Belterra…Henry Ford’s (second) rubber utopia in the middle of the jungle:
There is something outrageous about the fact that an American businessman was able to pick out a spot on a map and drop a city down into the middle of one of the densest jungles on the planet. Henry Ford did that…twice. This past weekend I finally made it to Belterra and visited Ford’s second attempt at building a rubber utopia in the Amazon. The city dates to the 1930’s and was Ford’s replacement for his first rubber extraction settlement named Fordlândia (talk about being narcissistic), which failed when all of the rubber trees were wiped out by disease.
The city itself is a rather fascinating little place. At first, when we got off the bus and looked around, I have to admit that I was pretty unimpressed. It honestly didn’t seem like there was a whole lot to see. Yet, as I have learned so many times since arriving in the Amazon more than four weeks ago, with a bit of asking around (information about places is all passed on through word-of-mouth) and patience you eventually find what you’re looking for. So it was with Belterra. After walking around aimlessly for a bit, we eventually were directed down the road with the “American houses.” Throughout the town you find houses dating to the 1930’s that all are built in a similar, cookie cutterish style that certainly isn’t endemic to the Amazon region. These houses were all built as part of Ford’s original settlement and were occupied by the designated “important” people. We also passed by a number of military-barracks style complexes also dating to the 30’s that were used to house the field workers who actually tapped the rubber. The town has a bizarrely planned feel (almost utopian in a sense) that strongly contrasts with its wild, jungle surrounding (there was one point when I found myself looking out at a stunning view of dense primary jungle and the massive Tapajós River). Anyways, as we walked around town and viewed the settlement I couldn’t help but think over and over again “wow…he (Ford) literally picked out a spot on the map, hacked away jungle, and built a city.” There’s something deeply unsettling about that fact. Nobody should have that much wealth and power…nobody.
Anyways, today Belterra has a sleepy, small town feel to it. You get the sense that this was very much a boom and bust town. During the second Amazon rubber boom (after the first rubber boom during the late 19th and early 20th centuries) that was brought on by the Second World War it was a profitable place. However, after the demand for Brazilian rubber lessoned following the war and synthetic rubber came into wider use, places like Belterra went totally bust. Today, you find a few agro-farms surrounding the city but otherwise not much more than a reduced version of the rubber-tapping plantation that the Brazilian government now owns.
One interesting cultural (and political insight) that I learned in Belterra concerns the history of the rubber tree and its theft from the Amazon region. Apparently rubber trees are native to the Amazon. If you find rubber trees anywhere else in the world they were at one point or another imported there from abroad. During the 1870s a British explorer named Henry Wickham came to the Amazon and literally smuggled a bunch of rubber seeds with him. The tree was then planted throughout Asia and Africa and quickly rubber plantations there put Amazonian rubber tapping companies out-of-business and ended what many call the first Amazon rubber boom. In parts of Asia (where the trees were completely resistant to disease…which they were not in the Amazon) huge swaths of land were planted with rubber trees and Amazon rubber-tapping companies simply couldn’t compete. Many people in this region refer to this as the “theft” of the rubber tree and are somewhat bitter about it to this day. Interestingly, the legacy of this event (and the theft of many other plants native to the Amazon) is that Brazil has since become one of the toughest countries in the world to export biological products from. What’s theirs is theirs and Brazilians would like to keep it that way.
Knocking mangos down from the mango tree:
I have a huge (and full) mango tree sitting right outside of my front door. For the past few weeks Donovan and I have been longingly looking at said tree and wondering how to best to get a few delectable-looking mangos down to eat. This past Saturday after a rather fruitless (lol) day of disappointing food and horrific internet we decided to finally have a go at the tree…I think we both needed a pick me up. It turns out that the massive stick with a bottle attached on the end that is sitting outside our front door is actually for hitting mangos out of trees…go figure…
Anyways, other than accidentally dropping my camera over our house’s container wall into the yard of the abandoned and creepy house with guard dogs next door…and having to retrieve it (all because I tried to take a picture of the mango tree), my first experience mangoing was a ton of fun. It’s a lot like baseball, except you’re hitting a stationary target that you’re trying to eat with a rather large and ungainly bat. Basically you need at least two people (and maybe a couple more) to get the mango down safely…unless you like smushed, concrete-tasting mangos. One person hits the mango down from the tree and the other person fields the mango before it hits the ground. As hilariously mundane as that might sound, it ends up being rather entertaining. I did my best Randy Moss impression by one-handing the first mango of the day on it’s way down…no big deal or anything. All in all it ended up being a fun diversion and something I will look forward to in the next few weeks when the mangoes properly ripen (my mango could have used a couple of more weeks on the tree).
…I have a mango tree outside my house…full of delicious mangos…just another “where the bleep am I?” moment sponsored by the Brazilian Amazon.
- I’m a few hostel bookings away from finalizing my plans for one of the most epic four-week journeys EVER…and I’m pretty positive I’m not being hyperbolic. Where am I going? How am I getting there? All will be announced next week (or the week after if the internet here continues to be…the internet).
- Amazonian fire ants are nasty little pieces of work. They are all over this region and if they find themselves near your shoes they climb up your legs and have at you. They use their little wasp-like stingers to make your life miserable. I encountered a few in Belterra and it was no fun.
- I had five lunches this week for a grand TOTAL of 10 Reias (6 dollars)!!!!…how’d I do it without touching a pot or pan? Magic? McDonalds? Municipally subsidized eateries? Santarenos young and old alike seem to love it and so do I…more on this wonderful, cheap, and innovative place in a week or two.
- Saturday nights along the riverfront are pretty awesome. People hang out, eat delicious street food, drink a bit, and just enjoy one another’s company. Definitely refreshing to see that you don’t have to be bouncing off the walls partying to have a good time. Very relaxed vibe…but that’s how people seem to role here.
- I lost my second umbrella in little over a month…don’t worry I bought I new one…dama-like or not…IMMA DO ME.
P.S I didn’t mention the weather…if you’d like to give me a few finger snaps for keeping my promise from last week now would be the time (I just brushed my shoulders off)…thank you and good night.