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.”
They get visitors here, but closer to 30,000 or 40,000 annually, not hundreds of thousands, or millions even, in the cities to the south. Most tourists spend a few days in the jungle lodges in the interior of the rainforest. But much can be accomplished in a single workday, because Manaus, for all its industry, for all the factories and smokestacks and its status as a free trade zone with fiscal incentives to attract investment, is still very close to the jungle. Which means very close to piranhas, dolphins and snakes as long as pole vaults.
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.
First stop, after seven delays of 10 minutes: what they call the Meeting of the Waters, where the Rio Negro and the Amazon River, or Rio Solimoes, intersect. The Rio Negro is a dark blue, almost black. The Amazon is brown. Where they meet, they do not mix. It’s clearly dark blue until it’s clearly mud brown. Orlando said that’s from the different speeds the rivers move at, and their different temperatures – but it was tempting to wonder if all the nearby industry had any impact. (The Amazon, for future Jeopardy contests is the colder and faster of the two).
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.
On Monday, dark blue spread in every direction, the Rio Negro up to seven kilometers wide (about 4.4 miles), Orlando said, and currently 28 meters (about 92 feet) deeper than normal, smack in the high season where water covers most of the beaches. We passed by a favela, so many dilapidated houses up on stilts, perched in perpetuity on the edge of collapse, one place where a water view did not equate to great wealth. “Every year there is a flood, and every year people lose everything they have,” Talita said.
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.
The guides did not see the boost in numbers as a bad thing. “People used to come here more afraid of mosquitos than cougars,” Orlando said. “They thought the mosquito was the most dangerous animal in the jungle. It’s not like that anymore. That’s progress. More people to see Manaus.”
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.
That’s the sell here, the jungle to the tourists, the Amazon that feels so removed but is close enough to sleep in a hotel. The World Cup will give Manaus an unprecedented global platform to hawk trips like these, where so many tourists waited Monday to swim with the dolphins that they filled both a deck, a waiting area and a nearby boat. Biologists now regulate the dolphins’ food intake, according to our tour operators, after so many daily feedings the dolphins put on too much weight. People fed them beer, Orlando said. They got fat. The tour operators receive a government kickback for the regulation, same as the natives we visited briefly, natives shirtless, their faces painted, who performed a travel dance and sold Dreamcatchers as Manaus’s tourism industry rolled along.
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.