Words: Lisa Yamada

“Hello bondu,” I say, extending my hand for a handshake. Hello, friend. The man staring up at me sits cross-legged, his eyes are dark and beady, confused it seems and full of hurt. The skin on his face and body is bumpy and bulbs of skin dangle from his chest. He looks like a summer squash, and dare I say it, grotesque.

A withered hand takes mine, aged and leathery from hours spent begging under Bangladesh’s hot sun. I sit down next to my new friend and hold out my hand to the Dhaka tourists walking by.

“Fash taka dau.” Give me five taka. Already a huge crowd of men has encircled us. They stand there staring and bust out camera phones for pictures. Normally I’d be annoyed with the attention, but today it’s understandable. After all, it’s not everyday that a foreign women would sit, begging, with a leprous man.

I traveled to Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh with Surfing the Nations (STN), a Honolulu-based humanitarian organization that uses surfing to build relationships and serve communities within the 10/40 window, where the world’s neediest and most underprivileged countries lie. Along with Bangladesh, STN makes yearly trips to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, China, Israel and Egypt. They live by the motto of “surfers giving back,” believing that surfing can be used as a powerful tool to enact change in this generation.

Tom Bauer, the founder of STN, came to Bangladesh in 2001 on a whim and a prayer. After poring over a world map, he just knew there had to be surf along Bangladesh’s vast coastline, and so he and four others jumped on a plane headed for Cox’s Bazaar to the world’s longest unbroken sea beach: 125km (about 77 miles) of empty, undiscovered coast. When he and the STN team stepped onto the sands of Laboni beach, they were welcomed by an unlikely friend with an unlikely story. Never mind the Speedo his new friend wore without any sense of humiliation, Tom desperately tried to figure out what this Bengali was trying to tell him. Tom didn’t know it at the time, but he had come face to face with Bangladesh’s one and only surfer, Jafar Alam. On that day, Jafar would finally get some help after ten years of trying to teach himself - unsuccessfully - to surf.

Continually rocked by natural disaster, government corruption and massive population growth, Bangladesh remains a devastated country. It is one of the poorest and most densely populated countries in the world, with more than 150 million people - that’s about half the total population of the United States - living in an area slightly smaller than the state of Iowa and 82.2% surviving on less than US$2 a day.

Add to that children given brutal beatings by police and rickshaw drivers, 1.3 million homeless kids sleeping on the streets, gross deformities of beggars holding out shriveled hands for taka, and you’ve got a dejected community ripe for change.

The young Bengali surfers seem to have caught the STN vision. Where surfers have gained the reputation of being self-centered, counter-cultural punks who take from Mother Nature without giving anything in return, the Bengali surf boys are learning what it means to be unselfish and to have concern for the poor. These young surfers are becoming leaders, possessing all the potential to heal the wounds of their broken community.

* * *

When STN first arrived in Bangladesh the word ‘surf’ and subsequently ‘surfboard’ did not exist. There was no such thing as surf culture, ding repair or board shops. Jafar once emailed Tom the message, “Please send more gum for my boat.” It took Tom weeks to realize Jafar meant, “Please send more wax for my board.”

Since then, Tom and the STN team have been creating surf history, pioneering the sport in Bangladesh. “The kids are so amped on wax, leashes, bodyboards - just everything surf releated,” Tom says. “I believe there’s great potential in Bangladesh to change the history of surfing for all of Southeast Asia.”

Believing in the future of surfing in Bangladesh, the STN team has hauled boardbags and suitcases halfway around the world, through customs in Thailand and Taipei to bring surf culture to the seaside town. They established the Bangladesh Surf Club, housed in Jafar’s two-bedroom home, as a way to create community among the boys, and this year held their fourth annual surf contest, the Aloha Surf Classic, with reporters from Al Jazeera, Lonely Planet, AFP, BBC and local Bengali news stations all converging onto Kalatoli beach break to capture the excitement.

At the contest, the waves were small, but definitely rippable. Bangladesh’s sandy beach break makes for a wave similar to Huntington Beach and perfect for anyone trying to learn. Closeouts are frequent, but occasionally offshore winds create opportunities to get barreled. There are still miles and miles of unchartered beach yet to be discovered.

Where there was one, there are now 70 surfer boys and girls who have caught the stoke. Held captive and taught to fear the ocean by a strict Islamic government, a majority of the people don’t know how to swim. Yet their love for surfing takes them into the water anyway, into an experience they never imagined possible. Whether it is blown out or closed out, ankle-high or head-high the Bengalis are always amped to get out in the water.

When the team first met Jafar, he was the quintessential grom, with an unrestrained, illogical passion for surfing. He lied to his mom and used his school money to buy an old surfboard off of an Australian who happened to be working in the area. For the next ten years Jafar would try to teach himself to surf, mostly riding the surfboard on his belly like a bodyboard. He had no idea what he was doing and most of Jafar’s time was spent swimming for his board, but he was hooked, for life. Then he met Tom.

“Tom is changing my life,” Jafar says. “I love him so much.” In the years that followed, Tom became Jafar’s mentor. He believed their meeting was not just by chance and began investing deeply in Jafar’s life, sending him to English school and hauling him around the world on STN trips to Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

“Surfing is so good for Bangladesh,” Jafar says, waving his hands excitedly at the thought. “I want thousands of surfers in Cox’s Bazaar!”

Like Jafar, Rahim, who started surfing in January before he even knew how to swim, is addicted. He remembers surfing with a life jacket and catching his first wave: “I stood up, looked around, and I was going so fast, it was like I was running on the water.” Rahim scored sixth place in the surf contest and showed off a photo of his one-foot wave so proudly you’d think he was getting barreled at Pipe.

Former pro surfer Kahana Kalama says he was blown away by the attitude of the boys. “Every time we surfed, every single person was just sharing waves, joking, singing—I have never felt as much sense of community as I have surfing here. These boys have the healthiest outlook on surfing I have ever seen.” Kalama is the Marketing Director of Jedidiah Clothing Company, which sponsors Surfing the Nations. He says the trip to Bangladesh was on of the best things he has ever done.

The Bengali surfers have a primitive style, they have not quite caught on to duckdiving, and if a good wave comes their way, they just go no matter who’s to their right or left. But there’s something quite pure about the heart of these surfers, something that seems to have gone forgotten in the Western surfing world. This is probably what surfing looked like hundreds of years ago, when it was not yet spoiled by endorsement deals or WCT titles, when people surfed just for the sake of surfing.

* * *

In Bangladesh, no one pays any attention to the street kids. They are orphans, most times sleeping on the streets and sometimes using drugs. No one cares about them. It is the surf boys, though, who are beginning to acknowledge them, to walk with them through the streets and hold their hands. “There are lots of poor boys that people don’t care about,” says Abdul Aziz, one of the leaders of the surf club, “so we’re the ones that will care about them.”

Aziz and Rahim are stepping up, showinging their community what it means to serve others. They have taken ten-year-old street kid, NurMohammad, into their care. NurMohammad’s body is covered in scars, most likely from beatings and self-mutilation, and his forearms show where he would cut himself with a heroin-laced knife. He has a deep gash in the fleshy part of his calf that looks infected and is the color of rotten meat. The doctor says the wound shows the beginning stages of gangrene and will need daily cleaning treatments to stop the infection. While the STN team has been taking him to the doctor daily for the past two weeks, once they leave, there will be no one left to take him, and they worry NurMohammad will fall back into drugs and hopelessness.

It’s a big responsibility, but Rahim and Aziz commit to taking NurMohammad to get his wound cleaned every day for the next couple of months. They have become his big brothers, scolding him when they see him smoking cigarettes and promising to teach him to surf once his wound heals. It’s a rare moment of kindness and compassion in a place that shoos away these kids as nuisances.

“It’s cool to see how the motto “surfers giving back” plays out here,” says Kalama. “Surfing the Nations is meeting both the immediate need—feeding kids who are hungry, loving and valuing kids who are neglected - as well as satisfying a long-term vision by trying to create a sustainable change and raise people up as leaders in the community.”

It’s a daunting task to help everyone in Bangladesh, to feed every street kid, to save every beggar - to fix Bangladesh - but Tom is not discouraged. He often tells the story of a man walking along the beach, where hundreds of starfish have become stranded by the tide. He notices a boy picking up starfish one by one and throwing them back into the water. He tells the boy, “There are thousands of starfish. You can’t possibly make a difference.” The boy stoops down and picks up another. Throwing it back into the ocean he responds, “It sure made a difference to that one.”

Although change for all of Cox’s Bazaar may seem a futile effort, it begins with just one.

If you would like more information on Surfing the Nations or are interesting in supporting their cause, visit them at surfingthenations.com or contact them at {encode="info@surfingthenations.com" title="info@surfingthenations.com"}.