“Just imagine the collective power of humanity, if everyone just gave a few hours a year and fully dedicated themselves to a cause that they deeply believed in. Anything would be possible. ” – Lissette Perez
Thousands of miles from the ice bucket challenges, change-your-profile-pic-for-a-cause Facebook button and presidential debates, lies the small town of El Cuco, El Salvador. There you’ll find Lissette Perez, her surf resort, and a town that has transformed through a few hours of belief, repeated. Her cause began with free spaghetti and swimming in the resort pool for kids who made good grades. Eventually, it would lead to rescuing an endangered species and a new high school.
Driving from the San Salvador airport to a small surf camp in an even smaller town named El Cuco, one quickly gets a lay of the land. Outside the open car window, farmers dry harvested corn in the middle of the highway. Brightly colored busses narrowly avoid one another, passing on curves as if in a NASCAR race. Round-faced children sell plastic bags filled with cane syrup-sweetened coconut water on the side of the road for pennies. El Salvador is a poor country that not so long ago was in the midst of a serious civil war and where drug related gang violence still erupts daily.
The taxi driver explains that there was a time when he would be dodging guerilla rebels instead of corn on the road. He mentions that earthquakes easily destroy the adobe and tin-walled shacks that house the region’s people. He hopes to soon have cinderblocks to hold up the walls of his family’s home. Truckloads of supporters for each side of an upcoming election pass by with loudspeakers like dueling Central American Blues Brothers promoters. Armed guards with shotguns stand at attention at the doors of each gas station. El Sal is still a very fragile place. As we drive, dusk closes into darkness and eventually the paved road turns to rutted earth, a familiar and almost comforting feeling that I’ve come to love in Central America. Eventually, we pull into the small town of El Cuco and drive up to The Azul Surf Club’s gate.
I’m greeted by the night guard and led to a small room with two single beds, not much more. It’s plenty to satisfy a surfer’s basic needs. Before the sun rises again there’s a knock on the door. It’s Lissette, the owner of Azul. It’s time to surf. I meet some of the other guests and sit down with Lissette for a family-style breakfast under a thatched hut. I ask where she’s from.
“I grew up in California and went to UC Berkeley.”
I think, oh now I get it. She’s a rich girl who was given a surf resort.
“Where’d you grow up in Cali?”
“The inner city. My mom was a single mom, we lived on welfare.”
I stood corrected.
“Wow, so how did you end up in El Salvador?”
“Well, I started coming for vacation to surf. I fell in love with the ocean here, and wanted to open a bed and breakfast. The community here is really poor, but the people are great and it reminded me of where I grew up. I saw a lot of opportunity here and the chance to be more than just some foreigner invading the town with a flashy new surf resort. I saw the chance to build something bigger. To give back to the people in ways that aren’t so self-serving. Giving back feels better than getting.”
After breakfast, we all load into the back of a Ford pickup truck that’s as well-worn as the dirt road it has traveled. We make our way through the still sleeping town of El Cuco and to the Las Flores point break just a few minutes away. A blood orange sun is quickly rising now,
quietly revealing the waves and the serene beauty of the small fishing huts that line the water’s edge.
For the next two hours we catch peeling waves on the point that are as perfectly timed and predictable as a wave machine at Six Flags. Smiles all around. On the way back to the resort, we find similar smiles coming from the local people in the town as we drive by. Shouts of “buenos días” and “hola” from the local children erupt as Lissette drives past with her cargo (a bunch of long-haired half-naked white men) in the back. The locals’ warmth begins to hint at the truth behind the fact that Lissette is more than just a surf resort owner.
In the center of the tiny town we pass a small yellow stucco two-story house with a wrought iron balcony with flowers draped over the walls.
‘That’s my new house,” Lissette says. “It used to be a concrete walled pseudo fish chopping spot.”
Since founding the surf resort, Lissette has worked hard to also build up the local town and everything in it, so much so that’s she’s now known to the local villagers as “The Mayor.” There was no election, no primary, no debate, no, “What is this girl from California doing here?” Lissette has just been acting out the mayoral role one day and deed at a time.
Since painting and hanging flowers outside her house (another one of those “few hour” acts) she explains that other neighbors in the otherwise monochromatic brown town have painted their houses. “It’s about showing a little pride for what you have, even when you don’t have a lot. One of my guests left me a nice tip so I used it to purchase flowers, a bicycle and a can of paint. That small act of a guest paying it forward has led to the town to seeing itself quite differently, literally.”
Lissette (nonchalantly as always) says, “When you have faith in the ability to effect real positive change in your own little world, the universe suddenly opens up and everyone wants to be part of it.”
Back at Azul, I tour the grounds of the humble and bohemian resort.
I find a nice pool, cabana with fresh fruit smoothies, a two-story palm-roofed hut that serves as a yoga studio, surf lookout and hammock station. Below it I notice a sign: “Turtle hatchery, please do not disturb.” I ask Lissette about it.
“Well, I found out that some of the locals were digging up the turtle eggs after they’d been buried. Technically, you could say they were poaching but the reality is that they were harvesting the eggs as a way to help feed their families,” she explains. “So, I pay the men for the eggs, they use the money to buy other food for their families, we rebury the eggs, and the turtles hatch and go back to the ocean as nature intended.”
As an expat in a faraway land, it’s easy to think that the locals might not be too friendly to a foreigner coming into town to “Save the Whales!” or turtles in this instance. I ask Lissette about her integration to such a place. “There’s a big difference between doing good for the community based on what you think they need versus what they want. The turtle poachers just want food. They have nothing against the turtles. They just need to feed a family, their kids, who don’t have much to eat. If I buy their turtle eggs, they can afford chicken eggs. Sustainable food. It’s as simple as that. I want turtles, they want eggs.” I immediately think of inventing some clichéd “farm-to-table” term for her philosophy, but quickly remember that it’s not about what you call what you do, but rather what you actually do.
Before lunch there’s time for another surf session out in front of the resort. Lissette’s adopted El Salvadorian son and his friends are showing us how they intend to rule the breaks for a long time to come.
During lunch, I ask Lissette more about what she’s doing in the community. “Well, it all started with spaghetti,” she says. “The kids here aren’t that motivated to do well in school, so I promised them that if they made good grades they could come swimming here after school and get free spaghetti. Their grades got better. So there was a chance they could actually get into high school. But their families couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t afford to send them all to high school either, but I could afford to send one. So I created a scholarship. I asked all the kids to write me an essay about why they wanted to go to high school. I didn’t expect any of them to do it. The next day I had 50 essays sitting in my lap.”
Lissette’s flood of essays quickly evolved into copious amounts of concrete being poured into a slab, along with brick and mortar walls. There wouldn’t be one scholarship. There would be a new school.
“I didn’t know if it was even possible. When we started building the school I didn’t have the money to even finish it. But I had a friend who was traveling around Central America who’s a contractor,” explains Lissette. “He found out the goal and pulled favors for us to at least complete the first floor. A few months later, 20 volunteers came down and we finished the entire second floor and the rest of the school in weeks.”
And it all started with free swimming and plates of spaghetti? “Yup” Lissette says, smiling brightly. “When you have faith in an idea and actually do something around it, people surround you to help. You don’t have to start big. Start small and it will grow. Building the school is up there with graduating from Berkeley for me. I grew up with nothing and to see my first class of teenagers graduating from that school this year is awesome.” She offers to take me by the school that’s just down the road.
When we arrive the children are instantly hamming it up for the camera, between carrying buckets of fresh water to and from a newly built classroom.
The school has the same tidy look as Lissette’s house. Freshly painted blue walls, school uniforms abound along with brightly colored tables and chairs, not dissimilar to what you’d see in most states.
Lissette built this primary school in part with funds from the surf resort. She proudly explains that this year its first class will be graduating from high school. Farther down the road we cross a small concrete bridge—something she has also built—before we arrive in front of a small dilapidated shack. “This will be the new dentist’s office,” she says.
Looking at the swampy water and ramshackle tin-walled box that’s she pointing at, a hygienic dentist’s office is a bit hard to imagine, but based on what I’ve seen at this point, it’s not hard to believe.
Back at the resort, a former peace corps employee named Colin gives an impromptu yoga lesson on the second floor of the top cabana before we head off for the third and final surf session of the day.
I ask Lissette why she’s doing all this, expecting some grand speech about changing the world. Her answer is as matter of fact as her actions. “Because now this is my home, and my hometown, and my people.” and “Why not.”
I leave thinking that solving the world’s problems suddenly seems a lot simpler than I imagined.