It was more a natural reaction than anything else. I bring my soccer ball everywhere, why wouldn't I bring it to Cuba? The groggy midnight packing decision would end up being one of the most important travel decisions I've made to date.
Havana moves at lightning pace--thumping reggaeton, cabbies weaving through smoggy traffic, fast-talking street vendors, and a uniquely shortened, often slangy Cuban dialect--it can be tough to keep up. The first few days were overwhelming. Any chance I got, I would steal away to the Havana University soccer stadium, known as the Estadio Universitario. Not that the field was any less abuzz, but at least this was buzz I could make sense of.
I played alone at first, juggling and taking in the classic recreation facility and its massive Caribe murals (the Caribe are one of the original indigenous tribes of the Carribbean). But it didn't take me long to figure out that was the most gringo move on the planet--I needed to get in a game.
Getting into a pickup game is tricky business--you need to find an open team, convince somebody you're good enough to play, and then actually be good enough to play--oh yeah, and you need to do it in rapid Spanish. I was struggling to even get started, but then I saw hungry eyes on my ball and I realized that I had the ultimate bargaining chip. I offered up my “balón” in exchange for a spot on the field, and that was all I needed to get into the mix.
Soccer has gained popularity in Cuba since Raúl Castro started to ease restrictions on the media, allowing world-level soccer to be televised (2010 marked the country's first televised World Cup), but the sport is still young on the island. The enthusiasm is there but the skill is still catching up, which made my first Cuban pickup game a frenetic display of flying limbs, heavy first touches, and two-footed slide tackles. Nevertheless, it was good to be on the field. I moved the ball and eventually my teammates started yelling, "Pasa a la yuma," or "pass to the American" (“yuma” is the new “gringo”).
The game ended a sweaty two hours later, and I weakly collected my ball and dripping T-shirt. Some asked me if I would return the next day, and I nodded yes. I was in. Sure, I was still “la yuma,” but now I was “la yuma that could play.”
I came back almost every day after that. My Spanish still wasn't on point, but as brutally tacky as it sounds, the game formed a common language. The shared soccer passion developed into a mutual respect on the field, one that began to continue off it. The group was comfortable with me, and when I showed up with a camera one day, they didn't flinch. I was just a friend with a camera.
I snapped some amazing and incredibly natural images, something I owe entirely to those early pickup games. I wasn't a tourist treating these games like a living museum, I was part of the action.
I started to branch out to other fields and courts--playing first and then bringing my camera along to capture the beautiful game at work. Baseball is in Cuba's blood, but soccer is stealing its heart, with games on every field, park, and street in Havana. I played in the streets, in old basketball arenas, even in empty swimming pools--camera in tow.
Cuba made sense with the ball at my feet, and I was able to see a slice of the island that many don't get from a tour bus. If I hadn't stepped into those pickup games, I have to think I would have a lot more pictures of classic Chevys, and lot less of the faces and motion that make Cuba such a vibrantly beautiful place.
It was tough to express my gratitude, so at end of the trip I left my soccer ball where it belonged, in the Estadio Universitario. It was just a small thank you to my pickup game friends, but I hoped it would be a living reminder of my time playing the beautiful game in the world's last soccer holdout.
Cuba travel tip: Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard that President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced in December plans to restore relations between the long combative nations, meaning if you want to see Cuba in all her antiquated glory, you’d better go sooner rather than later. For more on the changing rules for Americans who want to travel to Cuba, click here.
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