Out of the Favela

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I grew up a couple of miles from the beach.

But it wasn’t what you’re probably thinking.

I didn’t grow up in some beautiful beach town. I didn’t even know we were close to water. I never saw it growing up. All I saw, all I knew, was life inside the favela.

It’s hard to find beauty in a favela. A lot of people only have one choice, and that’s crime. Drugs, violence, all of that. It’s so crowded, so dirty. Cop cars can’t even get through the streets. But they try. It seems like the sirens echo all night long. And sometimes instead of sirens, you hear the the pow-pow-pow of a gun.

You want to be brave inside the favela. But sometimes, especially as a kid, it would feel like bravery was so hard to find.

You learn that you can’t stay out once it gets dark. You learn that you still need to say hello to everyone — good or bad — because everyone knows everyone. There’s no space to get away from anything in a favela. And when you’re a kid, you don’t know that there’s anything beyond those walls. Life in a favela, it’s like a cycle. My parents are from a favela, their parents are from a favela.

There aren’t a lot of expectations for life inside a favela.

And there’s not a lot of happiness, either.

So I always wondered why my older brother, Angelo, was so happy when he came home on Saturday and Sunday nights.

During the week he got up every morning at 5 a.m. and went to work on a military base near our house in Guarujá. And he came home every evening at 6 p.m. We shared a bedroom, and I watched him do this every day for years.

Then the weekend would come.

On Saturday and Sunday he’d leave the house with his surfboard and head out with some of his friends. Angelo loved to surf.

And when he left with his board, just like when he left for work, all I could do was watch him go. He was 19 and I was only 8 years old, so I was too little to go with him. All I knew about Angelo and surfing was that it made him happy.

And happiness seemed so distant in the favelas.

I needed to know where I could find it.

One weekend, my curiosity got the best of me. I watched from the house as he took his surfboard, get on his bike and pedaled away with his friends.

And then I rushed out to follow him. I can’t even remember the roads I ran down because I was so terrified the whole time that he’d see me. I just kept my distance, ducking behind trees and road signs. I followed Angelo for about 40 minutes, with no idea where we were going, or where we’d end up.

And then I saw it.

Adriano De Souza | The Players' Tribune
Courtesy of Adriano De Souza

The road started to break and open up. Beyond the end, I could see water and waves crashing along the shore — and the world seemed to stretch out forever. It was so amazing I stopped right there in the middle of the road.

Right away, I felt it … the happiness. The peace.

Until Angelo turned around.

“Adriano! What are you doing here?!”

“I’m here to surf!”

He wasn’t happy that I had snuck out and followed him, but he let out a sigh and took me down to the water. He put me on his board and pushed me out for my first wave.

That moment … it changed my life.

Twenty years later, I still remember how warm the water felt when it hit my body. It was summer in Brazil, and for the first time, I just felt this calmness… this happiness.

And I wanted to keep feeling it forever.

All I had ever seen was the favela. I didn’t know north from south, or east from west. I had no idea that this place had been right here my whole life, just a few miles outside what seemed like the endless favela streets.

When we got out of the water, Angelo looked at me.

“You’re not to come back down here,” he said. “Dad wouldn’t allow it. You’re too young.”

But when we got home, this time I felt the same happiness that Angelo did. It was mine, too. When I went to sleep that night, I thought about how much I wished the feeling could stay. I dreamed of spending all day out in the ocean.

I’m a professional surfer now. I’m in the ocean all the time. I’ve won trophies and became a world champion. I guess you could say I’ve spent the rest of my life constantly searching for that feeling I had out there that first day with Angelo.

Adriano De Souza | The Players' Tribune
Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune

Getting back to the ocean wasn’t easy.

For one thing, Angelo wasn’t about to let me go down by myself. But it wasn’t just the favela that I wanted to escape. Home wasn’t the happiest place, either.

There were days and weeks where my mom wouldn’t get out of bed. She couldn’t get out of bed. Because of the sadness. She’d cry and cry for days in her room. Angelo and my dad just called it her “sickness.” I didn’t really know much about it — other than that it had started after I was born. Her sadness was all I knew.

When she was in her bed, I wasn’t allowed to see her. My dad would move me away from the bedroom door.

“No, no, Adriano,” he’d say. “She’ll be fine, she’ll be fine. Mom’s just sick.”

That’s what Angelo and my dad would always tell me.

“Mom’s just sick.”

Now that I’m older, we talk about it more. Mom had depression. Four months after I was born, she apparently set fire to the house and walked out … while I was still inside. A neighbor saved my life.

But we never spoke about her depression when I was little, so I didn’t really understand what was going on other than that Dad had to quit his job at the port to take care of Mom full time. He opened a little bar in front of our house — just selling drinks and small things like that. It let him be close to home, but it didn’t bring in enough money. So when Angelo turned 18, he took a job with the military as a security guard at the docks to help support the family. They loved him at the military base because he had this strong build from all the surfing he’d done.

Not long after Angelo started working, I got the job of bringing him his lunch every day. I’d never been down that way before, by the docks.

And for the second time, I saw the ocean as I went by to find Angelo.

Maybe it was fate or coincidence, I don’t know, but I soon found out that there was a surf school near the docks. Every time I rode my bike past it, I’d see this guy who was missing a leg. He was teaching kids how to surf. I’d never seen anything like that.

I wanted him to teach me, but Angelo said no.

“You’re too little. And who will look after you while I’m working?”

But I talked to the guy, Pirata, and he told Angelo that he’d look out for me.

Angelo sighed and said yes.

But before my first lesson, I had to tell Pirata that I didn’t have much money. “My family is from the favela,” I said. “I can’t pay.”

Pirata just shook his head. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “We’ll take care of it.”

And that was that. We never spoke about how much it would cost. He let me borrow boards. And he taught me everything. He gave me a future, you know?

He gave me the ocean.

But I still didn’t have my own board.

I had heard from some friends that someone was selling a board that fit my size. I asked Angelo if I could get it.

“We don’t have the money, Adriano.”

“I know, but it’ll help me get better. Please, please?”

“I’m sorry.”

And then about a week later my brother comes home from work … carrying the board.

“I had to get you your first one,” he said, handing it to me. “It’s all yours, Adriano.”

Turned out that my brother had been negotiating all week and gotten the price down to seven bucks. Seven bucks! And, man, it was awesome. It was green with this white stripe going all the way down. The nose must’ve been broken at one point, but it hadn’t been fixed properly so it was was a little curved. But to me, it was perfect. I thought it looked like a wave.

Of course, I got some s*** from the guys down at the beach for it, but that didn’t matter to me. I finally had my own board.

The ocean became an escape for me. An escape from the favela. An escape from a place that was too dangerous to walk around at night. An escape from the days when Mom’s sadness would come back.

When I was in the water, it was like all that other stuff fell away.

I wanted to keep looking for the next wave, and the next. I decided I wanted to be a professional surfer. At the time, though, surfing in Brazil was a little like rock’n’roll. You know, guys kind of doing what they wanted, heading down to the ocean whenever they felt like it. There wasn’t any real focus to it. And being from a favela, it wasn’t like I could look up to someone who had made it as a surfer.

So Angelo became my motivation. I didn’t need a poster of some athlete on my wall. I saw the work Angelo put in every day.

So that’s what I was gonna do, too.

For the next few years, I woke up every morning with him. And when Angelo would head to the docks, I’d go down to ocean and surf. At first people were like, “Who the f*** is this guy?”

There was no one else showing up every day at 5 a.m.

And when I won my first prize money, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it.

I took it to my brother and I said, “Buy a new house with this, please.”

It was plenty for the down payment, and I knew where I wanted us to move. Right by the ocean. I wanted to give my brother something back for everything he’d given me. I wanted to get my parents out of the favela. I wanted to get away from the crowds, from the drug dealers, from the nights when it wasn’t safe to be out after dark, from the pow-pow-pow of gunfire. I wanted to get away from it all.

And I wanted to give my mom that feeling, too — that feeling you can only get down by the water. The calm. The peace. The happiness. When I’d talk to her after she and my dad moved, we’d talk about how she could walk on the beach.

She had the ocean now, too.

A year later, in 2005, I made the decision to turn pro. I had put in all this work. I had traveled the world. I had sponsors.

I was terrible.

I was only a teenager when I first joined and I was going up against guys in their 30s and 40s. They were stronger, more experienced. But every time I lost I just said, “O.K., keep going. Someday everything is going to work out.”

Not only did I start winning events, but I also saw other people start to notice how I approached surfing. And it goes back to Angelo. People would call the way I trained militaristic. I’d go out weeks ahead of anyone else. I learned the waves, I learned the winds. I’d stay with locals in each spot: Hawaii, Tahiti, California, Australia. I wanted to learn whatever I could.

Maybe I’m like that because I know what it’s like to have nothing at all. I was never one of these guys who grew up on the water. I had to go find the ocean. And I had to hold on to it.

And 10 years after I had turned pro, it seemed like all the years of working hard came down to one moment.

The 2015 Pipeline Masters.

It was the final event of the year, and the world championship was going to be decided there. I had done well all year, and was in a position to win the title and to become the first Brazilian to win Pipe Masters.

But I couldn’t think about it. I just needed to feel the water, connect to it, escape from everything else and find the perfect wave.

In Hawaii that day, I found it.

After I won the final heat, it still didn’t hit me that I was world champion. Not even after they handed me the trophy. I just couldn’t comprehend what had happened. Then a reporter came up to me.

“Adriano,” she said, “you’re a world champion. What are you thinking right now?”

Adriano De Souza | The Players' Tribune
Courtesy of Adriano De Souza

It was as if that question set my brain into instant rewind mode. There was only one thing in my head, only one place my mind went to.

What am I thinking about right now?

The beginning.

I looked back at the reporter.

“My brother,” I said. “Angelo.”

I thought about that day I had followed him to the beach. I thought about when he pushed me out for my first wave. I thought about warm water on my skin.

The seven dollar board.

The happiness.

It was all because of him. Because of Angelo.

I didn’t get a chance to call Angelo until about three hours later. So when I finally had my phone in my hands, he was the first person I wanted to talk to.

Turned out, he’d missed the final.

It actually made me laugh because it was so like Angelo. He had to work, and work always comes first for him. And because of the time difference between Oahu and São Paulo he’d missed everything. It wasn’t until he got off work at that he knew something was up.

Adriano De Souza | The Players' Tribune
Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune

He told me his phone had almost exploded because there were so many text messages and calls coming through.

I think about that moment a lot. I think about what it’s meant for my country — and especially for young Brazilian surfers — that I won the title. I think about other kids in the favela who maybe know there’s more out there now, too.

There’s one thing that always gets me: seeing the Brazilian flag by my name at competitions. Brazil is home, you know? Out of everything I’ve done in my career, getting my family out of the favela is probably what I’ve been most proud of.

But I also owe a lot to that favela, in a way. I think it gave me the drive to work harder. To know that it was never going to come easy. It showed me what bravery was.

I knew bravery. Because I had seen it in my dad, when he quit work to take care of my mom. I had seen it in my mom, who fought through a sadness everyday that no one else could understand. I had seen it in Angelo, who was supporting a family when he was only 18.

I wanted to be brave, like them.

And in surfing, I feel like I’ve found my own bravery.