Stories From Volunteers: Brian Lam

Brian Lam, one of our Surf For Life volunteers and former Editorial Director at Gizmodo, recently wrote a post on The Wire Cutter called “MAGIC MAKES TIME” in which he tells the story about our trip to El Salvador. Check it out!

The 9am El Salvadorian sun beat down like a drum. And here we were trying to move a two-ton mound of dirt with nothing but the most primitive tools.

In my hand was a shovel. The blade of the rusty, cracked spade bit down again and again. Every other scoop it would hit a rock, decelerate to zero, and send a jolt through its handle. I wanted nothing more than to sit in the shade and sip fresh green coconuts. But we had many more hours and days to go and the sun had hours more of rising to do. I kept reaching for a phone that was not there to distract me from the discomfort. In its place, I retreated into a day dream filled with air conditioners, coca cola in frosty bottles and orange creamsicles; dump trucks, caterpillars and back hoes of cold, scratched up metal. And the beach. Which I could get to quicker if only we had better tools. Better technology.

 

A month ago I boarded a plane from California to El Salvador. I was going to surf. But I was also going help build the region’s first high school through Surf For Life, a non profit that tucks surf vacations inside of charity work. Most of the rest of the gang came from my sleepy, foggy neighborhood, the Sunset, which is like a little secret beach town inside of San Francisco.

There’s Danny Hess, the gentle giant and former Ventura, California lifeguard who ended up pioneering the modern wooden surfboard. His wife Erin Kunkel, a photographer who took the better photos in this story. And Jay Nelson, an artist who is famous for his treehouses and fantasy techno-surf vehicles that evoke buckminster fuller’s dynocar and geodesic domes.*

I travelled with a bright blue duffel bag filled with gadgets donated for the school’s first computer lab: laptops from Lenovo, cameras from GoPro, Mindstorm kits from Lego, a projector from Epson, and solar chargers from joos.

In my other bag was yet another fine machine, but one that is analog: A bright yellow 5-finned surfboard called a Bonzer shaped by Malcolm Campbell of the Campbell Brothers. Malcolm and Duncan are sort of hippie/technologist/surfers guys from Southern California. Bonzers are boards with deep channels and angled side fins that organize water flow well. This board was a little longer than boards I’d normally use because we were expecting some waves well overhead. It was also longer because I am a terrible surfer and need all the help I can get.

I was carrying all I could carry as I stumbled out of customs and into a van where sleep came easily. Two hours later the ride ended along a jungle coastline and a little town called El Cuco known more for its waves than its material prosperity. We were staying at a surf camp on the beach called Azul Surf Club, run and owned by a sweet but tough woman raised in LA, Lisette Perez. There were rumors that she once organized the town’s resistance to a gang hustling for protection money, and drove them out of town. Now, she is organizing the fund raising that will pay for the high school.

Surfers come to this town year round, but it’s not too often that travelers get to do more than inject some tourist money into the local economy. We were lucky enough to be getting our hands dirty, but I’m sure the locals were wondering why we came so far to do such hard work for free. To them, we probably looked like kind idiots.

The first day of the build, we sorted dirt and concrete bits in order to clear the foundation. The digging unearthed a palm tree root as big as a small dinner table. I knew exactly how to get it out of the ground, but my method involved a chainsaw, some gasoline, and some matches as well as a giant tonka truck. We had matches.

I thought the group was healthy, strong and smart and we would get the job done easily. The locals humiliated us with their greater strength and efficiency but also how they handled their construction tools. They axed apart the stump in a matter of minutes. They mixed concrete by shovel on a stone walkway. I carried a 75-pound bag of concrete on my belly; A 14 year old boy who looked ten years old hauled the same on his shoulder, barefoot. They would bend rebar and pour foundations only to have us screw up the walls stacked on top by misaligning the cinderblocks. They would not know how to use a computer; but we were buffoons with the gear that they lived with. Shovels and junk like that.

One kid came up to Jay, and at his own own long boardshorts and said “Hombre”. Then looked at Jay’s pink cutoff shorts and said, “chicas”. Jay told the kid he had scissors and would be happy to transform the kid’s long shorts into short ones. Jay said, “one day, you’ll understand.”

I have no concept of how much time it actually takes to build something out of concrete and wood and steel. I thought it would take a week for the dozen of us to get it done. Like in a video game or something. By the week’s end, after hundreds of man hours, we had only accomplished a foundation and a 3 foot tall wall around the perimeter. It was humbling.

Toiling ineffectively at the dirty, stone, cinderblocks and wet cement I realized that the measure of technology is not merely in its ability to help us achieve tasks that could not be done before. But on some level, its ability to extend our lives. With the right machines, we could have finished this school in a week instead of several months. It would have at least cut our shoveling time by 90%. Multiple that effect across our lives, day in and day out–compare the time spent on correspondence over email versus letter writing–and it means we’re living much longer than people before the digital age, thanks to simple tools like smartphones and computers. That is, as long as we use our tools to not only do more work, but make time for more leisure.

Leisure was good. The nearby surf break was reached by a pick up truck that all of us jammed into, barefoot with 10 or so surfboard stacked on top of each other’s sharp fins. The last part of the trip was to descend down a stone path slipping as much as driving until we reached a broad hard packed beach. The sand bottomed bay collected itself into a black cobble stone point covered in budding coconut husks. At the end, energy from distant storms, organized over thousands of miles, butted up against the point and formed waves about head high and them some. I got a few good rides but I was often too nervous around all the amazing surfers to do anything but watch. I had no complaints, but one day I earned a little sunstroke from the prison-style labor. Paddling out to a wave I expected to be refreshed, but the water was almost as hot as the humid air. It made me want to vomit, so I came back in and slept under a thatched roof near a little bar on the water. I sometimes feel incompetent without machines. Which is why the pride of heavy lifting was valuable to me. To prove I could live without the advanced tools.

We were piling stones outside to a trash pile when a dump truck drove by the build site. I mentioned I wish we had one and someone said, “But we’ll always remember this trip, because of the pain.” It was a revelation that the work itself had more value to me than the output alone. The work–inefficient, slow, painful at times because of lack of modern equipment–did something to me I can’t really measure. The same thought came to mind when we saw a rowdy group of Brazilian surfers avoid the strong current that we were paddling through to get out to the surf by renting a boat to drop them off repeatedly at the break instead of with their own muscles.

What if the tools we live with are robbing us of experiences?

The gadgets for the kids were not on my mind very often this week. I mean, we couldn’t even finish the school. But the local workers would finish what we helped them start by January and I would be back to help develop a curriculum for them using the tools donated. And in a few months, the kids who had no where to go beyond junior high school will have a place to extend their education. Maybe some of them will find a way to college. But my thinking is that the use of computers and cameras and the rest of the tools will be mind opening, mind blowing and perhaps give them some skills that will translate into jobs beyond the village boundaries. If one of these kids turns into an engineer or designer or programmer, the computers and gear might be as important as the high school itself.

One of the last nights of the trip we piled into a pick up truck one last time and headed to the point under a full moon. You couldn’t see the waves rising out of the warm glassy sea until they were on top of you but somehow we caught a few by feel alone.

*Thanks to EpsonGoProLegoLenovo for supporting the cause. Thank you to Gizmodo for being the media sponsor for the trip. Thank you to Joe Brown, my editor, for the idea.*

*Also on the trip: There’s Reis, who lived out of a van in Kauai for years before helping create the DIY surf video site Korduroy.tv. Jaimal Yogis, who ran away to Hawaii as a teenager to learn how to surf and author of Saltwater Buddha. And Mark Lukach who runs @oceanbeach, and is a Scuttlefish writer. And Andy Olive who, when he isn’t teaching preschool a block from the beach, drives around town in a big black and orange van with the words “SAN FRANPSYCHO” on the side. Ward Robinson, shooting film the entire trip and getting some great rides on his Pavel Fish. And professional surfer Holly Beck who happens to be a video editing maniac
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