For a brief moment in history, Manaus was the richest city in the world, earning the name Paris of the Tropics. It was in the rainforest around Manaus that people discovered large amounts of rubber trees. With the industrial revolution completed in most parts of the western world, the demand for rubber was very high. All this demand for rubber made the city blossom in the late 1800s. Industries in Europe and the US had no choice but to buy almost all its rubber from the Amazon. And this was even before the Ford T-model was introduced; its launch would boost the demand for rubber even more.
Needless to say, all this wealth accumulated in the hands of a very small group of rubber barons. In its heyday these extravagant rubber barons spared no expenses to showcase their wealth. Historian Robin Furneaux describes: “if one rubber baron bought a vast yacht, another would install a tame lion in his villa, and a third would water his horse on champagne.” It was also in this time that Manaus started building its most iconic and very nice landmark: Teatro Amazonas. A lavish opera house, made from Asian, European, and African materials built in the middle of the jungle, nothing was too crazy.
Of course, this prosperity boom came crashing down hard. Working in the Amazon is agonizingly hard, labour was scarce, and the jungle floor does not lend itself well for large scale plantations. So it did not take long for the British to figure out how to smuggle some rubber tree seeds out of the jungle and how to cultivate them in the more accessible locations in Asia. Also, artificial rubber was invented. Manaus went bankrupt. The opera house is still there though and instead of rubber, Manaus now has a large industrial zone in the Free Economic Zone. However, Manaus is now best known as the entryway to the largest ecological reserve in the world: the Amazon rainforest. At least, that is what we used it for.
Walking around Manaus, it is hard not to see relics of its prosperous history. Already on the first day of our visit, we walked from the port, past the Teatro Amazonas to go to our Couchsurf host Andre. Andre once again restored our faith in humanity, by being an incredible host. We stayed much longer at his place than we originally envisioned. The next day in search of a tour agency, we again walked past the Theatre. We had a look inside and soon were offered a free English tour. The Manaus tourist board is on point. After the tour, we learned that the next day there would be a show by a local pop artist, and that we only had to bring a carton of milk for a charitable organization.
The next day, we lined we up 2.5 hours before the show with our cartons of milk, and soon noticed we were clearly among the younger member of the audience. No problem. Since we had lined-up so far in advance, and because we are great players in the line cutting game that ensued, we took two great seating places on a private balcony on the second floor. It is hard to put to words what kind of show ensued. Arlindo Junior, local hero and Folclórico singer, was the main act of the evening. He, and the whole crowd in the theatre (minus us two) sung catchy Portuguese pop lyrics, while 50 dancers or show filled that stage (which would change décor ever so often). The only shame was that the old hero, who earned his fame 20 years ago, seemed to have gotten a little rusty.
Like Manaus, Arlindo seems to have left his heyday behind him. He still has a lot of fans and does put up a very entertaining show, but it seems that his fans are better at lip-syncing to his tapes than he is himself. For us this was hilarious, the rest of the crowd did not seem to mind. And well, we were probably the only two in the whole theatre that did not know all of his lyrics.
The rest of our time in the city of Manaus we mostly spent in an internet café catching up on work and blogs. We also haggled with some ticket officer to buy our onward boat tickets to Tabatinga for R$250 and bought some tender street food from one of the many Venezuelan refugees that currently roam the streets of Manaus.