It is by turns exhilarating and depressing to fly across Brazil. I took off from Salvador and stared down on a mosaic of farm and forest as the plane tracked north-west, bound for Panama. I closed the window shade and dozed, and when I slid the shade up again an hour later we were still crossing the same landscape. Huge fields with ruler-straight boundaries, red-dirt roads connecting them them, and islands of rainforest adrift in that agricultural sea.
This was the sobering part, to see the diminishing remnants one hears about whenever the statistics of rainforest loss are mentioned.
Then the exhilaration of crossing a swathe of untouched Amazonia. The cliché about the “lungs of the planet” smacks home when, at 30,000 feet, you inch across this enormous expanse, with its tapeworm rivers riddling the somber forest. Not a road, not a village, not a house for as far as the eye can see. I found myself whispering the word “untrammelled” for the sheer pleasure of it, because how often do you get to say that about a landscape any more?
The forest itself is sculpted into whorls as if by an oil painter’s palette knife. You see the ghosts of rivers past, now recaptured by the land and reforested with the next generation of trees. The rivers twist across the landscape in tight oxbows, with dozens of spindle-shaped islands dotting their course. On the upstream edge of each island, and on the tighter bends in the river, is a splash of white, a sandbar, that beckons as a potential campsite. What wouldn’t I give to be on a raft down there, like in a Werner Herzog movie, with a pack of chattering monkeys on board.
Speaking of Werner, during a stopover in Manaus I paid a visit to the opera house made famous in his film Fitzcarraldo. Opened in 1896, during the rubber boom, Teatro Amazonas is a magnificent Renaissance-style edifice. Wikipedia provides some construction details:
“Roofing tiles came from Alsace while, from Paris, came furniture and furnishings in the style of Louis XV. From Italy came Carrarra marble for the stairs, statues, and columns. Steel walls were ordered from England. The theatre has 198 chandeliers, including 32 of Murano glass. The curtain depicts the junction of the Rio Negro and the Solimões to form the Amazon. On the outside of the building, the dome is covered with 36,000 decorated ceramic tiles painted in the colors of the national flag.”
This year’s opera season, held annually in April, was over by the time I arrived, but I sang a snatch of “Pie Jesu” outside the pink-and-white walls to mark the visit.
On the 25th, Memorial Day in the USA, I will be in Florida for the next stage of the journey: the Ten Thousand Islands.