The Invention of Amazonia by Oliver Balch

Oliver Balch

The Invention of Amazonia


We arrived in Manaus with trepidation. Despite being masked up, gelled up, tested up, we’d seen the images of those early days of the pandemic – the crowded hospitals, the busy gravediggers. We had to go, we’d told ourselves. I had a book about Amazonia to write. The tickets were bought. The city, located in the heart of the rainforest, was supposedly safe. Over half its adult population had already had the virus. Epidemiologists talked tentatively of ‘herd immunity’. Surely the worst was over.

Only it wasn’t. Infection rates were going up. The day after we arrived, the governor of Manaus ordered all non-essential shops to shut and imposed a curfew from 7pm. We had rented an apartment on the top floor of a modern tower block with expansive views. Duly ensconced, we settled in to wait. I had never been to Manaus before. Weeks into our stay, it still felt like I hadn’t been. Normally, I would be out pounding the streets, talking to whoever crossed my path. My ‘research’ on the ground, such as it was, instead comprised trips to the local supermarket and back.

I found distraction in the writings of another newcomer to the largest city in Amazonia. Annibal Amorim’s steamboat dropped anchor just outside Manaus’s harbour on a starlit night in 1909. A soldier and poet from Rio de Janeiro, the young traveller stood at the guardrail and marvelled at the

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