The morning of June 10th, after climbing off our Amazon Ferry, Graham, Irish David, and I hauled our backpacks into a taxi and made our way to our hotel in the center of town. Graham had booked us into the cheapest room we could find at $65 a night, which was a steal considering this was the going rate for dorm beds in town (World Cup = Price Hike!). Although windowless and sterile, it was clean, freshly renovated, included breakfast, and we had our own bathroom and two beds (one single and one rock-like double for David and me to share…the things you do to save a bit of money!).
Boasting two million people, Manaus is the largest city in the Amazon rainforest, and it is only reachable by plane or by boat. Manaus was also the richest city in South America in the 1800s– thanks to rubber–and this is still evident today in its magnificent architecture and remnants of European art and culture, including the ornate Opera House.
The city was also utterly unaccustomed to tourism, and the arrival of a boatload of pink-skinned revelers was clearly a shock to Manaus’ system. I had heard that Brazil was ill-prepared for the World Cup, and Manaus was no exception. There were very few restaurants and bars, limited accommodation options (most people stayed in overpriced bedrooms in family apartments thirty-plus-minutes’ drive outside of the city center or in blood-splattered and used-condom-strewn love hotels), and zero information on public transportation, the World Cup matches, etc. Nevertheless, its naivete gave Manaus a comfortable, homey feel, and it was not an unlikable place.
After a full day of relaxation and cramming rickets-curing veggies down my throat, I met up with some of the boat crew that first night at our new “local”, Bar do Armando, which was conveniently located mere steps from my hotel. While our crew filled the plastic tables along the bar’s sidewalks, it was the last night that life in Manaus would be calm for the next few weeks, as we were just days away from the city’s first World Cup match and along with it the onslaught and revolving door of football fans from all over the globe. It was a relatively relaxed evening (apart from David getting robbed of his wallet by a knife-wielding Brazilian just around the corner from our hotel), as was the next day, in preparation for the much-anticipated World Cup kick-off.
Finally, the day had arrived. On June 12th, I took a taxi with the boys to the Fifa Fan Fest and its massive amphitheater on the banks of the mighty Amazon River. We watched the opening match, Brazil vs Croatia, on the big screen along with thousands of Brazilians in a sweaty, dancing, singing sea of green, yellow, and blue. World Cup fever had officially arrived! The next day was spent watching football at the Armando, the arrival of hordes of English and a few Italian fans for the following day’s match-up evident in the streets of now-buzzing Manaus.
The afternoon of June 14th, the boys and I (which now included a fourth member of our posse, Irish Ronan, who was also the third occupant of our double bed…the things you do to save a bit of money!) headed to the barely-finished Manaus Stadium for the England-Italy match. The arena was wallpapered in the red and white St. George’s cross, England’s flag, and English chanting and singing was well underway. The atmosphere was electric.
Graham and I had enviable seats at the top of the lower section, towards the corner of the pitch. I had scored us Wheelchair seating, and we were a bit nervous what would happen once we arrived to the stadium. As expected, our seating included one “companion seat” and one empty space for the wheelchair. Fortunately, some Brazilians who were also seated in the disabled section and who were in no way, shape, or form disabled offered to switch seats with us as a kind gesture. Their seats were a companion seat and a ginormous padded bench for an obese person. Truth be told, I was a bit perturbed that obese people are allowed the same seating privileges as the disabled (cheap priority seating plus one free seat for a companion,) but I quite enjoyed spreading out on my cushy love-seat for the match.
As the Brazilians began to fill the stadium, the English fans proved to be outnumbered; supposedly, the English coach had previously said something condescending about Manaus, and the locals were not happy about it. This was clear as they unified in supporting Italy and cheering for the demise of England, boisterously booing every time an English player even touched the ball. I found it quite amusing, as it didn’t really matter to me who won (not the same can be said about my friends from the boat crew). Nevertheless, despite a valiant effort by the underdog English team (and much to the excitement of the Brazilians and the few actual Italians in the stadium), Italy won the match 2-1.
This was not the end of my time in Manaus, as I still had over a week to wait until the USA-Portugal match, not to mention a safari into the Amazon to while away the days until then.