Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Travel Blog #16: Manaus Morning

Have you heard of Manaus?

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 d├ęcor. 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.”

He pauses again and looks pointedly at me. I smile disarmingly. My smile says “I know my camera, pal. You may trust me. Besides, you will only be able to get it by prying it from my cold dead fingers.”

He arches his eyebrows, still looking at me. I nod. I smile. He looks away. Finally.

There is a courtyard beside the opera house. It is a complex black and white tile, designed to simulate the ebb and flow of waves on the ocean. The guide drones on and I stop to take pictures of it. Frankly, the mosaic is much more interesting than the talk…and I am feeling a little teenager-ish from the unspoken rebuke. Like I don’t know how to use my own camera. Pffft.

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.

Next is the room that took fifteen years to build. I wonder if we will be allowed to actually walk on the floor.

I meant it as one of those little jokes I tell myself -- but it turns out we weren't going to be allowed onto the floor.

See the people here? We were all issued booties lest our unclean feet scuff the woodwork.

Having said this admittedly snotty thing, I must say this was one very cool room. It dripped elegance and money in equal amounts. The bootie things were huge (one size fits all, I suppose) but the result was that if you wanted to get from point A to point B, you needed to move in little shuffling steps. I was thinking of zombies in search of human brains to devour...or vastly overmedicated patients on a day pass from The Home.

If your bootie slipped off, you were screwed -- because you'd have to balance like a stork on one leg until you got your foot back in. I know this from personal experience. Most of the tour group was already conditioned to keep one eye on me for the next entertaining thing that I would do.

I didn't care. I took lots of pictures for the sheer joy of taking pictures. Sheree and I both saw an ornate mirror and seized the opportunity to take our portraits at the same time. Unfortunately we can’t get our booties into the shots.

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.

Sheree is waiting by the bus.

We both wait there. It seems to be taking a long time.
I take a hard look at the bus.

“This is where it dropped us off, right?” I ask.

Sheree rolls her eyes. “Yes, Dave.”

We stand there some more.

“I’m going up this way for a minute,” I say. I have begun to suspect this is not our bus, but I don’t want to say anything in case I am wrong. (I am frequently wrong.)

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.