Located in Rio de Janeiro, nestled in the valley between the imposingly beautiful peaks of Dos Irmãos and Gávea lays the infamous sprawling Favela of Rocinha, home to some of the most talented bodyboarders in Brasil. Despite the numerous challenges associated with the Favela life nearby Praia São Conrado has become a positive escape and a hotbed for talent for the bodyboarders of Rocinha. This is their story. This is their life.
The Favela Life
The Favela (Brasilian slum) of Rocinha is located in the breathtakingly beautiful and vibrant coastal city of Rio de Janeiro and it is the biggest and most famous Favela in Brasil. In fact Rocinha (the Rock) is actually the biggest Favela in the Latin Americas with possible population figures ranging from anywhere between 100,000 and 300,000 people jammed sardine like within this unforgiving valley.
To understand life in the Favela one must first understand the economic situation and intense inequality that exists within Brasil. Statistics paint a damning picture of the Brasil's extreme income inequality. For instance, Brasil’s six richest men have the same wealth as the poorest 50% of the population while the country's richest 5% have the same income as 95% of the country....disturbingly mind blowing figures indeed. Despite Brasil's enormous economy the country exhibits some of the most extreme levels of income inequality in the modern world today. Over 10% of Brasil's population are currently living well below the poverty line. Favelas currently house over 6% of Brasil's population while the 1000 Favelas of Rio de Janeiro are home to well over 24% of the cities population. 1.5 million of Rio's residents know nothing more than the Favela life.
Rocinha is unfortunately best known for it's violent and turbulent history and less than a decade ago it was an area that most non residents feared to tread. Rocinha holds key strategic importance in Rio's thriving drug trade. If you control Rocinha you control the entire South Zone of Rio, one of the wealthiest areas in Brasil and thus not surprisingly one of the lucrative markets for the narcotic trade. The rich pay the drug dealer but it is the poor who pay the real price. However, largely thanks to a Police led Pacification process in 2011 coupled with a gang truce relative stability and security was openly welcomed within this sprawling urban labyrinth in recent years.
Unfortunately this peaceful period was to come to an abrupt end in mid 2017 when two local allied gangs who controlled the Favela broke out into vicious and violent war on the streets of Rocinha battling for control. Soon the Favela was filled with the hail of bullets and the splattering of blood as ruthless gangsters armed with a vast array of exotic assault rifles warred on the streets of Rocinha. Sadly once forgotten themes of death and violence had returned to The Rock once again. In fact the situation soon became so extreme that the local powers that be were forced to intervene in order to stop the violence. An unprecedented move took place as 900 military soldiers supported by army tanks were mobilized to take and patrol the streets of Rocinha as a temporary measure to quell the extreme levels of violence that had broken out. [Continue below]
Escapism in the Ocean
Despite the endless challenges and difficulties that the residents of Rocinha face on a daily basis many outsiders do not realise that this close community is actually in close proximity to some of the best high performance waves in Rio de Janeiro and is subsequently home to some of the best bodyboarding talent in the city if not Brasil. Located less than ten minutes walking distance from the chaotic streets of Rocinha, quietly nestled between the towering mountain peaks of Dos Irmãos (Two Brothers) and Gávea lies the beautiful beach of São Conrado. Praia São Conrado regularly dishes up some of the best high performance waves in the city in the form of powerful wedge peaks and slabbing barrels.
It should therefore come as no surprise that this spot is a bodyboarding stronghold and it is the second home to some of the best bodyboarders in the country who live and breathe this amazing wave. Any visitor to this beach will mostly likely have the pleasure of viewing some high performance bodyboarding as these local rippers take flight with an array of finely tuned aerial maneuvers. Despite many of the challenges associated with the Favela life especially the recent spate of heavy violence that has plagued Rocinha the bodyboarders here are very happy, passionate, resilient and a tight knit bunch. The bodyboarders here have learned how to use the sport of bodyboarding and the ocean environment as a positive influence and an escape from the many negatives associated with the challenging Favela life. I think this is a great testament to the positive energy and healing power associated with the ocean. [Continue below]
I actually spent two months living in Rocinha while teaching in an amazing local charity called Project Favela (read about my time at Project Favela here). While living in the Favela I was fortunate enough to experience the amazing waves of nearby São Conrado and to rub shoulders with the local bodyboarders surfing there. With the help of local legend Alessandro Leroy I was able to conduct a number of interviews with some of Rocinha's best bodyboarders. As they say never judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes so please read on to gain a rare insight into what life and surfing is like for some of the residents of Rocinha, all in their very own words. [Continue below]
The Bodyboarders of Rocinha
Name: Gabriel Popó.
Age: 19 years old.
Achievements: 30 titles between Regional and National.
How do you find life in Rocinha? Hi my name is Gabriel Popó. I am 19 years old. Life in Rocinha... on one side life is good and on the other side life can be bad. The good side is that I am only 10 minutes from beach, doing the things I love. If I did not know the Bodyboard I do not know where I would be in life. The sport opened my mind. I can be surfing and having fun despite many things being wrong in life in Rocinha. Here in Rocinha bad things can often happen with young people of my age but fortunately for me it was different. Despite this Rocinha is a good place to live, it is a very beautiful place and it is located in the South Zone of Rio near several beaches. [Continue below]
What do you feel about the recent outbreak of heavy violence in Rocinha? This violence in Rocinha where I live... I did not think it is cool. On the day of my Championship I almost did not go because I could not leave the house. The situation was very dangerous to go outside. So now I leave early to train. I'm afraid of something worse happening. I have many family members who live near an area of high risk and this worries me a lot. I pray to God to protect me and to protect my family!
What is it like to be a bodyboarder in Rio de Janeiro? Being a Bodyboard in Rio is good but it has few opportunities. Rio has young people like me who are very devoted and very good in the sport but do not have opportunities that they deserve! I love to Bodyboard! I do not give up on my dream! [Continue below]
Name: Erik Silvino.
Age: 19 years old.
Achievements: 34 titles between Regional and National. Professional Athlete who came from Ceará to live in Rocinha.
How do you find life in Rocinha? Defining it in a nutshell, it's a great blessing! I really love living in this wonderful community but of course the routine of a "favelado" is not easy. The Favela is great although it is tiring the journey from home to the beach. With little financial resources life can be complicated but to me everything is wonderful regardless of the sewage that ends at sea and the organized crime of the Favela. We live in difficult times but I hope in time everything will become more stable and safe.
What do you feel about the recent outbreak of heavy violence in Rocinha? I have never seen anything like it in my life. In the little time I have lived in the Rocinha area I have witnessed shootings and clashes between the police and bandits. It is something unimaginable until you see it with your own eyes and hear it with your own ears. There are days when it is hard to get out of the house because there is a confrontation. When possible I spend the day outside the community chasing after my goals. I return later when things have calmed down during the day. We all hope that everything can calm down here, the community is in the hands of God! [Continue below]
What is it like to be a bodyboarder in Rio de Janeiro? Being a bodyboarder in Rio is like being a bodyboarder anywhere in Brazil. With the lack of investment in athletes everything is difficult for those who want to continue in the sport. The only difference in Rio is being able to train in the good waves that the state provides. São Conrado is without a doubt the best peak in Rio to practise bodyboarding. [Continue below]
Name: Pedro Henrique.
Age: 23 years old.
Achievements: 31 titles between Regional, National and Local.
How do you find life in Rocinha? I think here in Rocinha, it is a good place to live but at the same time it is very insecure with so much violence that is happening from time to time.
What do you feel about the recent outbreak of heavy violence in Rocinha? It is difficult to talk about Rocinha in times of war. We must be careful what we say for our own safety. Rocinha is a beautiful Favela full of potential athletes for sport.
What is it like to be a bodyboarder in Rio de Janeiro? It is very difficult to be a bodyboarder in Brazil. The country is in crisis and we have very few sponsors sponsoring our sport and athletes. I am motivated every day to save money so I can travel to Europe. This is my dream. Visiting Portugal is a dream that I have to live. [Continue below]
Name: Thiago Silva.
Age: 15 years old.
Achievements: Quinto Colocado Stage Pro Junior, Itacoatiara Pro Junior Champion and 20 titles between Regional and Local.
How do you find life in Rocinha? Life in Rocinha is a bit confused because of the clashes between rival gangsters or police.
What do you feel about the recent outbreak of heavy violence in Rocinha? It is a horrible thing. You never know the time that the clashes can occur between the gangs but regardless life goes on and people still must venture to work in order to put food on the table!!! [Continue below]
What is it like to be a bodyboarder in Rio de Janeiro? Being a bodyboarder in Rio is something very good but I think that big companies should open their eyes and support the sport and athletes. Many athletes struggle to buy equipment for practice or pay the expenses to travel for competition! [Continue below]
Name: Alessandro Leroy.
Age: 24 years old.
Achievements: Free Surfer and Video Maker
How do you find life in Rocinha? Life in Rocinha is great. I live near the beach and I can be in the sea every day doing what I love. When things in the neighbourhood are not right then life is not so great. Regardless it is good to live here as it is close to everything. I can easily split my day between college, beach and work.
What do you feel about the recent outbreak of heavy violence in Rocinha? I feel very sad, because living with this violence is very bad. People can not work. I have times that I have left home afraid of confrontations but things will improve. We cannot lose faith.
What is it like to be a bodyboarder in Rio de Janeiro? Being a bodyboarder in Rio and Brazil is very difficult. The country is very expensive with high taxes. Many great international bodyboarding brands struggle to enter the Brasilian market. It is difficult for them to be successful in Brasil. This creates a great problem for the state of the sport here as many potential athletes are without sponsorship and the financial support required to continue in the sport. Unfortunately in the case of Rocinha many then seek a life in crime as means to survive.