Manaus (Again)

This is my second visit to Manaus and the place doesn’t get any prettier.  The nice area is near the opera house, as you can see in the pictures nearby. The rest is just a fairly crowded city that could be anywhere in the world that is hot and humid.  We did save a lot of money, however, by staying in a downtown hotel called the Go-Inn rather than the more expensive Blue Tree. I like Go-Inn better anyway.  You can walk to some of the appointments.

We have two overlapping streams of connection in places like Manaus or Belém.   Those are the alumni of our programs and our BNCs. I visited both during my trip.  One of the big relatively new sources of connections and friends is our Youth Ambassador Program.   We choose some of the smartest kids in Brazil, so they are already on the road to success.   The YA program helps them get even farther ahead.  We don’t have a massive number of YA, but after ten years there are hundreds and they are proving to be excellent contacts.  Even in an out-of-the way place like Macapá, we found young people eager to talk with us.

Unfortunately, we don’t have BNCs in every city.   We cannot easily found new ones because of the logistical challenges and the competition from other English teaching organizations.   We can nurture the ones we have and encourage them to establish branches in other cities. The BNC in Belém has a branch in Santarém, for example, and maybe the BNC in Manaus could sponsor something in Boa Vista in Roraima.  

The BNC in Manaus is our most remote.  It teaches about 5000 students and their building is fully booked during the peak times, i.e. Saturdays and evenings.  To get more students and to help alleviate the crowding, the BNC is working with UNINORTE, a local Laureate affiliate.  The BNC will have access to UNINORTE.  

We were able to give the BNC that good new that they could host an English immersion program for our runner up youth ambassadors this year.  BNCs really don’t make any money on these things, because they always offer scholarships to the students, but getting to host some of Brazil’s best and brightest young people is worth the effort.    

The BNC in Manaus is doing well.  There are no serious problems; in fact they have been able to expand operations.  Their only complaint was that the area around Manaus does not produce enough quality applications for programs like Science w/o Borders.  In the last group of more than 650 students, the whole of Amazonas sent only five.  By comparison the city of Londrina, which is a little smaller than Manaus, had seventy students go on the scholarships.  One problem, they told me, is the TOFEL.  Many people cannot get the scores and it is even a problem to take the tests.  Last year there were not enough slots for all the applicants.  This problem was compounded by a power failure that affected all of Manaus on the day of the test last semester.

Below is a lonely preacher. He talked about the Bible for as long as we were in the square. He was talking when we came and when we left, so I assume he was there a really long time. He got no takers that we saw.

We noticed lots of Haitians around Manaus.  The BNC folks told us that there were now around 5000 in Manaus.  There were around 1000 school aged children who are in the public schools, w/o Portuguese.  The BNC is trying to help the local schools teach Portuguese, but this is not their primary area of expertise.

We also went over to Instituto Tecnologico Alternativo de Petrópolis where we met the director and his staff. He gets international volunteers. In the group were two Peruvians and a German volunteer.

This organization aims to provide practical education to the people of the neighboring poor area. It is a challenge, but Jonas has managed to organize community resources enough to become a local institution for thousands of people.   They primarily learn English, computers and business related skills.  The Mission has donated books for their library.  While most people in the area appreciate the education, we were told that robberies are a problem.  Much of their computer equipment was stolen not long ago and now they have a security system.  It is too bad that an organization trying to help has to do something like that.

Fishy Food

People in Manaus eat a lot of freshwater fish and various restaurants offer varieties of fish I have never heard of before.  They had names like tambaqui & pirarucu; I cannot recall which were which.  All that I know for sure is that I had at least five and maybe as many as eight different kinds of fish.  They all had a kind of whitish meat and a mild taste.  A lot depended on the way they were cooked and nothing had the kind of strong taste of cold water fish like salmon or trout.  

You can see from my pictures what servings look like. Everything tasted better than it looked.  I think it was the tambaqui that I liked the best.  I don’t know for sure, but in the models you see of the two fish, I think it is the bigger one.  It is not served whole, like the others in the pictures.

I just took the advice of the people I was with about what to eat and I was glad that I did.  The food was very good and different than I usually eat.  I eat salmon and trout, but otherwise my fish comes in squares with breading on it and they don’t stare back at me. Below is the airport & the turtle pond pond in front.  Notice also the pickup trucks. Manaus has lots of pickup trucks.

Another (Little) Favela Conversion

The picture you see above shows a successful outreach to a favela. It was not a big favela, but it was troublesome.  I took the picture from the garage of our BNC in Manaus. The BNC folks told me that it used to be very dangerous being near the favela. People would climb up the wall, steal things or just vandalize property.

The BNC  was happy when the city government decided to do some renewal. The street you see in the picture used to be an open stream, more of an open sewer. The water now passes under the road, which follows the old water course.  The people get to stay in the simple but comfortable houses on condition of decent behavior and keeping their kids in school. There is evidently some provision for secure property rights, but the people I talked to didn’t know the details. Improving physical conditions followed by provisions that establish discipline and some kind of property rights or at least responsibility are the essential ingredients of stability. As we learned in the 1970s, just building houses for the poor does no good and may actually cause harm if it breaks down social bonds. Buildings are important components of communities but it is the human relationships that really count.

Speaking of relationships, the BNC also did its own outreach. They went down into the community, offering some scholarships but mostly just getting to know the people better.  Today, they tell me that peace and harmony are more or less established in this particular corner of Brazil.  It looks orderly and clean. Somebody is picking up the trash. That is a good sign.  

In general, BTW, Manaus is a fairly clean city with significant numbers of trees along the streets.  This complex doesn’t have many trees, but they seem to have made provision for parking.

Talking Taxis

It is hard to get a taxi driver’s opinion about things, unless you ask. They aren’t a statistically valid representative sample of the population, but they know the city better than average and they get to meet lots of different people, so it is worth asking. I rode in eight taxis in Manaus and decided to get something more from the exchange than transportation. I started with similar questions. (1) How long have you lived in Manaus and (2) How do you feel about the changes in the last ten years? That kept the conversation going for the rest of the trip, no matter how long and one trip took an hour.

All but one of the drivers had grown up in Manaus and the one who didn’t had lived there more than forty years.  This was a bit surprising, because they all told me that most of the people in Manaus are newcomers. Maybe taxis drivers are uniquely recruited from native populations. But besides the guy who had immigrated to Manaus, nobody had ever gone anywhere else, not even other parts of Brazil. They explained that Manaus was like an island.  It was not connected to the rest of Brazil by any road that you could use. To get to Manaus you had to fly or take the boat up the river. A couple grumbled that this was a kind of conspiracy by the elites in the rest of the country, who wanted to prevent competition from the new frontier regions. One guy told me that there used to be a road that went west across Amazonas and connected with Rondonia and from there to Brazil in general, but the road had fallen into disrepair and was now been reclaimed by the jungle. They blamed foreign NGOs and environmentalists for preventing repairs and improvements.

Manaus has grown fantastically in the last ten years. Although it is far from everywhere else, it has a port on the Amazon that can handle ocean going trips.  Once you get a container on the boat, shipping costs to any other seaport of the world become much less important.  It can cost less to ship bulky cargo thousands of miles around the world than it does to ship a hundred miles on some of Brazil’s roads.  Manaus has a free trade zone, which has attracted all sorts of assembly industries.  They assemble computers here, no surprise, but they also make heavy things like cars and Harley-Davidson motorcycles, thanks to the capacity for cheap shipment by water.

All this growth is a mixed blessing. The city’s infrastructure is not up to the population growth.  A couple of the taxi drivers told me that they used to play football on the streets that are now so chocked with traffic that it is hard to run across them to the other side to safety even when the light in in your favor.  One of the drivers told me that there are 3000 more cars on the streets every month.  This might be apocryphal, but it gets on the perception of the problem.

Many of the buildings and whole neighborhoods are new in Manaus. There is a feeling of growth and vitality. It is becoming a high-rise city, although there are some nice green and low places in the old city, as you can see in the pictures.  It would be nicer if the transportation network could keep up.  Mass transit is not good. They have plans for a monorail that is supposed to help with all the traffic associated with the World Cup.  Of course, having it ready by the time the World Cup rolls around in 2014 is a low probably event.  It is expected to go only thirteen kilometers anyway.  It would not address the problems of the large and growing city. 

A couple of travel & taxi-tips – there are not enough taxis to meet the demand during most of the day, but especially during rush hours.  It is not like São Paulo or Rio.  Taxi stands tend not to have taxis waiting. You have to call.  Traffic is increasing daily. You need more time between appointments than you think. Distances also tend to be a little greater than you would think if you were thinking about a more densely packed cities like Rio or São Paulo.  

Evangelical Religions

Besides the new buildings, the thing you notice driving around Manaus are the many protestant churches and meeting houses.  They are mostly store front affairs, but some are really big. I didn’t ask the taxi drivers about their religions, but one volunteered that Jesus had changed his life. And they all talked about the growing religion.  

I don’t know the figures, and I am not sure figures would be accurate anyway, but it seems that Manaus has more evangelicals than other places in Brazil. This would seem to track with the idea of migration. People willing to make big changes in their lives in one way, for example moving to a new city, are also often more willing to change their lives in other ways, like converting to a new religion. 

The protestant religions are mostly native Brazilian, i.e. they are not the result of recent foreign proselytizing or foreign immigration.  I say recent, because clearly the Baptists and Pentecostals so widely present in Brazil did not originate here, but they have been fully Brazilianized so that now the people seeking new converts are Brazilians.  Brazil is evidently even sending missionaries to other places like Africa and even the United States.

In any case, the many new churches are self-sustaining with local support. I heard about, but did not actually see that a new Mormon Church was being constructed.  I also heard that a mosque was being built, but this is not a native development.  According to what I heard, it is being implanted with Arab money, maybe Saudis, but that is all the information I have.  There is a significant Arab community in Manaus, but many are Christian Arabs, whose families have lived in Brazil since the time of the Ottoman Empire, and many with no particularly strong religious affiliation. Brazilians generally seem tolerant of religious differences in an easy-going way.

I learned a lot from my taxi experience, but I followed the trust but verify rule, i.e. I asked others too at my other meetings and there was significant concurrence. For example, I asked a few educators about the idea that Manaus was being disadvantaged by elites in other parts of the country. They said that they personally did not believe that to be true, but that lots of people did believe it and they could find examples. I suspect my taxi research is as useful as any focus group. Way back in MBA School I was officially trained as a researcher.  After all, it was only a quarter century ago.

 Speaking of taxi knowledge, I have a story from São Paulo too, this one a little less serious. In the morning, one of the drivers told me about a football game to be played between Corinthians and Americana MG. He told me that Corinthians were the team of the people and that all good people in São Paulo liked them.  That evening in another cab I heard the game on the radio. I figured it must be that game, so I said that to the drivers.  It was and Corinthians were ahead 1-0. I commented on the game and the driver was surprised and delighted.  When Corinthians scored a second goal, he said I was good luck. And when it came time to pay, he rounded the fare down $R 5, which is not common for taxi drivers to do. Of course, the truth was that I had deployed every bit of knowledge I had on the subject. Good he didn’t ask any more questions about football.

Heart of the Amazon

I had never been to the Amazon rain forest before and I am not sure that I have been there now.  Manaus is indeed the heart of the Amazon rain forest, the place where the Rio Negro (Black River) meets the Rio Solimões to form the Amazon.  But Manaus is a very big city.  It has more than 2 million inhabitants and you can easily forget that you are in the Amazon when you are stuck in traffic and surrounded by tall buildings. 

My appointments included the usual meetings with journalists, academics and a stop at the local BNC. These are things I would do in any other city.  I did, however, get to make a stop in the remnant of the forest.  As the city was growing rapidly, a few farsighted people figured that it would be good to have a big green and natural place in the middle of what would become the greater city.  They set aside – and really defended – a large area of natural forest.   It is called the Bosque da Ciência and now features native forests and animals such as manatees and otters that were injured and brought to the place.  

I was a little surprised by the forest.  The trees were not a big as I thought and there was a lot more brush on the ground. I read that rainforests were so dark because of the shade of big trees that there was not so much growing on ground level.  This was not a completely natural place, so maybe it is like our own temperate forests, i.e. thicker when they are reestablishing. 

Maybe it sounds strange, but the Amazon forest I saw just reminds me of being around a lot of really big house plants. Many of the species are the ones or like the ones that decorate our windowsills and offices. Look at that picture of me with the giant leaf.  It gives a the thought of falling leaves a menacing aspect. The tree on the side is thought to be the oldest in the park, at least 600 years old. It is mostly hollow and provides a home for all sorts of animals. 

My ostensible reason for visiting the forest was to accompany a group of U.S. youth ambassadors and their Brazilian counterparts, as well as their escorts from the BNC.  I got there before they did, so I had a chance to look around in the company of one of the young Brazilian guides.   It was hot and humid, but I just love being in the woods, no matter where.  I understand, of course, that I couldn’t survive long if I were actually in this wild.  The first thing I noticed was a kind of howling sound.  Big cicadas were responsible. You can see what they look like in the picture nearby. The sound was more musical and a lot less annoying than the kind of mechanical sound similar bugs make in North America. 

I went into a little museum, were I encountered a group of Brazilian school kids.  I was evidently more exotic than the animals.  They literally flocked around and followed me, bashfully saying words in English. It was funny.  I guess Americans are rarer around here than the cool animals. 

I got a very interesting fact talking to one of the scientists. She said that they are studying the ecology of the forest in a very broad sense, including studying the habits and culture of the people who live in the woods.  She said that they had to persuade forest dwellers to change their long-held habits. One of the cultural habits that needs to change is the slash and burn agriculture practiced by the natives for generations.   Of course, I knew about slash and burn agriculture.  I learned about it in anthropology classes many years ago.  But I guess I didn’t focus on it in the modern context. 

The natives have been using slash and burn for thousands of years.  It was a sustainable kind of agriculture because native populations were very small.  The burned fields remain productive for only three to five years using the ashes as fertilizer.  After that, the farmers have to move on and clear new land.  Obviously, this destroys lots of forest, but with low population densities the forests grew back before the stone-age farmers came back.  Think about what this means.  It means that the tropical forests are not very old, although a few very old ones would survive in limited areas, especially around rivers or ravines. Even with low densities, it is likely that forests would be slashed and burned every fifty to 100 years.  This seems like a long time and it is a long time in human terms.  But in a forest terms, it is not.  My pine forests go from inception to final harvest in around 35 years.  The rain forest is essentially a kind of extensive farm.  It also means that the trees can grow back rapidly.  It is a hopeful thing.

I bought an interesting book at the airport in Brasilia, “Guia Politicamente Incorrecto da História do Brasil” (A Politically Incorrect Guide to Brazilian History) and read it on the plane to Recife & Manaus. It was the #1 non-fiction best seller on Veja Magazine and featured lots of debunking of popularly held misconceptions.  Among other things, it talked about the treatment of the forests by native Brazilians.  They burned them regularly and it was actually the Jesuits who taught them that the forest should sometimes be left standing.  This is very similar to the case in North America, as I have often written in my forestry blogs. Fire is the favorite tool of stone-age man. It is really the only way they can clear and manage forests.  Stone axes just don’t do the job.  Anyway, my airplane reading fit exactly into my on the ground information.  Sweet. I want to get a much more in depth study of the rain forests and get to know them in the ways I know my North American woods of home.  It will take a lot of study as well as contact with somebody who really knows the biomes.

My trip to Manaus taught me a couple of things. First, Manaus is a big city that only happens to be in the Amazon. I worry about the urban advance. Second that the Amazon forests were regularly disrupted and burned long before the European arrived.  On the plus side, it means that renewal is possible.

The pictures are explained in the text or need little explanation. The otters are very cute, but  they are aggressive. If the put two of the same gender in the same place, they will kill each other.  They eat mostly fish and breed rapidly. The Amazon manatee you see being bottle fed does not breed very fast. They are at greater risk. The local river dwellers and natives eat them given the chance. The popular local name for them is river cow and some people think of them exactly as that. Come to think of it, we used to call them sea cows before they picked up the less pejorative name of manatee. Manatees are harmless herbivores. Other things inhabit the water, like the alligator or Jacaré.  You can not easily see it laying there in the plants. They have brains the size of a peanut, but they don’t need to be very smart to bite down. I am not really very fond of them.