January 25, 2017 (Amazon River, Manaus & Rubber Plantation)

Shortly after entering the Amazon river, we anchored at Macapa and waited for Brazilian Immigration. Most people need a VISA to travel in Brazil, and for Americans, it’s not cheap. We paid about $400 each, after the processing fees were tacked on. Clearance was speedy, but 3 immigration officials stayed on board to accompany us during our 6 day jaunt on the river. Why, I wonder? Were they concerned that crew members might go awol? Where would they go? There are no roads. They could disappear into the jungle on foot. Try their luck at outmaneuvering the jaguars, dodging the anacondas, tip toeing past the piranhas in electric eel infested swamps… all while leisurely expiring from Dengue Fever, Malaria, Yellow Fever, Chickeltosis, or Eekelokemia. Okay, I made up the last two, but you get the picture.

Perhaps they are members of the Brazilian Culinary Brigade. A vital organization, committed to unmasking any breaches in the gastronomic security protocols. Is the Beef Wellington juicy enough? Are the Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Encrusted Croissants flakey enough? Is the Rosemary and Basil Infused Five Cheese Lobster Ravioli with Garlic Sesame Butter and Essence of New Born Oregano al dente enough?

2 river pilots also got on board. THEY have legitimate roles to play by helping the Captain steer clear of potential hazards. Especially after dark, when the insects ban together in swarms and try to fly off with the ship.

Most of the river bank is dense, impenetrable jungle punctuated with an occasional ramshackle house or small village. Modest plots of cleared land grew lush grasses to support the languid farm animals permanently dazed by the heat. The landscape was steamy and luminous. I saw more shades of green then I knew existed. Many houses were on stilts to protect the inhabitants from the perpetual flooding. There was no glass in the windows, so outside was inside.

Boats of all sizes puttered along the shoreline, but no one really paid much attention to us. This gargantuan ship, a size never before seen on the river, was just a slight curiosity. A few head nods in greeting, an occasional listless wave, and one gang of kids who paused their subdued game of stick ball long enough to glance our way with detachment. The pace of life is very slow here. I found it difficult to stay alert while watching the scenery slip by. Maybe it was the plump iridescent fly that looked me in the eye before biting me. Or, maybe the lethargy is contagious.

We traveled 1,000 miles in 3 days before arriving in Manaus; the capital of Amazones and Brazil’s largest state at roughly one million square miles. Manaus was founded in 1669 by the Portuguese who built a small fort here to guard against Spanish invasion. Jesuit missionaries followed soon after. In 1809, with a population of 2,000, the town became the region’s capital. But it was the Rubber Boom that changed this backwater jungle town into what became known as the “gaudiest city in the world”.

Two ingenious inventions lead to a commercial rubber explosion. In 1844, Charles Goodyear discovered “vulcanization”. The process of hardening rubber by treating it with sulfur at high temperatures. Then in 1888, Dunlop’s invented our “modern day” pneumatic tire that is filled with air or gas under pressure. The demand for latex skyrocketed and thousands of workers migrated here to become “rubber-tappers” or seringueiros.

We joined an excursion to an old rubber plantation site that was abandoned in the 1920’s, but recently rebuilt as a living museum. We dressed in long pants, hiking boots, thick socks, long sleeve shirts and wide brimmed hats, despite the oppressive heat. Armed with an industrial sized can of 40% Deet bug spray, that would probably melt our clothes on contact, we boarded our small boat for the hour long ride to the jungle site. We scoffed at the other people who foolishly wore shorts and tee shirts, exposing generous amounts of flesh. That lasted until we reached land, and saw NO mosquitos at all. None. Then we simmered with envy at the scantily clad, as rivers of sweat trailed our Northern Hemisphere bodies for the next two hours. Why no mosquitos? We were on the Rio Negro, not the Amazon, so there are less bugs in general due to the composition of the water. It was also very dry at the time and the heat of mid day would fry any bugs that were in the sun. However, a sudden rain shower would change that. Our guide was dressed like us, so we felt vindicated.

The process of extracting rubber is slow and tedious. A rubber-tapper crawls up a tree and makes a long deep cut in the bark. The white watery latex is captured in a small cup as it leaks out overnight and is collected before sunrise. Just one cut, per tree, and only at night. During the day, it’s too hot and the latex would dry before reaching the cup. One tapper averages 80 trees between dusk and dawn, A candle attached to a canister worn on the head, was their only source of light.

Rubber-Tapper Tools
Cutting Instrument
Latex Fingers and Cup

The next night, up the tree again, making another cut just below the last one. When they reach the bottom of the tree, they move onto another side. The tree is divided into three sections. It takes 8-10 years to complete tapping one large tree. By then, the first cuts have long healed, and the process is started again by recutting the old scars. The tree is in a constant state of stress, but it lives through the process. During the day, the latex is smoked over a flame to dry out the watery liquid, leaving hard rubber behind. It took 30 days to produce a 140 pound rubber ball, which the tappers had to haul by hand from deep in the forest back to the plantation house. From there, the rubber was transported to Manaus by boat.

Smoking the Latex
Rubber Baron Plantation House

The Rubber Barons were obscenely wealthy and known for outlandish spending. A testament to this time is the Opera House in Manaus. Built in 1896 with public funds (from the 20% Rubber Export Tax), it has 700 seats and was constructed with bricks brought from Europe, French glass, and Italian marble. The dome consists of 36,000 glazed ceramic tiles in Brazil’s national colors. Very glamorous… but it’s still the jungle, and half the members of the first visiting opera troupe died of yellow fever.

Dome of Opera House

The “wealth” did not trickle down to the men doing the hard labor. They were treated like barbarians, lived in hovels and paid poorly. When the men demanded more money, the Barons reacted by giving them free Rum instead, to shut them up.

Through the early 1900’s, Brazil sold 88% of the world’s rubber, and Manaus became one of the richest cities in the world. Electricity was installed here before most major European cities.

Then it all came to a crashing halt, soon after a Brit was hired to smuggle 70,000 rubber tree seeds on board a chartered steamer. He snuck them past customs in Belem, by claiming they were rare botanical seeds; a gift for Queen Victoria. Sounds like the custom officers needed a botany lesson. Opps. Later, after planting them in an English greenhouse, it was determined that they would grow well in an environment like Malaysia.

Brazil’s rubber monopoly was broken, thanks to the new British owned plantations in Southeast Asia that severely undercut pricing just before WW1. Within a decade, Manaus plunged into poverty and became an obscure backwater jungle again. It also went dark, because electricity became to expensive to generate.

Henry Ford also took a shot at growing rubber. In 1925 he bought 2.5 million acres on the Tapajos river and called it Fordlandia. He got bad advice from his real estate agent, because the trees would not grow. The site was abandoned to “leaf blight” before sinking back into the jungle. He tried again, and failed again.

In 1967, Manaus became an industrial “duty free zone”, which helped encourage businesses to move here. In 2009, the city was chosen as a host city for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which meant they had to clean things up. Roads were repaved and sidewalks rebuilt. A new airport was constructed. The communication infrastructure was updated, although we saw very few people tethered to their cell phones. The “tourist police” and “military police” have a strong presence and we felt very safe. Although we were advised not to venture off the main roads.

Tourist Police
Military Police

Manufacturing includes petroleum products, soap, and electronics. Ships are also built here. There is a distillery and a brewery. Rubber is still exported, along with brazil nuts, jute, and rosewood oil.

Now, the city has a population of over 2 million! Which is pretty amazing, considering we are in the middle of the jungle, and the only way to get here is by boat or plane. There are a few paved roads that leave the city but they quickly turn to dirt, then just disappear.

Welcome to Manaus!
Manaus Skyline
Manaus – Cargo Ship

That’s enough for now…. my next post will be about our visit to an Indian Village near Manaus and the town of Santarem. Stay tuned!

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