Cuba: The Great Escape

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“You came here from Los Angeles?” asks Arnan between a lull in the sets. “I have a cousin that works at a cheese factory in Santa Monica.”

Arnan Perez Lantigua is one of the better surfers around Havana — which pretty much means all of Cuba, too. There’s not a whole lot of regulars. For just 25 years old, however, he looks gaunt and fragile as I’d come learn that Arnan’s just recovered from a very recent battle with cancer. He’s wearing a wetsuit that fits loosely over his slight frame to fight the wind-chill but smiles wildly just to be out in the water again. Probably, just to be alive.

But I’m still stuck on the cheese factory in Santa Monica-thing. I’d been living in Venice and I was unaware a place existed on the other side of Rose Ave.

“The Cheesecake Factory?” I probe.

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“Yes! That one!” he beams, turning for a chest-high right, working it into the shallow inside reef.

Arnan is one of two-dozen or so consistent surfers here at this peaky little right off the city known as Calle 70. The break is so close to the shore that a few of Arnan’s friends who’ve pulled up on motorbikes hoot and heckle him, maintaining lively conversations from just 50 yards away on the exposed low tide reef. Behind us in the distance, the bizarre Russian Embassy building observes our every move like some kind of giant, concrete, post-modern watchtower.

I found my way into the water here at Calle 70 via the de facto president of the Cuban Surfing Association, Yuniel Valderrama Martinez. I say de facto because the Cuban government doesn’t really recognize surfing as, well…a thing. Recreational? Maybe. But [officially] athletic? Nah. To the government, boxing and baseball — those are athletic. Surfing, however, is a bit too akin to floating on an unauthorized watercraft in the sea a little too far from shore. Yuniel told me that to the government, surfing is a bit too close to, well…fleeing. Police still not savvy to the concept of wave-riding still hassle Arnan and others to this day when they’re venturing to new breaks along the Cuban coast.

Coincidentally, Yuniel looks like he could be a professional baseball player. Broad shoulders, fit as a fiddle, home-run biceps and a head shaved bald with a thick dark beard below the cheeks. Yuniel is also walking, talking, grinning charisma and when not handling affairs for the quasi-official C.S.A., he makes a living as a tour guide/driver for a company hired by ultra rich Saudi princes. And famous New York fashion designers. And Silicon Valley tech-dudes. And British sitcom actors. He showed me a picture on his phone of some actual princesses — the European wives of the princes — frolicking in a waterfall he’d driven them to. He shook his head and chuckled to himself, “That one ate way too much — how do you say it — marijuana-chocolates?”

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The last time SURFING did a trip to Cuba was actually 10 years ago with Ozzie Wright and Taylor Steele who were filming Ozzie’s stunning part in Sipping Jetstreams. But now that Americans can legally fly from the US to Cuba, we wondered, had this changed that beautiful portrait Steele painted a decade ago? Have the chain restaurants and tour groups and big banks invaded? We came to have a look…and a surf, of course.

But even in the Age of Internet, current information isn’t always easy to find about Cuba. Their government still runs the banks, the WiFi, most stores, a lot of things there. I’d been told by some guys who visited a few years back that there were still no ATMs, so to bring in all cash and I thought, surely, that’s changed. Nope. In the airport just having arrived from Cancun, I prayed I’d brought in enough greenbacks.

This one worry, however, vanished once Yuniel picked us up in a white 1960s VW bug with surf racks on top en route Calle 70, only hours earlier. Forgotten, because your first time driving through Havana feels like driving through a dream.

Barely in second-gear, we zip past a giant billboard with an army of uniformed youth staring out bravely into the future with huge font hovering over them that reads: The Revolution is Invincible. All around us, bygone era Chevys and Fords and Soviet Moskvitches sputter about, stopping for anyone they can cram into the backseat, farting thick black soot in their wakes.

No one’s wearing much in the clothing department and the women practically burst out of their skin-tight jeans and tops that cling on to them for dear life. There’s not a supermarket in sight, but there’s a line of Cubans snaking around the block — and then another — for what seems like a mile-long and I ask Yuniel what that’s all about and he says, “Egg day.”

“Egg…day?”

“Jes, the eggs come today,” he replies matter-of-factly.

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And the buildings…God, the buildings. Brilliant, columned colonial mansions, sea-worn and mildewed in every color of the spectrum. Beautiful fading, pastel ruins.

Yuniel sees me gawking at the homes and explains how after a rain storm, you have to be careful walking the streets because the sun dries the buildings and pieces of them break off and drop to the ground before your very eyes. We pass another giant billboard, this one of Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Nelson Mandela standing side-by-side, smiling about something profound with words above them that read: Big Men Believe.

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Then suddenly, we round a corner and the streets start singing. An old man with a mic in one hand, dragging along a dolly with a mounted speaker in the other, croons old Cuban songs to anyone that’ll listen. A couple dances an intricate salsa beneath a storefront awning. A random dude blows a kiss to my woman from his bicycle. The malecon seawall beside us explodes intermittently with crashing waves like foamy, white fireworks.

I rub my eyes, snap out of the daydream and moments later we’re hopping into the Strait of Florida, trading wind-blown, rampy peaks, with America somewhere out there, just over the horizon. Chatting about cheese factories in Santa Monica. And how not that long ago — due to the absence of any surf shop in the nation — Yuniel and Arnan were making surfboards out of foam pulled from old refrigerators, hand-glassed with marine-grade boat resin. Or leashes fashioned from jump rope cords and book-bag buckles. And how some Cuban surfers are still making equipment today like that, over on the far less-visited but wave-rich southeast corner of the island.

And yet.

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Regardless of the sport’s not-so-official-status in Cuba, nor the association’s recognition by the government, Yuniel and the few dozen other surfers are doing their best to change that. They want to be able to travel and compete. They’ve had a few contests in the last five-odd years, but American surf brands sponsoring them…is still untraveled territory.

Has the Cuban surf scene changed much since Sipping Jetstreams shined a light on the place ten years ago? According to the boys — sadly — not really. Or, even since flights finally resumed from the States? Not yet. And they actually wouldn’t mind a little change to possibly make some money around a lifestyle they love.

But also it’s difficult-to-impossible for many Cuban surfers to leave. And there is definitely some talent here and there are some waves, but there are also still “egg days,” with surely even longer queues to get a passport. Yuniel and Arnan hope surfing will be a way for the younger generation to leave and see the world. A way to drift away on watercraft that isn’t mistaken for escaping. Plus, there is cheese to taste in a factory somewhere in Santa Monica.