But some Cubans do, so I brought a nine-foot gift.
Words by Grant Shilling
Canadians who go to Cuba often pack something to help out the locals. Me? I decided to bring my beloved Muffs surfboard as a gift.
In Havana, there are about 30 surfers, a small but highly dedicated community. But surfboards in Cuba are extremely difficult to come by. Many surfers share one board, and you can't find any for rent or for sale in the country. So how do surfers there get boards? Sometimes by scavenging old refrigerators for their foam cores, and building from there. Other times visiting surfers like me leave our boards behind, often at the boatyards near the Marina Hemmingway Wharf.
My Muffs is a longboard built sometime in the late '70s and named after an all girl punk band. The board is old and heavy with fat rails and a lot of meat in it and could use some repair but in a country choc-o-bloc with pre-revolution Chevys and Fords, repairing the board should be a snap. The Muffs was a popular loaner in Tofino, originating with Ralph Tieleman's generosity and passing between many surfers including the artist Aaron Marshall who painted the distinct musical note and Muffs logo on the board as Ralph's message-on-a-surfboard to Kim of the Muffs. Or as Muffs rider Neil McQueen Facebooked from New Zealand; "If boards could talk!"
Getting the Muffs board to Cuba was my first concern. The maximum length of board that Air Canada allows is 6'8" (part of a global war on longboards) and The Muffs board is 9'6" and as I mentioned, weighs a lot. Although I was flying a charter and had made pre-arrangements, I was still nervous that once we got to the airport there would be complications.
At check-in, the Air Transat attendant asked me, "Is this a windsurf board?" And that was about it.
Surf, not war
I realized my concerns were nothing compared to those faced by my inspiration for this gesture, Dorian Paskowitz. "Doc" Paskowitz, an 86-year-old Jewish surfing guru based in California, is considered the father of Israeli surfing (as well as nine children many raised in a Winnebago by the sea). Paskowitz donated a dozen surfboards last year to Gaza's small surfing community, in a gesture he hoped would get Israelis and Palestinians riding for peace.
"God will surf with the devil if the waves are good," Paskowitz was quoted as saying. "When a surfer sees another surfer with a board, he can't help but say something that brings them together."
Inspired by his approach I have informally created the organization Boards Not Bombs (soon to be formalized, whatever that means.). I hope in the near future to take a Boards Not Bombs crew to the Middle East for another hit of peace (they could always use it). I have more faith in that than anything Bush could dream of accomplishing.
Breaking the ice
The first surfers I met while schlepping my board through the white-light-white-heat streets of Havana lived under the shadow of the monumental Russian embassy in the western section of Cuba known as Miramar. Sitting on the steps of a modernist two story apartment (think beach Bauhaus) were three young men. One in Rip Curl shorts.
"Yo tengo uno tabla de surf."
Sitting on the steps were:
Daniel, 30, a computer programmer and a self-described "surf pioneer' in Cuba who began surfing the Miramar coast as a mere "chico." For a board he used his desktop from school. He next made a board out of the insulation from refrigerators and heavy boat fiberglass scrounged from the Marina Hemingway Wharf.
Angel, 38, a cook at a four star hotel who took a lot of ribbing for his happy cooking belly and fear of reefs.
David, 27, a full-time percussionist and surf bum. "Surfing Libre! Music libre!" We chuckled and agreed how the two are similar in spirit -- especially true in a country alive with music on every corner and calle.
We chatted for a while in the Esperanto of surf slang, and then piled into Daniel's Lada to go to the beach and check the surf.
"You can surf in Canada?" asked Daniel on the way to the beach. "What do you have to do, break through the ice?"
I explained that five-millimetre wetsuits are necessary for surfing in the frigid water in wintertime.
"That be like surfing in a condom," said Daniel.
Flotsam and jetsam
We also found ourselves in the age-old surfing discussion of longboard versus short. As regards sex or surfing, we agreed: why not both?
During the months of December through early March, northeast trade winds deliver small, warm (20 C), surf-able swells (perfect for longboards) to the northeast shores of Cuba, including areas in and around Havana.
A gnarly, sharp, shallow coral reef made things a bit treacherous but contributed to a well-shaped wave. The shore was strewn with water bottles, condoms and blue, bloated man of wars. The detritus contrasted sharply with the inviting azure colours of the Caribbean tossing onto the shore.
'Fidel doesn't care'
As we checked the surf, which was too flat that day, I couldn't help but notice the number of joggers and exercisers in the parks, beaches and streets of Cuba.
I asked my companions where surfing fit in to this scheme.
"Fidel doesn't care about surfing," Daniel says with a shrug. "Because it isn't an Olympic sport."
Is there room in a proletariat revolution for a surf bum?
Most definitely. "As long as there are waves."
Daniel told me there are no surf contests in Cuba but pointed out that Cuban-American surfer Cory Lopez came over a few years ago for a first-of-its kind surf expedition.
No doubt there are deep flaws in aspects of the Cuban political system. For me the main thing the average Cuban person seems to be missing is freedom to travel. The spirit of the place is very free.
Safe sex bakery
Speaking of which, we also brought 300 hundred condoms, and delivered them to Café Salud in Downtown Havana, a youth drop-in centre where issues of safe sex are discussed. We arrive in a taxi to the address, a bakery selling those extra frosty, very sweet and pink Cuban cakes.
A middle-aged woman doing a brisk trade with the cakes greets us.
An overheated baker called out to her from the back.
"Café Salud?" we ask again, confused.
I opened the box of condoms, some of which are flavoured, to show the woman.
"Oh, si, si..."
We were relieved to learn that the bakery hosts the youth in their off-hours. We also gave the woman piles of sealed makeup and mascara, which she seemed especially pleased with.
Near the end of the trip, my six-year-old son left his beloved boogie board (it's got flames on it -- c'mon!) with some kids playing on the beach.
Yet, no matter what we brought to give to Cuba, it gave way more back.
Muchas gracias, Muffs. Muchas gracias, Cuba.