Early on an October morning, Gabriel Oliveira stares at the crowded lineup of São Conrado, a heavy beach break in the south of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A few minutes earlier, the nineteen-year-old, best known as ‘Popó’, was right there in the outside. It was the first of four times he would hit the waves until noon. These morning sessions have been the pattern of his daily life since he was six, when the carioca started spending the entire day at the beach, located in one of the city’s wealthiest districts.
It was his way of keeping a distance from the reality that surrounds his home 1.5km away, in Favela da Rocinha, Latin America’s largest informal settlement, home to about 200,000 Brazilians.
Popó lives with his parents and three brothers in a one-storey household at Street 2, an area where drug dealers have established their headquarters. José ‘Bocão’ Ricardo, who founded Rocinha Surf School in 1987, taught him how to ride waves, the same way the forty-four-year-old had already done with hundreds of kids from the community. “If it wasn’t for surfing, I don’t know how my life would be,” Popó tells me, without taking his eyes off the waves. “Lots of friends of mine took the wrong road. I have never been interested in following this drug-trafficking path, but even so surfing has saved my life.”
Popó is no weekend warrior; he dreams of becoming a professional surfer, and is currently looking for sponsors who could support him to travel and compete. “Some elite athletes said to me that if you learn how to surf here, you can ride waves anywhere, because this is a hollow, fast spot.”