Heroes, Adventurers, and Crackpots

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” (published in 1842) portrays Ulysses (Odysseus to the Romans) as an old man who is back home after his years fighting in the Trojan War, recounted in The Iliad, and his wanderings at sea, detailed in The Odyssey.


The familiar tales in those books include the Trojan Horse, The Cyclops (shown above), the twin dangers of Scylla, the six-headed monster, and Charybdis, the violent whirlpool, as well as the alluring Circe who turns men into pigs, and the Sirens who comb back their long hair as they sing men to their doom (pictured).

Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_by_H.J._Draper (1)

Through bravery, deceit, and considerable help from the gods, especially Athena, Ulysses survives all his adventures.  As the poem begins, he’s been reunited with his wife, Penelope, and once again sits on the throne of Ithaca.

Ulysses head Yet he’s restless, unsatisfied.  He misses the camaraderie of battle, the thrill of life at sea.  It’s more than nostalgia that he feels, it’s hunger for the life he used to know.  So he decides to leave the kingdom in his son’s hands and set off with his trusted companions once again.

His complaint is universal in its appeal:


“… How dull it is to pause, to make an end

To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

As though to breathe were life…


Death closes all, but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with gods…


‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world…

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die…

Though much is taken, much abides, and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


It’s a rallying cry to those who don’t want to slow down, to become less with age.  It’s been read at dozens of retirement parties, the battle hymn of the old adventurer. It’s always been one of my favorites, even though, on re-reading The Odyssey, I find Ulysses considerably less heroic than I remembered.  If it weren’t for the intervention of Athena and other gods, he would have failed in his quest – early on.  Still, the poem speaks to the old hero’s undiminished search for adventure, for noble battle, perhaps for redemption.

Captain America

Ulysses is the archetype of the adventurer/hero.  His stories combine wild battles with superhuman enemies, beautiful/deadly women, natural hazards, magical tokens, and intervention by the gods.  It’s a winning combination, even today.  The powerful defender/avenger (!) figure appears in almost all Marvel super-heroes,  Star Wars heroes, and most of the fantasy warriors in on-line games.  Like Captain America (shown), the warrior hero lives for the noble fight.  He (or she) has little or no life outside of battle.  Super-heroes don’t usually chaperone class trips or take the kids to soccer practice.

But we forgive all that because, after all, they’re heroes.  Ulysses deserves to do great things, even in his old age, and we cheer for him even as he leaves poor, long-suffering Penelope at home once again and heads off into the great unknown with his band of old buddies.


A Different Story

In 2018, a Polish retiree named Aleksander Doba, at 71, completed his third trans-Atlantic solo crossing, in a 21′ kayak he designed.


His first crossing was in 2011, from Senegal, West Africa, to Brazil, a 99-day journey.  (See map on left).  When he arrived at his destination, he was greeted by one journalist.




Days after returning home, he started planning the second trip, which he completed in 2013, going from Portugal to Florida, a 6,000-mile journey.  (See map on right).  He had saltwater blisters and eye infections. His toe nails fell off.

When he tried to exercise by swimming in the ocean, he found he attracted sharks.  When his clothes became unwearable, he went naked.  On the trip, he suffered multiple equipment failures, including his satellite radio, GPS unit, and electric desalinator.  Most he fixed by himself or managed without.  But when his rudder broke during a storm near Bermuda, he was forced to head in to land for repairs.  As soon as it was fixed, he returned to his route.  (Notice the circular blip on the map of his journey.)  It’s believed to be the longest open-water kayak crossing in history.

Then he wanted to go again, this time from west to east, from New York to France.  Despite everyone’s attempts to dissuade him, he went.  His wife of 45 years, Gabriela, said when she couldn’t dissuade him, she gave up and accepted his decision.  But the third passage proved to be the hardest.


Shortly after he got into open water off the New York coast, he ran into terrible storms with 65 mph winds and huge seas that required him to tie himself down in the narrow sleeping area he had inside the kayak. (See photo.)  But in the middle of the storm, he realized the waves were so high, the kayak would be buried in the troughs and destroyed unless he slowed it down by deploying a sea anchor, essentially a parachute opened in the water behind the kayak to slow its descent down the backs of the waves into the troughs.  It worked for a while, but then one of the ropes failed and the kayak began to roll in the waves so violently he thought it would break apart.  He had to rope himself to the kayak, go out in the sea into the teeth of the storm, and deploy the spare sea anchor. He admitted later that when he returned to his tiny cabin on the kayak, he was surprised he was still alive.

On each trip Aleksander Doba paddled and drifted over 6,000 miles, all alone in a kayak he designed, with a sleeping area about the size of a coffin set sideways.  He described the tedium of paddling as a form of dementia.  Though he’s partly deaf, he left his hearing aids behind so he wouldn’t lose them in the sea.  But he grew so disoriented, he started shouting at himself.  He spoke to sea turtles he passed and yelled at flying fish that struck him.

Late on the third trip, he lost all contact with family and friends.  “I came very close to the line of my possibility and human possibility,” he admitted later.  But he saw the crisis as an opportunity for triumph.  He wanted to move toward the suffering, not avoid it, so he would be a hero, not a victim.

Doba from Daily Mail

“If you aren’t willing to suffer,” Doba told a reporter from The New York Times, “you can do nothing.  You can sit and die.”  In the pictures of Doba on his arrival, he radiates a kind of fierce strength.  Ulysses would understand.


And yet, few people know of him and even fewer would call him a hero.  Why is Ulysses considered a classic hero and Doba is not?

Maybe we’re just used to the image of Ulysses as the hero and cling to the idea even after realizing he only survived his adventures with extensive help from Athena and Hermes.  Or that he had sex with (or killed) almost every female he met on the journey then declared he would kill his wife, Penelope, if he found out she’d been unfaithful in the twenty years he’d been gone.  Or that he couldn’t shut down his killing instinct even when he got home.  He killed all one hundred of Penelope’s suitors, leaving the great hall awash in blood.  When the families of the slain men showed up, looking for revenge, it was Athena who stepped in and shut down the cycle of killing.  Still, Ulysses had really good marketing.  Homer told his story so well that people have been reading it for 1200 years.

Doba, on the other hand, is a hero with almost no fanfare.  Many, including his own family, dismiss him as a crackpot.  But he has, perhaps, a far more important lesson to teach us than Ulysses does.

We need Doba.  We need all the adventurers.  They feed us, even if we’re not out on a kayak with them or climbing mountains or heading into space.  Doba said, “You can be made small by life or you can rage against it.”  When asked what he meant, he added, “I do not want to be a little gray man.”

That’s his gift to us.  We don’t have to be Ulysses/Odysseus, legendary king of Ithaca and beloved of the goddess Athena.  We can be regular folks, even old ones, and still strive for something extraordinary.



Sources and interesting reading:

Doba photo by Iwona Photography, Iwona.com

Gordon, James. “Kayaker paddles Atlantic,” The Daily Mail.com 23 April 2014, www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2611294/Polish-kayaker-paddles-Atlantic.html

Homer. The Iliad, translated by W. H. D. Rouse.  New York: New American Library, 1938.

Homer. The Odyssey, translated by Samuel Butler, Digireads.com Publishing, 2016

“Odysseus,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia, https://www.britannica.com/print/article/425301

“Odysseus: Myth, Significance, Trojan War, and Odyssey,” Britannica.com, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Odysseus

“Odysseus,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odysseus

Squires, Nick.  “Greeks discover Odysseus’ palace in Ithaca, proving Homer’s hero was real,” The Telegraph, 24 August 2010, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/eruope/greece/7962445/Greeks-discover-Odysseus-palace-in-Ithaca-provng-Homers-hero-was-real.html

Tennyson, Alfred, Lord, “Ulysses,” from Beginning with Poems: An Anthology, edited by Reuben A. Brower, Anne D. Ferry, and David Kalstone. New York: Norton, 1966.

Ulysses and Cyclops painting by Arnold Böcklin – Sotheby’s London, 11 June 2012, lot 8  Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19582047

“Ulysses and Sirens” painted by H. J. Draper, 1909, Wikipedia Commons,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9684835

Ulysses, sculpted head, by Jastrow, from the Iliade exhibition at the Colosseum, September 2006–February 2007, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1288487

Well, Elizabeth (author) and Joakim Eskildsen (photographer), “Alone at Sea: Why he kayaked across the Atlantic at 70 (for the third time),” The New York Times magazine, 22 March 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/03/22/magazine/voyages-kayaking-across-ocean-at-70.html



The Opera House at Manaus, Brazil

The Opera House was supposed to be a center of culture in the middle of the Upper Amazon Basin, a jewel of the arts to rival the great theaters of Europe.  And, in spite of its strange history, it is.  The day I visited, local school children were touring the building.  The Amazonas Philharmonic was scheduled to perform later in the week.  The gift shop was doing a brisk business.

Manaus opera exterior

Construction began on The Opera House in 1884.  Its first performance was held in 1897.  But by 1921, it stood empty and abandoned, a victim of the sudden end of the Rubber Boom that ran from the late 1800’s to about 1910.

The Rubber Boom

2018-02-03 Manaus old house 019Natural rubber comes from the Pará tree, native to South America.  When the harvester makes “V” cuts in the tree, the sap drips down and forms lumps which are refined into latex.

Ancient peoples at least as far back as the Olmec in Mexico (3500 years ago) used rubber to make waterproof textiles, boat patches, containers, and the ball they used in ceremonial games.  Because untreated rubber tends to lose its shape, they added sulfur to harden it.

However, the Portuguese who took the natives’ land starting in the 1500’s never asked for their advice about handling rubber, so it remained a mystery until Charles Marie de La Condamine explained the benefits of rubber to the Academie Royal des Sciences in France, in 1751.  He showed it could stretch and return to its former shape and could withstand being immersed in water without being affected.  In 1770, Joseph Priestley added that it was good for erasing pencil marks on paper.  Then Francois Fresneau discovered turpentine was a rubber solvent. But it wasn’t until 1839 that Charles Goodyear discovered “vulcanization” by accident.  He left a ball of rubber and some sulfur on the stove and found, in the morning, that the rubber was both charred and hardened.

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, and more particularly the birth of the auto industry in the 1890’s, demand for rubber soared, especially for belting, gaskets, matting, gloves, adhesives, elastic in garments, and car tires.  South America was its main source, particularly Brazil.  As the money flowed in, the landowners’ greed, competition, and brutality grew.  Natives did the work and saw no profit.  When they rebelled, suppression was quick and deadly.  Since wild rubber trees are widely dispersed, Portuguese land owners acquired huge swaths of land, mostly by using private armies to terrorize the inhabitants into working for them. Their tactics included cutting off dissidents’ hands and displaying them.

Thinking plantations of rubber trees would make more money than individual trees in the jungle, the owners cleared land and planted hundreds.  But their trees died from a leaf blight that was fed by close proximity.  So the “rubber barons,” as they were called, went back to wild rubber trees.  The sap was tapped from the trees, collected, refined, and shipped down the Amazon to the Atlantic Ocean, and from there, to the world.  And they could charge whatever they wanted since they controlled most of the available rubber supply.

It’s hard to appreciate how much money these men amassed in a short time. Because the Rio Negro’s tannin-rich water turned their white shirts tan in the wash, they sent their laundry to France or Portugal to be washed, ironed, and perfumed, then returned by ship, a round-tip that might take months.  In the middle of the hot, humid rainforest, they still wore starched European style clothes and made their homes showplaces of European wealth, with fine paintings, sculpture, inlaid woods, marble, decorative tile-work, and enormous mirrors.  Both men and women wore jewels and fine fabrics that rivaled those sported by royalty. They were the highest per-capita buyers of diamonds in the world.  When they found the clip-clop of horses on the cobblestones distracting, they2015-08-08 Brazil hotel 016

ordered bricks made with rubber that would muffle the sound.  They are still visible near the Opera House.

Rubber-boom Manaus boasted electric lights, 16 miles of streetcar tracks, and a telephone system.

Buoyed by a belief in Social Darwinism that declared some men were more successful because they were innately superior, the barons indulged in contests of wealth.  If one had a fine yacht built, another ordered two.  One kept a tame lion in his villa.  Another claimed he watered his horse with French champagne.  In addition to a wife, a baron might take dozens of natives as sexual companions.

2018-01-30 Brazil opera 004

So what would be a fitting place for these incredibly rich people to go, to see and be seen?  The theater, of course.  In 1884, construction began on an audacious project – a palatial opera house.  To complete it, they had to hire architects, artists, designers, and painters, get various exotic woods from the Amazon basin, and import roofing, art, and furniture from France, as well as marble from Italy and steel from the British Isles.

Light came from 198 chandeliers.  The reception room (pictured below) featured elaborate inlaid woods and large mirrors placed on opposite walls that provided the viewers with endless repetitions of their image.

Manaus opera interior

The dome required 36,000 decorated tiles and special supports.  The painted ceiling portrayed the spirits of music, dance, and drama.  The grand curtain depicted the Meeting of the Waters, where the dark water of the Rio Negro meets the lighter water of the Upper Amazon

In 1897, the opera house opened with a performance by Enrico Caruso in La Gioconda.    The barons had lured the brightest star in the opera world to the middle of the jungle to sing for them in their beautiful theater.  Clearly, they were meant to be where they were and to do everything they had done.


A Warning

2018-02-03 Manaus old house 002Down the Rio Negro a bit from Manaus are the ruins of a town that was started but never finished.  Apparently, some powerful people grew unhappy with the status quo in Manaus and decided to form their own community.  They imported marble, granite, and ceramic tile, then started construction on several ornate homes and a chapel. But the settlement failed before the houses were completed. Today, the jungle is reclaiming the space, moving in over the decorative tile and marble steps.  The reason for the settlement’s collapse is unknown, but a small, family cemetery near the buildings hints at disease, perhaps Yellow Fever, which was common in the area.

 The Fall

Back in Manaus, the party lasted until their grip on the market failed.  An Englishman did what the rubber barons thought was impossible: he smuggled rubber tree seeds out of Brazil.  In 1876, when the barons were just beginning their meteoric rise, Henry Wickham shipped 70,000 seeds to British colonies in Malaysia and India, a number so high it suggests he had help from some locals.  The exact arrangement has never been explained, and the “rubber theft” is still something of a touchy subject in Manaus.

After some initial difficulties, the English efforts in India and Malaysian paid off.  By 1909, Brazilian rubber production dropped to only 50% of the world total.  In 1918, only 20 percent.

Manaus’s fortunes fell even more abruptly than they’d risen. The lights that once illuminated its buildings and streets went dark.  The tram stopped. The telephone lines went quiet.

The rich fled with what money they had left.  The theater was forgotten.  By 1921, visitors said it housed only bats, bugs, and vermin.  Aside from a brief appearance in a Werner Herzog film, it lay abandoned and decaying for over seventy years.

The Revival

In the 1970’s, the Brazilian government decided to put money into reviving some remote settlements, including Manaus.  It’s still in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest, with no overland road access due to seasonal flooding.  Visitors arrive by boat or plane.  But after the establishment of a Free Zone with its appealing tax incentives, businesses moved in.  National and international investment followed.  It’s now the sixth largest economy in Brazil, fueled not by rubber, but by shipbuilding and fishing, as well as trade in wild fruits like acai, guarana, and cupuacu, plus Brazil nuts, beer, soap, and petroleum products. Manaus mercado-municipal-manaus

As the city’s fortunes improved, successful businessmen wanted to reclaim the best of the city’s past. A coalition of investors joined government agencies in funding the rehabilitation of some Gilded Age buildings, including a number of historic homes, the library, and the central market, the Mercado Adolpho Lisboa (pictured), built in 1882, which still does a booming business in fruits, vegetables, spices, and fish.

Brazil fish monger

But the star of the revival was the Opera House, which has become a symbol of the powerful present more than the colonial past.  In 2001, the provincial government allocated funds to lure top musicians to play in the Amazonas Philharmonic. Today, the completely restored Opera House hosts orchestras from around the world, as well as jazz bands, rock bands, and dance troupes. Jack White, of the White Stripes, was a featured performer in 2004.

Regular people who would never have been allowed inside the theater when it was built now look on it with pride.  The brutal oppression that allowed the rubber barons to amass their wealth is seldom mentioned.  Instead, the locals claim this striking building as their own.  They’re proud of it.  They support its concerts and relax in its gardens.  It represents their city’s endurance and quality, and therefore theirs.


Tours of the Opera House (about $8.00 per person) include a visit to the grand theater hall and the reception area, as well as a costume display.  Book ahead for an English-speaking guide.  If this is the start of your Upper Amazon tour, you’ll find it adds an interesting perspective on the area’s history.


Sources and interesting reading:


“A Brief History of Rubber,” Mongabay, https://rainforests.mongabay.com/10rubber.htm

Cunningham, Eleanor, “The Manaus Opera House: The Theatre of the Amazonian Jungle,” The Culture Trip, 10 November 2017  https://theculturetrip.som/wouth-america/brazil/articles/the-manaus-opera-house-the-theatre-of-the-amazonian-jungle/

“Manaus,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manaus

Morton, Ella, “Teatro Amazonas,”  Atlas Obscura on Slate, 14 January 2014, www.slate.com/blogs/atlas_obscura/2014/01/14/teatro_amazonas_the-unlikely_opera_house_in manaus_brazil.html

Ramm, Benjamin, “The beautiful theatre in the heart of the Amazon rainforest,”  BBC.com.  16 March 2017, http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170316-the-beautiful-theatre-in-the-heart-of-the-amazonian-rainforest



Other information courtesy of the tour guides at the Manaus Opera House and background provided by our Road Scholar group leaders

Photo of the Mercado Adolpho Lisboa from Wikipedia.  All other photos by the author.