The Amazon

Manaus, Brazil
August 2004

Situated in the midst of the Amazon rainforest, Manaus is over 900 miles from the Atlantic, and only a few miles upstream from where the Amazon's two major tributaries, the Rio Negro and the Solimões meet. Its current population of 1.6 million is primarily due to a rubber boom in the late 1800s, after the invention of vulcanization, which eliminated the tendency of natural rubber to soften on hot days and harden on colder ones, and the development of pneumatic rubber tires.

During the boom time, landowners, rubber traders, and bankers constructed splendid mansions. Women wore the latest Parisian fashions and men had their shirts sent to London for laundering. The Teatro Amazonas Opera House would be a marvel even it were not in the middle of the Amazon rain forest. The artists and most of the materials (Italian marble and glass, Scottish cast iron) were imported from Europe. The wood is Brazilian, but even some of that was sent to Europe to be carved.

A completely local touch is that the surrounding roadway was made of rubber paving blocks so that late-arriving carriages wouldn't disturb patrons who were already present.

Of course, a monopoly on rubber trees couldn't last forever, and after an enterprising smuggler spirited out enough seeds to establish rubber plantations in the British colonies in Southeast Asia, the boom ended. When the Japanese overran these areas in the Second World War, a second boom resulted, until synthetic rubber was perfected.

We spent three days in the area. After a tour of Manaus and a night in an elegant eco-resort near the river, we boated across the broad Rio Negro to a newly-constructed eco-lodge. Situated at the edge of the jungle, it had a trail into its midst, sometimes elevated over gorges, other times across swaying suspension bridges

(although not quite as exciting as Indiana Jones'), at one point passing beneath a Swiss Family Robinson-type tree house fifty feet up a massive tree.

Our cabins were built on poles around a picturesque lagoon.

As a reminder that we were in the jungle, mosquito netting suspended from the ceiling formed a tent over the bed.

We were prepared: before, during, and after our Amazon sojourn we took anti-malaria pills–two weeks in all–and liberally applied insect repellent while we were there. Also, we had been inoculated for yellow fever, hepatitis B (we had received the hepatitis A series before our trip to Dubai), typhoid, and meningococcus. Two shots in each arm–fortunately they didn't all cause soreness. Overprepared, perhaps, but people have died of yellow fever after recent fishing trips in the Amazon.

In addition to our piranha-catching expedition further downstream, we cruised into the marshes after the sun set. The guide would shine his flashlight into the reeds to look for a pair of eyes that were the right distance apart–searching for caimans, a type of crocodile, he didn't want to confront one that was too big to handle. When he spotted one, the light made the caiman freeze, and the boat approached close enough for him to, carefully, grab it behind the head.

Its belly was surprisingly soft, not at all scaly, we discovered when it was, gingerly, passed around.

Earlier that day we had sailed downstream to the "Meeting of the Waters." The two component rivers are distinctly different. The Solimões rushes down from the Andes, churning up mud and silt along the way, and is still cold at the juncture. The Rio Negro, originating in the lowlands, is more slow-moving, warming during its leisurely journey and absorbing tannins from the vegetation along the banks. This process is accelerated during the rainy season, when the river rises up to 50 feet, submerging much of the nearby trees. No wonder the dwellings near the river are constructed on stilts and even the huge cargo dock at Manaus is on floats.

The result of the meeting of two rivers of such very different speed, temperature, and pH is amazing–for many miles they don't combine!

And since the Solimões is brownish from all the silt it has picked up and the Rio Negro, as you may have surmised from its name, is blackish, from the tannins, you can see a sharp division as the two flow side-by-side towards the horizon. Since they are the two largest rivers in the world in flow volume before they join, together they form a truly gargantuan river.

© Copyright 2004 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved