Category Archives: Travel

Watch out for bird nests

I recently had a really interesting cross-country trip. It featured virgins, dirt, avian invaders, and tractors.

Some local friends talked me into running the American Odyssey relay race: just under 200 miles from Gettysburg to Washington, DC, over two days. (Look for a race report in the near future.) Some of my teammates were flying commercial, and some were driving, but I found three hardy souls who volunteered to go with me. Jim’s a Navy officer who’s used to airplanes of all sizes, but neither Rese nor Melissa had flown in a small airplane before… so they’re the virgins in this story.

I’d planned to fly from Decatur to New River (PSK), fuel up with avgas and diet Coke, and then fly into College Park, MD (CGS). This would allow me to use my fancy secret code to fly into the Washington DC ring of restricted airspace. However, because we were staying in Harpers Ferry, it didn’t make sense to fly 60+ miles to the east just so we could have extra drive time going back to Harpers Ferry. I decided to go into Martinsburg (MRB) instead to avoid the extra driving.

We departed on schedule, with about 1500′ ceilings leaving Decatur. A front was on its way so my goal was to get us to our destination before the weather got bad. We benefited from an epic tailwind– my normal cruise speed is about 135kts but I was seeing over 200kts for a good part of the first leg.

208!

Unfortunately, with wind comes bumps.. so one of our crew (I’m not saying who) needed to use a barf bag. No major damage, thankfully, either to the victim or the airplane. Apart from that, the rest of the flight was uneventful– a quick stop at PSK for fuel and diet Coke and we were on our way. Potomac Approach made me fly the RNAV 26 approach even though the weather was VFR. Martinsburg is home to the 167th Airlift Wing, so there were a bunch of big gray C-17s on the ramp. Always a fun sight.

Aero-Smith, the local FBO, had prearranged a rental van. It was waiting, so we loaded up and off we went. The next couple days were a blur– I had a fantastic time at the race. All too soon, though, it was time to head back home, so I planned our flight to follow roughly the same route. While the big front had passed through, we were still forecast to have 20+ knots of headwind, so I tried to choose a more southerly route to reduce the wind penalty (spoiler: that didn’t work). I’d planned the first leg from Martinsburg to Ashe County, NC, then home.

We got to Martinsburg safely and turned in the van. The FBO lineman offered me a box of rubber gloves. “We saw a lot of birds on your airplane,” he said. “There’s probably some poop on it.” I’ll take “things you don’t want to hear at the airport” for $200, Alex!

I walked out to the plane, which they’d parked on the far edge of the (empty) parking area. I saw a few poop spots and used a gloved hand to remove them. Now, this next part is relevant: I usually start my walkaround by turning on the master switch, existing the forward passenger door, and walking back down the right side of the plane, around the tail, and up the left side– finishing at the engine. That’s what I did… except that when I got to the engine, I noticed what looked like a few pieces of grass sticking out. That certainly wasn’t there when I parked the plane, so I poked a flashlight into the front of the cowling and was surprised to see some more grass.

That led me to remove the upper cowling, whereupon I found this (click it to see the detail).

Bird attack!

Yep. In two and a half days, the forces of evil invaded my cowling and built two large, flammable nests. I started pulling out handfuls of grass and twigs, and the other three came to help. All this action attracted the attention of the FBO staff, and they brought us a handheld leaf blower.

Now, a brief note. Air-cooled piston airplane engines work on a principle called pressure cooling. Baffles inside the cowling drive airflow from top to bottom, not back to front, to cool the cylinders. When you look at the picture above, what you can’t see is that there are only a few small openings under the top deck for air to flow down– making it very difficult to get all the bird debris out with a leaf blower. We ended up having to spend 30 minutes or so picking little sticks and blades of grass out of the engine compartment. Here are Rese and Jim doing just that:

cleaning the bird damage

Once that was finally done, I wanted to run the engine with the cowling off, whereupon I discovered a failed cell in the battery.. so the plane wouldn’t start. This was not popular with my passengers. Or with me, for that matter.

The FBO staff was very reluctant to help start the plane. They claimed not to have a ground power unit, but I eventually talked them into bringing their tow tractor out so I could use my jumper cable. The problem with this cable is that after the plane starts, you have to unplug it, and the FBO guys didn’t want to do it “for liability reasons.” Thankfully Jim wasn’t a big baby like they were, and he volunteered to pull the cable after engine start. We deployed the tractor, got everything hooked up, and the engine immediately started up.

Getting ready to tractor-start

Once we got up to altitude, we got a 1-2 punch from the headwinds: it was bumpy, and we were only making about 105kts over the ground– so less than half of our groundspeed on the way out. After a little fiddling, I got permission to climb from 8000′ to 10000′; as we slowly climbed, we got bounced around quite a bit. To make things worse, the wind was even stronger at 10000′, so we went back down to 8000. It was a steady parade of mountain waves, something I hadn’t spent any time dealing with before. Frankly I didn’t much care for them.

As we got closer to GEV, the wind diminished a bit, although not enough to give us any appreciable speed increase. The Ashe County airport sits at about 3000′ above sea level, and the airport description helpfully notes “RISING TERRAIN ALL QUADRANTS,” so flying in means dealing with shifting winds funneled in various directions by the surrounding terrain. Despite the wind, I stuck the landing, and we were well and cheerfully served by the airport manager, who coaxed the balky full-service pump into working long enough to fill the tanks. I’d happily stop there again. (Note that KGEV has no AT&T cell service and no diet Coke in the soda machine, so plan accordingly.)

There was a good-sized line of storms stretching from south to north moving through Mississippi when we left. Our original plan was to get home before it arrived, but due to our de-birding time, there was no way we were going to make that. As we flew, it became clear that the headwinds were going to prevent us from making our alternate at Winchester, so I decided to stop in Chattanooga, which has rental cars, nearby hotels, and food.. just in case. We landed and found the ramp crowded with more expensive airplanes that had obviously stopped for the weather as well. Luckily the FBO had one crew car remaining, so we headed out to look for dinner and wait for the storm to pass. The city got roughly 1/4″ of rain in the hour we were at dinner, but it had tapered off to a light drizzle by the time we got ready to depart. I pored over the radar and it looked decent if we flew a little to the northwest, more towards Winchester, and then turned south, so that is what I planned for.

Once airborne, I quickly saw that the radar depictions didn’t give the full picture– they showed rain, all right, but the clouds were well above our altitude, so for most of the flight we flew through falling rain but still had decent visibility. The picture below shows what the radar depicted (they’re different, but that’s a topic for another post). After an uneventful trip, with mostly smooth air, we landed at Decatur, packed up, and headed home.

Which one’s right?

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Speaking at 2017 Office 365 Engage

I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be presenting 3 sessions at the new Office 365 Engage conference, 19-22 June in Haarlem, The Netherlands.

With the death of TechEd and the product-specific conferences, Microsoft has more or less abandoned the broad conference market in Europe. They’ve hosted smaller, more focused events covering specific technologies in individual countries, but customers who want a broader perspective, or any degree of engagement with non-Microsoft speakers and experts, have had to come to the US-based conferences. Now the UnityConnect team, led by the redoubtable Tony Redmond, are hosting a full-spectrum event focused on all aspects of Office 365, including Teams, Planner, and Groups– not just the more established Exchange/SharePoint/Skype trinity (although there is plenty of that content, too). The speaker lineup is stellar as well; in fact, I wonder how I got in. Attendees will have the opportunity to hear from Michael Van Hybrid Horenbeeck, Steve Goodman, Michel de Rooij, Sigi Jagott, Brian Reid, Alan Byrne, and a host of other MVPs and Microsoft technology experts. The session catalog is pretty impressive.

As for me, I’m presenting three sessions:

  • The Ins and Outs of Monitoring Office 365 covers the fundamentals of monitoring such a complex service environment. Although it may be tempting to just say “let Microsoft worry about it,” the fact is that it’s critical to keep tabs on the health and integrity of the service and all its components, as your users depend on it and probably won’t accept “it was Microsoft’s fault” as an answer. The session will cover the basic tools that Microsoft provides and analyze how they compare to the monitoring needs imposed by dependence on a hybrid cloud service.
  • Windows Information Protection and Azure Rights Managment: Better Together. Normally I hate the phrase “better together” because it is Microsoft-speak for “buy more of our products,” but in this case it’s apropos. WIP and AzureRM work quite well together, and the combination enables some interesting data protection scenarios that I’ll cover here in depth.
  • Like a Megaphone: Skype Meeting Broadcast will cover the little-known, but quite useful, Skype Meeting Broadcast feature. As its name implies, Broadcast lets you take an ordinary Skype for Business meeting and scale it out to up to 10,000 attendees… but there are some caveats you’ll need to know about to use it effectively.

There’s a full slate of pre-conference workshops, receptions, and so on as well. Perhaps I can persuade Tony to do a live episode of Office 365 Exposed while we’re there– we shall see. Come join me! The conference team has given me a discount code, SPRPR469, which will save you 10% on the registration cost. I hope to see you there!

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Havana, day 7

(See reports from days 01245, and 6.)

Day 7, and time to go home. Logistically, this was a pretty straightforward process, but cognitively, it was deeply weird.

Our flight home was scheduled to leave the Havana airport about 225p. We decided that a 9am pickup time would give us enough time to get all our stuff loaded, get to the airport, and struggle through whatever challenges might be imposed there. Julio had flown home the day and gave us some useful feedback about the amount of time required. Of course, before we could go anywhere, we had to marshal all of our gear and get it down the frighteningly narrow steps to the street. There was a lot of last-minute swearing and horse trading as we all looked for errant pieces of gear (Tony ended up with my Garmin charger and my cycling kit, for example) and scoured the apartment to make sure we weren’t accidentally leaving anything behind. We had the gear stacked by about 9am, so it was time for one more shot of Tia’s coffee:

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Tia’s coffee is best coffee

Unfortunately, we didn’t have a driver. Eventually Eric, our guide from day 1, showed up.. in his Plymouth.. which was useless, as we couldn’t fit all of our people or luggage in it. A long series of negotiations, with some arguing, then ensued. I couldn’t follow it all, but the eventual result was that Juan Carlos showed up in this beauty, with its original engine intact:

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Not a common sight in Alabama

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The original small-block 283, lovingly maintained for decades

Shortly thereafter, two dudes in a stake-bed truck showed up. We loaded up the luggage, and off we went.

It took about 35min to drive from the apartment to the airport. I was much more aware of my surroundings than I had been on the inbound drive, so I noticed more of the details as we moved between areas of the city. Apparently there is very little zoning law in Cuba– it reminded me of Houston in the way that you’d see residential, commercial, and heavy industrial space cheek by jowl. The typical Cuban mix of ugly Cold War-era buildings, graceful but crumbling older buildings, and improvised vehicles and structures held my attention throughout the drive.

Now, here’s the thing about the airport: it’s like every other airport you’ve been to, except it isn’t. For example, there are ticket counters for the various airlines that serve Havana. The Delta counter has the same Sky Priority signs and so on that you’d see in Europe or the US. But the ticket agent didn’t want to hassle with making the computer accept the $150 bike fee that Delta normally charges, so, with a casual wave, we were beckoned around the corner to the freight elevator and our bikes flew free. Of course, there’s no online checkin (at least for Delta), nor is there any wifi on the land side of the terminal… although there are pay phones, something I haven’t seen at a US airport in ages.

The basic workflow is the same as at US airports: check in, drop off your bags, go through security and immigration, and go to the gate. The immigration part is interesting because you are required to turn in the second half of your tourist card. Hypothetically speaking, if you lost it, you could be detained for further questioning or just hassled, unless a bored and irritated immigration agent decided to let you pass without it… hypothetically.

Immediately past immigration, the first thing you come to on the air side is the duty free shop. It was packed. No surprise, since the prices for rum and coffee are set by the government and identical to what you’d pay out in town. We all loaded up with more rum and coffee; I think Warren also bought some more cigars.

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dark and smooth, this is perhaps the perfect rum

The name of our game overall was “spend all your CUC” since there’s no feasible way to change it back in the US. There is a cadeca on the air side, along with a row of small shops (kiosks, really) selling random crap– a far cry from the typical excess of US airport shops. There are two places to buy food– a small coffee shop downstairs and a weird sort of hamburger place in the main concourse. The gates, chairs, and so on all looked essentially the same as in a US airport, but the mix of airlines serving the airport is very different than what you’re probably used to. Aeroflot and Air China are both prominent, for example (I really wanted to take a picture with an Aeroflot flight crew but they were gone before we got to the gate). I had a ham sandwich at the coffee shop, bought some sodas, and settled in with the boys to wait for our flight. There’s (government) wifi in the terminal, so that helped kill some time, but I spent most of it people watching.

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because writing “KILROY WAS HERE” would have been rude

The rest of the trip, to be honest, was anticlimax. Being on a Delta airplane in Havana is just like being on one in Houston, Heathrow, Huntsville. Lance and I got upgraded so we immediately asked for Diet Coke– something that just doesn’t exist in Cuba. Our flight was uneventful, the in-flight wifi worked flawlessly, and soon enough, we were touching down in Atlanta. I had previously signed up for Global Entry and it was magnificent– a quick stop at the kiosk and I was through customs in about 2 minutes total. We all had to do the bag drag to get our bikes and checked bags (most of which had serious quantities of liquor and coffee therein) to the drop off. After that, it was just like every other time I’ve changed planes in Atlanta (well, except that Tony immediately started hunting Pokémon). I had a turkey burger, walked the concourse a few times, and happily boarded our homebound flight. Teri and Theresa met us at the airport, and we happily chatted as we waited for our luggage. Once it arrived, Lance gave me a ride home, I dragged all my crap inside, and that was that… except for Pancake spending the next two hours dogging my heels and/or leaving cat hair on every item I’d brought back. The unpacking and general recovery took me the next few days; I think I’ve put everything where it belongs.

¡Cuba Libre !

 

 

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Havana, day 6

(See reports from days 0, 1, 2, 4 and 5.)

Two notes I forgot in my day 5 writeup: first, we gave Anita, our housekeeper, a set of All-Clad pots we’d brought as a gift. Y’all, she cried because she was so happy. Something that everyone reading this blog takes for granted was an incredible and unexpected gift to her. We also gave her around 20 lbs of assorted travel size toiletries: shampoo, deodorant, and so on.

Anita, our excellent housekeeper and singer

Second, in a related note, we’d asked Anita if there were any good bars in the neighborhood. She told us about Industria 8, so we went there after dinner, arriving about 945. It was completely deserted, and at 10 (when the DJ arrived and started playing music), it stayed that way. Take from that what you will. The drink below is called an “Industria 8” and Lance described it as tasting like vodka plus Crest toothpaste– it was the most memorable part of our visit. Now, on to day 6.

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Day 6 should be titled “my favorite day.” I woke up feeling chipper and well rested, in part because I knew our plan was a leisurely bike ride on the Malecón with plenty of stops for picture taking. We all got kitted up and assembled on the street for our ride. Riding on San Lázaro is a little tricky because it’s narrow and there are usually cars parked on both sides, plus there are several cross streets without signals or stop signs. We launched and I almost immediately had to stop for oncoming traffic– at which point I fell over. Humbling, since that was the only time anyone fell over while clipped in the entire trip.. but it was minor and gave my buds a good opportunity to hassle me for the rest of the day.

Our plan was to ride out to nearly the end of the Malecón, take some pictures, and then work our way back, stopping at various photo opportunities.

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Our initial route on the outbound leg; stops not shown

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Craig and his trusty steed

Lance let me ride his beautiful Lynskey, which he hand-built using his preferred components. Wow. It was so much smoother and responsive than my Domane 2 that I now want one, so thanks for that.

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Lance’s uber-bike

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Cycle Club posse representing

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The Blevins Bicycle posse at the Garcia monument

We rode past the same restaurant, Cafe Bohemio, that we’d previously seen while driving and running by, and Lance noticed a couple sitting on the patio with a camera. They took our picture, so after passing by we circled back to eat breakfast there (and ask them for a copy of the picture, which they graciously provided).

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Riding by. Note Lance’s pointing

The first step, of course, was to order coffee. Note the prices shown in both CUC (“tourist money”) and CUP (moneda naciónal).

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A grand list of coffees

I ordered a cafe Caprichoso, which was the best single cup of coffee I’ve ever had in my life. The ham, egg, and cheese croissant I ordered was equally good, but I didn’t find that out for nearly an hour while we waited for the food.

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soooo delicious

Luckily we had plenty to talk about while we waited.

the breakfast club, Havana style

After breakfast, we set out for part 2 of our ride. This time we stopped at several monuments, plus an open-air flea market where I got some nifty souvenirs: puzzle boxes for Matt and Jack, a backpack for Tom, and a Havana Club-logoed apron for myself. Cuba is not a souvenir place; we didn’t see a great deal of variety between different markets.

rambling ride

Perhaps the most interesting stop was at the gates of the US embassy in Havana, a terribly ugly building that was maintained by the Swiss until 2015, when it was reopened as the US embassy. Sadly, there are no Marine security guards outside, although we did meet a nice gentleman from Syracuse who volunteered to take our picture.

In front of AMEMB Havana

The embassy faces Monte de las Banderas (“monument of the flags”), a Cold War-era plaza with hundreds of now-empty flagpoles. It’s flanked by two giant signs with famous slogans… they’re not much to look at in person, especially with the oddly empty flagpoles towering over them. (Bonus: the guard yelled at us to get off the grass.)

“We are winning!”

“Homeland or death!” sort of the equivalent of Patrick Henry

After the ride, we headed back to the apartment to disassemble and pack up the bikes. Once again, I owe a great debt of thanks to Lance for being our on-call bike mechanic. He had all the bikes disassembled and packed up within about 90 minutes, while the rest of us were showering and packing the rest of our stuff. The afternoon schedule called for us to go back to Hotel Naciónal for a rite of passage: smoking a real Cuban cigar, while in Cuba. First, of course, we needed to eat, on the theory that such a fancy hotel would have good bar food. They did, on condition that you liked ham and cheese sandwiches (with or without pickles): that’s all they offer. When I say “all,” that’s what I mean: no sides, just sandwiches.

jamón y queso!

One thing about the National: their patio service is exceptionally slow, even by Cuban standards. Once we finally finished our food, we went back inside to the cigar shop, conveniently located right next to the rum shop, and bumbled around. None of us are cigar smokers, so we depended on the two very pleasant sales ladies to help us pick out cigars to take home. An old man was hand-rolling cigars in the shop lobby. This was a surprisingly interesting process to watch, although he was too busy rolling (and, I suspect, too hard of hearing and/or incredulous at our poor Spanish) to answer our questions. We bought our cigars, plus some rum (more on that later), and, suitably armed, headed out to the back patio of the hotel near the water.

Now, a confession: I have never smoked anything in my life. I couldn’t get my cigar lit until one of the guys borrowed a torch from another smoker. Then when I did get it lit, I didn’t really know what to do with it. The others were not a whole lot better off.

Lance, looking like a natural

Me, trying in vain to look as cool as Lance

Tony wins the award for “best hat”

Overall, it was a great experience and a solid reminder of why I’ve never smoked. It took about 4 hours for the taste to finally leave my mouth. However, I’m glad I partook– how can you not smoke a Cuban cigar at an iconic Cuban landmark while in Cuba? Speaking of Cuba, here’s a word from their sponsor:

Bonus picture of Fidel

After that outing, it was time for me to put in some work. I’d offered to take some pictures of Bicycle Cove swag around the city, so Chris and Jessica armed me with an 8′ banner. Craig was kind enough to be my photographer and we started taking pictures with various backgrounds:

at the apartment

We had planned to take some pictures of the banner hanging from the balcony of El Presidente. When we went in, however, the balcony was full of Danish tourists. The owner came over, all 6’4″ of him, seemingly pissed off, and we explained what we wanted– then Warren mentioned that we’d been in the day before. “That was you?” the owner rumbled in a strong Slavic accent. “You drank 21 daquiris. Is new record. Thought was my friends! You come back one hour.” So we did. We went next door to Nazdarovie, the most unique restaurant I’ve ever been to. It is a Soviet-themed (not Russian) restaurant, in the capital of the Soviet Union’s biggest client state, serving traditional Russian dishes and decorated with all sorts of Cold War-era propaganda. Here’s how the menu sums up their origin story:

“sun and snow” indeed

We ordered a round of drinks; the Green Russian I had is sort of like a White Russian but with mint, and it was incredibly refreshing. I wish I had the exact recipe. We also ordered some sardelki, a sort of Russian smoked sausage, as an appetizer. (Almost all of us were queasy and sick the next day; since the sardelki was the only thing we all ate in common, I am betting they were to blame.)

It was surreal to be sitting in a Soviet-themed restaurant, surrounded by flags and posters of what used to be the maximum bad guys, in Cuba. Seeing the hammer-and-sickle flying outside was weird.

in Soviet Cuba…

Luckily, we were able to apply some good old American ingenuity.

Bicycle Cove, represent

Also, I believe that more restaurants should have party hats for their guests. This was a great touch.

Other contenders for the “best hat” competition

Once we’d finished our sardelki, we went back to El President and Ján, the owner, greeted us warmly and treated us like kings. He spent probably 3 hours with us, explaining life in Cuba as an expat business owner. Raised in Slovakia and educated at the University of Oregon, his grandfather was a government official (there’s a picture of him with Castro in the restaurant), he had a unique perspective on Cuban life and culture. One of the many things we learned: toilet seats are very expensive, which is why so many public places don’t have them. Many people don’t have them in their homes because they’re costly, so they don’t mind not seeing them in restaurants, etc. (This leaves open the fascinating question of why they’re expensive, but none of us could come up with a plausible theory). Ján told us all about the beer market in Cuba (there’s no draft beer) and we spent a good bit of time planning how Warren and the Rocket Republic team could exploit the untapped market. I would happily go back to Cuba just to hang out with him some more.

Ján also spent some time explaining Cuban rum to us. It’s ubiquitous and cheap. His recommendations: Havana Club (sort of the Budweiser of rums) makes both dark and light rums that are good as mixers, with their higher-end 7- and 11-year rums (añejo, or mature) being better sipping rums. The best rum, he told us, was Mulate 15, but it’s around US $80/bottle. Instead, he suggested we try Cubay Añejo, and offered us each a free taste.. maybe half an ounce in a wide-mouthed glass. Summary: best. rum. EVER.

Anyway. By this point, we still hadn’t had dinner so by the time we left El Presidente, none of the places we wanted to go were still open… at 9 or 10pm, most places close. A helpful passer-by directed us to a paladar called El Viejo Enrike. Along the way I encountered some Havana wildlife:

tiny street kitten

fierce Cuban gecko. Probably named “Fidel”

Sadly, the best thing about El Viejo was the art on the walls.

wait, what?

Well, overall, I suppose it was nicely decorated, and the staff was friendly, but it was expensive (CUC 17 for a mediocre ropa viejo, smaller and less tasty than the one at Kilometro Zero) and the service was extremely slow. They also added a mandatory 10% charge to the bill, just because they could, I suppose. By the time we finally finished dinner, it was around 1130p and I was worn out– so I headed back to the apartment while a separate delegation peeled off to go bar hopping.

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Havana, day 5

(See reports from days 0, 1, 2, and 4.)

Day 5 should be subtitled “roaring back” because it was the first day where I felt like my normal self: energetic and ready to explore. I woke up feeling rested and starving so once the rest of the posse was ready, we headed back to Parque Central for another breakfast. This time I got my 15 CUC worth.. an omelet, brioche, cheese, ham, a piece of pie, more Cuban coffee, fruit, fresh orange juice– I feel like Homer Simpson just thinking about it.

On the way there, we enjoyed a gorgeous walk up the sunlit Prado. Since it was Monday, school was in session and we saw a group of kids having their PE class, practicing the long jump. Combined with the rest of the pedestrians and tourists, this added a nice dash of energy to go along with the greenery.

Caution; children at play

We’d planned for this day to be our first real sightseeing day, and right after breakfast we set out for one of the major city landmarks: Plaza de la Revolución and the José Martí Memorial tower. The plaza is a very large open area, formerly used for massive rallies when Fidel spoke. It looked strangely empty even though there were a fair number of tourists moving around.

Cuba Libre!

Opposite the memorial tower, there are large apartment buildings featuring the faces (and slogans) of Fidel, Che, and Cienfuegos. Pictured here: metal Che saying “until the final victory!”

Rocket Republic colonizes the Republic of Cuba

The Martí memorial is an impressive-looking stone-clad tower with a statue of Martí at its base. The tower looks like it’s swaying when you look directly up at it, which is a little bizarre. There’s a small museum in the base of the tower, with no air conditioning and a few desultory exhibits about Martí.

Jose Marti memorial tower

For 2 CUC you can take an elevator to the top of the tower, which has two noteworthy features: observation windows and air conditioning. From that vantage point, you can see all of Havana and a good bit of the surrounding countryside.

After a bit of effort I was able to capture a picture of this bird, whatever it was, which was flying around the top of the tower. Perhaps it was a DGI surveillance bird, checking up on tourists?

Che, there’s a bird on your face!

The plaza is near the National Theater so we decided to walk over there and check it out. As it turns out, this is a complex of low-slung buildings that have absolutely nothing happening on midday Monday. Herewith the nicely landscaped sign:

The sign was the best part of the theater

By this point we were all hungry again, so we decided to head back over towards the apartment and have lunch somewhere on the Malécon. The plaza had an impressive array of classic-car taxis lined up:

Tons of classic cars

With a party of 6, though, we couldn’t fit everyone into a single car, and we could only find one! That meant that Tony, Julio, and I ended up in a cocotaxi, the little egg-shaped, two-stroke-engine-powered taxis that infest Havana streets. It did the trick, getting us to our destination intact and with only some exhaust poisoning:

Tony regards the cocotaxi with some suspicion, rightly so

We decided to have lunch and drinks at El Presidente, a restaurant and bar about a block from the apartment. Their daquiris are excellent, and I recommend them highly. Their food? Not so much. I ordered crepes with ice cream; they were out of ice cream, and the crepes themselves were rubbery and tasteless. However, the water views and the hilarity of Warren trying to speak Spanish to the waitress made up for it.

We walked back over to the Parque Central to grab some wifi. Julio wanted to go to Parque Lennon, named after John Lennon, so we grabbed a classic car and headed out for the 20-minute drive there.

The park itself was pretty interesting. Its main salient feature is a bench with a lifesize bronze of Lennon.

Other than that, it’s unremarkable– a nice city park with some open areas for kids to play soccer, a concrete bandstand/podium, and some trees. The best part of this outing was our cab driver– he was super friendly and personable and made the drive fun by (loudly) playing Cuban music on his (excellent) stereo.

Julio WISHES he could drive this car every day

After everyone had time to chill at the apartment for a bit, we headed out for dinner. Tony had suggested a place for which we couldn’t get reservations (I wish I’d written down its name). We wandered aimlessly around, stopping by El Floridita (too many lines) in search of someplace to eat, then we stumbled across a place Tony had mentioned earlier: Kilometro Zero. With live Cuban music, and superb food, this was one of the high points of my dining on the trip. I got to try ropa vieja for the first time. It is, essentially, slow-cooked shredded beef with spices, but that doesn’t capture how good it is. I look forward to learning how to make it.

Ropa vieja

 

The band at Kilometro Zero

Kilometro was pretty typical of the tourist-oriented places we ate– in appearance and decor, it would not have been out of place in most large US cities. The menu and service are what made it Cuban… and oh, that ropa! I am still thinking about how good it was.

Dinner took a long time, so afterwards, I headed back to the apartment to get some sleep. As usual, the Prado was semi-crowded, mostly with people camping out on benches using the available wifi… a uniquely Cuban sight.

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Havana, day 4

(If you’re wondering what happened to day 3, that was race day. See the race report.)

I woke up the day after the race still feeling like a pile of garbage. “I didn’t eat much yesterday,” I reasoned. “A good breakfast will fix me up.” With that happy thought in mind, we headed out to the Parque Central hotel, where our Airbnb host alleged we could get a delicious buffet for 15 CUC.

A digression about money in Cuba. There are two currency systems in the country: “CUC” and “CUP” (formerly known as MN, for moneda naciónal). CUC is for tourists, CUP is for citizens. This is a practical restriction, not really a legal one; citizens are free to use CUC if they get any. The exchange rates for both are fixed; 1 CUC equals USD$1 equals a little more than 24 CUP. There are a few important things to know about Cuban money:

  • US-issued debit and credit cards cannot be used. This is thanks to the US economic embargo. Cards issued by banks in other parts of the world work just fine. That means if you want money in Cuba, bring it with you, because you won’t be getting any while you’re there unless you use Western Union.
  • As far as I can tell, no one in the US changes CUC. You can’t get it at the Atlanta airport or any of the online currency exchanges I found. There are currency exchanges at the Havana airport but you’re better off finding one in town. Many hotels have them, but Eric took us straight to one inbound from the airport.
  • There’s a 10% penalty when changing USD to CUC. In our case, we saved about 1.5% by buying Euros and then changing them to CUC after our arrival. However, when you change CUC back to USD, there’s no penalty.
  • Prices for many things are quite low by US standards– you can get an excellent meal with drinks for 15 CUC, for example. However, hotel rooms and taxis are not particularly cheap, nor are cigars.
  • I found that I could comfortably get by on about 80 CUC/day for meals, transportation, and incidentals. That doesn’t include lodging. If you eat less, drink more, or do more tourist-y stuff your mileage may vary.

Anyway, back to the buffet. The other guys all loaded up huge plates with omelets, ham, pastries of various sorts, and all kinds of other goodies. I picked at a hard-boiled egg, a couple of pieces of ham, and a roll… I just wasn’t hungry and was still feeling queasy and dizzy. Despite that, the two very strong cups of Cuban coffee I had were quite welcome.

Our next stop was Museo de la Revolución. Napoleon’s aphorism that history is written by the winners was clearly the inspiration for this museum, which is just as propaganda-heavy as you might expect. It’s housed in the former Presidential Palace, and many of the original furnishings and decorations are intact, as are the bullet holes generated by the armed band of students who attacked the palace as part of the Cuban revolution.

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Evidence that this was formerly the Presidential Palace

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View of the interior courtyard

As you might expect, the exhibits focus heavily on the revolution and its aftermath. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are extremely prominent; Camilo Cienfuegos, who was really the true military mastermind behind the revolutionary army, gets relatively short shrift. I learned that he died in a mysterious airplane accident in 1958, shortly after the revolution. The exhibits are all labeled in Spanish but only a few have English translations, and those are mostly poor in quality and too brief to accurately capture the detail of the Spanish versions. Sometimes the propaganda quality was just over the top– the “Corner of Cretins” is a good example. The small plaques thank each cretin (Batista is the fourth, off to the left) for various things. The entry for George H.W. Bush says “Thank you cretin for helped us TO CONSOLIDATE THE REVOLUTION.” I mean, come on, guys, at least get someone who can conjugate verbs to help you write your insults!

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Cretins’ Corner

Interestingly, the museum itself contains three small shops selling random tourist crap. Not very revolutionary.

The ground floor has a small and well-hidden cafe where we stopped for a drink. This led to the highlight of my visit: reading the entries in the comment book the museum maintains for its visitors. I wish I’d taken pictures of some of the comments– there were people from eastern Europe writing (in beautiful English) that having the exhibits labeled only in Spanish was dumb; there were Australians and Canadians asking why the museum didn’t make a bigger effort to explain what was so bad about the pre-revolutionary Batista government, and one person (I think from Australia?) who said “Why are you selling Nestlé products in the cafe? They are the definition of imperialist devils!”

After the museum, I skipped lunch and went back to the apartment for a badly needed nap. When I awoke, everyone else had made it back and we all spent time washing our race stuff and hanging it to dry on the terrace. While this was going on, Anita, our housekeeper,  and her friend Rita were cooking us a Cuban dinner of slow-cooked chicken stew with pineapple, rice and beans, salad, and fried plantains.

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From L to R: Warren, Rita, Anita, Craig, and Julio

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Yes, I ate the whole thing

It’s true, I was very hungry at this point, but I have to say that this was the best meal I had while in Cuba, and one of the best I’ve ever had anywhere. The chicken was tender and flawlessly seasoned; the pineapple was naturally sweet, slightly caramelized, and a bit spicy from being cooked with the chicken, and the beans were perfectly cooked and seasoned. I had 3 plates worth and then had to quit before I damaged anything.

Our plan for the night was to go to FAC– Fábrica de Arte Cubano, basically a super-powered art gallery and party space. It’s only open Thursday through Sunday from 8p to 3a, so this was our last chance to go. We wanted to have drinks on the rooftop bar at El Cocinero, which is next door. However, when we arrived, we found the bar closed due to plumbing problems. That turned out to be OK; we got in line about 715 but by 730 the line was down the street and around the corner. FAC admits only 800 people each night, so if you don’t get there early, you might not get in.

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The FAC line

We stood in line chatting with other visitors, including a couple from Montreal who told a funny story. They were staying at an Airbnb owned by a Canadian and his Cuban boyfriend. Non-citizens can’t legally own real estate in Cuba though, and of course the Cuban government doesn’t permit gay marriage. How was that possible, I asked? “Oh,” laughed the Canadienne. “The Canadian married his boyfriend’s mother, and the apartment is in their names.” Nice workaround!

We paid 2 CUC for admission and got drink cards– to buy a drink, you show your card and the bartender marks it, then you provide your card at the exit to pay your tab. (Lose your card and it’s 30 CUC!) There are six or seven bars inside FAC, along with a large performance space, a video gallery, and wall after wall of art exhibits. The best way I can describe the overall vibe: noisy crowds of tourist hipsters. I’m not really an art person, and I tend to walk through art museums at a pretty brisk clip, so I didn’t really see anything that made a huge impression on me. (There was a nice gallery of small pictures of zebras chasing laser pointers, though.) The big attraction was being able to sit outside on the roof in the warm Cuban air talking with my friends and hipster-watching, but eventually I started getting more and more tired and decided to punch out and head back to the apartment.

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Lance marks the spot

I was awake for maybe 15 minutes once I got there– and getting there was an adventure, not because of the taxi we took (which was fine) but because of the stairs! My quads were still trashed from the previous day’s race and so I couldn’t make it up even half a flight of steep Cuban stairs without having to stop to catch my breath. Humbling.

 

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Havana, day 2

Day 1 of our trip was about getting settled in. Day 2 was all about race prep.

Lance and I got up early-ish and went for a short run along the Malécon. We started from our apartment (the little red pin on the map), so you can sort of see where we were situated compared to the rest of Old Havana. This was just a short shakeout run, so we made a couple of stops for picture-taking along the eastern leg. You can’t see it in the map, but there’s a really interesting old fort across the strait to the east.

Running along the Malécon

Running along the Malécon

Called Castillo de la Punta, its construction started in 1590. It offers a great landmark from anywhere along the shoreline to the west because its promontory is further to the north than the rest of Havana. It makes a great scenic backdrop, too.

Castillo de la Punta

Castillo de la Punta

Further to the south along our run route, we saw a couple of cruise ships jockeying for entrance into the port. Non-US-flagged cruise lines have been stopping at some other Cuban resorts for a few years now but having them come into, or just offshore, Havana is fairly new.

Paul and Lance on the run

Paul and Lance on the run

After our run, we met up with the rest of the posse and finished getting our gear and bikes together. This was quite a production, as Julio, the 6th member of our group, was staying one block away. We’d arranged for Eric to bring a friend with a truck, so we set out on the half-hour drive from our apartment to Marina Hemingway, named after Papa himself. The drive took us through a row of embassies (not including the US embassy; more on that later) and some scenic residential neighborhoods. The marina itself was pretty well representative of Cuba: dilapidated in spots but still functional. The marina has two hotels: Hotel Acuario and El Viejo y La Mar (“The Old Man and the Sea”), which is being renovated.

The Old Man and the Sea-themed fountain

The Old Man and the Sea-themed fountain

The registration events were all held at Acuario, more or less. We were told the workflow would go like this:

  1. Get a race number and athlete wristband
  2. Drop off our bikes and bike bags in T1
  3. Drop off our run bags at T2

In my race report, I alluded to a certain degree of disorganization at registration, so it may not surprise you to know that things didn’t exactly work this way. We stood in line for a solid two hours to get in and register– registration opened at 10 and we were in line about 1015. The registration process itself was a maelstrom of people milling around trying to do 4 simple things: sign a waiver, sign up for race photos, get a race packet with numbers and so on, and get the coveted wristband. The volunteers seemed overwhelmed, and the layout was such that the crowd was funneled to the photo station first.. where you couldn’t sign up without your race number, which you wouldn’t have at that point. You get the idea.

Eventually we survived that process and walked back over to where we’d parked to get our bikes and bags. Each of us had to take all of our stuff and pack it into the event-provided T1 and T2 bags, so that took a few minutes. Then it was back to standing in another line to drop off our bikes and bags. This process was more smoothly organized: each of us had to find our numbered slot in the bike racks, park our bike, and hang our bike bags on the corresponding numbered hook. Run bags? Oh, yeah, we had to leave those too. At various times we were told that we could set up normal transition areas near our bikes, that we must set them up, and that we could not set them up (also that we could and/or could not leave helmets and shoes with the bikes). Oh, and also that we would and/or would not have access to our run bags before the race. You get the idea here too.

After another hour or so of fumbling around in the heat, everyone had their gear staged and we wandered off to find lunch. This was a bit of a challenge; our drivers had left, and the marina only featured one restaurant. Lonely Planet characterizes by saying that you can eat there, if you have no better options, which you won’t if you’re at the marina. They were right. Nothing was bad but it was, at best, mediocre. I had shrimp pasta; the shrimp and pasta were perfectly all right but they were served in an odd not-Italian tomato sauce.

Cuban pizza

Cuban pizza; note the skeptical looks of Tony and Julio

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The Cuban national tourism agency had offered a tour package for triathletes that included airport transfers, rooms at the Hotel Naciónal, and some other goodies. We found a bus going to the hotel and got on it; no one asked if we were supposed to be there, so we enjoyed the air conditioning and ended up at one of Havana’s most venerable institutions.

The imposing Hotel Naciónal

The imposing Hotel Naciónal

The hotel is set on a hill, and it has a commanding view of the water from its back terrace. Naturally, we immediately went there, whereupon I met a new friend… because of course he’d be there.

No word on whether he supports Fidel

No word on whether he supports Fidel

We hung out at the hotel using their wifi for an hour or so, then Lance and I took a classic-car taxi back to the marina while the others went home.

Riding dirty

Riding dirty

The idea was that we didn’t need to all go to the race briefing, so Lance and I volunteered to go find out two important factoids: whether the swim would be wetsuit-legal and whether ITU rules allowed swimming bare-chested. The answers turned out to be “maybe” and “yes”, and we were able to avoid having to wait until 7pm or later to find that out. We left the marina on foot and walked around the area a bit, including crossing the small and sluggish Rio Jaimanitas, before we caught a taxi back– a late-model British MG sedan that had seat belts and air conditioning– the only vehicle I rode in the whole trip that had either, much less both. On the other hand, I’d just as soon have no seat belts and no AC if it means I could roll around in this beauty all day:

What a beauty

What a beauty

We got back to the apartment and back-briefed everyone on what we’d learned. They’d already had dinner, so Lance and I walked a block over to the Malécon to look for dinner, where we found Castropol. Named after the town in Spain, and not You Know Who, this was a lovely surprise. It was easily on a par with the best meals I’ve had anywhere else; I had a grilled chicken breast with arroz moro, some fried plantains with garlic and salt, and a no-kidding-really-delicious bottle of mineral water (usually that stuff tastes awful but this was great). Portions were generous, service was friendly and quick, there was great live music, and the sidewalk-level people watching opportunities were excellent. They also have a second level of the restaurant where they specialize in Italian food, but we never made it back there to try it.

Grilled chicken? Why, yes, thank you

Grilled chicken? Why, yes, thank you

Full and sleepy after the 10 or so miles I’d walked/run that day, I headed back to the apartment and was in bed by about 830p. Now might be a good time to mention that I’d been getting steadily more and more congested– going through a pack or so of Kleenex and 2 12-hour pseudoephedrines per day, yet still continually honking like a foghorn. I was feeling a bit run down but was optimistic that a good night’s sleep would set me right. If you’ve read my race report, you already know how that turned out.

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