It's in the throbbing forest that the British tabloids' reports on Manaus take on a semblance of truth. Here, there really are giant insects, from palm-sized beetles with jaws mighty enough to amputate the tip of a human finger to pencil-length "stick bugs," which look like twigs come to life atop impossibly spindly legs. Sleepy-eyed sloths inch through the canopy, while snapping caimans, razor-toothed piranhas and lumpy, pink freshwater dolphins called "botos" ply the rivers.
Mosquitoes and other insects are so thick at dusk that malaria, yellow fever and leishmaniasis, which causes skin to break out in unsightly ulcers, represent a real threat in the jungle. There's also the "candiru," a narrow catfish that feeds off blood and is said to swim up any available human orifice. (Guides warn potential river swimmers not to urinate in the water.)
Indigenous peoples live in thatched-roof villages carved out of the forest, and the riverbanks are lined with floating houses, restaurants, general stores and bars that rise and fall with the seasonal floodwaters.
Water is a way of life for the "ribeirinhos," as the river dwellers are known in Portuguese.
Kids backflip off the porches into the water to impress passengers in passing boats, while adults sip cans of beer as they lounge atop floating refrigerators and tend to fish ribs roasting on the barbecue. Some offer up the fresh water turtles they raise for meat. Everyone waves and smiles.
"When I came here, I knew literally nothing about Manaus. I knew there was a theater, I knew there was a river and I knew there was a forest," said Luis Malheiro, who heads the Manaus Philharmonic Orquestra. "I was completely ignorant. ... And I found an extremely rich culture.
"Twenty years later, here I am," he said.
Jenny Barchfield on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jennybarchfield
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