(Photo: Calle 70, Havana, 2009 / Michael Scott Moore)
The following extract is taken from Sweetness and Blood, by Michael Scott Moore, in which he explores how surfing spread from Hawaii to the rest of the world and the impact the sport has had in some extremely unlikely places:
In a beachside neighbourhood 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.
“American?” the driver said when the car was almost empty.
“What brought you to Cuba?”
I should mention that some máquinas have a rotten energy and can’t be romanticized – a driver in one was so drunk he gave me a five peso rebate. Another driver was either on morphine or believed his car would collapse if he leaned on the gas. He crawled through the night with his friend riding shotgun, both of them clean-cut, muscular, and intolerably slow. His friend talked above the roar of the motor in rapid molten Spanish, but the driver kept saying, “¿Hay?”
But cruising Havana in a good máquina put me in a rare fine mood. You 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.
“But Cuba has no waves,” my driver said.
“Cuba has a surf club. Una asociacion 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 there from 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 judgement of Cuban surf. Instead he asked a peculiar question.
“Is surfing 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 if 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 Valdéz, 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.”
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 has 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 buff, and you could almost date the revolution by the state of its flaking cinemas.
“Do you like Cuba?” my máquina driver asked.
“The country is beautiful.” I wondered what else to say. “Do you like Cuba?”
He shrugged and gave me 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 Havan’s dance schools was showing off its students. “They call that folklorica,” Eduárdo told me later. “Or folklorica 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 – 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 LA, where they would have wrapped ropes of light around the palms and incorporated a multilevel parking garage. But after a walk through the tenemants, it’s enough to ruin your appetite.
About the Author:
MICHAEL SCOTT MOORE is a novelist and journalist who has written on politics and travel for publications such as the Atlantic, Slate, Spiegel online, Miller-McCune magazine, and the Financial Times. He lives in Berlin, Germany. You can find out more about Sweetness and Blood, including where to buy it, on his website.