I always like to know where I am on a map, so here’s a little geographic orientation for Surfer Grrrls Brazil. I am starting my journey in Brazil on the island of Florianopolis in the State of Santa Catarina in Brazil. Florianopolis, or Floripa as they call it here, is the surfing capital of Brazil, and has something like 43 beaches. No matter what the wind or swell direction, its always breaking somewhere on this island, so its a perfect spot to get my Brazilian surf mojo in order while I work on my Portuguese. It’s also home to some of Brazil’s best surfer grrrls. Much of the island is designated as ecological reserve areas (yay!), and there are seemingly endless possibilities for beach exploration.
The idea is to get to know people here, connect with some rad female surfers, surf a ton, create some music and videos, and get some contacts for the later stages of my journey, when I will be traveling up the coast of Brazil. My partner in grrrl surf adventuring, Miho Aida, should be joining me at some point for that leg of it.
On a side note: upon arriving in Brazil, my computer died. I depend on it for all my musical and video creations, so I have been a bit stymied in getting started on the multi-media aspect of things. But I love writing, and I can do that on any old beater PC (which is what I am using now) while my sad little Apple computer travels through the very very very slow purgatory-esque system of Brazilian Apple care. I’ve been keeping a journal of my travels, so for those who might be interested in hearing about my exciting first dozen days in Brazil “pre blog launch” and pre-camera carrying, when I decided to just relax and soak up what I encountered around me, you can click below for the full story in the old fashioned format of the written-word.
I awake to a perfect sunny day in Florianopolis. It is an island, with a bridge that looks like a mini version of the Golden Gate connecting it to the mainland . The whole thing is hills and mountains, with neatly painted houses creeping a little ways up the slopes, but most of which are still covered by Atlantic temperate rainforest. There are birds chirping, and vines growing, and tropical plants in bloom. And it’s Brazil! Every country and city has its own personality, and here is Brazil, revealing itself for the first time in the perfect sunshine of a Friday morning. Every little thing — the octoganal shape of the cobble stone, the stainglass house surrounding the swimming pool at the “private athletics club” next store, the buzz of new insects, the houses that remind me half of Mallorca and half of Thai suburbs, crazy ornamental plants I’ve never seen before — feels special and exciting, because they are Braziliand and I have always wanted to come to Brazil, and now look, here I am !!!
After lunch it strikes me that I really really really want to go surfing. I have very little to guide me. Doing some pretty sketchy and uncertain triangulation with Googlemaps and Surfline.com, I made a guess of the name of the town where the surf would be the best, put my wetsuit in my backpack, and headed off to the bus stop with a print out from the internet of the names of some surf shops. Considering poor grasp of Portuguese at this point, it was somewhat miraculous that I successfully navigated the 3 bus journey to Acores, my destination, where I found that the surf shop l found on the internet was gutted. I would have to look elsewhere for a board, but first I needed to see the beach, which was only a block away.
Oh Brazil…. How I love you already. Crystal blue water, pristine arcing white sand beach, bookended by forest covered mountains with brightly colored fishing villages at their feet — and lovely breaking waves, 3-4 feet, a perfect day to get my feet wet, up and down the beach, plenty for everyone – and there were only about 4 people out on the water. Hurrray!!!!!
So I went to the other surf shop, which apparently does not rent boards. Uh oh… I also learn that the only other surf shop I knew of in the town (from my internet research) was closed for the season. But hope springs eternal, or rather, Brazilian kindness, as Maria, the shop owner, offers to rent me her personal board so I have something to surf on. Thank you Maria! And I am in the water. And it is lovely, and the “freezing cold” water of Florianopolis that many Brazilians warned me about is actually 10 degrees warmer than San Francisco, and feels like a pleasant bath. And the waves break cleanly and more predictably than your average day at Ocean Beach, and longer (though that’s not hard) than Cronkhite, and bigger than Bolinas – and I get the sense that this is just an average day.
I get my fill and return the board as the sun is setting, and catch the bus back to the city. I stop at a local bar down the street for dinner, where I boldly order an x-burger caipury (??!!! i later learn that x-burger is brazilian for cheeseburger). It arrives and is stuffed with spaghetti (!!) pesto sauce and molten cheese curds. Wow…. As i eat it, the bouncer, who is right next to me, tells me about the brazilian sport of sand boarding (basically snowboarding down sand dunes. there are jumps and tricks you can do even though the ride is not as long as a mountain), and offers to sell me his surf board. I consider it.
I bumble my way to another surf break with dismal hopes after the 3 surf school operators I call suggest that they will be closed, but upon arrival, I discover one that is still open, and make friends with the owner who takes pity on me, rents me a board, and keeps his shop open an extra 30 minutes so I can catch some waves after my circuitous bus journey. This beach is called Joaquina and it is awesome. Super long, white sand – more restaurants on the streets leading up, but really the beach itself is pretty pristine and undeveloped and goes on for over a mile. I then discover that said surf shop owner and his friend live really near where I stay in the city, so they give me a ride back (I discover the beach is only 20 minutes away, not 2 hours as my bus ride would suggest), and on the way we stop at the local skate park (I am told, and it makes good sense that skateboarding is good practice for surfing). Brooklyn skating days of yore pay off and I can still execute a kickturn on a bank. Not much, but better than nothing.
Day 3: My first ever “official” surf lesson – it’s sort of like ski school. Fabrice, owner of surf shop takes me and some super new beginners to the outside break where Iworry that aforementioned beginners will perish. (the waves are “2-3 feet” but they measure them from the back here). We catch some fun waves, I receive very firm instruction about my poor position upon popping up on my surfboard, and I spend the rest of the day lying on the sand watching an amazing 45 pound 6 year old alternately shred it and then run onto shore to fly a kite and then go out and shred it on the waves again. Too cold to go out again, so i go home. I land in the bus on the wrong side of the University, and while snaking my way back home, follow my ears to discover a Maracatu ensemble (Brazilian percussion ensemble in the style of Recife) which practices every sunday 5 minutes from my house. I dance to the music for an hour and make a plan to join them next week for lessons.
Day 4: Go to early morning calisthenics session at a nearby jiu jitsu center upon Fabrice’s recommendation (this guy is like the Yoda of surf in Florianopolis so i will do whatever training regime he suggests!). I discover happily that it has many of the fun exercise toys (monkey bars, wierd bouncy balls, ropes to climb, etc) that were part of my beloved “ninja training” at The Cave (best gym ever!) at home. Its cold and raining, so i do all my boring errands, admire the many epiphytes growing on the trees that blanket the city, marvel at the horse who roams free on the university campus eating the grass, and work my butt off at learning Portuguese.
Day 5: So excited to surf but alas, I am still not skilled at predicting the surf here, and I head to the south of the Island, which is totally flat today.
I visit my friend who rented me the board. Her husband is a shaper and she sells his boards, some for not too much. I do some board research and then take a glorious walk down the perfect beach across a headland to another beach and a tiny fishing village. Along the way i befriend a Brazilian family playing soccer and a fishermen with a face like the Old Man and the Sea. He is making his way back over a rocky headland when he stops and talks to me extensively in Portuguese, completely undeterred by my total lack of comprehension. (I later learn that part of the reason I cannot understand him may have to do with the fact that many people in Acores, especially the fishermen, speak an Azorean — as in the Islands in Portugal — version of Portuguese that most Brazilians don’t understand either). Yay Brazil!!!
Day 6: I am starting to suffer from malnutrition because I can’t seem
to get enough lasting calories via the meat-filled buns that everyone
eats all the time. I resolve to feed myself well so after morning
training session I gorge myself at a local healthy food café on delicious treats like guava cheesecake! I get a late start to the beach, where my normal surf shop is closed today. I stop at a different one, and when the owner is reluctant to rent me a board so late in the day, we bond over a bottle of wine he’s got on
the counter and the Brazilian women’s Olympic soccer match he’s got on
TV. After a few glasses and a couple goals by the Brasileiras, he
sends me off joyfully with the board. The waves suck for the first
time in Brazil, but I discover that Joaquina beach has stadium
lighting after dark. (!!!!) My day long campaign of calorie loading
pays off when while chatting with the waitress at the restaurant where
I have just devoured a whole fish, a plate of rice and beans, and
another plate of fries, that she was a surf champion 15 years ago, and
we make a plan to surf together in the next few days.
Day 7: While walking to the beach in the morning after my last leg on
public transportation, a lady with a surfboard in her car sees me and
offers me a ride. Her name is Fatima and she’s awesome. We surf
together — my first surf session with a fellow surfer grrrrrl (I was
starting to get worried!). The waves are crappy again, but afterwards
I chill with the local “brahs” in the parking lot and get the scoop on
the effects of the different wind directions on the different breaks.
lesson: for the southern wind, go to Barra da Lagoa, or Praia Mole, not Joaqina. the waves will be smaller, but perfectly shaped. I also check out a local
surf magazine and see pictures of the Joaquina beach with 15 foot +
perfect waves. (8-10 feet in brazilian, measured from the back).
Though that was a once a year type of day, it made me SOOOOOO EXCITED
for what I may get to see/surf here.
Day 8: Its raining and I devote the day to fixing my computer, which
has conspired against me. Though maybe it is conspiring WITH me,
forcing me to go out everyday and interact with the world, and giving
me a little time to chill before i start the hardcore work of my
project. My first experience with Apple care Brazil is quite positive
though the standard hold time is 40 minutes. The guy who helps me on
the phone later friends me on facebook! I dine at my new favorite
cafe – “Simples y Naturaleza” – the rad organic vegetarian cafe
mentioned above. I normally fear vegetarian food due to the hunger
that ensues 45 minutes after eating it, but all the veggies and
interesting dishes are a nice contrast to the slabs of steak and the
empanades that are the normal fare here (dont get me wrong – I LOVE
steak – but even i occasionally crave the odd vegetable). Today my
fears are realized though. I order the lunch plate, which is
beautiful, filled with paella, and some delicious quinoa salad thing,
and a white bean concoction and a number of other dishes beyond the
translation capabilities of my lonely planet menu reader. But when I
am done with my complimentary guava sorbet I am still hungry. The
waiter, who is very nice, comes and asks me if everything is good —
I think he asks me this, it comes in a string of Portuguese that moves
faster than my brain can translate it. But he says something like, do
you need any more. And for some reason I chose honesty, and I say
slowly, carefully, tentatively, in my best Portuguese: “I am still
hungry.” And lo!! He does not seem offended at all, but quickly
returns smiling with ANOTHER PLATE OF FOOD!!! It contains all the beautiful
things on the first plate, repeated, in slightly smaller 2/3 size
portions. I am filled with joy! When I pay, it appears that I have
not been charged any extra, as if the philosophy is “to each according
to their need!” Simples e Naturaleza is now my favorite place in
Day 9: I finally meet my wondrous hosts Susana and Hugo. They have been on vacation in St. Petersburg while I have been occupying their apartment. Susana is a whip smart professor of women’s literature in English, and Hugo is a incredibly kindly flight attendant (a cabin chief!) who, among his many talents, makes amazing muffins!. I love them immediately, and we have a hearty breakfast of eggs and toast and Brazilian hot pepper jelly (zing!) while they enthusiastically tutor me in Brazilian Portuguese. The story of how we met is amazing… 6 days before my scheduled departure for Brazil, while I was thinking I would need to hurry up and make a hostel reservation, I was staying with my New Haven adoptive parents Jerry and Elizabeth, and in a random 1 in the morning kitchen conversation discovered that their best friend Alice had a best friend in Florianopolis — the city I was headed to. Alice came over for breakfast the next morning, and sent an email to Susana, who invited me to stay with her “as long as I wanted.” While I marvel at the hospitality offered to me, I feel infinitely blessed and hope that I can show this type of openness and generosity to others as I live my life. Thank you Susana and Hugo!
After breakfast, Hugo drives me to Joaquina, my surfing beach of choice. But uh oh… today the waves are REALLY big. The outside set is at least double overhead, maybe more, and usually breaking in horrible closed out curtains of doom. Whoah! Apparently this is not too unusual. Every now and then there is a nanosecond of opportunity to grab a multistory shoulder of a wave, though it would have to be done perfectly to avoid the curtain closing down on you. I sit on the beach and watch with a mixture of horror and amazement as a lone surfer every now and then make an unbelievable drop down a very scarey curling face. I hear that Florianopolis is inhabited by many pro and semi-pro surfers and I can only suppose that this is one. In the meantime, a local surf competition is taking place on the inner break, and several gangly teenagers and pint sized grommets are trying to make the most of some disorganized breakers. Alas, there are no girls involved.
I run into one of my new surfing friends in the parking lot, who offers to take me down to a local surf shop to shop for a board (I am starting to feel a little hamstrung by my dependence on rental shops). He says he’s really close with the owner because when he was a little kid and used to hitchhike out to the beach from the city, he would often sleep in the back of the shop. Turns out it’s the same guy I shared wine with while watching the Brazilian women’s soccer the other night, so we all have a good laugh and he promises to keep an eye out for a board for me.
I return to the beach, but the waves continue to be intimidating and out of my league and I can’t manage to rent a board to even try the inside set. I cope with my frustrations by playing beach racket ball with an adorable 8 year old name Sophia, drinking fresh sugar cane juice (AMAZING) and playing in the breakers. I hitch a ride back with a surfer who also happens to be a local muralist. Cool!
Day 10: In the morning I head to Joaquina, rent a board along the way, and try my hand at the disorganized inside set. The outside set is not as scarey as yesterday, but still scarey enough. When I am too cold to continue, I head back to town. Today is my first day of practice with the Maracatu ensemble, and I am super excited. Maracatu is a type of music/performance/organization that has a big drum ensemble, consisting of big bass drums (afaias), snare drums (caixa), shakers, and a kingkong size cowbell (gongue) that play rousing rhythms with songs that go with them, usually call and response. I am still figuring it out but Maracatu schools/styles/traditions/groups are organized into nations. When a “nation” performs its usually processional style, with dancers, and people in costume representing the king and queen of the nation. It’s the type of music you’d be crazy not to dance to.
So there’s a Maracatu group on the University campus which I discovered last week by following my ears and today is my first day joining them as a student/participant. I show up 15 minutes late, but only about 3 of the groups 20 or so members are there. They give me one of the big bass drums, the afaias, which you wear on a thick strap around your torso, and we start playing songs and singing in portuguese. I get a quick one time review of my part, and then its pretty much trial by fire. Luckily I have a percussion background, and I can pick up pretty quickly but its still a little dicey on the breaks, which come from an entirely different musical universe of syncopation beyond any I have been exposed to thus far. As more people show up, it gets more serious, and we are playing big ensemble pieces with lots of parts. About 45 minutes in, the groups leader shows up, and he is not here to mess around. He is banging on an afaia with us but he is not pleased with our playing and lets it be known through a sour look on his face and ever more intense exaggeration – as if he is demonstrating with his whole body – of the times when we are supposed to be making the hits. Perhaps noting that I have no clue what I am doing, he takes a time out to review the break (this is the part where we break from the regular lilting rhythm to add a little transition or extra syncopation) slowly as a whole group. It’s like a group ornamentation. OK. I’ve got it now. Our new leader is intense but effective. I stay highly focused for fear he may point his stare of disapproval in my direction. I am honestly amazed that so many people have been able to learn this way. It seems like you either need to have 1) a percussion background, 2) an innately genius sense of rhythm, or 3) immense perserverence and the ability to be totally ok with sucking for a long time while an angry band leader gets in your face. But its also a cool way to learn because it is full-on immersion – you get it because you feel it and you are in it, and I have to say, it feels AMAZING. 20 people playing drums in harmony is completely exhileratng – those bass drums resonate the very core of your gut – its very primal, like you are the riders of Rohan charging into battle. Practice lasts about 4 and a half hours, but it goes quick. My Portuguese is improving because I even understand a little of what our group leaders tell us at the end about paying monthly dues of 20 reals. Cool!
As I am leaving, I notice that there’s another kid there who has also been struggling with the lyrics to the songs. At first I thought he was just quiet, and then I noticed that our band leader was aiming additional explanations of Portuguese terms not just at me but at this guy too. So as we are leaving, I ask him if he’s from Brazil. And it turns out, he is secretly American!!! No hiding from me fellow American. I am gonna find you and force you to be my friend. His name is Dan and he’s a Fulbright scholar, and get this – also a highly skilled percussionist who is super involved in all sorts of music scenes in town. My dreams are coming true. Working on my own, it would have taken me several weeks and a lot of aggressive investigation to suss out the local music scene on my own. But as we walk across campus together, Dan is giving me ALL the connections (including showing me the local grocery store where you can buy a huge rotisserie chicken for $6 – yahoo!). Tomorrow there is a FREE pandeiro class at noon in the forest 3 minutes from my house, he has a friend who is an audio/visual dude looking for projects, tomorrow evening is an African music show in a club nearby, and he keeps going— Dan is a veritable fountain of helpful information, and also a rad dude who studies refrigeration and thermodynamics – my first brush with this field. We get dinner and plan to meet the next day at Pandeiro class.
At night I eat pinao nuts – a water-chestnut esque Brazilian treat before sleeping made for me by my Brazilian host mama. Yay brazil!
Day 11: Another morning with Apple Care Brazil. Its Monday and they are open. Hugo drives me to the mall where I drop off my computer and hope it will be fixed in less than the 20 days they tell me it could possibly take. Later in the day I go back to the store with bonbons to bribe the staff whose job it is to repair my computer. I am desperate.
But at noon I have pandeiro class. Yay!!!! Its pretty cold by Brazilian standards and only 3 students show up, bundled up with puffy condensed air breath in the forest at the south side of the University, the hangout of choice for local vagrants and underage pot-smokers, and the location of our pandeiro class. There is a cool wooden stage-structure that is covered in murals and beautiful graffiti which proclaims loudly to the authorities, that “The Forest is Ours”. Our teacher, Oswaldo, is a super nice super chilled-out ying to the yang of our super intense Maracatu teacher, Charlie. Oswoldo slowly and kindly guides us through a number of exercises. Turns out I have been playing pandeiro wrong in all my years of faking it, and I have to start from scratch. The way you get good at the pandeiro is by developing quickness in your left wrist and hand, the one that holds the drum. Your left hand should be doing more than half the work, twisting and shifting the drum back and forth to make contact with your right hand, which should stay very relaxed. As I struggle to untrain my right hand from moving all the time, I can literally feel the wrenching work of my brain synapses trying to remap. Between the new language, new focus on surfing, totally new musical patterns and physical skills to accompany them, my brain is getting a complete rewiring. It feels really cool though, like maybe it is making me smarter!
Dan and his friend Tiaraju are there, and Dan is a bit of a pandeiro master already. Oswoldo teaches me simple bass beats to lay down while he and Dan riff over them with a quickness and skill that could make your jaw drop. Putting in the same type of detail, intonation, variety, and shockingly rapid patterns that you might expect from a high flying Stevie Ray Vaughan solo. It was muito legal (very cool)
Tiaraju promised to teach me how to make a website, and Dan and Oswoldo introduced me to the Brazilian all you can eat buffet, thus effectively ending my nutrition problems for the remained of my stay in Brazil. These buffets are an institution in Brazil, but I am usually at the beach at lunch time and had not yet experienced them. You get your pick of a vast array of salads, rice, beans, meat, pasta, greens, veggies, fish, stew, and if you are lucky, barbecue. You pay by weight, but only up to a certain amount and after that its free! (suckers!) I got all I could possibly consume for the total price of 14 reals – about 7 bucks. Thank you brazil!
That night, on Dan’s invitation, I went to an African music show at a swanky club that was taken over for the evening by the local poncho-wearing world music lovers and beautiful West African dancers of Florianopolis (and nearly half our maracatu ensemble!). Beautiful music, really nice people, great conversation. My first time going out at night in the city! Thank god, I was starting to worry I was becoming boring.
The miserable weather continues, and it is rainy and cold all day. I go to the Gracie Barra gym for my on-land surf training, and meet the local women,s rugby team who just won the state finals. This gym is apparently the epicenter of accomplished athletes in Floripa. I also meet Aloha, who is a serendipitously named champion girl surfer who works and trains at the gym. Our super nice trainer, Eduardo, told her about my project and she’s interested in getting involved. SWEET!