Second gear never seems to stick. We’re cruising Havana in a 54’ Chevrolet, taking us slowly around town via the Malécon, a stretch of roadway circling the city along its northern coast. Each stoplight is followed by anticipation, a sensation quickly cured by the loud pop of a struggling transmission that has clearly seen better days. This Chevy is an accurate representation of Cuba as a whole. While things are functioning and fighting hard to serve their purpose, a lot has been left to be desired. The buildings of Havana are best described as perfectly fucked up. Their rustic conditions tell a story of both opulence and fatigue. Smiles on the faces of Cubans counteract their raggedy clothing creating a striking contradiction, often sending my mind into a whirlwind of curiosity. My arrival in Havana was immediately coupled with an overwhelming desire to better understand the secrets of this bewildering country that seems to have been so secretively swept under the rug, a sort of forbidden fruit to the viewpoint of an American eye. As my taxi leisurely departed from the airport grounds, it was evident I was in for a revelation, one that would change the way I not only viewed my life in privileged America, but would offer me a true deliberation on the needs of human beings altogether.
My trip to Cuba began with a nervous sweat. Flying into José Martí International Airport was quite the surreal feeling. I knew American’s had traveled to Cuba before; I knew I wasn’t the first. With that being said, I was traveling on my own terms, to a country which does not yet allow American tourism, under a story I had fabricated to validate my visit, all while carrying a rather large and conspicuous bag full of surfboards in tow. My reasons for being there had some truth. I was to travel to Havana and meet the surfers of 70 Beach in an attempt to donate a 6’6” Retro Fish, my very first brand new surfboard I had purchased a few years back in Huntington Beach, California. In order for an American to travel to Cuba, they must fall under a specific set of categories put in place by the government. By the time this is written, these rules may have already changed. Cuba is on the verge of many upcoming transformations, some of which will undoubtedly help to reshape this unique time capsule of a country.
We were lined up in Customs. I anxiously flipped through my documents as my travel partner Tony, a life long friend who had joined me in Panama, prepared to put our months of sporadic planning to the test. We had packed our bags, bought our visas, followed through with our flights, and now the time came for the moment of truth. Up to this moment, my mind was still chock-full of doubt. Would we get turned around after everything else had gone so smoothly? Tony made his way to the officer, all of which were gorgeous Cuban women dressed in tight uniforms paired with lace stockings; a brief scan of his papers followed by a stamp of approval gave him easy access through the gates and official entrance into Cuba. “That was pretty damn easy, isn’t this was a communist country,” I said to myself. Tony was stoked, immediately turning around to shoot me the thumbs up. His gesture generated some attention and almost instantaneously, a customs agent confronted me, curious of my travels to Cuba and demanding an explanation for my being in their country. I played it cool, my story passed the test, and I was in.
I met a guy on Couchsurfing.com named Yuri Castellano. He spoke of his interest in cultural exchanges, especially when it came to American travelers. Yuri had booked us a few nights stay at Casa Mirella, a family home turned hostel that Tony and I would end up making home base as we moved in and out of Havana. That was our first stop and I could not have been more content on our decision to stay there. You know its good when you arrive and are immediately escorted to the local Taco Spot a mere two blocks away. Through Casa Mirella, we met many like-minded travelers from around the world, all of which were in awe of the stunning backdrop that Havana would consistently provide. Throughout our weeks stay, we would end up grabbing drinks in fancy art galleries, swimming the Malécon waters during sunrise, and taking overnight trips to Tobacco plantations, all with our hostel mates along side. Our first two days were spent being tourists. We walked the streets from morning til’ night and took Taxi rides around the town, eating and drinking all the food and rum we could get our hands on.
A word of caution to the outgoing traveler…exploring Havana on foot can be a challenge for foreigners. The majority of people I met in Cuba were some of the most amazing and inspirational humans I have ever encountered. The amount of stoke these people exude, despite the challenges they face in daily life is inspirational to say the least. When I travel, I make a point to interact with as many people possible, foreign and local. Unfortunately while doing so, bad apples are guaranteed to be thrown in the mix. In Havana, you have to understand that money is scarce. It’s only natural that people take advantage of their opportunities to make a dollar. People everywhere will be friendly and you must learn to separate the genuine from the bullshit. Tony and I had many sincere conversations with random locals on the street, some which I will remember forever. At the same time, occasions arose where we were invited out for a drink, only to be slammed with a hefty tab at the end. So, be cautious but don’t close yourself off from the local people. In my opinion, it’s better to interact and take the risk; to me the rewards are much greater than getting skunked once or twice. Use your head and keep your eyes open. And for the love of god, don’t buy cigars on the street.
“You can meet me at my place of work tomorrow, the National Aquarium at 10:30 to drop off the surfboards.” I received this email from YaYa Guerrero, two days into my Cuban journey. I have to be honest, due to the lack of connectivity in Cuba, I was feeling a slight chance I may have lugged these boards to Havana only to potentially fail at completing my mission. In addition, my biggest desire was to meet the surfers of Havana and simply dropping off boards didn’t sound like it would play well into my agenda. YaYa is an ambassador for Royal 70, an organization based in Havana aimed to benefit youth through the implementation of action sports. I had been in contact with YaYa for months, ever since I got the idea of traveling to Cuba back in March. That morning Tony and I were up early. I didn’t want to be late. We would later learn that Cubans are on a different clock than the rest of the world, being late isn’t a thing. We walked through the streets near our hostel; the surfboard bag thrown over my shoulder in the big city drew many curious eyes. Luckily the first cab that stopped for us was an old school Willy’s Jeep with ample room for my boards to hang out the back. We were on our way.
YaYa greeted us at the entrance with a big smile and kisses. Due to the broken English used throughout our communication over the past months, I had no idea what to expect from the mysterious YaYa. Well, she was beautiful, she was fit, and she was a surfer! As a matter of fact, she is the only female surfer currently ripping the warm waters around Cuba. She led us towards her office, a room that was down some alleyway, up some stairs, and past a pool of Dolphins enjoying an afternoon snack. Yep. Dolphins. Did I mention YaYa was a trainer? Tony and I were excited from the start and the next hour was spent patiently waiting for the opportunity to ask for a swim. I presented YaYa with the board along with some wax and leashes donated by Boarders of Rockaway Beach, a local surf shop I frequented throughout my time living in Brooklyn. She showed me a few boards they had shaped out of materials collected over a period of time, all of which were stored in a room with an overpowering smell of fish. My board, with all the abuse and travel I had put it through was in 10x better condition than anything they had in their possession and judging by the look on YaYa’s face, she was happy.
Enter Frank and Victor, two trainers working at the aquarium who specialized in training Aloha and Chinana, the two dolphins I had met upon my arrival. Both avid surfers, Frank is arguably Cuba’s #1. This was proven through a picture sharing session showing Frank placed perfectly under the lips of meaty tubes and throwing airs resembling the likes of Dane Reynolds at Trestles. These pictures were amazing, many of which were professionally taken by a Californian from Venice Beach who had visited years before, in a wave rich region known as Santiago De Cuba. As this went on, I couldn’t help but notice the love affair slowly forming between Victor and my personal board, a beautiful 6’0” Channel Islands #4. One I have taken with me around the world and credit my advancement in surfing towards. I brought this board with me, intending to use it at the next stop on my trip, the tourist lacking and wave rich regions of The Philippines. We would later find out the boards in storage were modeled after pictures found online of the #4 I had brought with me. Needless to say, I left that Channel Islands in the caring hands of Victor. He struggled to thank me but his eyes on the verge of tears said it all. I remember him telling me I was crazy, to leave such a board with a person I had not known for even an hour was not a common thing to do. I consider myself to be a good judge of character. There’s no chance I would leave a board I loved so dearly with just anyone but Victor was different. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was a special aurora accompanying his presence, an imperceptible vibe I was unable to ignore. I knew it was the right thing to do and didn’t think twice before handing over my board. All that was to be promised was a surf trip to Santiago De Cuba upon my return.
The next day Tony and I left for Viñales, a farming town 3 hours out of Havana, 5 at the pace of our junky cab that used monkey wrenches to hold up the windows. We were joining two friends we had made at Casa Mirella, a brother and sister team who were also on a worldwide journey. Zaja and Jiri were from Holland, both around the same age as us, living a rad life and attending university on the side. Opportunities to travel with others are plentiful in a hostel environment. My tips for these situations are as follows; choose wisely when inviting others to join on your trip. The right people will make a journey worthwhile, wrong ones will leave you searching for an escape route. At the same time, invitations can be given out rather freely. Give some time to determine if this invitation was genuine or just a spur of the moment proposition as this is beneficial to both parties involved. Vinales with our friends from Holland was a great choice. Although our company was great, the weather did not cooperate with our plans, dumping bucks of rain on our heads everywhere we went. This didn’t stop us from riding horses into the tobacco plantations, soaked to the bone, crossing muddy roads that better resembled small rivers. If the weather was better we may have spent another day in Viñales but instead, we caught the next ride back to Havana.
My final days in town were difficult. Although my surroundings were captivating in their own right, the best thing I got out of Cuba were the friendships and connections I formed through out my trip. The day before we left I was taken by YaYa to receive a tattoo. She had arranged an appointment for me at the home of her artist located in Santa Fe, a 30 minute Taxi ride to the outskirts of Havana. I was to receive a very special tattoo, the words “Never Stop Surfing”, ink worn proudly on the bodies of 10 local surfers of 70 Beach. We were greeted at the door by Alberto Ferrer and Ana Lara, a husband and wife duo working hard to push the boundaries of Cuban tattooing, an art form that has yet to receive much recognition in the eyes of their government. It seems that tattooists must operate in a legal (or illegal) grey area, something Alberto hopes to change. Ana, Cuba’s first female tattoo artist, was to be designing and tattooing my piece. Her patience and commitment to creating the perfect design reassured me of her dedication to the art. Her touch and attention to detail during our session confirmed her professional level of talent and skill. I’ll have an article up soon focusing more on my experience of getting tattooed in Cuba. Being inked in a room full of Cuba’s surf & tattoo pioneers is an experience in itself. It also has to be said that no other tattoo shop in the world will take you out for ice cream and help you hail a cab at the end of the day, so thank you my friends for your hospitality.
Our last night in Cuba was spent in company of all the friends Tony and I had made. Despite our short stay in this amazing country, we had our table packed out. Surfers, travellers, humanitarians, and artists were all present, brought together by our common interests and lust for the company of good people. I didn’t put much planning towards my trip to Cuba. Deciding to go was a spur of the moment decision and our arrival seemed to sneak up quicker than we had imagined. I credit my amazing experience to the incredible people we met along the way. Their generosity and kindness have placed an everlasting impression in my heart and solidified the fact that I will be returning one day soon. We ended our time together by taking a group stroll through Central Havana, music from “A Midnight in Paris” playing through the speakers of my cell phone. We watched our friends hail cabs and head out different ways, all with heavy hearts but hopeful. Each and every one of us had left such lasting impressions on one another. Knowing this, there never had to be a goodbye, just a short anticipation for the next time we will meet again, much like the transmission of that first Taxi, waiting patiently at the stoplight.