Sunday, April 06, 2008

Then there I was

self portrait in manaus traffic

Self-portrait in a taxi, stuck in morning traffic in Manaus; March 2008

More than once during our week in Manaus I caught myself saying I'd wanted to go there ever since I saw Herzog's movie Fitzcarraldo. But that wasn't really true. I'd wanted to see Manaus long before that, probably ever since I first heard of the city in the Amazon, in the middle of the rainforest. I'd imagined the silent unbroken green of the jungle rolling thousands of miles, broken only by rivers and creeks, then suddenly, abruptly, a ring of gleaming skyscrapers around a low hill, church spires bristling, the dome of the opera house shining above plazas and boulevards and gardens, then a great curve of the Rio Negro--and suddenly, abruptly, the forest again, rolling on a thousand miles to the sea.

Of course, it was not quite like that.

We arrived in Manaus on Easter Sunday, not the best day to arrive anywhere. The drive from the airport to the Centro took us through a series of suburbs, laid out like orderly housing estates. Along the highway were billboards advertising banks and insurance companies; we passed a factory for fibreglass swimming pools, with examples of its manufacture displayed on a huge lawn, upturned like monstrous shallow boats.

The skyscrapers, when they appeared, did not gleam. Their paint was peeling and blotched with mildew. Our hotel, just off the Praça São Sebastião, almost in the shadow of the Teatro Amazonas, was like every other small, cheap hotel I've ever stayed in anywhere--cramped, flimsily furnished, smelling faintly of disinfectant. Our room was clean and spare and two of the three lightbulbs worked. We had a wall of windows opening onto a telephone pole knotted with wires and cables, and below that the Rua Dez de Julho. Across the street was an endoscopy clinic.

If anything is happening in Manaus this afternoon, it will be down at the waterfront, we decided, so we strolled down a broad, sloping avenue past shops shuttered and barred, past little kiosks wrapped in tarpaulin and bound with twine like parcels.

The respectable citizens of Manaus were at home, or were sporting in some distant respectable quarter. The crowd at the waterfront apparently had been celebrating Holy Week with gusto. Their revels were not yet ended, but the diminuendo was fading. One or two still managed to dance, or at least sway, to the music slurring from the open-fronted bars. Most were collapsed over tables, slumped across benches, slumped over each other, over cars parked haphazardly in the street.

No one here was young anymore. Everyone had spent too many years working the wrong shifts, drinking too much of the wrong drinks, sweating with the wrong unnamed fevers. A woman of maybe fifty--or maybe forty, with too many wrong stories--dressed in a tight black miniskirt, her dyed-black hair hanging in knots, bent over the handlebar of a motorbike. She was peering into the rear-view mirror, smearing red lipstick over her mouth with an unsteady hand. The motorbike's back tyre was flat.

The gutters reeked of urine and rotting fruit. We turned a corner, past the famous covered market, now boarded up, and there was the river--the Rio Negro, rippled pewter, the far bank a distant black line, and something like a sunset happening behind some clouds.

I shouldn't have come, I thought. I should have let Manaus remain a city of my mind, strange and distant and unknown.

The next day the streets of the Zona Franca teemed with hucksters and hustlers, the little kiosks unbound and unwrapped and offering mobile phone accessories, pirated DVDs, women's underwear, shoes, magazines, and various beauty aids. There was something grimly jaded about all this bustle, all this commerce. No one seemed to smile. Only a rare face showed a hint of freshness. Even the young people--tending their kiosks, hauling bales of goods--seemed already hard-used, coarsened, scarred. I started counting men and women missing an arm--always the left arm, for some reason. Eight, nine, ten.

It was relentlessly hot--what did I expect? This was the tropical jungle--and the fetid air pressed down with the weight of humid, unhappy smells--rotting fish, rotting fruit, rotting river mud. Maybe I was running a fever too, or my blood running thin. I trudged laboriously back to the Praça São Sebastião and took refuge in a small café, and drank frothy lime juice. I thought: I shouldn't have come.

I went back to the hotel, turned up the air-conditioning, and lay staring at the ceiling.

We travel to learn we are wrong.

Thirst drove me outdoors again. It was the cusp of evening. It had rained gently in the middle afternoon, and some of the Easter weekend filth had been washed down the gutters. A breeze had struck up, at last.

In the tropics on lucky fine evenings there is a brief spell, as the sun slips over the horizon, when the sky turns deep violet and the light turns pink, and just like that the whole world and everything in it seems lit up from the inside. Everything glows, every colour is more intense. The world and everything in it seems to pause for benediction. It does not last long.

That evening in Manaus, it seemed to last so long--so long, at last. I was strolling down a narrow street just below the praça. I forgot what I'd left the hotel for--a bottle of cold water. The buildings were now washed with gold and rose, and in that glow you did not notice their mildews and peeling paint. There were trees rustling and whispering, their leaves also lit up--they had been invisible all day until now, in their yards and gardens. There were gardens! Lights were coming on in the houses and shops and cafés. People stepped out of doorways and exhaled, their faces softening. They smiled and chatted, took each other's arms, stepped into the gold and rose dusk.

At the tops of the ugly skyscrapers, even the ugly radio masts were lit up, gilded in the sunset--now they were pinnacles and spires. The cathedral bells pealed as if from a great height. I no longer noticed the direction I was strolling--then as the bells stopped I came out in the square below the cathedral, thronged as if for a holiday with men and women released from the day's labours. The kiosks were strung with lights, the trees were whispering, and through their thick leaves shone the floodlit cathedral on its little hill. Young women strode past in twos and threes, clutching shopping bags. Men loosened their ties and women let down their hair, and they clustered around the gate to a little park, where a vendor sold chunks of beef on wooden skewers from a smoking charcoal grill.

Streaked with scarlet taillights, Avenida Eduardo Ribeiro ascended gently towards the dusk-darkening sky. The shrimp-pink Teatro hovered above the black-and-white waves of the praça, like the backdrop to a stage set. Loudspeakers set demurely among the trees hummed Verdi, and young lovers were already taking their places on the benches, giggling and embracing.

The waiters at the Café do Pensador had put out tables along the praça's southern edge. I sipped a sweet, sticky caipirinha and thought: this is why I came.

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