Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Impressions of Manaus

Hello from Brazil! I've been here since yesterday afternoon. Dr. Ouverney met me at the airport, which I initially thought was an unnecessary but nice gesture, but when I am now very glad of. It turns out that my Spanish, as humble as it is, was extraordinarily useful; you don't really realize what you have until you have lost it. I can't understand more than maybe one word in a hundred in Portuguese, and can't speak at all, apart from a few key phrases I've had Dr. Ouverney teach me. I feel quite adrift. If I got lost, all I could really do would be to show strangers the card for my hotel and look inquisitive, and perhaps say "taxi" and "por favor". It's a bit scary. We will all be so dependent upon Dr. Ouverney; he will be on full-time translation duty for twenty people. I don't envy him.
Then, too, he is being run a bit ragged. He had a fever of 104 last night, but he had to get up in the middle of the night to meet an incoming airplane with the remaining twelve students, so he got very little sleep. This morning he was already up when I came down for breakfast; he said he couldn't sleep because he was too congested to breathe. He says he feels fine right now, but expects to run out of steam later today.
After I got in yesterday we took a bus from the airport that cornered unbelievably hard; I was practically thrown across the bus, and held on very tightly after that. It was hard to believe the bus didn't tip over, the way it was being driven. Then from the bus terminal in town we caught a taxi, which drove very slowly and cautiously to the hotel. After a brief regrouping, we went out with the intention of running lots of errands, but we got stuck on our first one (after having a quick lunch of beans, noodles, and a very crunchy fried fish). That was a trip to a bank, where Dr. Ouverney was trying to arrange a transfer of funds. In typical third world fashion, it took several hours, with endless consultations and phone calls. He was required to sign his name the way he had signed it when he was fourteen, so that it matched the signature on his Brazilian identification card, which he had received as a teenager; since his signature has evolved a great deal since then, he had to look at his ID card and do his best to forge the signature. This was done under the gaze of the bank employee who had objected to his first signature; having done a sufficiently good job of forgery, Dr. Ouverney finally received his money.
By then it was so late that we needed to leave for the airport again to pick up two more incoming students, girls named Amy and Hannah. That went smoothly enough, although their flight was delayed by an hour. After a bit of regrouping at the hotel, we went for dinner to a nearby restaurant that Dr. Ouverney had discovered, and ordered beers, little fried appetizers with fish in them, and a very tasty fish cooked in coconut milk (all of which I forgot to photograph, sorry Keewi!). Then Dr. Ouverney limped off to try to get a bit of sleep (this is the point at which he had a 104 fever); he didn't eat with us.
After dinner we walked south towards the downtown area. The sun rises at six and sets at six here; we are only three degrees south of the equator. So it was already quite dark, but early enough that things were quite busy. My chief impression so far is that Manaus is poorer and dirtier than Caracas, but less threatening. I think perhaps the key difference is in the gulf between rich and poor. In Caracas, the rich people are so rich, and the live right alongside the poorest people. In Manaus, it doesn't seem to be that way; I haven't seen any obviously, ostentatiously wealthy people here, as I saw everywhere I went in Caracas. I've seen scientific studies that indicate that what makes people unhappy is not so much being poor, in some absolute sense, but only being poor relative to other people that they see around them. It's the gap, not the level of wealth itself. So I think the conditions in Manauas may not breed to discontent and hostility that Caracas seemed to have.
Anyhow, speculation aside, we saw lots of little bars, lots of street vendors serving grilled meats of various sorts, lots of hotels that seemed to be doing business by the hour, lots of stray cats and dogs, lots of people milling around. We walked past a university, with floods of students entering its large walled compound using a key-card system. We walked past a hospital situated in a huge, grand old colonial building; at first I thought it must be the city hall or some such. Finally we decided to turn around; theoretically we ought to have been quite close to the river at that point, but we never saw it, and we decided we were too tired and sweaty to keep going right then. The river in question is not actually the Amazon; Manaus is built at the confluence of the Amazon (which the locals don't call the Amazon above the point of confluence) and the Rio Negro, which comes in from the north, and Manaus is built on the banks of the Rio Negro. This is because the Rio Negro is full of acidic, toxic tannins (making its waters dark, thus its name), and those tannins cut down on the breeding of mosquitoes.
I'm typing this at my breakfast table at our hotel. It's a reasonably nice place; budget third world accommodations, but quite good by those standards. The room has air conditioning, which is key, and the bathroom is very clean and modern. Breakfast this morning was pretty good actually; they cooked eggs to order, and had cheese and meat and bread and a grill press sort of thing to make grilled sandwiches, and two kinds of juice, and hot dogs with a tomato, onion and celery mixture (I think), and cake. We'll be having breakfast here every morning, so I expect I'll get quite used to this routine. I've learned how to order a scrambled egg in Portuguese. In a little while we'll have the first meeting of our class, and then I expect things will start to get busy!

1 comment:

yeppokamja said...

Yeah! you are in Brazil now! I am so glad that it's less dangerous~ I was little worried when you were in Caracas