In this episode, we visit the Amazon to pester wildlife and heckle people.
3. MANAUS: AMERICANS VISIT RAINFOREST DURING RAINY SEASON, ARE SURPRISED TO FIND RAIN
Of the three US group stage venue cities, Manaus was the most logistically challenging. It’s out in the middle of the Amazon. Accommodations were in short supply; most tourism in the area is focused on getting you out on a jungle safari, not staying in the city itself. Our plan had us spending one night in the city, heading out for a tour, returning the day of the game, then leaving a few hours after the game on a bizarrely scheduled flight, about which more later. We got an apartment through Wimdu, a German AirBnB clone, and mostly just expected a safe crash space with a bed and bathroom for the night.
We got that, in an apartment block that once was a hotel tower. What we also got was the apartment’s owner, a Bavarian fellow named Jörg, who excitedly greeted us upon landing at the airport and immediately offered to take us around the neighborhood. The neighborhood turned out to be the main market square in town, in the center of the tourist area, a few blocks from the water. Unfortunately, the city market was shutting down for the evening, but after picking up a few groceries, Jörg announced he was taking us to dinner at his favorite restaurant.
Down by the river, vendors offered the day’s catch cooked for you on the spot, and Jörg’s favorite restaurant was one such vendor, a lady with a grill, a plastic table, and an assortment of side dishes and soft drinks to fill your plate. For about five bucks, you got a slab of tambaqui (river fish), rice and beans, noodles, and farofa (seasoned tapioca flour eaten as a side dish, a bit like breadcrumbs). I skipped the tambaqui but had my fill of the rest; Mike went after the fish like a starving caiman, later commenting it was one of the best meals of the trip. Afterwards, we walked back to the square by the apartment to watch the second half of Spain-Chile (OH GOD THAT KID FROM ALBERTA) at an open-air bar, although it was less a bar than a newsstand that sold beer and had a TV out front with some plastic chairs for anyone to drop in and watch.
HOW TO RUN A BAR IN BRAZIL:
1. Sell alcohol
2. That’s about it
There’s not really a thing like “open container laws” in Brazil, and the only real restrictions we saw on alcohol were posters reminding folks that the legal age was officially 18. Otherwise, you want a beer, it’s there from a street vendor for a buck or two. Prefer something stronger? Picture a bicycle-mounted ice cream cart, only instead of ice cream, it’s freshly made capirinhas or other cocktails–you’d see these setups up and down the street in entertainment/nightclub districts, like the main street in Pipa. It’s like lemonade stands, except booze!
The next morning, we hopped on a van and then a boat and then a van and then a boat for a few days on the Rio Negro. We booked the Pupunha tour through Maia Expeditions, which had us for three days and three nights at their lodge way out in the middle of nowhere. The lodge is a central dining hall and lounge building surrounded by individual cabins, some of which face the river and some of which face the woods. Ours faced the river, with a nice porch on which to watch lizards and birds.
The tour package itself was a morning, afternoon, and evening tour, weather permitting, after breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We had one sunrise tour that ended a bit early as it was too cloudy. Tours were done with others who’d booked the same package as you, which, in our case, was one other American and five Australians. When not on tour, you got buffet meals in the main lodge with everyone who was staying at the complex, which also had a TV lounge where you could watch the day’s matches. There was also a pavillion with hammocks, a small soccer field, and a marked nature trail, plus it was safe to swim or kayak at the camp’s dock so long as no boats were loading or unloading.
What all of that meant was you got to spend a good amount of time socializing with whomever happened to be passing through the camp. Most of the guests were American, English, or Australian, with some Swiss and German folks too. Which means this is
Immediately after the England-Uruguay game, in which England were effectively eliminated, Brazilian TV ran an ad showing an English pub filled with Brazilians singing about how they love England because they gave the world football, and then didn’t win anything since 1966. The crowd in the TV lounge laughed.
“That’s not funny,” said an English-accented voice from the back of the room.
“Yes it is,” said at least other one person besides me.
One woman, part of a party from Seattle, earned the nickname “Lucille Bluth” for her endless stream of nonsensical observations and habit of addressing the lodge staff in Spanish, which is like me addressing her in Afrikaans. I get newbie questions. “How’s offside work,” or “What triggers a throw in vs a goal kick vs a corner.” Things that are a lot less obvious than “man kick ball into net, bald man in net catch ball.”
(If women’s game, “lady kick ball into net, lady with eyeliner in net catch ball.”)
But there’s newbie questions, there’s stuff you’re better off learning by listening and observing, and then there’s “how did you manage to get from your house to the airport” questions. “How do Spain and Italy choose these players,” she asked while watching Italy-Costa Rica. “They don’t seem to have much skill.”
“They’re worse than the Sounders! The Sounders were so poor the last game I saw.”
“I dunno, I liked the last Sounders game I went to,” I said.
“What was that one?” she said.
“THE ONE WHERE LEE NGUYEN ATE THEM FOR LUNCH,” I yelled, probably contributing to the losing streak the Revs enjoyed before, during, and after the tournament break.
We spoke to a serious expensive binoculars and giant-ass field guide carrying birdwatcher who was part of her tour group. “She keeps asking what everything is, even after it’s obvious we’re seeing the same species over and over. ‘What’s that bird?’ ‘It’s a jacanda.’ ‘And that one?’ ‘It’s the same jacanda.’ ‘And that one?’ ‘IT’S LARRY. THAT BIRD IS NAMED LARRY.’”
AND NOW BACK TO THE ACTUAL TOUR ACTIVITIES
Like I said, we were taken out on morning, afternoon, and evening tours, weather permitting. For one morning tour, we went out into the woods to spot wildlife, but as this was the height of seasonal flooding, most of the mammals had retreated further into the woods than we were able to see. We did get a lot of birds, though, including a hoatzin, which is this large turkey-ish thing where you think “yep, these are dinosaurs all right.” A piranha fishing tour yielded only a couple of the little guys (strictly catch and release); caiman spotting was more fruitful, with our guide reaching off the side of the boat and pulling out a small, irritated crocodilian out of the river before anyone noticed we’d pulled over to the bank.
A few tours were less forest creatures and more forest people. On a sunset ride, we stopped at a riverside general store for snacks and drinks. While we took a break, a fishing boat had also stopped by, with its crew listening to Madonna and Cyndi Lauper on a boombox. I started singing along, earning some knowing laughs from the crew. “Eu sou uma americana de 37 anos! É claro que eu sei que essas músicas!,” I yelled.
We also spent a morning at a local family’s house to see how folks live out on the river. We toured their yard, getting the rundown of all the culinary and medicinal plants that Amazonas residents grow, then got a demonstration of their home setup for processing manioc root for flour. While all this was happening, the family’s kids were in the living room watching Dragon Ball Z. The whole morning reminded me a lot of living on the farm when I was little–it’s not so much OMG POVERTY as it is rural living. It’s just how you do if you live out in the Amazon. You grow and catch your own food, a boat comes by to take your kids to school, you’ve got enough to keep your family fed, clothed, and sheltered. It’s not much, it could be better, but it’s home for you and your family and friends.
As the Amazon tour came to a close, we boarded another boat to a van to a boat to a van to get us back to Manaus in time for the US-Portugal game. This game was where being an MLS/US fan really paid off, in that the day’s heat and humidity are not any particular surprise. 95 and humid? You mean just like the weather in Columbus when we booked qualification? Just be glad it’s not on turf, fellas.
The pregame festival this time involved us running into almost everyone from the Tucson AO chapter, a couple of people from Raleigh dressed as Coneheads, local women selling beer outside a gas station while wearing New England Patriots jerseys (not the only ones we saw on the trip, either; for some reason Tom Brady seems to be popular in Brazil), and a guy from I think Ecuador who covered himself in tin cans. Lotta Venezuelan fans at this game, too, many of whom drove to it.
Manaus as a venue got a bad rap from the start, and the game outcome (so, so close, why, oh why, Michael Bradley, did you have a bad day RIGHT THEN) didn’t help any. But I’ll go to the mat to defend it. It’s the least practical white elephant stadium built for the tournament, make no mistake, but the arena was beautiful, and I do hope they’re able to put it to some use in the future. The city’s out in the middle of nowhere, but when the hell else am I ever going to get a chance to go visit the spot in the Amazon where the two different colored waters meet? Heat and humidity? See previous, and anyway I grew up in the south, this is not unfamilar territory. The city itself looks a bit dingy and chaotic, but it’s a market town, the center of commerce for anything going through the Amazon. It reminded me a bit of Beijing: Everyone’s got a business, everyone’s got something to sell or a service to offer. If you can meet them on their level, you can get Manaus.
I’ve lived the past 15 or so years in and around the Inman Square section of Cambridge, where much of the immigrant population is Brazilian or Portuguese. This has taught me many, many things about how to make fun of Portugal at a soccer game, much to the annoyance of the old dudes at the hardware store or one of my favorite cartoonists. For this game, we put that training to use.
POWER RANKINGS: TOP MEAN THINGS TO YELL AT PORTUGAL
1. Spanish Canada
2. Brazilian England
3. 3-Team League
4. Força Fall River
5. If it weren’t for those mountains, you’d be Spain
6. Anyone here named Rui? Looking for a Rui, think his last name’s Santos or Costa?
Postgame, we went back to the apartment to change clothes and grab our luggage, because our flight to Recife was leaving at 2am. Yeah, you know how in the US and Europe, airports mostly go quiet between about midnight and 5am? Not so in Brazil, where flights run all night. Before we headed to the airport, though, we ran into Jörg, decked out in a JOGI 12. MANN t-shirt as he was getting home from the game.
“YEEEEEAH! GREAT GAME, YOU GO THROUGH, WE GO THROUGH, NEXT GAME, DON’T WORRY, JOGI WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU,” he said, hugging us as closely as he’d surely held those commemorative stadium cups of Brahma a few hours earlier.
When we arrived at the airport, we found a pretty good remake of the field hospital scene from Gone with the Wind. The folks on the AO package tour had flown in just for the game, and were to fly out right after, only the bus had come to get them immediately postgame, hours before their flight was scheduled. Worn-out fans, many of them still wearing face paint, lined the halls, trying to get some rest. I overheard two guys in the airport drugstore searching for the right Portuguese phrase to determine whether or not Ambien was available over the counter in Brazil. We ran into our buddies Carl and Elana, first time World Cup travelers from Boston, at one of the snack bars, and got the low-down on their travel woes.
“Kill us,” Elana pleaded.
Our journey was only marginally better, as it turned out a flight that was listed as non-stop was, in fact, five stops across the north of Brazil, putting the bus back in Airbus. Via Santarém, Belém, São Luiz, and Fortaleza, we were off to Recife.