Catching An Iron Wave, Rio's Daredevil Surfistas Take a Ride That Could Be Their Last

updated 04/02/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/02/1990 01:00AM

As a commuter train bound for Rio de Janeiro pulls into the station, 19-year-old Indio feels his heart start to race. Standing idly on the platform, he watches while the sliding doors close behind the boarding passengers and the train jerks to a start. Then, with practiced adroitness, he grabs hold of a window frame and races alongside as the train picks up speed. At the end of the platform he hoists himself onto the side of the car, his feet planted precariously on a narrow window ledge. Indio, a veteran train-surfer, has caught a wave.

Only a few miles away lie Rio's broad beaches, where the beachboys surf in the ocean—an impossible dream for impoverished kids like Indio. In the slums of northern Rio, where the cost of a surfboard can exceed the annual income of some residents, hundreds of daredevil teenagers risk life and limb in a deadlier game. Clinging to the sides or tops of commuter trains, they test their agility, knowing that a slip could be fatal. Last year gruesome train-surfing accidents killed more than 150 of these kids and injured 170 more. The danger only seems to add to the thrill; psychologists and authorities believe the surfing phenomenon is a virtual suicide gesture among kids caught in dead-end lives blighted by poverty. Indio would put it more simply. "It's addictive," he says. "I just can't stop."

Christened Isaias Gonçalves do Nascimento, Indio prefers to be called by his nickname, which means "Indian." His father, Sebastião, a native Indian from northern Brazil, is a construction worker who rarely comes home. Indio's mother, Juaquina, struggles to support seven children on a part-time maid's pay of $7 a week. The family lives on the outskirts of Rio in a rickety two-room shack without running water. A seventh-grade dropout, Indio travels daily into the city, where he scrounges a couple of dollars as a street peddler. If the day is sunny, he sells Popsicles; if it's cloudy, he sells comic books.

Indio began train-surfing six years ago. "My friends all climbed onto the train, and I knew I had to do the same," he says. "I grabbed a window and closed my eyes most of the way. But I loved it and knew I wanted more." Indio soon got up the courage to ride on the roof. "Once the train really started rolling, it was the most exciting thing I'd ever experienced," he says. "I was up there on top with my friends. The fresh air was smacking me in the face. It was the ultimate feeling of freedom. That's when I got hooked."

There are several levels of train-surfing skill. Those who cling to the side of the train are called pingentes, or "hangers-on." Those with more experience hold on with only one hand or arch their bodies away from the train and then pull back just in time to avoid hitting the posts alongside the tracks. True surfistas, who ride on top, sit or squat until they get the feel for the 50-mph speed of the train. "Once you stand, you can't relax for a second," Indio says. "You're trying to duck low overpasses, dodge 3,300-volt electrical wires and maintain your balance, all at the same time. It's not easy."

In an effort to stop train-surfing, plainclothes police have begun cracking down. But fines of 75 cents for the first offense and 85 cents for the second have proved ineffective when compared with the thrill of the surf. Indio was arrested once. "They took me to the police station and punched me in the chest and back," he says. "But then they let me go to make room for some bank robbers."

Indio's brother Deuzimar, 16, fell off a train in 1988 and severed a foot. After his brother's accident, Indio promised his mother he would never train-surf again. Three days later he broke his vow. But he still recalls losing his grip while a train was leaving a station. "I was able to grab onto a signal post," he says. "I hit it hard and held on until the train passed. Then I climbed down to the track."

Though badly cut and bruised by the accident, Indio is still surfing, unable to resist the high-speed rush. "I can't believe my son is so stupid," Juaquina says. "Sooner or later, something will happen to him. It happens to all of them. They only stop surfing if they get badly in-j u red—or if they die."

—David Grogan, John Maier in Rio de Janeiro

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