Monday, June 4, 2012

Manaus mass email #2

Dear friends and family,

We last wrote on April 21 as we were arriving in Manaus, on the north shore of the Rio Negro near its junction with the Amazon. Instead of drowned forests we now faced red bluffs. Mega-yachts sat under made-to-fit boathouses. Industrial and institutional buildings began sprouting from the heights. A new bridge stalked southward across the river on dozens of tall columns.

In Novo Airão we had met cruisers Peter and Louise. “When you get to Manaus, tie up with us, at Erin Shipyard,” Peter had said. We found it on a tract of sloping red clay just before the bridge. Petroleum barges were being built under big steel sheds. Ferry boats in red primer paint lay on ways. Welding torches sparked here and there. Floating workshops and drydocks lay moored along shore. One drydock held a huge barge. Workmen were painting it’s tall sides with long-handled rollers. A crane held the stern of a tugboat up in the air while men worked on its propellers.

We tied to the shoreward side of a barge and crossed a gangplank to shore. Red-bellied kingfishers chattered along an eroding bluff. We hiked up a steep drive us to a bus stop and caught the 124 to the Centro Antigo (Ancient Center).

The Centro Antigo occupied a bulge between two narrow inlets. Many of the buildings dated from the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Manaus was rich from the rubber boom. The facades of the old masonry buildings were molded in a heavy, neo-classical style. The grimy waterfront street butted against a sea wall. Tour boat operators hawked rides to the Encontra das Aguas, where the Amazon’s brown and Negro’s black waters meet. High-speed ferries streaked across the river. All along the waterfront floating gas stations lay about two hundred meters out. A passenger terminal accommodated a cruise ship and a score of triple-decker river boats. We particularly liked a class of wooden boats with forward steering stations, fantail sterns, and a roofed interior. They were styled after the big river boats but just big enough to fit a family.

Produce was being hand-trucked from rough-hewn cargo boats into a sprawling public market. One shed the size of an auditorium contained nothing but green plantains. Vendors sold exotic fruits, vegetables, and fish. The menus were full of unfamiliar dishes and juices. We treated ourselves to a liter of beer at the Bar dos Jangadeiros. If we understood him correctly, a fellow patron explained that the jangadeiros were Portuguese who came to Brazil on sailing rafts bringing their own musical style. A sextet was playing emotional folk ballads. The lyrics were so long that the singers had to sit together and read from a songbook.

We found a city map, got a customs exemption for Thurston, and exchanged money. In a neighborhood called Educandos we found the upholstery district, where we bought material for a new awning, which we promptly had fabricated. Rises and ravines divided the city. Forty years before it had only 200,000 people. Then the government created a vast Duty Free Industrial Zone where multi-national corporations have erected assembly plants, including the world’s biggest motorcycle factory. The population grew ten-fold.

There were roomy middle-class neighborhoods, but our missions generally took us into crowded sectors where the streets were narrow and winding. Through each ravine ran a open sewer. Even here the two-story shacks pressed close, on stilts to avoid flooding. The poorest areas were accessible only by narrow walkways. Everything was made of the same red brick, an extruded block with eight square holes. They often left the bricks unfinished, to be stucco-ed and painted when circumstances allowed.

Our immediate neighborhood was Compensa, a warren of steep streets and dead-ends. Our internet shop lay at the bottom of an urbanized ravine. The street crossed the valley transversely, thus it rose in both directions. One day, while we were working on computers by the plate-glass window, we witnessed a different sort of encontra das aguas. A cloudburst hit: gusts, lightning, torrential rain. Pedestrians took shelter. Water pooled in the street. The shop keeper took a specially-cut board outside and wedged it along the foot of the building to keep water out. Soon runoff was coming from both directions, colliding in front of the shop, and spilling out into a concrete-lined ditch running away from the shop, perpendicular to the street. The waters from the two slopes were a foot deep, lightning-fast, laden with garbage. They collided in a wave that swirled down into the ditch like into the drain of a sink. It became too deep for cars but buses still drove through. After an hour the rain tapered off, the water subsided, and the shop keeper removed the board.

This metropolis of two million sits alone in the center of the Amazon Basin. Manaus is like an island in a sea of rivers and forested floodplains. The Amazon is bigger than the world’s second through eighth largest rivers combined. Several of its tributaries, considered independently, would rank among the world’s top ten by volume. Due to these water obstacles no roads connect Manaus with Brazil’s far-larger cities a thousand miles or more to the southeast.

We were no longer in a splintered remnant of the Spanish Empire, under the shadow of the U.S economy. Economists class Brazil with Russia, India, and China: nations large enough to create their own momentum. The Brazilians seemed self-confident. No one hustled us. They were friendly and good natured nearly without exception. We surmise this is due to their fine appreciation of sweets and chocolate in particular. Brazilians have even found a way to spread their friendliness silently by their ubiquitous habit of giving a “thumbs-up” for any variety of reasons. For example, to say “Hi,” “Bye,” “Thanks,” “Okay,” or “Cool!” It’s a great boost to one’s self esteem to have people giving you thumbs-up all day. Hope we haven’t misinterpreted the meaning!

Brazil is South America’s only Portuguese-speaking country. The Spanish-speaking countries from Cuba to Venezuela had been variations on a theme, but Brazil was abruptly different. The various musical styles reminded us of Cajun, or sixties pop, or European folk songs, but they never reminded us of mariachi.

Brazilian Portuguese is similar to Spanish but with a soft, mushy sound,. Many consonants are pronounced differently. “R” sounds often become “h.” “H” sounds become “zh” as in “measure.” “B” sounds become “v.” “Ch” and “x” sounds become “sh.” “T” sounds might become “ch.” “D” sounds frequently become “j” as in “just.” We studied the language on our laptop with a program called Rosetta Stone.

The workshop barge we tied to sheltered us from the afternoon sun and from waves kicked up by passing rainstorms. The water was the color of black tea, opaque at depths beyond a meter. The air on the equator is warmer than one would wish but the river is perfect. In full sun the barge was too hot to tread in bare feet, but a leap into the water brought instant relief. We jumped in every night after tramping all over town in the overbearing heat. Soon we were jumping in every morning as well. Currently we are working in a lot of afternoon swims and before long expect to spend all of our time in the river.

At first it felt strange to live in an industrial shipyard. On all sides workers in bright orange coveralls clanged and clambered over vessels. Equipment and balks of timber lay everywhere. It seemed impossible that they would want us around. Wouldn’t our presence violate safety rules?

Peter assured us we were welcome. He was sixty-five years old, tall and hearty. Born in England, he had emigrated to Trinidad. Louise, his lovely South African partner, had more sailing experience, having sailed her own boat from South Africa to Trinidad before meeting him. They had sailed his fifty-foot motor-sailer around the Caribbean then up the Amazon. The Passagemaker, built from teak in Singapore in 1961, was famous as a prototype for yacht designer Robert Beebe’s ideas on trans-oceanic cruising under power. Peter and Louise often invited us over for drinks, conversation, and movie-swapping.

One day Peter and Louise took us on a cruise to an old rubber plantation up the river. The other guests were Francisco, the manager of the shipyard; Berlane, his wife and daughter of the shipyard’s owner; a Japanese-Brazilian plastics factory owner and his family; and other successful friends of Francisco and Berlane.

When Peter and Louise continued their cruise up the Amazon, Francisco and Berlane became our closest acquaintances. Francisco, a brown-haired, grey-eyed, native of São Paulo, spoke English with what seemed a French accent. Berlane was Amazonian by birth, blonde, always happy. They took us out to fine restaurants, a zoo, and tours of the city. The few parts of the city we hadn’t yet explored by foot, bus or bicycle Francisco made a point to show us by car.

Their welcome was a boon because a package coming from the United States was delayed. We kept busy with writing, laundry, boat repairs, and seeking hard-to-find items. (For example, we needed acetone in a quantity small enough to would fit in our repairs bin. The solution: fingernail polish remover.) Finding places was difficult because we could not find business directories or bus schedules. Businesses often did not post their hours of operation, so you didn’t know when to come back. Restaurants had no menus, vendors often didn’t bother with price labels. The lack of written information forced us to combat our shyness and speak Portuguese. 

We mapped upcoming rivers on Google Earth. Virgilio, our travel guide friend in Puerto Ayacucho had said it is possible to ascend a southern tributary of the Amazon and portage to the Paraguay/Parana River basin, so we researched it. We found that Virgilio’s projected route is now impossible because the Pilcomayo River, where it used to form the boundary between Paraguay and Argentina, has disappeared due to irrigation diversions. However, we concluded that we could go up the Madeira, Mamore, and Guapore rivers; then portage; then down the Jauru, Paraguay, and Parana rivers to Uruguay. We could even make a loop of it by then ascending the Parana to the vicinity of Brasilia, portaging to the Araguaia River, and descending it and the Tocatins to the Amazon near Belem! It would add a year to our trip.

In northern Latin America the rainy season is from June to November. In the southern hemisphere it occupies the opposite months. By crossing into Brazil we had gone from the waning months of Llanos dry season to the waning months of Amazonian rains. In Manaus the Negro/Amazon reaches its highest mark in June, when precipitation fallen on the Andes reaches that point. The river continued to rise as we waited for our package. By late May it had exceeded previous records. Low areas of the city were inundated. In the Centro Antigo businesses stacked sandbags around their entrances and erected elevated walkways along the flooded streets.

One day, while crossing the bridge from the Centro Antigo to Educandos, we noticed that the riverfront shacks, docks, and floating businesses continued under the bridge itself. Descending to river level, we saw that wooden and brick shacks had been built around the abutments, protected from rain and sun by the bridge high overhead. Crude plank walkways snaked from shack to shack. Some had a foot of water inside yet remained occupied. In some structures the downstairs was a combination bar/restaurant/store, with seating for two or three customers and shelves offering cooking oil, candles, etc. Laundry lines ran from upstairs windows to convenient attachment points. We sat at one of the “bars” and split a tall bottle of cold Brahma beer. Men drank quietly. Women cooked. Children darted in and out. Dogs, cats, chickens, and ducks inhabited whatever ledges they could find. The planks were wide enough for one person or animal at a time. People had top priority, followed by dogs, cats, ducks, and chickens. A dog accidentally nudged a fighting cock into the water. Someone reached over, lifted it by the shoulders of its wings, and set it back down on a plank, probably for the tenth time that day.

Another day, in the Lirio do Vale neighborhood, we noticed a walled garden with the words União do Vegetal over the gate. “Union of the Vegetable?” said Steve. “What the heck is that?” Peeking in, we were noticed by a handsome young man. He beckoned us inside. “We are a Christian group,” he explained. “In our sessions we take a special tea made of Amazonian plants. If you would like to try it come back on Tuesday at eight o’clock.”

Ginny was tired that night, but curiosity had the better of Steve and he wandered off into the night to check it out. The grounds were now inhabited by about forty men wearing green smocks and white trousers, and a smaller number of women. They were gathering on a covered patio around a table on which stood a white ceramic urn. One by one we drank a glass of tea called ayahuasca, extracted from the leaves of a tree and the sap from a vine. It was bitter and pungent. All sat on comfortable chairs. Five leaders sat on one side of the urn, the others sat facing them. Steve and other newcomers were placed to the right of the leaders. A chairman opened the session. He and others gave short talks. Members stood, were recognized, and asked questions. Sometimes someone would chant. There were long periods of meditation during which soothing music was played on a CD player.

At nine o’clock we were offered a second cup. Having felt no effect, Steve accepted. Soon his body felt wiry. Closing his eyes he saw colorful, slowly evolving patterns suggestive of plant growth or zeppelins or skyscrapers, composed of light arrays like a pixilated TV screen. He noticed certain words being repeated, like espiritu, vegetal, Gabriel, and Soloman. He fell into a dream state that he could at any time terminate by opening his eyes.

At eleven-thirty the ceremony ended. People lingered, chatting in good humor. Some ate. Steve maintained his intoxication until a man sat by him that emitted a sharp odor. Suddenly Steve had to vomit. Fortunately a restroom was nearby. Instant sobriety! He was then given a ride back to the shipyard. He woke the next day feeling refreshed.

After weeks of waiting for our package we have finally have it! We have gotten a fresh 90 days on our visa and are ready to continue down the Amazon. Should we go straight to the Atlantic and sail back to the States, which would take at least a year, or go up the Madeira and explore the rest of South America first?

Bye for now,
Love Steve and Ginny
Lots of new photos can be found here: