Friends trek to Central America to session and give back to the local community.

    Story — Mark Lukach
    Portraits — Ward Robinson
    Surf images — Erin Kunkel

    In September 2011, I went on a surf trip to El Salvador with a bunch of friends. Group trips are a fairly commonplace thing for surfers, who are wanderers by nature – but this one was something special. Sure, the waves were incredible, but we were there as much to help non-profit Surf For Life build a high school, the first one in the town we were visiting, as we were to surf.

    Our daily schedule was demanding. Up at 4:30 a.m. to surf until 8 a.m. Chow a massive breakfast, and then head out to the worksite to dig, sift concrete and lay bricks under the stifling El Salvadorian heat. Break for lunch, and then back to work until around 4 p.m. for the second surf session until dusk. Dinner. Bed. Wash. Rinse and repeat.

    A solid week of days like that isn’t for everyone, so when you get a group of people together who are all rabidly stoked to spend their time like that, it casts a certain hue of magic over the experience. In fact, that magic seemed to be a bit contagious, as other traveling surfers rearranged their schedules so that they could help pitch in with the work at the school.

    My good friend Brian Lam and I were on the same flight out of San Francisco together. He fell asleep on the plane, and when he woke up, the stewardess was asking me if I wanted pancakes. Brian groggily looked at me and asked, “How did I wake up in your dream?” That sentiment summed up the whole trip – everyone finding out about each other’s passions, personalities and surfing styles, and reveling in our collective mishaps and talents.

    When I look back on this trip, I know that the details of the waves will melt away, and even the satisfaction of helping build a school will lose its immediacy, but the aura surrounding the people whom I met and befriended in El Cuco will stay with me for life. So here’s an homage, centered around some amazing portraits, to the people who turned a surf trip to El Salvador into something far more substantial.

  • The boards. The essential equipment for the experience. Danny Hess made most of these boards, but it was Ward’s idea to lay them all out to arrange this photo from the balcony of the hotel where we were staying. This image is a fitting tribute not only to our surf craft but to the man behind the camera lens, Ward, who had the eye to realize that there is no better way to visually summarize a surf trip than a shot of the quiver.

  • Jaimal calls Danny Hess a gnome. Danny seems to be happiest when he’s either in the line-up by himself or hard at work in his woodshop in solitude. The guy makes gorgeous wooden surfboards. He has a quiet, humble, almost apologetic demeanor. It was fitting that while we were down there Danny figured out a way to work with Jay to design desks and benches for the school that were functional, easy to re-assemble for the locals, and also beautiful. Working on the chairs, in the heat, off to the side of the main school construction site, you could tell that Danny was happy. Just like a gnome.

  • Here’s Zach Slobig, who had already been in Central America with his wife Sachi and their dog Mugsy for a few months, living out of their camper and getting waves. He’s a freelance journalist, and actually put together a pretty cool story for NPR, hence the fuzzy microphone. But what made him the most memorable was his groovy surf stance. He rides with his two feet practically next to each other, Duke-style, with so much poise and coolness. It’s a fitting surf style for such a mellow, thoughtful guy.

  • One look at Andy Olive, and you immediately think, “This guy is having a good time. Whatever he’s doing, and wherever he’s going, I’m in.” Andy is stoked, plain and simple. We were out one day when it was really crowded and there was a lot of jockeying, and a big set wave came right to Andy. He paddled for it, and at the last second, he ditched his board to “tow-in bodysurf” into the wave. It was ridiculous but he didn’t care about the wave, he just wanted to break up the tense mood in the line-up. Good on you, Andy.

  • The Saltwater Buddha himself, Jaimal Yogis, was the man who brought us all together. He connected with Surf For Life and helped rally the participants behind the trip. Jaimal lives just down the street from me in San Francisco, and there are few surfers, writers, or people that I admire more. It’s fitting that in this photo he is standing with power but also with humility, hiding his face under the brim of his hat. As a Zen Buddhist, Jaimal’s quiet grace is really an amazing thing to experience. His surfing is a thing of beauty to watch.

  • On the other end of the spectrum is Alex Fang, one of the co-founders of Surf For Life and another lynchpin of the trip. He is joie de vivre in action, a man who always has a smile and is game for anything, including night surfing. Alex is another San Francisco-based surfer, and the type of guy whose commitment to helping others isn’t something that only happens during the holidays – it’s a part of his every waking moment. We’re all indebted to him for creating Surf For Life in the first place, because without it, there would not have been this trip.

  • One day after surfing, I was sitting around with Jay Nelson under a grassy hut and a local kid came up and pointed to Jay’s neon-pink board shorts, which end way above his knees. “Your shorts? Chicas. My shorts? Hombres.” The kid demonstrated to Jay that men should wear their board shorts below the knees. “I can get scissors and cut yours if you want,” Jay replied nonchalantly. “No no no. Your shorts? Chicas.” Jay laughed it off. “Some day you’ll understand.” I love this story because it sums him up: one of the most aesthetic people I know, in such a cool and understated way.

  • Garrett and Jessie found each other, and us, while doing their own traveling in Central America. Andy knew Garrett from the City, so the two mentioned the idea of meeting up while we were down there and the next thing we know, we’re all drenched in sweat and shoveling dirt together in El Cuco. To me, Garrett and Jessie represent the unexpected joy that is unique to traveling the world with no set agenda. You can find love, friendship, and satisfying work when you’re least expecting it and really just looking for good waves. In El Cuco, they were simply living in the moment. What more can you ask for?

  • Ah, the talented and beautiful Holly Beck. She is the idealized California Girl to me. When I was a high school kid in Pennsylvania, I had a poster of her on my wall, and the image of her skating through hills that overlooked the ocean convinced me to pursue a dream of coastal California living. I never imagined I would surf with her for a week in El Salvador. Holly is an empowered woman who can tussle with the boys and make us all look silly with how damn good she is. She reminds you it doesn’t matter if you’re a guy or a girl when you’re ripping. Just be good to each other.

    Learn more at : surfforlife.org