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Interview – Pacha Light. Surfer, Slow Traveller, Sloth

Australian professional surfer Pacha Light chats with Melissa from Slow Travel Magazine about her unconventional upbringing, including her connection to the Japanese Sloth Club; slow activism; and how surfing offers the unique opportunity to connect with local communities and cultures.

pacha light surfer
Image by Shayne Nenienaber

Slow Travel Magazine: First up … Pacha, what a beautiful name. What does it mean? Does it reflect your heritage at all?
Pacha Light: Yes it does! The name Pacha comes from the Quechua culture in South America, where I was born at home in a small village in the Ecuadorian Andes. My mother was working with the local indigenous Mayor on eco/community projects and learned that the Quechua word for Mother Earth is ‘Pacha mama’ – that seemed right!

pacha light surfing
Image by Shayne Nenienaber

You’ve had an unconventional upbringing. Please tell us a little, including about your mum and the Japanese Sloth Club.
PL:
My Mum is an environmental activist who has campaigned and supported projects all around the world. That’s how she ended up in the cloud forests of Ecuador, working with local communities to protect their forest – even setting up a permaculture lifestyle project where I spent part of my childhood living an hour’s walk by dirt road, with no electricity…I remember helping wash my little brother Yani’s cloth nappies by the side of the roaring river and hanging them out on a long line, flapping in the breeze! It was a pretty hardcore slow life – but I have no bad memories of that time!

I remember helping wash my little brother Yani’s cloth nappies by the side of the roaring river.

pacha light
Image by Nonoko Kameyama
pacha light
Image by Nonoko Kameyama

Mum went to Japan in the late 1980s to try to save Borneo’s rainforests (that were being used in Japan for things like single use concrete formwork). After about 10 years of frontline campaigning, she rescued a Sloth in Ecuador and shared the story about her encounter. She reflected on why, as humans, we seemed to be so destructive and cruel, while the Sloth was so gentle and harmless – a permanent smile on its face.

The Sloth was so gentle and harmless – a permanent smile on its face… He came up with the idea of starting a Sloth Club… The message was that to save the planet, just ‘Be Sloth’! 

pacha light
Image by Nonoko Kameyama

Keibo Oiwa (a renowned cultural anthropologist, author and environmentalist) was touched by the story and realised that, even as activists we had the tendency to be so fast and aggressive – easy to burn out – it’s so off-putting (especially) to young people. He came up with the idea of starting a Sloth Club and, along with key anti-nuclear leader, Ryuichi Nakamura – the group was born in 1999. Surprisingly, it became pretty popular.  The message was that to save the planet, just ‘Be Sloth’!  The Sloth Club in Japan actually led the Slow movement there, with a network of ‘Cafe Slows’ popping up around the country, networking and promoting positive ideas of deep ecology, permaculture, voluntary simplicity and localisation. It was/is a lifestyle shift that people seemed yearning for.

Promoting positive ideas of deep ecology, permaculture, voluntary simplicity and localisation.

pacha light swimwear
Image by Shayne Nenienaber

So when I came into the world, my mum was travelling between Ecuador, Japan and Australia, singing and producing music and running projects with international volunteers. I got to meet and be around incredible people and mentors since I was a baby. It has been pretty unconventional – living alone with next to nothing in the forest, to intense tours in concrete jungles like Tokyo with huge, crowded cities – falling asleep to our mother singing every night. 

We (kind of) settled down in a small beachside town on Australia’s east coast, and my brother and I fell in love with surfing, feeling closer to Mother Earth than ever.

pacha light environmentalist
Image by Nonoko Kameyama
pacha light with boat
Image by Nonoko Kameyama
pacha light womens surfer
Image by Shayne Nenienaber
pacha light japan
Image by Nonoko Kameyama

Your surfing career has taken you to some amazing places. Has surfing opened you up to any special encounters with local people?
PL: I’m still processing the past 4 years of travelling around the world, meeting inspiring people and beautiful locations, united by the sea and waves. The moments I hold closest to my heart would be learning about the  Ama and Haenyeo women divers in Japan and South Korea who have this incredible strength and passion, but also a love and vulnerability. Most of them still dive well into their 80’s! I got to dive with them and seek wisdom from their hundreds of (collective) years in the sea. I’m so lucky to be able to keep learning from elders all around the world from different cultures.

The moments I hold closest to my heart would be learning about the  Ama and Haenyeo women divers in Japan and South Korea who have this incredible strength and passion but also a love and vulnerability.

Do you like to try local foods when you’re travelling?
PL: For sure! I think eating local foods, especially fermented, not only helps you adjust but builds your palette and bacteria in your gut. We grew up with the phrase ‘try something 7 times’ before you decide if you don’t like it and I think that’s why Japanese ‘Natto’ (fermented soybeans) are among the favourite food of my brother and I! Being more local wherever you are is better for the environment and the community, knowing where your food comes from and creating more connections and supporting smaller businesses. 

Do you feel that surfing allows you to immerse into a local culture?
PL: I really think it unifies and bridges cultures, beliefs and all ages. To be able to share that joy in nature is pure magic and I think surfing is a beautiful way to play and be connected simultaneously. I’ve made friendships all around the world through surfing and I feel like many of them have become extended family… it’s truly magical.

Where possible I’ve always tried to ‘give back’  to the places I visit – like bringing extra boards to gift to local communities – that not only supports local kids loving their oceans, but nurtures lifelong connections. I remember going back to Nias (in the Mantawai islands in Indonesia) for a surf contest last year and being able to introduce other international competitors to locals, learning more about the people and the place – and that felt so good.

I’ve made friendships all around the world through surfing and I feel like many of them have become extended family.

pacha light japan
Image by Nonoko Kameyama
pacha light
Image by Nonoko Kameyama

How do you personally feel that surfers could travel better, to be more mindful of local cultures?
PL: I think the whole surf world can sometimes become stuck in its little bubble. It’s an incredible sport that the vast majority of people may never get to experience, so to step outside of our own comfort zone and try to travel with an open mind, no expectations, so you can appreciate these special places. It’s those moments where you have to trust in another person and are unsure of what’s going to happen, or when you can’t speak the language – it’s all about being kind and positive and it’s amazing to see the result!

It’s those moments where you have to trust in another person and are unsure of what’s going to happen

pacha light bikini
Image by Shayne Nenienaber

I’ve finally been able to stay in one place and have the chance to reflect … To see slow growth and results in contrast of this instant gratification I had gotten used to over the years.

What does slow living (and slow travel) mean to you? 
PL:
It’s pretty crazy to think about because all my life we have been living very simply, moving slowly and really appreciating the small things. However, the past 4 years travelling on the World Qualifying Series and being in a competitive mindset was a whirlwind! I’ve finally been able to stay in one place and have the chance to reflect and begin to transition into a more peaceful state; more time for growing our own food, surfing for the joy and even working out – it’s become my own meditation… to see slow growth and results in contrast of this instant gratification I had gotten used to over the years. I still work as much as I can, but I now have this mellow energy instead of a loud buzz zooming in my head. Living slowly is being present; it’s appreciating and understanding that life takes time and you have to stay patient and enjoy the peace. 

pacha light swimsuit surfing
Image by Shayne Nenienaber

Thank you so much for your time and thoughtful responses, Pacha. It’s been a joy to chat with you and to learn more about your upbringing and also your own slow philosophy. You are a remarkable woman!

pacha light
Image by Nonoko Kameyama

Follow Pacha on instagram by clicking here or her Youtube channel (which includes video logs from her Japan journeys) by clicking here. And for more about Slow Travel, check out our latest blog posts or subscribe to our newsletter.

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