Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “surf”

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.

Catching a crocodile (Pegando Jacare)

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Rio de Janeiro is, among other things, a surfing town. Don’t underestimate this statement: Rio has produced several world champions and Brazil is considered on of the world’s strengths in the sport. It all began in Ipanema in the sixties and the seventies. Although before surfing was imported from the USA by American expats there were other more indigenous forms of riding waves.

Catching crocodiles, pegar Jacare, means riding waves without the help of a board and it never fell into the same category as surf or body surf. As it did not have any expensive accessories attached to it, there were no commercial interests in promoting it so it never has been considered cool, although back in the day it was “the” way to affirm one’s masculinity on days with high waves. Nowadays there are many surfers from the favelas, but when surf arrived in Rio the rudimentary sport was a substitute for those who couldn’t afford a board. In some cases it went beyond the economic limitations: it was the best way to feel the power of nature on the body and to test one’s courage in the water.

When the red flags were up there would be always some crazy guys who went out there and, as the photographer of the picture above, they held everyone’s breath on the crowded sand. Some unaware tourists could try to join them and but not knowing the secrets of the currents and of the waves they would end up giving work to the life guards.

From those days crocodile catchers share with Rio’s surfers the glory of ruling Rio’s waves.

Pedra do Arpoador

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If there is one place that can be pointed as the source of Rio’s cool, this is the Arpoador.

The huge rock is situated in the beginning of Ipanema and means harpoon thrower in Portuguese; it is named like this because fishermen actually hunted down the whales that roamed the coast of Rio de Janeiro from there.

In the late fifties and early sixties surfboards started arriving in Ipanema and the best waves were by the rock; it became the first hangout point for young people bearing looks that would be recognizable in this century; long hair, surfer trunks and bikinis.

In the mid seventies a Pier was constructed one kilometre away and stole the best waves and the coolness away.. Also, around the same time, buses started coming from the Northern Zone to the Southern Zone’s beaches and the final stop was close to the Arpoador. Slowly but surely it became the area where the “invaders” went and an uncool place to hang out.

The early eighties witnessed a revival of the Arpoador when the group Asdrubal Trouxe o Trombone (see my article about them) set up the Circo Voador (the Flying Circus); a venue that was to be the cradle of modern Brazilian rock.

Those days were short lived and the city council closed it down because of complaints about the noise at night.

In the nineties a skateboarding park was constructed next to it making it cool once again. The beach spot however remained a no-go area for the golden youth of the Southern Zone until recently when apparently it has revived as a trendy hang out point ( I haven’t lived in Rio for more than 20 years now so it’s just hear say,… can’t confirm it)

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The importance of surf culture in Rio de Janeiro

The military dictatorship was in its peak and prisons, exiles and censorship were part of the country’s day to day life.  The left had been decimated, or at least silenced and there was no outlet for protest. Meanwhile the surf culture was growing in the vacuum left behind the shutting down of the left in Ipanema, a neighborhood known for its leftist residents. This culture had been imported from California and been introduced to Rio de Janeiro’s middle class by students of the American School of Rio de Janeiro.

So were the surfers really relevant? Did anything they say really count for anything?

Most of the Brazilian intelligentsia would say no. This was an insignificant byproduct of a repressed era.

Well, it wasn’t. First of all it did not come from the military apparatus, nor was it well  seen by the American mainstream. In the Coastal towns of the US the kids who were making it the king of sports among the youth came from the lower classes and were dropouts specially in the late sixties and early seventies.In this environment, being a long haired surfer was being against the establishment. The anti Viet-Nam war protests were at their peak, and protesting in the seventies was not theoretical, it was about taking on the mainstream by actions. The kids who were dropouts were closer to home, they could be anyone’s kid who was engaging into something outside the system, it could happen in any family, it was the real thing…

The generations who came after the surfers can still relate to them and the freedom that they represented. They sought a personal detachment from the logic that everything in life should be attached to a production system that has profit as an ultimate goal.

Surf culture in Rio was to give birth to the rock movement of the 8O’s that took the country by storm. For that generation they were like the stronger older brothers who told parents to shut up, who broke ties and who were radically alive. These were the precursors of Brazilian Punk, but healthier, more charismatic, sexual, and less hateful than their British counterparts.

If no one liked them in the middle class, it is because everyone wanted to be like them but did not have the inner strength to do so. In Rio some were spoiled rich kids, but  this group certainly were not accepted into the surfing elite.One you had to earn their way into being respected by being good at the sport and by tough in the water. They were not dumb blondes, they were just too big for this world.

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