Pillars of The Road: Pillar V

Pillar V: The People

Pass the Water: West African submersion

Ricky Whitlock
Ricky Whitlock, Liberia. Photo: Struntz

Jon Rose pulls the cap from the Jack Daniels and takes a long pull. Grins. Satisfied. Success. It's time for another story.

Jon's stories speak a hundred lifetimes of experience, all crammed into 33 years. Waves and hedonism on the WQS. Disaster relief in Indo, Haiti and Japan. Living with Sean Penn and dating Pam Anderson. He's got grey hairs, black clothes and blue eyes that have seen it all. He surfs well. He has fun. He makes a difference.

"OK," he begins, "you can never repeat this to anyone else..." he takes another swig, launches into another nonfiction gem and passes the bottle to...

...me. It's pitch-black and we're out of filters. The 50 that Jon brought over in his duffel bag have been distributed to hubs all over town, and tomorrow those hubs will distribute the filters to the schools, hospitals and other civic centers. We'll be gone.

But we're here now, sitting on the porch of the only hotel in town. Our shoulders are sore from paddling and our hearts warm from good deeds and whiskey. And we're enjoying the ocean breeze and the company of our new friends. This past week we connected through waves. Today we connected through water. And tonight we connect through Jack Daniels.

I tip the bottle, swallow and grimace. An exhale of relief and euphoria. This trip was so close to not happening.

The list of reasons to go to Africa is long: Culture. Business. Charity. Simba. Church. Roots. Waves. Giraffes. Oil. Diamonds. Rubber. Water.

The list of reasons not to go to Africa? Much longer: AIDS. Malaria. Political unrest. Lack of medical infrastructure. Lack of tourism infrastructure. AIDS. Civil war. New strands of malaria. I have to be in New York. Visa restrictions. Cost. Impending elections. My parents won't let me. Yellow fever. Yellow fever shots. Rebels. Corruption. The United States' travel.gov website. Water -- dirty water, specifically.

"What will you guys do for water?" a surfer's father asked me a few weeks ago, the 20th question in a series designed to save his son from a trip to Africa.

"We'll drink bottled water," I said. "And if for whatever reason we can't get any...I mean, we'll have the water filters."

Fifty filters, I explained time and again to the naysayers. Fifty. Enough to quench our crew's thirst for the rest of our lives if we get stuck over there. And if we fall in love with some local beauties and decide to stay and raise babies, our children will benefit from those same 50 filters for the rest of their lives, too. But if you don't think we'll survive for 10 days...

Most surfers didn't.

But Ricky Whitlock asked just one question when he received his invitation to the Dark Continent: "What do you need me to do?"

And Jon Rose had only one request: "I just want whoever goes to be psyched."

So Ricky did what we needed him to do (a couple of vaccinations and a last-second visa), Jon got a psyched surf friend, and we dusted off our hands en route to Robertsport, Liberia, with a perfectly tiny crew. That so many noncommittal others backed out was a gift, ultimately, because in who, what, when, where and why, there's a reason "who" comes first. And who better than...

...Fonzie refuses the whiskey.

"Oh no, ith OK. Thankth, Tayla." Fonzie says in his charming lisp. We've quickly gotten to know the 18-year-old Robertsport local -- in the water, around town, at the dinner table -- and have learned that his words, character and charisma make him a natural and likable leader.

Yesterday Jon invited Fonzie to the house for our first explanation of how to use the water filters, and Fonzie was rapt by Jon's instruction. Jon noticed, and after disassembling the filter and laying its parts on the table, he looked at Fonzie and said, "OK. Now you try."

Fonzie gave a thoughtful nod -- this was his moment -- and he began repeating Jon's instructions. Not only did he give the directions perfectly, but he made eye contact with the group and added color to the talk. And after hooking an assembled filter to the test bucket, Fonzie smirked, looked at us, and said, "Bam, ready for ac-shun."

And so we took to the streets, Fonzie leading the way to several town hubs -- neighborhood wells, schools, a refugee house -- places that would reach the most people. And at each location Fonzie explained to his community how to assemble, use and clean a filter, all while emphasizing the health improvements they'd reap from its use. And after each demonstration, after each "ready for ac-shun," Fonzie would disassemble the filter, set it down, and look to someone in the audience. "OK," he'd say. "Now you try."

...I pass the bottle to Sam, a local fisherman and one of the community leaders that Fonzie selected to "try." Sam readily accepts the bottle, wraps his lips around it and tilts his elbow high.

While Sam can't match Jon's diversity of stories, his are as stunning as any we've heard. He speaks in short spurts, and we all lean in to decode the words from his gravelly voice as he tells us about life and death during the Liberian civil wars.

He tells us about the day Charles Taylor's troops beached their boats in Robertsport ("Ka-boom...ka-boom," he says, mimicking the sound of RPGs). With his wife and two children Sam fled into the jungle alongside the rest of the village. They made it, but like so many others, Sam's mother didn't, and was killed when a rebel sprayed her home with his AK-47.

Men who were unable to reach the bush were killed or forced to join the rebels. Women were raped. And for two weeks Sam and his family hid, surviving off Cassava leaves and river water, before Sam returned to make a deal with his aggressors.

"I told them, 'I'm fisherman. You don't hurt me and I'll catch you fish,'" Sam says. "And they had run out of food. They killed all the chickens and goats and ate all the food in houses. All, all, all."

So they agreed. And soon, after charming the commander with plenty of fish and kind words, Sam was permitted to bring his wife and children down to live with him.

Nearly a decade later, Sam has forgiven the people who ravaged his home with violence and virtual enslavement. "What choice they have? They had to fight or die, and all of them were on drugs."

"Do you ever see those people around here?" Ricky asks.

"Yes, sometimes in town," Sam says. "But the war is over now. Liberia must go forward." He raises the bottle in a small, personal toast, then extends it to...

Jon Rose
Jon Rose and Fonzie making dirty water run clean. Photo: Mock-Bunting

... Ricky Whitlock takes a swig. With his sun-bleached hair, light skin and Colgate smile, Ricky's almost glowing in the dark. Just a California kid smiling in Africa.

Smiling because this is a clear moment during an uncertain period of Ricky's life. His main sponsor, Matix, recently went out of business and he's been dry-docked with a broken hand for the past three months. This trip came at the perfect time for Ricky, a time when he's negotiating his place in a surf world that currently appreciates skinny jeans and shoe-gaze rock more than his San Diego Chargers boardies and taste for rap. Still, Ricky's optimistic.

"Whatever," he says with an ironic laugh. "I'm just going to keep being me and let everyone else get weirder and weirder. And then eventually normal will be weird and I'll be marketable."

But working with Waves for Water has shown Ricky that he might not have to sacrifice "normal" to find his niche, that he might organically fit into a humanitarian role. It's a genre of the surf world that could benefit from youth and fun, and he certainly enjoys it.

His enthusiasm has run high the entire trip. After hours hucking airs on the slingshot lefts up the point, Ricky would come in and get down to business -- scrubbing buckets, drilling jerry cans, preparing to deliver the water filters to town -- rapping Andre Nicatina while he worked.

"This is the first time that I've been on a trip where I feel that I could really be successful at something. I'm so f–king happy to be doing something more than surfing. We're actually doing something."

Still grinning, Ricky passes the bottle back to...

...Jon has another sip. Another smile. Another satisfying day. If the scale of this operation pales in comparison to work Jon's done in Haiti, Japan and Indonesia, it's in many ways the same trip he's done hundreds of times, just with new faces. He has a Fonzie in every place, a local who steps up when Jon's there and shoulders the project once he's gone. He has a Sam, a guy who's been through way too much shit and is ready to take his life and community in a positive direction. And he has a Ricky, a guy who's turned on by surfing and learns that he's also turned on by helping.

And this trip, this small campaign in Liberia, is a return to Waves for Water's roots -- the idea that you can go on surfing, give people water when the waves blow out in the afternoons, and enjoy an evening drink all on the same return ticket.

"That's the thing," Jon says. "People are convinced that doing this kind of stuff means you can't have fun. It's that depressing Sally Struthers model that most aid organizations take. They try and guilt you into action. But if you're not having a good time when you're helping out you won't go back and do it again. So I just tell everyone to keep doing what they're doing: go surf, go climb a mountain, go party, have fun -- just bring a few filters and help some people out along the way." --Taylor Paul