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Heart of the Amazon, City of the Forest
July 10, 2014 7:29 PM   Subscribe

For 350 years Manaus has stood sentinal at the dramatic Meeting of the Waters, where the dark Rio Negro and the sandy Rio Solimões (or the Upper Amazon) meet to form the headwaters of the Amazon River.

Manaus, population 2 million, is the capital city of the Brazilion state of Amazonas, and the largest city in the Amazon rain forest. Like Juneau, it cannot be reached by the highway system but can only be reached by boat or plane.

Manaus had a major World Cup stadium built in it for 2014, and it is no stranger to the cycle of boom and bust. Manaus was the center of the 19th Century rubber boom, making it one of the wealthiest cities in the world. The Rubber Barons of Manaus built a fantastic opera house, the Teatro Amazonas, to host the greatest opera companies of the era, regardless of whether half of the visiting troops died of tropical fevers or not.

Unfortunately for Manaus, Henry Wickham smuggled rubber seeds to Kew Gardens and from there to tropical British colonies, breaking Manaus's rubber monopoly, and was followed by Father Julius Nieuwland's discovery of a method of synthesizing synethic rubber, causing Manaus to go bust and the opera house to be left to rot.

Brazil has recently reinvigorated and repaired the opera house, and the World Cup has highlighted Manaus and its beauty and history, building a stadium that many in Manaus fear may be a second Teatro Amazonas -- beautiful, but too large for the city to support.

Related Media:
Opera: Florencia en al Amazonas
YA Novel: A Company of Swans
Non-Fiction: The Lost City of Z
posted by Eyebrows McGee (10 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
The article about the 'real' Manaus seems a little bit one-sided. There are slums, homeless people and violence in almost every city on earth.

There were 945 homicides out of 2 million, which puts them around where Detroit, Baltimore or New Orleans is, in terms of murder rate. (and actually makes it the 10th most violent city in Brazil).
posted by empath at 8:15 PM on July 10


I once had the thrill of interviewing Caetano Veloso, a Brazilian pop star with echoes of Bowie's androgyny, Dylan's wit and social commentary, Sinatra's crooning and Lennon's melodies. For decades he has worked as a performer to move beyond stereotypes of Brazil as less than modern and contemporary. He had his own Dylan-goes-electric-like moment when he, Gilberto Gil and their friends launched psychedelic and dadaist tropicália in the late-1960s.

Despite his decades-long efforts to complicate exotic images of Brazil, the marketing for his show in Texas still used the line "Attending a Caetano Veloso concert is like going on a trip down the Amazon." In the interview, I asked him what he thought about this.

I had expected him to be respond angrily, or at least get annoyed. But he stayed very calm, and I thought I could hear his smile over the phone. "I can't tell you whether that's true or not," he said, "because I've never been on the Amazon." There was a pause, and I was surprised at this. He went on, "I mean, I've been down several igarapês (tributaries) of the Rio Solimões and the Rio Negro, and..." He proceeded to go into beautiful, poetic detail about what he had seen there near the meeting of the waters. It was such a graceful response to such clunky, disrespectful marketing. As opposed to the dream of the Amazon, he knew the real thing up close.
posted by umbú at 8:30 PM on July 10 [11 favorites]


1) While I was in Manaus, I went to the Meeting of the Waters twice. It's a long story, but it was awesome both times. It still fascinates me.

2) The Teatro Amazonas is the site of the only opera I've ever been to. It was a performance of Norma, with Portuguese subtitles that I didn't have enough Portuguese to understand back then. At the conclusion, my brother and I asked my Portuguese-speaking aunt, "Was that the end or is this intermission?", to which she replied, "I assume it's the end, because [spoiler alert] she died." My brother and I: "She DIED?!" In retrospect, I didn't realize it had been so recently renovated (I was there in 2003). It really is beautiful, in a semi-anachronistic sort of way.
posted by pitrified at 8:41 PM on July 10


Oh, GREAT post. I read the first sentence and thought, "Is that the city in that book I read?" And sure enough - the book I was thinking of was A Company of Swans, so thank you for including that (it saved me rifling through my book notes to figure out what book it was).

Thanks!
posted by kristi at 10:22 PM on July 10


I so want to go there. Thanks for more temptation.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:38 AM on July 11


This reminds me of the excellent Ann Patchett book, State of Wonder, in which an opera house at the end of the Amazon has a brief role.
posted by smoke at 3:54 AM on July 11


Any mention of Manaus, or the Amazon makes me want to get up on my soapbox and tell people to read 1491 by Charles Mann. I'm sure some of the scholarship in the book is 'incomplete', but the entire premise and supporting evidence, about how the Americas were before Columbus, the amount of things we learned in school (25 years ago) that aren't just oversimplified, but fundamentally backwards... I can't recommend this book enough.
posted by DigDoug at 7:02 AM on July 11


kristi, I first got fascinated by Manaus from A Company of Swans!

I'm fascinated by cities that aren't "organic" and I've wanted to put together a post on them for ages, but they fall in too many different categories -- planned cities (Canberra), boom-and-bust cities based on a single industry (Manaus, Detroit, Kolmanskop), dictators' vanity cities (Ashgabat, Astana, Dubai). Maybe some day I'll find just the right link to do a post about all those things together!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:25 AM on July 11


Florencia is my very favorite contemporary opera. It's inspired by the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, although not based on any story he ever wrote. The magical realism style suits opera exceptionally well, and the whole show is a delight.
posted by KathrynT at 7:35 AM on July 11


I'm fascinated by cities that aren't "organic" and I've wanted to put together a post on them for ages, but they fall in too many different categories -- planned cities (Canberra), boom-and-bust cities based on a single industry (Manaus, Detroit, Kolmanskop), dictators' vanity cities (Ashgabat, Astana, Dubai). Maybe some day I'll find just the right link to do a post about all those things together!

Yes, do this! Some of them fit into more than one category, like Brasilia (planned, regime vanity, and based on the single industry of government), and others are more individual (like some of the new cities in Egypt). It's an absolutely fascinating subject.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:55 AM on July 11


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