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Our trip didn't get off to the smoothest start.
It's August of 2013 and my friend Luke is stooped over his daughter Veda—who is sprawled out on top of his surfboard bag—changing a poop-filled diaper in the San Salvador airport. Nearby, two young mustachioed M16-toting soldiers peer down at us, disbelief plastered onto their faces.
This was Luke and Veda's first international trip together; they both understandably looked a bit wan. My own daughter, Nami, needed a fresh diaper too, and our friend Jeff was chasing his daughter, Jasper, around while simultaneously looking for milk for our trio of not-quite-two-year-old girls. Had we been back home in San Francisco, this would be nap time.
This wasn't my daughter's first surf trip, nor would it be her last. She had already splashed in the waves of three different oceans by that point and had a passport speckled with stamps. This trip, however, was different: My wife wasn't there to help out.
After changing the diapers, we found some small milk boxes and three cold beers at a fried chicken kiosk under the arrivals board. After taking a moment to swig—us, the beer; the girls, the milk—we all took a deep breath.
Jasper, Veda, and Nami were all born a few months apart in the winter of 2012. They live within several blocks of each other in our foggy, wind-swept San Francisco neighborhood. Luke, Jeff, and I are all what some might call "lean in" dads. Just before my wife gave birth, a friend with two kids pulled me aside. "Listen," he said with a wry smile, "here's the secret: Just don't be too helpful." Sure, he was having a laugh. But wrapped up in the "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" rhetoric lay an anachronistic American archetype of fatherhood. Luke, Jeff, and I are not those dads.
We each have the kind of work schedules that allow us to be fully engaged fathers. Cooking and cleaning? Absolutely. Equal parenting? Yup. Incredibly fun dads? We'd at least like to think so. We're adventurous and aspirational fathers, and we'll try our damnedest to take our daughters along for the ride.
I had first pitched the idea of an inaugural father-daughter surf trip to a handful of my friends in the spring of 2013. I knew the odds were slim; taking a trip with a toddler and no partner seemed a bit like paddling out on a board with no fins—things could quickly spiral out of control. Initial excitement led to hopeful conversations with wives and partners, which in turn led to the consideration of the petty inconveniences of such a trip: the temper tantrums, the likelihood of food poisoning, the hauling of car seats. Then the talks grew darker: What about the chance of kidnapping? Or one of the kids catching a mosquito-born illness?
And yet, plans were made.
My wife, also a journalist, was fully supportive of the adventure. Besides, she would be shooting a project in Baghdad while I was jetting off with a surfboard bag and our baby. Our daughter Nami—her name means wave in Japanese—had proven to be a mostly content traveler, and she was already accustomed to being alone for long stretches with her dad while her mom is out on assignment.
Luke, who lives four blocks away, somehow managed to convince his wife that this whole thing was indeed not some ill-advised adventure. My friend and neighbor Jeff, a filmmaker and photographer, surprised us at the last minute and announced he'd bought a ticket as well. We eagerly settled on a week in El Cuco, El Salvador—an out-of-the-way town that has in recent years enjoyed something of a re-birth thanks to its proximity to two, often flawless, sand-bottom right point breaks. Unlikely as it may have seemed just a couple months ago, we now had our crew: three dads, three tiny daughters.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports and travel advisories were quickly circulated in email. Vaccinations were obtained. Notarized letters of permission from each of our partners were drawn up. As the weeks fast approached, Luke, Jeff, and I grew giddy. We were, after all, pioneering a new kind of surf trip. Like Endless Summer with diaper bags. "Or," as Luke aptly pointed out, "One where we don't surf very much."
"Bro, that second wave you got was sick!" says one sunburned, salt-crusted dude to another. "You were so deep. Soooo deeeep."
We shared the small hotel with a foursome of 20-something guys from Florida who were up every morning before dawn to catch the boat to Punta Mango—a world-class surf spot. They'd be back under the palapa-roofed outdoor dining room by lunchtime, cold Pilsners in hand, all high fives and back slaps, congratulating each other on their morning of barrels at one of the best waves in Central America. Jeff, Luke, and I would smile, nod, and return to coaxing our kids into eating.
On a previous trip to El Salvador I had met a woman named Lissette Perez who owns the small beach hotel where we stayed. She loved the idea of our three little girls running around her garden and splashing in her pool. Lissette promised to make the trip as easy as she could: van rides to and from the airport, three generous meals a day, and shuttles and boat rides to those nearby surf spots: Las Flores and Punta Mango. She even arranged for two teenage girls from the neighborhood to help us out with the kids during the day to free us up to surf—only two dads at a time though, that was the agreement made with our partners.
It quickly became apparent that each of our girls had different appetites for paternal separation. Nami rarely gave much of a fuss, Veda a bit less so, and Jasper had the hardest time seeing her dad go. (I'm not even sure if Jeff paddled out on his board the first few days.)
Punta Mango didn't work out. You can't leave your crying, petrified daughter, and we weren't about to leave a frustrated dad behind.
Mostly we surfed the beach break right out front of the hotel and bobbed around in the pool with our daughters. We settled into a familiar rhythm: surf, eat, rest, repeat. The girls learned how to thoroughly freak people out by falling down in the baby pool and holding their breath for far longer than looked safe. They gyrated to a video of Miley Cyrus swinging around naked on a wrecking ball that seemed to play on repeat on Salvadoran MTV. They devoured questionable popsicles in the town square while stray dogs hovered. Nami made her first poop on the potty with two of her best friends, and three surf-starved dads all cheering her on.
In seven days there were developmental milestones aplenty. Sure, there were tantrums and meltdowns, but for that week of the dad pack, we—and our daughters—forged something deeper, a kind of kinship.
"I've always dreamed of surfing Punta Mango," said Jeff as we headed back to the airport. "And I've never been closer." On the flight home I turned to Luke across the aisle after he'd hugged Veda into submission through a particularly violent tantrum. I asked him if he'd do it all again. Looking the most defeated I'd ever seen him, he replied: "Let's see if she has another meltdown."
An hour later Luke had to scoop Veda up and take refuge in the bathroom to muffle the wailing.
The immigration line waiting for us at the San Francisco International Airport at 9:00 p.m. was especially serpentine. Veda and Jasper had managed to nap a bit on the flight, and they'd subsequently found their second wind. Nami, though, was frayed. Would she hit that oh-so-specific wall of exhaustion that so often leads to a fit of howling on the floor? Yep. A uniformed immigration officer came over and kindly ushered us all to a special expedited line, Nami's shrill screams still bouncing off the walls.
Occasionally, I'll find myself in conversation with some parent of a young child and the topic of travel comes up. The prevailing calculation of the toddler cost-benefit balance seems to tip the scales away from ambitious trips. "Maybe we'll wait 'til she's a little older and can appreciate it," they'll say. I get it. Still, Nami's favorite role-playing scenario in the year and a half since that trip (and she's been on plenty of others since) has been to pack a small bag with all that she deems essential, and announce that she's bound for the airport. "Where are you headed?" someone might ask. Nine times out of 10, her response is the same: "El Salvador."