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.