New Year’s On The Amazon
“The culmination of sudden wealth a century or so ago was to build yourself an Opera House,” writes Correspondent Paul Lewis, cruising down the Amazon.
“The early Nevada silver miners built one in Carson City. Then the lode ran out, and everyone moved on to California.
“The fabulously rich Rubber Barons of Manaus opened another in 1896 with the fruits of their brief monopoly of world rubber production just as demand for motor car tires took off.
“Rubber ships returned from Europe with Scottish ironwork, French brocades, and Italian chandeliers for this pink and white rococo palace in the midst of the rain forest thousands of miles from anywhere, with six tiers of gilded boxes, individual arm chairs in the stalls (like the Paris Opera), and a ceiling decorated to make the audience dream they were sitting under the Eiffel Tower. With the Opera House came electric trams, telephone exchanges, and Paris fashions.
“Then rubber production shifted to Malaysia, and Manaus and its opera house went into decline. Dame Margot Fontaine danced there as late as the 1960s–her shoes are lovingly preserved. But today the building is used mainly for folk dancing displays and as a tourist attraction. The rest of the city continued its decline, sinking back into tropical stupor, with pot-holed streets, cracked sidewalks, and crowds of impoverished forest Indians.
“Manaus made one other attempt to import an icon of European civilization, in 1902, building a replica of the famous Paris cast-iron food markets known as Les Halles beside the river. Jacques Chirac pulled down the original when he was Mayor of Paris. Now the only copy left is heading for oblivion. The Halles of Manaus are boarded up and visibly crumbling. A notice promises restoration. But it is too old and dilapidated itself to inspire confidence. The money for everything is running out in Manaus.
“The Amazon proper begins at Manaus with what they call ‘the mixing of the waters’ between the ‘black’ Rio Negro and the ‘brown’ Rio Solimões. The Amazon’s ‘black’ rivers are rich in tannins drawn from rotting wood, while the ‘brown’ rivers carry suspended earthy sediments. The two streams run in parallel for miles before they mix because of their different temperatures and acidic contents. The Amazon’s ‘black’ waters are poisonous for mosquitoes and make the river relatively bug-free.
“Traveling the Amazon is like walking along an endlessly unfurling brown water carpet with a thin green border on each side. Nothing changes. The brown water stretches on impassively, whether in blazing sun or driving rain; the green forest slips by each side, mysterious and impenetrable.
“Such travel induces a strange hypnotic sense of boredom and ennui, noted by writers like Conrad in “The Heart of Darkness” and Graham Greene in “A Burnt Out Case,” when they describe their river trips through the jungles of the African Congo.
“But the Amazon forest is also the guardian of innumerable legends–of female warrior who fought like the Amazons of Greek mythology; of lost races of white giants and a tribe whose feet faced backward to deceive trackers; and of lost cities like El Dorado, Akanis, Akakor, and Akahim.
“Our big white Princess cruise ship breaks the monotony of the voyage with stops at small towns and trading posts, squeezed between the forest and the water, often with the river as their only link to the outside world.
“At Parintin’s, a night’s sail from Manaus, a community of around 100,000 clusters in a small port with no land access to the rest of Brazil. Just a yellow Portuguese church, a group of concrete shops selling souvenirs and local clothes. Traffic lights but no traffic except for a farmer loading squealing pigs into a bicycle-powered cart. An open bible stands on every shopkeepers’ counter, suggesting the evangelicals are doing better than the yellow Catholic church.
“Next day: Boca de Valeria, a village of just 75 souls where the Rio Valeria flows into the Amazon. The friendly inhabitants live in wooden huts on stilts to protect them from floods. They make their living largely from the charity of passing cruise ships, offering visitors handicrafts, captured jungle animals (which no Western country would allow you to import), and fearful piranha fish, which they keep alive by splashing water on their heads and then eat when the cruise ship has voyaged on.
“Another overnight journey to Santarem and a musical reception by samba dancers in long white, yellow, and red dresses and ruffled shirts. Defeated Confederate soldiers helped found this settlement after the American Civil War. Santarem then played host to another American debacle when Henry Ford planted a 50,000-acre rubber estate and lost his shirt, to be followed by the super-rich Daniel Ludwig in 1967. But the Amazon won again.
“A recent gold strike helped revive the town’s fortunes. But it remains a collection of pot-holed shopping streets with open sewers and a market square where locals mend worn-out shoes with word-out motor tires.
“The people who go on cruises are people who go on cruises. Most of our fellow passengers, mainly from the United States but with quite a few Europeans, have been on dozens of trips and knowlegeably compare different lines and ships.
“This distinction between habitual and occasional cruisers may be one reason for the high divorce rate between those sharing dinner tables. The organizers make the initial table selection, but diners soon grow tired of each other and applications mount up for table changes. Beware. After a couple of evenings with two British spinsters and a conversation-less tax advisor, I put in for a transfer. The main reason was watching the 5-year-old big sister of two very noisy and undisciplined little Brazilians ages 1 and 3 up-chucking her dinner–at the late sitting. The parents and grandparents at the table right next to ours did and said nothing. After I asked for a switch, we got a stupendously fat Milwaukee brewer couple whose only interest was eating. I’ve filed for another divorce with the Maître D. My wife says he will not move us again without a tip.
“That is another feature of cruises. Service staff (from 50 countries, many in the Third World) is on the take. Shops on board are out to sell you supposed tax-free bargains in jewelry and artwork–which aren’t. You can have pricey massages to try to slash the embonpoint picked up with all those rich good meals. The ship’s doctor is peddling a book about acupuncture.”
“Kathleen, I am an adventurous 52-year-old male with many different skills. I am exploring the idea of leaving the United States forever. I want to escape this country. The hypocrisy is unbearable.
“How does a man like me relocate to Argentina? I have a limited budget. Could I make a living there?”
— Garrett G., United States
You aren’t likely to be able to get a job as a foreign national in Argentina. Your option is to start your own laptop-based business, which is ever-easier worldwide and certainly possible in this beautiful wine-growing province of Argentina. Two good resources to help you get started are Passport to Freedom, which can provide the support you need to launch and operate any business you might imagine, and the AWAI Travel Writers program, which can show you how to get your travel pieces published.