Santaria Surf, A Cuban Surf Story.

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Imagine 30 days in Cuba with no swell and a heat even too hot for the devil… 

 

Eduardo Valdes, President of the Cuban Surfriders Association leaves me on the porch of his house in the suburb of Playa to take a phone call. It’s 4.30pm on a boiling hot summer afternoon in Havana and I’ve been stuck here now for nearly a month. The days are unbelievably sweltering, the nights even worse; muggy and sticky beyond belief. You don’t get used to this kind of heat. You only learn to deal with it.

Before the trip, Ed warned me not to come to Cuba in summer, they say not even the devil would visit during summer. I never listened, but every minute I spend in this heat I wish I’d heeded his advice. The power has been out all day around the neighbourhood because of the heat. It’s not unusual. Cuba’s electrical grid struggles to supply the people.

 

As I wait for Ed to finish the phone call, a few local surfers gather on his porch, as do some neighbours. Everyone’s talking about the power outage; they are over it. No-one slept last night since there has been no electricity since then. You can’t survive a night here without air-conditioning. Cubans speak fast and I lose any hope of understanding what is creating the bursts of laughter among them. Despite the language barrier, I struggle to imagine leaving this hell I have grown to love with all its highs and lows. These guys are family. The entire neighbourhood had become like family and I was in love.

Being in Cuba has been 100 times harder than I ever could have imagined. I didn’t come here to do the tourist thing and it certainly has been far from a holiday. When planning the trip, going the tourist route was the last thing I wanted to do, but I’m now wishing I had; things would have been so much easier. The plan was simple: cycle to Baracoa, surf along the way, spend time getting kids in the water. Throw my one-year-old son into the mix, some local surfers, a box of ocean-related educational books for schools, document the trip and fly home.

 

Sounds easy, perfect…

 

On route to Cuba, my partner, our son and I arrive in Mexico and spend most of our time tracking down lost equipment. We had planned for this, but what we hadn’t counted on is the items going missing. Among them was a box of books called All the Way to the Ocean, by Joel Harper, that would educate children on the importance of costal conservation. The delivery of those much-needed books was a huge part of my goals for This trip. I was devastated not to receive them and, with only a few hours before our flight departed for Havana, I had to stand tall and move on.

We meet Maile Aguerre, President of Pan American Surf Association (PASA), and Juca Barros, Vice President of PASA, at Cancun airport for the Havana flight. Maile and Juca bring with them 18 surfboards that were donated to Royal 70 for the Cubans by Mark Kelly at Global Surf Industries in 2009. The boards had missed an earlier chance to enter Cuba and had been waiting in Florida for this trip. Maile’s decision to join us was a last-minute blessing for us and the Cuban surfers.

Within minutes of meeting Maile, we stand next to what could only be described as one massive headache for Aeromexico and one mission impossible for us to get these boards past Cuban customs. I quietly freak out. Surely we were screwed. Four adults, one small child and 18 brand new boards, some which were 9ft soft boards – Cuba’s customs was going to be all over us. We had no permits for the boards and we had already been warned about bringing too many in. A few years before, a US movie producer had used surfboards to smuggle into Cuba Illegal satellite equipment for CIA-backed anti-Cuban groups. Only a month before our arrival it had been big news on Cuban television. The surfers had already been under the eye of the secret police.

As we check everything in we are approached by an official from the airline. There is a problem and the boards can’t all be sent on our flight. They will have to be split up, some arriving at the destination over the next few days. I stand there pretending to be stunned when it actually couldn’t have worked better. I can’t believe our luck. Maile quickly uses this news to our advantage and talks the official into paying any fees in Havana when the boards arrive.

 

Following our safe passage to Cuba, we all spend the first few days getting to know our new friends and preparing for the next phase of our trip; we would be soon heading east on the island towards Baracoa.

Ed had planned to meet the local surfers and kids at Playa 70 (playa meaning ‘beach’ in Spanish and 70 being its name) late one afternoon for a beach clean-up and surprise surfboard giveaway. Despite running late for the meet, I quickly stop in to my casa for some supplies. It was then that I noticed we had been robbed of the money for travelling down the island. I was devastated. Not only for us, but also for the Cubans. The money was to benefit them.

We only have ourselves to blame. We were staying in an illegal casa (Cuban homestay), as we were waiting for another one to become available. We had arrived just after 3am and hadn’t sorted out keys. It had been on my mind, but I felt safe where we were. The occupants followed the Yoruba (Santeria) religion and practiced rituals on a regular basis. Some nights I would sit outside and listen as a man chanted and banged a stick on the floor for hours. One of the surfers in our group also followed Yoruba and told us stories of the things she had seen. The animal sacrifices, the trances, the dancing, the draining of a stillborn baby’s blood. I felt safe there. No one was going to screw with this casa or us. How wrong I was.

 

We headed down to Playa 70 with heavy hearts and tried to put our worries aside as we met the Cubans we had been supporting over the past two years. We gave away boards and, for the next few hours, got lost in their joy and excitement. I looked out across the water and watched the sun as it set, taking some of my worries with it, but knowing that when it smiled on me again those worries would be back tenfold.

The next three days were chaos as we tried to transfer more money, but all we seemed to be doing was hitting one brick wall after another, and we were getting desperate. We couldn’t access credit card facilities or our Australian banks. After many emails and much wrangling we managed to get a small portion of what was stolen transferred into an account we had set up in a Cuban bank before we left Sydney, but we knew this wasn’t going to be enough.

 

We had come this far and we weren’t going to give up, so Ed and I packed everything for our trip east, which included bikes, bags, the bike trailer and surfboards for the kids in Baracoa, and set off for Trinidad with my partner and son in tow. We arrived in the ancient little town in the early evening and the next day decided to assess our situation. With every step forward it seemed we were forced three steps back. Hurricane Irene was now building off the coast and our next destination was being hit by heavy rain and 100 mile-an-hour winds. We couldn’t stay in Trinidad much longer as we couldn’t afford it, so we had to make a decision. We were desperate to head east; Irene was creating the perfect swell, but I had to think about my little boy, who was also struck down with a raging fever as four molar’s decided to make an appearance at once. The decision was made and we were heading back to Havana the next day. I spent the final night in Trinidad running through the cobblestone streets clutching my son who was gripped with a fever straight from hell, his little helpless body in spasm. My heart pounded with fear as so many locals came out to help. With aLl the lows of this trip, Cuba and its people were still winning my heart.

 

Heading back to Havana actually turned into a blessing. For the next three weeks we formed bonds and friendships that are going to last a lifetime. We became part of the Cubans’ lives and lived with the them as they live. We were opened up to the real Cuba, not the Cuba visitors experience. I took kids surfing, got drunk with the ambassador of Slovakia, stood up Celia Guevara (daughter of Che) for a surf in foot-deep water with a razor-sharp volcanic rock bottom, and infested with spiny sea urchins and lion fish. My hands and feet are now cut to pieces. I had travelled to Cuba with a couple of goals and left with hundreds. The island had become a new home and I made the promise to start and finish a whole new set of projects. The site of Cuba’s beaches and waterways were a shock to me and so now I have set out to help to clean them up.

 

…Ed returns after the phone call, smiling. He has some good news. Pastors for Peace, a US NGO that annually brings educational needs and medicines into Cuba has this year added a few items of surf equipment to their cargo. They’re sitting in storage on Havana’s dock and waiting collection. Tomorrow we will head off to Cuba’s government department for recreational sport to negotiate the collection of the items, and spend another day working to promote and encourage surfing on this paradise isle.

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