Words and Photography By Michael Magers (@mpmagers)
After a week of shooting in Port au Prince, I was ready for a break. The city is hot, loud, dusty, and can feel combative – as if you’re always on the knife’s edge of some sort of conflict. Looking for an escape, I headed to Jacmel, Haiti’s artistic and cultural capital roughly 2.5 hours southwest, over the mountains and down to the blue Caribbean Sea.
I heard there were kids surfing wide-open breaks on empty beaches and wanted to see for myself. About 45 minutes by moto-taxi outside of Jacmel lies Kabic, a long beach with a smattering of virtually vacant hotels, empty restaurants, and a few small villages. Infrastructure built for tourism that has yet to arrive. As I heard it, the boys started riding waves on wooden planks, using any means necessary to get on the water. An aid worker who also happened to be a surfer discovered them – he secured boards and started teaching them the fundamentals. Out of that initial effort, Surf Haiti was born. Now the organization rents boards, teaches lessons, and focuses on clean water and educational initiatives. Its goal is to turn Jacmel into a destination for surf tourism – an important step towards development on an island still struggling to recover after a devastating series of natural disasters. Joan Mamique, a terminally tan French aid worker, is one of Surf Haiti’s leaders and has recently set up a small surf lodge in the hills above Kabic Beach. I’ve booked a room there and Mamique suggests I arrive at the beach in the afternoon, just as the boys are getting out of school.
They come down in swim trunks, or in some cases, underwear, eagerly secure their boards and make their way towards the water. For the most part, they don’t seem interested in being photographed. On land, they are reserved, a bit suspicious even. The camera stands between them and the waves – it’s very clear all these kids want to do right now is surf. Mamique lends me a kayak and I paddle out after them, wrestling camera and oar as I try to clear the impact zone.
Everything changes when we are in the water together. The sets start out slowly as flat water starts to morph into long, rolling swells. Bunched in a tight group, the boys start to break off, paddling hard and suddenly come alive. They whoop and holler, chattering back and forth in Creole, often sharing waves and always wearing huge grins. Soon, they are even mugging for the camera when they pass me in the water. It’s a complete metamorphosis. I begin to see that each ride is a small burst of freedom – a moment without worrying about hunger or poverty or cholera or any of the challenges of everyday life in Haiti. Surfing provides a sanctuary from the chaos and it’s exhilarating just being in the water with them.