The email came in about two weeks before I left for Cuba.
It was Ruben, my Cuban skateboarding friend, and he needed help. His ankles were shot after countless falls in unsupportive shoes and his skate crew, the 23 y Gs, no longer had a camera to film their edits—a must for anyone hoping to be discovered by a sponsor. I assured him that I’d bring Ace bandages down and told him I’d try to find a camera, unsure that I could actually help.
Immediately I reached out to camera companies, explaining why I needed their equipment and hoping that my Hail Mary plea resonated with someone on the other side of a computer screen. It didn’t.
With no camera to my name and no help coming in, I borrowed a friend’s GoPro as a last-ditch effort. The guilt killed me, but if I couldn’t give Ruben a camera, at least I could lend him one.
My unease subsided when I met up with my old friend on the streets of Havana—someone I thought I’d never see again. After a big hug, I gave Ruben the Ace bandages and told him about the GoPro. He nodded with understanding, adding, “That just means we have a month to film.”
Two nights later, my friend and I met up with Ruben and his skate posse for a night session. I gave them the GoPro, explaining it to their group-appointed photographer, Alejandro. I tried to explain how a pole mount works well for skaters, showing him the angles, and apologizing that I hadn’t brought the proper mounting hardware. It didn’t matter. Alej’s eyes lit up and he assured me, “I can make one. Cubans can make anything.”
After an incredible night session on a statue ledge along Avenida de los Presidentes, and an unbearably strong Cuba Libre (rum and coke, though I didn’t see any coke), we went our separate ways, and I watched the GoPro disappear into the night.
I met up with the crew a couple more times over the next weeks, but the group was always in a rush to hit the next location and stack their footage. They worked hard, skating 10-hour days, knowing it may be a while before they had a camera again. Each time Alej bragged that he had solved the pole mount problem and that I needed to see it.
Finally I caught the guys at the corner of 23 and G Street, their favorite skate spot, and Alej was filming. He proudly showed me what he had been talking about. Damn, I thought, the kid wasn’t kidding. He hadn’t just made a pole mount, he had made a better one—one with a c-hooked handle mount like the setups of pro skate companies. I was blown away.
“How did you do that? Did you use a clamp to bend that metal?” I asked.
“Clamp, yeah. I put it in between the door and the wall and bent it, see?” he answered.
The word “clamp” hadn’t translated, but my facial expression must have. He showed me his small ingenuities—the rubber from tire tubes wrapped around the metal to dampen shock, and the screw he had found that fit perfectly in the GoPro-specific slots. Alej smiled and held up the contraption as if to say, “See, I told you we can make anything,” and then skated off to film his friends.
The experience with the skaters was eye opening, but it wasn’t unique. Almost everyone I talked to in Havana knew what they didn’t have, but still had a way to make or fix it.
Creativity in the face of scarcity is a way of life on the island. A man who fixes his cracked radiator by cracking an egg into it to cook and fill the leak, a woman who makes dolls from old school uniforms and burlap sacks, a pair of boys who use one rollerblade each so they can both skate at the same time—these are the stories I ran into every day.
But they’re not sad stories. These are stories of people adapting to their situation, the types who “just make it work.” These are stories worth repeating with a smile.
I got home at 2 a.m. my last night in Havana, and nearly gave up on getting my GoPro back at that late an hour. But a note waited for me at the hotel—Alej and Ruben needed me to call them so they could return the camera. Twenty minutes later they were in the lobby, showing me their footage, exchanging emails, and taking pictures.
I got to keep some of the footage, but in accordance to the action sports code, I promised I wouldn’t leak it until their edit was done. Weeks later I went through the stills and paused at one of the entire 23 y G crew. They’re sitting on a stair set, grinning, and throwing up peace signs—just another skate crew figuring out their new toy.
Cuba travel tip: Cuba has two forms of currencies—a tourist peso and a local peso. The tourist peso is called a CUC (pronounced “kook”) and is nearly one to one with the U.S. dollar. The local peso, or moneda nacional, has a 24-to-one exchange rate. Some places accept both, but some don’t, so be aware. You can exchange for either using American, Canadian, or European currency at the exchange house Cadeca and most hotel lobbies.