Building Skate Parks In The Developing World Is Thirsty Work
After finishing university Ben Hermans caught wind of an underground philanthropic skate movement operating in half a dozen developing nations and decided to get involved.
Image: Samantha Robson
Building skate parks in developing countries is thirsty business. Which is how Ben Hermans and his friends found themselves lying face down on a road in Ramallah, Palestine, at 4 am with loaded machine guns pointed at their heads and soldiers rifling through their belongings.
Moments earlier the 25-year-old Melbournian and his fellow builder-skaters had been rolling home from one of the only bars in Ramallah that serves alcohol.
A long day on the the tools called for it but after skating past a military outpost they aroused the suspicion of two Palestinian soldiers who began following. Rather than run, Ben turned back to see what was up.
"As we got within ten meters they both loaded their automatic rifles and aimed straight down the line at us and were just yelling in arabic," he recalls.
"After they got a translator to come we were able to explain we were volunteering on the Palestinian side and it was all good but I think at 4am in a place where they might not have even heard of skating we're just coming full speed down the hill, it's probably lucky they didn't react differently. We could have been shot," he says.
Building skate parks and rolling around the developing world doesn't immediately scream danger but it's true people fear what they don't understand. Even if it's just a tattoo'd guy or girl in flannelette grinning and rolling passively down the street.
"Different cultures receive it differently," says Ben.
"In Nepal the kids were straight into it and they were always so good at it because (the park) was right next to an orphanage so there was just all these young kids coming."
"In comparison with somewhere like the West Bank where they were really apprehensive that the new kids were starting there. The parents were scared that the kids would get hurt and they weren't sure if they wanted their kids doing this new foreign, Westernised thing," he says.
Raised on his parent's off-the-grid, sustainable property in rural Victoria, Ben grew up making ramps and bowls in his backyard with his dad. After finishing university he caught wind of an underground philanthropic skate movement operating in half a dozen developing nations and decided to get involved.
For his first mission, Ben and some friends set up a crowdfunding campaign, raising $AUD4K, which they used to travel to Bangalore, India, to build ramps for locals.
Once there they met up with a local skate crew, the Holy Stoked Collective, who helped with the build and introduced them to an international network of volunteers building ramps and parks around the world.
"There was basically an established scene internationally where a few groups of people would travel around to areas where there was an established skate scene in a country; where the people lacked the infrastructure and the governments weren't about to pay for skate parks or ramps in their country," says Ben.
"These organisations identify where these things were and then contact them and reach out and basically just do a crowd funding campaign and rock up and build a skate park in a matter of weeks," he says.
Make Life Skate Life was one such non-profit organisation. Through them Ben has spent the past three years travelling to Ethiopia, Myanmar, Nepal, India and Palestine building parks.
It's a hard slog, often comprising up to 50 workers who move tonnes of earth, do concreting, carpentry and plenty of heavy lifting. Days often finish in the early hours of the morning leaving workers thirsty, in places where a hard earned thirst might get you a big cold bullet.
"Obviously, in a muslim state there are very limited places to drink beers. If you're working for two months you wanna drink a beer every now and then," he says.
"In Ethiopia we were doing the project in a bit of a sketchy area. At nighttime they'd have a security guard there who'd just stand around with this old AK 47 and he wouldn't speak a word of English. We weren't really sure what his vibe was. Every night we'd just be drinking beers working on the ramp trowelling or whatever.
"After a while we started giving him beers and he got buzzed off us and all of a sudden he was just taking our beers without even asking. He was getting drunk with us but not saying anything just standing there with an automatic rifle," he laughs.
In September Ben will head back to Palestine to complete another facility; a place that is both the most oppressive but rewarding of those he's worked in.
"It's really crazy to see people living under occupation there but also just seeing that kids out there are just the same as kids anywhere and they just wanna have fun and skate. While you saw all the oppression you could just see kids that were really keen to have a good time," he says.
The whole experience, he says, has been invaluable in building a sense of independence.
"Instead of having a job and a house and stuff, I'm living on the road. It's shown me that you can live anywhere in all kinds of circumstances and not have the nine to five or anything," he says.