I have been travelling through Brazil for nearly 6 months, surfing A LOT. But somehow, I have very few good images of me surfing. Whenever I am lucky enough to have a friend nearby who is kind enough to film me, the waves have been small or badly formed. I have been spending the last precious moments of my trip on the coast of Bahia, surfing my heart out in this warm tropical water, and I finally got some cool images of me catching some nice waves, from my awesome new friend, Itamar, the surf photographer of Itacare. Check it out!
My last day in Rocinha was my best yet. To start out the day with a bang, I had a surf lesson with the former world tour surfer and Brazilian women’s champion, Andrea Lopes. You can imagine how excited I was for this!
To make it even better, one of the older girls from the surf school Bia had asked to come with me to meet Andrea and surf with her. I was really excited that not just me, but also Bia too, was going to meet a great role model.
Andrea was super cool and fun and friendly, and I learned so much from her in one lesson that I wish I could have stayed and had 5 more. She filmed me a lot, and also surfed with me for a little while. She showed me just a couple times how to get into a better position for waves coming up, and somehow, whatever she did really clicked, and I felt like I finally understood a positioning concept that I had been trying to get for a long time. She pushed me hard and I was exhausted, and I thought our lesson was done when she called me out of the water to do a summary of the things I needed to work on, and then she said, ok 20 more minutes of
going hard. And I though, oh gosh, this is going to be tough. And then she said, you shouldn’t give 100 %, and I thought, oh phew, that’s good, I am really tired. And then she said, you should give 110%. Ha!! So I sucked it up, and went out, and surfed real hard for 20 minutes, and totally put my new positioning skills to work and caught a couple waves just perfect and a bunchmore less perfectly. Yay!!
After my surf lesson, I had a party on the beach with the kids from the surf school. We skimboarded and surfed and played in the white water and polished off many bags of candy and cookies. The surf was too big for the younger kids to surf, but I went in with Bocão. The waves looked exactly like they did on the Gabriel Medina day, and in an awesome marker of my progress, I did not feel afraid at all, and got myself into perfect position to catch 3 really nice
big rights. On the last one, which was the biggest and longest, the peanut gallery of local surf guys standing at the sea wall drinking beers cheered for me. I thought that Andrea Lopes would be proud.
That night was music class at the surf school, and Delão helped the kids write their own rap verses. The kids at the school really like this one hook of one of my surfing raps, which starts “Put your hands up.” For the past few weeks, when I see the kids on the streets in Rocinha or walking to the beach, they will start rapping “Put your hands up!” The only problem is that since the rest of the hook is in English, they have a hard time saying it. So tonight, Delão helped the kids write their own verses in Portuguese about their surfing life in Rocinha and we recorded it as a group. So fun! I rewrote my own verses to be about Rocinha, and I can’t wait to put it all together for
a music video!
After music class was my last samba rehearsal with the Rocinha Samba School. My friends came down to the beach and danced with me, and afterwards we had drinks and slacklined by my favorite beach kiosk in front of the surfing break.
Thank you Rocinha for an amazing stay. It hurts to leave, but this neighborhood will always hold a little piece of my heart, and I know I will come back here someday. Thanks especially to Bocão and the Rocinha Surf School for making me feel so welcome.
The Rocinha Surf School, where I have been spending a lot of time surfing with the local grommets, is actually more like a community center, hosting English classes, music classes, and assorted other programs and outings. Thursday nights at the surf school are my favorite, since all the kids come out en masse for music classes. For an hour and a half the place is full of kids learning how to play various percussion instruments or the guitar. Classes are taught by the remarkable Delão Allan, a super talented and big-hearted local rock star, who has a knack for song writing, and has helped the kids transform their ideas about surfing into some very catchy songs. Every class starts and ends with a song. Here’s one of my favorites – sung to the tune of one of last year’s biggest pop hits.
Perhaps the only thing worse for me than no waves, are waves that are too big for me to surf, because I just want so bad to be able to catch them, and sometimes – though I may ill-advisedly try – I just can’t.
This is what’s been happening for the last couple days. Two evenings ago, I got washed out on my evening surf at 2 different beaches. The white water was too churny, and once I finally got through, the waves were too scarey to try. Yesterday I tried again, once in the morning – big scarey closed out waves, terribly churny ocean, one or two courageous attempts ending in the washing machine – and again in the evening – supposedly easier break, but a failed paddle out through 200 meters of stormy surf. This is confidence dimming stuff
I really needed to catch a wave today.
I woke up early, the surf report declared decent conditions – tubes even, on the local beach. And it was sunny too! Somehow I have reached Rio during the summer monsoon, and this was literally the ONLY day of my stay that did not start out rainy and cloudy. The sun had never looked so good to me, and when I got down to the sea, it was sparkling blue. This is actually a big deal for Rocinha, since the beach also receives all the sewage from the favela, which washes into it during the storms. This being the first day without rain also meant that it was the first day of a blue (not gray) ocean that did not smell like sewage!
My friend Bocão, a surf pioneer whose Rocinha surf school is a community institution, joined me to enjoy the prime conditions. Only one problem. The waves are still huge. I am still nervous. It’s all the best surfers out in the water today. The 11 to 13 year old set who are my usual surf buddies are sitting out and admiring the show. I have not fared well in the washing machine-conditions in the white water the past few days and I am not looking forward to the paddle out in front of the crowd of onlookers. As Bocão runs in without a care, I stretch (i.e. stall) and suss out the best way to get through the breakers and avoid getting in the way of the many good surfers catching super fast long lefts across the water. One of the local regulars sees me – a jolly locuatious fellow, who like many surfers here seems to live only for the waves – and asks if I intend to go out. Yes, I say, with a look of fear, but I am a little worried that the waves are big for me. He assures me that I’ll be fine, and pats me on the back happily, clearly pleased that I am heading out. “You can set an example for all the girls,” he says.
OK. I think. This is good. Now I’ve got something to aim for. I am dreading my time in the
spin cycle, but I have to get out there just to show the girls. There are no female surfers out there today, and I’ve actually never seen any other women surfers at the beach besides a couple young girls who are learning how to stand on longboards at the surf school. If I am gonna be any sort of role model to them, I’ve got to try like hell today.
So I head back. I am duck diving, and making it through, but the surf is still a bit stormy, with a lot of waves refracting off the nearby rocks and causing lots of churning and really close intervals on the waves and pretty soon I am just getting pounded and gasping for air. But I think of the girls, and persist and make it out to the break. And of course it looks 3 times bigger than it did from shore, and no different than the scarey waves that have flummoxed me the last few days. What was I thinking?? Somehow the sunshine made it seem more inviting than the past few days (where the fast breaking/plunging half closed out, half tube waves were accompanied by cold winds, ominous skies, and downpours. ) But it’s the same stuff, just in the sun, and I am scared.
Bocão keeps calling me over to where he is. I don’t want to be there, because when the 8 foot sets come through I will get pounded, and I am mad at myself for being scared of 8 foot sets right now, but for some reason I am. And this is the weird thing about fear. Sometimes you are scared of things that weren’t scarey before. In my mind I have never been in surf this big, but then again, I think of other days where I was in surf almost this big, and doing really well. And while this makes me feel frustrated, it doesn’t make me less afraid.
Bocão is catching a zillion waves, and I feel like I am no less scared and only more frustrated. Every now and then Bocão will say, this one, this one Mira. And I look up and see an enormous collasal peak coming towards me, and instead of turning to paddle into it like a good brave fearless surfer, I make like a scaredy cat and hussle over it before it breaks. Then Bocão tells me the waves are not that big, which makes me feel even worse. This is getting me nowhere.
But here’s the thing, if you bob around like a bouey long enough – and I bobbed around for a very long time– eventually boredom sets in. And boredom, amazingly, can trump fear. You start to be willing to take risks just to break the monotony of sitting on your board. So finally – after Bocão has already gone in — I try going for it a couple times – I paddle hard and pull out of a couple closeouts, and finally make 2 solid attempts on good fast breaking waves, which end in 2 solid wipe outs. I am working hard though, and making the most out of my time, but inevitably I end up on the inside of a big set, and get washed through the tumbler onto the beach. I am out of breath, and frustrated, and tired, so I stumble out of the water panting, and rest on shore – trying to just be satisfied with trying, but I am watching all these guys on the water catching these waves like its nothing, and doing crazy spins off the lip, and I feel like and idiot.
The frustrating thing is that right now, it’s not really my goal as a surfer to be catching ever larger waves, but rather to be working on turning and trimming ON the wave. I decide to take it easy on myself and head to another beach where the waves should be very small (according to the report) and I can just get some wave time under my belt and raise my confidence. I start packing up my board getting ready to catch the bus, thinking I probably shouldn’t have even come to this beach at all today in the first place. But then something happens which proves me wrong.
On the beach a crowd is gathering. I can’t really see what’s going on, but Bocao catches my eye and calls me over. And Oh. My. God. Who should be at the center of the crowd but Gabriel Medina – who is, only, the 2nd ranked surfer IN THE WORLD! This is the young phenom who recently out-ranked Kelly Slater (probably the greatest surfer who ever lived), and took the world by storm when he was just 17 in the world tour. – He’s been surfing in the water this whole time (I wonder if everyone else knew but me) and has just gotten out, and there are about 20 giggling kids and another 20 giggling adult men gathered round him shaking his hand and taking pictures. He is a super good sport and gives lots of attention to everyone (he even gives his board strap to one of my young friends from the surf school). He takes a group shot with the entire surfing population of Rocinha who shout “Medina” instead of “cheese”, and I get a chance to tell him that I was there in San Francisco when he won that section of the World Tour in November 2011. Wow!!! Gabriel Medina.
It turns out he’s been there with his whole crew of surfing buddies who are now getting out of the water to join him as he prepares to go. There are a lot of them!!. So now I realize that half the guys who were in the water this whole time were Gabriel Medina’s super high level surfing friends, and one of them was the number 2 surfer in the world! And suddenly I am a little less hard on myself for not being a better surfer today.
But I still have to catch some waves! I NEED to catch some waves. So I eat a hamburger and take the bus down to another beach, that I’ve heard has a protected break and gentle waves that I hope will be good for practicing my turns. When I get there, I realize that I may have overcompensated – the waves here are infrequent, closed out, and teeny, and the water is crowded, shoulder to shoulder, with the veritable army of small children on body boards. I spend an hour fighting 8 year olds for 1 foot waves,, and finally throw in the towel on my intended surfing goals. Instead I channel my inner Buddha, and sip a fresh coconut while enjoying the vibe of a crowded Brazilian beach with 1000 child body-boarders. But when I leave, I am still feeling that deep-seeded need to catch waves with an accompanying frustration that I haven’t been able to catch any good ones for several days.
I think I may have failed at some aspect of self-care/hydration, because by the time I get back to Rocinha, I am tired, dehydrated, and a bit nauseous. I eat a big meal which only seems to wipe me out more and stumble back to my house for a long nap. I wake up at 5:20pm, and the sun is still shining beautifully – still no rain! I am still feeling frustrated that on this day of perfect sun and good surf conditions, I have not caught a single wave worth mentioning. I decide that I must try one more time. With my nausea only half gone – I head slowly down to the beach one last time. Am I nuts? What am I actually trying to accomplish here? I ask myself as I walk down the long shady boulevard that connects the favela to the beach. I am not sure, but I think it has something to do with beating my fear. I pass a huge group of kids heading back from the beach to the neighborhood. I think they are part of an afterschool program as they are being led by an older guy who seems to be a teacher, and in the back of the long file is another young woman who seems to be some sort of supervisor. As I walk past them, I look at the little girls, and also think that maybe it has something to do with the thing that guy said to me this morning, that I can be an example to the girls. I really want to be able to show them that a girl can surf these waves too. As I reach the end of the line of kids, the young woman who is supervising them looks at my surfboard, gives me big smile of encouragement, and a thumbs up. Yup. That was all I needed. No need to question myself, I am doing the right thing.
So I get to the beach, and the waves are a little smaller than the morning as I had hoped but still have some force. There’s something out there I can catch. I know it. So I paddle out through the breakers – it still sucks, but I panic less and trust myself more this time even though I am way more tired. The water is stormier and less predictable due to the later afternoon wind. The local shredders have found a place where they can take some big late forming lefts coming in. Those lefts out there are pretty big, but there are some other peaks that show up a little more inside that I think I can do. There’s a couple guys gathering around them and I am having a hard time getting into the right spot to get preference on these waves. But finally, after quite a while trying, I get my chance, I see it coming, it’s breaking fast and breaking to the right, but I am ready, and I paddle like hell, stand up quick, and get a nice hefty drop down the shoulder, and manage to steer onto another swell that’s intersecting my wave to keep on my ride.
Not the best wave of my life, but it was a plenty good one, and oooooooh how sweet it felt. I paddled in after that. The sun was going down, and I was still dehydrated, and I realized that one wave was all I needed, just one good wave, just to know I could do it. Just to know that I could stick with something till I got it. And yeah, to set an example for the girls. There were still a lot of them on the beach, and I hope some of them were watching.
One thing I try to do every day, or almost every day, is practice freestyling when I am walking around or waiting for buses. I decided to record this one (which essentially means it is not a freestyle), but it is more or less in the form that it came out of my mouth the first time. The beat belongs to M.I.A. and her record company.
The other day there was literally not a wave in the ocean. So I got a lot of work done on writing and video editing, and decided to spend the afternoon exploring some of Rio’s land-based wonders. I think one of the reasons I love Rio so much is the strong presence of nature amidst the buzz of the city. The city is sprawled out around towering rock formations covered in jungles. I decided to hike up Pedra da Gávea a huge monolith that stands on the western side of our local beach, São Conrado.
I had only a sketchy idea of where the trailhead was, and I was getting a very late start, with only about 3 hours before sunset. Perhaps not the best set up, but I was feeling optimistic. I got off the bus around where I thought the trailhead might be and started asking people on the street if they could point me
in the right direction. Apparently the hike was not as popular as I had assumed, since the first 5 people had no idea where I should go. Then I finally happened upon a guy coming home from work who was able to give me very detailed directions to the trailhead, but, he warned me, the trail was a bit tricky to follow and had a lot of confusing turnoffs. He suggested another hike, up the neighboring, and almost equally tall, Pedra Bonita. The trail was much more straightforward. But, he said, it’s going to be dark very soon, did I really want to do it. I said, I am prepared to run and I flexed my muscles to show him that I was strong and ready! He laughed and said, OK.
I had to take another van to the trailhead, but he said it was the same van he took to get home so he could tell me where to get off. Perfect! We got on the next van, and had a nice chat. Turned out, my friendly direction giver Wallace was also really into hiking and mountaineering and mountain biking and just about every other sport so we spent the ride sharing outdoor sports stories! By the time we reached the trailhead, Wallace decided that he would do the hike with me – which was awesome, since I was new to the
area and its always nice to have company and Wallace was really cool. I was a little nervous because in the course of our conversation I had discovered that Wallace was one of those uber fit people who does 10 mile super vertical hikes in about 2 hours. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to keep up, but he took it easy on me, and while I was huffing and puffing, we managed to maintain conversation (in Portuguese!) the whole way up while still making good time, and got amazing views of all of Rio, with all of Rocinha and Sao Conrado below us, and the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in the distance.
We made it back down to the bus stop just as the sun set. Another perfect Rio adventure and how cool to be able to share it with a new friend and kindred spirit.
The other day as I was trudging up the hill in the rain (it has rained just about every day since I arrived), I looked up and saw a billboard with photographs of people in brightly colored carnival costumes. From what I could tell, the billboard was advertising the weekly rehearsals of the Rocinha Samba school, suggesting that we could all come “experience carnival ourselves” on Thursday nights from 8 to 10.
Rio is home to many Samba schools, nearly every neighborhood has one ans ROcinha is no exception. I had read in my guidebook that its very fun to attend the rehearsals of the samba schools as Carnaval draws near. So I made a mental note to try to check out this rehearsal on Thursday.
The rehearsal was held right next to the surf school so I headed over there a little after 8pm with my roommate Charlenes, but it was totally deserted. As I wandered around in circles wondering what to do, another car pulled up and a woman jumped out and poked her head into the deserted rehearsal hall. I asked her if she knew where the rehearsal might be, and she said, “Oh, if they’re not here, they must be at the beach.” At the beach!? Cool…. And of course, this being Brazil, and everyone being incredibly friendly and fun-loving, she said, “Hey come in the car with us, we’re heading over.” So Charlene and I jumped in the car, and met our new friends for the evening, Wagner, Paula, and Lourdes who all worked in a beauty salon nearby. We got to the beach just as the rain was starting again, and as far as I could tell it was deserted. But then I looked far down the road, and in the distance I could see bright lights and hear some distant drumming. It’s down there Paula said. So we hurried down the street, and soon came face to face with the biggest, most frenetic and exciting traveling parade of Samba I have ever encountered. Literally hundreds of people are drumming extremely complicated samba rhythms in perfect harmony. It is impossible to describe the power and such a thing – so much sound, so much precision, so much swing and thump. 30 enormous bass drums. 30 medium bass drums, 30 snares, 30 little tambors, a random crew of pots and pans hitters, an army of shakers, and a vanguard of cuica players. The sound literally makes you drunk with excitement. And these drummers are only part of the action. They are playing in unison with a few amplified guitars and cavaquinhos (a mini samba guitar) and singers who are travelling behind them, on top of a bus covered in loud speakers. The singers are a crew of burly almost frat-boy like Dudes, who appear to have consumed an entire refrigerator of Monster energy juice, as they jump around with seemingly undiminishing excitement, literally shouting the samba songs into their microphones.
The musicians are only the core of the parade. It extends far out in front of them, starting with the old ladies, the Baianas, dressed in white dresses with white head scarves, who dance around gleefully as if they were 50 years younger than they are. Then the community – this is just hundreds of people who chose to march with the samba school, and get to dress up in costume and learn the official Rocinha samba song. Old people young people, rich people, poor people, little people, big people. They all look fit to burst with happiness as they dance down the street singing along to the band. Then there are the passistas – these people are my heros. These are the dancers, both male and female who move their hips, butts, and feet at the speed of light in the quintessential Brazilian samba dance. It seems that only a country as vivacious, fit, and well-coordinated as Brazil could handle having a national dance that was so damn hard to do. They are mesmerizing, the men in white pants and sparkly shirts and shoes and fedora hats, the women in very very little dresses, high heeled shoes, flicking their hair about flirtatiously (the hair flicking seems to be a very important part of rio samba). Then there is a beautiful lady in a sparkly dress – I think she might be the queen of the passista’s who gets her own special place, processing and dancing in front of the bateria of drummers.
As you can imagine, I am pretty much losing my mind with happiness. The sidewalk is full of enthusiastic onlookers, many of whom are samba dancing with similar skill to the passistas. I decide that perhaps one of my alternate life goals is to become a passista and I start dancing along trying desperately to get my feet and butt to wiggle back and forth as fast as theirs do. And then again, because Brazil is so awesome, everyone is super nice and encouraging, and all these people who dance 100 times better than me are taking me by the hand and showing me the moves and twirling me around. This is perhaps the most exciting energy filled event I have ever been to, and here’s the crazy thing, this is just a REHEARSAL. My new friends Paula, Lourdes, and Wagner assure me that this does not even COMPARE to the real thing at Carnaval! I can’t believe it!!! I wonder if my body can physically handle how exciting Carnaval is going to be.
After the parade ends, Charlene and I spend the next two hours hanging out at one of the beach kiosks with our new pals, hearing stories of carnival and life at the beauty salon where they work. Finally sore-footed and exhausted, we head back up the hill to our little house in Rocinha, feeling a little bit more like part of the neighborhood.