Opulence in the jungle
Manaus: In the heart of the Amazon, at the meeting of the Rio Negro and the Rio Amazonas sits Brazil’s fourth biggest economy, the 2 million strong city of Manaus. On a rainforest swamp, the Portuguese built first a fort against those pesky Dutch and Spanish encroachers, and then, after independence, a town.
Rubber turned it into a city so wealthy that Manaus had electric lighting here in the Amazon jungle before many European capitals. There was a time when rubber grew only here in the Amazon.
Rubber was a material that revolutionised everything: the damaging vibrations of manufacturing equipment could be numbed with rubber carpets; factory machinery belts could be made more durable with rubber; surgery more hygienic with rubber gloves; raincoats more waterproof; bicycle wheels more effective… And then, volcanisation was discovered.
Unfortunately, a sneaky Englishman smuggled rubber seeds from the Amazon, after which they were planted in British Malay. The mass deforestation of Southeast Asia, and the continent’s kilometre upon kilometre mortuary dead regular rows of rubber trees, is a direct consequence of that.
However, in that golden time, when Manaus had the monopoly of the world’s rubber production, it was one of the richest places on the planet. Rubber barons outdid each other during the late 19th century, turning the city into a gaudy paradise somewhere between Versailles and Las Vegas. The most obvious remainder of these heady days is the incredible opera house.
Costing $10 million to build, this extraordinary edifice to decadence stands in the central square, boasting an Arabic ceramic and glass tiled dome (originally meant for a Moroccan mosque), interior walls lined with Chinese silks, ceilings covered in canvases bearing Italian artwork, English iron columns made in french style and painted to look like marble, Italian marble, Venetian glass chandeliers, Russian wood floors for acoustics, marquetry in the ballroom, staircases and balustrades made from Amazonian wood that was shipped to Europe for carving and then shipped back again…
In the main auditorium, the ceiling has a painting of the Eiffel tower that was painted there before the tower was installed in Paris, by an artist who saw the iron building on show at the Great Exhibition in London.
The opera house is magnificent in every way – said to be better than any European one because it contains the best of each – but my favourite part is perhaps the only Brazilian contribution. Outside the main doors, rubber bricks are installed in the road so that late-arriving carriages wouldn’t clatter on the stone pebbles and disturb the performance. Genius.
When we visit the building, musicians are practicing on a stage that’s hosted the world’s greatest operas, ballets and plays, and the greatest performers. Margot Fonteyn danced her last here and her ballet shoes are displayed in a glass case.
We wander around the elegant colonial square with its black and white tiled floor, designed to resemble the Meeting Of The Waters, and copied by every other Brazilian town, most famously, Rio’s Copacabana beachfront.
We eat a very weird soup eaten by the region’s indigenous people, which contains an anaesthetic plant so strong that my mouth is completely numb after a few mouthfuls. And I finally get my fill of every type of delicious fruit and juices.
We do a bit of shopping, finding C&A, the 80s clothing store, home to Clockhouse teen outfits, is alive and well in Manaus long after its disappearance from the UK highstreet.
We arrange a night bus north, through the Amazon to the town of Boa Vista near the Guyanese and Venezuelan borders.