Manaus, Brazil – Day 1

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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.

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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.

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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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ENJOY !

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