I hadn’t until shortly before we left and I traced my finger on a map down Brazil’s Amazon River to Manaus with the breathlessly excited thought: “I’m going there.”
Manaus was once the richest city on the planet. Henry Ford wanted to exploit the rubber trade – and business tycoons by the dozen were created here. The expression: "Lighting your cigar with one hundred dollar bills" was birthed here too…because they made a point of doing it.
Not much of that grandeur remains today. There’s the Manaus opera house of course: Italian marble, handcrafted décor. It is said that the small road out front of the opera house was covered in rubber so that the carriages rumbling by with their loads of rich music fans wouldn’t make a sound on the cobblestones and so disturb the patrons within.
Manaus is a place of stark contrasts: there are opulent mansions still – and ramshackle slums of abject poverty. One point eight million people live here in relative peace.
The ship pulls slowly into the port and I stand on the balcony savoring the moment because I know this will be the last time for this trip that I am on a moving ship. We dock here and stay overnight. But tomorrow we leave. Our bags are packed and they sit like 900 pound gorillas in the middle of our stateroom.
I don’t dwell on it too long because it’s not a day for those kinds of thoughts. It’s a FULL day excursion. We’re going to take a tour of the town. We are going to have a look at the opera house. We’re going to take a river ride – and then go on a walk through the jungle to a real Amazon village. We are going to finish the day by going out onto the river in the dark of night hunting caiman – the indigenous alligators.
Who could be sad with all that coming up? (You just shush.)
We file off the ship with bright orange stickers on our shirts. They say “H3” in big letters. They identify us as tour members but they annoy me to no end for reasons I cannot articulate.
The bus is waiting and as we step from ship to bus, I have my first misgiving. We are being handled and I wonder if we will ever be allowed to see the real Brazil. I don’t much want to be insulated.
But I was on my way to a day I will remember for the rest of my life. It was a day when Brazil, in all it’s electric beauty touched me.
Sheree and I pile into a tour bus. It’s an odd bus because it has a locking door between the passengers and the driver. It creeps me out at first – but the guide, a pinch faced little man, explains that the door exists so we can enjoy air conditioning.
…okay, I think…
There are only ten of us on the bus – so I spread out on the back seat. I can shoot out of either window as we travel and I do. Manaus is a riot of color and people and activity. There are signs and cars and bustling commerce. The streets are choked with people and buildings. Music is played loud on every corner and there’s an affable disorder to it all.
It’s raining steadily and I shoot out of the windows and try to make the rain work for me. There are some wonderful bokeh effects that just occur when you focus on the drops and let the background blur.
We arrive at the Manaus opera house and the guide puts on his serious face. He looks at us, every one of us, directly in the eye and raises a finger. I have a flash memory of school field trips.
“We were not allowed to bring tourists into the opera house for a very long time,” he says. My ears have adjusted to his heavy accent and I can actually understand most of what he says now. “The opera house is very par-tic-oo-lar (this is the word, yes?) about people inside. You may take photos,” he pauses to look significantly at Sheree and me – as we have already been identified as ‘potential problem photographers’ – “But no flash photography. They get, how do you say, very irr-ra-tet-ed. The flash destroys paint. If you do not know how to put your flash off, give me your camera and I do it for you.”
We enter the opera house and it is grand, indeed. There are rooms in this place that took fifteen YEARS to complete. Stone, marble, wood – textiles were brought in from all over the world. There is a rumor that Caruso sang here. The real story is that someone said “malaria” to him, and he took off.
We go through the lobby and into the theater. There’s low light here – and I suppress my flash – and crank the ISO. I start shooting.
There are things that happen with technology that seem too precisely timed to be pure happenstance. This has never happened before or since but as I raised the camera to my eye to take the seventh image, the flash goes off.
There is a collective gasp from the assembled group and the guide is glaring at me. I hold up my hand to acknowledge that I am the Flash Criminal and will take sure and certain steps to correct the situation. The gesture asks for mercy from the Opera House Police. The guide nods tightly and continues talking about something. I suppress the flash again and continue shooting.
Have you ever seen what a camera does when it is trying to focus on something in low light? The flash goes off in tight sharp bursts.
For no apparent reason, a circumstance I have not been able to repeat since that day, a bursting flashing “HEY EVERYONE! Look at me for I am the moron with THE OBNOXIOUS FLASH” screamed into the otherwise hushed silence. After what seems like several years, the panicked responses from my brain, reach my finger and I lift it off the shutter button. The flashes stop, although their presence resounds with echos of light in their wake.
I do not often feel a flush burning my cheeks. But I did then.
“See? You really should read your camera manual,” chides Sheree helpfully. She seems to be enjoying this just a little more than she should.
I am about to respond with something both flushed and cutting when there is a whoosh of air and the guide is standing beside us with a horrified skeletal grin frozen on his face.
“Do you want me to rip that camera out of your hands, you bottom-feeding lowlife stupid tourist waste of skin?” his expression says.
“Can I help you turn off your flash?” he asks through clenched teeth just behind the fake smile.
“No,” I say. “I’ll do it.”
He stands there while I suppress the flash…again. To this day, I have no idea why it was flashing. I change the setting to Shutter Mode and turn the flash off.
He luxuriates in one last “I will feed you your own liver if you continue to embarrass me” fake smile and then he turns on his heel and stalks away. His manner makes it obvious there are far more worthy people who deserve his attention.
I sit in my seat. Low. I point the camera down at the floor and half press the shutter button, just to check. Nothing. It focuses. No problem. No flash. I heave a sigh and remind myself that all technology is inherently evil.
I see a wall ornament I like and I turn the camera toward it. Tentatively I press on the shutter button. There’s a crisp click as the flash pops up, ready to do it's job. No. Not ready. EAGER.
Shit shit shit.
I mutter something else unkind and wander out of the theater into where there is more light and less intense scrutiny.
As we leave the opera house, the rain is falling in a steady drizzle, and I go back to the wave thingie courtyard to finish my pictures. The rest of the people follow the guide.
I walk across the courtyard and peer around the corner of the opera house. The guide is standing there in the steady rain in beside our bus.
He has obviously been looking for me because he sees me right away and begins waving his arms wildly to attract my attention. I presume he thinks I am so deep in my idiot stupid tourist fog he must take extreme measures to get my attention.
I wave back in my most carefree manner and saunter toward him.
“We were waiting by the wrong bus,” I say.
His look, of course, says something completely different than what comes out of his mouth. On the off chance children will be reading this, I won't attempt an interpritation. But the visual message was a stark contrast to the words spoken which were: “No problem…sir.”
He decides to have the bus drive around the block to pick up Sheree and we walk together in silence.
I think he probably still hates me.
That’s the morning. We’re on our way to a river ride next. I don’t know it – but we are about to meet one of those Wonderful Life Characters…and lay the groundwork for coming back here one day.
The river ride is spectacular. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.