With Arms Wide Open

Friday 23rd  March 2018

We were leaving Manaus today, so we were up early to pack our suitcases before breakfast.

The buffet was once again struggling to be warm. A bowlful of tepid porridge was difficult to swallow despite being sweet and tasty. Luckily they brought out a fresh batch of scrambled egg which I went for immediately. I complemented the warm egg with fried plantain which worked really well. My plate was let down by stone cold cheesy doughballs, pao de queijo.

Julie had some toast and noticed that the butter spread was called Vigor. “Ooh, I could do with some of that” she said. All these early mornings were beginning to catch up with us.

We both had a cup of green tea, avoiding the coffee in an attempt to skip a bowel movement. This we did because the toilet in our room was blocked.

I don’t know if there’s any scientific proof behind that train of thought or is it simply coincidence that the morning constitution follows soon after a coffee. As if to prove (or disprove) the theory it wasn’t long before I needed to use the toilet. Fortunately there were some just off the lobby. I’m only mentioning this because they had the strangest of seats. They were padded!

It felt odd sitting down on a padded toilet seat. It looked clean but just felt so wrong. 

Anyway, after breakfast we had some spare time before our 10am pick-up so we decided to investigate the hotel’s zoo. I’m not the biggest fan of zoos at the best of times but these small caged enclosures were not suitable.

Firstly, we came to their star attraction, the jaguar. It was heart-breaking to see it a prisoner of such a confined space. It paced around its cell in an almost demented fashion before settling down to have a good look at us. It was a stunning creature.

We walked around the shaded grounds from one cage to the next. One poor monkey, a Macaco Barrigudo or “common woolly monkey”, was in solitary confinement. Probably being kept in quarantine. It looked so miserable.

They had several other types of monkeys, white-bellied spider monkeys, cheeky little shagging monkeys along with a variety of colourful macaws. They also had some Capybara, the world’s largest rodent and Collared Peccary a small pig-like animal.

We returned in a loop back to the start and back to the jaguar who was in the same spot staring out forlornly.

We felt saddened by the whole experience. I’m sure the animals were well cared for. I’m not suggesting for a moment that any were mistreated but in my opinion zoos like these are out-dated and should be closed.

At 10am we checked-out and met Carlos, our guide for this morning’s tour of the city before heading to the airport.

We stuffed our cases in the boot of the car and drove the 13km to the old town, via a slight detour to his house to pick up something.

Along the way we chatted and found a connection over music. He was a big rock fan, especially of bands from the 70s like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple.

“Glenn Hughes visited my house last year” he said (about the Deep Purple singer). I was rather impressed until I realised what he actually said was “Glenn Hughes visited Manaus last year”

He also mentioned a “Welsh prog rock band” by the name of The Gentle Giants who I had never heard of before. Turns out they were more Scottish/English than Welsh, but it was still strange that the band had fans out here in Brazil!

The outskirts of the city was like any other around the world. Over 2 million people live in Manaus.  But once we turned into the old quarter the striking colonial buildings brought the city’s past to life.

Manaus was the place to be at the turn of the 20th century. It was one of the first cities in Brazil to have electricity, it had a modern tramway system, wide boulevards and spacious squares and parks. Rubber merchants amassed incredible fortunes, built themselves extravagant mansions and palaces.

It became such a sophisticated city it became known as the “Paris of the jungle”.

Of course it didn’t last forever. Englishman Sir Henry Wickham smuggled out thousands of rubber tree seeds which were successfully cultivated in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, a few miles from Heathrow.

This enabled the British produce rubber on a mass scale in many of their tropical colonies like Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, breaking the Amazon monopoly. By the 1920’s it was all over for Manaus.

We drove down towards the port, getting caught in some heavy traffic. It would have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact we were stuck behind this VW van selling eggs out of the opened side-door. That in itself wasn’t the issue, the problem was his frantic shouting over the loudspeaker that he was the egg man.

It soon became intolerable and we stepped out of the car and continued the rest of the way on foot.  

We came across Feira da banana, a large covered fruit market selling not just bananas but a vast choice of regional fruit and vegetables. It was a wholesale market with produce sold by the sack full.

There was an abundance of choice highlighting how fertile the land is around the Amazon. They would be shipped in on those colourful boats we saw yesterday and loaded straight into this market to be sold.

Pineapples, limes and of course bananas were possibly the only fruit we recognised. There were other fruits that we simply hadn’t come across before like the Cupuaçu. It looked more like a root veg. It was difficult to imagine but inside the thick earthy exterior was an exquisite white pulp that’s described as having a flavour akin to pineapple and chocolate!

They also had root vegetables like Macaxeira (a type of Cassava) and mounds of nuts, Brazil Nuts of course. Here they call them castanhas-do-pará, or chestnuts from Pará, a region downstream on the Amazon. My father is a big fan of the Brazil nut, although the ones he would buy are covered in chocolate and only bought as a treat over Christmas.

The most abundant of all the fruit and veg on sale was the banana. Huge branches of the fruit were on display at different stages of ripeness, ranging from small fun size sweet bananas to some really large specimens. Perhaps some of them were plantain. To be honest I probably couldn’t tell the difference between a plantain and a very big banana.

We left the market and followed Carlos down a busy street full of smaller fruit and veg shops. We stopped at a Brazil nut exporter who Carlos happened to know. I’m not too sure why, it wasn’t as if we were likely to buy a whole sack full of nuts. They must have been over 20 kilos!

We shook the owners hand as he showed us the whole fruit from the Brazil Nut tree. It was fascinating to see this large coconut sized globe within which the seeds or nuts were stored.

Once we had left, Carlos filled us in on the little detail that the guy was once one of the biggest exporters of animal hides and other body parts. If I had known that I wouldn’t have shook his hand.

We crossed the road, entering Feira Manaus Moderna, a vast warren of market stalls. We turned right into the local remedies aisle. We stopped at one, it didn’t matter which one. Stall after stall sold the same stuff. It sold guarana, the natural stimulant now widely used in energy drinks (likeMonster). They were also selling the armour-plated scales of the Pirarucu fish which are used as nail files.

They had a wide selection of familiar dried herbs and spices like rosemary, cinnamon, but much more of ones we had not heard of before like Piranheira, Cavalinha, Sucupira, Murare, Barbatimão and Espinheira Santa to name but a few exotic herbal remedies, all with their specific medicinal benefits.

However, I wasn’t there to buy the Amazonian plant based equivalent of Viagra. The real reason we stopped was to pick up bag of shelled Brazil nuts for my father.

Nuts in the bag we moved on, ending up in the fish market. This was the largest section of Feira Manaus Moderna, and to our surprise it wasn’t as stinky as anticipated. Surely, dead fish in this heat? I was expecting something far worse than how it smelt.

The fishmongers were all busy preparing their fish, gutting them, de-scaling them, chopping their heads off and presenting them in a manner that would better sell them.

There was one fish that looked unreal with its jet black scales and a deep red flesh. It was a type of catfish, but it looked like some sinister “evil vampire” fish. (Although that name is already taken, the real Vampire Fish have these ridiculously long fangs.)

Carlos wasn’t a fisherman. His knowledge of fish was minimal. He even pointed to one and said “That is a Piranha” only for one of the fishmongers to correct him.

Moving on we came across one stall that specialised in salted pirarucu fish, which they wrapped up into massive rolls. I’m sure there was enough meat there to feed a whole village. It was then sold in thick slices, like a disc of fish sausage.

We left the market behind and walked along the harbour front. One jetty in particular was especially colourful where a dozen riverboats had moored. Produce were still being off loaded and taken to the markets.

We saw one guy show super human strength carrying two sacks full of something. It was clearly heavy as he struggled but he didn’t drop it.

A little further along we saw fish being sold straight off the fishermen’s boat. Carlos said that these fish are so cheap. “Even the poorest can eat well here” he said.

Eventually we came to the market listed as one of the city’s “must-sees”, one that went by many names, the Mercado Adolpho Lisboa, the Mercado Municipal, or even the Mercado Publico. The market was in four or five sections and I’m guessing the names relate to those separate parts.

It was built in 1882 inspired by the enormous Les Halles market in Paris. Carlos said it was built by British Engineers. The materials came from all over Europe, the strong iron columns came from Liverpool, England, the fancy ironworks from Paris, France.

It was recently restored and reopened in 2013, just in time for the 2014 World Cup which Manaus hosted a few games.

The main pavilion was filled with stalls selling the usual touristy nick-nacks and indigenous crafts. Carlos gave us 15 minutes to wander around.

It took us about 2 minutes to walk up and down and we were done. When a cruise ship is in town I’m sure they do a roaring trade, but nothing really interested us.

We spent the remainder of the time sat in the café section, to te side of the main hall, sipping a Guarano Zero, (a sugar free energy drink), through a straw.

We met back up with Carlos. “Did you find anything you liked?” he asked. “No, I’m looking for a football shirt” I replied. He knew just the place.

Back in the car we drove past the front of the Mercado Alphonso Lisboa, a striking old building brightly painted in red and yellow.

A few minutes later we pulled up outside a sports shop selling all sorts of football shirts. I was spoilt for choice. I asked for the Manaus FC shirt but it was probably the one shirt they didn’t have.

The shop owner brought out a selection of other Manaus teams, Nacional, São Raimundo, Rio Negro.  The city has almost a dozen football teams at varying levels.

I chose the white away shirt of Nacional as it was the one I thought I had heard of before. Carlos also approved as it was the oldest football club in the Amazonas state. “It has the best history” he explained “Manaus FC has no history”. Nacional once played in the Serie A, the top division.

I paid $R40 for the shirt. When I was in the back of the car swapping my sweaty T-shirt for my new football shirt I worked out it came to only about £8.50. I should have bought a lot more! They would have been great gifts for the grandkids.

Within a few minutes we pulled up outside the Teatro Amazonas opera house. I was so excited. I had wanted to visit Manaus for many years, not for the Amazon but to see this. The audacity to build something this grand that rivalled anything in Europe right here in the middle of the jungle was simply incredible.

To the front of the opera house was Largo De São Sebastião, a large square with the church of São Sebastião to one side. The square was paved with wavy lines which represented not the oceans as I thought but the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes.

In its centre was Monumento de Abertura dos Portos, built in 1900 to replace the original obelisk erected in 1866 to commemorate the opening of the ports to international trade.

By the turn of the century and the rubber boom in full swing they clearly thought a plain obelisk wasn’t flamboyant enough to stand in front of the newly built opera house.

It was certainly different with these bronze ships launching out of the marble to the four corners of the world, Africa, America, Europa and Asia.

Whilst we wandered around we were approach by two policemen. They introduced themselves as tourist police and handed us an information leaflet about their role. Their presence was to make us feel safe but also to publicise a telephone number we could call if we were in any trouble.

“Call us” one said. “Not that we want you to call us” said the other, then in unison they ended with “but do call us if you need our help”. They must have worked on that routine. It was flawless.

We returned towards the theatre and saw for the first time the golden dome, proudly sporting the colours of the newly adopted Brazilian flag of green, yellow and a little blue. Construction of the theatre was completed in 1896 only seven years after Brazil became an independent republic.

The dome looked a little odd at first, like a garish glacier cherry on top of a magnificent cake but the brightly decorated dome is what makes this theatre unique. It adds a little quirky character. When you look closer you realise the dome is covered in a mosaic of 36,000 ceramic tiles. (I was reliably informed. I didn’t count them!)

We met back up with Carlos and went inside. We couldn’t have timed our visit any better as we had the theatre to ourselves.

We walked half way down into the centre of the auditorium. It was absolutely stunning.

No expense had been spared.  Chandeliers from Murano, marble from Carrara, Louis XV style furnishings from Paris, curtains from Damascus, hollow steel columns from … Glasgow.

Having such a jewel in the jungle had been the dream of many in Manaus towards the end the 19th century. It became a reality under the Governor of the Amazon Eduardo Ribeiro, who was also the first black state governor in Brazil.

The theatre was inaugurated on the 31st December 1896, his last day in office but the first performance was not until the 7th January 1897 when La Gioconda, an opera by Italian Ponchielli was performed to a full house.

According to legend the great Caruso once sang here but there is no real evidence of his performance.

Carlos explained the most prestigious seats in the house, (not including the Royal Box) were those nearest the stage up on the first tier. Not only were you closest to the stage but you were also seen by the audience, which for the rubber barons was an opportunity to show off to their competitors.

“Roosevelt once visited and sat there” he continued.

The most striking feature of the theatre was the fresco on the vaulted ceiling, a painting by Italian artist Domenico de Angelis representing the view as if you stood beneath the base of the Eiffel Tower. Paris’ most famous landmark had only been built six years prior.

We stood there craning our necks for a few minutes to admire its invention.

We left the auditorium and walked briefly through a small museum. One artefact on display was a rubber cobblestone. With such oppressive temperatures the air-conditioning solution was simply involved opening all the doors and windows, so they had to keep quite outside. They came up with this genius idea of paving around the theatre with rubber cobblestones to minimise the sound of horses’ hooves and their carts from disturbing the performances.

We then went upstairs and entered a small ballroom, an exclusive reception hall for only the wealthiest of families.

It was richly decorated with parquet wood flooring, sparkling chandeliers, dark marble columns topped with overblown capitals, a balcony level with beautiful arches and a ceiling fresco worthy of any found in Europe.

There were a few striking paintings hanging on the walls. One looked like an “Indian savage” abducting a white woman but on closer inspection the skirted man was saving the young lady from a burning house.

There was also a painting of a boat carrying supplies from Liverpool with (of all animals) a red squirrel in the foreground. I didn’t think squirrels were native to these parts?

Next we left the ballroom and crossed the hallway, returning into the auditorium, stepping out right next to the Royal Box, or as Carlos explained, the Governor’s Box as it was better known. In 1889 “Royal” was a bad word. There was no longer a regent ruling the country, Emperor Pedro II had been overthrown and the Brazilian Republic was born.

On the opening night it is said that despite not being the governor-in-office Eduardo Ribeiro was invited to sit in the governor’s box. Sadly, three years later he died under suspicious circumstances. Officially recorded as suicide but rumour has it he was assassinated by his rivals.

The conversation moved on (somehow?) to Brazil’s involvement in the Second World War. The only independent South American country to do so. They joined the US Army and the allied forces with 25,000 troops and fought in the Italian campaign.

They were known as the Smoking Cobras and wore an emblem of a snake smoking a pipe on their sleeves. It was inspired by a saying “There’s more chance of a cobra smoking a pipe than to see a Brazilian fight”.

I guess it’s the Brazilian equivalent of “when pigs fly” or the Irish “you’re more likely to see angel’s fly out of my arse!”

As we left the theatre a member of staff noticed that I was wearing a football shirt and burst into a chant of “Nacional, Nacional, Nacional” to the tune of the US marching song “The Stars and Stripes Forever” or more commonly known in the UK as “Here we go, here we go, here we go”.

Back in the car we drove to the airport. I wanted to see the Arena da Amazônia, the new football stadium built for the World Cup in 2014 before leaving. We drove past it, but Carlos forgot to point it out, and hidden behind a tall concrete wall we didn’t notice it either!

We got to the airport around 1:30pm, two hours before our flight.

The whole check-in process was incredibly smooth. From leaving our luggage at the GOL desk to getting through the security checks took only 5 minutes. It gave us plenty of time to have some lunch.

There were plenty of places to eat. I gravitated to my tried and tested Casa do Pao de Queijo where I really enjoyed a pastel de palmito, a small pastry filled with cheese and palm hearts. It really was delicious. I’ll have to try and make them at home!

We sat opposite a café called Café Gourmet where Julie had a weird snack, like a cheese burger wrapped in pastry. She wasn’t that keen on it. The nerves had kicked in now and she was struggling to swallow.

Julie walked up and down busying herself whilst I stayed at the table watching football on a TV up on the wall. It was a friendly international where Brazil were playing against Russia in preparation for this year’s World Cup in Russia. They were winning 3-0.

We moved to our departure gate to wait the call for boarding. Julie didn’t speak for the last 20 minutes as she grappled with her fears.

When we got on the plane she was happy with our seat allocation, window seat, just behind the wing, where she would usually pick, only on the opposite side.

We took off an almost immediately were treated to a great view over the “meeting of the waters”. I was surprised to see how suddenly the Amazon turned into only the murky brown water. There are times where the two colours continue for miles downriver. Not today.

Ahead of us was a four-hour flight to Rio de Janeiro. The plane was wi-fi enabled but again Julie didn’t want us posting anything on Facebook whilst we were 35,000ft in the air.I did however use their streaming service and watched a film on the iPad. It was called Pequeno Segredo or Little Secret and it kept me entertained for a while.

It soon got dark outside as we travelled South. It had been an uneventful flight much to Julie’s satisfaction but that was about to change. Ahead we could see the sky light up with the flashes of lightning. We weren’t affected by it. Julie felt calm enough to take a photo of it.

Then suddenly, we hit a pocket of turbulence as the plane shook and dropped dramatically. Julie let out an “Oh Fuck” as we shuddered to regain composure. Thankfully the episode only lasted about 10 seconds. It was all over before the seatbelt signs came on.

We still had an hour and a half ahead of us but thankfully the turbulence did not return.

As the twinkling lights of Rio’s sprawling metropolis came into view we began to get excited. Julie was getting increasingly animated, a heady mixture of being thrilled and anxious as she prepared herself for landing.

We came into Galeão International Airport in complete darkness. The sparkling street lights had gone. There was a moment where Julie held her breath as we seemed to be flying into the abyss. “We’re going to fast, we’re going to crash” and then the wheels touched the tarmac in a very smooth connection.

The ordeal was over.

The benefits of being on a domestic flight meant that we had collected our luggage and heading out of arrivals within minutes. Waiting for us was a driver to take us to our hotel. He spoke no English but that was no barrier, a smile and a handshake is the same in any language.

We set off on a 30 minute journey to Santa Teresa, a suburb of the city on one of its many hills. On another one of those hills our driver pointed out the statue of Christ the Redeemer. It was too far away to see it properly, we could just about make out something illuminated in the sky.

The only other words he spoke was to make us aware when we drove past the permanent grandstands for the Rio Carnival parade.

We soon came to the steep cobble-stoned roads of Santa Teresa and to our hotel Mama Ruisa.

We rang the doorbell and were warmly welcomed by an exhuberant member of staff by the name of Thiago who showed us to our room in a flamboyant fashion.

It felt so good to finally arrive. We were travel weary but too excited to go to sleep. We stood at our balcony from which we could see the city sprawled below. We were buzzing with excitement.


Our room was called the Josephine Baker Suite. She was a dancer and entertainer in the 1920/30’s which strangely enough, I had heard of her before.

When we saw Dita Von Tease’ Burlesque show in Los Angeles one of the acts was a dancer dressed in a banana skirt which was a famous Josephine Baker routine. When her dancing days were over her career continued as a singer until her death in 1975. I’m not too sure what was her connection to Brazil, Rio or this hotel? “Perhaps she stayed in this room” we thought. 

The room was spacious and comfortable. With a high ceiling and block wood floor it had that old colonial charm without that old colonial smell which we had in the Tropical Hotel. It was built in1871 and was once the former residence of the Mayor of Rio de Janeiro, no less.

We were famished. We hadn’t eaten since the airport in Manaus, which was some seven hours ago. Thankfully the hotel had a small room service menu, so we shared a cheese toastie and had a cold beer from the fridge.  

It did the trick. Minutes later we were sound asleep.

 Next Day >>>  

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