Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Zen-Surfism made in Ipanema

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Surf appeared in Ipanema in the early sixties via the children of american executives sent over to Brazil. In a beach town where the best way for a male to show off by the sea was to do headstands or human pyramids with his mates, the novelty caused a stir.

The surfer pioneers mesmerized beach goers with their long boards and blond hair, and as any other colonizer they stood out and did were not interested in mixing with the locals. It didn’t take long for local rich kids to want to do the same and the first Brazilian surfers appeared. Even in its earliest days practicing the sport was a statement; in a decade marked by politics, dedicating one’s life to glide waves was looked down by the militant students as a symbol of Yankee imperialism. But its charm and beatify and the good looks of its practitioners only made it more popular among the girls and in consequence among the guys who wanted to impress them.

By the seventies the political fever had died down due not only to harsh repression but also due to the economic boom that gave the Brazilian middle class access to live in the expanding beach neighborhoods and to the state of the art comforts. Surf culture took over the youth with its sex, drugs rock and roll and gave the sport a bad name, this time not with the intellectuals but with the parents and the police of the better areas of Rio. Surfers with their long hair and their wild attitude shocked traditional households, and were considered as drug loving, virginity snatching thugs, which, to be honest, wasn’t far from the truth.

It was at this time that my generation appeared in the scene, the long-haired guys were older and more street wise than us and next to them most of us were skinny nerds although we aspired to be like them. Many ended up buying surfboards and joining the club so to speak but in most “respectable” households, such as mine, a surfing son would be a motive of gossip and of shame among friends. Kids like us had to be content with body surfing or body boarding. This reaction to surfing came to a point that it was forbidden at certain hours of the days to allow the beach to look decent and the sea to belong to the nice boys.

The mornings consisted of arriving at the beach at nine, after which surfing was banned, looking for the best spots for waves, riding them until two, after which surfing was allowed again, and only coming home for lunch. We took body surfing seriously and on the summer holidays we’d be at it almost on a daily basis and many became quite good. However, independent of if you surfed or body surfed, there was an important side effects of such a close relationship with the sea and its forces: an understanding and an integration to the environment that few other sports or activities could bring. As the seventies ended, the more radical surfers had landed in jail and/or away from the sport while the survivors and the new generations took the sport more seriously and pioneered in health food and in living a healthier and more holistic lifestyle. Surfing became more accepted and found itself mixed up in the new-age way of life ideology, and that is where the term Zen-Surfism appeared.

There was a good reason for this; along with fishermen any person who rode, or who rides, waves will know about the tides, about the effects of the different kind of winds, about the different currents and about different kinds of waves and how to deal with them, and brings the environment he lives in into his consciousness and his daily life. The forces of the sea have never been in or out of fashion, but they have always been an indomitable force that can only be mastered to a certain degree. Life, society, politics, the economy, the work place are also unpredictable seas and knowing how to ride their waves that they throw and how to stay in the tranquility beyond the surf is important.

Nowadays the sport is considered what it should be: a healthy activity and people of all classes practice it. All of them goes on in the most democratic leisure centre on earth: the beach where, for the initiated, the waves are its fun fair, all of this is for free and provided by nature and ultimately its maker. Join this aspect of Rio with the Tijuca Forest, the biggest urban one in the world, and one can realize why so many people of that town possess a subtle wisdom and knowledge of how to live that is difficult to find in other urban centers of the same size around the world.

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