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Brazil; the Rio thing.

BRAZIL The Rio Thing

Arriving at Eduardo Gomez Airport late at night on a 5-1/2-hour flight from Miami may not be the most spectacular approach to the Amazon, but for those just passing through en route to Rio de Janeiro, it's a practical alternative to the week-long trip by boat from Belem.

It's a jungle out there, as they say, for almost a thousand miles in all directions, but instead of pythons lurking outside the terminal doors, taxis wait, ready to whisk new arrivals directly to the luxurious lobby of the Tropical Hotel, where they are greeted with stiff drinks made from fermented sugar cane and then sent off to their rooms for the night.

Next morning, the first thing visitors may notice is that they are freezing. It's 98 [deg.] F. and 90 percent humidity outside, and the air conditioner has been revved up to compensate. In the bathroom, the water from the previous night's shower is still on the floor, unevaporated. When guests reach for the fruit basket, they find they can identify just one thing--a lime, or at least it looks like a lime; it might be a cupuacu or a graviola or a pupunha or something equally strange. Who knows? Most visitors still won't know by the time they leave; the Amazon has too many fruits to keep track of. However, they'll probably have learned the names of three popular local fish: namely pirarucu, tambaqui, and tucunare--all delicious. The pirarucu has the best reputation. It's the largest scaled river fish in the world, available in lengths up to seven feet. Natives use its scales for nail files.

If you're looking for at least one good reason to come to this muggy, isolated place, try fishing. The Rio Negro has an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 species of fish, a treasure trove compared to the Mississippi's paltry 250. Many are edible; some may eat you, if given the chance.

The fact that the Rio Negro's fish life includes piranhas does not preclude swimming. In fact, the Ponta Negra beach just outside the Tropical Hotel has been dubbed the Copacabana of the Amazon. Unlike Rio's famous beach by that name, however, this one disappears for months at a time during the rainy season. So if you would like to run your toes through the Amazon sands, make a note not to visit from January through June.

About 12 miles down river is the Tropical Hotel's main reason for being--the city of Manaus, Brazil's jungle metropolis, complete with skyscrapers, a half million population, and an unnecessarily large fleet of yellow Volkswagen taxicabs.

Manaus' main claim to fame (and the people here won't let you forget it): It was once the richest city in the world and one of the first cities in South America to have electricity and streetcars.

Tales abound of the wealthy Manaus rubber barons of yore who reportedly sent their laundry out to be done in London and fed large-denomination bills to Amazon fish to amuse their guests at parties.

The best-preserved artifact from the bizarre rubber-boom era is the Amazon Theater, inaugurated in 1896 by an Enrico Caruso performance. The theater is still in use today, the interior as gaudy and ornate as ever.

Manaus' most interesting place, however, is the rather humble Indian Museum, run by the Salesian sisters. Here you can beat on an authentic Amazon jungle drum, meet shrunken heads face-to-face, and view menacing-looking native weapons, including blowguns and curare-tipped darts. A complete line of similar apparatus is for sale at the museum's gift shop. Sorry, no heads or curare.

Two days in this sweltering jungle city are enough to prime most visitors for the 3-1/2-hour flight down to Rio de Janeiro. Passengers on Varig, the Brazilian national airline, will stop on the way at Brazilia, Brazil's least popular city, at least among the country's own residents. What's wrong with the place? "Well," a former Brazilia resident says, "life isn't worth living to the average Brazilian unless he can go down to the corner bar every day for coffee. The problem is, Brazilia doesn't have any corners." So much for planned cities.

The first news to be gleaned upon arrival in Rio is the present state of the beach apparel--much more important to the Cariocas (as Rio citizens are called) than is the state of the economy. In fact, the two seem inversely related: As inflation grows, bikinis shrink.

The next act is to beat it down to the beach for a closer evaluation--which beach is immaterial. Ipanema is the most chic. Copacabana, a 2.8-mile-long sensuous curve of white sand, is most
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Rio de Janeiro
Author:Kreiter, Ted
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Dec 1, 1986
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