As a child I loved to look at maps and one of the things that stoked my curiosity was what it must be like to live hundreds of miles away from the ocean, although I never really realized that also applied to me. So places like Novosibirsk and Manaus always seemed fascinating to me. When the news came that the US had drawn Manaus as one of its venues, most American fans groaned, but that was the moment I knew I had to go. And now here I am.
To Brazilians this is actually where the Amazon starts – the black water of the Rio Negro joins the silty water of the Rio Solimões to form the Amazon proper (Most maps outside of Brazil consider the Solimões to be the Amazon). In any case, there’s no denying the fact that these two very different rivers meet just off the coast of Manaus, at the creatively-named Meeting of the Waters.
Eric and I negotiate a boat to see the Meeting of the Waters and a bit of the jungle for a few hours. Mostly I want to see a sloth after missing my chance in Costa Rica, and the guide we go with assures me there will be a sloth. We skip off down the Rio Negro and before long we’re at the confluence. It’s remarkable how distinct the colors of the two rivers are, and how long they run side by side without mixing to any significant degree. Our pilot takes the boat over a few times and encourages us to stick our hand in the water as we cross so we can feel the temperature difference and indeed it’s significant. A cool phenomenon, but difficult to capture by camera from the water.
The boat heads for the the inlets on the far bank of the river where presumably we’re going to see the wildlife we’ve been promised. Clearly the whole thing must be a little illegal because there’s no sanctuary or anything – at a certain point, a wooden rowboat just slides out from a hidden grove, shielded by heavy foliage. It holds two kids: the elder couldn’t be more than 14, and the other one was probably 12. In their possession is a small menagerie of jungle creatures procured by unknown means. There is a small monkey, a snake, a caiman — but no sloth. I am very disappointed about it, and getting kind of tired of getting ripped off by Brazilians, but I don’t have it in me to argue about contractually promised sloths.
The next day is game day. Before the US – Portugal game, we once again find ourselves pregaming outside a gas station.
On the way to the stadium, proselytizers pass out brochures about accepting Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior.
Inside the Amazonia Arena, there’s just enough massive insects flying around to justify the stadium’s name. No little annoying ones though, which is nice. With all kinds of upsets in favor of CONCACAF and CONMEBOL teams, there’s a feeling like we could really get this thing done. I’ve bought in from the opening kick, and so has the rest of the American crowd. The Portuguese are also noisy, however, and as the match begins, they have the sympathy of the “neutral” home fans, almost exclusively due to the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo. At every mention of his name, and every time he touches the ball, the crowd roars.
We go down early on a bad play, but Jermaine Jones draws us even on a wonderstrike. From there we outplay Portugal and the Brazilian fans mostly come around to our cause. Later, we are again chanting “I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN” and it’s deafening. I stop the chant because I can almost see it all developing in front of me. And indeed the play pinballs around from Bradley to Zusi to Dempsey and we’re up 2-1.
It’s as though the crowd willed it into the net. Here we are, the United States Men’s National Team, in the middle of the Amazon, up a goal on perhaps the greatest player in the world, with a chance to advance to the elimination stage on my last full day in South America. Years of suffering and disappointment as a Cubs fan have jaded me, but as the clock ticks toward 90 minutes, every passing second makes the dream seem realer. It is as close as I have ever come to a religious experience. 88 minutes. The crowd is chanting again. I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN. If we pull this out, I think of the missionaries outside the stadium, I think, I’d be willing to believe anything.
Then Ronaldo takes the ball down the right wing, crosses it into the box, we’re tied, the game is over. I can go back to being a pessimistic Cubs fan. The world makes sense again.
To be honest had you told anybody going into the match that we’d get a 2-2 draw, every fan in the stadium would have been happy with it. As it turned out it ended up feeling like a punch to the gut.
It’s my last night in South America. Eric has to leave for the airport at 2am, but I’ve got til the next afternoon. He doesn’t feel like going out again, but I can’t let this be the way it all ends. For a few hours, I’m back to traveling solo. I head back to the town square, where the shock of the game is wearing off for both sets of fans, and the party is starting to get going. The bars have again spilled into the street. I meet a very drunk Ukrainian. I meet some locals who are excited to meet somebody from Chicago, and I hang out them late into the night.
Almost everything I loved about the last four months is represented here. The tropical climate, the colonial architecture, friendly locals, people from all over the world, crap beer, and the belief that the unknown is a good place to fling yourself into. I couldn’t ask for a much better ending to the greatest idea I had in my life.