My favourite spot in Rio isn’t lying on Ipanema beach or watching the world go by sitting in the Copacabana Palace terrace. Nor does it involve hiking in the Parque Nacional da Tijuca, or snaking around the islands on a boat trip in Guanabara Bay. My favourite spot is unfamiliar to the casual tourist, because it’s difficult to find. You can’t even spot it from high up in the favelas or from the statue of Christ the Redeemer. In fact I’d really have to give you directions there.
Arpoador Beach is so central, it’s ridiculous to even call it out-of-the-way; it lies at the promontory junction of Ipanema and Copacabana. Yet the Copacabana Fort hides it from the east, while beachside hotels and shopping centres hide it from the west. You have to know it’s there rather than discover it casually, for you have to go to the eastern end of Ipanema and trustingly walk on.
What you’ll find there is Rio’s great social leveller: surfing. While the favela kids play football on cracked concrete and the middle classes compete in footvolley on the sandy beaches, everyone is equal when carving the surf of Arpoador. You can see the odd board in Ipanema – the word, after all, means something along the lines of ‘bad, disturbed water’ in Tupi-Guaraní – where there are some easier breaks, but these are for the newbies. It’s in the rocky point of Arpoador where the elite come to ride the most powerful waves that regularly reach five or seven feet, especially in September and October.
Like all gringos, I didn’t find this place for myself; I was taken there by a Brazilian. Edson wasn’t a Carioca local – he came from São Paulo – but he did surf. And one day he took me to Arpoador where I sat on a rock among many others and watched. It was there I acquired one of my insights into Brazilian culture: nothing you do is fully real, unless performed in public with panache. Did the surfers choose choppy Arpoador rather then the Praia do Diabo next door, because of its exceptional point breaks or because there is also a convenient rocky slope opposite, perfectly set for an audience?
Never mind, I was hooked. I still remember learning those surfing terms from Edson. “Look, they’re all firing now!” “Now, this is a cross-step and that was a cut-back.” “Boy, what a mullering.” I thought Edson’s English was funny but his surf talk was up there with the pros; he’d competed abroad, in the States. During a lull he dived in, and I admired him for his kickflips, his skill and his foolhardiness.
I wanted to follow him, too. “Stay here a while, I’ll teach you,” he’d said. But you know how it is. I’d already spent one week in Rio. I wanted to see more of Brazil. I didn’t want to spend all my money on a sport I was unlikely to practice again.
Edson has now moved to Sydney, because the breakers are better there. I did visit him there once, but we eventually lost touch. During my travels I’ve visited other great surfing spots, from Jeffrey’s Bay in South Africa to Biarritz in France. The sport even took off in Newquay nearer home. But I never learned to surf. So every time I end up in Rio, I make a point in returning to Arpoador, my favourite spot, to sit on the rocks and watch the surfers ride the breaks. Not only does it count as free entertainment, but for me it’s also half a day’s contemplation on how different things might have been for me.