I recently moved my accommodations from my friend Andrew’s floor to Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro, nestled on the steep mountain sides around the great rain forest-covered monolith, Dos Irmãos. I came here because I had contacts with the Rocinha Surf School, which doubles as a mini community center for local kids. Since the moment I arrived, I have LOVED IT. It is one of the most vibrant and exciting places I have ever lived. I don’t remember feeling this way about a neighborhood since living in Fort Green, Brooklyn. Every time I step out of the door, I am surrounded by life- music, card games, business transactions, budding romances, arguments. Because Brazilian people tend to be really friendly, I have many serendipitous conversations each day.
The whole neighborhood winds its way on twisting roads, and staircases, up a very steep mountain. There ar
e very few official streets, just endless labyrinths of sidelanes, and walking paths. You can’t feel hemmed in or too claustrophobic though, because every 20 meters or so, you are afforded a sweeping view of the valley and the majestic Dos Irmãos mountain.
The houses are so close that all our lives seem communally joined. My bedroom window is about 6 feet away from my neighbor’s living room window, and their 9 year old son often leans out and chats with me from across the lane. Another nextdoor neighbor plays samba music at extraordinary volumes at just about all hours of the day, and sings along in a beautiful husky voice. At around
2:30 am on many nights, I am privy to a loud love conversation/argument conducted by an older man who comes and shouts at the window of his ex-girlfriend, who appears to be spurning him. Ancient old rainforest remnant trees stand in the middle of impossibly small lanes, and every evening the sky fills with kites, flown by just about every little kid from every rooftop, corner, and balcony window.
One of my favorite people in Rocinha is Bocão, who founded the Rocinha Surf School. He is the ultimate soul surfer, who has translated all the kindness, openness, patience, dedication, and high-spiritedness of his surfing soul into maintaining a beautiful community space for the neighborhood kids for the last 24 years. He’s fixed up dozens of old beat up surf boards that people have donated, and basically keeps a free surfboard locker for all the kids of Rocinha who want to come by. He also
organizes English classes, music classes, and other enrichment activities for the kids nearly every evening of the week and has regular surf lessons during the school year.
My favorite thing to do in Rocinha is head down to the beach with a gaggle of kids from the surf school. The beach is only a 10 minute walk down the street, and on sunny days IT IS JUMPING!! Other beaches in Rio are dominated by beautifully adorned and reclining women of leisure, or whole family’s sipping fresh coconut and playing beach tennis, or perfectly tanned volleyball teams. Rocinha’s beach, São Conrado, is ruled entirely by kids. They are everywhere – from 5 year olds to 19 year olds – boogie boarding, building sand castles, flinging themselves around in the breakers, body surfing, falling off long
boards, shredding on short boards. The teenagers make out under beach umbrellas while the little kids bury each other in the sand. I am impressed by how self-sufficient they are, in often very rough water, with little to no adult super vision.
I have been catching small waves in really crowded waters, occasionally colliding with little kids flying out of nowhere on boogie boards. My first day at the surf school, I rapped for the kids while one of them played a beat on a drum that was just lying around. Afterwards, they took turns making their own verses about surfing at São Conrado, with two girls leading the charge. Life in Rocinha is definitely off to a good start!