Favela Reflections Of Dirt and Gold

The story of Adriano de Souza

adriano-tarasAdriano de Souza. Photo: Peter Taras

Intro by Peter Taras. Story by Nick Carroll.

I wanted Adriano to lose. Call it patriotism.

Actually, don’t call it that. I’m American, and as badly as I wanted there to be some red, white and blue hopeful to challenge Adriano to a dual, it wasn’t going to happen. There would be no western movie scene where Kelly would part the shores of Pipeline on horseback, with a step-up instead of a pistol. And now, looking back, I can remember why I wanted Adriano to lose so bad.

It was the passion. Not only of every Brazilian Tour guy, but of what seemed like the entire nation of Brazil, who all happened to be on the beach at Pipeline that morning supporting Adriano. Brazilian national anthem chants filled every bit of air between sand molecules and acai bowls. It made me feel weird.

Was it rude? It felt rude at the time, and as every second trickled down table manners continued to get sloppier. I remember thinking that I was the lone America as I sat in the stands of the WSL media area. My Brazilian peers and I were packed tight like sardines, bobbing and weaving in sweaty unison, texting, screaming, and scream-texting. Except for me. I was silent. And then Adriano was crowned World Champ.

Shortly after, I left the beach with the sore losers, the 10% of crowd that was rooting for something else. One lady turns to me, looks me in the eye and says, “Worst…Day…Ever.” I heard a man mumble, “This is wrong. This is the worst thing ever to happen to professional surfing.” It made me feel even weirder.

At that moment, I saw the ugliness of fandom. Where are we? Not Chelsea vs. Manchester United. Adriano just achieved his lifelong goal and I feel upset about it? That just ain’t right.

Weeks later, I was back in the office editing photos and I stumbled upon a folder named “Adriano Brazil 2009.” That’s when the knife twisted and humility filled my heart. The folder was filled with photojournalism moments from when then Editor Travis Ferre and I sent Nick Carroll with photographers Steve Sherman and DJ Struntz to write a piece about Adriano’s rise to the WCT. Nick’s words followed, which was a good reminder to myself, and our surf world, just where Adriano’s passion stems from.

IMG_3089Photo: Sherm

“This is the best place in the world,” Adriano de Souza half-says, half-breathes, with just a tiny bit of irony in the tone.

Adriano is sitting on a stone wall overlooking the rip bowl beachbreak at Guaruja, Brazil’s main beach — the place where he learned to surf, the place where, right now, some local grom is busy savaging a little right re-form. Bang! bang! bang! goes the grom, and the wave finally sorta gives up and whimpers into the mouth of the rip. The grom is already sprinting back out for another one. It’s about his 50th wave of the past half-hour.

Guaruja’s the closest surf zone to the city of Sao Paulo, 50 minutes away by car. It’s gritty, grimy, shiny in some places and crumbling in others. The water’s dark and silty with fine, gray granite sand and the brownish wash-through from Santos, the big port town just to the south. A hundred huge apartment blocks line the arc of beach.

There goes the grom in the right rip bowl, smashing away again.

Behind us, farther up the stone wall, are lurking a few suspect-looking blokes — victims of Guaruja’s unemployment-triggered crime problem, created a few years ago when all the tourism development briefly hit a financial wall.

Then there’s Adriano. A familiar figure but a very different one, too. He’s chasing something huge, something no Brazilian beachbreak kid has ever achieved. If he manages it, the effect of a world champion from beyond the USA mainland/Australia/Hawaii nexus could change the surfing world in ways we haven’t even guessed. Truly, it would jar something loose — something that’s been wedged in place now for longer than people in Brazil have been surfing.

He’s the Hope. But where does Adriano get his own hope?

Adriano De SouzaPhoto: DJ Struntz

Six days earlier, Adriano is twirling his sharp little black car around another bend as we hurtle over the coastal road near Ubatuba, which is nearly choked by the easternmost tendrils of Brazil’s fabled rainforest. The surf up here is way better than anything I’d been led to believe about Brazil. Think Jalama on acid…or Salt Creek on its very best day, with toucans screaming in the dense subtropical foliage and nobody on the clean, white-sand beach except a couple of dogs.

We’re hanging with a little crew: Luis “Pinga” Campos — Oakley’s regional team manager — who’s known Adriano since the kid was nine years old; Caio Ibelli, 15-year-old supergrom on the rise; and Jadson Andre, the always smiling, super-loose goofyfoot who’s pushing into the top layer of the WQS.

Then there’s Adriano’s girlfriend, Claudia Gonsalves, a slightly built, fine-featured blonde girl who’s traveling with her very own video guy. “Reality TV show,” she says. What, including Adriano? “No, just me,” she grins. “It’s the other way around! Normally it’s all about him.”

“Yep, this time I’m just the boyfriend,” says Adriano.

On the way to our session, we stop to pick up Zecao, an old surfing compadre, who lives on a piece of land that’s been made part of a national park. “It’s hard to buy land here ’cause you don’t know if you can build on it or not,” says Adriano.

Would he buy land here, anyway? “No,” he says, “not enough people. I like a lot of people around.”

Adriano De SouzaPhoto: DJ Struntz

The surfing dream might well be about solitude, man-alone-with-his-thoughts and all that, but surfing itself, the craving to do it well, springs from the mass of humanity — the energy, the turbulence, the desire, the hope. Adriano is a city boy — but not knowing Brazil, I don’t yet know what that means.

We end up at a small beach called Trindade, where 3-foot waves are wedging off a large granite outcropping. The sand is clean and fine-grained. Adriano goes out and straight away pulls a big reverse.

He stands 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs just under 140 pounds. His size makes him look younger than he is, which is still pretty young (he’s 22) for a pro surfer. But Adriano thinks a little older. He analyzes. He has to. The typical Top 10 pro these days is taller, heavier, and stands with feet and knees relatively closely aligned, weighting with the upper body and adjusting through the hips, knees and ankles. Adriano can’t work his smaller, shorter frame to the same effect; he’s developed a wider stance, spreading the effort across his board and using the rocker and fins to work up sudden, wicked bursts of speed.

That speed, along with his quick reflexes, was what caused Kelly Slater to bet on him to win the WCT in his first tour year (2006). Too bad Slater won instead.

Adriano was always pretty sure he could be a pro surfer. It wasn’t a dream — or at least, not a fantasy. “Pinga had coached some WCT guys, so he knew what you needed, and he said, ‘You can do it! Just stay focused, stay focused’. I was lucky I had the support early to do that.”

IMG_3305Photo: Sherm

At the age of 11 Adriano won the school’s championship, kind of like the NSSA, which came with a free ticket to Hawaii. So he boarded a plane to the Islands…by himself.

Think about THAT one for a moment.

“I didn’t know English, so the stopovers were really difficult,” he says mildly. “The plane went to Dallas, then L.A., then Hawaii. When I got off in Dallas, I thought I must be in Hawaii already. This guy kept trying to shove me back on the plane, and I was, like, ‘No! I’m IN Hawaii!’” Eventually he made it to Oahu and was met by a friend of Pinga’s. He surfed V-Land every day for the whole two weeks.

If at times it’s seemed to outsiders that there’s something a bit desperate about the Brazilian surf mission, one need only look under the hood to fully understand their situation. “We have no way — no path — to tell us how to be a world champ,” Adriano tells me one morning. “In Australia, there are 10 world champs. Ten runners-up. Thirty 3rd places. You can see a path — a lot of paths. In Brazil, surfing has been going only about 50 years. We’re building, just building. The young guys like Jadson and Caio — they might have a path. But for me? Everyone’s eyes are on me.”

That’s not to say Adriano doesn’t respect his elders — guys like Flavio and Neco Padaratz, Fabio Gouveia and Victor Ribas. “They broke it open for us,” he says. “They just went, ‘We’re here and we’re gonna do it.’”

But still, Adriano is trying to create a future partly out of thin air. He knows he might be the next step — that seismic trigger that could truly jar something loose in professional surfing — yet the pressure of those eyes on him can often feel unbearable. Recently he shifted his base part-time to Southern California, hoping to build a bigger support structure. “San Clemente,” he says, “it’s cool. You know Timmy Patterson?” Adriano grins. “He has this little house in his backyard. That’s where I live.”

We surf our brains out on the empty Ubatuba beachbreaks, until one day a wind change comes across the coast and tears the ocean up. On this gloomy afternoon, Adriano and Claudia are asked by Zecao to visit the local elementary school to meet the “surf class.”

Adriano De SouzaPhoto: DJ Struntz

These are kids who do surfing as a sport. They attend Zecao’s surf club, which is at the south end of Itamambuca Beach, somewhat ironically about 100 yards across a lagoon from the five-star Itamambuca Eco-Resort.

Ironic, because these are kids whose parents struggle to put food on the table. They don’t have their own boards; they’ve barely got their own clothes. Instead, they share the seven old relics stored in Zecao’s weather-beaten clubhouse.

Adriano seems tense, slightly off-put by this call of duty, and it is then that I realize he’s anxious to get back to training — to his home in Guaruja. The WCT is 10 days away.

But as soon as he sees the kids, something clicks. His resistance melts away. He relaxes, sits with groups, asks them about their school, tells ’em to stick with it and they’ll get somewhere one day.

The kids have all drawn pictures of various surf scenes, and Adriano signs every one of them with his practiced signature: the sharp “A”, tight rounded letters, and underneath it a slashing single underline, tilted slightly uphill. He’s the Hope.

The drive down from Ubatuba is spectacularly beautiful. Towering forests to the west reach a thousand feet up to the ridges; to the east, the same forest thins as it falls to a very deep blue, white-capped Atlantic. Eventually the road straightens and drops onto a broad, marshy coastal plain. It’s a shock when we turn onto a highway, over a bridge and enter the outskirts of Guaruja; suddenly there’s urban mess, people on bikes wandering across the road, buildings closing in, apartments, narrow streets. The city. Guaruja is a boom-and-bust town; it went bust in the late 1990s, putting a lot of construction workers out of jobs. Bingo. Social problems. Sherm is concerned with the crime. “What should we carry?” he asks Jadson, who empties his pockets with a gesture that seems to say: “Hi guys, you want money? Here! You want my watch? Here, take that, too!” He laughs at the developing expression on Sherm’s face.

Adriano De SouzaPhoto: DJ Struntz

There are beachfront towers and strings of apartment blocks. In the shadows of one, called Sobre as Ondas, or “atop the waves,” a tiny right dribbles in. It is here that Adriano’s older brother, Angelo, pushed Adriano into his first wave.

The de Souza family came here 23 years ago from Rio Grande do Norte — the crushingly poor state on Brazil’s northeast-facing coast — looking for work at the Santos ports. In Rio Grande there is still a strong stream of African blood from the past centuries’ slave trade, where millions of Africans halfway through their journeys to the New World were wrecked and abandoned. You can see traces of that in Adriano’s dark eyes and tightly curled hair.

IMG_3286Photo: Sherm

Moving south didn’t help much…at first. Adriano’s dad ran a small bar; brother Angelo, 13 years older, went into the military. Then Adriano found his feet on a surfboard and it all began to change. “When he won the world juniors,” Pinga tells me, “he got a little house just down from his parents. Then he bought his mom an apartment right on the beach. Then he bought his brother a house and everything in it: TV, furniture, everything.”

Almost everyone in Guaruja surfs the main break, Pitangueiras, which on the morning after we arrive is a clean and super-fun three feet.

Adriano is chortling as we walk down to a little channel at mid-beach. “Come here in summer, and, man, you wouldn’t believe it,” he says. Guaruja’s winter population is 80,000; in summer, it’s over a million. The apartment managers used to come out at 6 a.m. on summer mornings and put out individual beach umbrellas for every one of their tenants; the result was that you literally couldn’t get through them all and onto the beach.

IMG_3192Photo: Sherm

Meanwhile, grommet Adriano was out on the rip bowl, surfing all he could. “Just rights,” he says. “I never went left. I didn’t know backhand. I couldn’t paddle out far enough to where there were any lefts. I was in my first contest — in the final — and a good left came, and I didn’t catch it because I didn’t know how to.

So then I started practicing.” For six months he surfed nothing but lefts — until Pinga was satisfied.

We surf in the middle for a while, but eventually Adriano can’t help himself, and he drifts back down to his old rip bowl, along with Jadson and Caio.

That night, there’s a barbecue — a churrascuria — at Angelo’s house, the one Adriano bought for him. It’s fascinating to meet Adriano’s family. Angelo is barely taller than his brother, with lighter skin and pale eyes with which he watches people intently. Mother is quite shy at meeting strangers from another country, but is obviously proud of her son. Daddy sits a bit resignedly in a corner and smokes the occasional cigarette; he’s not interested in his sons’ new world.

As revealing as the evening is, everyone speaks Portuguese. We don’t. But again, we begin to get a sense of what it must be like for a young Brazilian pro who has been chucked out into a world where nobody understands a word you say, and vice-versa.

IMG_3277Photo: Sherm

“I could not speak ANY English,” Adriano admits later as he wields us through the streets stamped between the beachfront towers and apartment blocks. “One time I was going to South Africa and the dates were mixed up. I spent 24 hours in the airport. Just sat there curled up, thinking, ‘Where is everybody?’”

The last straw came after he’d just won the 2004 world pro juniors in Australia, and was asked on stage that classic, hokey question: “How do you feel?” He couldn’t answer it. “Oakley paid for me to do an English language course on the Gold Coast. I stayed there for three months.”

Adriano pulls his little black VW over to a dusty, pockmarked roadside, gets out, waves us across the road, and suddenly we’re in a favela.

We’ve come to see his childhood home, though we still don’t know what that will mean. The streets are dirt and not made for cars, and the buildings are low-roofed, concrete-walled shacks leaning against each other. Alleyways less than two humans wide branch out off the main drag and into nooks and crannies. Bare brickwork. Water on the path from a leaky pipe somewhere. The sound of kids squealing and running. Two boys around Caio’s age, with a board propped on a chair on the road, are mixing up resin to fix a broken-off fin.

Here, Adriano’s father comes alive. He walks into a bar and with a glance, invites us in behind him. Inside, a large, white-haired gent turns out to be Adriano’s uncle. The bar is split in two; one side sells kids candy by the paper bag, the other sells shots of rum, cane spirit and bottles of beer. Adriano asks for a bag of jellybeans.

Out on the dusty street, a few of Adriano’s friends are gathering, riding up on bikes, walking, laughing, happy to see their friend. “I only started traveling and left here at 15,” he tells me. “It’s such a short time — there’s been no time to miss it.”

IMG_3375Photo: Sherm

Kids follow us down alleys to his father’s old bar and then, the de Souza family’s old house. It’s an unfathomably tiny thing: barely 6 feet from ground to roof, framed in wood and iron sheets. Adriano grew up in here.

The kids run and chase Adriano, excited by him and his odd-looking American friends, by this boy who is one of them yet on his way to things so far beyond their experience: the logo-splashed jersey of a WCT seed; the second and third and fourth apartments; the trips all over the world.

Neither Adriano nor any of his friends had said anything to prepare us for this warm place where people have so little, other than each other. But the stories that have crept out through little gaps in the week all suddenly click together:

Juma — the big Guaruja local who kept Adriano supplied with boards as a kid, and for whom in return, two years ago, Adriano paid an entire season’s expenses on the WQS. Juma finished 40th his first time out.
The cozy house — where his big brother, Angelo — his hero — lives, that Adriano built and gave to him.
The Itamambuca elementary school — where Adriano had behaved tense and impatient, until he saw the kids.
Suddenly it’s clear. This — where he came from, where he comes back to — is Adriano’s secret. This is where his Hope’s hope resides.

IMG_3398Photo: Sherm

As we drive slowly back to the beachfront, we follow the same track Adriano used to take every day after school. Indeed, we drive right past a young guy — around 16 — on a bike, holding a board in one hand and using the other to expertly navigate Guaruja’s afternoon traffic mayhem. Adriano waves to him. The kid hoots and tucks his board under his elbow so he has a free hand to wave back.

“That was me,” says Adriano.