Bom dia, amigos!
I'm writing from Manaus, Brazil to update all my friends about my trip to the Amazon. I plan to make regular updates as time and internet access allow (and if I feel like it. ;-) The journey here was smooth and uneventful. My flight left from RDU at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, and the trip felt very ordinary--all the usual packing and planning, and a bit of anxiety about making my way through the airports. But as my second flight lifted off from Miami, the trip suddenly seemed much more "real." I was headed to Brazil! The Amazon adventure had begun.
I arrived in Manaus late Wednesday night. A very nice young woman sent by Hostel Manaus, where I've been staying for the past two nights, met me at the airport and sat with me while we waited for the taxi to pick me up. She spoke no English, and my 5-weeks of studying Portuguese limited our communication, though we both tried! To pass the time, I showed her the photos I have on my iPad. She loved my pictures, especially the Grizzly Bear and other animals from the zoo. And I did understand enough to know her fascination with the photos from the desert in Nevada; she said that they have no high mountains of dry areas around. The taxi driver spoke English extremely well and was very friendly. He gave me some useful information about the area. The person at the front desk of the Hostel was very helpful as well. As I got into bed, far past my usual bedtime, my mind was still buzzing with thoughts and plans, and mentally reviewing my limited Portuguese in anticipation of trying to communicate the next day.
I spent most of Thursday exploring the city. Manaus is much bigger than I expected--about 2 million people. It's an odd place to me, and I can see what's meant by a "developing" country. The Hostel is fairly nice, but would be considered run down by U.S. standards, even for the price. The look of the electrical systems makes me cringe. Much of the city--at least the Centro area I walked through--looks like a slum, with broken sidewalks and beat-up buildings. The narrow streets and sidewalks are lined with street vendors selling everything from food to clothing to accessories to watches. Air conditioning is not common, despite the heat and humidity, and most of the shops have large doors open to the street. There are many small hotels and restaurants. Most of the hotels don't seem much nicer than the Hostel, but I've found the food in the restaurants to be very good. Traffic is terrible, with narrow streets packed with small cars, but many of the cars are quite new. Like most cities people walk quickly, but they don't have the same sense of being in a hurry as you find in most U.S. cities.
The dangers of Manaus are greatly exaggerated in the travel guidebooks, as far as I can tell, and my taxi driver said it make him angry that his city was misrepresented in this way. I had read that robbery and theft are very common--for Brazilians as well as foreigners--and one needs to be very careful even during the day. So I left my camera locked in my room at the Hostel and took just a minimum of cash and other necessities for the day. I found very little to worry about. Many people walked around the streets alone without any obvious worries, children ran around and played, and shopkeepers sat in their doorways waiting and trying to attract business. There was a strong police presence, especially around the museums and other tourist attractions. I did note, though, that the only cameras I saw were those in cell phones. There would have been great opportunities for street photography--capturing slices of life in the city--so I was a little disappointed that I didn't have the opportunity. But that kind of photography is not really my cup of tea, so I wanted to ensure that I had all my gear for the rainforest. I was also warned about the water, but the people in the Hostel did not find it a such a concern. I've been using the tap water for brushing my teeth, and drinking filtered tap water with no ill effects so far (and they use it to wash dishes and silverware). Bottled water is common, and it's best to as for bottled water in restaurants, but the dangers seem overstated.
My day in the city was rather overwhelming. I'm not big on crowded cities of any kind simply because of the amount of stimulus--sights, sounds, smells, etc. The museums were a welcome respite, and most were also air-conditioned and de-humidified to preserve the artwork. I went to the famous Teatro Amazonas, an ostentatious opera house built just before the turn of the 19th century by one of the rubber barons. I happened to arrive just as they were beginning an English-speaking tour. Our guide was excellent, and I met some nice retirees from Denmark. I always have mixed feelings about places like this. On the one hand, the place is exquisite, with beautiful woodworking, ceiling paintings, and architectural detail. On the other, it was all done as a monument to excess, a way to show off the wealth of a few, while most of the population suffered in poverty, or were displaced from their land or killed outright. The Museu Amazonica was a very nice, small museum with one floor of paintings by Brazilian artists--most of them quite good--and one floor of artifacts from the indios, the natives of the Amazon. The most memorable painting was a reimagining of the last supper, with Jesus and his disciples dining at a long table on a riverboat on the Amazon River, with the setting sun directly above Jesus' head. The last museum I visited was four museums in one; I don't recall the overall name of the building at the moment. They have an excellent collection of paintings, again by local artists. There is also a small collection of classic cameras, part of an exhibit on the history of photography and cinema. And there is an impressive display of weapons and armor from Brazil's military history. Here and in the Teatro Amazonas, I found a great pride among Brazilians for an idealized view of their history. In a similar fashion to the U.S., they tend to gloss over the violence and oppression in their past, and the poverty and suffering in the present.
I had planned on writing all this last night, but as I sat in the Hostel for a few minutes gathering my thoughts, some of the other guests struck up a conversation, and a changing group of us had a very nice talk for over two hours. I met people from Australia, Russia, Cypress, Norway, and Chile. Most of them are on long journeys, visiting many countries. We talked a bit about politics, a little about our hometowns, and a lot about travel. It made me realize that I've been more places than I usually remember or think about. And I also wondered why people decide to spend months traveling. I asked an Australian woman, on a year-long trip with her husband, why they decided to take this trip. She told me that each of them had wanted to spend several months traveling before they met, so once they married they decided to combine the trips. But this doesn't really answer the question "why?" I look at my own motivation, knowing that I live in a beautiful place, and with my interest in spiritual awakening. As many meditation teachers will tell you, there is no need to go anywhere to find what you seek. Everything is right here, in the present, wherever you are. And there is in fact nothing to find. But I have also discovered that travel gives us a different perspective and shakes up our usual assumptions. Sometimes we need to be shaken up and shown a different way of seeing things.
This afternoon, I leave the city, taking a long riverboat trip to the Xixuau Reserve. I'm out of time to write, at the moment, so you can read more about the reserve at www.amazoniabr.org if you're so inclined. They have satellite internet there, so I hope to write more after I arrive in a couple of days.