Beyond Boarding: Lifestyle Evolution in Chile and Peru • Snowboard Canada 2012 • Back

The Backstory

Snowboarding has grown up.  Our sport has passed the milestones of legitimacy, and been embraced by the world.  We have multiple Olympic disciplines, broadcasts on major television networks, and events that draw thousands of spectators throughout the world.  We’ve been welcomed in from the fringes we occupied in the late 20th century– our little cult has reached into the minds of the masses.  And, as ever, those of us who are dedicated riders commit ourselves entirely to snowboarding.  Our biggest cliché is as true now as it was in the 70’s– snowboarding isn’t a sport, it’s a lifestyle.

Yet as snowboarding has evolved, as we’ve watched triple corks, ollies between buildings, and expeditions to the most remote peaks in the world become the realities of the sport, our lifestyle has remained fairly stagnant.  Since snowboarding made its way into the mainstream, most of us have spent our energy, time, and resources on being awesome as much as is humanly possible.  We ride, we party, we talk shred, we watch edits.  We high five, we yell, we eat pizza, we ride more.  Essentially, we spend our days and our nights getting rad.  And we should all be stoked on what we do, on how we live.  We take the most enjoyment we can from life, as everybody should.  But we can also turn a critical eye to our lifestyle, and think about how we can improve it.  Think about the potential we have as snowboarders, the potential we have as a community.  If we, as a community, decided that we want to mobilize our positivity and energy to help the world’s less fortunate and protect the environment, we could make some significant contributions to our planet and its people.  The idea that the shred lifestyle can involve humanitarian and environmentalist outlooks is what Beyond Boarding is all about.

Beyond Boarding is an organization dedicated to getting snowboarders to take steps towards living with a social and environmental conscience.  We’re a group of riders who believe that the snowboard community can build itself a reputation for not only offering its members the most awesome lifestyle possible, but also for taking care of the world.  We’re in our second year of operation, and so far we’ve been working on projects that document ways in which passionate snowboarders can make a difference while still riding and having more fun than most people do on vacation.  I’m Beyond Boarding’s co- founder.  The idea behind the organization was my partner Tamo Campos’.  Tamo is a North Vancouver based rider who has been shredding at a world-class level for the majority of his life.  He’s the kind of guy that lives mountains and breathes snowboarding– chances are that as you read this he’s either hiking for a line or ripping down one.  He’s also the kind of guy who can’t ignore seeing people living in worse situations than they have to, and who really believes that anybody can help improve the lives of his or her fellow human beings. 

Last summer, my work with Beyond Boarding took me on a big ol’ adventure.  We went to South America to film a documentary about the lifestyle we want to endorse.  Our idea was to combine humanitarian work with a snowboard trip, film it, and show as many shredders as possible how fun and rewarding the experience was.  South America made sense for the documentary’s concept- it’s home to the Andes, where the lines and features are endless, and also to many of the issues we’ve been thinking about at Beyond Boarding- deep set poverty, lack of education, lack of potable water, to name a few.  We decided that we’d do a humanitarian project in Peru and then continue down to Chile for their summer shred season.

Peru: The First Days

All I knew about Peru before Beyond Boarding was that it was home to the Andes, the ruins of the Incas, and the Amazon Rainforest.  On July 16, when I flew out of Vancouver, I was excited– my boyish romanticism and sense of adventure took wing with the prospect of spending a month in a country full of foreign and mysterious wonders.  I was bound for Iquitos, a city of 450 000 people located in northeastern Peru.  Iquitos is the largest city in the world that is only accessible by air or water.  When I arrived, the city forced itself on all of my senses.  My entire perceptual system was alerted to the fact that I was certainly not in Canada, that I was decidedly out of my element.  I was to stay in an apartment near one of the city’s central plazas, along with the seven of my friends who I’d be working alongside.  The first night we were all together in Iquitos, we stayed up late playing cards and discussing our expectations and motivations for the trip.  Though the eight of us shared and were principally motivated by our desire to help make life better for those less fortunate than us, it came out in that first night that each of us was looking for something for ourselves: we were all looking for experiences that might help us answer some of our questions about living well.

Soul-searching aside, we had come to Iquitos with a concrete purpose.  We were there to build a raft that would serve the community of Belén as a floating garden.  Belén is an impoverished district of Iquitos that faces a multitude of social problems.  Its issues that are only made more complex by the fact that Belén floods with the rainy season, and can be essentially underwater for up to five months every year.  The waters that flood Belén can reach six metres in depth, and make things like sanitary waste disposal nearly impossible.  The people of Belén have a fascinating way of life that presents unique and weighty challenges, as for almost half the year their fields and recreation areas are unavailable.  The raft we set out to build was designed as a community resource that would be especially useful during the floods, as both a sustainable food source and a platform for community building and education.  It would be a safe place for people to gather, garden, and spend time together.

We spend our first days in Iquitos being introduced to the organization and people that we would be working with, and getting briefed on the plans for our project and its desired results.  We were working with a group called La Restinga.  In addition to building garden-rafts, La Restinga works on several other projects around Iquitos.  They have programs set up to address the domestic violence, to teach local indigenous people about sustainable farming, and to get at- risk youth off of the streets and living out their passions.  We were all very impressed by the comprehensive approach at La Restinga– they recognized that the issues around Iquitos are interconnected, and that they shape and are shaped by the attitudes and desires of the people they affect.  They see development work as a way of simply being decent to their fellow humans, and they’re careful not to gloss over people as they plan their social programs.  Seeing how La Restinga incorporates the people they help into their planning was inspiring; it taught us that effective development work needs to take into account all of the things that are tied to social issues, especially the people affected by them.

As we learned about La Restinga, we tried to adjust to the culture shock of Iquitos.  We had to get used to 35°+ heat, the absence of English speakers, and entirely new food and drink.  Keeping up with the pace of Iquitos was a huge challenge, especially since my Spanish was about at the level of a two year old.  I was the quintessential gringo– at the mercy of translators and uncomfortable in the heat.  My body had difficulty adjusting, and it wasn’t long before I came down with what I called “the Itis,” a feverish illness that causes your body to purge any and all of its openings.  Within a week, I had lost weight, I had very little energy, and I was spending my free time sleeping.  I had been stripped of my cool, and was completely outside of my comfort zone.

First Impressions of Belén

The first few times we visited Belén were simple meet and greets– the community leaders we’d be working with showed us around, and we started to get to know the kids and teenagers we’d be spending our days with.  The kids had amazing energy, and weren’t shy about meeting us and playing with us.  It was easy to establish friendships with them, despite the language barrier.  Looking back, I’m very grateful for the enthusiasm and smiles that they brought to those first visits– they gave us something positive with which to ground ourselves as we began to see the realities of living in extreme poverty. 

Even through the filter of smiling kids and soccer games, the hardships inherent to living in Belén were apparent, and difficult to accept.  The effects of the previous season’s floods were all around us.  They had been the worst floods in recent history.  The fields were littered with refuse that had been scattered as the floods receded, and there were signs of rotting wood on many of the structures.  The bathrooms were as unsettling as the evidence of the floods, and showed us explicitly the lack of sanitation in Belén.  They consisted of four stakes wrapped in sheets of plastic, and a floor with a hole in the centre.  They were small, about a square meter each, and were suspended above trenches that ran through the community.  These trenches were Belén’s waste management system, and were filled with human waste.  While they led to the river, they were often stagnant, and were exposed to the air and the flies– showing us one of the reasons why diseases like leptospirosis and diarrhea are so prevalent in Belén.

We were taken back by the living conditions we saw, and spent a good deal of time discussing what it must be like living in the midst of so many problems.  Our discussions helped us process what we were seeing, but what was more conducive to understanding the Belén lifestyle was immersion in the community– talking with people, and seeing them go about their day-to-days gave us better insight into their lives than discussions ever would.  Things that shocked us, like the waste trenches and flood refuse, were simple realities for the citizens of Belén.  We realized that the things we saw as problems were part of Belén’s culture, that the people they affected had grown up with them and were used to them.  That said, the people recognized that some aspects of their lives were unhealthy and could be improved.  They were happy to talk to us about their ideas for improving Belén, and seeing how much thought they had given their community’s problems helped us understand why La Restinga incorporated their ideas into their development strategies.

Sickness and Cynicism, Friendship and Growth

I was still feeling quite sick as we began the construction of the raft, and I must admit that it was difficult for me to enjoy myself as we started to work.  I had fun playing with the kids and talking with the teenagers, but with my limited Spanish I felt out of place, and began to question how helpful my presence in Belén really was.  While I loved the idea of the garden raft, and really believed that it would be extremely helpful to the community, it’s construction was fairly simple and could have easily been completed by Belén’s teenagers.  I started to think that the money we had raised for the project was much more useful than our physical presence in Belén, and that what money I’d spent on my trip might have better served the community as a donation.  In my sickly state, I began to feel cynical– I questioned whether my coming to Belén was selfish, serving my desire to help more than actually helping.

Though these unsettling thoughts had crept into my mind, I resolved not to let them poison my relationships with the people we were working with.  I kept my critical worries to myself as we got into the routine of building the raft.  Some days we made leaps and bounds, others were less productive, but every day we worked, and every day our relationships with the kids and teenagers grew stronger.  As time went by we became very close with them, and before long we were laughing and smiling the whole time we were in Belén.  We drew pictures, wrestled, and taught each other secret handshakes.  We learned what the kids wanted to be when they grew up, what their hobbies were, what their favourite songs were.  We came to be their friends, as opposed to simply being volunteers in their midst.  We started to look forward to each day, to look forward to spending time in Belén.  And, after about two weeks of discomfort, I started to get used to the climate and to feel a little healthier.

As the raft came together I started not only to feel better, but to feel good.  I found myself able to take joy in my surroundings, especially in the people I was with.  As I became more appreciative, I made peace with my cynical thoughts.  I admitted to myself that my being there was indeed self-serving, but realized that it was not consequently immoral.  My presence wasn’t hurting anybody, and I was forming authentic friendships.  While the money I spent getting to Iquitos could have done a lot of good in Belén, it wasn’t wasted on the perspective I found in Peru, and our fundraising still made a tangible contribution to the community– we raised not only enough money for the garden raft, but also to build a new community centre in Belén.

When our time in Iquitos drew to a close, we were extremely close with the people of Belén and La Restinga.  They threw us a goodbye party in their new community centre, complete with pop, chips, and dancing.  As the night wore on, the air grew heavy with our imminent departure.  We were truly sad to leave, and I don’t mind admitting that our farewells got pretty emotional.  Maybe it was the cards the kids made us, maybe it was being told we were considered family, or maybe there was just dust in our eyes, but some tears were definitely flowing.  The afterglow of that goodbye party followed us as we left Belén for the last time, and we felt overwhelmingly human.

Farellones Reflections

Tamo and I travelled from Iquitos to Chile, where we would spend the next three and a half weeks shooting the shred section of our movie.  We were greeted by a storm, and the first pow Chile had seen since the beginning of their season.  We got ourselves to Farellones, a town in the mountains just below three resorts and some amazing backcountry areas, and for the next few days we slashed our way around El Colorado, a cool resort with a healthy shred scene and some ripper locals.

Being back on snow was surreal.  With every turn I felt like the luckiest person in the world.  I was like a seven year old on a snow day– everything felt fresh, and simple, and fun.  The pressure to ride well that comes with a rolling camera or a big peak chair day at Whistler was completely absent.  Riding after Iquitos wasn’t about being gnarly, or stomping shit, or whether or not babes were watching me.  It was just about being in the mountains with my friends, sliding around, and enjoying every minute of it.  Tamo felt the same way, and we both felt that our attitudes had improved because of our time in Iquitos.  We were glad for the improvement, and agreed that we would continue to lead lifestyles that were conducive to the positive outlooks we had found.

After five days of soul shredding and finding our legs, we met up with the rest of the crew in Santiago.  We spent the next few days gearing up for the road.  We rented the biggest van we could find, a silver Toyota we dubbed “the Toaster”.  We’d decided to do all of our filming on splitboards to minimize our carbon emissions, so we spent a day and a half cutting boards for the crew.  We got supplies for the mountains and the road, and huddled over maps and snow forecasts planning our next few weeks.  Tamo and I had to change gears, to transition from our reflective time in the mountains to our new roles as the organizers of a snowboard production.  We were excited about the change, and resolved to make our next few weeks as fun as possible while keeping the outlook we had brought with us from Iquitos.

On the Road

A storm brewing over Termas De Chillán pointed us south, and we hit the road.  The Toaster was jam packed- we managed to fit nine people and all of their gear into the three-seat cargo van.  As we left Santiago, we were all in great spirits– laughing, poking fun at each other, watching shred flicks on laptops, and basking in the excitement of imminent pow days.

For the next two weeks we tore around Chile, having ridiculous amounts of fun.  The storm in Termas De Chillán was incredible; we got amazing snow that was deep enough for sending, super dry, and nice and stable.  We logged a good amount of footage, and a huge number of hours on the splitboards.  We rode some unbelievable terrain, and generally had a blast.  Yet with spring conditions creeping their way across the country, it wasn’t long before the pow supply was cut off.  We decided to take advantage of the sun, and go for some longer tours.  We got to some amazing spots in the Chilean backcountry, including the craters of two volcanoes.  One of them, Volcan Villarica in Pucón, was active, and after strapping on crampons to finish the six-hour climb to its summit, we were rewarded by the sight of sulfuric gas rising from its crater.  We met locals, traded shred stories, slept in the van, and had close calls with the police (some cops at a road block thought it was pretty interesting seeing six people laying on top of board bags in the back of the Toaster).  We shredded, we partied, and we laughed– it was an amazing road trip.

While our experiences in Chile could have stood alone as some of the best of my life, against the backdrop of my time in Peru they came with almost spiritual appreciation.  Each day was joyful, and though we worked extremely hard to get shots, we never felt the pressure that can come with filming.  We spent a good deal of time talking about Belén and the idea that snowboarders can lead socially conscious lives, and Tamo and I were thrilled when the crew expressed their interest in learning about some of the social issues in Chile.  We had all heard about the major earthquake that struck Chile in 2010, and decided that we would make an effort to learn about how earthquakes affect the people of Chile.  Ian, one of our filmers, took us to meet his grandparents, who told us stories about the many earthquakes they had seen over their lives.  The whole crew was captivated by their stories, and it was rad to see everyone thinking so earnestly about other lifestyles and the challenges that some people have to face.

Final Days and Closing Words

Our last days in Chile were spent back in Farellones, milking the most possible fun out of the spring conditions at El Colorado and riding in a big air contest.  We wore fluorescent 80’s outfits for our last days on snow, and hot-dogged as hard as we could.  Tamo ended up winning the contest, and looked hilariously awesome standing on the top of the podium in his orange and purple onesie.  Those last days of ripping slushy park jumps and side hits were silly fun, and I was stoked that after two months of life changing experiences I was ending my adventure feeling like a goofy snowboarder.  When I flew home I was exhausted, satisfied, and excited about bringing the lessons I had learned about development, positivity, and appreciating humanity to my day to day life.

So, now you’ve heard my story.  I hope that it’s been interesting, and that I’ve managed to express how my attitude and outlook grew more positive as I worked alongside the people of Belén.  I learned that a big part of living well lies in finding joy in people and in the activities of daily life– no matter what those activities consist of.  If reading this article has made you think that you’d like to make room in your life for helping people, I strongly encourage you to take action, and actually get involved in some sort of social work– I really believe that you’ll find it extremely rewarding.  I’d recommend doing something to help in an area that you are passionate about, whether it’s international aid, working with homeless people in your area, taking steps to protect the environment, or something else.  If you need some help getting started, ask somebody you know who’s already involved, or let us know!

Thanks for taking the time to read this– It’s been a pleasure writing about last summer’s trip, and thinking about my time in Peru and Chile.  Make sure to check out our movie when it’s finished, but more importantly go have fun snowboarding– we really are unbelievably lucky to be able to do it, and it really is the funnest thing in the world.