Category Archives: Travel

Training Tuesday: Reykjavik Midnight Sun 10K race report

I just came back from presenting at Office 365 Engage, where I had a terrific time. More on the conference in another post. As a new conference, the organizers’ budget was somewhat limited, so they gave me a 1500 EUR limit on airfare, which meant I could only afford a convoluted itinerary on JetBlue and Icelandair. However, Icelandair offers free stopovers, so I decided to take a couple of days after my trip to sightsee.

As is my habit, I spent some time looking for interesting places to run before my trip. The folks in /r/visitingIceland were very helpful, and I found https://runninginiceland.com, which led me to the Suzuki Midnight Sun run: 5K, 10K, and half-marathon distances, all starting at or just after 9pm. I immediately signed up online for the half.

Logistics

The race website was clear and easy to follow, and I got multiple mails in the days leading up to the race recapping the race routes, where to park, and so on. The race organizers sell race medals and shirts separately, so you don’t have to pay for them if you don’t want them. Packet pickup was on race day only, from 4p-845p, at the Laugardalshöll sports hall; it was well organized and smooth. I got in, grabbed my race number, bought a race shirt, and was out again all within 10 minutes. I made a game-day decision to move down from the half distance to the 10K because of a lingering hamstring problem, aggravated by the 9.5 miles I had already walked while sightseeing Friday; the race staff easily handled the changeover. In addition to the booth selling race shirts, the expo had a small table selling various Adidas goodies. One thing I particularly appreciated is that Laugardalshöll has plenty of bathrooms.

Men’s room? Right this way

The Airbnb I stayed in also hosted two Americans who were running the race, although I didn’t meet them until maybe 2 hours before the race start. We drove over 45min or so before start time, easily found a place to park, and joined the large crowd avoiding the wind inside the hall.

The hall before the race

 

Weather

Friday’s weather was pretty good for running: it was about 10ºC and mostly overcast, but a bit windy: a steady 30km/h wind from the north, with occasional higher gusts. I was sightseeing all day and got rained on and fairly wind-blasted during the day, but the rain had thankfully stopped by 9pm. I wore shorts, a long-sleeve tech shirt, and a light rain shell, which I took off about halfway through the race.

Race start

The RD started with a brief announcement that there were nearly 3000 registered runners, 1200 from outside Iceland, from a total of 52 countries, making this by far the most international event I’ve run in. The half marathon and 10K groups started together. As you can see from the race maps, the two courses follow a common path for the first few km, then the longer distance runners split off. The corral had pace signs and runners were encouraged to group according to their projected pace but there were no pacers.

The race start. Big crowd!

The course

Scenic, mostly on paved paths and some on residential streets. The course runs through a pretty valley and along a stream with a couple of waterfalls, like this one.

Oh, just an Icelandic waterfall

I saw two mother geese with goslings and a few rabbits along the stream, which was cool.

Not shown: large quantities of goose poop on trail

The first 3km has a few small rollers, with a larger and longer climb (maybe 30m elevation change?) from 4km-6km. There was one water stop, which had water, Powerade (a race sponsor), and 2 portajohns. The course was well-marked, with each km indicated and plenty of volunteers to keep runners from going off course. I didn’t see any split timers on the course and there were no on-course timing mats.

My performance

Because my hamstring had been hurting, and my right IT band had joined the party after my warmup run in Haarlem, I planned to take it easy and treat this like a training run. My 10K PR is 54:37 and I didn’t have any ambition of setting a new one on this run. The first 5km or so were fine; the hamstring was quiet and I held a good pace (modulo the time I spent in the portapotty at the rest stop– that cost me 2min or so). About 7km in, my left calf started to tighten, and this progressed into a numbness in my left forefoot. This has happened occasionally around the same distance in both my right and left feet since I switched to my current Brooks Adrenalines, which means pretty clearly I need different shoes. Anyway, it’s damn hard to maintain a good pace when you can’t feel one of your feet, so I slowed down and even walked a few stretches. About 9km it had loosened a bit and I was able to run more normally.

I ended up running a 1:02, well off my PR for the 10K distance. Strava data.

The finish

The finish line featured a traditional chute, right after which volunteers handed out race medals for those who’d bought them in advance. The recovery area had free water, Powerade, and half-bananas. There were a couple of booths set up where you could buy (delicious) Icelandic hotdogs and other snacks. The race also includes admission to the pool complex nearby at Laugardalslaug, so we headed over there. The logistics of using Icelandic public pools are worth a separate post. Suffice to say that you must be fully comfortable with locker-room nudity, large crowds, and crowding in the hot tub… but it was lovely to be able to have a good thermal soak after a long run.

Wrapup

My race experience was a 9/10: a high-energy fun crowd, beautiful course, and the unique aspect of running a race at a time when it would normally be pitch dark all combined to make a great memory. I’d love to go back and run the half, or (better yet), the Reykjavik marathon. Highly recommended.

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Office 365 Engage wrapup

Last week, I had the privilege of presenting at the first Office 365 Engage conference. Billed as a practical, no-marketing-content conference, and chaired by Tony Redmond, the conference offered a pretty impressive lineup of speakers from across the Office 365 world, mostly from Europe. One big drawback to the way that Microsoft and Penton have organized their respective conferences is that it’s often difficult to get European experts and MVPs here to speak, so I was looking forward to seeing some fresh material presented by people I don’t usually get to hear from, and I was not disappointed.

I arrived midday Tuesday after changing planes in Reykjavik (more on that later). A quick train ride got me to the Haarlem Centraal station, after which I grabbed an Uber to the hotel. The conference was booked into the Philharmonie Haarlem, and I must say it was the nicest conference venue I’ve ever been in– a far cry from the typical US conference facilities located in echoing, soulless conference centers or noisy, smoky Vegas hotels. The location was excellent as well– Haarlem is a beautiful city and quite walkable. The conference hotel was a mere 3-minute walk from the Philharmonie and the area contained a wealth of restaurants and shops.

One of the meeting rooms at the Philharmonie

After I got registered, I wandered around talking to attendees and speakers. My first session (on monitoring Office 365, big surprise!) wasn’t until Wednesday morning so I got to drop in on a couple of sessions, which was nice. Unfortunately, I spent most of my time Tuesday either working on my slides and demos or on the phone with folks back in the USA– that’s the big downside to being in Europe. Tuesday night I met a group of MVPs for dinner, at a Mexican restaurant, of all places.

Wednesday I had my monitoring session in the morning, along with more work on my third session’s slides. I got some good attendee questions that I’ll use to make the presentation better for the next time– as Microsoft is always changing the monitoring and reporting functionality in Office 365, this is definitely an evolving area. In the afternoon, I was able to go to Tiago Costa’s session on Office Graph development, which I found quite valuable. Wednesday night the organizers had set up a canal cruise for the speakers, which was a lovely treat– Haarlem looks even better from the water.

Canal ahoy

Obligatory windmill photo. This was the only one I saw the entire trip.

Thursday was a big day. I had two sessions: one on Skype Meeting Broadcast and one on Windows Information Protection. Fellow MVP Brian Reid was kind enough to help salvage my demo; I filed a support ticket with Microsoft about an hour before my session because my tenant didn’t work, but his did. We even got to demonstrate the real-time automated closed captioning feature that Skype Meeting Broadcast now includes, which resulted in quite a few laughs from the audience. It works surprisingly well, better with Brian’s English accent than my own American one. Then it was back to the speaker lounge for still more work on my information protection slides, which I delivered to a curious audience without a hitch. (I had a great side conversation with a lady who works for, shall we say, an allied power and had a lot of interesting questions about ways to use the Information Protection features in what might euphemistically be called a nuclear bunker.) The afternoon sessions were accompanied by a loud, heavy thunderstorm that wouldn’t be out of place in Alabama– I think some of the locals were a little surprised by its ferocity. The rain had cleared and left the air cool and clear afterwards, perfect for the closing session, after which I jumped in a taxi to get to Schiphol for my flight on to Reykjavik.

A quick note on logistics: the venue’s Internet connection worked well for nearly everyone, seating was comfortable and plentiful, and the snacks, coffee, and lunches were good. Overall the logistics were far better than average, especially for a freshman offering. I believe that reflects the experience of the event team, all of whom have put on many such similar events in the past.

Overall, this was a solid first-year conference. With only a couple hundred attendees, it preserves the small-group feel that was formerly so attractive about first MEC and then Connections, but with a great deal of attention paid to ensuring that the content was relevant, unique, and practical. I’m looking forward to next year’s version!

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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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