Adventures in the Golden City

The best class I’ve had…

Whodathunkit really. Despite being both smaller and more geographically isolated than Santarém, Itaituba provided me with the best group of English learners (by a few million light years) that I’ve encountered to date…

Students who generally show up within 15 minutes of the start of class…students who arrive with their dog not having dined on their homework …students who don’t answer their phones or yap to the person next to them in the middle of a lesson… students who insist on speaking with you in English because they want to learn…OH…THE…JOY! It’s also amazing how much more you can get done when the vast majority of the people in the room care about what you’re saying. Eight days of blissful, purposeful, meaningful English teaching. The 200 miles between Itaituba and Santarém don’t begin to do justice to the differences I observed…check plus Itaituba…I salute you!

…Uma turma…MARAVILHOSA!!!!

The Golden City

The defining feature of Itaituba’s history, economy, and way-of-life over the past 50 years is indubitably…gold.  During the 60’s and 70’s the city experienced the largest gold rush in Brazilian history and led to Itaituba’s famous gold boom. This lucrative, transformative, and ultimately traumatic period changed the city forever and produced the bustling, frontier town that Itaituba is today.

When you look at a map of Western Pará you can easily observe that Itaituba is the only city of significant size located in the lower Tapajós River basin.  Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on who you talk to), the river and varzia extending hundreds of miles south of the city is rich with minerals, particularly gold.  For many years there had been minor gold mining operations in the region, yet it wasn’t until the refinement of dredge mining (a sort of underwater mining), the completion of the Transamazon Highway (c. 1970), and the meteoric rise in global gold prices in 1973 that gold from the lower Tapajos really took off and Itaituba became the export hub that it is today.

Here is a map of the Tapajós Gold Province…thumbs up Google Maps…

The people I’ve talked to all call the period the “Gold Fever” and say that it brought immense wealth to the region.  Yet, despite the obvious financial gains, many people consider this period an awful time for the city.  As small-scale, independent prospectors (or “garimpeiros”) flocked in and the city’s population exploded, Itaituba became both a “pleasure center” (brothels sprang up throughout the city) for outsiders and one of the region’s most violent cities.  In little more than 30 years (between 1950 and 1980) the city’s population grew from a village-like 653 people to an estimated 40,000 (today it’s roughly 100,000).  With the new population and opulence, murders and disappearances became daily occurrences as rival factions (both licit and illicit prospecting organizations) competed for access to gold riches. One woman told me, “People used to get murdered and abducted all the time. They’d be staying at a hotel or at a brothel…and somebody would kill them…the city was a rich, unequal, dangerous place.”

Today Itaituba appears to be a much safer, tranquil Amazon city with a distinct frontier feel to it (you can find gold buying shops all over the place).  Apparently, in the late 1980’s there was a convergence of three factors that brought sanity to the Golden City: the cooling off of the global gold market, the intervention of the Brazilian federal government in the mining industry vis-à-vis increased regulations on small-scale gold mining, and the increasing scarcity of readily accessible gold deposits. Nowadays, only big corporations with large amounts of capital and technical know-how can profitably work in the region.  Small-scale prospectors mined most of the easily accessible gold during the boom period and only left behind deposits in more remote areas that require a wealth of knowledge and financial backing to reach and mine.  The good news is that law and order returned to the city in the 90’s and Itaitubenses can now happily report that, “While the average person is poorer, people are generally happier. We can walk the streets at night without the fear of getting kidnapped or killed.”

Little known fact about Itaituba: For a short period during the 1980’s the Itaituba Airport was the busiest airport in the world (in terms of take-offs and landings) do to the constant flow of small transport planes into and out of the region…AMAZING.

A trip to the Amazonian countryside: Maloquinha

A picture of me and my noble steed…

One of my favorite things about the Brazilian modus operandi is that when you’re a guest…more often than not you just have to get in a car or a boat and go with the flow. My adventure yesterday to the Amazonian countryside camp of Maloquinha was such an occasion and I had a splendiferous time conversing, eating, and…piloting a motorboat down the Tapajós River!  It was a classic Andy-the-Visiting-Gringo case of getting into somebody’s car and asking questions later.  As odd as it was to see manicured green grass and horse stables surrounded by jungle, I really do appreciate the fact that three of my students went out of their way to spend Sunday with João Francisco and I. Brazilian hospitality never gets old…

Call me Captain Jack…

Other happenings:

  • I land in Santarém at 9:30 A.M on Wednesday…and then Donovan and I are off to Manaus at 3:00 P.M on Thursday for stop #1 on trip/adventure/extravaganza! Talk about a quick turnaround!!!! It’s oooooonnnnnnnnn!
  • The last time I wasn’t surrounded by jungle was March 1st…big, multicultural cities…yes please.
  • This past weekend Itaituba had a major festival to commence Saint Anne’s week.  On Saturday night a solid 50-or-so boats floated down the Tapajós River in procession and on Sunday morning worshippers paraded down the streets out of respect to the Virgin Mary’s mother.  A pretty interesting show of religious devotion.  My only critique: the absurdly loud handheld fireworks…at 8:00 A.M…that lasted well past 9:00 A.M…unnecessary.
  • I’ve been picking up some serious compliments for my Portuguese over the past couple of weeks.  A bunch of my students have remarked, “My goodness…he speaks more Portuguese than we do!” Really really really satisfying. It’s also always nice to challenge people’s assumptions and misconceptions about me when I open my mouth.

Adventure blogging…ready, set, GOGOGO! Next time you hear from me…I’ll be in historic mountain town of Ouro Preto! Have a good week!!

Amazonically (for the last time until August 17th),

Andy

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Adventures in the Golden City

  1. Se você vivesse ido para outra cidade no Brasil, particularmente do Sul, você nunca teria tido a experiência que você está tendo no Norte. Poucas pessoas vão ao Norte por opção, mas o aprendizado é muito maior por ser tão diferente. É outro Brasil. E você mergulhou de cara em vez de resistir, o que eu considero admirável.

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