Tuesday, December 6, 2016

December 4th – Life’s a Beach at Alter do Chao

If you had to identify two essential elements of Brazilian life, you'd say: 1. Carnaval; and, 2. The Beach. Two things that most people don't associate with the Amazon.

Well, we had an amazing Carnaval in Parintins yesterday, so appropriately enough, today in Alter do Chao, we had the beach – a gorgeous stretch of white sand lapped by crystalline waters. Looking at it, you could easily think that you were in the Caribbean.

Alter do Chao is a tiny place of about 2,000 people, and even though Sunday is its busiest day (when day-trippers from nearby Santarem descend on the town), there was a very quiet, laid-back feel to the town. We wandered along its sleepy waterfront and made our way to its iconic beach – the Ilha do Amor, the Island of Love – a sandbar of soft, snow-like sand in the river that makes up one of the most sumptuous beaches you can imagine, enclosing a shallow lagoon of greeny water.

When in Alter, you do as the locals do and wade across to the island, then station yourself on a table on the waters' edge under the shade of an umbrella, chug down some beers and go for a swim – it's an utterly idyllic location. We did all of this (apart from the beer side of it as it was 11am), including going for a refreshing dip in the Amazon.

OK – if you were being picky, I wasn't actually swimming in the Amazon, I was swimming in the Rio Tapajos, one of its tributaries that meets the Amazon about 25 miles downriver. At the very least, the waters I was in were destined to become Amazonian waters in about 24 hours time.

So, this was a totally relaxing last stop in the Amazon. We've loved all our Amazonian ports – each of them showed us something different about life on this huge river. People sometimes expect to see more nature and untouched rainforest on a trip down the Amazon, but for me, it's the human dimension to the river that's perhaps the most interesting aspect of an Amazon Cruise.

We now have 3 days at sea (actually, a day and a half of it is still "at river") before we get to Barbados, and we then fly to London for Christmas back home. Our next assignment is on the Silver Whisper for another World Cruise starting in San Francisco on January 6th.


See you then, and have a wonderful Christmas!


Monday, December 5, 2016

December 3rd – Boi Bumba in Parintins

As 50 exotically dressed dancers gyrated, sweated and swayed in front of us to a hypnotic, high-energy beat, the Boi Bumba show was quickly turning into sensory overload. For an hour of non-stop action the sound system was turned up to 11, and everywhere you looked there was frantic action going on – changes of colourful costumes, giant floats, manic dance moves. It was a fantastic taster of the only thing that makes this obscure Amazonian town famous – the Boi Bumba Festival.

Boi Bumba is a unique fusion of the traditions and rhythms of the indigenous Indians, of the Portuguese who colonised their country, and of the African slaves they brought over to Brazil. It all combines to produce a fairly incomprehensible, but mesmerising performance that you can't help but tap your feet and clap your hands along to – the beats were infectious. It's like the Rio Carnaval with added exoticism. But, the best thing about it, was simply that it was immense fun.

Even though all we'd done was sit there and let it wash over us, it was exhausting to watch; which meant that at the end of it, especially when we were hit by the wall of heat outside once we'd left the air-conditioning of the auditorium, we didn't feel like struggling too far around the quiet streets of Parintins.

So, we negotiated hard with a pedal cab driver to take us on a tour of the Greatest Hits of Parintins. Fortunately for him, (given the roasting temperatures – it was about 38 degrees C), Parintins doesn't have too many must see sights, so he puffed and panted his way around the market, the Cathedral, and the Bumbodromo, the home of Boi Bumba. On a quiet Saturday afternoon, the city was pretty much dead by now, so I took over the cycling for a little bit (much to his amusement); although, after about a hundred yards the sweat was dripping off me, so I gracefully let the expert take over.

The most interesting sight was the Bumbodromo itself – a stadium with seating for 35,000 crazed spectators that is Boi Bumba ground zero for 3 days in June during the Festival itself. It seemed almost impossible to believe that this languid river town could shake off its torpor and wake into life, when it hosts the biggest party in northern Brazil, but having experienced just some of the energy of the Silversea Boi Bumba show, you can believe that anything can happen once the 2,500 dancers of Festival get going.

A wonderful day that confirmed something that I already knew – the Brazilians really know how to party.


Sunday, December 4, 2016

December 2nd – Exploring The Relics of Manaus’s Rubber Boom

There are many remarkable things about Manaus: 

1. That such a large city could exist this far away from any other civilisation.

2. That this isolated city could have turned itself into a major manufacturing centre in the last 4 decades.

3. That a city in the middle of the tropical rainforest could be such an incredibly lively place – the number of people out there on the streets was amazing at times.

But, for me, the most remarkable thing about Manaus is that, (4.) it rose so suddenly and so spectacularly from nothing out here in the dense jungle in the 1880s, when rubber from the Amazon briefly became one of the most valuable commodities in the world. Over the following 30 years, immense fortunes were made and then lavished on the city's infrastructure.

Sadly for the city, this boom wasn't to last forever, as rubber seeds were smuggled out by the dastardly British for their new plantations in Malaya. By 1910, rubber prices had peaked, and the next decade saw the price of rubber plummet and the city go bust, as the rubber barons went from princes to paupers.

This incredible story is writ large on the architecture of the city. Obviously, the amazing Opera House is the most opulent example of the city's wealth, but all around its historic centre, are the grand belle epoch houses and commercial buildings from the city's gilded glory years. Many of them have their dates of construction engraved on their richly ornamented facades – you see plenty of 1903s, 1906s, etc, but nothing after 1913. At this point, no-one had any money, and many of those buildings have been decaying away ever since.

We visited the best example - the Palacio Rio Negro – a palatial private residence of a German rubber baron called Waldemar Scholz, who went bust almost as soon as the building was completed. It was an incredibly evocative building that summed up a crazy moment in time. This opulent palace was the best preserved rubber-era building of the lot – mainly because Scholz had to give it to the government to pay down his debts, and it became the residence of the State Governor.

We then called in at the impressive Palacete Provincial, home to the city's excellent art gallery, and we ended up doing a tour of that wonderful opera house. Sadly, the tour didn't do justice to the building, because firstly the building lost power, and secondly the guide seemed to have a power cut too – scarcely able to tear himself away from his phone to tell us anything vaguely interesting. However, he was the only person in our entire three days here, who was anything less than friendly and enthusiastic, so we didn't let his indifference tarnish an awe-inspiring building, a wonderful city, or a wonderful set of people who we encountered along the way.

As ever, our experience in Manaus has been thoroughly enjoyable – great people, superb nature, intriguing history, fascinating architecture, wonderful culture, tasty food, vibrant nightlife – I couldn't have asked for more from Manaus.