From Manaus, Gavin Heads into the Amazon

Sunday, June 22, 2014 | Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil

Gavin's shot of sunset over the Rio Negro, outside Manaus.
For the next few weeks, guest blogger Gavin Lippman will be writing about his experiences at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Check out his fifth entry below, and follow all his posts here.

As the plane made its final descent into Manaus, I peered out the window. Despite an overcast sky and rain, I could still see the vast dense green blanket below, pocketed with lakes and rivers. When I stepped off the plane, the blast of humid air confirmed it: I was in the Amazon rainforest.

A quick glance at the map can offer some sense of how far Manaus is from the other World Cup host cities. But the maps don't do justice to just how vast Brazil really is, and make no mistake—Manaus is in the middle of nowhere. It is accessible only by plane (a 4-hour ride to São Paulo, Rio De Janeiro, or most other major cities) or riverboat; there are no roads leading in or out of the city. Lastly, temperatures are always a balmy 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29 Celsius), with serious humidity.

Despite these obvious obstacles, Manaus was selected as one of the World Cup host cities—and immediately became the destination where no team wanted to play. England manager Roy Hodgson said as much before the Cup draw, setting off a war of words with the city's mayor. When the draw came, not only did England draw a game here (which they lost, 2-1, to Italy, in a match where every Brazilian heartily cheered against England) but so did the USA, for our key second group match
against Portugal.

Manaus was originally not in my plans either. Unable to secure a ticket to the US match, I was looking to make a short trek north from Natal to Fortaleza (for Germany v. Ghana) and then fly South to Rio. But in late March, I was tooling around on the FIFA website and noticed a few final available tickets, which I jumped on immediately. A direct flight was available, and so was a hotel. It was like a higher power was telling me: "Gavin, go support the USA and go explore the rainforest." Who could say no? Thus began my journey to Manaus.

* * *

I reached Manaus on Wednesday, with a few days to kill before this evening's match, so I signed up with Manaus Booking (and its "hustler" owner Jack) for a two-day visit to the Amazon. My tour group was comprised largely of Americans (unsurprising, given the upcoming game), but also included some Germans and Croatians and a few Scots (who announced their intention to wear their kilts and support the USA). After waiting half the morning to depart—thanks to Jack, who focused solely on the wad of cash in his pocket and continuously booking more people on the tour—we finally reached the dock, loaded into our boats, and departed.

On his Amazon tour, Gavin made friends with some scaly locals.
First on the tour was the meeting of the waters (of the Amazon and a major nearby tributary). I imagined some massive wave-crashing experience where the two rivers meet, but it was extremely anti-climactic. Honestly all we did was look at the water and see the color change. By all accounts, you gain a greater appreciation of this spectacle from above.

We then visited a family who had a small python, sloth, and crocodile for us to take pictures with and hold. En route to lunch, we suddenly slowed for no reason in the middle of the river. Then another boat approached and a large, gregarious Brazilian man bumbled into our boat. "Why don't you speak Portuguese, you are in Brazil!" This was our introduction to our tour guide, George.

A man who admitted to loving his BBQ and beer—and looked the part—in the next two days George would lead us to:
  • A local indian tribe: We visited a settlement of the Taupe tribe and were treated to a performance of ritual dances. As their dances came to a conclusion, they grabbed us out of the crowd and pulled us into the circle to dance along. It was a nice glimpse into the lives of people in this remote region.
  • Dolphin swimming: The Amazon is definitely not Seaworld, I thought, as we rolled up to the floating barge from where we would swim with dolphins. We all donned life-vests and hopped in, anxiously awaiting as the local "dolphin whisperers" did their thing ahead of us. I was pretty nervous about this—mainly because I really had to pee while I was in the water, but was told I could not under any circumstances do so because of the candiru, or toothpick fish. The candiru is a small barbed creature that has the ability to swim up into your urethra and, yeah... you get the picture. Despite this worry, it was still quite fun to be up close and personal with dolphins as they swam underneath us to be fed.
  • Crocodile searching and piranha fishing: We departed our base camp in search of crocodiles and piranhas. But right off the bat, George explained that because of abnormally high water levels, spotting crocodiles was going to be a challenge, so that didn't pan out. In regards to fishing, while Americans are more accustomed to the relaxation and serenity that comes from fishing, our German counterparts apparently do it differently. After a few hours without a catch, they tried to incite a mutiny. ("This is bo-o-o-ring", "The back of the boat wants to leave", "We have not seen an alli-ga-tor"). While we ending up finding neither crocodiles nor piranhas, the highlight of this ride was a beautiful sunset over the Rio Negro. The horizon seemed to span for days as we paused to appreciate the beauty of the Amazon region.
  • Rainforest hike: We concluded our time in the Amazon with a short hike. Initially, the dense vegetation of the rainforest brought back memories of my misadventures with land navigation while at The Basic School in Quantico. Tour guide George uncovered a massive brown tarantula, to some people's enjoyment and others' fright. (The sight reduced one woman to tears.) George also explained to us the many flowers, fauna, and trees along with their medicinal and practical usages. He hacked off some anti-malarial bark from a tree for us to eat (Yes, I tried it) and also demonstrated how you can build a quick shelter in the Amazon.
Despite the attempted mutiny, shortage of accommodation in the lodge (Thanks for overbooking, Jack!) and dealing with some pockets of headstrong travelers, George remained as entertaining and gregarious as he was from when we first met. He definitely shot from the hip and we learned to appreciate it, especially us Americans. For example, George instructed a group of us to awaken at 4AM to go and watch the sunrise over the river. We questioned George about the early rising time but he was insistent. So we woke at 4AM and stumbled outside to the dock. After almost 45 minutes, one of our group went to awaken George. She kept calling his name, to which he replied, like a kid not wanting to get up for school, "It's toooo earlyyyyy". It took a Moroccan traveler using his massive, iPad-like cell phone screen to awaken George, who told us to come back at 6AM. When we returned as instructed, we caught a glimpse of the beautiful sunrise, at which time George told us: "You should have been here at 5:30!"

Visit with a local tribe in the Amazon; here, a Taupe tribe elder.
Later George drew us a comprehensive map of where we traveled in the Amazon, another very kind gesture. I felt that George epitomized a lot of the Brazilians I have encountered: a little lax with time and logistics, but extraodinarily friendly and helpful.

* * *

I have had a wonderful time in Manaus. On the tour, I met some great people from DC and Philly, as well as a few Steelers fans (who were both very cool).

While getting to the city can be a hassle, Manaus has been a wonderful host to the World Cup this far. Despite the criticism and doubts, after spending some time in the Amazon and in town I see why Brazil wanted to include it as a host city. They want this World Cup to belong to all of Brazil, and the Amazon is very much a part of Brazil. The city has pulled out all the stops for its visitors. All the games are shown in town, and there are concerts and shows for the masses in the central square. The area also feels very secure, thanks not just to regular police, but English-speaking tourism police as well. Much like Natal, the people have been extremely happy to host foreigners for the World Cup.

The city has been invaded by Americans and Portuguese ahead of our match this evening. As I walked near the Arena da Amazonia stadium last night, lots of fans from both countries were in the nearby square. Here in Manaus, all eyes will be on this match. Looking forward to another USA win!

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