most tropical scientists and eco-tourists, passing through on their way to the rainforest, fail to see Manaus as destination. I, however, had seen the light. Obrigado Brazilian Air Force and thank you Mrs. Thatcher.

If any one structure summarizes the city that I came to love, it is Teatro Amazonas, the Theater of the Amazon, Manaus’s Belle Époque opera house, the most celebrated of the 19th-century palaces that rubber built. A portico of arches and slender columns fronts a grand, pale-pink building topped by a vaguely Moresque dome covered in blue-green and gold tiles imported from Alsace-Lorraine. Inside the foyer are golden drapes, vases of Sèvres porcelain, pillars of cream- and coral-tinted marble, and seats carved of jacaranda.

Teatro Amazonas blooms and fades with the fortunes of the city. Today it is in blossom, after its fourth restoration, and it draws an improbable migration of fine musicians from Eastern Europe. The theater, as an artifact of the rubber boom, was built on greed, treachery, and the enslavement of Indians. “To visit the famous opera house in Manaus,” wrote one visitor, “is to be reminded of the bizarre and grandiose opulence which, like some Amazonian orchid, grew out of rottenness.”

This is not a motto the town fathers are likely to adopt, but it captures Manaus, this huge, improbable saprophyte of a city flowering on the banks of the Black River at the center of the biggest rainforest on earth.

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