Out of Office Reply is Associate Editor Taylor Paul’s column on big waves, travel, and other manly bits.
We're in Liberia, not Libya. That seemed to confuse people when we were planning this trip, so I think it’s best to preemptively clarify. Unlike Libya, it's peaceful here. Has been for eight years. The civil wars that raped this West African country during the '80s, '90s and early 2000s are fading scars on this green land, and people smile as people do when they're mending and hopeful. And we're here, as white people so often are in Africa, exploiting its natural resources.
"We" are me and photographers DJ Struntz and Logan Mock-Bunting. We are also surfers Ricky Whitlock and Jon Rose. Yep — three guys documenting and two surfing. We invited several others, but when we mentioned "Africa" without "South" in front of it people quickly remembered prior commitments. But we came. We're exploiting.
Not like the fat rednecks on the plane ride over, with their pink faces, Chevron patches on their bags and "My alcohol has too much blood in its system" shirts. And not like British diamond dealers, who pay a pittance to the people who actually find the stones and then turn around to slang 'em to us so we can stake claim on our women. No, we've come to help ourselves to Liberia's waves. Because like oil, and like diamonds, there’s plenty, but people here lack the means to properly take advantage. So we come. We exploit.
And call it white guilt or call it our duty as privileged humans or maybe just call it a positive spin on an otherwise standard surf trip, but we're doing some good, too. Jon Rose is guiding us on that front, helping us distribute water filters to the town where we're surfing, a place that gets its water from dirty creeks and shallow wells. Jon does this around the world through his non-profit Waves for Water. This is his full-time gig because, strange as it may seem to you and me, surfing seems less important when you're saving lives. And that Jon is a humanitarian leader in the surf world is heartening because he is a leader people will follow. Because in the world's most selfish sport, where the words "humanitarianism" and "non-profit" are as scary as Target and Nike, Jon's a f–king rock star. He's got an apartment in Port au Prince. He dated Pam Anderson. He pals around with Sean Penn. And though he's really good at life, he isn't preachy. He doesn't thrive off your guilt. His formula — surf in the morning, get shit done in the afternoon and relax in the evening with a happy heart and a belly full of whiskey — is perhaps the best I've sampled.
So yeah, not a standard surf trip. Sunday we rode in a rusty heap of scrap metal from the surf to Monrovia, today we're being chauffeured in an air-conditioned SUV. Last week we slept on soggy mattresses in a concrete box, this week we're in a fancy hotel with Iceland Air flight attendants poolside. On Saturday we set up networks to distribute the water purifiers, yesterday we played blackjack ’til 5 a.m. Friday we interviewed locals who lost their families in the war, tonight we met with a guy from the UN and tomorrow, f–k if I know, I'm so spun out with all this Africa that I'm just hoping I can fall asleep tonight. Probably will. The whiskey helps. —Taylor Paul