By Wild Turkey Desire | http://www.infoshop.org
Ninety-miles away from what is currently known as Florida sits a place where citizens of the United States of America (US) know almost nothing about the everyday happenings of a mysterious land. This place is Cuba and of course there are a lot of US citizens that know a lot about Cuba because they probably where citizens of Cuba once and have since moved to the US, hoping to find a better life. There is a lot to be said about this relationship between these two countries that comes from a wide variety of perspectives, some for – some against. During the months of August-December of the year 2005, I had a chance to adventure and explore this island. Before I went I had a lot of unanswered questions and after coming back I still have a lot of questions, but one of my goals while there was to shed some light upon a place so close, yet unknown to many. For instance, I was wondering about whether or not to bring my skateboard to Cuba and asked a couple of people about it. I can’t exactly remember the answers I received, but it went something like, “No, that is a bad idea.” I was hoping to shred it up in the city of Habana , yet I wondered if it was even worth bringing my deck. So, as it came time to leave I decided to leave my skate equipment at home and lighten my traveling load. There have been many times in my life when I’ve been wrong and believe me, this was one of them.
I arrived in Cuba in the waning days of August and slowly walked towards my new home at the Institute of International Journalism. As I walked, carrying some bags that I couldn’t wait to put down I saw a young boy on a skateboard. Right at that second, I thought of my own deck stored away in the barn probably collecting dust and bird manure. As I remember it, the next couple of days passed and Saturday slowly rolled around. I was on the last stages of a very long walk throughout Habana and was no even a block away from my temporary residence when I stumbled through the Park of 23 and G, which I would later find out is also called the Park of the Rockers. It just so happened, my house was not even a block away from skate central Cuba. This was one of those moments in my life were I realized that you should make your own choices, and I should have brought my deck to Habana, Cuba and shred up those streets. Lucky for me, a friend was coming to visit soon and they were to bring my deck!
Skateboarding in Cuba is no walk in the park, although there are plenty of the latter in Cuba. Skating in Cuba is somewhat of a mystery to many outside the island and understood by few, however its importance in understanding how life is in Cuba is dynamic. As you may already know, life in Cuba is also not the easiest of situations. In fact, “la lucha” or “the struggle” is often referenced when describing day-to-day life. Therefore, making attempts at skateboarding a lot more difficult than the average joe/joesie might encounter in other worldly locations, like the US.
On the other hand, it is not that skateboarding is a crime in Cuba, like it is in many places of the US. To the contrary, it seemed like you could skate anywhere in the city of Habana, residents doorsteps, outside business, inside concerts, under the bridge, in the streets, or anyplace else you could think of, getting creative is the key. The only places I encountered resistance to skating were on the giant steps leading up to the University of Habana, and around/on national monuments, like Don Quixote or Jose Marti (I know Quixote is not from Cuba, but they still love him there, who doesn’t?), ect. Over time my fellow traveler and co-conspirator began to develop a theory of why we could skate just about anywhere and not encounter someone yelling at us to leave. We reckoned that since almost everything was owned by the state, the individuals of Habana just didn’t care about us skating on their front steps or where ever our blazing wheels lead us. On top of that, you can’t sue someone in Cuba for getting hurt on their property and furthermore the police didn’t bother me as much as a Cuban, simply because it was easy to see that I was not from Cuba. Although, there are blonde haired, blue eyed folks who are Cuban, it seemed like the police are more concerned with oppressing Afro-Cubans and willing to except the little money I had to offer their economy as a traveling adventurer, enough not to bother me as much as others. My fellow co-conspirator traveling adventurer had a full black beard with a distinctive pile of hair on his head, making him appear to be Cuban, but he couldn’t fool everyone.
[this photo is of the park 23 and G. This pipe is actually drilled into the ground, no permission was asked, no permission was given, it just happened, and it stayed there]
I had a little run in with the Cuban police, but not much more than that. I was standing on the shoulder of the street, talking to some of my friends one night. Looking like a big blob of folks, hanging out on the corner, in the middle of the night the police stopped all of us and asked for everyone’s ID (Cubans are required at all times to carry around an ID). The police in Cuba look for the dualism of Cuban hanging out with a foreigner because they think everyone is either a hustler or prostitute bothering rich tourists. It seemed that police harassment was especially common among folks who were black hanging out with someone who was white. This is a big issue in Cuba and while I stayed there, I commonly read articles about this in the state newspaper, the Granma, it seems like the problem of racism continues on in Cuba. Listening to Cuban hip-hop one can also hear about this relationship between the police and African communities.
In my romantic vision I thought that by allowing the populace to skate in the middle of public places the Cuban government was giving the people the chance to take back their space in a kind gesture towards to community in an otherwise unfriendly situation. This however, is just my romantic vision and is not all true. I will also discuss later on the problems involved in obtaining the necessary equipment to skateboard, like decks, trucks, bearings, and wheels. I also witnessed the police kick people out of the “Park of Rockers” numerous times as the late hours of night enveloped the city. The Cuban police and others call this mixture of creative youths who generally hang out at the park and skateboard “The Freakies”. There seems to be a lot of bad blood between the police and these folks who like to hang out in the parks at night. I heard stories of police brutality against folks that occurred at the Park on some nights I was absent.
I feel that skating is liberating in the sense that one is free to push wood anywhere in the city or out to the country and that this is a form of resistance, similar to riding your bikes places instead of taking a car. Given, it is not the same as other forms of protest, but it does help build communities and close-knit friends that otherwise may not have developed. From these communities and friendships so much more can come, so much more is possible. So, that is my romantic vision of skateboarding, but I must put a disclaimer here and say that the complete opposite could also be true, depending on the situation, however terrible that may be. In my humble opinion I felt that the large group of friends, from someone who has been skating their entire life and is now 33 to a 10 or so youth who choose to come and skate together. The skate community in Habana is one of those places I would consider my romantic vision to take hold.
Well, onto the skating. I happened to live exactly one block from the Park of 23 and G (the names of the surrounding streets), which is also known as “The Park of Rockers”. This park is one of the most famous hangouts/shred/tear it up spots in all of Habana. If skateboarding in Cuba had a Mecca, it would be Park 23 and G. The layout of the park is unlike a skate park that one might encounter somewhere in the US. This park was built on the corner of an intersection simply as a park. From there it was turned into a skate park simply by the creative minds of those that skate. It has a series of steps, walls, and interesting barriers to make it into a natural architectural skate spot. There are also benches, curbs, people, and sidewalk potholes to watch out for. Sometimes, the local skaters drag over a couple of welded pipes to grind down and some small tabletops to skate. The usually don’t leave the stuff in the park because rude folks / government agents have been known to break the pipes and tables. For example, their used to be an excellent ramp located along the Malecon (walk way along the ocean), however before a Hurricane the government decided the ramp was a danger and broke it in two, then moved it across the street. The park of 23 and G is located in the Vedado region of Habana, which is known for its lush trees and overall greenness. The park is around 10 blocks from the Malecon, or walkway along the ocean, which makes up for a 20-30 minute walk or 5 minutes of bombing down the gradual slope into the ocean.
In fact, the park is actually relatively small with a constant influx of folks walking by, jumping in and off of buses. In turn, this can lead to some amazing adventures outside of the Mecca. For instance, as you are bombing down the slope to the ocean, as mentioned early, there are numerous sets of staircases that can to a tumbling body. In all, I think free skating in Cuba had been some of the most fun I’ve had skating in my entire life. I’m no professional and even far from being able to pull many of the easier jumps/tricks, but if you can find the right line there is so much to constantly tear up in Cuba. Finding the right direction and knowing your surroundings is really important, so it is always nice to have someone familiar with some hidden spots. The infrastructure of many roads and concrete/pavement in general can make you believe that you’re living in a war zone. It’s true, many of the roads, sidewalks, and other skating niches are difficult and unpleasant because of the poor quality of infrastructure . How are you supposed to skate on rough terrain without using enormous wheels?
One of the other main skate spots in Habana is near the Almendares River, under the bridge (this place is famous for hip hop shows), which is about a 30-minute walk/skate from the park 23 and G. Another spot is in Old Habana in front of the old Capital. The capital is pretty cool to check out, especially on Sundays, when no one else is around so you can site down in the Capital seats and pretend to sign bills controlling folk’s lives. Old Habana is about a one hour walk/skate from the park 23 and G or you could take the bus that picks people up a few blocks from the park of 23 and G, costing around 5 cents, it’ll have you there in about five minutes. That is of course once you are on the bus, because waiting for the bus is a whole different story, but still highly worth the experience (let us hope you don’t mind being really close to your fellow riders).
While I lived in Habana, I had a bike, but sometimes found that skateboarding was by far the best means of getting around. You could cruise just about anywhere and on some nights it was the best thing to do. Transportation in Cuba would be an excellent study in Do-It-Yourself (DIY). Many moments stand out, one special adventure was the night I grabbed hold of the bumper of a stranger’s car. I felt alive beyond any other moment I’d spent in the classroom, being taught. Now, I was finding out about life the hard way, hanging on behind a car with a skateboard, going breakneck speeds. Skitching is law in Habana and it I had a dollar for every time I saw someone jump on the back of a bus and hang on for dear life, grab hold of a moving car with skates or a skateboard and fly off into the distance, I’d be rich and have an even bigger smile across my face.
The Cubans I met and saw proved to me that with a little, a lot is possible. By this, I mean that the life in Habana is in part based upon a need to survive and create situations with your own skill or the help of a community. Cuba is by far, from a capitalist paradise, or even a socialist paradise. It is all in how you create that paradise in yourself, in your friends and lovers that matters. I saw cars running off of three liter soda-pop bottles, and bicycles turned into death machines with a motor (“rikimbillies”) and old 2x4’s turned into seats with wheels (“chivichanas”), to name a few. While I haven’t traveled the world over, I would like to think that if a culture of DIY existed it would be Cuba. In a culture, where choices are limited and supplies short, with little or no extra money to spend on things that can be considered not vital to survival, the Cuban has become a master of resilience. These people know how to survive with what a typical North American would consider to be so little.
Out of a population of around 2 million people living in Habana, there are probably around 400-500 skaters, as of the fall of 2005 (purely an estimation from some folks in the know). Out of this number of folks who consider themselves skaters, much fewer actually have their very own skateboard. One of the main problems with skating in Cuba, if not the main problem, is the fact that skateboards are not easy to obtain, like many other things in Cuba. On average, a Cuban makes (US)$12 a month, while a skateboard cost at the lowest price $40 in the one store that sells skateboards in Habana. I don’t even know if this store exists, but supposedly it does and the skateboards are very poor quality, being made in China. Thus, meaning that a three-month investment, if you didn’t spend any money on food or transportation, turns out to be broken in one week, who can afford that?
One of the main criticisms of socialism/communism throughout time has been the amount of choice one can make when purchasing something. In general, I would say that this criticism holds true, and a prime example of this is in Habana with skate supplies. There are defiantly no places that I knew of that specialized in skateboarding equipment; although bikes shops and bike culture in general is on a much high level, in terms of being able to locate supplies.
A good question is then, how do these folks obtain their skateboards, bearings, decks, trucks, and wheels? If I could sum it up, I think I would call it a little old thing called love. Almost everyone I asked, “Hey, where’d ya’ get ya’ board from?”, replied with some story of connections to folks who originally obtained the materials outside of Cuba. A lot of this can be traced to relatives, friends, and lovers who had previously lived in Cuba, but now live in the US. It was funny, one day we were out free skating lower Vedado and two youths, who had to be around 10, skated up to us to show us how good they were. It turns out one of the kids was from Colorado just visiting Habana with his family and had brought his skateboard. There are many other stories similar to this one, where eventually someone in Cuba has ended up getting a skateboard passed along to them. There is also the energy drink company Red Bull from Austria that donates a lot of skateboarding equipment each year. According to my sources, Red Bull has a Latin America Sports Dept. that sympathizes with communist ideology. This could be just utter lies, or the truth – who knows. Though, one thing is true, Red Bull has to donate (according to Cuban law) the equipment to the Cuban populace. While I was there Red Bull came and gave away around 17 brand new decks, along with a lot of Red Bull energy drinks. These decks immediately found caretakers with many more skaters waiting to encounter their very own deck. One of the most interesting and amazing things about Cuba is finding out the story behind things.
It was astounding the amount of work that would go into preserving a broken deck. A common solution was to take another broken deck, saw it in half, and then bolt it at both ends of the broken deck. In the end, creating a much heavier deck, but something that could still take a beating. These sorts of decks weighed a lot, but it seemed that after a while of using them the individual skaters adopted. There are many more parts of the deck, which overtime need to be changed, like the bearings, trucks, and wheels. I can’t comment in depth on all of these subjects, but I can say that from what I witnessed it seemed like a lot of experimentation went on in attempting to find ways to reuse or create new items, which eventually decay with time. I’ve never seen skate wheels worn so thing, right down to the bone, yet carrying on until the final end. The endurance of obtaining items such as these is amazing and makes one appreciate having the opportunity of change. I once saw a young man shed a tear as another friend gave him his old skateboard, it all made sense after that.
So much more can be said about skating in Habana, Cuba. Hopefully, much more will be discussed, debated, and thought upon. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask, for I’m sure I missed something important along the way.
“Hasta la tabla siempre”
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