Love can be felt in many contexts. Its sensations aren’t bound by the storyline of two star-crossed companions. Love is the foundation in a group of close friends. And for a specific group of South Bay wanderers this past week, love started with a trip to a dirt-poor third-world country. We were a band of people who had only shared conversation through a mildly hilarious string of group texts. We all shared common goals of finding good waves and ridding ourselves of Los Angeles winter-induced wetsuit neck tans. As the week went on, though, the trip started to become less and less about the surf, and more about what was to be found in between.
We were headed to La Barra Surf Camp in Nicaragua, a popular accommodation of Adventure Sports Tours with a big house broken into quadrants of comfy bunk-laden rooms that made ten of us instant roommates. Four surf spots were mere steps down the cliff and dozens more were a short boat ride away, which left us almost zero downtime. Jalapeño margaritas at La Barra’s Single Fin bar filled the gaps. We also had a terrace lined with hammocks that swayed in the offshore wind, perversely inappropriate nighttime games of Cards Against Humanity, and the perpetual melodies of lovers Joey and Suzi harmonizing together, often strumming the Ukelele to Vance Joy’s “Riptide.” And in few larger gaps, some of us had the chance to experience the love overflowing from a country that knows nothing of wealth.
Luis, La Barra’s surf guide, is a confident 20-year-old edgy-but-friendly local ripper whose bright smile softens his rough-around-the-edges demeanor. Along with our own supply of boards, we had six surfboards generously donated by charitable people from the South Bay community and made Luis the boss in developing a plan to get the boards into deserving local hands.
He had nothing to gain from the task and wasn’t keeping a board for himself, but Luis was steadfast in his mission and took to it with great care and compassion. It was the first thing that I saw bring out that soft side in Luis. Luis rounded together three shy kids to come by the camp on Wednesday and matched the children with appropriate boards by expertise and experience. He translated our conversations with the kids, and I could see him internalizing and thinking about his own answers to questions like “What does surfing mean to you?” and “What do you love about the ocean?” The next day, he drove professional longboarder Christian Stutzman and I an hour and a half south to Panchomilla, a seaside fishing town where his friend Cesar, a local restaurant owner, had collected some old boards and kept them as a communal pool for kids that wanted to surf. We had three fresh sleds to brighten up the stockpile of tarnished foam and sheets of fiberglass and spent two hours with the group of young boys with ear-to-ear grins, trading off waves with their new boards. When we got back, Emily and Juan, surf camp manager power duo, told us Luis was speaking about starting a board pool of his own, suddenly hit with the urge to make equipment available to the up-and-coming young surfers of Puerto Sandino.
Love was felt in stories on Thursday night. Jen Capo, founder of Life Aquatic: Ocean Dwellers and Storytellers, threw together a Nicaraguan style pop-up edition of the storytelling event complete with a stage, candlelight, audience, programs, and “Dark and Stories” drink specials. Each member of the crew told a personal five-minute unscripted story inspired by the ocean, all accompanied by tears, laughs, and falling into the looking glass of all our travel partner’s eyes for a few moments.
Travel really entwines you with others – most of us started as fairly fresh acquaintances, and a few days into the trip we became family. Suzi and Joey were the musical bread and butter. Jen, the witty storyteller, and Brendan Simmons, the worldly surfer and photographer. There was Marion Clark, wise teacher, and Layla Lari, youngest of the bunch and surprisingly the most adaptable. Christian, the soulful longboarder with a big, infectious smile. Val and Jeff are adventurous, beautiful couple. And Kathy Berry, the last minute camp add-on from the East Coast who became a crowd favorite. There is no hiding your true selves from enduring the stresses of travel or the pure joy and elation of new sights, sounds, and feelings.
Love was really summed up on the last day of the trip. We had some clothes and monetary donations that needed a home, and super couple Emily and Juan recommended we speak with Pastor, a local community activist who had started a program called Miramar Sunrise. The program involved beach cleanups, English lessons, gardening, and more. I spoke with Pastor and we decided to organize a Sunday morning beach cleanup with a few kids before checking out the facilities at the church. When Sunday morning came we were all moving at a snail’s pace from the Saturday’s celebration. Juan found me struggling through my second cup of coffee and said with a smile, “The kids are here.” I walked out to the terrace and my jaw dropped as I looked down to the water’s edge at nearly 50 smiling faces, brightly colored shirts, and little hands clasped around plastic bags.
Luke, the camp Labrador, circled our group as we spent an hour on the hot sand filling seven garbage bags to the brim with bottle caps, straws, and other beach refuse. One by one, the rest of the tired group started to trickle down, and we all looked at each other in different moments of amazement as we shared conversations in broken Spanglish with children and parents of different ages. Layla, our group dubbed model, was feeling inspired, and in the midst of all the action decided to leave her beautiful pink longboard behind for Pastor to use for the kids. Oliver, maybe 5, was attached to my hip, and as we picked up trash and tried talking about the ocean, his toothy grin stole my heart. He took my hand for the walk back and it was hard to let go.
Pastor invited Suzi and I to the church where the first steps inside made my already full heart overflow. Twenty-five kids were circled in chairs. One by one, each child stood up, introduced themselves and shared their favorite color, all in English. Pastor led us outside to the garden where they’ve been growing peppers and shared his plans to build a kitchen and bathroom next to the church. He has big plans to go right along with his big heart, hoping to implement his Miramar Sunrise program in other communities. His inspiration has left a mark in each member of the program and his love for people has been the spark for children that had been indifferent, aloof, and somewhat narrow-minded. They are the ones now tugging on his sleeves every week, asking what they can do to help or wanting to organize beach cleanups of their own. As it was time to leave, my hand unclasped from Oliver’s, and he said in Spanish, “I’ll miss you.”
A week in Nicaragua showed me that love has no singular definition. It’s fluid. It isn’t bound together between roses and chocolates. The material aspects of love are where the word gets lost. Love is in the air, in the salt. It’s in our connections to others, it’s in the garden of a community. We feel it when we are the most vulnerable, walking around barefoot without painted faces for a week amongst strangers. We see it clearly when the world is blurry from a six-hour surf session with brand new friends, or when we hold a child so tightly in our arms that doesn’t speak the same language. Love is the selflessness of Pastor, who gives everything he has only to receive nothing back. And most importantly, love is in all of us. Sometimes it just takes a trip with a group of silly folks to remember that you can find love anywhere.