Cuba: A Dry Run

North of Havana is a fantasy world of mangrove-lined cays and green water flashing with tropical fish—perfect sea-kayaking country. But the line between what's permissible and what's not in Castro's kingdom falls in a gray area, and comings and goings by water always mean trouble.

Aug 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

THERE'S A KAYAKING culture in Cuba that surprises us. We knew there was a national kayak team, a remnant of the Soviet-era quest for Olympic medals, but we couldn't have imagined that many of the provinces and municipalities have flatwater kayak and canoe teams. Sea kayaking, on the other hand, has been forbidden. Kayaks are difficult to pick up on radar, and a good paddler could make the crossing to Florida in 24 hours.

In the interest of solidarity, Fernando takes us to visit the team outside Santa Clara. A dozen young men and women between the ages of 16 and 23 live in two small bungalows by the Río Manajanabo and train three times a day. Most go to the nearby Sport College during the week, where they study to be coaches and trainers. Cuba sends trainers all over the Third World to spread the gospel of athletic prowess and to earn money for the government back home.

The Santa Clara team is proud to have been national provincial champs for the last five years. Their dedication is remarkable, and their equipment is old and crude: battered and oft-repaired flatwater boats from the early eighties. A typical morning workout consists of a 12-kilometer paddle, a 10k run, and weight training. The rusting set of free weights is scattered under a ceiba tree. When I ask if I can take a team picture they disperse immediately and come out from around the buildings carrying their paddles. Most of the paddles are homemade, with aluminum shafts and fiberglass blades. One boy has a battered wood-strip canoe paddle. They hold them like spears or swords, personal Excaliburs. Before we leave, I try to describe whitewater paddling to the kids. When I tell them that the motion of paddling is lindo, beautiful, like a bird flying, they nod uncertainly. "Isn't it beautiful? To paddle so fast?" They hesitate. I think that perhaps to them it's a job.

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