Challenging Manaus

After our organized forest tour near Manaus, we walked a bit into the streets near the port of the city.

From history classes in middle school, I remembered a bit about the rubber boom in Brazil around the turn of the twentieth century. I always liked the story of the surprising opera house, styled after the Garnier opera house in Paris. How bold and rich to build, of all things, an opera house in the middle of the Amazon basin. On the cruise, we learned that this fantastic rubber-based prosperity was short lived, from about 1879 – 1912. Some English people smuggled rubber tree plants out of the Amazon, where they are endemic; they established huge rubber plantations in Southeast Asia, and undercut production in Brazil. Since the crash of the rubber industry, Manaus has for the most part remained a poor place.

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Nonetheless, today, Manaus is a large city with over two million residents. It is the principal trading and economic focus of the Amazon basin. I was curious about what the city was like.

We were required to take a shuttle bus from the cruise ship to the cruise terminal. The terminal is a large airy modern building, moderately active. As we stepped out of the shuttle bus, a young woman with name tag and uniform told us, without our asking anything, to be very careful in Manaus. Beware of thieves, she said.

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Town markets are always interesting, and there is a municipal market not far from the cruise terminal. We headed out to the main road that leads to the market. Everything was hot, chaotic, dirty, and hard to evaluate. We were certainly conspicuous. Along the street, we saw rows of shops that opened directly onto the street, with tables of goods spilling out onto the sidewalks. The streets were crowded with cars, trucks, pedestrians, people pulling carts, and people milling around. Men crouched against walls and fences. All the buildings we could see looked unkempt and stained, bland modern concrete shells. 

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I traveled extensively in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. I spent a little time in Kenya, Egypt and Jordan. I wandered streets and explored neighborhoods. Of course, in my youth, I was oblivious to threats. Now, in Manaus, I couldn’t find anything intriguing enough to overcome the discomfort and worry. 

We continued on to the city market. Since this was the afternoon, the main halls of produce and meats were empty. The aisles with local artisanal products were still open, but they were dark and hot. The vendors looked uninterested. We didn’t linger. We retraced our steps back along the chaotic streets, self-conscious. (Sorry that we don’t have photos of the market area; we felt too unsure to bring out the cameras.)

At dinner that night, two of our friends told us their story in Manaus that afternoon. They had selected an organized city-overview tour for the morning, on a bus. However, they have a passion — and expertise — for cut gems. Brazil is a prolific source for many precious stones, such as aquamarine, amethyst, citrine, diamond, emerald, quartz, ruby, sapphire, and topaz. They had identified a gem store near the opera house. They asked the guide if they could leave early, in order to do their shopping. He was happy to help.

He had the tour bus driver stop at the gem store. He escorted our friends into the store, and talked with the store manager. He insisted that the manager arrange a ride for our friends back to the ship after their shopping. Satisfied with the manager’s agreement, he bade our friends goodbye.

Our friends spent some time shopping, and did find a few nicely-priced quality gems. Per his commitment, the manager arranged a car to take them back to the cruise ship; in fact, he went with them in order to ensure their safety. His explanation was that there were certainly people watching the store. If our friends left the store unaccompanied, they would be robbed. It didn’t matter if they had bought anything or not. He didn’t say “might be robbed;” he said “will be robbed.” 

I’ve never visited anywhere where mugging was certain. It hurts to think that places like Manaus are so aggressive and violent. Disorienting. We needed to reflect on our remarkable good fortune, and struggle with the realities of the challenging lives of people in difficult places such as Manaus.

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