As most of you might already know, as of March 2016, Cuba is finally open for foreign skaters to visit. Before then, you could get there by saying you’re going with a group of people in a tour, like a missionary group or something, but thanks to the Obama administration lifting the trade and travel embargo, it’s now open territory to explore and skate.
I landed in Cuba in late-December with no real plans. I had no place to stay, and didn’t really know anybody there either. I figured with that kind of scenario, it would really force me to become somewhat of a local, or at least try to live like one for a bit. No set itinerary, living in the moment, who knows what I’d be able to learn…
I landed at the tiny Cuban airport at night and headed into Havana by way of a 1953 taxi with an engine inside of it that, by the sputtering sound of it, must have once powered an old lawnmower. I managed to split the fare with some Swedish dude I met at the airport. It was about $25 (USD) to the center of Havana from the airport, but you can haggle that if you got some gringo Spanglish, so haggle away I did, my friends.
Right when I got to the airport, a Cuban local gave me some good advice. He told me, “Watch where your bottles come from. Open your water bottles and beers yourself, and you should be fine.” I figured, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” and proceeded to fly down the road through the smog-filled countryside. My first impression on heading into Havana was that I was entering something like the wild, wild West.
The first thing I needed was my money exchanged. As an American, you can’t use your ATM card. The machines just won’t spit out the dough. Even though the embargo has been lifted, Cuba’s not too welcoming when it comes to getting cash out. Well, at least for this gringo…
I walked around the hood and started yapping with a local about how I had cash that I wanted to exchange. Next thing I know, he does a little bird call and a man up on top of the roof pops up with a plastic bag tied to a rope, and drops down the bag to make the exchange. I drop in $100 and screamed at the top of my lungs, “I trust you, don’t rip me off!” while the dude pulled up the bag with my cash. A few stressful minutes later and back down comes the bag, now with 90 CUC in place of my $100. Good exchange rate, and tax-free too!
With no place yet to stay, and New Year’s Eve fast approaching, I was getting desperate to find anywhere to crash for the night, so I started knocking on these doors with blue signs on them reading “Casa Particular.” Basically, these houses are owned by grandmas renting out extra rooms for $20 or so a night. But, unfortunately for me, there were none available in all of central Havana.
Luckily, I ended up meeting an older British lady who was dating a Cuban guy. She took a liking to my skateboard and they ended up letting me crash on their couch. They had to sneak me in the apartment complex because, in Cuba, for some reason, tourists aren’t allowed to stay at a local’s house. They told me it’s just against the rules. I did find that a skateboard can make you look disarming, and maybe even like a local. One of my Cuban friends calls his skateboard a Winchester, like the rifle. He’d ask me, “Tu tienes la winchester, Alex?”
The next day, I went hunting for a different place to stay, and, again couldn’t find shit due to it being New Year’s Day. As I was walking around I came across a pig slaughter going down. I’m talking full on boiling water on the side of the street with a giant 200 pound pig squealing his ass off. As I watched them cut this piece of ham up, one of the guys nearby told me he’d take me around, show me some art, and then we’d go get food. I hadn’t eaten anything since my arrival, so, of course, I was down. He took me to his house and inside there were three women breastfeeding three children.
There was also a 15-year-old, half-naked chick there in front of me, and the women kept asking me if I wanted her, telling me I could have her if I wanted, presumably for a price. I kept telling them that I was good until they finally let up. Sitting in that room, I started to feel a bit uneasy. I usually have an idea when I’ve pushed the envelope a bit too far, and this was when it hit.
The guy brought me a plate of food from back in the kitchen, and as I ate it a sleepiness started to creep over me. Dark thoughts came rushing in, and my gut was telling me to get out. The girls were getting blurry and I was caught fighting off a sudden unexpected drowsiness. Did he put something in my food, I wondered, or was I just feeling sick from my flight? I stood up and said that I was full from the food and wanted to go out and grab a beer. He said ok. I found a hole in the wall spot and copped a beer, except my host took the beer out of my hand and told me “Let’s go drink at my brother’s house.” Of course, for whatever reason, I just followed.
”I was caught fighting off a sudden unexpected drowsiness. Did he put something in my food, I wondered, or was I just feeling sick from my flight?”
We got to the house and he went behind a wall and came back with two beers already opened. I looked at him and asked why he didn’t let me open my own beer, but he ignored my question. A few moments later, as I was walking with him down the street, the beer in my hand started to fizz and bubble all over. Obviously, I didn’t take a sip of it. I knew there was something in there, and I knew it was time for me to dip. I played it cool, said I had to go meet some skaters, tossed up a peace sign and skated off. I was a bit foggy, but I made it through what I can only presume was my first drugging in Havana. Things could only go up from here.
Later that day I ended up meeting a local skater and a talented musician named Eric. He feeds his three kids off the money he makes playing music. Most of the locals know him for his music, and so does the government, since he produces a lot of anti-government songs. I told him about my situation sin casa, and he graciously allowed me to crash a night in his studio.
Finally settled, the time had come for me to go meet up with the local skaters at Prado, the main strip for street skating in Havana. It’s essentially the MACBA of Cuba – a long, half-mile strip of marble with some ledges on each side. That’s where my flat ground game started to flourish again. It’s crazy what a little sun and some marble ground can do to a man’s pop and skate game. I miss it already.
Most of my days there consisted of meeting skaters or chicks, and them asking me things about New York City, the skating we have there, and them telling me what skaters they looked up to. The Berrics is big down there, and they all think Evan Smith should’ve been SOTY in 2016. (Evan, FYI they really want you to go down there and visit!) Interestingly, there are more chicks that skate than guys. So many skater girls…
Prado is also a general hang out spot for Havanans. Everyone knows everyone there. The skaters in Prado rip, but they don’t venture off too far from Prado due to the fact that the police in Havana are aggressive toward skaters. If you get busted at a spot as a local, and it’ll cost you a ticket for about 20 CUC (≈$20 USD), which might not sound bad to us, but it means about a month’s worth of work for a local Cuban. When tourists get busted the repercussions range from a harmless warning to a $100 ticket, and after a set number of tickets, you’re straight to jail.
The skaters are also badly in need of product. Some guys are riding around on half a board, and some sand their board up to make it last longer. For the trip I thought I would pack super light and just buy a pack of white tees while I was down there. Yeah, that was a mistake.
Everything is rationed, and there are stores you walk by that have a full assembly line of sewing machines going, producing button-ups on the spot. I copped one, but other than that I was looked at as the guy who could hook up the skaters. I was the American. There are no real skateboard suppliers in Cuba other than some non-profits. Everything is passed down. Everything. Still, any skater who does have a little bit of Koston in them believes they can go pro. They’re not fucking around, but they can’t survive with sole-less shoes. We have to start donating more.
I would eventually venture out of Havana. The air isn’t that clean in the city, and the countryside of Cuba is about the size of Pennsylvania. There are 15 million people total living in Cuba, but only 2 million live in Havana – I wanted to see where everyone else chills. So one night, as I was walking along the Malecon (the long sea wall that runs along the side of Havana), I met some traveling friends.
I packed bags the next day and went with them to the countryside town of Viñales. This is the place where they grow the finest tobaccos. There’s one long strip of tourist homes in this town, and it runs right into these epic mountains, and within these mountains you’ve got caves. I ended up meeting up with some locals outside of Viñales who had never seen actual skateboarding tricks in real life. They’d seen videos, but they didn’t know how certain tricks were performed. It was one of the sickest feelings I have ever experienced. I’m talking to dudes who are flipping out over a kickflip, or just being mindblown by me rolling fakie and keeping a flatground line going. To share that with them was probably the highlight of my trip. They took us in, they brought us to a friend’s farm where I met a chick there who had never heard English words spoken before. Her parents seemed to want to pawn her off to me. Basically, I got the impression that they wanted me to fuck her on the farm.
Her father led us to a telephone wire he’d roped along the side of this mountain. I watched in amazement as this 70-something-year-old old man scaled this mountain like a boss. I followed closely behind. We entered these caves and had a sick view of the countryside as we neared the top. Later we descended and he made mango juice, and I ate all the bananas he gave me.
Honestly, the food in Cuba can be bland. You end up eating chicken and rice and beans all day, and there’s lots of pork floating around during the holidays. I can’t do that shit, but the fruit, holy shit, the fruit is amazing! In America, we’ve got so many chemicals in our fruits and veggies that even when I’m buying “organic” I don’t really think it’s organic anymore. There were dudes from Oregon who I met that were doing research on how Cuba is growing their veggies. Next level cultivation I guess. And so cheap too: I was drinking smoothies for 3 pesos, I found a beer spot that served 20 cent beers on tap that tasted like fucking Hoegaarden, and the locals called it shit beer. Ha! If only they knew…
The people of Cuba, the skaters, the neighbors… the majority of them have a huge heart. It seemed like they looked up to us. We have everything they ever wanted. I got invited numerous times to a Cuban’s casa for a drink or for dinner, especially when I’d meet a Cuban girl who wasn’t a hooker. (FYI, it’s super easy to find hookers. Just walk the Malecon and you can hang with a girl for $20-50 a day. She will basically be your girlfriend and do whatever you say or want. Luckily, I was finding normal chicks who wanted me to meet their family).
Us Americans are so accustomed to our phones and social media, it took three days of being off the grid for me to really start feeling the difference. I had a clear mind. I was interacting with everyone and not getting stuck staring down at my phone. I was actually calling a landline from a landline and telling the person on the other end a time and place to meet up. It brought me back to being a kid again. Cubans still have access to the Internet, you just have to look for corners or parks with a crowd of people with phones in their hand. You pay anywhere from $1 – $3 for about 30 minutes to an hour of Internet, although most of the time it doesn’t even work that well.
There are good things and bad things about visiting Cuba as an American. I had never been so happy to sit on a proper toilet seat and have a nice hot shower upon my return to The States. While I was down in Cuba trying to shower I would sometimes get shocked because I would touch the wrong fucking wire. Other times the water just wouldn’t be running. Water is kind of like gold there. If you find it, you keep it and cherish it. Coming back, I think all you can do is be thankful and enjoy the good and the bad. The most uncomfortable situations only make your time more memorable and make you a smarter traveler. Maybe that’s why I can’t wait to go back.