It can be hard to convince a Cuban official that the floatation device you’re carrying on the top of your car is not a means of escape, but a surfboard.
On October 2015 my boyfriend, Pay (“pie”) and I traveled from Miami, Florida to the Monterey Peninsula of California on our way to a small surfing village just north of Los Cabos in Baja Mexico. He is a surfer from Puerto Rico and had never been to this part of California. For me, this was a reunion. I had lived in Monterey while working at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and always remembered how inspired I was during that time. Pay and I were in search of inspiration and open to opportunity, which led us to where we are today.
Our first day in Monterey, we came across a sprightly Colombiana named Elsa. We were just getting back to our rental car after Pay jumped in for a surf session and we happened to be parked behind her jeep covered in stickers. Most of the stickers were of mermaids. As it turned out, we were helping a friend from Florida spread the word about her brand, Salty Sista, and were in search of “sistas” to give her stickers to. Elsa is the ultimate Salty Sista and so began our immediate lifelong friendship with Elsa.
Through Elsa, we were introduced into the world of The Wahine Project. Run by a Mexican-American mother of 3, Dionne is the passionate and brave creator of The Wahine Project. A non-profit focused on connecting young girls to the ocean and each other, the 501(c)3 has received attention from Billabong, Bureo, and the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association among many others for their work locally and internationally.
In January, Pay and I heard a rumor that some of the women from The Wahine Project were going to be traveling to Cuba to conduct outreach and potentially start a new chapter of the project there. As a Miami resident, I’m well aware of the Cuban culture in South Florida, which fills the air with the potent aroma of cafécitos and politically-driven as well as culturally insightful conversations. Though I’ve tasted the South Florida version of Cuba, I knew that the island had to be different.
Jokingly, I said Pay and I would meet the Wahines in Cuba. A few minutes later, Elsa called to invite us along as the project’s media production team and I couldn’t help but say yes.
Landing in Cuba was surreal. Immediately, we felt like we had gone through a time warp. As soon as you step outside of the airport, you see a rainbow of old Chevy’s from the 1950s. These are the typical “taxis” you see around the capital, Havana. They are privately owned and operate like a bus at times, picking up as many people as will fit along the route. We had so much gear in tow thanks to generous surfboard and gear donations from Billabong, Bellasol, Bureo, Eddie Nott Surfboards, and FireWire, there was no way we’d be able to fit anyone else.
We were met at the airport by Yaya, our main contact in Havana. We were introduced to her by one of the Wahines who had seen a documentary about surfing in Cuba. It was there that she learned of Yaya, one of the only female surfers on the island. For the last few years, Yaya has been surfing with the boys and has had to learn how to deal with some gnarly conditions on her own. This Wahine outreach meant that Yaya would get to surf with other women for the first time in her 33 years of living.
The next day, Yaya, Pay, and I met the five women from The Wahine Project who traveled from San Diego and Monterey to meet Yaya and give free clinics to girls wanting to learn how to surf.
“More than just a surf clinic, The Wahine Project teaches young women to believe in themselves, to be open to new experiences, to learn from and support one another, and to care for the ocean. ”
The conditions at the main surf break in Playa, a borough outside of Havana, were rough the first day of our clinic so we asked the girls to meet us at a nearby public park. Since October of 2015, wifi has become available in public parks throughout Havana turning these parks into massive family reunions of sorts as locals reconnect with their families in the United States. Yaya recruited 7 women and girls from the ages of 6 – 32 to join the clinic. Under massive ceiba trees, we greeted the morning with yoga to loosen our bodies and opened our minds to new experiences.
We introduced the girls to surfboard anatomy, taught them how to breathe through the popup to stay relaxed, how to fall safely like a sea star, and how to encourage others through their learning process. We discussed the impacts of trash on marine life, our roles as stewards of the ocean, and with a blue marble, declared our commitment to protecting the ocean.
For these girls, surfing has never really been an option. Surfing itself is not recognized by the government as a sport and, unlike baseball players, surfers do not receive coaching or sponsorships. This means that surfboards come from either donations from outside or from utilizing local resources creatively – foam from refrigerator doors are often the material of choice for a homemade surfboard. Surfers face harassment from officials who don’t like the idea of anyone on a floatation device heading out to sea.
Yaya eventually made her way into the waves and after one belly ride to the rocky beach in Havana, soaked in fear and exhilaration, she was hooked. She found that the pristine white sandy beaches on the east side of the island gave rise to some perfect beginner breaks that helped her improve her skills and find her connection to the ocean.
It was there, in Arenal, that we took the Cuban ladies for their first dip in the ocean, hand in hand, as Wahines. For hours, the girls went after every wave, determined to stand up on their boards. It was as though they never wanted the day to end. And neither did we.
Post surf session, we sat in a circle in the soft white sand and shared the highs and lows of the day. It was clear that no matter what country we derived from, what language we spoke, or what spiritual beliefs we had, in the ocean we were the same. As women, we belong to a sisterhood with ties as deep as the sea.
During our first visit to Cuba in January, Yaya was crowned Lead Instructor of The Wahine Project Cuba. At the end of July, we will travel back to Cuba to start the second phase of the project. This will involve training Yaya and helping her run a week-long clinic in ocean safety, surfing, marine science, and yoga all while developing a blue mind and instilling confidence in young girls.
The Wahine Project will be hosting a number of events in south Florida to raise awareness and funds for our upcoming trip to Cuba. One of the biggest challenges we are facing is how to transport girls to the beginner-friendly pristine sandy beaches of Arenal 45-minutes outside of Havana. Traveling outside of Havana can be costly without a car and the rocky surf spots in Havana are for advanced surfers. Some of the funds raised from these events will go towards renting a bus to transport the Wahines and gear to the teaching beach in Arenal. Other donations can be made directly on The Wahine Project’s website.
In the short time we spent together as part of a collective Wahine family, we all grew as a result of our shared energy and experiences with the ocean. Some of us even found a renewed purpose. I left my 9 to 5 job and am helping non-profits and entrepreneurs share their stories in a way that inspires change – all while trying to inspire a blue-minded society. Yaya has moved passed the sadness of a lost love to believe in herself again. She takes pride in her position as a role model for other girls and is excited to share her passion with other girls wanting to learn to surf. As The Wahine Project Cuba grows, we hope to see surfing accepted as a positive athletic activity that supports a healthy lifestyle, develops a sense of social responsibility, environmental stewardship, and leadership.
By Paola Espitia
You can learn more about The Wahine Project at www.thewahineproject.org and on Facebook and Instagram @thewahineprojectcuba. Follow Paola on her blog, www.olapicreative.com, or on Instagram @olapicreative.