Hanging Ten with the Havana Surf Club
Travel Stories: In an excerpt from his new book, "Sweetness and Blood," Michael Scott Moore tracks down the origins of surfing in Cuba
09.08.10 | 12:37 PM ET
In a beachside neighborhood I flagged down a powder blue Cadillac with fins.
“¿A Habana Vieja?”
No room in back, so I sat in front. The dashboard had cheap wooden panels and backlighting provided by old pale bulbs. A Cadillac eagle logo rendered in steel reached its wings over my knees. Most of Havana’s máquinas, or gypsy cabs, are old American iron. They’re run by Cubans for other Cubans, and visitors aren’t supposed to ride them. But there was almost no way to move in Cuba without breaking the law.
Cruising Havana in a good máquina put me in a rare fine mood. We rumbled along a boulevard where crumbling ruins of colonial Spain alternated with Communist cinderblock. The seductive, gorgeous, fading tropical light was tainted green by tree ferns and African baobabs. The leaden stink of exhaust leaked through the windows and floors, and the car trembled in places new cars don’t even have.
“American?” The driver said when the car was almost empty.
“What brought you to Cuba?”
I told him I was here to surf in Havana, and meet a group of local surfers.
“But Cuba has no waves,” he said.
“Cuba has a surf club. Una asociación de surfistas.”
Miramar was a grid of trees and broken sidewalks west of central Havana where hotels and embassies stood along the water. We were driving from there past the Malecón, Havana’s great seawall. The ocean slammed against the wall with spectacular plumes that could have made the driver think twice about his judgment of Cuban surf. Instead he asked a peculiar question.
“Is surfing a hobby, or a sport?”
“Is it more of a hobby, or more of a sport?”
I didn’t understand.
“For me, more of a hobby,” I said. “I’m not a professional.”
That seemed to satisfy him. But later I realized he wanted to know surfing’s official status in Cuba. Did it qualify as a sport, under the athletics ministry INDER—the National Institute for Sports, Physical Education, and Recreation—or was it more of a thing people did? The difference mattered, because one achievement of the revolution was a well-disciplined athletics department. “The slogan for these guys is ‘Sport is a right of the people,’” said Eduárdo Nuñez Valdés, president of the Havana Surf Club. “So they have to recognize everything. Even the sports they don’t like, they have to put someplace official.”
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From an official point of view, surfing was recreation. Until it became a sport there would be no surf team, no international contests, and no travel to other parts of the world for Cuban surfers. “Even dominoes got more status than we do,” Eduárdo said. “I mean, dominoes? Is just a game. But the government says it’s a sport. They got a federation, a national team, they got everything. They go to the regional championships of dominoes in Venezuela and Brazil.”
“Athletes get passports,” I said. “But not regular Cubans.”
“You got it.”
We drove into the rotting core of old Havana. It reminded me of East Berlin, where the Soviets in 1961 had walled off part of a city still shattered by World War II so the smashed bridges and churches, yards full of rubble, and regiments of unrepaired tenements were simply frozen in time. Havana had the same halted quality. There were the columned Spanish palaces crumbling in the sun; the proliferation of antique American cars, like clanking ghosts of the Batista era; the alien concrete tower of the Soviet embassy in Miramar—these traces of empire—and, of course, the movie theaters. Cuba is a nation of film buffs, and you could almost date the revolution by the state of its flaking cinemas.
“Do you like Cuba?” My máquina driver said.
“The country is beautiful.” I wondered what else to say. “Do you like Cuba?”
He shrugged and gave an ambiguous smile. “I would like to travel.”
We turned down the crumbling leafy Prado, with its stone lions and central promenade, while the sky blued over Havana and the sun began to disappear. I got out and wandered out of curiosity to a crowd that had gathered to watch some dancers. Drummers played for Afro-Cuban women wearing bright parrot colors. I assumed it was a show for tourists, but soon a bunch of teenagers cheered from a balcony across the street, on a building called El Centro de la Danza. One of Havana’s dance schools was showing off its students. “They call that folklórica,” Eduárdo told me later. “Or folklórica yoruba. It’s the stuff from Africa.” His girlfriend taught ballet, so he knew about dance. Another triumph of the revolution.
Tourism has inflated since the Soviet collapse, and Europeans treat parts of the island like a Caribbean playground, which is not a triumph of the revolution. Grinding poverty mixes in central Havana with fresh luxury. Restaurants here take convertible pesos, the hard currency issued for outsiders. A convertible weighs in somewhere between a euro and a dollar; it buys exactly twenty-four Cuban pesos. Average Cuban salaries hover around two hundred pesos a month—less than ten convertibles—and the difference between domestic and tourist prices is so stark that people talk about “tourist apartheid.”
It’s the worst aspect of a visit to Cuba, a sign of decadence as well as a crack in the dictator’s blockhouse. Fifty years after the fall of Fulgencio Batista, you can stay in a selection of luxury hotels on the Varadero peninsula, where Batista himself once maintained a mansion. Fifty years after Fidel and Che fought down from the Sierra Maestra, you can walk through a maze of dark streets in the tenement core of old Havana, under the rotting lightless hulks of Spanish townhouses, where stores sit empty and streetlights flicker and men play dominoes on fluorescent-lit stoops and laundry flaps from sagging cords in the darkness overhead, where it’s hard to believe anyone but pigeons live, and emerge onto the restoration triumph of the Plaza Vieja, with murmuring restaurants and a plashing fountain. Waiters bring glass columns of frothing beer to the outdoor tables at one restaurant, and the columns have little toy taps to let customers help themselves. Another place has lobster. Elegant lights accent the arches and columns of restored colonial buildings and the plaza is far more alluring and modest than any colonial revival in Miami or L.A., where they would have wrapped ropes of light around the palms and incorporated a multilevel parking garage. But after a walk through the tenements, it’s enough to ruin your appetite.
Eduárdo lived with his mother and grandfather in a house near Miramar that served as a headquarters for the Havana Surf Club. He was a friendly surfer with round eyes and black hair curling below his ears, a bright smile, and a soul patch, mellow but excitable, sometimes talking in an irrepressible stream. His imperfect English never held him back.
The house had a sun-bright living room with a sofa and a few glazed ceramics on a side table. Surfboards leaned in two corners. He took me down a narrow set of stairs to the shaping room, really the garage, but the family owned no car, so now it was a cave whitened by fluorescent lights with posters of bikinied women on the walls. Someone had spray-painted the club’s web address on the exposed concrete over the garage door. This website was crucial to surfing in Cuba. Castro’s planned economy provided nothing in the way of boards, wetsuits, leashes, or wax. The government might recognize surfing as a recreation, but it wasn’t about to order equipment from abroad, much less devote precious resources to surfboard manufacture. The Havana Surf Club relied on the kindness of strangers.
From a website:
Q: Can you rent boards in Cuba? A: No, you will have to bring your own board or bring an old board and leave it for the Cuban surfers.
From this charity Eduárdo had built his shaping room. He showed me folded draperies of fiberglass, an electric sander, a face mask, as well as hacked-up pieces of old boards, recycled fin boxes, leash plugs, fins, and other parts organized in bags and stowed in plastic drawers. American shapers take these parts for granted, but scarcity had made Eduárdo a collector.
One rumor about early surfers in Cuba was that they shaped boards from refrigerator foam, sanded down with cheese graters. “Is that true about the foam?” I said.
“Sure, man, look.”
He took a blank from a shelf and showed me the brittle yellowed core of a future Cuban surfboard. There were fine seams where separate chunks had been fused to form the blank, but it had been sanded into an elegant tapering whole.
“From kitchen refrigerators?” I said.
“No, from big freezers. If you see big kind of freezers in the trash, you see if the foam’s in good condition, you come to your house and get some tools, you go take the outer layers off the fridge, and you take the foam.”
“Big slabs of it?”
“Yeah. Or, a long time ago, there used to be stores for selling fresh fish? They were made from steel but inside they used to have this foam. The shop worked like a freezer. You step into the store, you were inside a big freezer. But after the Special Period got worse, these places were empty. When the government decided to close them, we’d go there and take apart the walls, and we’d use that foam. This was after the Soviet Union collapsed, in ‘91. After two years they started closing.”
Surfing was all but unknown in Cuba before the “Special Period in Peacetime,” declared by Castro after the collapse of communism in Europe and Russia. During the deep economic crisis that followed, the future Havana Surf Club founders saw their first real surfers. Eduárdo was a kid at the time, attending a school near the water in Miramar, next to the Soviet embassy. While he sat at his desk in the early ‘90s, he saw people walk past his classroom door with surfboards. “People like me, who were skimboarding, we’d see these guys surfing in the water. We thought, ‘We got to get a piece of plywood, to try that.’ That was my first wave, on my skimboard.”
The first surfer in Cuba, according to Eduárdo, was his friend Tito Diaz, a slightly older man who used plywood desktops to ride Miramar waves in the 1980s. “We put tables from the school into the ocean” is how Tito put it to me on the phone—he now lives in Canada—“because we saw a movie from Brazil, ‘Maneuver Radical.’ But we didn’t have a board or nothing. My friend said, ‘Oh, we can take the tables from the school.’ Desks. ‘We can try. Like a Boogie board.’”
Tito first stood up on a board in 1990, when he was about twelve. He and his friends tried to improvise surfboards by nailing wooden fins into the bottom of the desktops. “There was a guy we call Batman because he was a good painter. His name was Edgar, but we call him Batman,” because he painted a Batman logo on his desktop. “He was the first one to stand up on the board.” But Tito pursued it, and became a good surfer.
Until 1992 the only suggestions in Cuba that people in the wider world rode sleek modern surfboards came from the Brazilian movie “Maneuver Radical” and “Point Break,” the kitsch-violent American film about surfing bank robbers, which ran on government TV. Those two films, more than any single force, brought the idea of surfing to Cuba, according to Eduárdo and Tito. Around the same time—in 1992 or ‘93—Eduárdo met a surfer from Spain named Ricky. He was the first foreign surfer their circle of friends knew. “Then Ricky got in an accident,” Tito said. His board broke apart. “And we saw what’s inside—foam. Everybody said, ‘We can cover this with epoxy, no problem.’ So we started to make boards. But very horrible ones.”
So the arrival of modern surfing in Cuba coincided with two big trends: economic collapse and experiments by restless kids. The kids, as usual, were ahead of the government. A surge in demand for fiberglass and resin around Miramar drew the attention of Cuban officials, and one of Tito’s friends even went to jail. “He was buying the material from the government,” Tito said, “and they was thinkin’ we was going to use these little boards to go to the United States.”
Insane as it may sound, there was a reason for the police to worry about people floating in the shorebreak. After the Soviet collapse, tankers of cheap Russian oil quit arriving in Havana. A long-standing contract to sell Cuban sugar at comfortable prices to the Soviet bloc also had to be renegotiated. The twin pillars of the economy wobbled, and people started to starve. To contend with the shortages, Castro declared the Special Period which Cubans remember now the way Americans remember the Depression. Some built rafts out of any near-seaworthy assortment of junk—oil barrels, wooden planks, zinc roofs, inner tubes—and set out for Key West.
At last, in ‘94, Castro announced that Cubans who wanted to risk the Gulf Stream on a raft were free to leave, and people put their lives at the mercy of nature or the US Coast Guard, whichever got to them first. The Coast Guard scooped them out of the water and sent them to Guantánamo Bay, where a lottery let some of them into America as legal immigrants. Others had to go home.
Castro decided to throw open the doors to tourism for the same reason, but it was a bargain with the devil. Keeping the number of pleasure seekers down to a trickle of Canadians and Russians during the cold war had been a point of revolutionary pride because Batista and his friends in the Mafia had run the island as an international playground before 1959. As soon as a regular stream of rich foreigners started arriving in the ‘90s, Eduárdo said, “that was the start of the new era. People started to see that the reality outside was not what the government said—that Cuba is a paradise, or that in other countries people are dying, or hungry, or they don’t have a job. And all the Cubans that left Cuba back then, none of them want to come back.”
The new tourism brought not just disillusionment but also first-world corruptions—more drugs, more prostitution, more crime. The Communist fabric began to unravel. Eduárdo’s generation, born since the revolution, says “I,” according to conventional wisdom—as opposed to their parents and grandparents, who believe in the communal dream of Castro and Che and feel embarrassed not to say “we.” “It’s a big, big difference,” Eduárdo said. “We still feel that human side, of wanting to help each other, but when you talk about goals for your own life? Cubans are more independent.”
This was excerpted from the new book, Sweetness and Blood: How Surfing Spread from Hawaii and California to the Rest of the World, with Some Unexpected Results.