Cliff's Notes

  • September 26, 2017

    Cliff Notes: Big Choices in Little Nicaragua

    Interview by: Cliff Kapono (@cliff_kapono)

    Whether it is the annoyance of another sibling, the comforting touch of an elder, or the simple smile from a distant relative, family can easily be taken for granted. Raised the second oldest of 5 children, I quickly assumed my role as “bruddah” from an early age. Although there were times it may have seemed like a chore, staying true to the values of ‘ohana was mandatory. As I travel to distant shores and experience different cultures, it is apparent that these values aren’t unique to Hawai‘i. On a recent trip to Central America, I met up with good friend Eric Nicholson who has recently relocated to the quiet Nicaraguan coast. We talked about the surf, community dynamics and most importantly the significance of family life.

    Great to see you again Eric. It’s been a minute. Is it weird to be so far away from home? I mean, where is home exactly?

    Southern California born and raised. I was born in LA, but moved to Ventura County when I was six. It’s cool to now be living in southern Nicaragua.

    Seems you couldn’t stray too far from the Pacific Coast. When was the first time you came to Nicaragua?

    I first visited Nica in 2009 during spring break my senior year of college. My friend Dane and his girlfriend at the time had driven down to Nicaragua from San Diego in a VW wagon. They were living in the city of Granada, which is about an hour south of Managua. I stayed with them and surfed around the San Juan Del Sur and Popoyo area for a bit.

    Ah the good old days. Has it changed much?

    It’s changed a lot but then again it hasn’t. Obviously surf and fishing tourism has grown.

    Why do you think that is?

    There’s a few reasons. Nicaragua is a fairly peaceful country these days where your dollar goes further. The southern region generally has 300+ days of offshore winds and it’s SW facing coast picks up swell pretty consistently. The offshore winds also provide upwelling along this stretch of coast that creates a lot of life for the fisheries.

    Sounds like an ocean-lover’s paradise. Seems like there are a lot of US citizens here in Nicaragua. What is the dynamic between the newly relocated residence and the local people?

    I guess it varies. like anywhere in the world, some locals hate foreigners and resent them living in their home and taking their resources. Others embrace the jobs that surf and fishing tourism has created for the local people.

    That sounds pretty similar to a lot of coastal communities. Do tensions ever arise?

    Definitely. Just last week this local cut in front of me in line at the grocery store, and when I politely asked him if he was aware of the line, he told me to go back to my country where I came from. Obviously that doesn’t mean everybody is like that, but it happens. Still, I have lots of good relationships with locals.

    That’s a tough one. Especially since because that local probably didn’t know why you live in Nicaragua now. Can you talk about why you are living here and what it was like making that choice?

    After I graduated from UCSD in 2009, it was super hard for me to find a job with the recession and all so I came down here for an extended surf trip. Nica may not have the world class waves that say Indonesia and other major surf destinations have, but it’s got incredibly consistent surf day in day out. And it’s a beautiful country with a very interesting history and culture. I ended up staying down here longer than I had imagined and got involved with a local woman. The next thing I knew I was having a son.

    Wow. That’s a pretty big life change. Especially right out of college.

    Yea, but being a father is tremendously fulfilling. I think kids have a way changing your perspective on life and bringing out the best in you. My son Dylan has undoubtedly given me a true sense of purpose. Initially, I wasn’t at all prepared to be a dad. It didn’t help that my parents weren’t supportive of me when they found out. I was 21 years old, fresh out of college with no money, and about to have a kid in a foreign country. It was tough for me. I struggled with a lot of internal conflict and self-doubt. Once I decided to really go all in and be a proud father to Dylan, I really grew. I found a sense of confidence and purpose I never thought I would have in my life.

    It must have been difficult to leave the States.

    Leaving my life in the states was actually the easiest part. So, I was here in Nicaragua when Dylan was born back in 2010 and shortly thereafter I went back to work in the states. I was a field biologist working as an environmental inspector. I made a few trips down to visit on my vacation time, but when Dylan was 2 I had a major falling out with his mom. We lost contact and I just felt like the world was against me. I gave up on trying to be a father, but eventually the stress and emotions caught up with me. Last year I went down to visit after all of those years of no communication. Once I finally reconnected with my son and saw the pain he had been going through all those years not knowing what had happened to his father. Like I said, the decision to leave my life in the states was easy.

    That’s solid. How long do you plan to stay down in Nicaragua?

    Right now, my plan is to live here and put Dylan in an English grade school for the next year or two. It’s the easiest transition for both of us and I enjoy the lifestyle down here. I never thought I’d say this, but raising Dylan in a developing nation like Nicaragua is actually a lot more stress free than being back home in the states. It just gives you perspective on how much we get caught up in the rat race.

    I know you’ve travelled and experience a lot of the Hawaiian culture. Do you see any parallels between your lifestyle you are living now and your time spent in Hawai‘i?

    Definitely. Aloha is the essential element in every ‘ohana. Loving and caring for each other is the glue that holds families together. It’s easy to get sidetracked with all the noise in today’s world, but if we make a concerted effort to come back to these values of ‘ohana, life rewards us. I try to remind myself of that and the rest takes care of itself.

  • June 21, 2017

    Cliff's Notes: A Mexican Tale


    Interview by: Cliff Kapono (@cliff_kapono)

    Photos by: Nash Howe (@nashowe) and Dan Lorch (@thesaltygiant_)

    Many years ago, I remember sitting at the water’s edge and my father telling that where the land meets the sea is where we feel most at home. “We are ocean people. This is how it was, how it is, and how it will be as long as we don’t forget where we come from,” he said. At the time, I didn’t know how impactful these words would be on my life and how knowing where I come from would help me stay rooted in all aspects of life. As I travel, often times very far from the sands of my birth, I am always humbled to meet those who share similar beliefs. Marc Chavez is one such individual, who believes that without having a strong understanding of one’s past, it is very difficult to improve towards a better future. Having met Marc many years ago at an indigenous youth camp in San Diego, I was more than overwhelmed when he invited me to the home of his ancestors. The water was warm, the drinks were cold, but it was the hospitality that will remain unforgettable. Between the native food, culture and surf, we were able to catch up about what brought this once “lost” LA boy south of the border. It was only then did I realize just how volatile things were in the region.

    Cliff Kapono: Bruddah Marc! Thank you for inviting me here. Where are we anyways?

    Marc Chavez: We are in the State of Michoacan’s Northern Coast, the Aquilo District. Michoacan has had a bad rap for a good minute, as Cartel activity is legendary in this area. Michoacan, particularly these areas, is still referred to by other Mexicans as the “wild west.” In a way its kind of remote part of the coast, where there are no major hotels or resorts. Here there are just very small towns and Indigenous villages. The capitol of Michoacan is 5-7 hours away by bus and inland.

    These are the Nahuatl beach communities. This is the area I was drawn to set up my place of study – proximity to the coastal Nahuatl communities of Northern Michoacan.

    To my knowledge, Purepecha and Nahuatl Indigenous People make up the majority of the population in most of this region.

    During the Aztec/Mexica Empire, Michoacan has and continues to have a long reputation of resistance to imperialism and taxing empires. Purepechas of Michoacan also known as Tarasco Indians, were of the few tribes who successfully resisted and held off imperial movement by the Mexica empire and later by the European colonial movements.

    It’s a fascinating history and I encourage everyone to research more on all the facts, battles and triumphs of these resilient people. I believe we all need to bring pieces of the story to light, and many are often buried and not found in books. That’s kind of why I am here, to unearth my roots.

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    That’s awesome. How is the community dynamic here?

    I have only been here for some months, so I can only share what I have been told by local people and seen with my own eyes. When I first arrived to this area, I was warned to stay out. My mom and others kept sharing stories of kidnapping, violence and drug cartels. These stories are true, but what I “discovered” during my short residence has been even more surprising!

    After years of Cartel control, extortion and violence, the Indigenous people of the area took back their region. It was basically thru force, inspired from being fed up and drawing on their historic resistance. It was lead by a man whose brother was shot by the cartel for not paying his taxes in the middle of the day. This last act of violence was the “straw the broke the burros back,” so to speak. The brother of the victim, instantly retaliated, killing the thugs on the spot and without fear, took up arms to lead the eradication of the Cartel and all its affiliates residing in pockets of this area. They literally took up arms, searched for and removed every known cartel member of the area. Again, these are mostly small towns and rural villages.

    This indigenous resistance also kicked out the National and state police that was known to also be in cooperation with the Cartel. National police and military usually are not from these areas, and do not have vested interest in the community. Similar to many of the police in the urban areas of the U.S.

    Abuse of the community, its women, business owners and assistance to the cartel, made police un-trustworthy and represented more harm than protection.  So the indigenous people held resistance and declared themselves as the protectors of their own community. They took up arms, vehicles and houses left from the extradited cartel. They re-commissioned these resources to a new Community Police Force.

    To make a long story short, they held resistance with the state and national government and demanded to be recognized and supported. Over the last 3 years, meetings led by mediators avoided head to head battles with the National and State police. The Indigenous Community Police Force would not back down, closing main highways if needed, and strengthening a far reaching network of community watch.  Organizing an old school form of community watch, with eyes on everything, swift reporting of strangers, and took their goal of protecting the community very seriously.

    It took time for much of the community to even get used to it as they were under terror and control by the cartel for so long. Most had even closed their businesses since they did not want to be bothered anymore with paying tax to the organized criminals. Folks wanted to appear as plain as possible, with no appearance of wealth. So the small towns slowly became without the little “mom and pop” business, which rural Mexico is known for.

    I was told that folks, for the first year or so after the cartel was kicked out were still in disbelief that it was real. Many could not believe the Cartel bullies were gone, so slowly there has been an increase in vitality and business re-opening. It’s a vigor that is slowly coming back.

    I see the Comunitarios [the Community Police] caring for the community. I am like damn, that’s the way it should be! In many parts of the world, the police are not your friend anymore. You don’t feel protected. In this case, you see them protecting the youth, accompanying educational fieldtrips in plain clothes, responding quickly, etc. Its like the light of a new day, dawn of a good era. It feels different.

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    That’s heavy. Why would you come all the way down here in such a turbulent time?

    Why am I here? That’s the best question. “It’s like why are we all here?” Or maybe why has it took me so long to get here to find my family, is a better question. Well, much of it is due to the reputation this area has had, the violence in Mexico, and stories of violence has kept me away. Also, I had a language barrier for most of my life, as I did not speak Spanish, and my family in Los Angeles was dis-connected to my family in Mexico.

    In Mexico, I focused on a geographical area that would be within 2 hours from my mom’s birthplace in Colima. After getting some leads on waves along the coastal areas, I set out to go check this area. Remember, I knew nothing of the Community Police and only of Cartel stories. My mom was on the phone with me as I was driving south towards Michoacan telling me all the stories of kidnapping which here friends recently shared with here. So lets say I proceeded with caution and yes a little fear.

    Long story short, I ended up setting up my residence along the coast. It was located between some great surf breaks that are exposed to all swells and one rarely, if ever, sees a gringo tourist. It was kind of surreal.

    Later I find out that “coincidently” I had set up residence 20 minutes south of the actual place both my Grandfather was born, raised, and 20 minutes north of where my Grandmother was born.  At the time, this was totally un be-known to me that I had did this. This realization came months later, after I began tracking down both my grandfather's side of the family. And just until last week, I just learned the village from where my grandmother was from was in the exact same district where I was living. Like whoa.


    It seemed like fear was holding you back at first, but once you let that go things ended up just as they were suppose to.

    Exactly. I decided I wanted to be close to my roots. Get there and follow the vibe, get some waves, and continue my study of indigenous foods and ways. What I “discovered” was very validating to my intuition and identity.

    It was invigorating to re-connect with Mexican culture. It felt strange, yet so familiar at the same time. It was festive and I was buzzing.  A month after I arrived, I called my mother down and my son (who was living with his mom in California) down to visit. When they arrived, we began to search Colima City for her birthplace and seek out family. My mom does not have the best memory, but we took to the streets as three generations – my mom, my son and me. It was dope.

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    How has founding a Native Youth Program help you in this search for your past?

    I began Young Native Scholars in 2000 after being hired by the University in San Diego and later it morphed into InterTribal Youth and now morphing again into Native Like Water. It was based on how, I as a youth, was turned off from boring curriculum.

    So, for the past 17 years, with ITY, I have been leading these super immersion programs. Leading and inspiring youth to find their path, be ok with their identity and release the burden of guilt that they often feel in regards to their disconnect to school.

    In this whole journey of my program, I was perhaps just trying to make it right for myself. A reflection, a desire, a need to heal this dysfunctional trauma I experienced in my early education.

    Your journey is really inspiring and it is an honor to participate first hand. Reminds me a lot of how we think about things in Hawai‘i.

    You know, in doing the ITY program for 15 years, I always knew we needed to know more about the Pacific Maritime Story. ITY needed to reach out to those who know more than us about this great body of water. The program needed to learn more about our Hawaiian relatives, and in doing I knew we would learn about ourselves.

    Hawai‘i was a revelation on many ways. I was taken back and in tears with the songs, community values and affirmation of our natural state of being. The “new” educational systems like the Hawaii Cultural Immersion Schools, Polynesian Voyaging Society, Na Kama Kai, Mana Maoli Music Education, and so many others have shown me so much.

    In this crazy world of confusion and uncertainty we must find the guiding light, the stars that will take us home. Without a doubt, given the colonial history, resistance, and expression of culture, Hawai‘i is in the best position to teach and guide us in the right direction.

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    To learn more about Inter Tribal Youth and Native like Water youth program visit @intertribalyouth or visit

  • May 5, 2017

    Cliff's Notes: Ahuna Hana


    Words by: Cliff Kapono

    Photos by: Cliff Kapono (@cliff_kapono) and Jake Marote (jake_of_all_trades)

    Very distant from the hustle and bustle of O‘ahu’s North Shore lies the quaint working town of Hilo, Hawai‘i. A place where even time seems to take its time. The lush countryside and fertile soil has kept this tropical safehaven a valued resource to so many in Hawa‘i for so long. On the Easternmost shores of the Hawaiian islands also resides an eclectic community of creatives that have managed to carve their native upbringings into their everyday lives. Take case in point, Brandan Ahuna. Full time lifeguard, full time dad, full time surfer and most recently full time shaper. For over a decade now, we’ve been on countless adventures, scored amazing waves and experienced some of the most incredible places Polynesia has to offer. On a recent trip home and after riding one of his alai‘a surfboards, I had a chance to sit down and ask Brandan a few questions about his next chapter in life as a wood craftsman. It was just enough time to check out his shop, watch him finish a few boards and convince him to come with me on another mission.


    CK: Bruddah Brans, you always seem to be on the go. Do you even sleep?

    BA: Sleep what is that? Nah, average at least eight hours of sleep a day, but it all depends on the day. Most times, I feel I live life through a pattern. I wake up, get the kids ready for school, rush to work on projects or head into work. I finish, pick up the keiki [children] from school and take them to sports or to the beach. I end the day by making dinner and making sure homework is done. Overall, my day to day lately has been very busy.


    CK: How do you fit time in for everything each day?

    BA: You know I really don't know... I think it comes down to prioritizing what's most important I guess. Kuleana [responsibility]. Being raised most of my life by my grandparents, I was brought up old school. So yeah I would say being Hawaiian helps me balance everything I do in life. I was taught that ‘Ohana [family] is the most important, that comes first. Next hana [work], which for me is like the security to provide for my ‘Ohana. Everything else comes after. That is what makes me happy and I find that if you're happy with your life, it definitely makes things much easier.Alaia_1Alaia_3

    CK: Tell me more about alai‘a. When did you first ride one and what was that feeling like?

    BA: Me and a few friends back in high school decided to make ourselves alai‘a. We went to Home Depot and bought some shelving, went back home and without much knowledge started to cut out a template. Next we shaped the nose and rails. We didn't have much to tools. I think we had a jigsaw, orbital sander and a file. Anyways after it was all said and done we tested them out at Honoli‘i and ended up catching some waves on them. To be honest though, I wasn't really impressed with what we made.

    CK: So how did you get back into it?

    BA: It wasn't till my friend Doug Powdrell, really good craftsman, came up to me one day while I was at work and asked me if I've ever ridden an alai‘a. I told him I tried it once, and before I could tell him that it sucked, he asked me if I would like to sample one that he built. So I said sure why not. A few days later he brought down his alai‘a. My first look at it without a doubt was WOW! It looks so beautiful to the point that I didn't even want to ride it. I look nothing like the one I shaped years ago. He had concave, beveled rails and it definitely felt a lot lighter. He said he's built them before, but only as wall hangers for friends and has never ridden one. So he was curious to see if they really worked. Later that day I headed to Honoli‘i anxious to try it. As I pulled it out of the truck and made my way to the water people couldn't help but to gaze and complement it. when I finally jumped into the water, I was amazed how buoyant it was for a piece of wood. It felt good. It felt natural. It was tricky to paddle, but low and behold the first wave I stood up, the thing went so fast I could barely control it. This was on a knee high wave must you know. I rode that wave so far in that when I kicked out, an instant jolt of happiness hit me! All I did was go straight, but for some reason I felt so stoked like I was reborn or something. I was instantly hooked.

    Over the next week, I rode that alai‘a. I was addicted. I rode it so much that it was starting to break. Splitting at the tail. I didn’t know that a friend of mine was taking pictures of me and took the board back with some of the pictures from my sessions.

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    Doug couldn't believe the pictures. He said he was blown away that I was actually surfing his alai‘a. I felt bad that the board was breaking because it was so beautiful, but he said "No, no, that's good, we can fix this. That's why I wanted you to ride it, so we can work out the bugs." He said don't worry and that he would take it home and bring it back when it's finished fixing it. I mentioned to him "eh Doug, maybe you should put a tail block on it to prevent it from splitting" he looked at me and said that's a great idea and he would do that. To make a long story short, he ended up giving me that board as a gift and a few more after too. I was very gracious, but something inside of me was trying to tell me something. I needed to make one for myself. I wanted to feel what it would be like to make one with my own hands and then to surf it. And so that's where it all started.

    CK: Woah. I didn’t know Doug had such an influential role is resparking your fire to shape again. What is the process like of making these unique surfboards?

    BA: Since I don't own a mill, I buy my blanks from businesses who sell them paulownia in particular. Then I choose one of my many designs that I have depending on what style and shape I want. Once the template is drawn out, I cut it with a jigsaw. Then I step back and take a look at it, reading the wood and determining what will be the top and what will be the bottom. Next I measure out the rails and the bevel in the nose, then carefully start carving away. I use block planes for shaping. When carving the contours on the bottom, I usually stick to a single concave out the back. Once that process is finished I start to sand. I'll start with 80 grit and work my way all the way to 260 grit. Then I rub on a coat of linseed oil, and it's pretty much finished. I also do custom work, which includes installing tail blocks and/or inlays depending on what the person wants. Typically I use gorilla glue for that stuff. My alai‘a can be 100% organic if I ship it out of one piece of wood and not apply anything to it.

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    CK: Wow. That seems like a lot of work.

    BA: It is, but I really enjoy creating things for me and for other people. I love the whole process of moving from a vision to an idea, the process and all the way to the end result. It really makes me appreciate the craft. You gotta wanna do it with love and for all the right reasons. As craftsman we put a lot of positivity and aloha into what we build. We create a story behind everything we make. I highly encouraging people to build their own alai‘a and am always offering to help, or to share my experiences.

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    CK: That’s epic. Not many people can say when they are given something, they want to do the same thing for others.

    BA: There's always a lesson to be learned. As Hawaiians we understand that if you take you have to give back. It's a healthy way of living. That's how I was taught and that's the way I will teach. Anybody can buy a craft, but to make one yourself... only then will you really appreciate it.


    *Follow more of Brandan Ahuna on instagram @ahuna_hana

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