Skate Cuba

Skating really can take you anywhere. We recently realized our long-time dream to visit Cuba when we joined 24+ others for Skate Cuba 2018. It was a magical, memorable visit to a world so close yet so vastly different from ours and, for decades, closed to us. I’m honored to represent our group and give you tiny sample of what we did, saw and felt. I hope to fill you with curiosity and leave you with a desire to join Skate Cuba 2019.

We’ve been back from Skate Cuba for almost a month and the impact of the experience is still expanding.
Like a pebble in a pond, the ripples of culture, color and challenge – about the way we think and what we take for granted – have yet to reach the shore. I’m excited to share early some thoughts and impressions.

My skate-mate and I agree on this: after skating through 23 states, 9 countries and countless US weekend skate events, Skate Cuba will always have a special place in our hearts. The experience deepened our love for skating and cemented our belief that skating creates unity spanning borders, generations and language.

What is Skate Cuba?

Here’s the Science Guy version – just the facts:

  • Skate Cuba happens in November and requires about 10 days, including travel to and from Miami.
  • We visited 6 distinctly different locations in Northern Cuba, staying in remote villages, resorts and Havana.
  • It’s an affordable and relaxing break from reality as we know it.
  • Time stands still and the days are long – just not long enough.
  • The event was well-organized yet fluid in all the right ways.
  • Our delightfully patient and good-natured host, Jose Bordas, has a contagious love of skating and his country – We were in good hands every minute. Our “bodyguards” kept us safe from ourselves.
  • Cuba is safer than your own neighborhood, no matter where you live in the USA.
  • You’ll get your name on the tour shirt and, if you’re smart, you’ll buy an extra one.
  • You’ll return with some killer Cuban cigars, a rum problem and a very full heart.

If luxury is your vibe, join for just the Havana leg and take a cruise for the rest of your trip.

Why Cuba?

To answer this question and do justice to the richness and depth of the experience, I remind readers of the questions you’ve all heard before: “People still rollerblade?” or “Where are the paths?” or “Why do you skate?”

You know the looks we get when we tell people about our skate passion. From amused snickers to wistful “I used to skate” stories, it’s all about connections we make.

We joined Skate Cuba because we love adventure almost as much as skating and Cuba offers both. Honestly, we didn’t do a lot of research before we left. Looking back, I’m glad we just went along for the ride, or the roll, I guess. Maybe if we all did more of that, we’d be half as chill and content as the Cuban people we met.

Our accommodations ranged from a gorgeous, old world hotel (the oldest in Havana) to a charming, rustic bungalow with harmless little lizard roomies, and endless, breathtaking scenes. You will spend very little time indoors, so who cares if the curtains are from the 60’s?

The Connections

Have you ever made a friend while skating? Someone from a demographic, location or political mindset so far from yours you are surprised you can carry on a conversation? After a few miles you realize you have more in common than not. You forget about all the stuff you rely on to describe who you are and what you do, what you have, who you voted for, where you were born and simply focus on the present moment. This is Cuba every day, every place, every person. Open and interested. Stress-free.

The best example I can share: I spent 90 minutes with a Cuban guy, Rodrigo, who didn’t speak a word of English (I know maybe five words in Spanish). I learned more about what matters to him than I know about most of my long-time coworkers. We never lost eye contact. He was so earnest about sharing, and really seemed to care that I understood. The conversation took a lot of effort – he draw in the dirt to help me understand and insisted I look under the hood of his pride and joy.

He described with his hands how he lost his wife in a plane crash how he fixes 1954 Plymouth himself (self-taught mechanics are everywhere here). He was so proud of the USA socks his granddaughter had sent him. He hopes to visit another country before he dies. The pure human emotion coming from this stranger made me believe we truly can change the world through simply listening to one another and made me realize I need to pay more attention to the people in my life.

Can you imagine being so captivated by a place and its people you would take the skates off your feet and give them away? It happened twice. Learn more about that touching moment here.

Many of us gave our stuff away on the street and on the spur of the moment. Skates, helmets, shoes, spandex, you name it, because it felt so good to simply share our abundance and the gratitude was so meaningful.

The Surprises

Without WiFi and cell connections for most of the trip, we rediscovered pastimes from our younger days and all of us felt the years melt away. We collected shells. We watched sunsets. We went for long, ambling walks to nowhere. We braided each others hair (even the dudes), gave impromptu massages and told skate stories. We dove from cliffs, kicked back on beaches and practiced yoga (with goats, seriously) overlooking the ocean.

We learned that Cubans love Americans. They understand what it’s like to have a (fill in the blank) running the country. They are sympathetic and optimistic on our behalf.

The food left some of us laughing, some of us temporarily funked-up, and some of us scratching our heads. We are spoiled food-wise. It felt good to be grateful and full of wonder about all the things we can do without.

Bottled water costs more than rum. Never take drinkable water for granted. Cut yourself off at the point where nearly-free alcohol makes you stupid. It happens.

There is such a thing as chocolate tequila.

Tourists flock to Cuba from everywhere but the US. We are still a novelty to Cubans and there is so much to see that is as it was 60+ years ago.

Art is everywhere. Highlights included a night at the Fabrica des Arte. Mind-blowing. Avante-garde. Communal. Unforgettable. Souvenir street carts, craft fairs and art walks punctuated the communities we visited. This country is isolated only by geography and government. From those constraints have grown immense creativity.

Several of the hundreds of exhibits from multi-story Fabrica des Arte. Street art from Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Havana.

Traffic moves like a school of fish. The roads are narrow and shared by walkers, horses, wagons, bikes, scooters, cars, buses and trucks. Horns are used for friendly exchanges between drivers who consider one another family, it seems: *I drive a bus, you drive a bus, we are brothers – toot toot*

Everyone uses directional signals because they can’t get another car and there’s no such thing as insurance.

I didn’t witness one single act of aggression anywhere in this country. So much we could learn…

We didn’t see a washcloth all week. Toilet paper was available in most bathrooms. Another reminder to be grateful.

There is no advertising of any kind, anywhere. Just the ubiquitous, enthusiastic billboards and paintings cheering Fidel, Che and the Revolution. Gotta love the solidarity. So much we could learn….

We are not foodies but had two memorable meals. One was a small restaurant in Havana, the other a simple sandwich prepared in a private home, eaten on the lawn after scaling the 9-mile hill to the top of a bridge. The pina coladas were divine.

The airport: if the fishnet stockings are white, you are arriving. If they are black, you are departing. It’s a thing. You can’t bring car batteries, “white weapons”, magnets, grenades, rat poison, brass knuckles, graffiti paint or anything radioactive in your carryon luggage. Consider yourself warned.

Ingenuity is everywhere. Plans are just that – plans. Meant to be changed. Which brings us to the last surprise…

The Skating

If you’re thinking about going for the skating, read this part carefully and all the way to the end.
You will not be skating every day. When you do skate, it will likely be a comical mash-up of slow touring, one giant hill, and (if you’re lucky) a marathon right out of Alice in Wonderland. Nothing is what you think it will be. Spectators ran alongside us as we skated a seriously improvised route due to whales on the road. We later learned Jose meant waves. The main seaside road, the Malecon, was flooded from the full moon tide.

When you go, don’t worry about the places you didn’t skate. You’ll burn off the calories from the plentiful rum while you hike, explore caves, dive into pristine grottos and snorkel. Most of us danced for more hours than we skated and wouldn’t have had it any other way.

For your non-skating “plus one” there’s a lot to do. Bring them – they’ll feel right at home.

Colleen and Maureen[/caption]So, why call it Skate Cuba? Simple. This trip is more about smiles than miles. You will experience a passion for skating that will take your breath away as you watch, participate, marvel, share and absorb a largely untouched culture. I learned more about myself than I care to share. Reflection is a gift.

These lovely, genuine people have very little. The little skaters show up for practice at their speed tracks in skates and skin suits. Parents sit on benches in the heat for hours watching their children skate and supporting them with their presence in every way. No distractions, no phones, no signs of impatience. The delightful youngsters play and skate relentlessly, never complaining and truly grateful for the reward of a Dixie cup of soda at the end of a good workout.

Here, for the fortunate few who have the opportunity, skating is a privilege, a chosen way of life, alive with a sense of freedom and the pure joy of movement in community with others. The laughter of children blends in with the enthusiasm of spectators and the endless music of Cuba. Tony Acuna, the reigning national champion, is recognized everywhere he goes as a celebrity hero.

Here, a pair of skates can cost the equivalent of months of wages for most Cuban families.
When (like most of us do) you own multiple pair of skates, it takes a while to grasp just how precious are these vehicles of hope, and the kids outgrow them every year. To stay on the team, they need new skates. We decided to become frequent donors. It matters.

Our donations which MUST be hand carried into Cuba. These wheels, skates etc support 2 or 3 skating clubs. Photo by Mike Tillman
Our donations had to be hand carried into Cuba. Photo by Mike Tillman
Here, the hours we spent on the incredibly well-constructed and carefully maintained tracks in Cienfuegos (banked) and Havana (flat) were memorable but not for the skating we did. This was the place we would deliver the 20 pounds of donated equipment each of us brought from home. Our guides carefully unpacked, sorted and arranged it all. Hundreds of pounds of skates and wheels and bearings.

Here, the kids respectfully contained their eagerness as they viewed the donations. When they got the ok to try some of the skates, they took turns.

The Skaters

We traveled with a collection of characters who defy any summary or brief description. Each has a story, each a set of quirks and lovable traits. I encourage you to view the trip through their photos and posts. Everyone has a unique and important story to tell about the trip. You can see their names on the tour shirt.

Some of us were old friends who have skated together in Miami, Tampa, DC, Philly, NYC, Boston, Pittsburgh, Austin, LA, Chicago, Boston, Montreal. We added new friendships forged with our Cuban companions.

Our “bodyguards” made sure we were safe from ourselves during nights of revelry and our photo crew inspired and delighted the crew.

We spent a ton of time on a giant luxury bus together, gawking like children at the endless beauty around us and excitedly chattering about everything we saw. If you’re not social, bring a headset. Seriously.

I could write a book about this trip.

We joined Skate Cuba expecting a new and exciting experience. We got that and more.

We went knowing we would be giving. What we didn’t know is this: Cuba gives back exponentially and her gifts will never be outgrown.

We’re going back. Hope to see you there!

At the track in Havana with Jose and half our donations.
At the track in Havana with Jose and half our donations.

Colleen Clark is the organizer of Skate Boston.


, , , , ,
Similar Posts
Latest Posts from