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- Maha Upanishad

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May 25, 2018

The African Hawaii

In São Tomé, a small African country, a surfer witnesses the growth of one of the youngest modern, alternative surf scenes in the world—an indigenous surf-riding culture called “corre-barra” by the locals.

WRITTEN BY

Franz Orsi

I am sitting on a steep ground overlooking a nicely shaped right-hander rolling in shallow pristine waters over a slab punctuated by sea urchins and corals. Around me, a bunch of local kids approximately eight or nine years old screaming for every wave coming in and talking to me in Portuguese, commenting on how they could have caught that wave as any surf dude from any other place on Earth would do. I suddenly realized then that I just happened to arrive in one of the liveliest surf community I ever met in my life.
As we speak about the surf, a bunch of other kids appear from behind the cliffs, paddling through the channel on some very special boards. Those boards look very flat and thin. As they get closer I understand that what they’re riding is actually a local version of a bodyboard made of wood. “Corre barra! Corre barra!” the kids around me started to shout. I ask what it means. They explain it to me by pointing at the young surfers in the water. As we keep on watching the scene we see a bunch of young kids dropping on every wave with their rudimentary boards. It is surfing at his very infancy—I thought.

The surf scene on remote São Tomé is as extraordinary as its setting is exotic. I spent part of my summer surfing the perfect point breaks of São Tomé together with a small bunch of local surfers who grew up catching waves on their wooden tábuas and are now ripping on regular but usually obsolete foam boards, mostly left behind by the few Portuguese surfers that happened to pass there.

The island is a former Portuguese colony. It’s now half of the tiny twin-island African republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, the smallest country in Africa after Seychelles, sitting some 300km off the coast of Gabon. The islands present themselves to the traveller as a small African version of Hawaii, which to some extent they are, with volcanos, lush green vegetation and shallow point breaks. The only difference is that the roads are terrible and the electricity is scarce. Here tourism remains an afterthought, which made it all the more intriguing to me.

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I was there not only because the waves in São Tomé were so good but also because I wanted to witness with my own eyes the vibe of this tiny African Hawaii where the invention of surfing, as I later learned, happened independently from anywhere else in the world. Yes, São Tomé as Hawaii has been one of the cradles of surfing. As for many other inventions in the history of civilization, similar discoveries happened independently in different parts of the world.

It was Sam George who first witnessed this independent invention of surfing in São Tomé. When he visited the island in 2000, the Californian surfer intended to “pioneer” its waves; what he found instead was an indigenous surf-riding culture—well and thriving—“corre-barra” as the locals call it. “Corre-barra” as I later learned literally means “ride-wave”. Wave riding, as we know it. And it has a long history on the island. No one knows when this tradition started, but kids on São Tomé had ridden hand-carved bodyboards on their bellies for as long as anyone could remember. It is just part of the local culture as much as fishing or dancing.

After that first visit to São Tomé, Sam George returned to the island in 2006 to make a film about this incredible discovery: The Lost Wave: An African Surf Story. What he found during his second visit was a small bunch of locals that started to carve their own surfboards out of wood and learned to ride on their feet. As he and his film crew left modern boards behind, a small stand-up surf community on São Tomé emerged. Surely it can be considered one of the youngest modern surf scenes in the world, but with a very long history coming from decades or even centuries of “corre-barra” tradition.

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Such state of transition (or coexistence) between “corre-barra” and modern surfing created an interesting dynamic within the local community. As kids learn to ride waves on the traditional wooden boards, using them almost as bodyboards and then trying to stand up from time to time, they also climb the ladder of the local surfing community. A certain hierarchy applies here: as kids evolve in their “corre-barra” skills they also start to be entitled to use more regularly one of the few modern surf boards spread over the local surf community. The foam boards stock is limited so it is carefully managed within the community. Sharing is key in São Tomé.

Witnessing the growth—and the stoke—of one of the youngest modern surf scenes in the world it was for sure some of the most interesting experiences in my life. As my days on the island were running by, I got to know virtually everybody involved in this lively surfing community. From the pioneers, like Chum, the king of the point break of Porto Alegre in the South, to the boys of Santana, who grew up riding waves on their wooden planks and now became progressive young surfers with no less talent or style than any Californian or European young gun. Their names are Jejé, Danilk, Zezito, Ailton, Assis and Edu. I started to spend my days with them, inside and outside the water, getting more and more interested in their stories and ultimately witnessing their growth as surfers and young men.

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While I was there with the boys of Santana I got to know that they were granted the chance to participate at the ISA Junior World Surfing Championships to be held in Azores, Portugal later in the year. A few surfers from Portugal who came across the surf scene of Santana – the surf capital of São Tomé – and got to know the local young guns impressed by the pool of talent and stoke decided to raise money and find sponsors to help these guys live their dream and bring them to compete at the World Championships. You can just imagine how excited these boys were about that. This was the first time travelling outside the country for them, and of course the first international surfing competition. And that was definitely what they dreamt about for all their lives. As for myself, I ended up booking a flight to Azores as well to meet them again in a few weeks’ time and to be a first-hand testimony of this modern surf fairy tale of the boys who learn to surf on some wood planks that were now going to the World Championships. That was a historic moment for surfing and a touching one for me and for all the people who helped to make it possible.

It’s not important to talk about the Championship here. History was made. And I believe that surfing benefited from getting in touch with the youngest modern surf scene in the world and for sure the one with more stoke. And vibes.

Long live the “corre-barra” tradition and to the history of an alternative surfing culture in Africa. I got back to my place with my mind full of images of stoke, happiness and loud laughs on and off the water. Long live the “corre-barra” because at the end of the day, we may find out that surfing was indeed first discovered in the Black Continent and that indeed “the best surfer out there is the one having the most fun”.

Images: Franz Orsi and Vania Marques

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Travel

Apr 25, 2019

A Hike Without a View

The allure of the outdoors comes from the unexpected challenges mother nature throws our way, where the lows accentuate highs. Luckily, the good days usually far outnumber the bad ones.

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WRITTEN BY

Noah Allen

Those of us that have spent any amount of time on outdoor adventures know that sinking feeling when things don’t go to plan. Opening the trunk to find only one hiking boot, a stray roadside nail causing a flat while pedalling along, or getting above the tree line to realize that the freezing rain you wished away hasn’t cleared and the next two miles of exposed rock is now a treacherous ice rink. When encountering the lows, it can sometimes be difficult to see how far you have come. However, in the woods, it often comes down to just you, and you alone, being the only one who can make your situation better by finding a way over, under, around, or just right on through every obstacle.

Noah Allen on the descent from Nippletop. Unhappy with the wet conditions as more rain moved in.

“Luckily, the good days usually far outnumber the bad ones.”

No hiking boots? Looks like your Crocs are getting a little bit more action than driving to the trailhead today, thank goodness they have that heel strap.

One flat tire? Flip the bike over on the nearest lawn and get the patch kit out. Patch blows out and then you flat the rear too? Curse the asshole who is out to get you, and ride home on the rims, they can take it.

Icy exposed rock? Well, sometimes a win is walking off the mountain unharmed.

View of Ausable Lake with fall foliage just peaking through at lower elevation.

The allure of the outdoors comes from the unexpected challenges mother nature throws our way, where the lows accentuate highs. The internal motivation for the next adventure comes from that need to crest the next hill and freewheel down the backside of the monster you have conquered. Luckily, the good days usually far outnumber the bad ones.

This past October I made my way across the Champlain Valley through the recently harvested corn fields to the Adirondacks at the height of leaf peeping season. I had left early from the Green Mountain State before the sun rose to get across the lake and to the trailhead near the Adirondack Loj located at 1250ft above sea level. There my hiking partner and girlfriend was waiting in the parking lot with her friends, all local New Yorkers, still sipping on their morning coffees.

Noah Allen and Becca Miceli on the descent from Nippletop, posing together on a slippery section on the way down.

“Nothing has taught me the same independence and confidence as my outdoor mishaps and successes”

The primary goal of this hike was to take in the stunning change of colors that draws millions of tourists to the northeast every fall. However, today this popular trailhead parking lot was not even near half full. Unfortunately, the weather was not looking good and it seemed many tourists were pursuing other options today. But we chose to roll the dice, cross our fingers, and hope that the views cleared by the afternoon seeing as how the sun was already poking through.

Two hours later after several miles and layer changes we reached the first minor peak. By this point, low veils of mist have descended to approximately 3000ft and we are officially in the clouds. The clear views below us provide some encouragement to push on with the hike with our fingers still crossed.

An hour later we reach the first high peak over 4000ft and nearly miss the occasion because the cloud cover is so thick. Equally disheartening is the muddy trail leading onward.

After another hour and half of dodging wet spots and mud pits, we reach the second high peak, Nippletop mountain, the highest point of the hike at 4,600ft. So far we have covered 7.5 miles and been on the trail for almost 5 hours and seen absolutely nothing but impenetrable fog obscuring the glorious fall foliage.

Jenna Robinson on the peak of Nippletop with a homemade sign to mark the occasion.

From here it was all downhill back to the trailhead, but only in the physical sense. While disappointment pervaded the group morale it was overridden by the outstanding accomplishment of a 15-mile hike with almost 5000ft of elevation gain and two more high peaks crossed off the

46er challenge. This particular hike was chosen for its famed beauty in no matter the time of year. While we were unfortunate with the weather and felt somewhat robbed of observing the physical beauty, it wasn’t all bad. It was Another precious day was spent in the mountains with friends, pushing ourselves, and learning how to draw out the small joys of disappointing situations.

The challenges that present themselves to outdoorsman are a part of the job. The challenges that present themselves day to day are just part of life. I add nothing new by repeating “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” but as a lifelong outdoors person, I can say nothing has taught me the same independence and confidence as my outdoor mishaps and successes. In fact, all the misadventures simply add reference points to understand how things could get worse, and when things are bad, surely it can only get better.

Cover photo: The view from Indian Head, one of the best spots in the Adirondacks for fall hiking.

All photos courtesy of the author.

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