South America: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

The City of Para

We have picked up a pilot, who is taking our ship into the island-studded delta of the Amazon. The mouth through which we are passing is that of the big tributary known as the River Tocantins or Path, and the town of Belem do Para is situated at a distance of 86 miles up this river.

The River Amazon is over 3,000 miles long; it receives the waters of more than a thousand tributaries, and the total navigable length of main river and tributaries is about 30,000 miles.

On our right, as we penetrate the mouth of the Tocantins, are the shores of the large island of Marajo; on our left stretch the shores of the mainland. Rubber-trees, sugar-cane and cattle flourish on the island, and cattle-raising is a thriving industry in the mainland corner we are turning. But for hour after hour we see nothing but a picturesque panorama of low-lying bush, with here and there a primitive hut balanced on stilts amidst the tropical wilds. Small wonder, therefore, that the sudden appearance of a big city in the near distance calls forth from all newcomers to this part of the world an excited cry of surprise.

You will soon be discovering that familiarity with Belem do Para—or Path, as it is commonly called—means a series of surprises, that breed increasing admiration and a more and more keen desire to put off the day of leaving the city.

Ocean steamers can berth right alongside the docks at the river-port of Path. The first feature of the harbour works to arrest attention is a long stretch of well-built warehouses. These warehouses, which have such a businesslike appearance, are founded on romance and packed with romance. They were called into existence by the rubber-trees of the Amazon Valley. Vast fortunes, in the form of rubber from the Amazonian forests, have been stored in yonder buildings, and from the quay we are nearing, millions of pounds' worth of "black gold," as Amazonian rubber is locally called, have been shipped to the world's markets. The whole of the present-day city of Para may be said to be "built of rubber," for it is from the wealth represented by practically that one product alone that a dirty, ramshackle, yellow-fever-stricken, and much-shunned town has been transformed into a clean, healthy, picturesque, and progressive centre of civilization, with upwards of t jo,000 inhabitants, including many European residents.

Path's courteous desire to welcome the stranger is so well known that the visit of a newcomer is almost certain to be heralded by a letter from someone in some part of the world asking someone in that city to be sure to meet the writer's friend, or friend of a friend's friend, who will arrive by such or such a boat. Although I know from experience the warmth of the welcome I shall soon be receiving as a returning visitor, I am also remembering the joy I felt at the utterly unexpected greeting that was so cordially extended to me by representatives of the cosmopolitan community when, as a stranger, I first came alongside these docks; and in these delightful moments of spotting good friends among the crowd on the quayside, I am nearly half inclined to envy those of you who are arriving as strangers, and have yet to learn the meaning of hospitality in the Para sense of the word.

There are no organized holiday tours into the Amazonian forests, so we have to make Para our head-quarters whilst kind friends see to all the necessary arrangements for taking us into the interior among the rubber-gatherers.

Para and its everyday life afford us a wide choice of interesting and amusing pastimes. The well-built city contains some remarkably beautiful parks and squares, imposing public buildings, good clubs, and a residential quarter, where a wide avenue is bordered by fine houses and gay gardens. The Botanical and Zoological Gardens, including the Goeldi Museum, have an inexhaustible wealth of instructive and merry-making entertainment in their unrivalled collections of Amazonian beasts, birds, butterflies, trees, flowers, and numerous other animal, vegetable, and mineral wonders, and in their variety show of Indian curios. The principal business street is, as would be expected, almost exclusively a rubber-industry quarter. Here are situated the offices and warehouses of leading Brazilian and foreign exporters. One particularly interesting street is on the very verge of dense forests; it is a memorable experience to stand with one foot in an up-to-date city and the other in the wilds. Para is illuminated by electric light, is well served by electric trams, and has an excellent water-supply. Among the most popular evening resorts is a large cafe, with al fresco accommodation. Friends meet at little round tables on the pavement to indulge, Parisian fashion, in coffee, long drinks or ice-creams, and a gossip.