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How Was Young Surfers’ Brazilian Trip? It’s Been Rio

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was billed as the ultimate cultural exchange: The gnarly dudes from Surf City would bop down to the land of the thong bathing suit, voodoo rites and crazy motorists and show the locals a thing or two.

But it was the young surfers from middle-class Southern California households who got the education: everything from awesome traffic jams to startling images of street urchins in crime-infested slums.

They were surfing’s first ambassadors under the banner of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, 13 Orange and San Diego County surfers between the ages of 16 and 18 who visited Brazil during a recent 19-day trip and competed against the country’s top teams.

Each U.S. team member was adopted by and lived with a Brazilian family in Rio de Janeiro and in Salvador, a northern city two hours away by airplane. The trip offered the young surfers a chance to visit South America, experience another culture and promote surfing, said organizer Bruce S. Hopping of Laguna Beach, who is a patron of the International Surfing Assn.

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“For many of our boys and girls, this is the first time they’ve ever been in a Third World country. Things are just done differently here,” Hopping said.

Like the buses, for instance.

Those slow, crawling dinosaurs that belch thick gobs of soot that fog Rio’s skyline with pollution, have two doors. Tourist books do not tell you the front door is used to exit, prompting angry looks from Brazilians at the sight of the Americanos going in the wrong door.

And traffic jams were a daily occurrence.

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While returning from a trip to Saquarema, one of Brazil’s famed surfing points, the team bus spent almost two hours fighting through downtown traffic, prompting Tyler Rootlieb, 17, of Laguna Beach, to mutter, “This is worse than the 405 Freeway at the El Toro ‘Y.’ ”

But the city was trying to put its best foot forward. Large corporations, restaurants and hotels, struggling under a crippling inflation rate and eager to change the city’s “crime capital” image, treated the surfing team members as royalty.

A bus with driver and guide were at their disposal, taking them to competition sites, meetings and city tours.

During competitions, the media turned out in droves, making the U.S. team members stars in the Brazilian newspapers and on nightly television news.

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They toured Rio’s famed coastline, visiting the beaches of Ipanema, Prainha and Copacabana. They toured the Corcovado, the tall, 130-ton concrete statue of Christ on the highest mountain above Rio, where they looked down on the city’s many lakes, high-rise buildings and downtown commercial center.

The city is an architectural clash where new four-story shopping centers and tall commercial buildings share neighborhoods with 16th-Century churches.

“Rio is a city of contrasts. We have the very rich living in neighborhoods and just next door are some of the city’s worst slums,” said Milton Waksman, Brazilian technical director for the International Surfing Assn., who coordinated the competition.

While passing through the slums of Boreo and Favela, where hundreds of thousands of people live without electricity or sanitary facilities in homes built from discarded wood and cardboard scraps, the Americans got a glimpse of Third World poverty.

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It gave them a new appreciation of the United States.

“There’s a lot of things that we just take for granted,” said Josh Johnson, 17, of San Clemente.

On at least two occasions, they noticed dead bodies along the side of the roads--street children killed by death squads and casualties of drug wars.

In Brazil, Brazilians have coined the phrase desova. The word describes how turtles lay eggs at night. Roughly interpreted, it means how these murderers leave their nightly surprises all over Rio, “like so many turtle eggs.”

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Said Pat Lynch, 18, from Oceanside: “It bummed me out. At home, there would be like tons of media, and police would take care of it.”

On one outing, they met some of Rio’s street children, referred to in Portuguese as “the Abandoned.”

The government estimates more than 7 million Brazilian children spend most of their time in the streets. Many of them peddle, beg or scavenge for a living. Many steal.

“There’s hardly any food or water for them. To survive, the parents, if there are any, go out and sell candy, or whatever they can. As for the children, many are forced to beg or they sell glue or drugs,” said Tiana Sento Se, project coordinator for Cruzado do Menor, one of Rio’s children’s shelter care facilities.

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Sento said they sniff glue, which helps curb their hunger pangs. Yet sadly, many children die each day, she said. And while the government is coming to grips with the problem, officials are also trying to stop merchants who pay off-duty police and others $200 to $250 to kill young thieves and shoplifters, Sento said.

U.S. team members met some of the young street children and donated 14 surfboards to them as a goodwill gesture.

Ubiratan Ropson, 15, and Custodio Souza, 14, smiled broadly as each was handed a shiny, surfboard from the Americans. Neither boy could surf or swim. But the gift, and that moment of recognition, was treasured by all participants.

“The idea behind recognizing Rio’s street kids was so that our American students would personally be involved in this exchange,” Hopping said. “Getting to meet them was unique, and it enriched our exchange.”

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The young Americans also brought back more pleasant memories of riding towering ocean waves and living with Brazilian families who opened their doors and hearts to them.

“It was so cool. I lived with (Brazilian surfer) Sergio and his family. They went out of their way to keep me happy. His mother put so much food on the table. She never wanted me to go away hungry,” said John Paul Herbert.

“I made friends for life. Although the waves weren’t as good as I had hoped, the people were nice and hospitable,” said Lynch.

The youngsters got to taste typical Brazilian dishes, which are a blend of Indian, African and Portuguese cuisine. They were served a heavy meat diet with fresh fruits, breads, and plenty of feijao-- black beans and rice--a staple in every Carioca household.

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“My family fed me rice and beans three times a day. It was good, but I’ve never eaten so many beans in my life,” Tyler said.

Acacio de Castro Martins, his wife, Elfriede, and son, Taskila, were host to Tyler. At 6 feet 3 inches, Tyler, said his host parents, “is a big boy. But he’s a very good boy. He was no problem at all.”

Except for one thing. Tyler’s bed. Martins explained that Brazilians generally are of small stature and have small beds.

“At night I walked in, and his feet were sticking out past the bed. I think we needed, how do you people say? A king-size bed?”

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Tyler said his Brazilian family went out of their way as hosts. They took him to restaurants, washed his clothes and treated him like part of the family. When it was time to say goodby, there were a few tears.

“I thought it would be nice to give them a gift from the USA. So before I left I bought a ceramic vase in Laguna Beach and had them put on it, ‘Tyler de Laguna Beach.’ ”


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