I want to take you on a surfer’s extraordinary journey to Mexico. But let’s start with something a little different. It’s a bit of an eye-opener when you travel long-haul and see abject poverty for the first time. The type of poverty far beyond the shabby downtown areas of the West; kids eating off the street, covered in dirt, lying in some doorway, wild eyes staring at you, starving, scared. I’ve seen many street kids the world over, mostly passing through on surf trips, brief glimpses of sadness en-route to some comfortable beachfront hotel. I’ve often wondered where they come from and how bad things must be to live a life on the streets. I’ve felt the fleeting urge to help but until now, many miles and surf trips later, I’d done nothing.
I recalled the stories of a buddy of mine who has combined his passion for surfing with working for an aid organization. His seemingly incongruous tales of turquoise barrels and volunteering was part of what inspired me to take up the onerous task of helping those less fortunate (and hopefully scoring a few waves to boot!). So I booked a ticket to Mexico, to the Misión México orphanage of Tapachula, Chiapas to offer my time and my help.
Upon arrival, I was surprised to encounter a bunch of surfers from many different places and as many walks of life all here to help out and try to make a difference to the lives of some 50 plus orphans and street kids. Misión México was founded by Pam and Alan Skuse, an Australian couple, who have been providing love, care, education and a home for orphaned and abandoned street kids for ten years. It´s inspiring stuff and they do amazing work. You have to go and see it for yourself to believe the patience, commitment and effort that goes into caring for these children and see the progress they’ve made. Alan and Pam are well used to seeing surfer volunteers come through their doors particularly in the past two years since the surf movie Somewhere Near Tapachula. “ It’s a great opportunity to come help the kids and make a difference,” says Pam, “but we like the volunteers to keep in mind that their duties come first, the surfing is a bonus!”
Perhaps most amazing though is the surfing programme they provide for the kids at the weekends. Every Sunday morning, some sixty kids and volunteers pile into two vans and make the bumpy journey through town, jungle and farmland–stereo blaring–to the beach to catch some waves. It’s pretty hilarious squeezing thirty kids into every available inch of each van complete with boards and all, but to say the kids love it is an understatement!
Sunday surf trips are definitely the highlight of the week and a welcome distraction from school-work, chores and worries. The kids are absolutely stoked on surfing and the beach; they happily talk to you about different waves and maneuvers they pulled off all recounted with wide eyes, animated, re-living the rides they’ve had. Some of the teenagers surf exceptionally well, gouging big turns, throwing buckets and making barrels. The whole atmosphere is very relaxed and at the same time fantastic fun, it’s all good energy. The younger ones are very brave and eager to learn, you see them charging the powerful beachbreak and shrugging off wipeouts that made me wince with a shake of the head and a smile. Looking around me and seeing such a big bunch of happy surfers made me realize that surfing and volunteering go hand in hand. It’s a pretty fantastic way to see some of the world, get a few waves and I guess, give a little back. We as surfers are a pretty open-minded bunch by and large and we should all try and be conscious of these things particularly in this changing world of ours.
Having experienced through surfing how we can help others less fortunate makes me understand what a wonderful gift this pastime of ours is. Apart from the sheer physical pleasure of riding waves it runs much deeper. Surfing allows us the chance to explore new lands and meet new people, to make a difference. When we use surfing as a vehicle to reach out and help others, it becomes a way of transcending boundaries, a way of crossing cultural and economic divides. It is such a positive force. I definitely felt a sense of this after spending time with the kids at the beach. Seeing them laughing their little heads off, elated from catching waves is wonderful! Surfing and the ocean sets them free from their difficult pasts, if only momentarily and they are liberated from worries, anxieties, and bad behavior! “Surfing is a vital factor in their development and one of the things that keeps them grounded”, Pam says. I found myself nodding my head. It’s true: surfing is an integral part of helping those kids experience a bit of straight-up-joy out of life.
For me, getting out there and catching a few waves together with the kids and the other volunteers was a really golden experience. The happy, uplifting vibe in the water, hooting, laughing and calling each other into waves really makes for a refreshing change from the often egoist and macho line-ups that can typify the sport today. There is a strong and positive energy surfing with those kids in Tapachula–or Taps as it’s affectionately called.
The surf in Taps, Chiapas is not on par with the more renowned neighboring spots of Oaxaca or Michocan, however, we scored some punchy, glassy lefts on more than a few occasions. The rides for the most part were short but fast, a steep drop and a racy section that threw out and formed the odd barrel for those quick enough to pull in. Tapachula is about 30 miles north of the Guatemala border, it’s a sparsely populated area so there is a wealth of empty coastline to explore. Mostly powerful, hollow beachbreak but there are some points that work with a larger swell. I saw many a smile to testify to the quality of the waves!
Chiapas has remained pretty much untouched and untainted by mass surf-tourism, and a major plus is the crowds–or rather, the complete lack of them. Every day we surfed we were the only ones out. This may change in the future as Moacir Zeldon, 20, (standing, far right, group shot), Pam and Alan’s eldest, plans to start a surf school, “Mission Surf”, in the area in early 2011. I can only think of it as a positive step forward both for the orphanage itself and for the aspiring local groms who will enjoy this stunning coastline, gain an introduction to surfing and expand the surfing population in Chiapas. The Mission Surf surf school is a vital step for the orphanage. It will allow Alan and Pam to make steps towards becoming self-sufficient and provide employment opportunities for the kids in the future. “We hope with setting up the surf school business that the kids will have a job and a future in Tapachula,” says Alan who himself is a surfer. Personally, I think it’s an excellent idea and I wish them every possible success as it will cater for the futures of many of these kids for whom life without Alan or Pam, or indeed surfing would have been vastly different.
My experience was very memorable both for meeting those kids and sharing some of the epic waves and I’d definitely do it again. One of the volunteers who I worked, Hamish, a surfer from the Gold Coast, summed it up perfectly for me: “Surf trips can be quite hedonistic, if everyone could give some of their time just once to volunteer to help on a surf trip it would really be something”. I couldn’t agree more. With so many aid agencies, orphanages and refuges with coastal locations it´s no wonder some surfers are taking up the opportunity to volunteer. I´m not saying you should don a veil and start handing out bread on the high street à la Mother Teresa but I mean who wouldn’t want to do something adventurous and meaningful and get some waves into the bargain?!!
So just before you jump online to book your next boat trip consider throwing a bit of volunteering into the mix. I can guarantee you a challenging and most rewarding experience. Moreover, when you find yourself smiling that secret little grin of contentment after a well-deserved surf, trust me, you’ll know you”ve done something really special.