Joe Surf: A wake-up call in Peru

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."

A typical day for Eaton was surfing early in the morning, teaching at the school, then teaching surfing in the afternoon.

"Lobitos is the perfect situation for Waves," Eaton said. "There's a lack of motivation in the culture. People get by perfectly with where they are. If they make 75 cents a day, they'll make 75 cents a day the rest of their lives. Waves tries to motivate them and show them they can do what everyone else is doing, and they can improve their lifestyle."

Eaton was assigned a project to oversee in Lobitos, and he raised $2,500 before the trip to get the program off the ground.

"The project could be anything I chose to do, but the Waves volunteers and I came up with the idea to establish a surf shop in Lobitos and send the profit from the shop straight back into the community," he said. "Since there is no surf shop in Lobitos and it's so heavily dependent on the tourism of surfers, we are assured that it will be successful.

"The vision is that in time, the community will see the success of the surf shop and follow in our footsteps to create more shops which prosper, and create more sources of income for the locals."

Eaton was just a kid himself at Waves' home base, a six-bedroom rented house filled with bunk beds that housed about 20 volunteers, most of them "much older, probably in their 30s."

"Everyone was so cool," Eaton said. "I never had a better time with people I just met."

Dinner time each night was always a major undertaking but always turned into a great feast.

"We had this Australian guy who cooked dinner, but every one of the volunteers helped out," he said. "Maybe you'd cut up some onions, or make the pasta. There was tons of food: pasta, pizza, chicken. The food we made at the house was phenomenal."

And oh, yeah, there was the surfing.

"Lobitos is pretty touristy for surfing," he said. "It's known all over South America. I'd get up and get out there early, like 6 a.m., and get some waves all by myself, but by 6:40, 7 a.m., there were 40 guys on it. Kind of like Lowers in a way."

But with so many surfers from all over, surf etiquette was nowhere to be found.

"There was no respect in the water at all," he said. "It was kind of a reflection on the local culture. A European would get a wave, and if a Brazilian or some other South American wanted it, he'd just drop in on you and not even think twice about it."

Despite the vibe in the water, Eaton said the waves were awesome in Lobitos.

"It's the best wave I've ever ridden," he said. "At Lobitos point, you can get a 45-second wave, no problem. There's an off-shore (wind) every day. It's consistent on size. It's a left-hand point break with about six waves all within walking distance."

The trip had such a positive impact on Eaton, he plans on going back to Lobitos next summer to volunteer again and bringing some friends with him.

"While in Peru, I realized the amazing feeling I got when I potentially changed someone's life," he said. "I was having fun while changing lives, and at the same time, I scored the best waves I've ever seen. That's the first time I have actually been able to make a difference with surfing and have the time of my life doing it."

JOE HAAKENSON is an Orange County-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at

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