Manaus

April 12, 2012 | 4 minute read | By Kevin Read

Manaus is a place of enormous contradictions. It’s a sprawling, industrial city, with chemical and electronics manufacturing facilities as well as oil refineries, but it lies in the middle of 2.5 million square miles of fragile rainforest in Northern Brazil. Around 2 million people live here and it was the second city in the country to get electricity, but it’s one of the most remote cities in South America. It’s also one of the busiest commercial ports in Brazil. It’s 900 miles inland.

I talked to a girl on the bus on the way into town and decided to test all these things I’d learned about Manaus. Pointing at the crowds of people still out on a Tuesday night at 10PM, I asked her what kind of jobs she would imagine they have. Manufacturing, she told me, and other things, all kinds of things. The road from the airport, 14km from the center of the city, had barely any vacant lots and I asked her about the buildings: factories, shops and a new stadium for the World Cup, coming to Brazil in 2014. Mostly factories.

Manaus is a thriving city, but I can’t help but thing it’s thriving for the wrong reasons. During the rubber boom of the late 1800’s, this was a rapidly growing urban center. Rubber was found exclusively in the Amazon at the time, and its importance to European manufacturing meant a massive boom to this small town in the jungle. A few people got very wealthy and competed with each other for just how absurdly they could demonstrate that to the world, culminating the in the publicly-funded building of a 10 million dollar opera house called the Teatro Amazonas. I’m looking at it out of my window – a pink, sprawling building with a massive gold dome that has absolutely no place here in the middle of the rainforest, especially now surrounded by industrial manufacturing plants and a large port. To demonstrate that this was a monumentally silly idea, half of the members of one visiting opera group died of yellow fever.

If the theatre represents chapter one of the unfortunate series of economic flukes that gave rise to this town, then the factories stand for chapter two. The rubber boom ended of course; rubber plants smuggled out of Brazil were planted in Malaysia and parts of Africa, losing Brazil its monopoly and Manaus its source of wealth. In response to the subsequent poverty in the region, the Brazilian government declared, in the 1950s, a special set of tax incentives known as the Free Economic Zone of Manaus. Manufacturing in a distant part of the jungle is just (artificially) more economically viable than doing so elsewhere in the country.

It’s interesting, at least, to watch economics in action in this otherwise remote corner of South America, but I’m here for the rainforest. The Amazon Rainforest is one of those travel destinations famous for what a spectacle it is, but also far less visited than most because of the difficulty of getting here. Manaus is by far the easiest place to see it from, but it is not a town swarming with tourists and touts offering cheap excursions into the jungle.

When I arrived at the airport, people seemed a frankly a little surprised to see me. I found only one person, before somehow finding my hostel, who spoke English. One of my most important lessons from today is that a vague familiarity with Spanish does not even slightly prepare you for spoken Portuguese, whose pronunciation is so variable that the letter “a” is said differently depending on whether it’s overcast or sunny,  and ‘H’s are silent on Tuesdays. I have 18 days in Brazil. I hope I learn a little of the language and the grammar rules don’t change before I leave.

My first taste of the forest (literally, with a plant guide, I will be eating bits of it) begins in a horribly short 6.5 hours (horribly, because that is tomorrow morning, and this is tonight). I have heard there is no wifi in there (and I’ll feel cheated if there is), and will not be back until Sunday. Until then, boa noite. I have no idea how to say that, it’s too dark to tell if it’s cloudy.

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3 responses to “Manaus”

  1. Richard says:

    Yeah I agree about Portuguese, you think it’s going to sound like Spanish, but when I was in Lisbon I thought it sounded like a mix of Spanish and Russian! Very strange!

    Anyway, glad you are doing well!

    • kevinaread says:

      I haven’t picked up the Russian-like qualities, but it is certainly different to Spanish. After 5 days I am now starting to tune in a tiny bit, but I haven’t needed it that much yet, since I’ve been on an organised tour. The only thing that would have been useful was if I understood the boat driver who yelled “don’t grab that branch, it’s covered in stinging ants”, although I didn’t understand him and that translation comes entirely from context.

  2. Lisa says:

    Sounds like us in parts of Germany. Apparently not much English spoken near the Nurburgring despite the tourists.

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