I’m quite relieved by their affability, for my new friends are from the Yano- mami tribe and have a history of being fearless and often ferocious fighters. The Yanomami are one of two hundred or so indigenous tribes still left from the days when the first Europeans set foot in the country. There were estimated to be some five million Indians in Brazil when the Portuguese began to settle here early in the sixteenth century. Today, after the depredations of slavery, disease and loss of land to loggers, farmers and miners, they number no more than 300,000.
It’s a walk of just over three kilometres (two miles) from the clinic to the maloca, the home of this particular group of Yanomami who are to be our hosts for the night. We leave the modern world behind at the end of the airstrip and follow them deep into the forest. A very beautiful walk it is too, with sunlight filtering through the foliage and a great quiet, broken only by low voices and the
occasional screech of a bird. After forty-five minutes the maloca appears abruptly, at the end of the trail. A long circular construction similar in dimension to a small football stadium, which, despite its size, seems to melt into the surrounding forest. Rising protectively behind it is the smooth grey bulk of a granite outcrop, fringed with scrub.
This huge circular house, which they call a yano, measures some 400 metres in circumference and twenty-five metres across. The outer wall, a jumble of beams and planks, is topped with a palm-thatch roof which slopes down at a sharp angle towards a central, sand-covered plaza. Beneath the roof is a beamed and pillared space about fifteen metres deep, accommodating beneath it about 180 people. The hammocks and living areas are at the back, leaving the front clear as a walkway. There are no partitions. Everyone can see everyone else around the circle. Privacy is respected without the need for separate rooms or enclosures and as they help me sling my hammock no one makes me feel conspicuous.
Until the 1950s no one knew much about the Yanomami. Their isolation from the rest of the world enabled their way of life to continue as it must have done for thousands of years: hunting, fishing and living off the fruits of the forest like bananas, yams, manioc and maize. Then, as John Hemming writes in Tree of Rivers, his history of the Amazon: ‘That tranquillity was destroyed by three inven- tions: the plane, the chainsaw and the bulldozer.’ This combination pushed the Yanomami to the brink of extinction. In the late 1980s this remote border area saw a gold rush, which drew thousands of garimpeiros – gold prospectors – into the forests, far outnumbering the Yanomami. Trees were felled and streams and rivers poisoned by the mercury needed to extract the gold. Alcohol, prostitution and diseases like syphilis accompanied this new invasion. Despite a demarcation area being drawn up to protect the tribal land, the lust for gold continued unabated until, in 1993, the killing of a number of Indian men, women and children and the attempt by the perpetrators to burn their bodies led to serious attempts to expel the garimpeiros. In the last twenty years a local NGO, working closely with the Yanomami, has improved their conditions and things are looking better for them, with numbers rising to some 20,000 on either side of the border with Venezuela.
I have complicated feelings about being able to just fly in here. Three hours door-to-door from my hotel in Boa Vista. I have no motive other than curiosity about how these people live, but I feel I have nothing to offer them in return. As it turns out this is not entirely true. Over the years the Yanomami have learnt a lot about public relations. They know that some outsiders are bad and some are good. They must impress the good ones to keep out the bad ones. Davi Ko- penawa Yanomami, who welcomed us to the maloca wearing his traditional paint and feather adornments, has been promoting the cause of Brazilian Indians all over the world. He appreciates that people like ourselves who come here in good faith will hopefully paint an attractive and sympathetic portrait of the Yanomami to the world outside and this will make them less easy to exploit.
They are getting together some dancing for us. Nothing moves very fast here, but the preparations themselves are fascinating. The participants gather in a sunlit glade in the forest, men at one end, women and children at the other, to prepare themselves for the afternoon’s celebrations. A tree stump, covered with brushes and paints, acts as a make-up table. As a basic decoration, they rub each other with a red dye from the ground-up seeds of the urucum flower, which also protects their skin from insects and sunburn. Over this, other designs are pains- takingly applied. Parallel stripes are drawn on the faces of the children and, with the aid of pink plastic hand mirrors, much attention is given to the hair. Necklaces of yellow plastic beads are carefully adjusted. The boys have thin wooden needles inserted into their noses and round their mouths and they walk about sharpening their arrows as if halfway through an acupuncture session. The men wear anklets and armbands adorned with clusters of toucan feathers. As a final touch the men and boys have a coating of white feathers from the breast of the harpy eagle stuck onto their heads.
They prepare unhurriedly, and eventually the procession sets out along the track to the maloca led by one of the tiniest boys of the village. He’s followed by the women, a number of them holding their babies, followed in turn by the men striking fierce poses as they go. They assemble beneath one of the giant mango trees, but only when they’ve moved into the communal house does the procession become a dance. The women lead, moving gracefully, six steps forward, two steps back, as they circle the house. The men, representing the hunters, follow, stamping their feet, waving spears and chanting menacingly. The dance goes on for some time, despite the great heat, and when the women have finished the men gather in line in the central, unshaded plaza to shout and jump. At the end of the dancing everyone, from the oldest to the youngest in the village, is rewarded with a thick brew of fermented peach palm, pupunha juice, dispensed from huge buckets. The red berries, with their peach-coloured flesh, are rich in protein, starch and vitamins. The result must be quite potent and there’s much competitive drinking among the men. No one is reproved for taking too much; in fact the young children take fresh supplies to their elders. It’s a big communal treat and I’m offered a taste, and gratefully accept. After my refusal of another brimming bowlful their curiosity about us wanes, and they get on with enjoying themselves. This is their party.
It’s the end of the day. The celebrants have dispersed back to their hammocks to sleep off the effects of the pupunha. Some will have taken a pinch or two of the hallucinogenic snuff which keeps hunger and thirst at bay. It’s made from a tree resin called epena and little jars of it hang from the timber pillars, for public use. As if parodying the mood in the yano, a baby tree sloth which is being kept as a pet eases itself extremely slowly along one of the beams. The only outside activity
is a woman with a broom chasing a black-bristled peccary, or wild pig, that has been shuffling round the place all day, getting the dogs very irritated. She ushers it fiercely out through one of the doors, where it stands, snorting resentfully, before lowering its great round snout and resuming its hoovering in the dust.
Once night falls there is little to pierce the darkness other than the embers of small fires which are lit around the maloca to keep the insects away and provide some warmth in the early hours. Like everyone else I sleep in a hammock. The man next to me is wild-haired and a bit confused. He has a black wad of chewing tobacco permanently lodged in his lower jaw. He seems generally ignored by the others in the community, and swings gently in his hammock murmuring to himself. Cockroaches scuttle around by the fence as I clean my teeth.
I wake in the middle of the night. It’s very dark and very quiet, but I need to answer the call of nature. I switch on my torch and head for one of the entrances, only to find all the doors shut and fastened. I ease one open and walk to the nearest bushes. Fireflies dance around. Then a grunt and a snuffle nearby makes me freeze. It’s the peccary, a few paces away and eyeing me with malevolence. By the time I return to the yano I find a woman standing by the door. She lets me in, smiles, pushes it shut and secures it with a peg. It’s a hostile world out there and I feel embarrassed that I might have momentarily jeopardized the collective security.
Day 2 . Demini, Roraima
I’M WOKEN BY what sounds like torrential rain but is in fact a powerful wind rushing through the thatch roof above me. A voice starts up, loud and clear, not far from me. A man speaks for almost half an hour, as if delivering a sermon. No one reacts and later I can find no one who can tell me what he was talking about. The man who was lying next to me last night has gone and someone else is in his place. I swing myself out of my hammock, take my towel and washbag and walk across the plaza to a stream that runs at the back of the village. No one else is about. I strip off, leave my clothes on a granite boulder and lie flat in the cool, clear, shallow water. Yellow butterflies flutter just above the surface and the tall trees lead my eyes to a distant blue handkerchief of sky.
I’m washed and dressed by the time the first Yanomami come down to the stream. The young men walk with arms folded, and they greet me with an amused smile. Some of them bid me good morning in Portuguese. Back at the maloca the peccary’s found its way in again and is being harried by the dogs. It stands its ground: ugly, surly, but impressively unafraid.
The community seems depleted this morning. I’m told that many of the young men and women are out at the gardens some way away. One or two of the older women have begun to prepare their staple diet. Manioc, or cassava, is one of the oldest cultivated foods known to man but it requires careful preparation as it contains toxic elements. Rendering it safely edible is a laborious and time- consuming process involving peeling, grating, grinding and boiling. When the manioc pulp is ready it’s rolled into thin white discs which are thrown up onto the thatched roof to dry.
I’m struck by how well the maloca seems to work. Everything they have is potentially shared. There are no walls behind which things can be hoarded unnoticed. The bond between mothers and children seems particularly strong. Small babies spend most of their time in flesh-to-flesh contact with their mothers and I have hardly heard any of the crying or scolding that we in our enlightened world might take for granted.
There are elders but no bosses in the maloca. Davi, who is their shaman and the spokesman for many Indian tribes, is a man of dignity and a very clear sense of what the future holds. He wears a fine feather headdress for our interview, which begins inauspiciously.
‘Davi,’ I ask, ‘You live here in one of the most remote parts of the world...’
The remainder of my question is drowned out by the sound of an aircraft coming low over the trees. Much laughter. Start again.
‘Davi, being so cut off from the rest of the world, do you...’
‘Sorry, we’ll have to stop,’ says Seb, our sound man. He motions upwards. ‘Another plane.’
When this airline hub of north-western Brazil finally quietens down I ask Davi if he sees himself as Yanomami or Brazilian first. Though his answer is Yanomami, he concedes that there are some aspects of integration with the wider world that have been of great benefit. In health, particularly. The clinic and the airstrip have ensured that far fewer of the Yanomami are dying from diseases like measles and malaria. There have been no deaths from malaria for several years. But the threats remain. There are still those who see the rights of the gold prospectors as equal to those of the Indians. There are farmers who want to start clearing the forest to raise cattle, military who want to take land to secure the border area, and big dams are planned which will cause their rivers to dry up. He is glad that we have come here to show the world how his people live; but if we truly want to defend their way of life then we must go home and protest to our governments who support companies investing in Brazil’s abundance without a thought for the tribes.
‘We are the people of the forest,’ he says quietly and insistently. ‘We are the ones who know how to look after it.’
Before we leave there is further evidence of how rapidly the world outside has changed the Yanomami way of life. Not far from the maloca they have cleared the forest to create a football pitch. It might not be level, but there are two goalposts and two very keen teams. The kit consists of footwear (optional) and a pair of shorts. Striped shirts are painted on their upper bodies and striped socks painted on their calves. Despite the punishing heat they throw themselves into the game, everyone chasing for every ball. It’s a happy image but it’s also a confirmation that their old way of life is changed for ever and now, for better or worse, the days of isolation are over.
We walk back slowly, reflectively, through this sylvan peacefulness until we reach the airstrip. Francisco, our pilot, is already waiting, looking anxiously at the sky.
We bid our last farewells and climb aboard. The clearing and the cluster of buildings recede into the distance. For the next hour there is nothing below us but rolling rainforest, swathing the land in every shade of green, broken occasionally by vivid dabs of purple and yellow blossom. Thin spidery rivers appear, then peter out. I can see no sign of a track or a trail. Then the landscape changes, levels out, and where there was forest there are wide fields of grass and some soya and ahead of us is a proper airport and soon we’re down to earth again.
Day 3 . Boa Vista, Roraima
RORAIMA is Brazil’s newest state, created in 1988. It’s about the same size as the UK. The capital, Boa Vista, lies beside the broad waters of the Rio Branco, recently bridged by a road carrying Highway B-74 which connects it with Manaus and the Amazon 750 kilometres (470 miles) to the south. It’s an unsentimental frontier town. Though the state is home to twenty indigenous tribes and a huge area of protected land, the sympathies of Boa Vista appear to lie elsewhere. The statue that dominates the main square is of a kneeling gold prospector and there are shops painted gold where the produce of the garimpeiros is openly traded. A big American I talk to at the hotel buffet is here to look at some farmland he’s bought in the north of the state. Despite the demarcation of land for Indians and the restrictions on the garimpeiros there’s money to be made here. Boa Vista sees itself as the gateway to a land of opportunity.
The Public Prosecutor of Roraima State is an unequivocal supporter of the rights of the indigenous people and says that a lot of those living in Boa Vista are civil servants administering government funds on their behalf. We talk down by the river near a portentous mural depicting the great Brazilian explorer Colonel Cândido Rondon. He it was who, at the turn of the twentieth century, accompanied the ex-American-President Teddy Roosevelt and his son Kermit on many of their intrepid travels through the Amazon headwaters. Rondon had great admiration for the indigenous tribes he encountered and in 1910 he helped create the Indian Protection Service. A state called Rondonia was named after him, and indeed there are, somewhere, two small tributaries of the Amazon, one called Rio Roosevelt and the other Rio Kermit.
Rodrigo the Prosecutor and his wife Tatiana are young, bright lawyers from the South. They both manfully defend their posting up in the far North, though there’s clearly not a lot going on here. He quotes a local saying: ‘If a lion came to Boa Vista on a Sunday afternoon, it would die of hunger.’
Last year he suspended all mining activities in the state, but admits that it is very expensive to police such a vast area and the boundaries of protected land are difficult to pin down. Fifty gold miners have been arrested but the penalties are weak; and with the world price of gold at an all-time high there are those who will always take the risk.
He sees the future of the Yanomami being secured not by separation but by an increasing two-way exchange, with tribespeople coming to the city and outsiders visiting the malocas to get to know their way of life. Lasting protection, he feels, can only be based on mutual respect and understanding.
Day 4 . Beside the Rio Negro
WITH ONE BOUND we’ve crossed the Equator and are now in a small village on the banks of the Rio Negro, a few kilometres upstream from where this already mighty river joins the Amazon. The houses are modest, clapboard constructions built on stilts, for in the flood season the river can rise by at least ten metres. The odd thing is that they all seem freshly painted in bold, bright colours. I’m told that this is because this village was recently the location for one of Brazilian TV’s much-loved soap operas. This one had an ecological twist and catered for the increasingly serious interest being taken in the Amazon.
That was then. Now the TV company has moved on and there is not much left to this small fishing settlement but the glossy colours of the houses and a general air of listlessness. It’s here that I meet Elias, one of the last of the old-style rubber tappers, or seringueiros – seringueira being the Portuguese name for the rubber tree. In his mid-sixties now, Elias’s deeply lined face, weathered and pinched, betrays a hard life, or possibly a hard-drinking life. He was nine years old when his father took him on his first rubber-tapping expedition. Like the gold prospectors of Roraima, the seringueiros worked in small self-employed groups, often far from home for long periods. He showed me one of the rubber trees, the Hevea brasiliensis: short, slender and with its grey bark scarred with incisions. The cuts are made close to the base of the tree where the latex runs more plentifully. Elias draws his blade diagonally across the bark and as the white sticky juice oozes out he collects it in a small metal pot. This is heated to a temperature of 800°C over an open fire, which contains sulphur to keep the latex malleable. This vital part of the process, called vulcanization, was discovered by the American inventor Charles Goodyear in 1839. Elias adds the vulcanized latex to a growing ball weighing several kilos. In this form the rubber would have been shipped downstream by the seringueiros to the middlemen in Manaus or Santarém. In the late nineteenth century a lot of Brazilians grew immensely wealthy as the world demand for their rubber increased.
It was a French explorer named Charles Marie de La Condamine who first drew attention to the valuable properties of Hevea brasiliensis, but ultimately it was the British who benefited most from his discovery. Sir Joseph Hooker, the industrious botanist who was Director of Kew Gardens from 1865 to 1885, was fascinated by the exotic plants and trees of the world. In the 1860s he had encouraged Richard Spruce to bring seedlings of the cinchona tree, the source of quinine, out of South America and had them transplanted to India, providing an antidote to malaria and one of the essential ingredients of gin and tonic. Hooker then turned his energies to the rubber tree. In 1876, at Hooker’s instigation, a man called Henry Wickham, now much reviled in Brazil, smuggled out enough seeds to germinate rubber trees at Kew Gardens. By 1900 they were successfully transplanted to Malaya. A most skilful botanist called Henry Ridley – ‘Rubber’ Ridley, as he became known – persuaded tea producers to raise Hevea brasiliensis on their Malayan plantations. His perseverance paid off. By 1908 there were ten million rubber trees in Malaya producing rubber at a fifth of the cost of the Brazilian product. By 1920 Brazil’s most profitable export business had collapsed. Elias’s father, like other seringueiros, continued to tap but the days when you could get seriously rich from Brazilian rubber were over.
As one of Henry Wickham’s countrymen I feel almost embarrassed as Elias demonstrates the process for us, albeit without much conviction. Everyone looks up in some relief as the skies darken and we just have time to race across the village football pitch and into the Pousada Jacaré (Alligator Guest House) as the first thudding drops of a tropical deluge descend. For a few hours there’s nothing much we can do. It’s one of those tropical storms of such intensity that, as the writer Álvaro Mutis put it, ‘they seem to announce the universal flood’. We eat from a basic buffet of fish, chicken, rice and salad and then take to the hammocks that hang on the veranda.
Elias sits at the table with a succession of beers, pouring out the story of his life to anyone who’ll listen. And a sad story it is too. He’d married at the age of nineteen and they had one son. Then for some reason he left home. Walked out. He says now that he left the one woman he’d ever really loved, and never found her again.
When the rain eases we tramp across the duckboards and out along the rickety wooden jetty to pick up our boat. It’s an open boat and a very wide river, and the wind whips what’s left of the rain into our faces as it carries us back down the Rio Negro to the hotel where we’ll be spending the night.
I’ve never come across a hotel quite like it. From the river its collection of round wooden towers, painted a murky, undergrowth green, looks like a row of abandoned gasometers. There’s something ominous about its appearance, as if we might have stumbled upon some abandoned jungle laboratory where an experiment went terribly wrong.
This is not that far from the truth. The Ariaú Towers complex was built in the 1970s as one of the first eco-lodges in the Amazon. The famous French naturalist and explorer Jacques Cousteau had come here to study the river dolphins and wanted to create some sort of centre, something that would blend in with its surroundings, in which visitors could experience the richness of the rain- forest without damaging it. The buildings would be made from local materials, which is why there is no steel or concrete to support the framework that carries the six-storey accommodation pods and the network of walkways that connects them, high above the riverbank.
Though it’s a little run-down these days, it’s a playful sort of place, with more than a touch of eco-kitsch. A big, colourful snake rears up beside the swimming pool. There’s a three-metre-high Disney-like Indian with bow and arrow and a pair of painted wooden leopards clinging to tree trunks outside the Aquarium Disco and Bar. To get to my room, Casa do Tarzan – the Tarzan House– I have to cross two bridges and climb four flights of precipitous steps to the top of a tree. I could have done without the dainty white curtains, the bedspread and the towels rolled up in the shape of a snake, but I sorely missed a liana to swing myself down to the ground, not to mention a distorting mirror in the bathroom to make me look like Johnny Weissmuller.
It was only as I lay back on the bed to take it all in that I became aware of the potential disadvantages of a tree house in the Amazon rainforest, a constant chorus of scuttlings, scratchings and peckings from the walls and the ceiling. It was like lying in a nesting box. I’m all for being close to nature, but not this close.
Day 5 . Ariaú Towers, Rio Negro
UP EARLY after a night of weird dreams which I put down to the malaria tablets. The squirrel monkeys are already scooting about waiting to find their way through the netting and into breakfast. They have distinctive tan fur on their backs and faces that seem to consist only of two big eyes. They’re hugely appealing and very naughty.
With a bit of luck we shall be looking at more unusual wildlife as we head off up a side river to a rendezvous with Botos Cor de Rosa, pink Amazon dolphins. My guide is a young man called Gabriel. His family are caboclos, people of mixed Indian and European blood for whom life has never been easy. Gabriel has created his own luck. He taught himself English in the 1990s, qualified as a guide for the Ariaú Towers and moved his wife and young family to Manaus. But the recent fall in tourist numbers, especially from North America, has just cost him his regular job, and he now works part-time.
The trees that crowd the still, reflective surface of the creek seem strangely silent. Gabriel explains to me that the water of the Rio Negro is acidic, which means fewer fish and less food for the birds. Almost as he speaks a largish bird detaches itself from the tree cover and flaps lazily up ahead of us, its wings silver in the pale morning sunlight. It’s an osprey.
The wind catches us as we emerge from the sheltered side channel onto the wide, lake-like waters of the Rio Negro. Ahead of us, on its platform of lashed-together logs and a threadbare thatched roof, is the pink dolphin viewing- platform. There are two main species of river dolphin in the Amazon. The grey dolphin is shy of humans, but the more plentiful pink dolphins have been courted over the last few years by a local boy who has won their trust by feeding them sardines. He’s already thrown a few in and as I slide into the water I can see fins coming closer. This is not something I’ve ever done before and I’m a little apprehensive. Then the first of them makes contact beneath the water, a cool, hard, strong back, a soft skin and a bulbous neck like that of a walrus. And then a spectacular jaw, as long as a chainsaw and lined with twenty or thirty teeth, breaks the surface and snaps at a sardine. There are five of them circling now and as they come in closer I can see them gliding towards me, then I feel them twisting and turning, giving me a whack with their hard flippers or probing the water awfully close to my lower body with their long, scissor-like mouths. They’re agile but sightless and I feel quite pleased that they trust me enough to bounce off my body and still come back for more. And I trust them enough not to mistake anything of mine for a sardine.
For fifteen minutes or more I rub along with dolphins, until the bait runs out and they swim slowly away. When we’re back in the boat Gabriel tells me that the
pink dolphin plays a very important part in the folklore of the Amazon villages. At party times, when there is drinking and dancing, he is believed to swim up to the village and, taking human form, impregnate the local girls, before disappearing as the daylight comes. I’m all for local legend, but blaming it on the dolphins is such a blatant cover story. I check with Gabriel and no, he’s never seen a half- dolphin child.
We carry on up the river to a more substantial floating platform on which Gabriel’s parents have a shop and a small hotel. They’re known as ribeirinhos – the small businessmen of the riverbank – and they live by fishing, growing fruit, gathering brazil nuts, running a small bar and shop and trying to attract eco- tourists. They’ve no guests at the moment and they’re doing work on the rooms. Gabriel’s mother makes us Amazon coffee and we sit and watch the world go by.
‘There is no road here. The river is our road,’ says Gabriel, and I think he’s quite happy with that.
The Rio Negro is a clear and clean river without much alluvial content. It sustains 1,300 species of fish including twenty-five species of piranha. One’s blood runs cold, or is it hot, at the very mention of piranha, but Gabriel reassures me that none of them are dangerous. Not here on the Rio Negro. And there are no mosquitoes here either, unlike on the Amazon. He likes this time of year (it’s January) as the rains come and the river starts to fill. By June it will be the time of plenty for those who live off the rivers, as the levels will have risen by anything from ten to fifteen metres, creating a vast and fertile flood-plain called the várzea.
Every fifty years they have freak conditions. In 2009, the highest the river rose was twenty-nine metres, followed the year after by a drought.
The sound of outboard motors hums around us as small boats come up alongside. His father unloads two empty fuel drums which will be lowered down to give extra support for the platform. A lean and quietly dignified old man wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat ties up, waits patiently to collect supplies from the shop and steers his boat back across the stream to the far bank. The pace of life is gentle. The sunlight sparkling off the river makes me deliciously drowsy. I could stay here for ever.
Day 6 . Manaus
ANYONE who visits Amazônia must at some point pass through Manaus. It’s the capital of Amazonas State, a major transport hub, with a busy airport, docks and a brand-new, four-kilometre-long (two and a half miles) road bridge over the Rio Negro. Its population is growing fast and has just topped the two million mark. Declared a Free Trade Zone in 1967 Manaus has become Brazil’s biggest manufacturer of white goods and electronic appliances. People come from hundreds of kilometres away to buy their cheap TVs here. And from beneath the nose of its rival Belém, it’s won the right to host the only World Cup games to be played in Amazônia in 2014.
Manaus has known the good times before. A hundred years ago it was at the centre of the rubber boom and, briefly, one of the wealthiest cities in all the Southern Hemisphere; the first city in Brazil to have trolley-buses and the second to have electric light. Then the rubber boom ended, as fast as it had begun, and for many years Manaus went back to being a hot, sticky backwater which no one wanted to visit. The bars and brothels emptied and the grand old buildings became too expensive to maintain. Apart from one. An icon that bestrides two boom times, the internationally renowned opera house. The first thing I discover as I stand marvelling at its creamy three-storey facade is that it’s not actually called the Opera House. It’s called the Teatro Amazonas.
But the confusion is understandable. When it came to spending money, the Brazilian rubber barons of the 1890s looked across the Atlantic for their inspiration. Spurred on by the indefatigable ambition of the Governor, Eduardo Ribeiro, palatial houses, public buildings, clubs, bars, restaurants, banks and brothels set out to turn Manaus into the Paris of the Tropics. No self-respecting hommage to the French capital was complete without a nod to their culture and that meant, at the very least, one opera house.
They imported Scottish ironwork, English china, Portuguese architects, Italian marble, French mirrors and curtains. The only ingredients from Brazil were timber and the rubber that was used to pave the driveway outside so as to soften the sound of carriage wheels during the performance. The whole majestic edifice was opened in 1896. Governor Ribeiro, whose vision had transformed Manaus, died by his own hand in 1900, coincidentally the same year that the first Kew-raised rubber trees were planted in Malaya, marking the beginning of the end of Brazilian rubber domination and the Paris of the Tropics.
Looking at the Teatro Amazonas today, built on a mound above the attractively restored square of Largo de São Sebastião, it’s hard to imagine it in hard times. Its pink and white exterior, restored fifteen years ago, glows in the sunshine, lavish detail piled on lavish detail and crowned with sumptuous stucco personifications of music and drama. In contrast to the neo-classical facade is the magnificent mosaic-tiled dome that rises behind it, less like Paris and more like a mosque in Isfahan or Tashkent.
I step inside, glad to be out of the blazing sun, and suddenly find the sweat pouring from me. Manaus is notoriously sticky – I think the reading for today was ninety-four percent humidity – and there’s a problem with the air-con inside the theatre. Members of the orchestra, gathering for a rehearsal, fan themselves with their scores as they take their places on a long, deep stage. The interior is very fine indeed. The 700 seats are all separate and upholstered in plush, ruby-red velour. They’re set mainly in the stalls, above and around which three narrow galleries of boxes rise in a beautifully graceful curve, giving the auditorium intimacy and grandeur at the same time. Busts of great cultural figures, Schiller, Shakespeare, Goethe, Mozart and the like, decorate the balconies. On the interior of the dome is a spectacular piece of trompe l’oeil which gives the impression that the Eiffel Tower is springing out of the roof above us.
Luiz, the portly conductor from São Paulo, taps his baton to bring the sixty- strong Amazon Philharmonic Orchestra to order. They’re rehearsing the overture to O Guarany, an opera by Carlos Gomes from the hugely popular nineteenth- century novel by José Alencar. The Guarany are, or were, an Indian tribe and the hero of the story is an Indian who saves the life of a white girl. Gomes died in 1896, the year the Teatro Amazonas opened. A painting of his bust, with a winged angel protecting it, appears on the inside of the dome, next to the Eiffel Tower.
It’s a lively and inspiring piece, but Luiz has things he’s not happy with. As they go over it again I look into the handsome ballroom, whose parquet flooring is of such quality that visitors – and there are many – have to slide into absurdly large furry slippers before they enter. Feeling like a troll on steroids, I swish my
way across and out onto the mighty, pillared balcony. The view of Manaus is quite depressing. The high-rise blocks of the 1970s are grimy and neglected. The opera house is an ornate jewel in a rough and ready city.
With rehearsals over for the morning, I’ve a chance to meet some of the players. They’re from all over the world. Wolfgang, one of the horn players, is from Germany. ‘East Germany,’ he adds with deliberate mock horror effect. There wasn’t much work at home for a classical musician – too many competing orchestras. In 2004 he answered an advert for a tuba player to come and play Wagner’s Götterdämmerung in the Amazon.
‘I looked at Brazilian culture and I loved it.’ In 2005 he came over and stayed. He married a girl from Manaus and they have a son. ‘Here we work to relax.’ I ask Wolfgang if he spends much time up in the jungle. He screws up his face. ‘I don’t need to. I have snakes at home.’ He explains, with much laughter, how he had to get someone to dispose of two green cobras in his garden. Which didn’t sound that funny to me.
Classical music is a relative newcomer to the Brazilian music scene and when he’s not playing in the Amazon Philharmonic, Wolfgang, along with Elena, one of the violinists, teaches classes of youngsters in a small room at the Sambadrome, a huge stadium where all the Carnival preparations and events take place.
Elena is from Plovdiv in Bulgaria. She’s in her mid-fifties, short and stocky, with close-cut fair hair and an easy, relaxed manner. She’s lived in Manaus for twelve years and has seen it change a lot. ‘When I came Manaus was like a village.’ Now it’s grown bigger, more expensive and, she thinks, more violent. But the young cellists and violinists she and Wolfgang are trying to interest in Bruckner this afternoon are all given their tuition for free and she hopes that in a small way what they provide is some alternative to the streets. I ask her how different she finds Brazil from Europe. She spreads her arms. ‘It’s like another universe. The mentality here is a tabula rasa. With these children you have to begin at the very
beginning. It’s quite a responsibility.’ Which, clearly, she’s happy to take on. Our hotel is north and west of the city centre, near two large army camps and
the affluent strip of beach called Porto Negro, where Manaus’s millionaires live. I take a walk through the car park and down to the riverbank. The Rio Negro, which rises up in Yanomami territory, has swollen spectacularly. The far bank is nearly five kilometres (three miles) away. It’s just too big to take in, and it hasn’t even become the Amazon yet. I content myself with nature at its more intimate, watching Oriole blackbirds, flashes of vivid black and yellow, as they chase each other in and out of the trees.
Day 7 . Manaus Santarém
BEFORE WE LEAVE and head east I’m given an overview of what is happening in this vast Amazon region, the size of Western Europe, from someone intimately concerned with the health of the world’s largest rainforest. Paulo Adário lives in Manaus and works for Greenpeace. We sit and talk beside the river. He sees cause for cautious optimism. When he first came here the annual rate of deforestation was ‘a Belgium’ per year. That’s 30,000 square kilometres.
‘We use Belgium as a unit of measure,’ he explains. ‘Now it’s less than a third of a Belgium. That’s good news.’
As far as the indigenous population of the Amazon is concerned, there is, on the face of it, good news too. The principle of Customary Rights ensures that if a tribe can prove that they have lived in a certain area for sufficient time it becomes theirs. Twenty percent of the Amazon is now Indian
land. At the same time the world demand for Brazilian resources, be they soya,
iron ore, gold, oil, aluminium or timber, is apparently insatiable. Brazil is the largest exporter of beef on the planet and seventy-five percent of the deforestation has been to clear the ground for cattle. At the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, President Lula’s government committed Brazil to reducing deforestation by eighty percent within ten years. Yet, only a few weeks ago, Dilma Rousseff,
President Lula’s successor, signed off on a huge series of dams which will have a profound effect on the rainforest in the Xingu River area. I’m glad that on balance protection is winning over reckless deforestation, but while there is so much demand and so much land one feels the debate will never be over.
Flying east from Manaus further emphasizes the size and scale of Brazil. Just under two kilometres downstream of the city is the spectacular phenomenon of the Encontro das Águas, the confluence of two mighty rivers where the dark, acidic flow of the Rio Negro meets the sediment-filled Solimões River to form the Amazon proper. For several kilometres they run side by side until the muddy flow of the Solimões wins the battle and the Amazon becomes a mighty sheet of caramel-coloured water. Manaus is 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) from the sea, but only thirty-two metres above sea level, which is why the land below us is a great weaving mass of water, spreading itself over hundreds of kilometres. Seeing it from above I can almost comprehend the extraordinary statistic that twenty percent of all the world’s fresh water is contained within the Amazon Basin. I settle back into my aeroplane seat as all that moisture curls upwards. Clouds like big and billowing white sails merge, turn dark and suddenly the water that was down there is all around us.
Halfway between Manaus and Belém is Santarém, the third and most intimate of the big cities of the Amazon. With a population of less than 150,000 souls it lies close to a confluence twenty-five kilometres (fifteen miles) wide where the clean, green waters of the Rio Tapajós join the alluvial flow of the mother river. The vast quantities of water that swirl around it make the shores fertile, and there’s a museum in the town with a rich collection of pre-European ceramics, some dating back 10,000 years. Together with nearby discoveries of cave and rock paintings, they bear witness to a creative and sophisticated indigenous culture which was virtually wiped out. What replaced it was the European taste of the settlers. Santarém is another rubber boom town with a legacy of handsome colonial buildings and a big cathedral dominating the dockside. It’s also infamous in Brazilian history as the home of Henry Wickham, the rubber seed hero, or villain (according to whether you’re British or Brazilian) who arrived here in 1874.
But Santarém nearly had a second chance to get rich. Twenty-five years after Henry Wickham’s seeds switched production to the other side of the world, emissaries of the legendary American car maker, Henry Ford, arrived in the city, hoping to initiate a second rubber boom in Brazil. It would be sustained by the demand from his motor car factories and, more importantly, it meant that no longer would he have to rely on rubber from the British Empire which he so despised. In the 1920s a town was built on the forested shores of the Rio Tapajós and christened ‘Fordlândia’. Despite huge investment, this attempt to recreate the values of the American Midwest in the Brazilian jungle was a spectacular failure. To see what remains of Henry Ford’s dream I’m doing what his cohorts did eighty-five years ago. I’m taking to the river.
A flyblown dockside road leads to Santarém’s small, squeezed, massively busy ferry port. I pass a big plastic rubbish container with the word CLEAN, partially obscured by the rubbish in front of it, inscribed in large letters on the side. A turkey vulture stands astride it and dogs are nosing around in the overflow. Ahead of me is a muddy track on which are drawn up serried ranks of trucks carrying cargo for the twenty or so ships jostling for position around one single floating jetty. The vehicles are not allowed any closer, so from here everything has to be carried on by hand. Enormous loads are borne by staggering porters. Four dozen litre-bottles of beer on one man’s shoulders, two-metre-long gas cylinders on another’s. The loads are so heavy that the men must keep running to prevent their knees buckling under the weight.
I dodge out of their way as we wait to find out which ferry is going towards Fordlândia. Eventually we’re directed to the São Bartolomeu I, heading up the Tapajós on an eighteen-hour journey to the town of Itaituba with four stops on the way. A hundred people are crammed on the two small decks and twenty-five tonnes of cargo is stacked around them. The only way that so many people can survive an overnight voyage is to take to their hammocks. I’ve bought one in Santarém and I’m shown the space allotted to me, cheek by jowl with several families and their children.
Despite the apparent chaos the São Bartolomeu leaves dead on time, with peo- ple flinging themselves aboard even after we’ve cast off. One man hurls his bags a full metre before leaping on after them. Getting out onto the river requires ex- traordinary navigational skills, as the boat has to be reversed from the jammed jetty, inch by meticulous inch. When we have eventually prised ourselves free, two incoming ferries race each other for the vacant space.
The skyline of old Santarém gradually recedes and we run alongside a complex of silos and soaring conveyor belts that dwarf everything else around. This marks the presence of the American grain company Cargill who, in 2003, invested a Ford-like fortune to build a terminal for the produce of their soya plantations in the area. Apart from the forest cover removed for soya production, an upgrading of the road system to transport the soya to the silos at Santarém created a corri- dor of deforestation and development. The losers in all this were the caboclos, the general term for smallholders and traders . Despite having little legal or financial clout they fought for survival, and still are fighting. Only three months previously a man was shot dead in Itaituba for passing on information about illegal logging. In the last six months of 2011, eight people have been murdered for opposing forest clearance in Amazônia.
There is a tiny bar in the stern of the ship, with cans of beer and booming disco, but this is largely a family boat and most people are already enveloped in their hammocks like so many pupae waiting to hatch out.
Ahead of us the huge skies darken and jagged storm clouds hang over the mouth of the Tapajós. Another mighty river, as wide as a Swiss lake.
Day 8 . Fordlândia, Rio Tapajós
DURING THE NIGHT we transferred to the Aruã, a smaller riverboat, and took our time to travel down the Tapajós so that we could approach our destination in daylight. A storm hit in the middle of the night, with wind and torrential rain lashing the boat. This morning the last shreds of the rain clouds are disappearing, but it’s grey and cool. The riverbank is an endless wall of tangled, intertwined greenery, from which the occasional screeching bird darts out, dips, swings and vanishes again. There’s a disappointing lack of colourful wildlife. A flash of blue in the reed beds is more likely to be a plastic bag or chip off a water tank. The forest cover is broken every now and then by a modest caboclo cabin sitting in a clearing, with maybe a horse or a couple of cows grazing, a white egret patrolling the shore and, always, a dog stretched out across the threshold fast asleep.
It’s mid-morning when there’s the first unmistakable sign that we are in sight of our goal. Rising above the trees like some great bird is an elegant grey pod perched on top of tall triangular stilts. It’s a 1930s water tower, and if it looks as if it should be in some industrial plant outside Detroit, that’s exactly the intention. Fordlândia was Henry Ford’s industrial dream town in the middle of the Amazon jungle.
In the mid-1920s, thanks to the huge success of the Model T, the world’s first mass-produced car, Henry Ford’s company had sixty percent of the truck and automobile market in Brazil. Hearing rumours of Ford’s interest, various Brazilian entrepreneurs approached Ford with offers of cheap land for rubber production in the Amazon. Ford liked the idea. It appealed on more than merely commercial grounds. He had his own, highly individual way of running a business and was
becoming frustrated by what he saw as interference at home. As Greg Grandin writes in his book Fordlandia, the Amazon adventure offered a fresh start for Ford in a place ‘uncorrupted by unions, politicians, Jews, lawyers, militarists and New York bankers’.
He acquired a million-hectare site beside the Tapajós River and in the late 1920s the company began to impose his dream of orderly, industrial efficiency on the untidy, disorderly profusion of a rainforest. After a disastrous start everything began to work rather well, with the single exception of the sole reason they were out there in the first place – to grow rubber.
Due to a combination of ineptitude, impatience and the ravages of South American Leaf Blight, the rubber plantation failed. Ford belatedly employed agronomists as well as business managers, on whose advice he moved the plantation to nearby Belterra, whilst still keeping Fordlândia as a company base for research and development. But disease, difficulty in training and keeping a workforce, and import and export restrictions gradually took their toll and in 1945 the company moved out altogether. The Brazilian government briefly tried to operate what was left, but that fell through and Fordlândia, as an industrial enterprise, was abandoned in the 1950s. The ghost town that was left behind is what we see now as the Aruã rounds the bend of the river.
It’s clear that people still live in Fordlândia. There is a church a little way up the hill, houses along the bank and a ferryboat at the jetty. But it’s the buildings that have been abandoned that dominate the town. Beside the jetty rises the Tur- bine Hall, some twenty-five metres high and one hundred and fifty metres long, and on the brow of the hill behind it are two more enormous industrial sheds. Walking ashore past the cramped little shack that serves as a ferry-port shop and into the empty, glass-walled space of the Turbine Hall you begin to get a sense of what Ford meant when he said ‘The man who builds a factory builds a temple. The man who works there, worships there.’ It’s not that fanciful to feel that you’re in an industrial cathedral.
The workshop up the hill has quite a lot of the old equipment, if not working, still intact. A dismembered clocking-on board for punching cards, an adding machine, a Junkers generator, ovens with dials and the maker’s stamp: ‘Weston Electrical Instruments Co. Newark, New Jersey, USA’. Workbenches are still in place, with vices half open as if the operator’s hand had just left them. The almost completely glassed walls at either end must have been state-of-the-art at the time and still feel very modern. A yellow school bus is parked inside.
An overgrown concrete roadway connects this shed with Workshop No. 3, which is the largest of them all, with floor space on two levels. Stout steel columns support a long, tall A-frame roof. There are workbenches and a row of abandoned lathes. A cast-iron staircase, big enough for busy factory-floor traffic, leads upstairs. I climb it cautiously at first and then with more confidence, the clang of my footsteps echoing round these deserted walls. A wide wooden floor is covered with piles of desiccated Brazil nuts, and it’s as I’m bending down to inspect them that a noise comes from below that makes me freeze. One of the lathes has come to life.
The whizz and the whirr of a drill takes me back to the top of the stairs and,
looking down, I see a man working away, black, middle-aged and completely preoccupied. It’s an unforgettable image. One man working in a room intended for thousands.
We go for lunch at the Pousada Americana, run by an optimistic man called Guilherme who came down from Santarém a year and a half ago, hoping that Fordlândia’s past would be his future, luring curious Amazon tourists down the Tapajós. He admits it hasn’t happened yet. Most of his guests are film crews, so he hopes that bit by bit the word will get out. The rooms are clean and brightly painted and the food is good, but there’s a very noisy parrot that shouts for coffee all day long, and five turkey vultures are lined up on the fence outside.
Fordlândia is a treasure trove of industrial archaeology. This transplantation of the American Midwest to the Amazon jungle is unique and has left some remarkable things behind. Clapboard houses with neat verandas are set back from a road that has sidewalks, elegant lamp standards, fire hydrants and a roof of trees with branches deliberately trained to create a protective tunnel of shade for the managers and their families who, all too briefly, lived there. A sadder fate has befallen the hospital. Designed by Albert Kahn, who had masterminded the best part of a kilometre-long assembly plant at Ford’s Dearborn, Michigan, head- quarters, it is now a long, low wreck of a place. Where neat lines of spotless beds stood beneath a light and airy roof, there is now just mould and decay. Broken, rain-blackened beams and discarded asbestos panels are strewn across the floor. There are rooms with their names still above the door. Sal de Espera– the Waiting Room, Sala de Raio X, Gabinete Dentário; but the only things moving inside them now are colonies of bats, their droppings piled up on floors that were once immaculate.
The grand dream of Fordlândia from which they all awoke in November 1945 is not entirely a story of waste. The school building, dating from 1931, is still in use, as is the basketball pitch, with its bleachers intact. Today’s inhabitants of Fordlândia still live in some of the houses the Ford Company built, and raise chickens and watch white rabbits lolloping about and gather to talk beside the red water hydrants the Americans left behind.
Ironically, the big companies of today, making their money from logging and soya, seem to have passed Fordlândia by. It’s a small town with a huge ghost in the middle of it. The ghost of Henry Ford’s ego.
On an almost perfect evening we head down the Tapajós and back to the Amazon. The sun seems to linger, and the fading colours of the day create kaleidoscopic patterns in the bow-waves As darkness falls, the trees lose their rich diversity and merge into one solid, inky-black wall. The only thing that’s missing is the sense of being on a river. Though we’re snug against one bank, the other is over one and a half kilometres away.
Day 9 . Belém
YOU HAVE TO make an early start to catch the fish market in Belém. But it’s worth it. In keeping with the Brazilian penchant for nicknames, the market complex is called Ver-o-Peso – ‘See the Weight’ – for it was here in the days of the Portuguese that goods for sale were weighed to assess the taxes payable. Now it’s a wonderland of stalls selling fruits of the Amazon, religious charms and potions, T-shirts, jewellery and as rich, exotic and complex a selection of polpa de frutas – fruit juices – as I’ve ever seen. But it’s the fish that are the stars of Belém Market.
Belém stands at the southern portal of the Amazon delta. Its opposite number, Macapá, is 350 kilometres (220 miles) away to the north. A casual look at an atlas will show that it is the last city on the river. A closer look will show that Belém is in fact not on the Amazon at all. The wide stream that flows past the market is the Rio Guamá, a tributary of the mighty River Tocantins, which is itself a tributary of the Amazon. Not perhaps so surprising, then, that the Amazon’s outflow is of greater volume than all the rivers of Europe put together. Over 770,000 cubic metres (170 billion gallons) of river water is disgorged into the ocean every hour. Nearly fifty-seven million gallons every second. The clay-brown plume of the Amazon stretches 400 kilometres (250 miles) into the Atlantic.
Geographically epic as its location might be, Belém is a place of few pre- tensions. Its long history has created a multi-layered city which has some grand buildings but no grand gestures. Like a well-lined face it betrays a life of hard- earned experience rather than easy comfort. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than down by the jetties where the fish are brought in. On two sides of the water- front are old colonial houses with tall first-floor windows, ironwork balconies and colourful, tiled exteriors. On the roofs of these bright facades the black turkey vultures gather, shifting from leg to leg and occasionally opening their wings as they wait for the fish to be unloaded. Some are already down on the ground, tearing away at piles of discarded entrails on the side of the solid stone jetties. The fishermen’s boats are small and, like the houses, brightly coloured. They will have come in from the scattering of islands to the north and west of Belém, bringing the produce of the ribeirinhos – not only fish, but fruits and vegetables too. All around baskets are being unloaded, often by chains of men tossing them ashore. Much of the produce is sold from upturned boxes beside the boats themselves. The fish is either gutted on the spot – skin scraped, tails chopped off, innards flung into the water or snatched in the greedy beaks of the vultures – or sold untouched, the lines still sticking out of their mouths. The jetties are hosed down by council workers in the orange overalls of the Prefeitura de Belém, but the water is treated like a rubbish dump, with all manner of filthy debris sloshing around, trapped between the boats and the harbour wall.
Set back a little from the quayside and looking like a small fortified town is the covered fish market, constructed of Glaswegian ironwork and opened in 1901. It has a wide, square, floor plan with silver-grey iron walls, cormorants perched on the roof, and, at all four corners, pointed iron turrets covered in fish-scale tiling. Despite the jauntiness of its appearance, there is an air of serious purpose about the Mercado Ver-o-Peso, to which I’m initiated by my guide to Belém, Priscila Brasil. And that’s her real name. Priscila is quite short, with a pale complexion, dark hair and lively dark eyes. Born and brought up in Belém, she’s at one time or other been an architect and a documentary film-maker, and currently she’s managing one of the hottest properties in the local, and hopefully national, music business.
With us is a tall, well-built youngish man with a fine head of hair and a broad brow which overhangs deep, coal-black eyes. With his wide shoulders tapering to a wafer-thin waist, Thiago Castanho looks like a film star but is in fact a culinary
star, owner of two of the most fashionable restaurants in the city. He’s here to buy lunch for us and a couple of hundred others. There is plenty of choice, with 2,000 species of fish in the Amazon Basin. This profusion is reflected in the overflow- ing white slabs that fill the main hall. The pirarucu is over two metres long and so big that it hangs down over the front of the stall. It has a lung which enables it to survive in oxygen-depleted water, but only at the expense of having to break the surface more frequently to take in air, which of course makes it a sitting target for fishermen. Others of imp
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