We woke this morning to find that in the Brazilian rainforest during the rainy season it does actually rain. Spoiled by good weather since entering the Amazon we had begun to think that perhaps my school geography books had got it wrong or that global warming was having an affect. It was tipping it down as we took breakfast. Through the restaurant windows could be seen a low, grey cloud base marching to the horizon in all directions. We were still cutting our way through the myriad of channels and tributaries that make up this mighty river towards our next destination Manaus, still a few hours away. Thank God for GPS, how on earth did they find their way in the past?
Little could be seen of the passing scenery so after a couple of games of table tennis Sue and I retired to our cabin until lunchtime, when thankfully we discovered that though the clouds remained, the rain had stopped. Shortly after lunch the Magellan eased into her berth, watched by a couple of tugs and ourselves from up on Deck 11.
Manaus is Amazonia’s capital. Founded in 1669 on the shores where the Rio Negro meets the Solimoes River and is the commercial hub of the region. In the nineteenth century the city boomed on the back of rubber production and we were keen to see some of the opulence that it brought.
Today (25th), we took a one and a half hour speed boat trip up the Rio Negro. The river is quite different form the mud laden Amazon, it is clear, slightly acidic and because of such, it runs black in colour (hence the name) and best of all, mosquitoes dislike it. Passing at speed under a modern marvel of bridge building connecting the two shores, we headed away from the city, catching glimpses of river dolphins hunting for their lunch. The clouds had started to part and the heat of the sun would have made for a miserable journey if we had been on a slow ship’s tender, the breeze created by our stallion of a craft thankfully kept those on board refreshingly cool.
On arrival at a small village inhabited by the Dessanas Tribe, we were greeted by a white flag suspended from a tall riverside tree. Any other colour would have signified that we were not welcome. The settlement and its unique culture has been given protection by the government, visitor numbers are limited and their land can not be exploited for commercial purposes.
The hub of the village is the large thatched Meeting House, in front of which we met some of the village’s ceremonially dressed residents. Here, we also learned of their culture; the coming of age ceremonies for both girls and boys, their refusal to mix with other tribes and also that they originated from Venezuela. Entering the Meeting House we were treated to a variety of tribal dances to music played on strange instruments from which emanated rhythmic booms, rattles and grating sounds. Hypnotically captivating was the spectacle, so much so that when invited to join their weaving patterns I and a few others who were equally entranced, leapt at the chance. Taking the hand of one of their scantily garbed females we skipped and side stepped in unison, following a long weaving line of dancers, first around the inside then the outside, to return several minutes later, quite exhausted. Brilliant fun. I may go tribal!
Of course lots of photos were taken of children and adults, all dressed in reeds and feathers, painted skin and unlike those natives experienced on the previous day, they wore quite serious facial expressions when engaged by we Europeans, many seemingly reluctant to make eye contact. Did we look that peculiar to them?
We spent some time wandering the village, taking snaps of the paraphernalia of their lives, trying to wrap our minds around what it must be like to live in such a remote and seemingly inhospitable place. Jaguars, pumas, caimans, piranha, snakes, spiders I knew about, but today I discovered a new danger lurking in the water, the needle fish! Whilst bathing, these awful tiny monstrosities wriggle into any available bodily orifice then burrow their way further, causing internal bleeding, excruciating pain and if not removed surgically, death.
Our guide described some of their tribal rituals that to our sensitive and modern ears sounded quite shocking. He told of girls reaching puberty and having all their hair pulled out to experience the pain of growing up, on having their first child at 11 yrs and their third by the age of 14 yrs. Boys equally suffered on reaching puberty by being ceremonially cut all over the body. Their lives are vastly different from that of their visitors, different values, beliefs and experiences, but they do have a quiet dignity that is to be envied, something that many in the ‘civilised’ world appear to have forgotten.
Before we left, they laid out their craftwork in hope that we would buy some. We were told they have no use for money, so perplexing as it is, they were not disappointed, most of us left gripping tightly a little bit of our primitive and unique experience. A couple of blowpipes with lethal darts seemed a suitable present for our grandchildren, we know they would love them, not sure about the parents. How else could we support these people to continue their traditional way of life, but by acknowledging it is valued in the only way we know how to? And that in its self is perplexing.
We thrashed the darkened water of the Rio Negro for another half an hour on route to the Seringale Felicdade Museum, located on the bank of the Taruma Mirim Creek. This was home of one of the many rich Rubber Barons, his plantation and factory. It is now a museum when rubber production fell on hard times as the Far East became increasingly dominant.
The government have restored the buildings back to what they were like during their heyday, complete with original artefacts. We heard tales of incredible wealth, deviousness and callous treatment of the workers. Also, of the hardships and dangers faced by the rubber tappers and their families.
We also discovered that it was customary for the rich and powerful to send their laundry to London on a round trip of 3 months, rather than have it handled by local peasants.
We were first treated to a demonstration of how the latex (sap) was tapped from the tree, then how it was steamed and rolled into a large elongated oval prior to being shipped to Manaus and the world beyond.
Our wanderings took us to the large and opulent home once occupied by the plantation owner and his family, we examined the trappings of a twentieth century super-rich life style, oh so stark in contrast to that of the workers living nearby.
Still air, suffocating under a cloudless sky began to sap our spirit like the sweat that ran down our faces. It was time to return to some aircon.
Our speedy return to the Magellan was a relief from the plantation’s hot and humid conditions, a continuous refreshing cooling blast of river air was welcome as we skimmed the darkened mirror like surface of the Rio Negro.