SF surfers build a high school in El Salvador


Photo: Surf For Life El Salvador: Alex Fang heads out for a surf at Punta Mango, near El Cuco, El Salvador.

SF surfers build a high school in El Salvador

Zachary Slobig, Special to The Chronicle

Monday, October 3, 2011

El Cuco, El Salvador — Surf travel, a billion-dollar industry with the power to fundamentally transform once-pristine coastlines in mere decades, is getting a decidedly San Francisco makeover these days.

Think “The Endless Summer” meets Habitat for Humanity.

Surf For Life, an Ocean Beach-based grassroots organization, pairs surf travelers with badly needed infrastructure projects in Central America. Since its inception in 2008, the group has renovated an elementary school and basketball court and rebuilt a suspension bridge in Costa Rica.

No mere beach bums, these wandering wave riders embarked on their latest project last month – breaking ground for this impoverished fishing community’s first high school. The two-classroom school under construction is expected to open by Jan. 1.

Under a fierce midday sun, a dozen surfers, most of them from San Francisco, recently swung picks, shoveled rocky soil and used trowels to lay fresh cement between cinderblocks. They were helped by students and a few of their parents.

“All of them are excited about this new school,” said Raphael Cortez, the assistant principal of the town’s sole K-9th grade school. “We are touched. These surfers have nothing to do with us and they are here helping.”

Jamail Yogis, author of “Salt Water Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea,” donated a year’s worth of book profits to the project and rallied a crew of like-minded surfers, most of whom live in his neighborhood near Ocean Beach.

“When I heard Surf for Life was building a high school in El Salvador and it was only going to cost $25,000, “said Yogis, “I thought that’s a number that we can attain between friends at the beach.”

Other San Francisco residents who packed flip-flops and work boots to build the school include: Danny Hess, hand-shaper of some of the most coveted wooden surfboards on the market, Jay Nelson, an abstract painter and tree-house builder, and Andy Olive, the impresario for the San Franpsycho clothing label.

Lisette Perez, owner of a small El Cuco hotel and founder of Nuestros Niños, a local group aimed at improving educational opportunities, anticipated the San Francisco surfers’ arrival for months. Last year, she and Surf For Life co-founder Alex Fang decided to build the town’s first high school.

“It’s so much easier here to make an impact in a person’s life,” because it is such a small town and the needs are so much more basic,” said Perez.

El Cuco is a poor community, with no traffic lights, few stores and spartan homes with tin roofs. Most of its 3,000 residents are fishermen or subsistence farmers. Some of them, however, are entering the tourist trade to accommodate foreign surfers who are slowly discovering this stretch of coastline 110 miles southeast of the capital, San Salvador.

Fang points out that El Salvador is the most densely populated country in Central America – 853 people per square mile, according to the United Nations – with a rural poverty rate of more than 20 percent. At least four other nearby towns of similar size also lack a high school.

With such need in mind, Fang decided to devise a way for surfers to tap squandered hours of down time drinking cold beer, playing cards and snoozing in hammocks into participating in infrastructure projects for coastal communities that are – or are fast becoming – popular surf destinations.

“A lot of guys are just traveling through Central America and surfing and they hear what we’re doing,” said Olive. “Instead of waiting for the tide to drop or waiting for the wind to back off, they’ll gladly help us move cinderblocks and shore up framing.”

Back at the construction site, most surfers were laying the foundation brick-by-brick while Hess and Nelson set out to devise functional desks and benches that local craftsmen could easily recreate. After some deliberation, they opted for a straightforward design of plywood and local guanacaste wood to accommodate two students, sitting side-by-side.

“We both love creating something unique-looking, so to make something more fundamental, it’s been a challenge for us because we have to set aesthetics aside a little bit and look at functionality,” said Hess.

Meanwhile, Yogis hopes more socially minded surfers will join Surf For Life projects to help…

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