Greetings from Brazil: Showing the world Manaus, hoping for progress
MANAUS, Brazil – The boat stalls, and not in the middle of nowhere, but in the middle of everywhere. It’s equidistant between downtown and the factories across the Rio Negro and the bridge that connects them both.
The engine sputters, then stalls. Sputters, then stalls again. Dark blue water stretches in every direction. After hours spent in and near the rainforest, two questions previously unconsidered take on paramount importance. 1. Where are the lifejackets? And 2. Just how far can a sorta-fat vacation-swimmer swim?
The guide wears a nametag that says “Orlando” and a green T-shirt advertising the impending World Cup. His buddies call him Barack O’Brahma, a (racist?) nod to his dark complexion and a favorite local beer. He spent lunch opining, when prompted, on the practicality of a jungle city as one remote host for the world’s most popular sporting event. He expected an influx of cash from the uptick in tourists that started to make their way into town this week. But that is not enough, not for Orlando, not to call this experiment, all the resources, all the billions poured into stadiums and roads and elsewhere, a success.
“If Brazil succeeds in the World Cup, everything will be OK,” he said, and by succeed, he meant, build infrastructure, improve schooling, close the gap between rich and poor. “If not, we will not believe in anything.”
“I feel the same way about politics,” he continued. “Too much promise. Too much hope.”
That pull – between what Brazil wants to be and what it is, between what it hopes to accomplish by hosting a World Cup and the next Summer Olympics and what it will or will not actually get done – was evident, on a far smaller scale, throughout a Monday tour up the Amazon. Beauty intertwined with poverty intermixed with so many tourists bumping into each other with their Jungle Juice and suntan lotion. A country resplendent in its beauty. A tour that promised much and delivered some. Orlando shrugged. “It’s Brazil,” he said.
The tour started in the morning, the price bumped 70 reals per person, or about $31 in the local currency, on the ride from the hotel to the boat. A man named Andrea handled the transport. He asked how many Americans the area should expect in advance of the United States’ contest here against Portugal on June 22. Met with a shrug, he said, “I’m hoping for 5,000.”
The ships are festooned in ribbons and banners, so much green and yellow, for both the World Cup and the Festival of June the locals will soon celebrate. Our boat holds 20 or so, tourists from China and Austria and other parts of Brazil, mixed with British (England plays here on June 14) and Americans.
This is what officials here have stated as one of their main World Cup ambitions. To show the world Manaus when the world descends – and watches and reads about – Manaus. Makes sense. In theory.
The heat is real here. It’s not the heat so much. It’s the humidity. You don’t notice it at first, but the more time you spend under the sun, the more it hits you, in the face and down the back, until your skin reddens and your shirt sticks. It’s not unbearable heat. But it has to be difficult to play soccer in – or at least more difficult than in less humid environs.
The beauty, though, the beauty is something else. All the huts that sit on stilts above the water; some painted bright colors, yellows and purples and greens, others dilapidated, windows missing, roofs slanted. All the boats filled with children and locals headed to work or school, water taxi their primary means of transportation. All the trees and foliage, dense thickets of green for miles. All the colors, everything amplified, more green, more blue, more brown, a painter’s canvas sprung to life.
Our crew: reporter, stud photographer/bodyguard Simon Bruty and Talita Sahdo, our interpreter. As the boat sped down the Amazon, she pointed out various ways she felt the World Cup had improved the area – the new bridge built between Manaus and Iranduba, where farmers grow vegetables; the two new malls built downtown, complete with housing for the city’s poorest residents; better roads; cleaner streets; and the fish market that reopened three months ago that had been closed for 80 years.
Of the 62 cities in the Amazon, only 13 are reachable by roads, according to Orlando. The bridge, built three years ago for an estimated $2 billion, cut transportation time across the water in fourths. That’s the World Cup impact Orlando wants. Not more tourists gaping at sloths, although we did that anyway.
The boat passed a floating school. A floating hospital. A floating nightclub. Some of the houses had satellite television dishes hung from walls with chipped paint.
The boat stopped for lunch at a floating restaurant. There was a side trip to see water lilies with the circumferences of pitching mounds. There where three variety of fish served at lunch, none of them piranha. That fish must be caught. Must be earned.
Bruce and Chris Gil, a vacationing father and son from Utah, sat at a table near the water. They had just returned from a trip deeper into the rainforest. When they arrived on June 2, they were met by an empty airport, nary a tourist in sight. By Saturday, though, there were so many newbies in the jungle that animal sightings became rarer and the lodge they were staying in ran out of bunks. “Smell that,” one guide told them. “It’s a monkey.” They came back early – to more tourists.
Talita, the translator who was born in Manaus and moved back here a few years ago, held her own views on the World Cup but chose to present the positives to outsiders. She noted the government-led improvements, the houses that lacked electricity before and have Internet now, dirty water turned clean in poorer neighborhoods. A literature teacher at a local high school, Talita tells her students they had years, decades, centuries, to protest before the World Cup arrived.
“I think we should try,” she said. “I think that getting some things done is better than doing nothing. You’re not part of this. You’re not invited to the debate. This is not the right time. We’ve had enough time to do that.”
She did, however, take part in one protest, one that centered on more money for education. The current hierarchy, she said, went homeless people, then really poor people, then teachers.
Deeper into the jungle, piranha fishing seemed off the table, a promise unfulfilled. No one brought any poles. It’s not the right time of year.
We stop by one of the houses on the river. Everyone holds a snake, a baby alligator, a sloth. Many pictures are taken, peace signs thrown up near scales. It feels a bit exploitative, this house-zoo in the Amazon, a predictable stop on a quick-hit jungle tour. Then you put a snake around your neck, and it feels like you’re deeper inside the jungle, the snakes weight against your back, its muscles flexing, even if you’re still close to the smokestacks in Manaus.
The sun began to drop. Someone mentioned fishing poles – skinny sticks of wood affixed with fishing line and hooks, really – at a neighboring house. A small boat arrived for transport. Poles were handed out, bait placed on the hooks. For twenty, thirty minutes, nothing bit. New location. Back of the house. Small pieces of fish were dumped into the water. The line tightened, weighed down by, well, by something. A piranha, it turns out, one caught, photographed and released.
It was maybe six inches in length, maybe a pound. But by the time the World Cup ends and the locals here resume their normal lives, as they wait to see if life here changed permanently or just for the month of June, the fish – the great, white, scary piranha with teeth the size of surfboards – will be at least six feet.