Nicaragua / by daniel hamlin

 The sobering reality of the devastating effects of greed and apathy. One of the most heart-wrenching days of my life. Photo:  Chris Burkard

The sobering reality of the devastating effects of greed and apathy. One of the most heart-wrenching days of my life. Photo: Chris Burkard

A number of years ago my friend Chris Burkard invited me on a surf trip that ended up changing my life. It was supposed to be your typical surf trip for a magazine: travel somewhere exotic to find waves, get photos, write a story, call it work. But toward the end of our trip my buddy Brad Corrigan got in touch with us and invited us to come check out the ministry he had started in Nicaragua called Love, Light, And Melody. We thought it would be a great way to end the trip so we gladly accepted his offer. I don't think any of us knew what kind of impact Brad's invitation would have on us. 

That trip changed my life. I wrote an article for Slide Magazine about the trip which I've posted below. But what the article doesn't say is that as a result of that trip the direction of my life took a decidedly different route. The Lord used that trip to open my eyes to the reality of what some people are facing in life and to stir in me a desire for purposeful living. Pursuing the surf dream suddenly didn't hold the allure that it previously had. I still love to surf, and I still love surf travel. But my desire isn't to just "live the dream" anymore. It might be slow growth at times, but I hope and pray that my life would in some way positively impact at least one person during my short time here on earth. 

 

My Brain Stopped Hurting (Published in Slide Magazine circa 2011)

            As we made our decent I peered out through the plane’s window, the lush countryside abruptly ended by the cityscape. It all looked quite serene from above. After landing and gathering our belongings, we exited the terminal and were immediately greeted by the chaotic assembly of taxi drivers and airport workers eagerly soliciting the new arrivals in hopes of securing a day’s wage. Work doesn’t come easy in this part of the world, an average day’s paycheck being a mere five dollars.

            We loaded up our rental car in the overbearing humidity with the help of a few zealous airport workers, and after tipping them we were on our way. Kim Diggs, the only one of our crew who had ever been to our destination before, said it was about a 2 or 3 hour drive away. Before we knew it, we had been in the car for 4 hours or so. I asked our driver Mario what time the sun set. He said 4pm. I glanced at my watch, it read 3pm. I looked outside, it sure seemed like there was still plenty of daylight left. I asked Mario if he knew how to get to our destination, “Sure, sure,” he replied “I know the way.” I soon began to realize that no matter what you asked Mario, he felt obligated to give you an assertive answer, even if he had no idea what the correct answer might be. The truth be told, we were lost, but Mario would never admit it. Instead he took us to his friend’s restaurant in a town that he said was on the way. We’d find out later the town was nowhere near where we wanted to be. As we ate our meals we realized his motives for bringing us here. He sat at the owners table talking with him for about twenty minutes, the two hunched over a piece of paper as Mario’s friend drew what looked to be a map with scribbled directions next to it. At first Mario seemed a bit reluctant at his friend’s instructions, but after some convincing the two seemed to come to agreement. By now our crew knew what was happening, and though you could sense the frustration, everyone stayed positive.  About a quarter ‘til 5pm I glanced at my watch, we were still driving and the sun had yet to set but my hopes for surf this day were quickly fading.

            Mario, though he might not have been the most adept guide, was a very nice man. I asked him about growing up in a war torn land. He told me about the civil war, how he and his family had moved to the U.S. until the war was over, and what it was like to move back to his homeland post war. He said he missed the opportunities the U.S. afforded, but that this was his home. I thought about what it must have been like to see this tranquil land turned into a war zone and how hard it must have been for Mario and his family to leave. But in reality, he was one of the fortunate few. Most people had to struggle through their daily lives amidst constant anxiety and fear of warfare. As it does everywhere it erupts, war left this land in shambles and it has yet to fully recover from it.

            We finally arrived at our destination with just enough light left to see a couple fun waves peel off with no one partaking in them. Neither would we this day as the last beams of light faded into darkness by the time we unloaded our gear. I glanced at my watch, 6:20pm. At least I knew now that we could surf past 4 in the afternoon. We thanked Mario for his assistance in getting us to our destination, but as we said goodbye I was a little relieved to no longer be dependant upon him for our transportation.

                       It’s amazing what you can do with a machete. If given the option of having only one tool the rest of my life, I’d probably choose to have a machete. It doesn’t seem to matter where you go in the developing world, it seems as though everyone has a machete. I can’t remember which one of our crew brought this to my attention, but the statement did seem to have some merit, especially as I watched a group of about 20 men hacking a field of thigh high reeds into oblivion. I admired their work ethic. It was a testament to the spirit of fortitude that saw them through a civil war and generations under a rather obnoxiously corrupt government. As I watched these guys diligently go about their business my mind wandered to the paradoxical debate of surf tourism in third world countries. I’m not going to pretend that my motives for being there were anything other than selfish. I was chasing most every surfer’s dream of finding pristine waves with no one but some friends to share them with. But watching these workers sweat through the 90-degree heat as I sat beachfront on a deck, I felt a little guilty. I tried to justify it by telling myself that by being there I was providing a source of income for the local communities. Or was I just taking advantage of their circumstances? My mind hurt as I pondered this dilemma, but surely there had to be a balance here.

                       I listened intently to Dan Malloy as he talked about a session he had a few years back at the infamous slab known as Shark Park. Dan was the eldest of the crew and seemed to have a sincere desire to pass along any helpful knowledge he has gained from his successful career as a professional surfer. I noticed him throughout the trip share bits of wisdom and insight that any aspiring pro would be lucky to get. He was a breath of fresh air: no pretense, no ego.  The fact that he is one of the best surfers in the world on any given piece of wave riding craft definitely added weight to what he said. On this trip he got barreled on just about everything a surfer can get barreled on; from alaia’s to twin fins, from hand planes to body surfing. Dan’s knowledge of what boards to ride in which ocean condition was inspiring. And for the most part the ocean was more than cooperative during our trip. When the waves are good, it’s easy not to focus on anything else. My quandary about surf travel had all but vanished. My thoughts instead were on the usual things during a surf trip: waves, boards, tides, winds, etc. I was blissfully too tired from surfing to give much thought to anything else. But waves don’t last forever, and as we experienced a few down days my thoughts began to return to my earlier inner debate.

            “I’m pretty sure he wants to throw a rock at my head” I told Kim Diggs as I laughed. She just laughed too. “But seriously, I think that’s what he said” I continued. Trevor Gordon, Chad Konig, Kim and I were all out surfing a waist high beach break. One of the local kids was out there as well with a group of his buddies. After going over the falls on one, he surfaced to hear the laughs of his peers. Immediately he sought a scapegoat, and as I was the nearest gringo I would get that honor. Though I hadn’t even paddled for the wave, apparently he felt it was my fault and thus muttered something about a rock and my head meeting. The incident provided us with a few laughs, but it also brought the surf tourism debate back to my mind. Here, seemingly a million miles from the nearest surf shop or strip mall, was a thriving local surf community. But like many third world communities, even ones that enjoy the sport of surfing, they were still living in a state of poverty. Part of me envied them, but only in the sense that the clutches of consumerism hadn’t fully reached them yet and so in that regard they were better off than I. But even if I were to give every bit of everything I owned to this community, it still wouldn’t solve the problem. And so my brain continued to hurt as I went round and round on the subject.

            Brad Corrigan is one third of the famed U.S. band Dispatch, and he also loves to surf. But more importantly, Brad is a humanitarian. Several years ago he’d stumbled on a community not too far from where we were staying called La Chureca. La Chureca is a trash dump, but it is also home to a community of several hundred people. The community survives by sifting through others’ trash in order to find anything that will provide enough sustenance to make it through another day. I won’t go into detail about the horrors of what these people go through living in such devastating circumstances, but as you can imagine it is heartbreaking. As a result of his first visit, Brad started a non-profit called Love, Light, and Melody (www.lovelightandmelody.org) in an effort to help the community at La Chureca. LL&M exists to battle the physical, emotional, and spiritual affects of extreme poverty. He and the folks at LL&M have spent countless hours inside the dump, getting to know the families that live there, providing aid, and trying to figure out a way to provide positive, lasting change for the community. LL&M has put on concerts inside the dump, brought in artists to paint murals inside the dump, and have done everything in their power to give the community a sense of purpose and identity despite their horrific living situation. LL&M is committed to a simple concept; Brad states, “When you walk with someone you're saying to them, 'I am with you.' We can walk in hell and not have fear.”

            Brad happened to be making a visit to La Chureca at the same time that we were nearby surfing and asked if we wanted to join him for a day in La Chureca. A couple members of our crew had to leave early, but those of us who remained came to the consensus that this would be a good way to end our trip. So we met up with him and a small group from Love, Light, and Melody for a visit to La Chureca.

            To be honest I felt like we didn’t do much; we gave away some clothes, met some families, and played soccer with some kids. But on the car ride back to the hotel that night, I had a talk with Brad and LL&M supporter Brian Nevins that seemed to bring the balance I’d been struggling to find in the surf tourism paradigm. I mentioned a little about the inner turmoil I’d been dealing with at witnessing this kind of poverty on surf trips and how I felt guilty for enjoying surfing so much with all this around me. Brad spoke of the concept of identifying with someone else’s plight that LL&M is so committed to and how this simple act of empathy can give someone hope; it can let them know that they aren’t trash.

            To all this I responded something like “Yeah, but I don’t know if I can surf tomorrow after seeing this.” Then Brian Nevins stated something that I thought was quite significant. He said in effect, “Oh, but you have to. You have to go out there and enjoy it. We are blessed we get to surf. We are fortunate to be able to, so we should appreciate that gift. Seeing this [La Chureca] reminds me how good we have it. It reminds me not to take anything for granted, including surfing.”

Suddenly my brain stopped hurting.