Brazil | Manaus: June 13, 2008 – June 19, 2008

Enroute to Manaus (Miami, FL)

June 13th, 2008

Iguana…right beside the car rental lot!

We’re dead-beat and tired, but finally sitting here in the waiting lounge to board our flight to Manaus. We had a 6 hour layover, which we used to do some urgent shopping at Wal-Mart! That’s fine, but what makes it interesting is how we got there and back. We found out that taking a taxi would cost us $30 each way (so $60+ in total). Taking the bus would have been quite inconvenient because of the location. So we asked around and looking like poor backpackers we were advised the cheapest thing to do is to rent a car! We did – for $29. Also, not too many people speak English here. It already feels like we have one foot in South America. More when we actually get there.

Manaus

June 14th, 2008

Here we are! After a few tedious hours passing customs (people here seem to be slower than we’re used to), our taxi picked us up and drove us to our hotel. Being exhausted out of our minds, we came to our room… a little disappointed! Very very basic room even though this was their deluxe option. However, we reminded ourselves that this was our budget trip and we’re just backpacking. Besides, it was clean and in a great location. Off to sleep and 12 hours later, we were itching to go outside.

Right outside the hotel is the main city square right next to the main landmark here – the Opera House (built in Manaus’ colonial days). There seemed to be a dance festival going on with lots of groups of kids getting ready to participate or dancing on the stage. It was a very colourful atmosphere, with families and costumes and music. We stopped for a coffee and some food (bit expensive, but we’re coming to find that about everything in Brazil)at a restaurant with a patio and a good view of the dance show. After enjoying our meal and finding out from our waiter (who spoke some English) where to get a phone chip, we rushed to find the store before it closed.

We walked down the main avenue in Manaus, which was a lot like India – stray animals, noisy street vendors, dirty pavements and gutters – all amidst large shops and boutiques which seemed a world apart from the outside scene. Going from store to store, we got nowhere since there was not a single soul who spoke English. FINALLY, we went into a store where we met Tullio, a manager-in-training, who spoke great English and was extremely helpful. He set us up with our phone chip and even offered his email for when we’re in Natal and Bahia, where he has friends. We even stopped off at a grocery store, where they carry everything! We got a case of water and some snacks, and headed back to the cafe to continue where we left off.

The dance festival was still going strong, and we got some food. Our waiter-friend recommended a drink, Caipirinha, and we said why not. We found later it contained Kashasa, a Brazilian specialty which Nik had also recommended before we left. The show ended, so we came back to our room and found it had wi-fi internet. Quite slow, but we’re able to manage. Tomorrow, we’re going to explore the city and find out about jungle and river tours. It was a good day of rest and relaxation!

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June 18th, 2008

It’s raining outside, so we’re staying in to get some work done, as well update this blog. The last couple of days were quite adventurous and hectic. On Sunday the 15th, we headed off to the main square (by the Opera House) only to find that the city was dead. Few stray people here and there – we inquired and learnt that it was “Siesta time” where everyone was taking a midday nap. Besides, nothing would be open on Sunday anyway. We ordered a $25 pizza (medium) which was none too spectacular for the price! We then headed back to our room to catch up on some work.

The next day (Monday 16th) we got up early to explore the city by foot. We walked down the main street, past thousands of street vendors (most of them selling underwear and pirated DVDs) and cut through another city square. This one was a bit ‘seedy’ with ‘women of ill repute’ standing around for ahem… business. We were now at the Manaus bus station and main port area. Curious to see the waterfront, we explored the port building and sat by the river’s edge having a beer. Penny then thought (seeing other port-related activity to the West of where we were) this place was boring and we should check out what was there.

We went off in that direction, passing through highly congested and busy, narrow streets – vendors now selling only tools and knick-knacks for the house. By the waterfront were hundreds of small boats and canoes as we learnt later that this was the ‘water bus station’ ferrying people and goods to towns along the Amazon. There were little ‘dhabas’ selling strange, fish-related food items and smelt equally strange. It was hard navigating through all this and we did our best to continue holding each other’s hand. We also saw a huge market, presumably to sell all the fish/fruit and produce they’d import and bring over by ship. Our noses took a beating and Karthik quickly stepped in just to take a picture.

We didn’t really know where we were going, but kept walking since we had enough water and still looking for that ‘better place to relax by the water.’ We looked at the map and made a rough route to take us back into the city and past some sights. It was midday and so the sun/humidity was strong and we were now drenched in sweat, but felt good to be walking nonetheless. We saw the local ‘life’ in action; students coming out of school buying snacks from the vendors (like we did in India), office buildings being cleaned, and people hanging out outside their shops and homes. We were walking along another main street back East towards the downtown area and we passed by the Rio Negro palace, a large well-maintained colonial building.

We went in and got a free tour from this student who worked there part-time and spoke English. We learnt it was built by a German rubber baron (Karthik thought it was a robber-baron) – suppose it works out the same either way, since he was ‘acquiring’ the rubber and exporting it. The building is still being used by the state’s Governor who comes for visits and special functions now and then. All the furniture was made of the local “jacaranda” wood, a rich, dark type of wood. The fixtures were opulent and the walls had large paintings of local history. We immediately compared it to the Windsor Palace in London, but then realized the ‘scale’ was quite a bit smaller. Back when it was built, it was surrounded by the virgin forest, but now it was replaced by buildings, streets, and slums.

We continued our walk and being thirsty, we stopped at an ‘ice cream parlour’ for something refreshing. Our language problem got us this extremely sugary juice we couldn’t finish and a massive Banana split with too much syrup and ice cream flavours we didn’t like. Finishing only a third of it, we decided to order a Sprite Zero instead. Walking back to our hotel, we passed by the Taj Mahal Continental Hotel, a five-star establishment. We walked in to see if we could return for dinner that night. The room rates were R$400 and up and we got ‘ill’ looks from the ‘gorey’ tourists and staff, since we didn’t measure up to their standards. We had enough and having walked for over five hours, we just went back to our room and relaxed.

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We had booked an Amazon tour on Sunday for Tuesday (17th) and were told by the agency (next door to our hotel) that we’d be picked up in the morning and driven to the port. We got ready and were waiting, but some guy from the agency who saw us waiting said they were only going to walk us there. Time was running short and pissed off at these monkeys, we decided to walk it there ourselves. By the time we walked there hurriedly, we were again drenched in sweat and realized there’s no point in showering! The tour guide (Alioma) spoke English and we met another tourist who overheard us talking about colonization and English not being spoken much here. Marcos was a journalist living in Southern Brazil and was here for some ‘missionary’ work. He was friendly and we talked to him throughout the tour.

The tour was going to take us to the “Meeting of the Waters” and stop off at a floating restaurant at the January Ecological Park, where we’d embark on a canoe tour to the jungle’s interior. After an hour or so, we were at the Meeting, where the Solimoes and Rio Negro rivers joined to make the Amazon, although the Solimoes is also known as the Amazon.

The Amazon

The reason it was a sight to see was the stark difference in the colour of the waters meeting; the Rio Negro being black and the Solimoes being a muddy brown. They wouldn’t fully mix for another 20km or so, since the river speeds, temperature, and make-up were quite different. Also, we learnt that the Rio Negro was primarily acidic, keeping the mosquitoes at bay. We were amazed by how wide the Amazon truly is, with the width being 4km near Manaus and 8-9km near the Meeting of the Waters. 75km downriver, the width would widen to 25km and at the mouth of the Amazon where it joined the Atlantic, it would be 96km!! We also saw ‘pink dolphins’ here and there, but never enough to take a picture of one. They weren’t really pink either!

Since the water level varies around 8-10 meters around the year, everything was made to float (houses, ports, restaurants, even gas stations on the water). This was the highest point of the year, and entire forest were flooded and all we could see were the treetops, making hiking trips impossible unless we ventured really deep into the jungle. We also saw cute floating villages, with floating schools, churches, and also bars! Their ‘schoolbuses’ were canoes! We made it to the floating restaurant at the Ecological Park, where we stopped for some souvenir shopping. Karthik really wanted an Amazonian ‘blowdart’ – what the natives used as weapons usually with ‘poison-tipped’ darts. We left on our canoe trip, and were truly amazed at how thick and dense the jungle was with little light penetrating through the trees.

We came upon a ‘clearing’ where there were giant water-lilies, which were apparently at their largest size this time of year. Alioma lifted one up with his boat rudder to show us a truly alien sight – thick veins and roots spreading under the lily which itself was quite thick and fleshy. We briefly saw an alligator scurrying up and down into the water, and realized the wildlife was all around us. A local approached us in his canoe, holding something furry in his lap. He lifted it up and we saw a three-toed sloth – this cute, gentle and innocent beast with a tiny, smiling face. It was passed around between the tourists and Karthik happily held it in his hands. Then he removed something from his gunny-sack that shocked Penny and she screamed, “NO!!” It was a young boa constrictor, slithering around in the local’s hands and sticking its tongue out. Karthik touched it (felt muscular, cool, and rubbery) and Penny wouldn’t even look at it, insisting he washed the hand before touching her.

We continued our tour and saw some of the local trees, which were actually exposing their topmost portions as most of them were submerged. Also, we saw some cool, colourful birds, nests of termites attached to the trees, and were told the waters were teeming with piranhas! Some trees were pointed out by the guide as being useful to the natives for making bows as well as for communicating (by tapping the hollow sides). Disappointed we couldn’t explore further into the jungle, the canoe came back to the restaurant but not before stopping at another small floating house where we enjoyed fresh coconut water. We also saw a baby monkey, parrot and alligator – all pets belonging to the residents.

After our lunch, we headed off back to town as we reflected on the immensity of the river surrounding us. Having done some grocery shopping, we made it back to our room and just relaxed.

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June 19th, 2008

Our last day here, and we decided to take it easy and visit the last two places on our “must see” list: the Manaus Zoo, and the Ponta Negra beach area.

Manaus Zoo

We decided to take the local bus to the Zoo. We confirmed with the bus driver of bus #120 (who did not speak any English – of course!) if the bus went to the Zoo, and he did some hand gestures pointing out and back. Thinking he wanted us to get off and take the next bus behind, we got off and went to it. That bus driver shook his head and told us to get off. Later we realized that #120 does indeed go to the zoo, however the bus driver was telling us to enter from the back door (where we pay for the ticket)!

The zoo is managed by the Manaus military, and is surrounded by the military campus. The animals in the zoo are rescued from the jungle (some that are extinct, and others that were unhealthy), and taken care of by the military here. They are also used to study. We got to see some amazing animals and birds of the Amazon. There were a lot of birds, however the most spectacular were the macaws, with their beautiful plumage in red, blue, and green. Then there were the reptiles – alligators, boas, and anacondas, who were mostly still and being demure. However, our favourite – the monkeys. They had their own little city… a pond with numerous islands, each separated by enough water so that the monkeys cannot cross over. They were swinging, and playing, and nit-picking! While we were enjoying watching our favourite animals, we heard some loud roars. The jaguars! These beasts were a sight. They were soon to be fed, and so were looking around with hungry eyes. The panther was pacing as if in distress. The military personnel came around with a wheel barrow, full of raw meats (it stunk terribly), and carefully put the meat in a smaller cage for the animals to come get. We actually heard these beasts crunch away at the bones! Scary!

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We headed off to the Ponta Negra beach area, populated by the elite of Manaus. Immediately, we saw rows of stunning condo buildings and colonies with neatly kept, modern houses. Indeed, the people here were wealthier than those in Manaus. It was rather quiet that time of day, so we just relaxed by the waterfront and enjoyed some beers. Getting annoyed by the bees that were hovering around our table (we even ‘captured’ a couple under some cups), we decided to get packing and return. When the bill arrived, we were surprised to get charged for the ‘table’ – a full R$10, which we later found out from Nik that it’s a European custom to charge a table fee.

We were now ready for Rio de Janeiro.

Random Thoughts

  • Dirty Streets.
  • Women, from maids to moms, dress like superstars!
  • Hot and humid, and this is their winter.
  • Wouldn’t live here.
  • Should only stay here for 3 days (max).
  • The Amazon was awe inspiring.
  • No one spoke English, and were quite rude.
  • Everything is super expensive, and produce at least 5 days old…as its being shipped here.

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