In August 2022, I had the opportunity to go on a volunteer retreat with the surfing organization Paddle for Peace ☮️
Full Disclosure: I am NOT a surfer (yet), but I want to be. I’m more of a Cali girl who wants to learn/feels like she ought to surf.
But who doesn’t admire surfers, right? They’re just cool. They make riding the waves look effortless and easy, and exude all of the chill vibes while they glide over water.
I want the potion.
So in the spirit of becoming more bold and trying new things, I decided to embark on this retreat. I’d done water sports my whole life – how hard could it be?
But let me back up.
Paddle For Peace
Paddle For Peace is a non-profit that is dedicated to bringing out BIPOC folks to the ocean. The organization teaches about ocean conservation and provide free surfing resources and lessons to build inclusivity and representations in surf culture.
In addition to providing resources to the community, they also offer events and retreats to amplify representation and diversity in the sport.
So when I saw that they’d be hosting their 2nd Annual Paddle for Peace Retreat in Ensenada, Mexico, I signed up immediately.
I went as a solo-traveler and had no idea what to expect, except that I’d finally be able to try my hand at surfing! Little did I know that I’d be making new friends and memories that would make me really want to practice the sport.
Getting on the Water
I started following along with the Paddle For Peace organization on social media back in 2020, in the height of the pandemic and BLM uprisings.
I, like many others, was not doing well with my mental health. I needed an outlet.
Desperate for a safe outdoor hobby, I turned to surfing. I’ve always wanted to learn the sport that encompasses my favorite things: the ocean and enjoying the beach. Theres something so meditative about being in the water, and during COVID, I really needed an escape.
But surfing (at least what I know of it) is a sport that is gate-kept. There’s the fact that you need time and mentorship to learn, and also the surfer’s etiquette which you can only gain access to by getting in the water. In California, some of the best surfing beaches are also shared by multi-million dollar neighborhoods, which can lead to territoriality by locals (side-eye cause the ocean is free, people). But more than that, to me, surfing has always seemed like an incredibly whitewashed sport that isn’t super inclusive.
I wanted to learn, but I was intimidated and I didn’t know how to start. Apparently, I wasn’t alone.
First Time Surfer
It’s never super fun at wake up at 4 AM. But on this day I did, since I was so excited to get down to San Diego.
A weekend of camping, surfing and volunteering? The decision to participate in the Paddle for Peace Retreat was an easy one.
Risa and the Paddle For Peace team was all there, super welcoming and friendly. As the other surfers showed up, we got to know each other. I was in good company! Each of the women who attended were all relatively new to the sport and wanted to challenge themselves and learn more.
We commuted down to Ensenada and enjoyed a quick lunch followed by some time at the beach. I borrowed a foam board and was ready to jump in, only to remember that I had no idea what to do. With the exception of a surf lesson in Waikiki beach (in a protected inlet with the tiniest waves you can think of), I had never surfed before.
Thanks to another gracious Paddle For Peace team member, we received a quick and dirty guide to paddling and popping up, and then it was off to the whitewater to practice. And how I tried to practice! Oh man – it was a pretty grueling experience (but I imagine it was funny to witness).
Popping up seemed like it was never going to happen. I spent two hours out on the choppy whitewater simply learning where my body should be on the board. Too far up and I nosedived. Too far back and I’d fall off. I can’t count the number of times that a wave simply rolled me over while I was lying down on the board.
It was humbling. I was frustrated (and swearing a bit at the ocean).
A reforming perfectionist, I have a tendency to set these weirdly unrealistic and super high expectations for myself. Case in point: feeling like I “should” just be able to stand up on a board moving over water in my first few hours of attempt. (I realize this is ridiculous and I’m working on it, I swear!)
I took a break.
Luckily, I was with a group of really positive and kind people who encouraged me. They gave me pointers on how to align myself on the board, how to pop up and use my weight, and where to position myself to catch a wave.
But the best thing they asked me was, “What did you learn?”
Ooph. What did I learn? It’s an apt but difficult question when you’re rolling underwater for the umpteenth time. I felt like I hadn’t learned anything on my own.
But that wasn’t entirely true. Without going into obvious metaphors of getting back up after you fall, I had actually learned a few things.
The first thing I learned was to take the pressure off myself. I was on the beach in Mexico, after all. The best perspective was just to have fun and enjoy being out in the ocean. As I tried again, I stayed in the whitewater and relaxed on the board. I knew that I had to loosen up and enjoy the learning process.
I learned to let go of my expectations to pop up or get a wave. Instead, I focused on how my body felt on the board in the moment. I was learning how to center myself and respond to the movement of the waves. Baby steps.
I got a tiny bit better at moving over waves and turning the board. At finding where my body should be. And then out of nowhere, I did it! I caught my first-ever tiny ripple of a wave on my own.
I stood up and rode the wave all ten feet to shore. It felt great and I counted it as a success.
It didn’t happen again the next day (probably due to the Paloma I’d sipped before). My count was one wave to dozens of attempts, but it was all good. I could feel my body get more comfortable and at ease on the board and that was improvement enough.
I plan on continuing to surf with this group too! I can only get better from here.
Giving Back Good Vibes
Another huge highlight of the trip was volunteering at the Door of Faith Orphanage. A portion of of retreat costs were donated to the orphanage, and we also got the chance to help out around the property. I really enjoyed playing with some of the children who live there, and we spent a couple hours pushing swings, chalk drawing on the sidewalk and playing hide-and-go seek. Afterwards, we helped with a trash clean-up on the property.
It was really refreshing to travel with a group that not only wanted to surf and enjoy the locale, but also wanted to give back to the host community. It’s often easy to tour the destination and not be exposed to the real life of the locals that live there. I appreciated that Paddle For Peace took extra care to both uplift their mission of bringing BIPOC people to the ocean and surfing, while also honoring the local community and assisting with projects at the Door of Faith Orphanage. Overall, I think this is a much more balanced and mindful way to approach travel and something I hope to integrate into my future trips.
Outside of surfing and volunteering, Paddle For Peace brought together an amazing group of Black and Brown surfers to participate in a wonderful weekend. It was so cool and inspiring to meet with other women that looked like me who were also getting involved with the sport.
We enjoyed the rest of the perfect weekend with movie nights, bonfires, morning yoga sessions and a glow-party to send us off. It felt like a grown-up summer camp and was the ideal way to close out the summer.
Connect with Paddle For Peace
If you’re interested in supporting or getting involved with Paddle For Peace, you can learn more at https://www.paddleforpeace.org/ Risa, the founder, is also an awesome solo traveler on her own! Listen to her podcast episode at: https://spotifyanchor-web.app.link/e/jh0t44yUnwb