Words by Emma Fraser-Bell, photographs by Clare James.
If you asked me what called me to Brazil, I wouldn't have been able to tell you exactly. Perhaps it was a number of things. The heat was one. That sensation of a hot sun prickling bare skin we so often feel the urge to chase during a northern hemisphere winter. I knew I felt trapped, stuck, in the monotony of mid-winter. Six hours of sunlight a day, some days barely even that. I was suffering with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), struggling with fewer hours of work due to a rise in COVID cases post-Christmas. I was tired and anxious. I knew it was a tiredness that could only be remedied by a drastic change. A change in climate, surroundings and people. COVID and lockdown left its mark on all of us. Mine was; I wasn’t ready to sit still any longer.
I had stayed in touch with a Brazilian woman, Virginia , I met while surfing in the Galapagos back in March 2020. We had been surfing boulder clad, sea lion and shark filled pointbreaks in the hottest month of the year. I was drawn to her no nonsense attitude in the water. A confidence, style and fearlessness that comes from surfing places such as the Galapagos and Tahiti on a yearly basis. Watching all 5’4" of her navigate down the line of a double overhead rocky point, as the remainder of the line up scratched over the set, is forever etched in my mind.
We spent our days trekking through army barracks with boards underarm and mosquito repellant at the ready. Sweating in 40 degree C heat, swerving iguanas and snakes on the winding paths to reach secluded points through military-protected zones. Paddling out through deep, tiger shark filled channels to a thundering shallow reef in the mid Pacific. Moments like these are a sure fire way to bring even the most unlikeliest of acquaintances closer together.
When a message appeared from Virginia in January this year, asking me to come stay with her and her dad at their home in Brazil. I didn’t take much persuading, I booked my ticket a week later. I hadn’t heard of anyone going on a surf trip to Brazil. Fast, heavy shorebreaks. Busy, hassley line ups (or so I'd heard).
Yet there was something drawing me in, pulling me towards this country I’ve never had much of an inclination to visit for a surf trip, but I knew a change was necessary. A friend had recently ended a long-term relationship. I said I was flying out in two weeks. She booked her flight immediately. We left just as the first storm of February arrived to batter the shores of the UK, I didn’t look back.
As the plane lifted off icy cold English tarmac, I felt a flood of relief wash over me as the grey, overpopulated streets of Manchester disappeared under thick clouds.
After a solid 24 hours travelling, we arrived in Sao Paolo. The air outside the arrival gate cooler than expected. As we waited outside for Virginia I had a panicked thought that she might not turn up. I’d booked a ticket half way across the world, to a country where I don’t speak the language, to visit a woman I met in the water a few years ago.
I’d booked a ticket half way across the world, to a country where I don’t speak the language, to visit a woman I met in the water a few years ago
Maybe I’d been a bit reckless, where the hell would we go now? I didn’t dare utter a single paranoid thought to Clare [James, photographer and travel buddy] as she sat on a bench outside arrivals, dazed and confused from no sleep.
My paranoid thoughts were interrupted by a tanned-flip-flop-playsuit wearing, long caramel haired beauty sauntering towards us. It was Virginia. We hugged and I was instantly aware of how exhausted I was. We loaded up her dad’s tiny car with board bags, navigated our way round Sao Paolo’s suburban streets and drove the two-and-a-half hour journey south.
We arrived late at night. Delirious and achey. The heat was way more intense further south than in the higher plains of Sao Paolo. Stepping out the car, the humidity just hit me. Mosquitos buzzed frenziedly around bare skin, their excitement for fresh blood was pretty palpable. I couldn't see much in the darkness, but there was the smell of fresh rain in the rainforest surrounding us.
The creaking call of tree frogs in search of mates. ‘Vaga-lumes’ (fireflies) dancing in the darkness, illuminating the forest. Geckos hunting swarms of moths on the walls of the treehouse. The music of the Atlantic rainforest consumed me. It filled me with a calmness I hadn’t felt for so long. A sensation I now realised I had been longing for. In the distance I could hear the call of the ocean. Waves crackling on the shore break. Virginia left us to shower and unpack. The surf would be good in the morning, we better get some sleep.
Jet lag woke us early despite the long journey. 5:30am, early morning light through the windows. That intense heat radiated through the hot tin roof. Fan whirring, A/C broken. Coffee bubbling on the hob. Mosquitos tap tapping at the door. My hair a frizzy mess from the humidity, unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. Now daylight dawned, the rainforest of last night slept. The tree frogs quiet, the geckos sleeping in the cracks of the treehouse. The rainforest transformed into a rainbow of vivid lifeforms. Giant Blue Morpho butterflies flitting between verdant vines and fuscia frangipani. Woodpeckers with bright orange chests rapping at thick branches. Toucans jumping from branch to branch above our treehouse veranda picking at the fresh fruit hanging from the trees surrounding us.
We sat with sugary sweet coffee in hand absorbing the sounds of the forest. Skin glistening in the heat. We waxed boards, keyed in fins, slapped on zinc wherever bare skin required. I messaged Virginia but she decided to sleep longer. That’s one thing we discovered on this trip, you’ll often be greeted with empty lineups if you wake with the sun in Brazil. There’s never any need to rush. We soon caught on.
Wandering down the path, we passed the river surrounding our new home, where the mosquitos buzz and the Capybara bathe. Down dusty, cobbled streets where jasmine and fuscia covered brilliant yellow walls.
The first morning in a new country is always the most potent. Raw and fresh. A strike on the senses. Every smell, every sound so novel yet comforting. A reminder you’re no longer home, no longer wrapped up in your comfort bubble. Uncertainty of what lays around the corner. The unfamiliar taste of spicy pepper trees thick on my tongue. Warm, damp earth underfoot, mud mingling with the night’s rainfall in the heat. Unsure of what the beach set up looks like, unsure of the wave, the crowd, the locals in and out the water. It can be overwhelming. These moments intimidate but they’re often what I crave after staying still for so long.
We found our way to the beach down an alleyway off the main street. Lush green mountains of rainforest encroached onto the long golden strip of soft sand. Glassy water and pumping swell. Umbrellas up, sun loungers out. Beach vendor trucks prepping for the day, ready to serve icy cachaça caipirinhas, molten cheese filled pasteis and cups of hot buttered corn at a moment’s notice. We left towels and water under the shade of an apricot tree’s giant leaves and spent the morning scouting out something rideable in between the heavy barrels and close outs thundering on the shore.
I left the water exasperated, bloody, battered and bruised. Copious amounts of close outs on the head, followed by a fin to the foot or board to the shin. Drop-ins, snakey manoeuvres and locals dominating their spot. Shore break barrels far too intimidating for my first surf in these strange waters. The ever expanding crowd of locals and weekend warriors was a sensory overload. Why hadn’t I just booked a ticket to those peeling waves in Costa Rica or Sri Lanka like everyone else back home had? Easy, no fuss.
Well, we soon found out, after talking with Virginia on the veranda of our treehouse over a coffee and joint, that, just like everywhere else in the world, Brazil’s line-ups had also fallen victim to the pandemic. Beaches busier than ever before and the price of coastal property sky-rocketing. Friday morning through to Sunday night jammed with weekend warriors escaping Sao Paolo’s busy streets. Traffic jams and queues of up to six hours from city to coast, in what would normally take two. The wealthy taking to the skies in their helicopters, flying over crowded lineups before landing at private helipads. Yet the heated line ups can’t only be blamed on the pandemic alone. Since Medina won his first world title back in 2014, “Everyone suddenly saw surfing as ‘cool", said Virginia.
Virginia spoke about stories of when she was younger, she had been one of the few surfers at her home break. A few other locals I spoke with told me the same thing. Beaches were quiet, lineups shared with a few select friends only, often barely even that. Just like everywhere else in the world, surfing was seen as something for the bums and wasters of society. Now, there’s a sense of hope and opportunity in this sport, hobby, lifestyle, whatever you choose to call it.
The conflicted feelings towards surfing today is apparently universal; a natural source of freedom and happiness for most. An understanding that the benefits on our mental health and awareness of our ocean environment can only be positive. However, this view is nearly always juxtaposed with the underlying only-child syndrome of not wanting to share your favourite toy with others.
“I love getting more and more kids into surfing. They love spending more time in the water and now, parents see it as an opportunity for a better future too."
Virginia is the founder of Salty Sisters and is one of the most powerful and fierce waterwomen I’ve ever met. Her knowledge and understanding of the ocean is like nothing I’ve ever seen. She easily shows up every other man and woman in the water with her wave count, style and take-no-shit mentality. “I set up Salty Sisters about 10-years-ago when I was living in Australia. I wanted to get more women in the water but also meet other likeminded people. It was an opportunity for me to help others build their confidence whilst also making friendships in and out the water.”
Now living back in Brazil with her dad Paolo in their jungle treehouse, she still runs Salty Sisters while doing a lot for her local community. “I love getting more and more kids into surfing. They love spending more time in the water and now, parents see it as an opportunity for a better future too."
Virginia spends a lot of time teaching kids from her local town how to surf while also collecting secondhand boards to give to young kids living on some of Brazil’s more isolated islands. Quiet, secluded communities only accessible by boat. A journey across high waves and deep Atlantic waters with a local caiçara (fisherman) at the helm. Otherwise it’s an eight hour trek through thick jungle flourishing with a plethora of wild flora and fauna. These beaches boasted some of the best set ups I’ve ever seen. Pumping, wedgy right handers with only a handful of locals with their finger on the pulse.
“I don’t like to surf here at the weekends too much.” says Virginia, “It’s too busy. So many people from the city. I’m going to take you to my favourite secret spot.” My first day in Brazil and my bruised, battered body was already starkly aware of the chaos and ferocity of its heavy beachbreaks. I opted for the local’s inside knowledge.
Leaving early the next morning, bellies full of acai bowls topped with papaya, mango and passion fruit mixed with a couple rounds of strong Brazilian coffee gave us the kick we needed. Backpacks filled with snacks, litres of water, mosquito repellant and suncream. We trekked through the increasing humidity of the heavy summer’s morning, sweat trickling down the back of my neck just five minutes into the steep ascent. The shade of the overhanging canopy, the thick, green vines of the Atlantic forest a saving grace. According to the WWF, Brazil’s Atlantic forest contains “7% of the world’s plant species and 5% of vertebrate species-jaguars, maned wolves, toucans, tamarin monkeys, ocelots-are found here; many exist nowhere else.”
I saw a slither of golden sand and triangles of white water breaking below us in the distance
We stopped only when we reached the top of the lookout point and spied the vast deep blue over the canopy layer. I saw a slither of golden sand and triangles of white water breaking below us in the distance. Picking up the pace on the descent, my arms heavy and fingers prickling with pins and needles after carrying the board for over an hour. Virginia steamed ahead, not in the least bit slighted by the trek. My legs burned but the anticipation of what lay ahead was too much to stop.
Eventually, we found the waterfall at the bottom of the path, a stream sparkling in the dappled light flowing down to the beach, gently flowing along to our slice of paradise. Out from under the forest shelter, into the intensity of the near midday heat, the sun’s rays danced on the ocean’s surface as a peeling left rolled to the shore, another behind it. At the far right of the beach, a wedgy, hollow barreling right. We ran towards the shelter under the apricot trees, our naked feet burning in the sunbaked white sand.
Stripping off our sweat laden clothes straight into bikinis, we dived into the sparkling blue. Rewarded for the long trek with empty waves, good company and the most stunning of surroundings. Our faces and bodies grew golden. Wave after wave, my eyes red from so much sun and salt. After hours spent playing in the ocean, we washed the salt off our sunburnt bodies in the waterfall and drank the earthy water from the cooling stream. We snoozed under the trees, snacked, smoked Brazilian hash, and snacked some more. We stayed there blissfully unaware of time until the sky and sea grew golden.
“The mosquitos” she said. “We need to move fast, before the mosquitos come out.” Sunset was 45 minutes away. The walk back over an hour and a half
Virginia, checking her watch realised we needed to get moving and be out of the forest before sunset. “The mosquitos” she said. “We need to move fast, before the mosquitos come out.” Sunset was 45 minutes away. The walk back over an hour and a half. We hastily packed our things, and headed back towards the dense, winding jungle path. The air cooler now but the intensity of a day spent under a Brazilian summer sun lingered on my skin.
We trekked back through the forest as quickly as our heavy legs could carry us. Weaving over and under fallen tree stumps now much harder than earlier in the day. We reached the lookout point just as the sun was setting and casting a burning glow on the verdant canopy layer.
Virginia decided to take a short cut we hadn’t realised was there. A path down the other side of the mountain which would land us right in the town below, but far steeper than the jungle trail. We descended as hastily as we could, but the long grass on the steep mountainside track hadn’t been cut, as Virginia had assumed it would be. The long grass made it far more difficult to spot the roots, stumps, rocks and the odd slithering animal underfoot.
I felt the first mosquito bite at the back of my shoulder but I couldn’t swat it away. My hands all tied up in surfboards. We slipped, tripped, sweated and swore our way down the mountainside as the light disappeared along with our calm, high and haughty spirits from earlier.
That’s the thing with surfing and travel; you can never let your ego get the better of you. Humility is everything. Soon enough you’ll get a lip to the head, a board to the face, a broken leash on a big day or a steep mountainside flanked by wild jungle flora and fauna and there’s no one who can get you out of there other than yourself.
That’s the thing with surfing and travel; you can never let your ego get the better of you. Humility is everything
We made it down to the town below as the streetlights flickered on and the neighbourhood dogs prowled their corners. Dumping bags and boards to the ground, I could count five fresh mosquito bites on one leg already. Sweaty, sticky and completely starving we wandered through town in search of food to fill our grumbling bellies.
As we nestled into the corner of a dimly lit local restaurant, we guzzled down ice cold water followed by ice cold beer. The beer hit us all instantly, leaving us lightheaded and giggly. Laughing hysterically at the race against sunset until food arrived. We devoured plates of the most delicious fish, rice and beans topped with farofa; a toasted cassava mix traditional to Brazil. BBQ smoke oozing from every street corner, the taste of barbecued meat thick in the air. It’s enough to make a vegetarian turn carnivore. The longer you stay in Brazil, the harder it is to resist.
This one day of the ups and the downs, the rough with the smooth, summed up my whole time in Brazil. Situations changed at the drop of a hat. I never really knew what was lurking round the next corner. We scored, we got skunked. I got bitten within an inch of my life by mosquitos and black flies which blow your leg up to twice the size.
A country renowned for its tussling crowds and heavy breaks, I was dubious about travelling here. I thought I would be better off returning to Sri Lanka or Costa Rica where you know exactly what to expect. Yet, I feel like I found something truly special and unique in Brazil. I grew attached to it just when I thought I’d had enough. I wasn’t ready to leave when I did, and so now I’m back.
Back in this country I struggle so badly to get a grasp of the language. In the country I struggle to find that ‘perfect wave’. In the country I struggle to find an equilibrium. It’s the wild forests, the green vines clambering over anything man-made. Vivid colours, barbecues, unpredictable waves, an even more unpredictable climate, the kindness and passion of the people. It all has to be experienced to be believed. Brazil will leave you craving more, no matter how long you stay.