On Christmas Day, it will be six months exactly since the last roar of the crowds died down in the Arena da Amazonia, after Switzerland’s 3-0 defeat of Honduras in the 2014 Fifa World Cup in Brazil. The stadium in Manaus, in the heart of the steamy Amazon, drew criticism for its remote location, stupefying heat and lack of a local footballing culture. However, the city was a huge success with fans, including England supporters, according to a survey by the Tourism Ministry.
Even from the plane, I could see why. At one time known as the “Paris of the tropics”, Manaus has an unexpected feel of European grandeur about it, enhanced by some extraordinary architecture. Then there is the location. The city is only a short boat trip from the “meeting of the waters”, where the inky Rio Negro meets the muddy Rio Solimoes to form the Amazon. Looking out from my hotel to the Edenic rainforest surrounding the city, I was smitten. Framed by palm fronds, the glow of the sunset made the vegetation for miles around seem surreal, its verdant hues more numerous than I could imagine.
“We don’t have 50 shades of grey here,” quipped Marcus Pessoa, a Manaus native I met. “We have 50 shades of green.”
It appeared to me that Manaus had 50 shades of every colour, starting with its muddy ochre earth, its salmon-coloured opera house and its pink river dolphins. But, just like on that hot and humid day in June, when Swiss crimson and Honduran cobalt divided the stadium, the two colours that dominated the city were red and blue. I soon learnt that almost everyone in Manaus has an allegiance to one of two rival “teams” of performers – Garantido (red) or Caprichoso (blue) – who take to the city’s streets every autumn. The two sides comprise the region’s best-known storytellers of the Boi legend – a folk narrative, centred on the ox, that weaves spiritualistic ritual with religion and indigenous superstition.
The story goes that Francisco, a ranch hand, killed the most beloved ox on the farm to satisfy his pregnant wife’s craving for ox tongue. He was punished and taken to prison. The pajé, or shaman, then ordered the population to organise parties and feasts which, if joyous enough, would bring the ox back to life. They did, and Francisco was forgiven. The outlandish story is reenacted throughout Brazil, in music and dance, especially in the states of the tropical north.
Every October 24, the rhythms and colours of Boi come to Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, to celebrate the anniversary of its founding 345 years ago. Boi Manaus, as the free event is known, is traditionally held in the city’s Sambodromo, an arena also used for carnival processions. This year, to make use of the Arena da Amazonia and capitalise on the city’s new international profile, the event also featured a glittering closing ceremony at the football stadium. The headline attraction was the elite Garantido and Caprichoso of Parintins, a city 300 miles east of Manaus, which holds its own world-famous folklore festival every June.
I was curious to see how the metropolis would engage with such a traditional and pastoral celebration from the forest – and at the Sambodromo, I got my first taste of the party. Boi schools representing the two sides paraded on electric carts as spectators roamed the concourse, dancing with the performers. Red and blue trinkets bearing the ubiquitous image of the ox were on sale, alongside traditional Amazonian dishes such as tacacá, a sour, mouth-numbing soup made with prawns and anaesthetising jambu leaves.
The atmosphere at the Sambodromo was relaxed, and what struck me was how accessible it was: the event was free, the limitations were few and the dances were simple. “It’s beautiful,” said Lene Monteira, a trader at the Sambodromo. “Everyone here loves it. Samba is for Carnival but this dancing is for Boi – it’s a different culture.”
As the unprecedented climax at the stadium drew near, there was a palpable sense of anticipation. Police said they were preparing for the event with the same security measures as they had during the World Cup. Three months on, it was the first time the stadium had been used to its full capacity.
In the absence of a local football culture, the authorities have been enticing Brazil’s biggest teams from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo to play showpiece matches and draw crowds. Another plan is to make the 44,000-seater stadium a venue for big-name shows and concerts. It has already hosted the Brazilian pop star Ivete Sangalo, and there are rumours that Guns N’ Roses may perform next year.
For the time being, though, events like Boi Manaus are the best way to guarantee the stadium’s viability – and locals and visitors alike were out in force. The arena began filling up from 8pm, the crowd equally divided between blue and red. Almost everyone was wearing vivid “tururi” T-shirts showing their allegiances, while the women wore traditional red or blue headdresses. On stage, the exotic cast included characters from the Boi legend, including the priestess or cunhã-poranga (“beautiful woman” in the native tupi language) and the supreme chief of the tribe, the tuxauara.
The costumes were Indian-inspired, reflecting the colours, flora and fauna of the Amazon with garlands of bright feathers and crowns of animal teeth. But for all the plumage, ornamental bones and face paint, the greatest spectacle was the audience. Like an Amazonian Rocky Horror Show, thousands of Manauaras more than reciprocated what was happening on stage.
With waves of spectators performing alongside the Boi schools, the division between viewer and participant vanished, turning the whole arena into a theatrical orgy. While the crowd fell well short of the expected 44,000, those who were present made up for it with enthusiasm and a strong sense of civic pride.
Among the proudest was 68-year-old Ari, who had been the administrator at the Vivaldo Lima stadium, dating from the Seventies, torn down to make way for the new World Cup arena. “I cried as the Vivaldão came down,” he said, “but when you have something like Boi Manaus, you feel proud.”
But the festival is just one of many reasons for visiting Manaus. Most of the Amazon tour operators are based here, providing the chance to explore the rainforest on a river cruise. In the city’s own green space, the Parque do Mindu, crossed by hiking trails and elevated walkways, visitors can spot the tiny pied bare-faced tamarin, endemic to Manaus but virtually extinct in the Amazon.
Then there is the stunning opera house, or Teatro Amazonas, built under the administration of Eduardo Ribeiro, a black man born to free slaves: the first elected governor of Amazonas just two years after slavery was abolished. Manaus also has a white-sand beach, albeit with tea-coloured water. As I danced at midnight with the Boi Manaus revellers, and fireworks marked another year in the city’s rich history, it felt like we were celebrating not just an ox reborn but, thanks to the World Cup, a city that has come of age.
Originally published by The Daily Telegraph