Monday, July 8, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 21 – Museu do Seringal

Another fine day dawns in the state of Amazonia, and Manaus all of a sudden looks friendlier than the night before. Our Hotel Plaza has definitely been one of the low points (though at some point was a four star hotel), and even the generous breakfast offer was marred by weevils in Annie’s oatmeal (after discovering which, she was unable to eat anything but pineapple, and that only after inspecting it through her stink eye). But immediately after breakfast we got to change to the Hotel Brazil, which is cheaper and has a bigger room in the eighth floor, with a grand view of the hospital).

Having settled the issue of shelter, we devoted the morning to securing our departure from this fair city. That involved going to the port to find a boat that would have a suitable cabin. After receiving the cheerful help of the lady selling the tickets, she finally gave us passes to go on board and check a couple of the boats. The Amazon Star seems to be clean, has AC, and a private bathroom with shower, so we settled for it. Before making up our mind, however, Annie sent me on board another boat, and I suffered a massive cramp in my left calf as I jumped aboard; oh, it was extremely painful and left me limping on the left leg.

After getting our tickets for next Wednesday at noon (today is Sunday), we boarded bus 120 with the intention of going north of the city to visit the Museu do Seringal, a display in the jungle whose purpose is to educate the visitor about the hard life of the rubber collectors or seringueiros (caucheros in Spanish). Our driver was positively insane, and Annie and I hung to each other for dear life, fearing an untimely demise from one moment to the next. After 20 km of this wild ride we were dumped in the area called Punta Negra, only to discover that we could have continued riding the bus for another kilometer to the terminus, which is where the boat to the museum took off. Fortunately a good Samaritan took pity of the clueless foreigners, and he ran us all the way to the port, where I managed to trip and bang myself badly, this time in the right leg. Great, now I am a double gimp! Having recovered what little was left of my self esteem, we took a fast boat that would take us another 10 km up the Rio Negro to Vila Paraíso, which is where the museum is located. Talk about a long way to go to visit a museum!

Well, it turns out that it is not quite a museum, but the left-behind set of the movie A Selva (2001), which presumably follows the book of the same name written by a seringueiro in the late 1800’s. The set is quite remarkable, and is a faithful copy of a rubber plantation located 450 km farther north along the Rio Negro.

To make a little history, back in 1842 Charles Goodyear developed the vulcanization process in the US, and in 1892 John Dunlop from Ireland invented the pneumatic tire. All of a sudden there was a huge demand for the sap of the Brazilian rubber tree. This is where the history of the seringueiros plugs in. The Brazilian’s tried to keep the monopoly of rubber, but the Brits stole some seeds, and by the 1910’s Malaysia, Singapore, and Cyprus were hard competitors in the rubber market. The market became quite depressed during the 1920’s and 30’s, but revived during World War II, when Japan invaded Malaysia and the flow of Asian rubber dried out. The US, in need of the strategic material, offered Brazil a bonus of US$100 for every new seringueiro they could put to produce rubber. The Brazilian government gladly accepted the challenge, and conscripted 50,000 young men from the northeast, which was suffering from a devastating drought,  to either work on the rubber plantations or go to war. Put between a rock and a hard place most chose to become seringueiros, without knowing what they were signing for. For the following five years they fought solitude, tropical diseases, savage and poisonous animals to keep the United States supplied with rubber for the war effort, which led them to be referred to as the “rubber soldiers”. Unfortunately about half of them perished in the effort, making them one of the “units” that suffered heavy “casualty rates”. To date, natural rubber is still exploited in Brazil, as it is preferred for uses that require great flexibility and resistance, such as latex gloves used by surgeons.

Getting back to the museum, the life of a seringueiro was as tough and hopeless as that of the black slaves of the South, or the miners of northern Mexico. The “colonel” or owner of the plantation was always a Portuguese, and he was a true son of a bitch. He would bring single men (no married men were allowed) to the plantation, and they would never leave. The first thing after they signed on was to outfit it out of the company store with head lamp, the tools of the trade (scraper, knife, collecting dishes, pot), and some basic victuals, everything on credit. The seringueiro then went to work and every week would bring big balls of rubber (called borracha, which is why tire repair shops advertise as borracharia, which in Spanish could be interpreted as the place to get drunk), which the colonel would weight and credit to the account of the seringueiro. Like with so many company stores it was almost impossible for the worker to get out of debt, so he was stuck in this position forever. To make the hole even deeper, from November 8 to December 8 the plantation would celebrate the feast of the Virgin, and everybody was encouraged to feast, drink, and spend. At the end of the feast the workers would be called to the store one by one, and would be charged for all they ate and drank during the month of festivities. In the rare cases where the worker freed himself from debt, then he was encouraged to spend his money in cognac, caviar, or high class white prostitutes. If this was not enough the worker would depart, but he would have to be fast in getting out of the area, before the colonel managed to get them killed (bad for discipline if it were known that one had walked out).

On a day to day basis the seringueiro would scrape clean the bark of nearly 100 trees, would cut a furrow in the bark, and hang a small tin cup to collect the sap. The sap flows rapidly at night, when the temperature drops, so the seringueiro, would collect it in the wee hours of the morning (no doubt while preparing another tree for the following day (each tree could only be tapped once every three days). Back at his camp, the seringueiro would start a smokey fire, and would cure the rubber milk by placing a coat on a stout stick and then smoking it over the fire. Add another coating and smoke again, and so on and on and on, until the ball of smoked rubber was the size of a watermelon. This would be the borracha that would be taken to the colonel for weighting and credit to the account of the seringueiro. Most of these workers died on the job, because of smoke inhalation as they processed the rubber, or being killed by the Indians, or malaria, or dangerous and poisonous animals. It was a miserable existence and a death sentence from which very few escaped.

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