Joe Surf: A wake-up call in Peru

August 31, 2011|By Joe Haakenson

Remember returning to school after the summer and having to write an essay, "How I spent my summer vacation"?

Axel Eaton, about to enter his junior year at Newport Harbor High School, will have some pretty good material to go on — surely more than a lot of his friends, who will write, "hung out with friends, went to the beach, chilled."

Eaton, 16, spent three weeks in July in Lobitos, Peru, with an organization called Waves for Development, which aims to combine surfing with volunteering in downtrodden communities — they call it "surf voluntourism."


On its website,, the organization says it believes that "surf travel should benefit the people and communities where it happens."

Eaton's mom, Nancy, found Waves online and thought it would be good for her son to see how some of the rest of the world lives. And since Eaton is a surfer, it was a perfect fit.

Eaton, though, admits now that his motives initially were not so pure.

"Subconsciously, I went into this trip with a pretty selfish mindset of getting the best waves of my life and completing my required community service hours for high school," Eaton said.

Eaton, though, received a startling wake-up call soon after landing in Peru.

"I did anticipate a rundown community, but when I got there, it was super culture shock," he said. "As soon as I stepped off the plane, there was someone from Waves, and he says, 'Get into that moto-taxi.' It's basically a motorcycle with an extra seat. I threw my board on there and my guitar. It was kind of sketchy.

"I looked out the window and I'm thinking, 'Holy crap, what did I get myself into?' There were kids playing with a deflated soccer ball, loose dogs running everywhere."

Eaton began his service "planting tons of trees," but then found his calling — teaching English to third-graders at a local school. Eaton learned to speak Spanish when he was about the same age as those school kids, so it helped him communicate with them.

"Waves hires a teacher, but they can only be there twice a week, so to be there really helps out," Eaton said. "The education there is so bad, and the behavior is not good. You're there to not just teach them, but to help them realize education is important.

"The community there is completely poor at all levels. But as soon as you walk into the classroom, the kids lit up. They would get so excited when they would see someone new. So you try to empower them to want to learn."

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