Reda Maher

Brazil 360: Laid-back Amazonians offer balance to urban anger

Reda Maher

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Passing through central Manaus on Friday, there were only a few signs that the World Cup was about to hit town.

There were a few gaggles of England fans huddled around flags of club and country, but they seemed content to sit at the plastic tables and chairs outside the local bars than to mount or throw them. Many were happy to mix with fans of Italy and other World Cup nations in the open bars of their hotels and backpacker hostels. The largest congregation I saw was a private, local wedding party, and the main square was hardly teeming; the iconic Amazon Theatre remained defiantly unoccupied by flag-planting barbarians claiming it as their own, many of whom had caught the sun during good-natured boozy boat trips down the Amazon.

[PRICED-OUT ENGLAND FANS SLEEP ON BEACH]

[MANAUS: FADED, CRUMBLING AND EXTREMELY HOT]

While the climate is steamy, the city is relatively laid-back by Brazilian standards, slow-paced and jovial for the most part. The sulky moodiness of Sao Paulo and upfront bravado of Rio de Janeiro are far less pronounced in what is a rickety and fading former industrial powerhouse.

Manaus used to benefit from the rubber trade but now is reliant on a low-tax industrial zone, the production of electronics, and motorbikes. Tourism, as I explained in a previous posting, is not a major earner.

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Places like Manaus have largely avoided the mass dissent, protest and strike action of their southern, metropolitan cousins. Not because they have less to worry about – on the contrary, Manaus is more obvious a developing world location than Sao Paulo – but perhaps because they are just, well, different, mostly descendants of the river-dwelling indigenous tribes as opposed to European colonial settlers and enslaved Africans.

[MIXED EMOTIONS ABOUT CUP SOME NEVER WANTED]

Moving away from the town centre to the famous Amazon itself, we noted several large boats had been converted into accommodation for fans, a minor modification of their original specification to ship adventurous backpackers deep into the jungle.

One such boat had cannily rebranded itself as a ‘Bed and Breakfast’, a clear bid to capitalise on the tournament.

Those in and around this ‘water B&B’ gave an insight into what Manaus feels about this tournament, and why perhaps there is less tangible dissent towards the spiralling costs and shambolic organisation of the finals.

“It’s great for me because it’s the reason I have this job,” said Adalberto, a 41-year-old who works on the floating B&B.

Originally from Carauari, which he described as being “seven days away by boat”, he said he was attracted to Manaus because of increased employment opportunities, and that these had improved because of the finals.

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Adalberto predicted Brazil to beat Mexico 4-0

“But is it going to change Brazil?” he mused. “We cannot say for sure.

“How can we know one way or the other – it’s the first time it’s happened in modern times, and the first time it’s happened to Manaus.

“Maybe it was a waste of money; maybe it changes the country after all.

“Hopefully more people will come here now. But ask me in 10 years if it has helped us or not.”

His young colleague Wycliffe, 18, is Manaus born and raised, but also with a parent also from Carauari.

Amazonian for as many generations back as he is aware, he was less positive, but still possessed nothing like the anger shown by his youthful contemporaries in the bigger cities.

“Having the World Cup come to Manaus is an amazing experience for us because we have never seen so many people from different nationalities here.

“Maybe the money could have been put to better use. Hospitals, education, fixing the broken buildings… All these things are more important obviously.

“But it’s a fantastic experience for everyone, especially us, who never get to see such things. I’m enjoying it but I worry about my future.”

The most cynical was Vanessa, a 23-year-old who was born in Manaus but raised in nearby Manaquiri. She veered more towards the concept of cynical electioneering by Dilma Roussef’s ruling government, but was still in good cheer as she chewed on her country’s problems.

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“Sure, it’s amazing to see more people come here, and different types to what we normally get.

“But the country obviously has bigger worries, worries that have not been solved for a long time. Poverty, education, healthcare, architectural problems, transport... all these things.

“Will it be a boost to Brazil and Manaus? It may be, short-term.

“What people seem to be forgetting is that we have elections in August, so it is in the government’s interest to show the people that the World Cup has worked by giving them what they want during and afterwards, before letting everything go back to how it was.”

Francimar, a young college professor and tech researcher who was born and raised in Manaus, gave a solution to those unimpressed with the government.

“What’s the point in ramping up the protests and strikes just when the World Cup begins? They’ve had seven years to pressure the government, so surely this is just an attempt to capitalise on the publicity?

“If people want change they can get it, directly and democratically in just a few months. That’s what elections are for.”

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Francimar believes the solution to Brazil's problems is in democracy

It is unsurprising that the younger generation would be more worried, given it is their futures on the line.

But all agreed on one thing – when asked who would win the World Cup, there was unflinching confidence in backing Brazil.

Eurosport’s Reda Maher is on location in Brazil for the duration of the 2014 World Cup - follow him on Twitter @Reda_Eurosport

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