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Day 8: Fordlândia, Rio Tapajós

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Henry Ford's follies. In the empty Turbine Hall.
Michael Palin - BrazilThe workshop up the hill has quite a lot of the old equipment, if not working, still intact. A dismembered clocking-on board for punching cards, an adding machine, a Junkers generator, ovens with dials and the maker's stamp: 'Weston Electrical Instruments Co. Newark, New Jersey, USA'. Workbenches are still in place, with vices half open as if the operator's hand had just left them. The almost completely glassed walls at either end must have been state-of-the-art at the time and still feel very modern. A yellow school bus is parked inside.

An overgrown concrete roadway connects this shed with Workshop No. 3, which is the largest of them all, with floor space on two levels. Stout steel columns support a long, tall A-frame roof. There are workbenches and a row of abandoned lathes. A cast-iron staircase, big enough for busy factory-floor traffic, leads upstairs. I climb it cautiously at first and then with more confidence, the clang of my footsteps echoing round these deserted walls. A wide wooden floor is covered with piles of desiccated Brazil nuts, and it's as I'm bending down to inspect them that a noise comes from below that makes me freeze. One of the lathes has come to life.

The whizz and the whirr of a drill takes me back to the top of the stairs and,
looking down, I see a man working away, black, middle-aged and completely preoccupied. It's an unforgettable image. One man working in a room intended for thousands.

We go for lunch at the Pousada Americana, run by an optimistic man called Guilherme who came down from Santarém a year and a half ago, hoping that Fordlândia's past would be his future, luring curious Amazon tourists down the Tapajós. He admits it hasn't happened yet. Most of his guests are film crews, so he hopes that bit by bit the word will get out. The rooms are clean and brightly painted and the food is good, but there's a very noisy parrot that shouts for coffee all day long, and five turkey vultures are lined up on the fence outside.

Fordlândia is a treasure trove of industrial archaeology. This transplantation of the American Midwest to the Amazon jungle is unique and has left some remarkable things behind. Clapboard houses with neat verandas are set back from a road that has sidewalks, elegant lamp standards, fire hydrants and a roof of trees with branches deliberately trained to create a protective tunnel of shade for the managers and their families who, all too briefly, lived there. A sadder fate has befallen the hospital. Designed by Albert Kahn, who had masterminded the best part of a kilometre-long assembly plant at Ford's Dearborn, Michigan, head-quarters, it is now a long, low wreck of a place. Where neat lines of spotless beds stood beneath a light and airy roof, there is now just mould and decay. Broken, rain-blackened beams and discarded asbestos panels are strewn across the floor. There are rooms with their names still above the door. Sal de Espera – the Waiting Room, Sala de Raio X, Gabinete Dentário; but the only things moving inside them now are colonies of bats, their droppings piled up on floors that were once immaculate.

The grand dream of Fordlândia from which they all awoke in November 1945 is not entirely a story of waste. The school building, dating from 1931, is still in use, as is the basketball pitch, with its bleachers intact. Today's inhabitants of Fordlândia still live in some of the houses the Ford Company built, and raise chickens and watch white rabbits lolloping about and gather to talk beside the red water hydrants the Americans left behind.

Ironically, the big companies of today, making their money from logging and soya, seem to have passed Fordlândia by. It's a small town with a huge ghost in the middle of it. The ghost of Henry Ford's ego.

On an almost perfect evening we head down the Tapajós and back to the Amazon. The sun seems to linger, and the fading colours of the day create kaleidoscopic patterns in the bow-waves As darkness falls, the trees lose their rich diversity and merge into one solid, inky-black wall. The only thing that's missing is the sense of being on a river. Though we're snug against one bank, the other is over one and a half kilometres away.
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State-of-the-art hospital, now terminally ill itself.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 8: Fordlândia, Rio Tapajós
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Fordlândia
  • Book page no: 46

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