I have booked plane tickets to locations across the globe for a multitude of reasons; work meetings, personal growth, surf, motocross races, fly fishing adventures and sometimes for the sole purpose to just see some place new. This time was different, I had a purpose. Since I was a boy, I had never really expected that one day I would be traveling to such distant places, the world just seemed so big. It was never my goal to be an adventurer. Ironically, that is exactly what I have done for the last several years of my life. Over the years, finding myself in a new city was not an unfamiliar feeling to me, and yet as I looked back on my travels, I couldn't help but feel a certain emptiness. Something was missing, and yet with each scan of a plane ticket, the void only grew. I was aware of it, this swelling feeling of discontent, and I knew that a crucial element was absent in my travels. The pictures on Instagram looked great but how could I really be so unsatisfied with my journeys? What was I missing? Though I couldn't put my finger on it, I fortunately didn't have to wait long to find out exactly what was the missing needle of my compass.
When my longtime friend, Zach Ifland, invited me to join him in Morocco, I had no idea what I was stepping into. Zach is the Director of Operations at Surfing the Nations (STN), a non-profit, humanitarian organization based in Wahiawa, Hawaii, with members who live by the motto of “Surfers Giving Back.” They are a community of people who believe in using their talents and passions for surfing to give back and bring the message of love and hope to their local community along with International communities across the world that are remote and are in need. I have known Zach for some time and his appetite for doing something OFF THE WALL matches mine, and when he told me this would be a trip of a lifetime, and that it would be different than any other adventure I had been on, something in me told me I had to go. I could hear it in his voice – this trip would change my life. It almost seems like a blur how fast it happened, but before I knew it I was on Expedia. Hesitance filled my mind. What was I doing? I didn’t even have the vacation days to make this trip, much less the money, but it seemed like these things had a habit of just working out. Adventure was calling so, I clicked the purchase button.
Any surfer knows packing for a Surf adventure is a bit different from a normal backpacking trip. You start by checking/analyzing/predicting the swell forecast to decide on which boards to select out of your quiver. Zach suggested some backup equipment as well since we wouldn't be close to any surf shops, and these items consisted mostly of extra fins, leashes, sunscreen, board repair kits, and roof straps. On my own I had the forethought to put together a medkit. I wasn’t exactly expecting a shark to be my new buddy in Morocco, but surfing is a dangerous sport regardless. So, I grabbed sutures, scalpels, alcohol swabs, gauze, super glue and tape – all the things I thought I might need to fix a problem in a hurry. You are inevitable going come out of the water with reef rash across your back and or Sea Urchin speared through your feet. I needed to be ready for anything.
Once I had put together my packing list neatly into Excel, I made a Skype call with the STN team to discuss trip logistics. They informed me that I was welcome to bring what I thought was necessary for the trip, but that they would need me to check an additional bag for the flight. A bit confused, I began to read off the equipment from my Excel list, thinking I was sure I had packed everything. The surf bag and my pack, but what could I possibly need a third bag for? The answer was surprising, but it made total sense. When I asked what I needed to put into this third bag that I would check at the airport, they simply answered, “Donations.” Already this adventure was turning out to be a bit different than the ones I had been on previously. I have been fortunate enough to have friends and family in the Surf business and I have more t-shirts, hats and board shorts than I could account for or even possibly wear in a single season. Eagerly, I began to cram as many shirts, hats, and board shorts into my bag as I could possibly fit.
After several hours, my packing was as follows:
Surfboard Bag: 6’0 performance short board and my 6’8 Step-Up (for 25-30ft forecasted waves). 3/2 wetsuit. 3/2 Booties. 30 Bars of Sticky Bumps Cool Wax and wax comb. 3 Comp. surf leashes. 5 Sets of Futures Fins. Extra deck pad.
Carry On Back Pack: Camera gear. First Aid Kit. 4 T-Shirts. Board shorts. Extra pair of wool socks. Patagonia Nano Puff jacket. Nike Dry-Fit underoos. Nomadix towel. Goal Zero Solar Panel and battery. Toiletries.
Checked Donation Bag: A mountain of Hurley, RVCA, Quicksilver and DC clothing that I had accumulated over the past few years.
I smiled in achievement as I looked over my collection of supplies. I was ready.
32 hours later, I had made it to North Africa, quickly uniting with 13 other individuals who made up our team. Somehow we were able to fit our mountain of luggage into muddied, dust covered Range Rovers. I’m not sure what is legal in the U.S., but I think it’s safe to say that we had to stack our luggage on top of the car to a height that probably wouldn’t be acceptable anywhere else.
We spent a few days with some EX-Pats in Darbueza getting our bearings, becoming acclimated to the culture and catching some muddy waves. Not sure what we would be doing first, I was surprised that we would actually not be heading to the waves I have been frothing over for weeks. Instead, we would be traveling to Marrakesh, where we would be doing something a bit unexpected. At that moment, I began to experience what had made this trip so tangibly different from any other adventure I had been on previously. This trip had a purpose, one that was real, significant, and beautiful. With all of us in the car, we began our journey. I will never forget the friendships that were developed on that car ride, a ride that involved 13 people bonding with a unified purpose.
Once in Marrakesh, we partnered with a local tourism outfit to lead us on an exploration up into the towering Atlas mountain range. A man named Mustapha was our guide, and as we left the city, Mustapha began to realize we weren’t tourists looking to see the popular spots. He was a bit surprised when we explained where we wanted to go, somewhere that he had not heard tourists or surfers request. Into the mountain range we went, far from any ocean where a surfer would be content. We directed our driver off the road and up the unpaved hillside, finally stopping in a remote Berber village, where kids would come from across the valley to attend school each day. Here, families were mostly shepherds or farmers who grew olives in the expansive groves stretching far up into the valley. Completely different from what we are accustom to seeing in the states, the people here lived in a minimalistic way. Houses were bare and only possessed the basic necessities; there were no satellite dishes perched on rooftops or even power lines running above the homes. When families needed water, they would go to the town’s only well. Cars were nearly nonexistent, and oddly enough the town utilized a local transit system where the vehicles contained 4 legs and resembled “Eeyore” from “Winnie the Pooh”.
We were quickly ushered by the village elders into a local home to be presented the best traditional Tajeen meal I had on the trip. We graciously offered many thanks and prepared for the lightening of our travel load by gifting the donations consisting of children’s cloths. No plan or tactical operation could have prepared the donations to be organized and handed out in a calm manner, and the resulting chaos you would expect to ensue, did. It would be impossible for my words alone to express the incredible moments we experienced that day. Laughter was loud and the smiles were gigantic, and the children of this village were ecstatic and grateful for our decision to visit their home. After we had given out the donations, we spent the rest of day at the modest schoolhouse telling stories, playing games, answering questions, and even singing and dancing. We were blessed to have a few very talented musicians within the group that led an impromptu concert that echoed into homes throughout the distant in the valley.
At the end of the day, I was exhausted, and I hadn’t even spent a single moment on the surfboard. I couldn’t help but be moved by these people who I had expected to provide for. How could these people be filled with so much love while having so very little? It seemed that this village possessed the strongest of relationships, with a school that had more laughter and shining smiles than I had ever witnessed. The children were beautiful in their innocence, and the language we spoke was one of love, laughter, and futbol.
By sunset, we had accomplished our mission to the village in the mountains that we had set out for; we were able to bring happiness to some children that were overly deserving of it. But this was only the start of our trip, and our journey was far from over. Jumping back into our Range Rovers, we began our drive to the surf town of Tagazout. As we traveled to Tagazout I spent most of the drive in reflection of how so little could do so much. Already, I was changed, and I found myself being so grateful that Zach had urged me to come.
When we arrived in Tagazout, we were quickly and graciously welcomed into the small community. We met local brothers that ran a hostel that catered to traveling surfers, and they immediately pointed us to all the important surfing locations in the town, such as the four main surf spots on the beaches or the plethora of board repair shops. Walking the streets of the town it was easy to notice the abundance of Surf repair shops without any shortage of smashed boards sitting and waiting their turn. This usually indicates a plethora of bad surfers or large sneaky slippery rocks hiding below the waterline. The agenda for the next few weeks was open. We had waves on the forecast but had sometime to figure out how we could give back to the community that had been so quick to welcome us in.
Each morning we began our day with an hour dedicated towards reading the Word. I never would have thought of this as a gift, but it was one that would completely reshape my future routine every morning for the rest of my life. Many times have I attempted to learn the Word by reading chapters, verses, or even other people’s interpretations of specific verses. However, I had never really found a method that stuck for me in a meaningful way. I mentioned this to Zach, who recommended I try SOAP. In all honesty, I was too apprehensive to ask what the acronym stood for, even though I told him it was a good idea. Fortunately, my new buddy, Nic, was nice enough to break it down for me. SOAP stood for the following:
S for Scripture - Open your Bible to today’s reading (We had chosen as a group to go through James). Take time reading and allow God to speak to you. When you are done, look for a verse that particularly spoke to you that day, and write it in your journal.
O for Observation - What struck you and caught your attention in what you read? Paraphrase and write this scripture down in your own words.
A for Application - Personalize what you have read by asking yourself how it applies to your life right now. Perhaps it is instruction, encouragement, revelation of a new promise, or corrections for a particular area of your life. Write how this scripture can apply to you today.
P for Prayer - This can be as simple as asking God to help you use this scripture, or it may be a greater insight on what he may be revealing to you.
Through this hour, I was able to truly review the teachings within the Word and reflect on how important and applicable it is in my own life. Furthermore, we formed small groups within our team to share what we had learned from the teachings for that day. My small group consisted of Zach, Julie, and Nic in years past I might consider this to be “random pairing”. These three people are Leaders that I had grown to admire in the few short days we had spent together. I soon saw God’s reasoning behind it. As we spent the next few days together, I really grew to admire these three individuals as leaders in my own life, and their knowledge and perspective both challenged and encouraged growth on a spiritual level I had never experienced.
On Saturday morning, Nic approached me and challenged me to be the one who delivered the sermon at the Surfer’s Church we were planning the following morning. I instantly expressed my hesitation and tried to retreat from his challenge. After all, I often feel inadequate in my faith and I am afraid to be considered a teacher or leader to others. In short, I just don’t have it all figured out, and I have never once considered myself to be the best example of a follower of Christ. For example, I could not explain why David in Psalms is so quick to change from loving the Lord to feeling so forsaken, and I don’t even really understand what the elements of the sacraments are. Nic was unmoved by my hesitation, I quickly embraced the discomfort and I realized that this was the perfect opportunity to grow in my faith. I agreed to give the sermon.
I struggled with putting something together that I could deliver to my team in faith that would be meaningful and encouraging. I knew that giving my testimony would be a lengthy story and that I didn’t want to pick a single verse to teach through. It’s often that my answer to many issues in life is to just “keep it simple”. As a result, I began using my iPhone to compile notes, quotes, and experiences. I settled on telling the story of what toppled my faith years ago and the specific two sentences’ that were able to rebuild it.
The following is the sermon I presented to my group:
I have had to give presentations to leaders of my industry before and yet I had never been so nervous in front of a group of people. I was challenged, I was vulnerable, and I was uncomfortable in a way that encouraged growth. My passion for spreading the good news grew, and I was stronger for doing it.
Over the next few days, we were able to cultivate a relationship with the locals of Tagazout. It was our goal to show them our group was something different, that we were interested in their lives. I introduced myself to a young kid named Hicham who owned a surf repair shop. The shop itself was about the size of a modest American bedroom and, like many of the other shops in town, it had a decent back log of boards waiting for fiberglass resin to dry. What I liked most about Hicham right away was his appreciation for music. He had this old boom box that was at least a decade old, and as he worked in the store, Hicham would listen to his favorite Hip-Hop playlist. As I got to know Hicham, I realized how much my complex preparation had missed its mark. I found myself longing for the most rudimentary understanding of Arabic so I could carry on a conversation with Hicham. With my limited language and nonverbal gestures, we were able to spend some time together and listen to his recent playlist. In most cases, I knew I really only had Spotify playlists of Indie Rock, but I had recently been obsessed with a new Hip-Hop release called Run the Jewels. It was an album performed by an American Hip-Hop duo, formed by New York City-based rapper and producer El-P and Atlanta-based rapper Killer Mike. I not only knew he would have no idea who these people were and that he probably wouldn’t be able to really appreciate the lyrical content of the music, but I also knew the album had a unique sound that Hicham would dig. I’ll never forget the grinning smile on Hicham’s face when I first showed him one of the album’s main songs. We sat there in silence enjoying what had been called the Hip-Hop album of the year. We had made an irreplaceable connection, and through the reminder of my time in Africa I would make time to stop by and catch up on his work load and share some of the songs I thought he would like.
When I wasn’t with Hicham, I was spending a great deal of time with the hostel brothers and their best friends. The localism was understandably quite high, with surf tourism taking over these remote breaks. On our second night a group of us decided to catch a sunset session at the spot named “Hash Point”. The folklore of how the spot received its name came from the fact the break was so easy to run out to the point and hop into you could be really high on hash and still make it. I can’t say I tried it under these conditions, but the spot made for an exciting evening for one of our first surfing sessions. As we were speaking with our new friend Morad, he noticed that our group was about to hop into the empty line up at Hash. In the middle of his story, Morad turned and in a dead sprint took off to grab his suit and board. Seeing that the waves were not overly impressive, I was confused it wasn’t good enough for me to consider a battle with my cold wetty but I know what it’s like to want to catch just “one more’ before sunset. Yet in a moment’s notice, Morad was out into the water, quickly being joined by a few of his friends. We later found out that this crew had a pact -- to make sure at least one of them was out in the line up to protect it whenever there were vacationers out. This was a pact they have had for years. Localism is present in almost all waves, and Morad and his friends’ tactics of ownership and intimidation was to remind the travelers they were guests. To their surprise, however, we didn't take a position of intimidation. Instead, they found themselves being cheered and amped up by the STN surfers. I’m not sure what they thought of it, but I know they could tell there was something different about us.
As our trip in Tagazout came to a close, it was time again to lighten our luggage and to bless the locals. There were a few individuals that we had developed close friendships with, individuals like Hicham and Morad. Many of them had worn down gear that had seen its fair share of use, while others weren’t even able to surf due to wrecked equipment that was too expensive to be replaced. There were a few guys who had told us stories of how their boards had fin boxes ripped out or snapped the last time they had been out. We gathered the boards that were intended to be gifted, and as I collected all of the extra fins, leashes and wax, I found myself experiencing the same feeling that had been present in Berber. It truly is better to give than to receive, and I remember in that moment, the satisfaction and fulfillment present was like no other moment prior. Once again, our purpose has been fulfilled, and our equipment had been gifted so that it could be reborn into a new life of daily use with the locals.
No better moment exists in the world than to give something you consider special to someone that is deserving. The moment a person’s eyes light up in the realization of the transfer of ownership, followed by the overwhelming graciousness felt by the embrace and “thank you” will immediately change the way in which you think of “value.” Sure, I could have sold the board for a few hundred dollars on craigslist to put towards the deposit for a new shred sled. However, the realization that I was paying forward a level of “stoke” with new fins or a new board was insurmountable. Getting these kids back in the water and doing something that I have such a passion for is one of the things I can truly say is priceless. My only regret is that I couldn’t have brought more. On the last day I found myself running through the town gifting every single piece of clothing I had left. This isn’t to brag or say that I accomplished some great feat – just that when the gift of giving catches you, you cannot help but fully embrace it. In those last minutes before our departure back towards the airport, I experienced the greatest moments of my life. To see kids truly impacted by grace and giving, with nothing required in return, I will never forget the experience. The highest of fives and embracing hugs were ALL TIME. – all of these were the perfect ending to being able to give kids a new level of “stoke” that can only come from a shared passion for surfing.
After this, I found myself heading to the airport with not only a lighter pack but with a lighter heart. For someone who has traveled the world, I know now that I will forever see my journeys differently. It is no longer the destination that matters, but the change you can accomplish on the path with the service mindset. Through this, the unimportant and insignificant daily struggles disappear, and you grow in ways that you would never have imagined.
When Zach first called me, I had no idea all the ways that I would be changed due to this trip. I came in with open expectations, and now I cannot begin to describe how impacted I have been. One thing is for certain -- the love I have felt on this trip has transformed me. In my entire life, I have never experienced the love like I felt from my STN team members. Now, I understand why so many people dedicate themselves to service through STN. The love I felt on this trip has transformed me. The love I felt from my STN teammates was received on a level I have never experienced. Being surrounded in that passion is impactful. The Love I got to observe that Julie and Nic have for each other has forever changed the way in which I view the relationship I want for myself. Having a relationship built within the love that our father has for us is one of the most impactful lessons I have ever seen firsthand. They have both individually built an enduring relationship with Christ and with that love united they have developed something special that contains the power to the change the world. Learning how to journal each morning and being surrounded in our Father’s love and teaching brought me to a level of understanding, perspective, comfort and power that I have never before experienced. I have learned that I am able to keep a service mindset each day, I am able to keep my eyes open for ways in which to serve, and I am able to help and love on every person I interact with. Despite what I thought before this trip, I see now that I am in fact a leader in my faith and I will show his glory though my actions each day. I have spent so many years considering how I was going to be able to put a dent in this world and leave it forever changed; I now know and am filled with an overflowing sense of purpose. What can I say? I am fired up and have never been more stoked in this life! Now, looking back on my trip, I think of that first conversation Zach and I had. I knew this trip would be different, and I thank God now that I didn’t listen to my own doubts. I now have a simple piece of advice whenever someone approaches me about doing something great for God’s kingdom.
Book the Ticket and go.