May 21, 2005

Cuba goes to extremes

PLAYA MEGANO, Cuba (AP) — In a land where amateur sport is king, some people go to extremes.

Surfboards, skateboards, parachutes — let alone kitesurfing kits — you just can't buy that kind of stuff in Cuba. Yet on a sunny, blustery weekend at Playa Megano, a beach a few miles east of Havana, there they are: surfing, kitesurfing and ripping the rails on skateboards.

At one moment, four kitesurfers — there are only about a dozen on the island — three windsurfers and a scattering of plain old surfers skitter across the waves and whitecaps. In a nearby parking lot, skaters and BMX bikers tackle a rare ramp.

It's a sort of X Games, Cuban-style.

Che Alejandro Pando has enough rings on his ears, lips and nose to form the Olympic symbol. He makes a living as a self-employed tattoo artist.

But he shares one thing with his more traditional colleagues: passion.

“My knees hurt. I've broken a lot of bones. But I love what I do,” said Pando, 32, who said he took up skateboarding at age 10.

He started with metal skates nailed to a board. A few years later, a friend gave him a real skateboard that he suspects had been stolen.

“There isn't any store in all of Cuba where they sell skateboards, surfboards,” he said.

People would have a hard time buying them, anyway. Many Cubans make about $30 a month, which doesn't go far even if your rent and some of your food is close to free.

The boards held by two dozen kids lined up nearby to watch an exhibition were almost all gifts of friends and relatives from the United States. A few were handmade.

Even buying a sheet of plywood to make your own board is difficult, Pando said.

“You see a kid ripping up, doing amazing tricks,” he said. “But he breaks the board and he's done.”

Out on the beach, 25-year-old Lednar Megret said it can cost well over $1,000 to buy a kitesurfing outfit: the surf-like board and a body harness rigged to the billowing kite that hauls him across the waves.

“My mother helped me, my father helped me, my whole family helped me,” he said.

Surfers often depend on visiting enthusiasts to leave their old boards behind, or they make their own — a daunting task when tools, foam for the cores, fiberglass and resin all are tough to get.

Allen Exposito, a 24-year-old dolphin trainer, showed off a professional-looking board he sanded and shaped by hand. He said he was making another — but a lack of resin has left it unfinished after four months of work.

He and friends spend much of their surf time dodging rocks at a spot where 70th Street meets Havana's waterfront. They haven't yet found time or money for a trip of hundreds of miles to eastern Cuba, which is said to have the best waves.

Sports etiquette is still developing, too. Sailboards weaving between the kitesurfers and surfers often come perilously close to tightly packed swimmers at Megano, one of the sandy beaches closest to the Cuban capital.

Pando said police used to harass skateboarders, but that problem has eased in recent years. Officials have even allowed a skateboard tournament and left the ramp for skaters along Havana's sea front Malecon boulevard.

The president of Cuba's National Sports Institute, which oversees sports on the island, said the extreme sports are welcome.

“We are in favor of developing the practice of healthy sports,” said Humberto Rodriguez. “As long as the choice of recreation is healthy, we are not going to impede it.”

In fact, the sports institute gave approval for KaosPilot, a Danish alternative university, to come and organize extreme sports, supported by the European Union embassy here and the Red Bull energy drink company.

The KaosPilot school, which aims to nurture adaptability and creativity, sent several of its students to Cuba to find a project. They decided to do something noncompetitive related to surfing, said one of them, Anders Lindegaard Jensen.

“It has been a struggle,” he said, “but a learning struggle.”


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