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Can The Ocean Be Evil? – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Can The Ocean Be Evil?
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

My friends here tell me “Ipanema” translates from the original native language as ‘evil ocean’ or ‘evil surf.’ A surprising moniker considering the idyllic setting of the miles of sand packed with “Cariocas” (residents of Rio) ending with spectacular twin peaks in hills which include several of the city’s many and not so spectacular favelas. The coastline certainly does not look all that precarious. I decided to investigate personally how this name might have come to be.

This decision was made on my daily kilometer swim along the shores of Copacobana. “Copa” and Ipanema are the two large beach areas right in the city of Rio. They meet on a corner known as “Arpoador.” I stay in Copacobana because there are more budget accomodations available. My daily swim is not a passion of training, it is a necessity. It seems there is a “padaria” (bakery) on every street corner in Rio and all are overflowing with a plethora of seductive sweet temptations which I have great difficulty resisting, and seldom do. If I do not swim I will pack on the pounds and soon resemble an inflatable watercraft with the tab pulled.

A normal occurrence in this swim is dealing with the variety of debris in the water. Copacobana is a very dirty beach. I constantly admonish my carioca friends at how they carelessly litter and befoul their most beautiful resource. At the end of the day you see it up everywhere, people leaving the beach and leaving their trash. The majority of this ends up in the ocean where I maneuver through it daily. There was a thunderstorm the night before so an exceptional amount of flotsam was present. Even with goggles it is very difficult to see in the ocean and it is always unnerving to run into something, no matter how frequently it happens. Your first thought, of course, is the movie Jaws and your body instinctively reacts by recoiling in terror. When convinced nothing alive wants to sample you like the way you like to sample the bakery treats, the swim continues. On this day it seemed like every minute I was colliding with bottles, styrofoam, furniture fragments and unidentifiable muck. It became tiring and depressing. I figured Ipanema’s ocean could not be so perilous as to not at least try to swim without the possibility of receiving a faceful of plastic wrap.

Picture of Pope John Paul II
Picture of Pope John Paul II
Before heading over, I took my camera up to snap pictures of some new sand sculptures I noticed on the Copa beach. Huge sculptures are everywhere in Copa and the artists put something on them to protect them from the elements. They last for weeks and the artists install lock boxes next to them for donations. The pope had died the day previously and a beautiful painted carving of John Paul appeared. As you look at the picture remember it is all sand. A few blocks up the famous black and white curved beachwalk was a rendition of beach wildlife indigenous to Rio.

Much has been written about the dangers of Rio bus travel, but I take them everywhere and have never had a problem. I hopped on the first one I saw, which included Ipamena in the destination listing. As you arrive in the neighborhood you immediately feel a different vibe. Ipanema is more relaxed and refined than Copacobana. You see it in the style of the people and the streets, with many more chic stores and restaurants. There is also the famous “Garota de Ipanema,” a busy bistro and gathering spot where the song “Girl From Ipanama” was written. Friends told me a cool beach area to check out was Posto 9, so I asked the driver to let me off when we were close. He stopped the bus one street away and I headed over.

I arrived at the beach in front of the Cesar Park Hotel, about a block up from Posto 9. There were a large number of massage tents, and the attendants were all scantily clad major hotties. We have all heard jokes and rumors about massage happy endings and I guarantee the thought crosses the minds of all recipients. I resist the urge to have one of these delectable divas mangle my muscles and I walk along the shore. One of the first things I notice is the beach seems cleaner. This breaks my heart like not at all as I cherish the thought of a trash free swim. I get to Posto 9 and I realize why Ponce de Leon went on such a frantic search. What a place to be young and hang out. There are lithe, fit, bronze bodies everywhere, playing volleyball or languidly reposed on the beach, while “erva” (marijuana) and music fill the air. I don’t exactly feel out of place. I feel like, at 50 years old, I am doing some window shopping without being able to pick up any bargains.

No Swimming Sign
No Swimming Sign
I figure this is as good a place as any to swim and that when finished it will be nice to relax here and enjoy the scenery, so to speak. I head to the water and notice the “No Swimming” sign in Portuguese and English. This perplexes me as the water looks even calmer than the norm in Copa, so naturally I ignore it, even though there is nobody else in the water except surfers. I run in, time my way between the waves to get past the turbulence of the breaking surf and begin my swim. Wow, this is a breeze, why was that sign up? And there is no trash in the water. At the conclusion of what seemed a much shorter routine daily effort, I decided I should come over here a lot more often. That decision was about to become inoperative.

For me, the most difficult part of ocean swimming in Rio is not the swim itself, it is getting in and out of the water. You need to time the waves properly or you can get battered roughly in the sand or even worse serious trouble. There are drownings here all the time and I can see how it happens.

I had little trouble getting in today, but I realized getting out was going to be very tricky. There is always an area where the undertow meets the waves breaking, and in this area it is difficult if not impossible to move. Both forces balance, and the pull and push leave you like the middle of a rope in a tug-of-war. Today, this area was exceptionally large and exceptionally strong…oh, maybe why a no swimming sign was posted? I bobbed patiently in the water with the large waves passing me until I saw one which I was sure would take me in and swam frantically to catch it. I continued to swim after the waves velocity faded when I realized I was going exactly nowhere. Although in the ocean, I was actually up the proverbial creek without a paddle. I turned to see another wave which seemed to be smiling as it realized it would break right on top of me in about five seconds. I am convinced this was an angry ocean determined to teach the impertinent stooge a lesson. I curled into the fetal position and was forcefully submerged until I hit and scrubbed the sand bottom like a dishrag. I fought to the surface and was greeted with the resonance of another breaking wave maybe two seconds away. I grabbed a quick breath and this time I was literally bounced around, although surfacing was easier. I tried to swim and, you guessed it, I still was not budging, when another monster wave with a menacing glare – I swear these waves had faces, I am not making this up – took aim at the flippant intruder who needed to be taught some respect. This wave I think about to this day. I was plummeted head first into the sand and swirled and gyrated until my entire body looked like it was scraped against tree trunks. This sucker was nasty. The only good thing was it was forceful enough to get me out of the no-mans land and into waist deep water.

Beauty and the Beach
Beauty and the Beach
Do not let anyone tell you the ocean cannot think, and the ol’ Atlantic’s vengeance was not complete. I was limping somewhat incoherently out of the water when the ocean took dead aim at my bad knee from a football injury. A small but tenacious wave hit it from the side, where of course the knee is most vulnerable. This knocked me down like a tackle would and forced me to crawl out of the ocean and up on the beach. I breathlessly surveyed myself, scratched and bloody with a swelling leg, and realized the natives had it right. Ipanema beach can be flat evil. The hedonistic pleasures out of the water abound, but for surf itself, remember the signs are not there just as scenery. The Evil Surf can earn its name.

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