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Surf Class

By Matthew

As I embarked on my Duke Gap Year I promised myself that I would try to learn something and grow as a person from each every experience I chose to undertake, and I have definitely kept true to that goal.  Living for two months in Puerto Pilon, Costa Rica, offered unique and spectacular opportunities to follow through on my education through exploration but I learned even more than hoped on this incredible journey.
I was able to explore the surrounding ecosystem with the CR nature guide found in the book box in our bungalow.  I worked on my Spanish the entire time but with laser-like focus while ordering food, and I even learned that 30 spf sunscreen does little to protect my skin. Believe it or not though, with all the amazing things to learn from during my time in that small town, the most beneficial classroom was the water.  It was almost like I was in my own covid cohort and my surf curriculum included Physical Education, Geography, Science and Accelerated Spanish all in one beautiful setting. 
Spanish in the surf line up was a core class and one of my favorite subjects. The learning environment was different from high school, and contrary to the peaceful classroom a good bit of my learning was done through loud exclamations and conversations whilst being pounded on the inside by a surprise set of waves. I would learn a lot of explicit phrases from interactions with the locals, but I would also learn about descriptors of waves, drama between friends, tales of the work day, and even how to defend myself from angry Frenchmen (who curiously also spoke Spanish).  Between sets though, I was able to practice telling people about myself, my home, and what brought me to this small town, along with asking and learning about other people’s lives and families. Everything I learned about the surrounding area also came from my conversations in the surf. With the overlap between Spanish and geography I learned about the Osa, wildlife sanctuaries, other surf breaks, and empanada spots for our return trip up north. Google Translate consisted of hand signals. My vocabulary grew immensely through the basic actions that accompanied new words.  I learned how to say alligator and crocodile as lifesaving advice as to which rivers we could swim in and which to avoid. This may seem like a very unorthodox way of practicing a new language but I would take doing so on one of the best surf breaks in the world over an online zoom or classroom any day of the week.
The Pacific Ocean also provided research topics for Science class. After every surf session I would come back with a new animal or phenomena I needed to learn more about. After being stung several days in a row by something called Hilo de Oro, I decided to do some research and ask around about it. After talking with several locals I realized I was lucky that I barely reacted to this jelly fish, where they came from and how common they were. My learning regimen continued with tides, currents, turtles, flying fish (who knew those things were real!), dolphin surfing the waves alongside me, and where the incredible shells came from.  I also decided to look into bioluminescence after one of our early morning surf sessions in complete darkness, where each turn and paddle stroke was marked by a ripples of blue water. That incredible morning was one of the coolest moments ever, and gave way to an appreciation of one of the most amazing and beautiful events in nature. It was special knowing that nearly every event in the world is captured on camera these days and shared with the world, and yet these moments were experienced by me, my three friends.  I wouldn’t necessarily say I could skip college level science classes based on this experience, but it sure would be tempting.
Everything I learned from the simple activity of surfing embodied the idea that with the right curiosity and mindset you can learn quite a lot from just a little. I expect the classrooms at Duke to look a little different but I plan on bringing that same inquisitiveness and thirst for knowledge that I did every day to the Selea surf break.

The Power of a Bike

By Matthew 
How do you get around without a car when nothing is nearby? That is a problem I had to face with four of my friends in a small town in the southwest corner of Costa Rica. The only guaranteed ride was to and from work, and buses definitely did not come on the hour and half hour like in my hometown. So typically, we walked. If you were lucky you could hop in a friendly (looking) passing car with a raised thumb and your best smile, but those came few and far between. We would take afternoon trips to the store or full day trips to town if we had aspirations of purchasing rare and exotic items such as cheese (which was a key ingredient in my rice bean and cheese dish served twice per day on average). This wasn’t really a problem until one day our boss took us on a drive up the coast and pointed out all these super cool places we could explore and a truckload of new things to do. Now I’m super active and absolutely not afraid of a good walk or long jog, but it quickly became obvious there was no way I was going to be able to come close to fully taking advantage of this beautiful place.
Pilon is a Costa Rican fishing village with a population of 175 people, with not a single paved road in any of the surrounding towns. I am currently about half way through my stay, working with new friends  to orchestrate a move of an acquaintance’s property, using shipping containers as short term storage while also doing renovations on two different properties in town. In our free time we would explore the jungle covered mountains and beautiful coast in the surrounding areas, surfing on one of the best surf breaks in the world and finally playing stick rock and rock bocce, some of the more barbaric games ever invented on random beaches between towns.  The last thing that made it out of the old house but not quite into the shipping containers were two rusted bikes with flat tires that we took back to our home. These bikes would be dismissed as useless hunks of metal in almost any normal garage, but to me they were beautiful stallions that had the potential to give me access to boundless adventure, exploration, and more cheese.
We spent the day after our road trip fixing up the ancient bikes and before long, I was off.  I have been biking and exploring something new about this incredible country almost every day.  We’ve been cliff jumping, hiking along rivers, scouting wildlife in the mountains and finding new beach spots.  I have been doing it all and making the most of this beautiful place I am living in because of my access to wheels. The bike has also served as an escape, as it allows me to get out of the “house” ( one bedroom, one bath, with outdoor seating and kitchen) which gets pretty crowded and overwhelming with four other boys.  The rides themselves were fun in their own right, but they offered a chance to think and reflect on life while taking focus off sweating buckets on a dirt road to anywhere. I have learned much about myself through journey to new destinations via my bike.  Thinking about where I am and where I’m going is utterly fascinating given the crazy year we’ve all had.  While the bike initially provided a means to scout move waves and buy more cheese, it ended up giving me time and space to explore my thoughts.  
The unusual year off school is quickly coming to a close and I’m starting to realize how uniquely I’ve grown by taking this alternate route to Duke.  I am as excited as I was a year ago, but now I’m a little more informed and the most basic broken down bike has helped facilitate my journey.  

Adventures in Maui


By Matthew

When I embarked on this Hawaiian journey I hoped it would be filled with amazing experiences and adventure, sunsets, surfing, warm evenings and the maybe even sounds of a ukulele playing in the background.  Looking back, it was nothing like I expected.  Yes, it was spectacular, and of course it was warm, but some aspects of adventure and companionship were more nuanced than expected.   I knew some things about everyday life when camping on a remote farm were going to be wildly different from home, but I never expected three of my passions – driving, surfing and simply meeting friends would be so complex in Hana.

Our host purchased a 1998 Ford Ranger for us to use and we were all so excited for this freedom and mobility.  I got a taste of the craziness that lie ahead the moment we left the airport. We drove two and a half hours home along the Hana Highway to get to our new residence.  This road is world famous for its 620 curves, 59 one lane bridges, and the breathtaking views from this treacherous road.  I got to experience that road 24 more times over the course of 3 months.  Sometimes I would be the white-knuckled driver, other times I’d watch fearfully from the passenger seat, and every third trip from the bed of the truck – looking backwards, lolling back and forth on the verge of vomiting with unrelenting rain showers pouring down on me.  Seeing that road the first time set the tone for the trip and forced me to wrap my head around the twists and turns to come.  The journey quickly evolved from something cool and visually mesmerizing to a nauseating rollercoaster that seemed to never end.  But by the end of the trip we had trimmed the drive to two hours and felt like masters of the jungle stock car race.

While Hana is known for its plentiful natural resources, people are few and far between, and US mainlanders even less so. We had hoped to make some local friends eventually, and after several days in a row of playing Frisbee and making diving football catches in the waves after work with a group of locals curiously looking on from afar, someone finally came up and asked to join in our game.  We were so excited.  Before long we were grilling out on the beach with about 20 other “woofers” (Working-On-Farm) from the Hana area. That initial connection turned our rather predictable farming and swimming routine into Frisbee Fridays, Volleyball Sundays, Soccer Wednesdays, and big wave Thursdays.  It was awesome and it was a game changer for us.  They were great folks loving the land the way we’d hoped to, leading us on cliff jumping expeditions deep in the rainforest or along ocean coves, searching for secret beach spots and trading farming secrets over an evening fire. Their willingness to befriend us and share their own network and adventure took us to all corners of the island.

Surfing was something we all learned to love very quickly and occupied many weekend hours.  Saturday afternoons we would finish work, throw our day packs, cameras and surfboards in the truck and hit the winding road in search of waves. We would drive all over the island chasing breaks appropriate to our abilities. As our surfing skills grew so did our appetite for bigger waves.  Pacing the wave or standing on a board was easy in the grand scheme of things.  Our understanding of where to set up in the lineup, how to read the water, identifying consequential landmarks became critical areas of focus.  Many of those tasks did not come easy, as the help from the local crowd was nonexistent, not very welcoming to outsiders and far different from the Hana “woofer” crowd.  Every new break we went to posed different problems and challenges, whether it was the paddle out, navigating the crowds of surfers, finding non-deadly exit points, or avoiding the ever present reefs.  One by one, through much trial and error we were able to steadily progress without getting killed and soon were catching waves beyond our wildest dreams. Some of my best memories from the trip materialized from not just surfing but the adventure of finding secluded spots, beating others to the break after a rainstorm and checking out the sights from various parts of the island.

Our host had suggested that dietary changes were coming our way upon arrival in Hana, as were eating schedules, work routines, bathroom protocols and basic daily hygiene.  I will admit that all of those required some measure of adjustment, but the act of simply getting to and from the beach, meeting new friends and surfing waves ended up being far more challenging than I could have imagined.  But everything we learned in that arena was worth the additional effort.  I can now drive with laser focus and have perfected the hairpin turn as if driving a golf cart.  I can size up a surf break and manage to navigate the water, natural obstacles and enthusiastic inhabitants like a native.  And I have learned most important of all to embrace new and different people, to realize how everyone loves to play, and to keep putting myself out there in search of new relationships and experiences.  The easier stuff somehow became the challenging stuff, but it made Maui a better experience and will stay with me forever.

Anatomy of a Farm

By Matthew

Ancient Hawaiians would split up land into pie slices starting at the top of the mountain and running all the way to the ocean, and each pie slice would be a town. The slices had enough resources to support all its residences, with hunters up in the mountains, fisherman on the coast, and farming all through the middle. Upon arrival in Hana, our host, Nick, seemed to own a whole pie slice to himself. Our first morning Nick took us on a walk through the property, reciting the names of every tree, bush, fruit, and vegetable, and noting which ones he planted. He also outlined his goals and vision for the property, including where he would put each orchard, plant each crop, and eventually build his dream house. After the entire day of touring the property I came to the conclusion that it was just one big hunk of jungle. There was very little actually planted that hadn’t been there in an intertwined mess for decades if not centuries, and although Nick laid out big plans for our time on the farm I was skeptical as to what realistically could be accomplished in 10 weeks and the future of the property as a whole.

During our first month our workload consisted solely of hacking away at the jungle, clearing land and attempting to slow the rapid growth of the bamboo, cane grass, and hau brush. To be able to navigate the rainforest and do battle with its overgrowth, we needed to understand the enemy, so Nick gave us an in depth tutorial during the workday and then again around the evening fire. We would learn much about how and when species rooted and spread, where it originated from and its main purpose for use on the island. We spent many days planting, watering, and harvesting crops. Nick used a sustainable farming technique where he would only use fertilizers, compost, and mulch with ingredients from his own property. We learned that live plants carry more carbon and dead plants contain more nitrogen and learned proper balance of each in mulch. We learned the art of composting and how the quality of the production impacted the growth of plants.  I was amazed and really enjoyed learning about all the science and strategy that goes into having a successful farm.

Nick’s farm was on the rainy side of the island, offering perfect ingredients for plant growth and crop prosperity. I found out early on that the perfect recipe was a double edged sword. While we enjoyed watching our newly planted crops flourish, it was incredibly deflating and challenging to see the bamboo grow back in Jurassic Park fashion right in front of our very eyes. Every plant and tree we attempted to clear for future plantings would come back with a vengeance unbelievably fast. Hau brush and African tulip trees would take root anywhere branches touched ground, and an entire tree could grow from the nutrients from a single branch no bigger than your wrist or longer than your forearm.  Cane grass would swallow entire fields at a time and the homoonu could cover a garden bed in the blink of an eye. It was an uphill battle fending off the jungle, two steps forward and one step backwards daily.  Working with hand saws, clippers, and shovels put us at a slight disadvantage, but each Friday our savior Makani would arrive and provide us with a distinct advantage over our opponent.  Makani was our neighbor and he worked with us once a week and brought not only a wealth of island farming knowledge but also seeds and saplings for us to plant, and most importantly enough heavy machinery to arm a small industrial outpost. We would clear more land on Fridays then seven days of manual work. Without his help we would have stood zero chance of making material progress during our stay.  We also loved him because he brought fresh fish to augment our normal diet of plants and energy bars.

In our last days in Kaoli I felt like the blueprint for the future started to make sense.  Our efforts and manual laboring helped lay the groundwork for a successful farm.  Nick’s vision for the property was starting to take shape. I look forward to returning to the farm when I am older, maybe even with my family, and seeing the land we worked on evolved into a fully functioning farm.  When we arrived all I could see was complexity – and unclear destination amidst a pile of brush.  But, by taking one step at a time I saw many elements fall into place and trusting Nick and Makani made it easier to attack our project.  I had no idea what I was in for, but I learned so much.  I may never help construct another farm again, but finding a way forward and adhering to plan and adapting to our circumstances is something that will always bear fruit.

Problem Solving in Hana

By Matthew

I spent the last few months with friends volunteering on a farm located about 7 miles west of the remote town of Hana on the island Maui.  For perspective, while offering undeniably spectacular views, Kaoli is approximately 2 hours from the nearest grocery and hardware stores, accumulates roughly 400 inches in annual rainfall, and we lived under a tarp. Open tent camping in a lush rainforest overlooking the south pacific sounded rustic to all of us, but challenges presented themselves immediately upon arrival.  After a sleepless first night battling mobile little critters, the roar of intermittent rain bursts and the sounds of creatures lurking in the background, fixing our living quarters became job number one.  We had to turn our bug infested sauna of a rain shelter into something passable for daily living if we had any hope of lasting a week.

The list of projects seemed infinite, so we focused on Maslow’s most basic needs, including food, shelter, water and sleep.  The first task was combatting the bugs, as we emerged from our sleeping quarters covered in what looked like early stages of smallpox, courtesy of some opportunistic mosquitos.  As we compared battle wounds our host informed us that bug nets were a week out at best. We improvised and focused on generating as much air flow as possible through the tent.  We grabbed machetes and hand saws and attacked the inkberry, hoe bush, and mango trees blocking the strong east-facing “Kona” winds that swept across the property.  We used the newly harvested wood to construct a platform to get our sleeping bags off the jungle floor and created shelves for our belongings and built a functional, beautiful table.  The next step was eliminating the ape plant (wild terro) surrounding the tent which generated many puddles of stagnant water birthing millions of mosquitoes.

The next challenge was finding more accessible water.  Bathing would have been nice after being covered in dirt and brush for eight hours each day, but avoiding severe dehydration was the bigger concern. Ninety degrees under a canopy of overgrowth was crushing us.  Our host had previously found a spring about a mile upstream of the property which he hoped to use to irrigate the farm eventually. By tripling the occupants on the farm connection to the water source became imperative.  We mapped out a plan, trudged up and down the mountainside for days, eventually hooking up 2,000 feet of pipe from the mouth of the spring to just above our tent. After battling water pressure issues we installed water tanks halfway up the hill, and before long we had fresh drinking water.  Days later we actually rigged up a shower system with lava rocks as flooring to avoid bamboo foot punctures and palm fronds tied to inkberry railings to obscure the view.

I don’t know if our efforts qualify for a “Home Improvement” episode, but necessity is the mother of invention and before we left we transformed our little slice of rainforest into a glorious one bedroom, half-bath palace, complete with closets, porch, dining room, surfboard and drying racks for our disgusting clothes.   That first night was horrendous, but by week three we were sleeping like babies after adapting to jungle living at its finest.


Why Take A Gap Year

By Matthew


Although I will not be attending classes this year I will never stop learning and nothing, not even another stay-at-home mandate will prevent me from growing intellectually. I’m learning and growing from every experience I’m having this summer.  Everything from navigating social interactions, precarious backcountry situations, catering to guests’ needs and cooking food on outdoor fires (in a summer snowstorm no less) is helping me navigate the future.  I am learning to appreciate the benefits of preparation and communication while attempting to resolve problems with upset guests from my job as a bellman at a local high end hotel. That alone will help me in the dorms, classrooms and labs when I get to school.

Over the past few weeks, as many of my friends leave home and settle into life as college freshmen, I have been reading, hearing and watching scores of entertaining stories about the various amazing experiences they all seem to be having.  This was inevitably going to be the first gut check where I’d likely be second guessing my decision to take a gap year.  As my family and friends predicted, it hit me hard.  But it also forced me to review my sentiments when deciding to take this year off and remind myself what I hoped to gain from it. My anxiety hasn’t lasted too long, thankfully.  I remembered that I’ll eventually get my chance to be a freshman at Duke and that I’m actually not missing out on anything.  My initial intention to create time, space and experiences between high school and college to grow as a person and gain knowledge and perspective along the way to help maximize my time at Duke is still front and center as I embark on my journey.

One of the biggest keys to success in college and life that many high schools don’t effectively teach is intrinsic motivation.  For students to truly make the most out of their years in college they need to know what they want to do and how to get there, but also, most importantly, why they want to do it.  Knowing and being able to articulate the “why” gives students both the focus and drive to maximize their educational experience. In high school and college most students are motivated extrinsically, by grades, others aspirations, and following the status quo or society’s general idea of success, not driven by personal interests. Those motivations lead to many students losing interest in their classes and simply being unhappy. In a gap year, especially this one in 2020,  there is no clearly defined path to success.  The path to knowledge, self-awareness and enjoyment needs to be crafted by the individual and is largely going to be free of judgement.  I am navigating the current climate by choosing to pursue areas of intrigue or curiosity, and not chasing the wishes of others. As students are able to identify and follow their inner guidance chips they will be owning their choices, chasing their moments, learning by trial and error and likely setting themselves up to truly flourish in college and life as more informed stewards of their intrinsic motivations.

I wish all my buddies a wonderful year of discovery.  Right now my plans span from mountain peaks, to the far Pacific and back to Europe, with much detail still to be filled in.  I look forward to seeing what I learn, how I adapt and where I might grow as a friend/son/brother/student over the coming year.



Taking to the Mountains

By Matthew

Throughout this month, while I have been searching for concrete plans for the upcoming semester and thinking about what I want out of this year, I have taken to the mountains. Connectivity to nature has been a foundational pillar to my upbringing in Aspen Colorado. It has been preached and practiced by everyone from friends and family to the local schools and the community, and I have not hesitated to jump right in. I have learned so much from my experiences in nature, but in this last year, with all of the difficult decisions and circumstances we have had to face, I have found nature to be an incredible place to think and find clarity.

In particular I have been chasing fourteeners in these last few weeks. Fourteeners are peaks with summits above 14 thousand feet of elevation, and they surround my home town. I had never actually climbed a fourteener before these last few weeks, and they are an experience unlike anything I have ever done. Most recently I summited Castle Peak and Conundrum Peak in the same day, and what I have realized is that there are so many more memorable moments involved with these trips than touching that top point. Everything from conversations around the fire, to 3:30 am wake up calls, to even butt sledding down the remaining snow patches, is what makes these trips incredible. But what I sought out in particular was the time to think and look. Moments to do that are so rare in day to day activities yet so beneficial in every area of your life.

What I was hoping to find clarity with was where I should spend my time and what I want to volunteer for. Two opportunities became a possibility recently, and I was having a very difficult time prioritizing one over the other. The first is tutoring underprivileged students in European cities, and the other is in Hawaii working to help preserve the natural beauty of the islands doing watershed and animal research, or helping cleaning up beaches and forests.  They are both amazing but I can only choose one and I was stuck. While I was taking in the beautiful landscape trying to catch my breath, I realized that my passions lied more with the protection of the environment and enjoying the natural beauties of our world than tutoring students and the city life. That time helped me find clarity and to prioritize which of these opportunities was best for me, and I have no doubt that I will be back out there soon with other important decisions that need to be made.