Updated: Feb 20, 2020
"Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, on the north shore of the Rio Negro, eleven miles above the Amazon, is a former boom city, full of ghosts and rot." -Joyce Wadler
Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil. I could go on for days about how terrible this city is. It is corrupt, filthy, dangerous, a hotbed for tropical illness, isolated. Manaus is dying. Maybe it's already dead.
In 2009, I was living in the northernmost region of the city; a neighborhood called Cidade de Deus (City of God). A bit of a misnomer. A far cry from angels and trumpets, Cidade de Deus was, and likely still is, home to some of the most violent drug trafficking organizations in all of Brazil. Along with a wide variety of flora and fauna, the nearby Adolpho Ducke nature preserve is likely home to countless bodies. The bodies of rival drug dealers, people who couldn’t keep their mouth shut, people who simply got in the way.
My morning studies were often interrupted by the sound of gunshots or bottle rockets, signifying the death of an trafficker or arrival of a new drug supply. People I said “bom dia” to in the morning, sometimes weren’t alive to say “boa noite” to in the evening. Children standing on street corners weren’t talking about the most recent episode of a cartoon, they were olhos (eyes) on lookout for the law…protecting local dealers from what few non-corrupt police officers Manaus had left. I witnessed multiple shootings. I saw people bleed out in the street. This became my “normal.”
To make my normal worse, my stay in Cidade de Deus was plagued with a complicated case of dengue fever. I can confidently say, Manaus was almost the death of me. For days I laid semi-conscious on a hospital bed at the Hospital Adventista, thinking each day would be my last. That each poorly prepared, vegetarian, mystery-box of a meal would be my last. Although I lived (SURPRISE), shortly after, I plunged into the deepest depression of my life.
Until this point, there hasn’t been a whole lot of positive. You’re probably thinking “I can remove Manaus from my wanderlust list.” I'll support you in this decision BUT…this is a BIG BUT, a little over a year after these truly terrible experiences, I dreaded the thought of leaving. Despite illness, unsanitary living conditions, and constant risk of assault, Manaus had won me over.
To this day I can’t rule out some sort of local magia played a roll in this turnaround but I can tell you the people did. The Manauara (term for a resident of Manaus ) people are some of the most humble, kind, happy, grateful, brutally honest people you will meet. They are masters at celebrating the small, everyday successes. They know how to be happy with very little by way of material possessions. Their happiness and passion for living is contagious. A “disease” which unlike dengue, I was happy to acquire.
In 2015 and 2018/2019, I had the pleasure of returning to visit the people of Manaus. To bask in the happiness which emanates from these friends and now, family. To share in their successes. To share a guaraná. To remember the good times.
In my most recent visit (2018/2019), I took to the streets with some color film, doing my best to capture the unique people and places which for a few years, made Manaus my home. This photographical journey took me to the far reaches of the city, across Ponte Jornalista Phelippe Daou which spans the Rio Negro, connecting Manaus to the growing municipal of Iranduba.
My first images were taken at the Feira Municipal de Iranduba, a wonderful olfactory kaleidoscope. Fish, fruit, blood, vegetables. Some vendors presenting smiles, happiness, and passion for their product, while others embodied an anxious uncertainty for the day's sales. Dogs hovered around the outskirts of the fair in rambunctious packs, waiting for a morsel of discarded meat to make its way to the pavement, doing their best to fend of the encroaching vultures.
A few days later, I accompanied my sister-in-law, Patricia, on her journey to the Centro to buy school supplies for her children. As we made our way towards the center of city in a taxi, the sky darkened. A sky which was once a clear blue sky with a prominent blazing sun was now dark grey, on the verge of black. No blue. No sun. “Tempo fechado,” the driver announced as the umbrellas lining the bus terminal appeared. Bad weather indeed. Although not uncharacteristic of the region, this afternoon shower looked to be a bit heavier than usual. Even so, as I looked out my window, vendors continued selling, school children hurried to a bus stop, and monks made their way up the steps of a Catholic Church. Life went on. Caught up in beauty of the moment, I was transported, propelled into a world of color. Just as soon as it began, this otherworldly trip ended with a “Chegamos!”
We weren’t at the curb nor a traditional stopping place, at least by American standards, however, it was clear to me that this would be where we parted ways with the taxi. Upon opening the car door, I was hit by a wall of sound. Sirens, children laughing, salesmen yelling daily promotions into megaphones. Dodging cars, raindrops, and unapproving glances, I eventually made my way to the sidewalk where I took cover under a large tree. After a quick strategy session, Patricia and I parted ways. As she tracked down books and markers for her kids, I ventured out, camera safely tucked into my waterproof jacket.
Into the streets. The streets of what once was the wealthiest city in South America. Now, the city shimmers with a unique combination of disorder, danger, and decrepit beauty. Walking northward on Avenida Eduardo Ribeiro, I pass an immaculate shrine to the performing arts, royal palace, centuries old church, military high school, homeless, street thugs, drug addicts, tourists, and an abandoned hospital...a bizarre occurrence given the local people's desperate need for another functioning hospital.
Despite the rain it was still extremely hot. Enveloped in a black, waterproof jacket, I quickly broke into a sweat, making me wonder if my attempts to protect the camera from moisture were futile. Nevertheless, I continued onward, stopping only at a newspaper stand to buy a bottle of water, ensuring the continuous flow of sweat. Eventually the ceramic tiles of the theater’s dome made their way into view. Yellow. Green. Blue. The beautiful pink exterior and white archways soon appeared. I was nearing the jewel of the Amazon. An American in the heart of the rain forest.
As I was pondering the uniqueness of my situation, I made my way to Largo de Sao Sebastiao, a beautiful, Potuguese-influenced plaza which would allow me to take in the architectural beauty from the front. Just then the hissing of hydraulic brakes drew my attention to the right. A behemoth of a bus appeared, unexpectedly wedging itself between the rock wall surrounding the theater and a lone map salesman. One by one, white, cowboy-hat-donning, English-speaking Americans descended the bus steps and opened the red umbrella handed to them by the tour guide. Just when I thought I had found myself, they found me.
After a brief exchange with the tourists, who were puzzled by the presence of a lone, wandering American, I fled the scene and got lost in a maze of streets named after former political champions. Eventually, the rain abated and the vendors were, once again, out in full force.
I weaved my way back towards the school supply shop and regrouped with Patricia. The adventure was capped with some fresh juices at Skina dos Sucos before heading back to Flores.
Eventually my time in Manaus came to an end, with only the pictures and memories from my visit to remind me of the sights, smells, and smiles I left behind.
Cameras: Canon EOS Kiss III/Olympus Stylus 120
Film: Fujifilm Fujicolor 200/Fujifilm Fujicolor Superia X-TRA 400
Where: Manaus, Brazil/Iranduba,Brazil
When: December 2018-January 2019