When it comes to Cuba, pretty much every assumption about the island country – its decaying buildings, vintage cars, rum and cigars – from what I can tell, are all true. But what you don’t hear about is how deeply beautiful the place is, or how special its people are — every single one of them with a story to tell.
Some friends and I were fortunate enough to spend some time there earlier this year, taking advantage of the first available direct flights from LAX to Havana. It took less than five hours to arrive in the Caribbean but as soon as we landed, we felt like we had time-traveled. The sun was setting just as we stepped down the stairway from our plane into the hot, tropical tradewinds. A dog toyed with a tennis ball in the grass alongside the tarmac as its owner, an airport employee, sat chatting with his co-workers. They seemed to not even notice the throng of camera-clad Americans piling onto their turf. I felt as if we’d inconvenienced them by arriving in their country, and I probably wasn’t too far off.
Cuba has had a long and tumultuous political past, playing involuntary host to numerous wars by bigger countries vying for possession and questionable involvement by the U.S. government over the past century or so. A hint of ambivalence and an eye roll or two from airport security workers wasn’t entirely surprising or unwarranted.
Once we made it to where we would stay for the week and met our ‘housekeeper’ — a woman named Maria who would become our surrogate mom for the week — and our guides, we were made to feel as welcome as ‘invasors’ can be.
Over the following few days, my friends Adam, Alé, Sera, Scrappers and I witnessed sights both expected and surprising. Anticipations were met with fresh coconuts sold from a cart in a stone plaza as old as Columbus himself, richly-colored neo-colonial buildings, and every type of vintage car you’ve never heard of. It’s like an automotive/architectural/autocratic never-neverland. On the unexpected side of things, we had the pleasure of meeting (and getting inked by) Anna Lara , Cuba’s first female tattoo artist — a rebel and entrepreneur in her own right. We were welcomed into the abode of a man named Hugo, who decided to build his home entirely out of shells, creating a monumental ode to his beloved home country.
We found waves our third day there and took advantage of the brief, glassy window after the winds had passed, but before the swell had died out completely. Another unique thing about Cuba is how miniscule the surfing community is there. The small number of Cubans who have been bitten by the surfing bug have to be especially inventive when it comes to finding equipment. Most rely on visitors bearing boards and other surf-centric goods to leave behind while others go to more creative lengths— learning to shape boards themselves using materials as mundane as refrigerator insulation and plywood planks.
On this trip, however, my friends and I brought a variety of boards, wetsuits, trunks, wax and other contraband to leave with our newfound Cuban friends. Our donations were rewarded with having the opportunity to see and experience the city of Havana and its surrounding neighborhoods through the eyes of the intriguing natives, and see the deeper beauty that lies beneath its crumbling facade.