Last Summer, the eyes of the world were on the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Our author prefers the green heart of Brazil, the forest, the water, the eternal Amazon – a declaration of love to a legend
The most magical time is at dawn, at that moment when the night glides across into morning. When the first fishing boats return to Belém harbor, borne up on a tide that can rise to as much as three meters here, deep in the Amazon Delta, with the constant threat of spilling onto its banks. In the half-light of the street lamps, the boats are firmly tied up at the quay wall before the men take their catch to Ver-o-Peso market. Some fish shimmer silver, others gold or pink. Hefty catfish lie side by side with small sardines. Once experienced, the commotion of this early-morning market scene is never forgotten. Ver-o-Peso market has always been the gateway to Amazonia – for me, too. I traveled here for the first time nearly three decades ago. A young ethnology student at the time, I had already set my mind on doing field research on the Nambikwara Indians in Mato Grosso, to follow in the footsteps of the famous ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose book Tristes Tropiques I had made my travel primer. I have been coming back here ever since. Amazonia has a hold on me.
“Ver o peso” translates to: Watch out for the weight! Duties were once levied at the market on all products coming into Belém. These days, Ver-o-Peso is the biggest open-air market in all of Latin America. The country’s top chefs come here to buy exceptional products for their restaurants – yes, even Alex Atala, the heavily tattooed kitchen rebel. Of the nearly120 different kinds of fruits that grow in the rainforest, dozens are sold from the market’s colorful stalls. Bacuri, buriti, camu-camu, cupuacu, muruci, tapereba and uxi – heard those names before? They sound like poetry and taste that way, too.
The Amazon, its majesty and magnitude, hold a fascination for me to this day. The river is around 6500 kilometers long and at some points 20 kilometers wide. With its many tributaries, it forms the largest river network in the world and is navigable over a distance of 50 000 kilometers. Seventeen of its branches are, each on its own, longer than the Rhine. Even at the peak of the dry season, the Amazon is so deep that ocean liners can sail easily into the inland port of Manaus, approximately 1600 kilometers from the Atlantic coast. In order to really grasp these dimensions, you have to travel by water, of course. And that’s what I do.
The famous river steamers set out from Belém. They have barely changed in almost 150 years: round-bellied, their wood colorfully painted, often several stories high – they are, in effect, floating houses. Because there are only very few roads in Amazonia, everything people need is transported by ship. A banking ship that grants small loans to the inhabitants of remote villages runs once a month between Manaus and Tabatinga, for example, and as well as a ship carrying a court of law that traverses the jungle, there are waterborne ambulances and schools, too.
I start by claiming my hammock. The hammocks are where it all happens; they are meeting place, bed and cabin all in one. This is where you get to know your fellow travelers – it’s unavoidable. Once, on the way to Manaus, I had a pretty bulky mid-thirty-something woman with her son sleeping to my left, and to my right, a shop owner from Tabatinga. Just before sunset, we all went up onto the top deck together. Both told me about their lives – some very personal stories about marriage and betrayal, about new partners and old loves. The people of the Amazon simply cannot keep a secret. They love to chat. Beer flowed, Brazilian pop songs pounded from the loudspeakers and suddenly everyone was dancing wildly. Party time!
And then by day, there’s the other Amazonia. What a contrast! The animal kingdom, nature. You can steam down the river for hours without seeing a single human habitation. But there’s plenty to be heard. Birds squawk, insects hum, monkeys screech and their many voices blend into a sensual symphony. And at the same time, something weird happens: The noise level makes the stillness that also exists in the jungle seem even more powerful. It grows, it gets under your skin and spreads throughout your body in a great “omm” that massages your psyche. I once talked with a couple of young Indios in Manaus who were apprentices there. They said the noise was the worst thing about the city: It was constantly with them, kept them from sleeping, made them ill. But for the Indios and Mestizos who stayed by the river instead of migrating to the cities, there’s not much to do. They catch fish, doze outside their huts, play with their children. Some still believe in witchcraft. They wear amulets made of dried dolphin eyes to ward off the evil eye, and mummified birds on a chain to assure them of luck in love. On the Amazon, superstition complements modern science, which still has trouble explaining many a natural phenomenon.
When in 1541, Francisco de Orellana became the first white man to travel the Amazon from West to East; dense rainforest covered the river’s banks everywhere. These days, there are large gaps in the tropical vegetation, and great barrages frequently block the meanders. The Caboclos, descendants of the Indios and the white conquerors who have lived on these shores for centuries, are having to relocate to manmade lakes.
Once, a long time ago on my first trip to Amazonia, I stayed with the Caboclos. They let me sleep in their villages, and gave me a guide to show me the rainforest. The air was so humid and heavy that after only a short tramp through the forest, I was dripping with sweat. Not a breath of wind reached the ground. When we arrived at a lagoon, I undressed and jumped right in. Marvelous, so refreshing! Had I known what else was swimming in the water, I would not have been so dauntless. Fishing right after my dip, I felt a tug on my line and pulled it in – and with it, a piranha! At least piranhas are not as dangerous as the bloodcurdling stories of many an explorer would have us believer, my local guide informed me. Barbecued, they even taste pretty good, despite their many bones. And compared with some of what I had been served while traveling along the Amazon, the piranha ought even to rate as classic local fare.
On the Río Beni River, Indios served me a freshly killed monkey. They had cut off the top of his skull. I was given a spoon to scoop out the brain, which is considered a delicacy here. The mass was warm, raw, and repulsive. I preferred the while larvae on the Rio Marañón, probably because they were served in a hot, spicy sauce. Roasted ants are also a specialty in the region. Their hard exoskeletons crunch between your teeth and they have a very full flavor. I was particularly surprised by one type of ant that is found in São Gabriel de Cachoeira on the Río Negro. The local Indios let them stew slowly and they had a sweet, limey flavor.
The rainforest provides a home for all of these creatures. That’s why I sometimes see it as a kind of parallel universe. Like Pandora, the world of James Cameron’s movie Avatar, it is full of amazing creatures, colors, and smells – butterflies every color of the rainbow; monkeys scaring off brightly colored macaws; giant toucans rising squawking into the air. Everywhere, blossoming bromelias and orchids. Pink river dolphins swim alongside the steamers as though hired especially to entertain the passengers. Caimans lie in wait, only their eyes and nostrils visible to us on deck. There are spiders as big as plates here, and giant anacondas that can grow to a length of nine meters. Amazonia, the land of superlatives. At night, travelers search the shore in the beam of the ship’s reflectors. The jungle is teeming with life. Everywhere, you can see luminous spots – are they jaguars, or perhaps insects? No one knows. Suddenly, black beetles rain down on our heads and women scream. Humans become very small because the forest is so large.
It took Francisco de Orellana a good eight months to travel from the foot of the Andes and across the Río Napo to the mouth of the Amazon. Along the way through that green hell, his men had to fend off headhunters and arrows shot at them from the shore. Over and over again, they urged the Indios to tell them about a city made of gold that was allegedly hidden in the jungle. These ancient stories gave rise to the myth of Amazonia almost five hundred years ago.
Ultimately though, it was not gold but the rubber tree that brought fabulous wealth to the region. It was the sap of the rubber tree that made the cities of Manaus and Belém great in the second half of the 19th century. There was great demand from North American and European industry for the new raw material, which was used to produce tires for the newly developed motor car, for instance. Thousands of workers, day laborers, and fortune hunters combed the rainforest and collected the precious sap in the toughest conditions. Unscrupulous businesspeople in Manaus became millionaires overnight. And all the hype and hysteria electrified the jungle metropolis.
It was here that Latin America’s first electric streetcar went into service; here, that at the apex of the boom an opera house of sumptuous splendor was built: the Teatro Amazonia. Its marble came from Carrara, the glass for the chandeliers from Murano, the furniture from Paris – nothing was too costly for the rubber barons. In 1896, the opera house staged a magnificent opening show, the first premiere of Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. Then the flow of rubber wealth dried up as suddenly as it had begun, when the British stole rubber seedlings and laid down their own plantations in Southeast Asia. By the early 20th century, they were producing rubber far more cheaply than the Brazilians. Manaus rapidly fell into decline, and it was not until the implementation of the Special Economic Zone in the 1970s that the reincarnation began of the city that is a starting point for jungle tours today.
When I am in Manaus, my favorite haunt is Amarelinho, a small bar where I can sit for hours, sipping a cold beer, enjoying the sight of ships sailing the Rio Negro at my feet. At some point, the setting sun turns the river into molten golden. For me, that’s freedom, a dream come true.
My favorite experience? There have been so many. Once I climbed a jungle giant that was over 50 meters tall. The ascent was installed by the photographer, adventurer and tree climber Leonide Principe. My adrenaline level shot up with each length of rope I put behind me. My exertions were rewarded with an incredible view of the rainforest’s leafy roof. Cicadas began their serenade … Amazonia really is sometimes too good to be true. It’s a kingdom. I’d say I spent that night in its crown.
Amazonia is his second home: Reporter Andrzej Rybak has traveled the region over a dozen times.