It can be hard to convince a Cuban official that the floatation device you're carrying on the top of your car is not a means of escape, but a surfboard. Then again, it is a way to freedom.
This past January, my boyfriend Pay and I were invited to join a group of Californian women on a trip to Cuba. They were traveling there to spread the joy of surfing and sisterhood through a program called The Wahine Project. "Wahine", a Hawaiian word for woman, refers to the spirit of these girls who through surfing, become young leaders that are connected to the global community and the environment. Programs for young girls operate in the Monterey Peninsula, San Diego, and across borders in Mexico, Peru, and the Philippines. When Cuba presented itself as another chapter of the Wahine Project, all I could was say "yes".
I can't quite pinpoint what it is about Cuba that has me so intrigued. A lot has to do with the fact that this island nation, just 90 miles from my home near Miami, holds so many secrets. It is an island of intrigue, beauty, and real reminders of a difficult past. The Cuban presence in south Florida fills the air with the potent aroma of cafecitos and the irresistible rhythms of the Conga drums. It is colorful, loud, and full of hand gestures that make you believe everyone is fighting when in fact they are recounting last night's fiesta. Though I've tasted the south Florida version of Cuba, I knew that the island of Cuba had to be different.
We said "yes" to Cuba 3 weeks before traveling there. This did not leave much time for travel plans so we did what we had to do to get there. This meant purchasing $900 plane tickets (each) for an 8 hour flight through Cancun. Luckily, the Universe was watching out for us and just 15 minutes after booking the first flight, I received a phone call from a charter service that had 2 seats on a direct 45 minute flight for over half the price. I quickly canceled my previous flight, got a full refund, and purchased the seats on the charter. Thank you Universe!!
Next, was finding a place to stay. The Wahines in California connected with a young Cuban woman by the name of Yaya. She is the only female surfer in Cuba and wanted to help her all-girl skateboard club learn to surf. With no surf shops on the island and limited gear, she needed help getting all of her girlfriends out on the water. We were ready to help and she was more than happy to help us get to her, so she hooked us up with an apartment in a casita familiar. Outside of the hotel sector in Havana, you can stay in the guest rooms or apartments of private homes - a lot like AirBnB. These places are usually pretty nice, very reasonable and definitely worth looking into. Plus, you are helping the local economy. We stayed in a big third floor apartment complete with a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, sun room, and roof top patio outside of Havana for $40 per night.
Before leaving, we gathered surfboards and gear kindly donated by the Share the Stoke Foundation, Eddie Nott Surfboards, and the south Florida surf community. We also met with Eduardo Valdes, a founding member of the Havana Surf Club who has been living in Miami for about a year. He is kind soul with a huge heart and a lot of love for the family he left behind in Cuba. Meeting him was like seeing an old cousin. He welcomed us into his home near the Miami airport where we spent hours getting to know him and hearing stories of his childhood and the evolution of surfing in Cuba.
For decades, surfers in Cuba fashioned their own surf boards out of the materials they had available to them - most often wood planks or foam pulled from old refrigerators. Using photos of surfboards from old surf magazines as reference, they would sand the board or foam down then cover it with hand mixed resin. The homemade boards were never really that strong and would usually break after a month or so. Basic supplies like surf wax is even hard to come by so surfers use their resourcefulness and drip candle wax on their boards for grip, despite the painful friction it causes on their skin. Now, Cuban surfers rely on the kindness of visitors and family members who leave boards and supplies.
Another hurdle Cuban surfers face is the legality of surfing. Although Fidel Castro valued health, noting that a healthy life meant a healthy community and therefore a healthy Cuba, he did not recognize surfing as a sport. Instead, people often mistook the floatation devices for escape vessels bound for Miami. During our trip, my boyfriend Pay had to help the taxi driver of our 1950's Chevy explain to police what the surfboards were doing on the roof of our car. Even having to explain what surfing was while proving that the boards were strapped down securely.
After learning about the challenges Cuban surfers face, we realized that our trip to Cuba with The Wahine Project was actually going to be of much greater significance than we had anticipated. We would not only be providing gear to the Havana Surf community, we would also be contributing to the growth and recognition of the sport in Cuba. Even better, we would be helping Yaya, the sole female surfista in Cuba, build her own sisterhood of surfistas.
As you can imagine there is more to this adventure, so stay close...