Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Manaus: Waters

Travelling along the Amazon river the first major modern city one encounters, and indeed the largest city on the banks of the Amazon, is Manaus. Now home to some 2½ million in habitants, Manaus was the center of the "rubber boom" about a century ago. during its heyday it boasted Brazil´s first electricity network and second tram (streetcar) system. In recent years the city has experienced a second boom, attracting a lot of industry due to government tax incentives.

Manaus has the same two seasons we had also encountered in Peru: rainy season from December until May, dry season the rest of the year. Upon our arrival we were informed that Manaus is currently experiencing an unusually harsh winter. Apparently we got off easy with the mere barely sufferable muggy 32°C (90°F). Normally it´s a lot hotter during the winter. The constant heat is only interrupted by the occasional brief but hard to miss rain showers.

Rainy season. When it rains it pours.

We had a place to stay with friends-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, or some such. The precise connection wasn´t entirely clear to me, but no matter, because in Brazil anyone you talk to for 3 minutes is a dear close friend. Our host Joelson works at Brazil´s enormously large oil company Petrobras. He speaks English very well. His wife Sandra does not speak any English, but she makes up for it by speaking a lot of Portuguese. Brazilians in general seem to have a lot of redundancy in their speech. Their speech is very redundant. It has a lot of verbosity, it is very prolix, it uses excessive words and phrases, it repeats things a lot in redundant ways. This enabled me to frequently reconstruct the gist of an entire conversation by picking out a small percentage of the words. Sandra took it upon herself to make sure I learned Portuguese by immersing me in it, and to make sure I gained weight by immersing me in food. A special notice goes to maid Rose who makes the best tapiocas in the world.

A lively discourse erupted over the correct way to eat an orange. I can accurately summarize the 30 minute seminar as follows. Brazilians do not consume an orange by eating the slices into which it by its very nature segments; Brazilians suck.

A significant phenomenon of nature to see in Manaus is the Meeting of the Waters: the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Solimões that form the Amazon river. The Amazon has about 1100 tributaries, but the Rio Negro and the Solimões are about equally big, so it´s a matter of arbitrary definition which one gets to be the official Amazon. The Solimões wins because it is longer than the Rio Negro. In fact, the Amazon river that we had followed from Iquitos to Tabatinga changes its name to Solimões at the border, and when it meets the Rio Negro it changes its name back again to Amazon.

The waters of the two rivers have different colours, temperatures, densities, acidity, and velocity, preventing them from mixing. For quite a few kms from their meeting point the two rivers flow side by side, forming very pretty near-fractal turbulence patterns. The water of the Rio Negro is black (hence the name), about 28°C, flowing at 2 km/h. The Solimões is muddy brown, 22°C, flowing at 4 to 6 km/h.

images copylefted from somewhere via Google image search

Wanting to see the Meeting of the Waters but not wanting to go on a day-long touristy tour with cheesy sales demos and lunch restaurant kickbacks, we hired a guide who took us on a private tailor-made tour. We drove down to the port. Manaus has in some sense the largest river port in the world; the sense being that the port stretches for dozens of kms. We boarded a small boat just like the one for our tour at Iquitos, but dramatically faster. Arriving at the interface we could clearly feel the temperature difference between the two waters.

The tour also took us to a lake with the iconic water lilies, as well as floating houses just like the ones we sailed past but barely saw in Iquitos (when it was too dark). The lake allegedly also hosts alligators and piranhas, but all we saw was one dolphin.

It goes nearly without saying that the appropriate way to conclude a day of the Meeting of the Waters is to have a meeting with Roger Waters. The former Pink Floyd bass player / singer / songwriter was in town to kick off Manaus´ annual opera festival with his opera Ça Ira. We actually sat right next to Roger in the theatre. Or rather, slightly more precisely put, we would have sat next to him had we been sitting elsewhere.

Roger in the suit on the left.

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