My memories of the Amazon circa 2001~2002

August 1, 2012

Preto left & Solimoes right

I lived in Brazil for 4 years, and the first was passed in Manaus, a city where Rio Solimoes meets Rio Preto just off its banks, and for about 20km the waters just could not mix, due to the different characteristics* of the 2 rivers, and when they finally do, for the rest of the way 1,300km to Belem at the mouth of the Carribean the river would just be simply Rio Amazonas.

I sometimes swim in the iguarapes, the tributaries of the Amazon, but only on the preto side where water can be refreshingly cold and thankfully free of piranhas or other pain-inducing marine life. After the swim, I would take in a beer and snack on bolinhos de pirarucu, or some camarao grelhados, before driving home.

I lived in the city, just off the town center, and on weekends when there is not much to do I would sometimes embark on my epic and purposeless drives around the city. The route I would normally use would take about 90 minutes, and I would go around 5 times, sometimes altering my route a little, almost always on a whim.

I can’t remember if I had a CD player in the VW Gol that I had rented (for a year), but I always had my windows down and I always had music on. I may or may not have discovered Djavan or Legiao Urbana or Fernanda Porto while driving around in this car, but I certainly did listen to a lot of forro.

And I would certainly end up in Ponta Negra at the edge of town, where a huge boardwalk has features such as an amphitheater, riverfront eateries and cervejarias, the 5 star Hotel Tropical and luxury condominiums around it, and a great vast view of Rio Preto. On weekends, families and friends and lovers would stroll along the river banks, pack the restaurants, buy grilled cheese or empanadas from hawkers, get drunk on cheap beer. There would always be the grating yet strangely captivating sounds of boi-bumba somewhere at full blast, an intriging mix of jungle music with Afro-Carib rhythms, then heavily bastardized in the high octane & saccarine britney gypsy kings vein.

* Rio Solimoes is brown and muddy, and is therefore slower and higher in temperature.  Rio Preto is reddish from the saps of the trees, is acidic and faster flowing.

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Harumi, Neia, Sonoda & Muto at Cabral’s maybe 2003. Note paved concrete & enhanced seating

I remember dinners with my friends at Cabral’s.  He specialised in matrinxa, a greasy river fish with countless bones, which he would prep making equally countless incisions to its body. He salted it and wrapped it in banana leaves, and moved it around the grill for about 40 minutes. He offered his homemade pimienta – a chilli sauce, and warm buttered farofa as accompliments. Till this day I believe it is the best fish I would ever eat.

I witnessed the transformation of his stall (in 4 years flying in from Sao Paulo) from a single grill in a single tent on the edge of a football field, to paved cement floors, to more tables, to a wider tent, to more grills, to more staff, to the introduction of picanha on his menu, to more cement, tables, yet bigger tents and yet more staff.

I remember making calls to Cabral the moment I left the house, 30minutes away, and in my broken yet fast improving portuguese asking him to put the fish I want onto the grill. Cabral was short and overweight, gregarious and super friendly.  Last year when I spoke long distance with Sonoda he told me Cabral had left us. His chloresterol levels were off the charts. I think he was barely in his 40s.

Got this off the net. Looks exactly the same as Cabral’s

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I am inspired to write of my recollections today because I just caught glimpses of Anthony Bourdain traisping in the Amazon on the Asian Food Channel – he was introducing Tucupi, an Amazonian soup. I remember Tucupi being a strange concoction, made from wild cassava leaves, tapioca and handful of fresh shrimp, and as you ingest it, it prickles your mouth and the more potent ones leaves your tongue numb. I never really knew why or perhaps wanted to find out.

Anthony says it contains traces of cyanide.

Cabral's off googles maps

Cabral’s off googles maps

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