Monthly Archives: March 2012

Devil’s Island, French Guiana




It turns out that the famous and infamous Devil’s Island, located just off the coast of French Guiana, is one of those places really worth visiting – ONCE.

Since we were here last year, and since last year was a beautiful if humid day while today was overcast and rainy, with ship’s tender landings intermittently suspended because of strong squalls (a squall is rain accompanied by high winds and rough water), we decided to forego a second visit but share some information about the place and use last year’s photos as illustrations.

What is commonly known as Devil’s Island is actually only one of a cluster of three islands off the coast of French Guiana cynically named the Salvation Islands.  The three islands in this cluster are Royal Island, Devil’s Island and St. Joseph’s Island.  The actual penal colony made famous first by the Dreyfus trial at the end of the 19th century and more recently by the novel and film Papillion is located on Royal Island; there is nothing on Devil’s Island. However, in this blog when I refer to Devil’s Island, I will primarily be referring to Royal Island, where the penal colony was located. Royal Island is about 70 acres large, and the three islands are separated from one another by a narrow strip of sea only about 650 yards wide, but the treacherous currents in the passage and the ever-present sharks in the waters insured that the islands were “escape-proof”.  Prison wardens and their wives who died while in service were buried in a small cemetery on St. Joseph’s Island; there is a small children’s cemetery on Royal Island, and inmates who died were turned unceremoniously into shark food, their bodies being thrown into the sea. “Devil’s Island” stopped receiving prisoners in 1936, and its phase-out as a prison began in 1948.  The place was closed down as a penal colony in 1953.

Today many of the buildings have been restored to some degree and repurposed to tell the story of this infamous French penal colony. One of the buildings has been converted into a small hotel (it’s hard to imagine who would want to come here for a vacation, but we’re told that people from Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana, come here because the rates are low although neither the accommodations nor the service are exactly sumptuous). There is an exhibit hall that recounts the story of the infamous trial of French Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, who in the early 1890’s was falsely accused by France of passing military secrets to Germany and subsequently tried and found guilty of treason, stripped of his rank and sentenced to prison on Devil’s Island. Eventually new evidence came to light proving Dreyfus’ innocence, he received highest honors from the French Government and was restored to the military as a General, and served France in World War I.  The handling of his case and sentence were so unpopular in France that the famed French writer Emile Zola wrote an excoriating diatribe against the French government (titled “I ACCUSE!”) accusing it of outright, blatant anti-Semitism.  It has been said that the only thing Alfred Dreyfus was really guilty of, was that he was born a Jew.

Many people who come to Devil’s Island are surprised to find that it’s a tropical paradise – one, however, that requires a yellow fever shot in order to travel there. Your first real view of what the island holds is from the tender dock

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from which you can also see the actual Devil’s Island several hundred yards away.

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As you disembark a footpath leads to the left, and walking along it gives ample evidence of the tropical nature of this place, being only 8 degrees north of the equator.

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Walking around the island you run into several different kinds of wildlife, some of it indigenous to the island, such as this capybara (the world’s largest rodent – think guinea pig on steroids) – it weighs about 40 pounds…

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or these howler monkeys….

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and some of the wildlife introduced species, such as these colored macaws

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or this particular breed of chicken (chickenus empiricus?), which camouflages almost perfectly with the ground

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A walk around Devil’s Island will bring you to the walls surrounding the prisoner’s barracks

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here in close-up – the stone being a type of lava rock indigenous to the island

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The buildings to the right of the wall were the prison guards living quarters and today are used by the French soldiers who look after the islands

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here one of the soldiers has brought a couple of coconuts back to the barracks……

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Clearly there was some attention paid to aesthetics on the island despite its sinister purpose, as this wall design will attest:

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The old military hospital, no longer in use, has has its exterior partially restored and the surrounding grounds cleaned up

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although as of last year there was still a lot of work to do:

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A fresh rainwater reservoir, now covered with algae, was the primary source of drinking water for the inhabitants of Devil’s Island. 

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Surprisingly, there is also the remnants of a salt-water swimming pool on the far side of the island that was used by the prison guards and their families.  Visitors to the island today can actually swim in that pool today; which is on the edge of the island.  At the same time they are warned against actually swimming in the adjacent ocean waters because of strong currents and sharks……

From an overlook at the hotel restaurant on the far side of the island (Royal Island) you can actually see all of Devil’s Island itself, although there is nothing there except a couple of footpaths.

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The penal colony is actually located on the upper part of Royal Island, and the winding path around the island slope up gradually but takes a long time to get to the top level where the penal colony facilities were located, including the Warden’s Residence., which is located on the top level of the island but closer to the dock. To enable the Warden and visitors to the island to get to the Warden’s Residence and offices more quickly, the prisoners built a very steep stone staircase, consisting of 97 steps, some of them fairly wide and some very narrow, but all steep,  as a shortcut from the bottom to the top and back again. 

Here are photos of Nina descending the last 4 or 5 steps, plus a view of the staircase at one of its wider points. Believe me, the descent is much steeper  than it looks….

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For us the most interesting part of the island is the permanent exhibit, now located in the former Warden’s Residence, of what came to be known throughout Europe and the United States at the end of the 19th century as “The Dreyfus Affair” – the accusation, trial, conviction, imprisonment, retrial, reconviction – and finally, complete exoneration of French Jewish military officer Captain Alfred Dreyfus.  Unfortunately, this being a French colony, all the texts in the exhibit were in French, but there were also many photographs that would be familiar to someone (like Kal) who was familiar wit the Dreyfus case.

This is a photo from the exhibit of  the far side of  Royal Island just prior to Dreyfus’ arrival:

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Dreyfus, as a high-profile prisoner, received “special” treatment.  A stone cell, measuring four square yards, was built for him.  It had a barred window and door and was guarded day and night, and a light was always on in the cell.  A fence was built surrounding the cell to prevent him from seeing the sea. 

Each night from September 6 to October 8, 1896, Dreyfus was put in iron chains.  This was the result of a fictitious account, printed in an English paper, of his escape from Devil’s Island.  Dreyfus was never told why he was put in chains. Dreyfus’ guards, ever fearful of an international plot surrounding him, were continually on the alert.  Wherever one of the guards saw a boat on the horizon, a loaded pistol would be pointed at prisoner Dreyfus’ head until the boat disappeared. 

The Warden of Devil’s Island even received instructions in 1896 to embalm Dreyfus’ body before shipping it back to France if Dreyfus had died.  This would preserve  evidence whether Dreyfus had committed suicide or was the victim of foul play.

This is a photo of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in his military uniform:

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and a contemporary French political illustration showing a convicted Dreyfus being demoted and disgraced (his military sword is being broken over the officer’s knee)::

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Here is a photo of French writer Emil Zola’s open letter to the President of the French Republic, a public indictment of the French judicial system as a result of the outcome of the Dreyfus trial (“I ACCUSE!”):

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And finally, a picture of Dreyfus being released from Devils Island after his exoneration.  Apparently ladies accompanied his departure from the island as there appear to be ladies’ hats at the bottom of this photo:

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Having covered all that we wanted to see on Royal Island last year, namely, the penal colony commonly known as Devil’s Island and the exhibit on the case and trial of Alfred Dreyfus, we hopped back on the tender and returned to ship.

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I doubt if anything different would have taken place this year, except that instead of last year’s humidity it would have been rainy and windy this year.  In any event, one visit to Isle de Diablo is enough for us…..

Sunday, March 12, 2012

The last two stops on our  trip before we returned to Ft. Lauderdale were Castries, St. Lucia and Phillipsburg, St. Maarten.  Both are Caribbean islands that most likely will be familiar to people who have visited the Caribbean.  Because, strictly speaking, these are only “convenience ports” and not really a part of our South American experience, we’re not sure that we will be blogging about them, and if we do, it will only be after we return to the USA

(From Kal:  I didn’t even bother getting off the ship in either of these ports, so I have nothing to contribute.)  

We may blog about our return trip to Arizona from Florida, but this will depend on whether we have any particularly noteworthy adventures that we think others would be interested in reading about.

If you are following this blog, you should receive an email next time we post.  So stay tuned!  There may be more!


Manaus, Brazil – Day 2



Last night when Nina and I went out to the Rabbi’s home the taxi driver began hacking and coughing as soon as we were in the taxi and on the way.  I think I must have caught something from him, as today when I woke up I was not feeling well, so I spent the entire day in bed, resting and recuperating, and got up just in time to prepare for evening Kabbalat Shabbat (Welcoming the Sabbath) prayer services.

That was our 2nd day in Manaus, but it wasn’t really so bad, as both of us had been here before, and between our prior visit and the amount of walking and sight-seeing we did yesterday, I think we have pretty much covered what interested us here in Manaus. 

I am still in a bit of wonderment that this bustling city of over 2 million people has no roads that lead to it, but that the Amazon River is its highway, its freeway, its arterial traffic way, and that EVERYTHING – every car, every bus, every truck, every piece of food, clothing machinery – EVERYTHING – is brought into the city via this great river, to a large city located a thousand miles from nowhere and surrounded by the Amazon jungle……

Well, I (Nina) went out with Ellen to shop for what I was hoping would be the same Keratin treatment I use at home to straighten my hair. (The original treatment is called the Brazilian Blowout, so you assume it comes from Brazil, right??)  Well, Ellen and I decided not to take the cameras since we were going to be alone and brave the humid, hot climate.  We walked through the open air market until we found a store that specializes in hair products. The only clerk who spoke English, took us directly to the most expensive products that come from USA… So we said thanks but no thanks, and on the way out… I found exactly what I wanted, made in Brazil, and costing at least a 1/3rd less than the others.

We kept walking. The day before we passed, what looked like this great store with what seemed like authentic Amazon things, jewelry, baskets etc. but yesterday when we passed the store was closed, today is was sealed shut with shutters, so no luck there. We stopped for some seriously good Brazilian espresso.



Manaus, Brazil – Day 1



Imagine getting into a boat where, for the next 4 to 5 days, you’re going to be sleeping outside in a hammock, no showers, barely a place to wash your face and handle personal hygiene; and in this boat you’re going to be going a big river where in deep into jungles where, with just a couple of exceptions, you will barely see anyone along the way, and there are no roads that lead to where you’re going: and when you finally get there, all you will find in the middle of a jungle in the middle of nowhere is……

…………… a bustling port city with nearly 2-1/2 million people.

Congratulations and Welcome.  You are now in Manaus, the capital city of the Amazon.

The story of Manaus can be summed up in one word:  R – U – B – B – E – R.   For most of the 19th century Brazil held a virtual monopoly on the world’s rubber supply, and most of that rubber came from the area of Manaus, which is why you find such a large city in the middle of a jungle, hundreds of miles from anywhere. Great wealth from rubber brought an era of rubber barons and enormous public building in Manaus, all of it funded from profits from the rubber trade.

Brazil managed to keep a virtual monopoly on the rubber trade until the end of the 19th century when a British gentleman gathered 70,000 rubber tree seeds in Manaus, sent them to Belem and, telling the local authorities they were a gift for Queen Victoria’s birthday, had them shipped to England.  When the seeds arrived they were planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens, and when seedlings sprouted they were sent off to British-controlled Malaysia where they were planted and eventually broke Brazil’s rubber production monopoly, thus ending the “good times” that the rubber barons and Manaus had enjoyed for so long.

Perhaps the most visible symbol of the enormous wealth that rubber brought to the Amazon region is the Manaus Opera House, built in 1896 and modeled after the famous Italian opera house La Scala. As you look at these photos, keep reminding yourselves that it’s the latter part of the 19th century and you’re in the middle of a jungle, a thousand miles from anywhere……

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So much money flowed into Manaus during this period that, despite the fact that Brazil has lots of easily accessible and high-quality building materials, the vast majority of the building materials used to construct the opera house, including marble, wood flooring, iron work, and all the interior décor, and including the master craftsmen necessary to build the opera house and do the interior installations, were all imported from Europe. So advanced and state-of-the-art modern was the opera house in its day, that in the middle of a rain forest jungle, sitting near a river and almost on the equator, in a place where rain, heat and humidity are just part and parcel of every day life, the opera house had central air conditioning throughout the theatre over one hundred years ago.   The air was pumped into the theatre through vents that were placed, every few rows, under the opera house seats .

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We happened to be visiting the opera house during a rehearsal for the opening of the season in April and sat in the seats. The A/C worked so well that there were actually places inside the opera house where it was cold.   Unbelieveable…..

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The ceiling of the opera house, as well as the rest of the wall and ceiling decorations throughout,

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were painted by a French painter brought in to do the work.  The four legs on the ceiling of the opera house are actually the legs of the Eiffel Tower, and the same company that did the Eiffel Tower ironwork did all the ironwork for the Manaus Opera House.

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The luxury extends beyond the theatre area itself and extends to all areas of the opera house.  Note the crystal chandeliers, wall paintings and inlaid wood floors in the ballroom on the 2nd floor of the opera house, adjacent to the 2nd-floor box seat area of the theatre.

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The 2nd floor box seats are located on the other side of the door that can be seen through the portico on the right side of the photo below.

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Because the opera house is open to public tours, the authorities are anxious to preserve the flooring, so everyone going off the carpet and onto the wood floors is required to wear slippers.


Here I am in mine…..

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From the 2nd floor box seats, the opera house stage looks like this,

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and the box seat area on one side of the theatre looks like this:

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Tops of the first level pillars inside the opera house are a veritable homage to the arts.  The pillars wrap around the entire seating area of the theatre, and each pillar bears the name of an internationally known contributor to the arts.

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The dome of the Manaus Opera house consists of colored and gold leafed ceramic tiles. The colors of the dome, perhaps by design, seem to be the national colors of Brazil.

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The grounds of the Manaus Opera House are no less beautiful than the interior. This is a view of a part of the front grounds of the opera house, taken from the 2nd floor.  Behind the trees sits a large square with a fascinating statue,

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while on the lawn are several statues that serve as homages to the arts.  This is a statue of Euterpe, the Muse of Music:

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and a statue of Calliope, the Muse of Epic Poetry:

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The large square in front of the Manaus Opera House is paved in a way  that creates an optical illusion when you stare at if for a few moments

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The statue in the square was erected to commemorate 400 years of discovery in Brazil and remembers the continents from which explorers departed to come to explore Brazil.

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The snake on America’s ship is an Anaconda, found only in South America

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After visiting the Manaus Opera House, we continued on foot to see other notable sites in Manaus. As we were walking along we came across an eco-gift store with some of the most interesting arts, but unfortunately, it was closed.  We could only get a few photos of the goodies inside.

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As we continued walking we passed this building bearing a painted jungle bas relief on its exterior:

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A little further on we found a brazil nut vendor.  He was shelling brazil nuts with the equivalent of a “brazil nut guillotine” that removed those really hard brazil nut shells. We had never seen this kind of device before.

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One of the interesting things we look at when we visit different countries is the graffiti.  We’re not looking for “messages” but for what is genuinely folk art.  While we saw a lot of graffiti during this trip, unlike with other trips this time we didn’t pause to photograph most of it.  However, we found a clown in Manaus that seemed to follow us as we walked by him.  Hello Bozo !

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What is it ?????

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Something else we look for are interesting business signs.  This sign was on the corner of a cake bakery located in a corner building.  One half of the cake was on one street, while the second half was on the other street. Nice wrap-around…..

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We next headed to the area of the Rio Negro National Palace Museums.  Remember that Manaus is located on the Rio Negro, and near Manaus it joins the Rio Solameus to become the Rio Amazonas or Amazon River.  The word “palace” throughout Brazil in the sense of “a residence”, not simply “a hotel”. The National Palace Museums are housed in a Baroque style building from the 19th century that served as the former residence of the Governor of Manaus.


Public buildings like these in Manaus offer a taste of the elegance of the Old World European buildings they imitated.  The main staircase in the building looked like this (the building’s first floor is on the floor below the grandfather clock in the center):


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and at the top of these stairs the following:

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Furniture?  Art?

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Note the flooring, which alternates a lighter wood with Brazilian jacaranda hardwood, and which is present throughout the entire building.

This round Chippendale table, with its legs coming off one large center block of wood, reminded Kal of a table he used to have when he lived in Israel. (Even though the top of the table is leather). NOTE: The women of Manus during this time would routinely send their clothing back to Europe to clean and then send back. Imagine how many dresses they would have needed at the time, till their clothes came back from the dry cleaners???)

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The furniture was clearly all imported from Europe

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with beautiful hand carved woods and hand tooled leather in abundance.

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An interesting painting from the start of the age of aviation graced one wall of the main reception room

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while more contemporary Amazonia art covered the opposite wall:

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A view outside from the 2nd floor to the side of the building showed a lovely garden with beautiful ironwork on the balcony:

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Next to the Rio Negro National Palace Museums was a lovely park through which ran what looked like a sewage channel that the city of Manaus has turned into a sprawling green area in the middle of the city.  P1140182 (1024x765)

There were charming cut-out metal sculptures placed throughout the park that hearkened back to an earlier period:

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From here we walked to the Provincial Palace, which also houses a series of very small museums in arts, ancient sculpture, coins, Chinese numismatics and archeology.  Unfortunately no photos of the interiors were allowed, so we could take pictures only of the exterior.

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Statues of Brazilian soldiers from another era “stand guard” at the entrance.

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Right next to the Regional Palace Museums we walked through a beautiful park

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with a gazebo……

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What a gazebo !

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As we were heading back to the ship, expecting to call it a day (between our trip to Manaus last year and this year’s trip, we had seen everything in Manaus that was of interest), we both noticed someone about 30 yards away and walking toward us who seemed completely out of place. It was a man  with a beard (Brazilians do not have facial hair) dressed in a suit and a fedora hat with little white threads peeking out from the sides of his pants and disappearing into his pockets.  So I shouted out to him, “Reb Yid!”, for he was clearly Jewish, a Chasid of the Chabad Lubavitch variety, just sauntering along the street, a thousand miles from anywhere there were more than a handful of Jews.  We talked briefly, and as  it turned out, by another act of pure serendipity, we had bumped into the emissary of the Chabad movement in Manaus, the Rabbi of the Jews from the Amazon Rain Forest !

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In an act of true Jewish hospitality, fulfilling the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (lit.,“taking in guests”)  Rabbi Raichman graciously invited us to his home that night for dinner, an invitation we delightfully accepted.  As the afternoon was getting on, and as the dinner invitation was for 6:30 PM, we decided to head back to the ship to clean up and change clothes, and as dusk fell we grabbed a cab outside the port area and headed to the Rabbi’s house.

What a delightful evening.  We were greeted by Rabbi Raichman and his lovely wife, a native of Belem,

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and their 3 young children. 

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The oldest, a boy named Mendy, was nearly 3 years old and due for his upsheren (first haircut) in less than a month, according to their custom.

While we enjoyed a wonderful chicken dinner (our first taste of meat of any kind in two months and therefore a double delight), Rabbi Raichman and his wife told us about themselves and how they got to Manaus, about the Jewish community in Manaus and about the Jews in the Amazon Rain Forest in general.  Rabbi Raichman is from Houston, Texas, the son of an Argentinian father and a Brazilian mother who moved to the USA many years ago. His wife is a Brazilian native of Belem.  They have been in Manaus about two-and-a-half years.

According to Rabbi Raichman there are a total of about 850 people in Manaus who call themselves Jewish, although by his reckoning there are only about 250 people who would be considered Jewish according to Jewish law, meaning that their mothers were Jewish.  However, of these 250, about 30 worship in churches, another 30 or 40 have no interest in identifying with the Jewish community, and there are only a handful of young people – Rabbi Raichman says they number about 30 – who can be the future of the Jewish community here.  And it is primarily to work with these 30 people that Rabbi Raichman and his family are here for the long haul…..

The rabbi says there is another synagogue in Manaus, consisting of about 400-500 people, but according to Rabbi Raichman its members consist of many people who are not considered Jewish under Jewish religious law.  Apparently this was the synagogue we tried to visit last year in Manaus and got caught in a torrential downpour just as the taxi pulled up to the building.

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According to the rabbi, who seems to have done his homework, there is one Jew, an Israeli who likes living in the rain forest, who lives in Parintins and runs a youth hostel for Israeli youth traveling around South America after their compulsory military service in the Israel Defense Forces.  There are also a handful of Jews in Santarem, mainly the descendants of Moroccans who came to the rain forest as businessmen at the end of the 19th century.  Their community is predominantly Sefardic (Jews whose origins are in the Iberian peninsula). Nina believes that her Amazon jungle guide in Santarem is from that segment of the Santarem Jewish community.

Belem, which actually sits on a tributary of the Amazon near the Atlantic Ocean, is considered a part of the rain forest  community because Para, the province in which Belem is located, is there the eastern edge of the rain forest begins. As Rabbi Raichman’s wife is a native of Belem, the information she provided was especially informative.  According to her, there are about 1,000 Jews who live in Belem, which has the largest Jewish population of any of the Amazon Rain Forest communities.  Her father is a trained shochet (ritual slaughterer of kosher meat and poultry), and it is from him that the Raichmans obtain kosher meat and poultry.  They tell that her father the shochet used to fly to Manaus every couple of months to slaughter animals that the Rabbi obtained from local suppliers, but over time they found it was less expensive to have the meat slaughtered in Belem and sent by air (a two hour flight) to Manaus.  There are very few Jews who keep kosher in Manaus; Rabbi Raichman mentioned that his need for kosher chickens for the Manaus kosher community was 120 birds every 2 months. All other kosher foods are brought in by air as well, despite the fact that it is very expensive.  A liter of kosher milk costs 3 reals in Belem, but the cost for brining it to Manaus adds an additional 2-2.5 reals to the price, and similarly for all other Kosher products. For reasons having to do with Kosher observance, they do not buy any prepared breads, cakes, etc. but bake everything they eat from scratch.

After a most informative and pleasant evening with the Raichmans it was time to take out leave and return to the ship.

And now a plug:  anyone interested in supporting Rabbi Raichman’s selfless activities is invited to contact him directly via the information shown on his card (above).  We also want it known that Rabbi Raichman has not asked us to do this, nor does he even know we are doing it (unless he has decided to follow this blog, too). Rather, we have seen first-hand someone devote himself, his family and his life to selflessly to a cause in which he believes deeply, and we believe that such dedication is worthy of support.

It was well pas 11 PM when we returned to the port area.  Earlier that day we had tried to find wi-fi services in the port area, unsuccessfully.  But when we returned from the Raichmans we found perhaps 50 crew members from our ship spread all over the terminal area, sitting on the floor, all apparently logged on to the same wi-fi bandwidth on their iphones or laptops.  As we have learned on our cruise travels, when crew members get some time off, they are less interested in sight-seeing than in finding a supermarket where they can buy junk-food snacks for themselves (potato ships and the like) and staying in touch with their families and loved ones.

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And so ended our day in Manaus.  We were schedule to spend two days here, but having seen everything of interest to us already, we spent most of Day 2 just relaxing on board ship (Kal was recuperating from something he caught earlier this evening) , waiting for our adventures to continue.

One final thing to share from Manaus:  Brazil is a land of amazing natural precious and semi-precious stones, and of course, a land of only-God-knows-how-many different bird species. Two of the largest jewelers based in Brazil, H. Stern and Amsterdam-Sauer, have beautiful bird pieces made of these semi-precious stones, and believe us when we say that these photos don’t do them justice.  However, simply because they are so beautiful we want to share some examples with you.  Hope you enjoy them So here we go…….

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