Category Archives: Travel

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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Havana, day 1

My first “you know you’re in Cuba when…” moment was the customs agent wearing fishnet stockings. Before that point, José Martí International Airport in Havana looked mostly like any other airport terminal. As we got in line for customs clearance, though, I noticed that all of the agents were female, and most of them were wearing uniforms that were considerably shorter and/or tighter than I’d expect to see on a TSA agent. Then Warren pointed out Agent Fishnets and I knew: I was someplace really different.Clearing immigration itself was very straightforward: I turned in half of my tourist card, had my picture taken, and was cleared out into the baggage claim area. Our bike boxes eventually appeared on one end of the terminal and our bags on the other, and we proceeded to the declaration line. No one inspected our bags.. well, except for the TSA.

Outside immigration we met Eric, the driver that Tony had arranged to pick us up. He had an immaculate gray 1952 Plymouth coupe for us, or at least for 4 of us, plus a friend with a van to take the other 2 of our party, plus all 6 bikes.


 Eric gave us a well-narrated tour through Havana, which simultaneously looked exactly like I thought it would (lots of classic cars, plenty of exhaust, bright colors, crumbling Soviet-era buildings) and nothing like I thought it would (packed streets, thriving businesses, a fair number of new-looking Chinese Geelys and other cars). Then we went by the big stadium, featuring this sign hailing Fidel as the “permanent inspiration of the best athlete” and showing him in various uniforms. 


Eric expertly navigated us to the Airbnb we’d reserved, “Casa Hendrik.” I can’t say enough good about this place– when I write the review it deserves I’ll post it here. Hendrik was a marvelous host and the apartment was perfect for what we needed. It doesn’t look like that much from the outside but had two marvelous terraces with a view of the water. This photo shows the view from right outside the door of my room, where there was a small porch, looking down onto the 2nd floor terrace; you can see water in the upper-left corner.


Next to the rocking chair is a small cage with two birds. Why? Because Havana, I guess.


The photo shows Craig and me on the top-floor terrace, which is reachable by a tiny and completely unsafe concrete spiral staircase. No handrail, nothing on the outside other than a 30-foot drop, and a stair pitch and size completely incompatible with size 13 feet. So of course I went up there as often as possible. 

Hendrik introduced us to Tia (Spanish for “auntie”), the 95-year-old woman who lives on the ground floor. Her vocation is neighborhood coffee lady, so whenever we needed a shot of her coffee, which tasted like what they must drink in heaven, we’d go see her. Little cups packed a big punch.


Lance quickly started putting together bikes on the tiny front porch, gathering a fair amount of curious stares from passers-by. Our neighborhood had a number of other casas particulares (private rooms that the owners are allowed by the government to rent), along with small shops and so on. It was a good mix to give us a taste of Cuban life.

For dinner, I’d asked Hendrik to make reservations at Paladar Torreson. Paladars are licensed private restaurants, often located in people’s homes (as this one was). Dinner was quite good; for about $12 US I had a plate of 3 small lobster tails, bread with an excellent hummus-like spread, arroz Moro, and a (watery) Cuba Libre.

  

Best of all, the paladar overlooked the Malécon, Havana’s famous waterfront road, so we got to people- and traffic-watch while we waited for the sunset… which was spectacular.


After dinner, we went to walk the Prado, one of the main drags in Old Havana. Most of the big tourist hotels are near there, as is the National Grand Theater and the Capitol building. It was crowded with skateboarding kids, strolling lovers, tourists, locals, and the occasional street dog.

This is a building whose name I forgot to write down:


And here’s the Hotel Inglaterre:


After the Prado, Craig and I went back to the Malécon to look for some of the famous wifi parks. We found some but couldn’t get them to work… more on that in another post.

One final note. Cubans are absolute masters at making stuff work with very limited resources, as evidenced by the light in our bathroom. There was a nice wall-mounted finial, but someone decided to add an LED can light… so they did. An angle bracket, some wire, and a plastic bag to wrap it in… done!


I hit the bed exhausted but intrigued by what we might see the next day. I was not to be disappointed.

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Training Tuesday: Havana Triathlon race report (25 Feb 2017)

(The Garmin Connect app doesn’t work on Cuban government wifi, so I can’t post course maps, etc. The final race results aren’t up, and since I didn’t have my phone I don’t have any pictures from the race itself, so this report is all you get for right now.)
Summary: great experience, awful performance. 8:12 for a 70.3 is nothing to get excited about. I guess I was not as well prepared as I thought, but there were a couple of other external factors. First is the fact I was sick. I didn’t realize how sick until today (Tuesday), 3 days post-race, when I’m feeling normal and comparing it to how I felt the day before and the day of the race. I had been sniffling and snuffling all week, since maybe 2 days before we left, and was regularly taking 12hr pseudoephedrine for a solid week before race day… not a great setup for the race. I was short on sleep ( people here don’t really get their nights started until midnight or so, so we’ve had significant traffic noise and street noise each night), averaging about 5hrs of real sleep each night for the 4 days pre-race day. I also ate poorly, out of necessity, the day and a half before the race. Those aren’t excuses, but they were definitely factors.

Prep

We spent the entire day before the race getting registered, dropping off our bikes and transition stuff, and so on. I logged about 10 miles of walking. This was not a good idea. Race registration was at the marina; it took about 2 hours to get through packet pickup, then we had to drop off our bikes. The best word to describe the race was “disorganized.” There was a lot of mis-information and non-information, and the whole experience really made me appreciate how hard RDs have to work to put on a smoothly running race. This is only the 3rd year for this race so I am confident that they will improve.

This was a point-to-point race: all our bike stuff went in 1 bag, and all our run stuff in another. We dropped the bike bag off with the bike and gave the run bag to the organizers, who staged it at T2 for us. This put a very high premium on making sure the right stuff was in the right bag, which for the most part I got right. However, that process adds some mental stress, even if you’re a heavy checklist user, as I am.

I had a small lunch (shrimp pasta in an interesting but odd not-tomato sauce) and a good but small dinner (grilled chicken, rice, black beans, a few slices of fried plantain) and got to bed about 830p, where I slept for maybe 5 hours total.

Pregame

I got up at 410a, had breakfast (small pack of honey roasted peanuts, a protein bar, plenty of water), and met the others downstairs for our van ride to the marina. The organizers had told us that we’d have access to our bikes so we could fill bottles, etc, and this turned out to be true. They had also said we’d have access to our run bags, which was not, so I started the run with no water… more on that later. There were nearly 800 participants in the race, for which the organizers thoughtfully provided two (2) portapotties. With no toilet paper. That was awesome. Luckily I had some Kleenex with me.

There was a great deal of confusion over where the swim was supposed to start. Nothing was marked, and none of the volunteers seemed to know what was what. Once the sprint swim started, the RD eventually herded everyone to the right area and collected our after-race bags. Before the swim, I put my glasses, street clothes, etc. into that bag for access later.

Weather and conditions

It was mid-70s at swim start, with a water temperature of about 76. The wind was calm until later in the day– it started to pick up about 11a and reached its peak when during the run leg on the Malécon. The forecast high temperature was 85. I don’t know how hot it got, except that the temperature sensor on my watch registered a max of 105. When it’s on my arm, it reads about 15 degrees higher than ambient FWIW.

Swim

The RD said wetsuits were optional, so I swam with my sim shorts. The plan was to jump in the water at the land side of one of the marina’s berthing lanes, swim down that lane, across the mouth of the adjacent lane, and back down the next lane, for a total of 2100 yards or so. I don’t have good data from the swim– my watch showed I swam 1375 yards in 48:08, but the other guys with me all had correct distances, and the race results aren’t posted online so I can’t cross-check. I felt pretty good on the swim overall, at least until last night when Lance told me he saw two of the yachts in the lane we were in pumping gray water overboard as we swam past. One interesting note: when I jumped in, I forgot to hold my nose and so pumped my sinuses full of marina water. My nose was fine for the rest of the race, go figure.

T1

T1 took 11:08. FAR TOO LONG. This consisted of a 1/4mi or so run from the swim exit to the bike area. Our bike bags were hung on numbered hooks, and volunteers were checking numbers so that by the time each athlete got to the hook, they’d pulled the correct bag. ITU rules don’t allow setting up transitions in advance, so I had to dig through my bag to get socks, shoes, chamois cream, a shirt, sunglasses, bike computer, and nutrition, then get it all put on or tucked in pockets, then run out to the bike and set it up the rest of the way.

Bike

The bike course started with a couple of short climbs that I wasn’t expecting. I’ll put the route map on my blog later when I have Internet again (or you can look it up if you follow me on Strava), but basically we rode around a residential district, then up Linea (one of the main drags) and through El Tunel Linea, then turned around and reversed the route and diverted onto the main east-west autopista. There were tons of volunteers and cops managing both vehicular and pedestrian traffic; they had shut down our side of Linea for racing, so all the traffic was squeezed into the opposite side of the boulevard. I give the race organizers full points for this.

Havana is not what I’d call a polluted city but there is much more vehicle exhaust than Americans are used to– lots of poorly tuned 2-stroke gas engines and big diesels. Riding through that was not my favorite. In addition, there are tons of road hazards. I would describe the overall road conditions as fair– the worst of the roads we rode are no worse than some of the hot spots on Redstone Arsenal or the area near my house (I’m looking at you, Burgreen Road). There are lots of potholes, sunken manhole covers, and so on, and none of them were marked, but they were easy to see.

On the autopista, the course was a series of very long 1-3%climbs and short, quick descents out to about 35mi, then a turn back into the city. As the day wore on it got hotter and windier, with a moderate cross headwind on the way back in.

There were 5 or 6 aid stations with bottled water on the bike course. I drank probably 6 bottles of water on the bike, had a Honey Stinger waffle each hour, and had a small banana (maybe 5″ long) at the turnaround rest area. At the first rest stop (maybe 20mi in) I stopped, put on my arm sleeves, and soaked them, my head, and my jersey with water. That helped a bit. At the turnaround rest stop I stopped again and drank an incredibly tasty can of the local equivalent of orange Gatorade– muchas gracias to the volunteers who thought to have that on hand.

After the highway the route took us back up Linea and through the tunnel again. (I did shout “TUNNELLLLLLLLL” each time I rode through it, like the kids and I used to do when driving through tunnels, so that was fun). There were several groups of uniformed schoolchildren along the route who went nuts whenever they saw a cyclist, so that was really fun.

I tried to stay in the prescribed power range but on the back half of the bike course was trying to make up time and started pushing harder. This was a critical mistake. 3:41 on the bike, when I was hoping for 3:15 or better, was rough.

T2

T2 was set up right near the US embassy and Monte de las Banderas, a local monument with some Fidel-era slogans. Racers biked in and handed their bikes to a handler, who racked it, then ran down the chute to get their run bags. I did that, found a changing tent, and started trying to change, but I was in a fog– I put my belt on backwards, couldn’t get my shoes on the right feet, and went the wrong way leaving the chute. There was no water in T2, so I started the run with empty bottles. 8:05 in T2, most of which was spent sitting trying to catch my breath. I was so hot I actually had goosebumps. I’m lucky it wasn’t longer.

Run

I ran for, maybe, half a mile and then my legs just gave out and I walked. Occasionally I burst into a dispirited sort of trot but I was having trouble moving my legs. Eventually I shuffled through the first aid station and got some water in my bottles, on my arm sleeves, over my head, and down my back. I wish I could say that I magically revived but no. I nearly quit about a dozen times but kept shuffling to a 3:20 finish. That is by far the worst half marathon I’ve ever run, both in terms of time and of quality. There is no way to dress it up or make it look better.

Oh, did I mention that there were no bathrooms on the bike or run courses? No? Because there weren’t. I barged into a restaurant on the Malécon for my run potty break. Twice. Hope they didn’t mind.

The finish

All my friends finished before me, so I had a great welcoming committee as I crossed the finish line and got my medal and finisher’s shirt. I plopped down and collected myself for a few minutes, then Craig and I took a cocotaxi back, which was like riding inside the Devil’s lawnmower, with lots of exhaust and swerving. Warren was kind enough to ride my bike back for me and put it away. 

Post game

Literally all I could do when I got back to the apartment was sit in a chair, stretched out. I couldn’t really turn my head because my shoulders and neck were so tight, and I didn’t even have the energy to banter. I have never felt so sick or tired after a race. I eventually straggled upstairs for a shower and a half-hour nap, which helped. The thought of food was absolutely repulsive, so when the posse went out for dinner I went to bed instead about 830p and slept for maybe 7 hours total. The next morning, I got up and picked my way listlessly through the excellent breakfast buffet at the Parque Central hotel and then shuffled through the Museum of the Revolution (more details on both of those in a later post), then went back to the apartment for a big long nap. I didn’t really start feeling normal until Monday afternoon but am now fully recovered. Lots to learn from the overall experience, including a) don’t race when you’re sick and b) make sure your race prep is strong. Onwards!

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Havana, day 0

I woke up at 0315, 45 minutes early. Why? Who knows. I was thoroughly packed so I had time for a leisurely shower and a last-minute gear check. Warren picked me up right on time and we headed for the airport, where we were soon joined by Lance, Warren, and Craig.

At checkin, Delta didn’t know how to handle us. First, they had to figure out how to sell us a Cuba travel card (CTC).. more on that in a minute. Once that was done, our agent discovered that the computer said “no bikes are allowed for transport to Cuba.” This directly contradicted what Warren had been told by Delta on the phone and what I’d been told both in email and via Twitter DM. The agents were patient and helpful but ultimately couldn’t override the computer without getting the local redcoat to come fix us up. 

Delta’s standard fee for bicycles is $150, and they cheerfully applied that on this flight to each of us. The agent apologetically pointed out that my suitcase was 6lbs overweight (because it has about 15lbs of donated clothing, a skillet, and some other stuff for our Cuban hosts) so I had some last-minute juggling to do to make weight. (Meanwhile, Julio was doing the same thing departing Louisville, except that they accepted his bike without question.)

Once that was finally done, we had an uneventful flight to Atlanta and a walking breakfast en route to the international terminal.

We stopped at the currency exchange booth and found that they didn’t carry Cuban currency– not a huge surprise. Tony had coordinated a bulk purchase of Euros, because it worked out slightly better for us to buy Euros in the US and then change Euros to Cuban pesos (CUC).

Now, back to the CTC. Cuba doesn’t issue visa per se for US citizens. Instead, you need a CTC. The airline can’t let you board a flight to Cuba without one, so you either have to buy in advance through a consolidator (which costs $85 or so) or from the airline, usually $50. Delta charged us the $50 fee at checkin, so all we had to do was fill out a form certifying that we had a legitimate reason to go to Cuba and show our receipt for the $50. The gate agents gave us the actual CTC and checked to make sure we’d filled it out properly– apparently lots of people get the date format backwards and end up having to buy another CTC. The form is in two parts: Cuban customs collects part 1 when you arrive, and you turn in the matching part 2 when you depart.


After checking all the documents, that’s when you get your boarding pass, which is stamped to indicate that you’ve passed the documentation checks and can legally board the flight. US citizens traveling to Cuba are required to have medical insurance, since they aren’t covered by Cuba’s government insurance system. The $25 fee for this insurance is included when you purchase a ticket on Delta, and your boarding pass is proof of purchase.. so you’re legally required to keep your boarding pass with you at all times in country.


Apart from the documentation procedures (which are really very similar to any other Delta international flight), the boarding process and aircraft are identical to what you’re used to. We flew a domestically configured A319 with wifi, although wifi only works in US airspace. To make sure that this gets posted, I’m going to actually post it while we’re still in the air over Florida; you’ll have to wait until the next installment to learn about our arrival in Havana, race packet pickup, and our (planned) dinner at Paladar Torreson.

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Training Tuesday: pre-Havana smorgasboard

In two days I’ll be headed to Havana for my first 70.3 of the season: La Habana Triatlón. Things here at la casa have been fairly chaotic as I’ve tried to clear my work backlog, learn and prepare for travel to a completely unique country, and get my normal training and race prep together. Here are a few highlights:

  • Alex handed me over to a new coach, Jon Fecik. Jon is a professional triathlete. I can’t summarize how excited I am to be working with him– even after only two weeks it’s clear that he is going to be a great match for my training needs. So far I’ve learned a ton from him and I think I have a solid race plan.
  • The weather in Havana this weekend: forecast high of 85 degrees and sunny. The water temperature will almost certainly not be wetsuit-legal, plus that’s kind of warm for a 70.3. Jon has given me a pretty solid hydration plan and we’ve talked extensively about my race pace strategy so I think I’ll be good to go.
  • Packing has been interesting because I assume that I will not be able to get anything locally except for bottled water and fresh food. Everything from bike parts and tools to race nutrition to clean underwear (and toilet paper!) has to go with me, or I have to do without it. This has raised my packing anxiety to a previously unknown level.
  • I’m traveling with a group of 5 other local triathletes, and we’ve got an Airbnb with a housekeeper. We’ve also been able to book a driver/guide. This is going to be important because none of us have been there before and we have a fairly complex set of logistical problems to solve– getting 6 people, plus their bikes and gear, from point A to point B, thence point C, then back to B, several times, then back to A is going to be non-trivial. Having local guidance will be extremely useful.
  • There’s a ton of stuff to see and do in Havana– it’s a city of over 2 million people. Anything I have time for will be a bonus.
  • Cuba has very, very limited Internet access. Simple tasks (like sending one of my fellow travelers a message to ask where we’re meeting for lunch) will be impractical at best. We’ve all got paper maps, as well as offline copies of city maps on our phones. I posted the other day about my proposed email/blogging rig, and I’m confident it will work, but you may not be hearing much from me over the next several days.

I’ll be posting a full race report sometime between the end of the race and the end of March. Stay tuned!

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Flying Friday: O Canada! (KDCU-CYTZ and back)

Summary: fantastic trip with good weather; I enjoyed my first venture into Canadian airspace (which is operated and managed very similarly to US airspace, with a few procedural and vocabulary differences that perhaps will make for a good post later). Bishop Toronto City is a fantastic airport with lovely scenery; Toronto is worth another, more leisurely visit; and you should always pay careful attention to customs regulations.

When my boss told me that I needed to be at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference this year, I was excited, mostly because we were planning on demoing a cool new product to partners, but also because I hadn’t been to Toronto since a 7th-grade church choir trip. On that trip, we took Amtrak from New Orleans to Buffalo, an adventure in itself; this time I planned to fly.

I started by researching the requirements to fly into Canada. AOPA’s list covers it all. I ordered the required Customs & Border Protection sticker, and I already had the required FCC radio station license and a valid passport. I had a bit of a quandary when it came to navigation charts: the Jeppesen charts required for the IFD540 are quite expensive, but the 540 goes completely stupid north of the border without them. I decided instead to add Canada coverage in Foreflight, which would give me georeferenced charts and approach plates, plus airport and frequency information– but on my iPad, not on the panel. With that done, a week or so before the trip I started watching the forecast, checking fuel prices, etc. Because the convention was at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre (MTCC), the nearest airport was the extremely cool-looking Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, which is on an island in Lake Ontario. (Fun fact: you must either use a submarine tunnel or a ferry to get between the airport and the mainland, where the taxis etc are.)

I’d planned to fly from Decatur to New Philadelphia, Ohio (Clever Field, whose airport ID is PHD.. lol) for fuel, then overfly Erie, PA, then cross the lakes and land just before sunset, with a planned departure about 3p local. I may have failed to mention that I was running an Olympic triathlon that morning, but luckily I hit the airport on time and got en route as planned. Unfortunately, over Kentucky I developed a problem, or, rather, the airplane did: the oil filler door on the engine cowling popped open. It’s  hinged at the front (towards the propeller) so the slipstream was keeping it from opening fully, but it was flapping in the breeze and that made me nervous. I diverted to Somerset (KSME), latched it, and took off– only to have it pop open again.

After landing again, I discovered the problem: the spring that holds the latch button in place no longer generated enough force to keep the door latched. I borrowed some safety wire and pliers from the FBO, wired the door shut, and took off again– but that cost me some time I couldn’t afford to lose.

Once airborne again, I took a close look at the IFD540 to see what my fuel state looked like. The outer green ring represents the maximum range at the current fuel burn, while the inner dashed green circle shows range with the FAA-required reserve. Since my planned fuel stop was comfortably within the reserve ring, I knew I’d have enough fuel to get there or to Erie if needed– very comforting. The range ring is one of my favorite features in the IFD540 because it greatly reduces guesswork: either you have enough fuel, given the current conditions of wind and fuel burn, or you don’t, and this makes it easy to see which.

The fuel range ring is your friend

The fuel range ring is your friend

I landed as planned at KPHD, fueled up, and quickly called Porter, the FBO at Toronto City, to verify what time they closed. “10:30pm” was the answer, so I figured that would leave me enough time to get there just before they closed. This pleasant fantasy remained in my mind, with accompanying scenery…

…until about 9:50pm, when I was overflying the outskirts of Erie with about an hour to go. The city lights were gorgeous, there was a quarter moon, and I could see the dark lake water ahead when I called Porter again to advise my new arrival time of 1115p. (Thanks to the Bluetooth mode of the AMX240 audio panel, I can make in flight calls on my cell phone, provided I have cell service.) Their reply, paraphrased: no thanks, customs won’t allow arrivals after 11pm. I called Erie Approach, got vectors to the airport, landed, and headed for the local Comfort Inn.

After a decent night’s sleep, I fired up the engine and headed north. I’d filed for direct CYTZ, and that’s what I got. Before going to bed, I’d updated both my eAPIS and CANPASS border crossing permissions– the former signaling my departure from the US and the latter requesting permission to cross into Canada. More on that later.

Sunrise + water = awesome

Sun + water = awesome

The first leg of the flight was uneventful, until I wanted to go direct LINNG at ATC’s instructions. The IFD540 didn’t have that waypoint, so I looked it up in Foreflight. That went fine– it was listed with normal degrees/minutes/seconds latitude/longitude, so I plugged it in as a user waypoint, then added the airport’s lat/long and created a route. I did notice one discrepancy: Foreflight defaults to decimal notation, which the IFD540 doesn’t accept. (Since the Nav Canada plate showed the notation I could use, I just went with it, but this will become important later.) The rest of the flight was flawless and beautiful– for example, check out this picture as I overflew the Long Point wildlife area.

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Long Point National Wildlife Area

The weather was flawless, so I was expecting the visual approach to CYTZ, and sure enough, that’s what I was assigned. There was a significant volume of traffic going into the airport, as befits its status as Porter’s main hub, so I got vectored around a bit between a series of DHC-8s. This eventually led to a go-around for spacing, as the controller wasn’t able to slow the following DHC-8 down enough to keep me from becoming a hood ornament. The good news is that I was able to get some fantastic pictures of the Toronto skyline:

Beautiful Toronto

Beautiful Toronto

More beautiful Toronto

More beautiful Toronto

I made a great landing, taxied in to Porter, and called the CANPASS number. After a brief wait, they gave me a reference number (which I duly wrote down) and I was free to exit the airplane and go about my business. So I did.

Here’s where I’d describe all the other stuff I did in Toronto at WPC16, but since this is a Flying Friday post, let’s cut to the flight home… well, OK, maybe one picture first, this one looking towards the airport from the observation deck of the CN Tower.

CYTZ and the National Yacht Club

CYTZ and the National Yacht Club

I’d planned for a 1330 departure on Wednesday, and I arrived right on schedule, but hungry. I had filed CYTZ-KCAK, with a plan to continue on to Jamestown, Kentucky (K24) for fuel, then home. Since I didn’t have any Canadian cash, I skipped buying food at the airport, reasoning that I could eat when I stopped for customers in Akron, Ohio. I picked up my clearance and found a bit of an unpleasant surprise: I was given the OAKVL.1 departure, which referenced the OAKVL intersection, whose lat/long I couldn’t put into the IFD because it was only shown in decimal notation. Since I knew its approximate location and the heading to fly to get there, and because I had Foreflight plates showing me obstacles and terrain, this wasn’t a big deal. I looked at the departure plate but it didn’t give any coordinates at all for OAKVL, so I manually created a waypoint and off I went.

(Brief digression: in the US, waypoints that are used as part of a standard instrument departure (SID) procedure are supposed to be listed on the SID chart. In this case, OAKVL was shown, but its coordinates weren’t. I later learned that the Canada Flight Supplement (CFS) manual has a list of all the enroute waypoints and their coordinates, but not waypoints that are only used for departure procedures. I would have needed to look at the “OAKVL ONE DEP (OAKVL1) DEPARTURE ROUTING” chart. Unlike US charts, in Canada the departure routing is a separate page that’s not included as part of the SID chart. I also learned, later, that Foreflight can toggle its display format (look at More > Settings Units > Time)  to match what the IFD can accept, which would have solved my problem.)

What I did while waiting for my IFR clearance

What I did while waiting for my IFR clearance

In any event, I found OAKVL and was cleared to continue on to Akron/Canton, my planned US port of entry. I had filled out an eAPIS manifest, but I didn’t call Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to advise them of my arrival time. As a result, when I landed at CAK, ground instructed me to taxi to the “penalty box” in front of customs, but no one was there, and it took a few minutes to find an agent. When he got there, I had a brief but thorough customs inspection, during which I learned that I’d made a serious error: you must call US CBP at the port of entry you plan to use, in advance, and advise them of your ETA. 

Somehow I missed that in the AOPA checklist. I mistakenly thought that filing an IFR flight plan and filing an eAPIS manifest was sufficient, but no. The agent who cleared me in was firm on that point and cited me. Now I have to wait to see if they assess a fine for the infraction– not my favorite. I had joked with friends that I’d have about 800lbs of usable weight to bring back stuff from Canada– suggestions included Cuban cigars and Timbits. Thankfully I resisted the temptation.

Anyway, after I sweated my way out of CBP, I refueled and bought a soda at the FBO, but their snack machine was out of order. “No problem,” I thought. “I’ll eat when I stop at Jamestown.” I waited for this guy to arrive and clear…

Hold short for landing traffic

Hold short for landing traffic

…then took off, found a protein bar in my flight bag to tide me over, and off I went. When I arrived at Jamestown, I was crushed to find only a single empty, dusty vending machine with nothing edible nearby (except maybe some dead bugs). I fueled the plane, took off, and let the reassuring noise of the big IO540 up front drown out my stomach’s complaints. After an uneventful flight, I landed at home base, transferred all my junk to the car, went home, and slayed an entire Domino’s pizza while catching up on Game of Thrones— a good ending to a long but fruitful day.

 

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Flying Friday: This ain’t Delta

Every pilot has different reasons for flying. For me, a big part of my love of flying is the ability to travel, relatively quickly, where and when I want. The values of “quickly,” “where,” and “when” are all subject to a variety of constraints, though. Some are self-imposed and some are limitations imposed by the FAA, the laws of physics and aerodynamics, or my desire to live to be a grumpy old man.

Let’s take one simple example: time. It would certainly be possible for me to fly from Alabama to southern California for a business trip, but I wouldn’t do it for a short trip— in my particular airplane, that would take me about 11 hours of flight time, which translates into something like 14 hours of total time when you factor in fuel stops… and that really means it would take two days, since flying for that length of time in a single day would make it difficult for me to maintain the focus and energy required for a safe journey. Likewise, I could easily fly from here to Birmingham for dinner, but when you factor in the time required to preflight and prepare the plane, conduct the flight, get to and from the restaurant, and return home, it would be quicker to drive over the short distance. For me personally, with the airplane I have now, the sweet spot is trips of about 150 miles up to about 1000 miles. Shorter or longer trips are possible, but when time is important, taking another means of transport is usually more sensible.

We can lump all the other constraints together into the general heading of “dispatch reliability.” That is, for a planned trip, how often are you actually able to complete it without bumping up against those constraints? It’s critical to keep in mind the difference between a commercial airline (which flies under Part 135 of the Federal Aviation Regulations) and my airplane, which flies under Part 91 of the FAR. There are 3 major factors that influence dispatch reliability in both of those worlds: weather, equipment, and regulation.

The ability to deal with weather, of course, is a huge part of dispatch reliability. I once was stuck away from home for 3 days because the weather was poor and I didn’t have an instrument rating, so I couldn’t leave when I wanted to. Sometimes the weather, or the forecast, is just too crummy to safely complete the planned flight. This happens more often in some places than others, of course; east of the Mississippi, we have lots more thunderstorms than in, say, California or Washington.

Equipment influences dispatch reliability in two different ways. First is redundancy. Unless it were truly urgent, I wouldn’t make an extended night flight in IFR over rough terrain in my airplane— not because it’s inherently unsafe but because, with only one engine and one vacuum system, there are several single points of failure that could make such a flight more exciting than I’d like. Waiting for daylight or better weather would be a smart play. On the other hand, commercial planes flying under Part 135 have doubly- or triply-redundant systems, ranging from engines to hydraulics to avionics. As you spend more money on an airplane, the number of redundant systems (and the reliability of the systems you have) tends to increase. The capability of your equipment also influences reliability. If you have onboard weather radar or in-cockpit radar data through XM Radio or ADS-B, for example, you may be able to complete flights that you wouldn’t without that data. More sophisticated aircraft that have jet engines and pressurized cabins can fly above many regions of bad weather; aircraft with icing protection can fly through moist clouds without picking up a killing load of ice. Most piston-engine singles (mine included) aren’t pressurized, don’t have anti-icing equipment, and don’t have onboard radar— meaning that there are conditions that are no problem for Delta or United but render general aviation flight impossible or unsafe. Both airliners and general aviation aircraft have lists of requirement equipment. Although the contents of the lists are very different, the concept is the same: if something on that list isn’t working, you can’t legally fly. (Keep that in mind the next time you’re on a commercial flight and the pilot tells you that some seemingly unimportant gadget isn’t working so they have to wait for a mechanic— if they’re waiting to fix it, it’s probably because it’s on that minimum list.)

Regulation is the third category. Without going into all the differences between different parts of the FARs, I can still say that there are some conditions that are legal for me but not an airline, or vice versa. For example, thanks to my instrument rating, it is literally legal for me to take off with such poor visibility that I can’t see the propeller while sitting in the pilot’s seat, while Part 135 flights have specific runway visual range (RVR) requirements that must be met before they can depart. On the other hand, a suitably equipped and crewed Part 135 flight can use Category III autoland to land in zero visibility, whereas I have to honor a higher minimum ceiling and visibility limits. There’s sometimes a huge difference between what’s legal and what’s safe, and the FARs that I fly under give a great deal of latitude to the pilot in command in most cases. That can be good or catastrophically bad, depending on your judgement.

In general, the rule I use is simple: if it is critical that I be somewhere, and I’m planning on flying, I’ll always have a backup. Last week, the boys and I were going down to the Voodoo Music Festival in New Orleans. We’d planned to fly, but when I preflighted the airplane, this is what I found: a broken alternator belt. 

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I didn’t have a spare, the shop didn’t have a spare, and even if we had, on my plane, you have to remove the propeller to replace the belt. We drove instead, but we still got to see the headline act because we’d built enough slack into the schedule. Likewise for weddings, funerals, or critical business meetings— if it’s really important, I’ll have a backup airline ticket in my pocket (or enough time to drive). If it’s not critical, I’ve learned to accept that sometimes the weather or the airplane may conspire against going. A couple of months ago, Dana and I had planned to fly down to Gulfport for the day to see Mom, Charlie, and Grandma. Here’s what the weather looked like:

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Score that one in the “nope!” column. It would have been perfectly legal to pick my way around those storms, since I didn’t have the equipment to fly over them, but it would have been uncomfortable at best and criminally dangerous at worst. Driving would have taken too long, so we reluctantly cancelled; it wasn’t a critical trip.

Having a backup plan or the willingness to say “we’ll do this another time” is critical because it eliminates the pressure to attempt a flight when weather, equipment, or regulation might dictate otherwise. The hoary old saying “it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were flying than flying and wishing you were on the ground” applies in spades. Even when it’s difficult to tell your boss, your family, or your customer that you won’t be somewhere at the appointed time, it’s a hell of a lot easier than explaining yourself to the FAA, the NTSB, or St. Peter.

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Disney and Universal 2014 wrapup

A few more-or-less random thoughts about our recent trip to Disney World and Universal Studios Florida:

  • Universal is a see-it-once park, I think. We enjoyed it but there was nothing so compelling that I think we’d want to go back again in five years. On the other hand, all four of us had specific things at Disney that we looked forward to doing (among them: turkey legs, the Winnie the Pooh ride, Tower of Terror, and Space Mountain).
  • Having said that, the Harry Potter attractions are superbly done: decoration, character acting, costuming, and all the little touches come together to provide a very immersive experience. Just don’t expect to be able to drink a whole mug of butterbeer. (And don’t be surprised if the Forbidden Adventure ride leaves you nauseated for a couple of hours afterwards.) Getting early access by virtue of staying in a Universal property was well worth it.
  • We didn’t buy, nor did we miss, the front-of-the-line ride access benefit that Universal sells for $60+ per person, per day.
  • Disney’s MagicBands system works extremely well and made paying for things much easier– which, I suppose, is the point.
  • The FastPass+ system takes a little getting used to because you can get multiple passes at once, but there are limits on which rides you can stack passes for. Read up on it before you go.
  • We stayed at two “value” hotels: Universal’s Cabana Bay and Disney’s All-Star Music Resort. Both had nicely equipped, clean “family suite” rooms. Both claimed to sleep six: Universal provided two double beds and a twin pull-out sofa, while Disney provided a queen, a twin sofabed, and two single fold-out sleep chairs: not ideal for six-foot teenagers, but workable.
  • Disney’s on-property wifi was great at the parks, as was Universal’s. However, the Disney in-room wifi was unusuable– worse even than the worst of the Microsoft conference hotels I’ve had to use in the past.
  • EPCOT’s International Food and Wine Festival was going on, so we got some primo foods when we ate dinner there. I’d like to do the festival again, but with more time to savor the food.
  • Tom, Matt, and I all ran into friends at the parks. It’s a small world indeed.
  • We didn’t rent a car, so we used Uber for the move from the Kissimmee airport to Universal, then a cab from Universal to Disney, then Uber again. Orlando’s taxis are about a million percent cleaner than in most other cities, but Uber was cheaper and faster.

Overall, a successful trip (good flight, too!) but boy, am I glad to be home!

 

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Sunday surprise in Santiago

I purposefully didn’t plan much for this weekend; I had a quiet day yesterday, with a bit of shopping and a Spanish-subtitled horror movie, and I planned to spend part of the day working. My coworker was eager to get out and see a bit more of the city, so we ended up spending the day exploring– and it was quite a day!

Like many other cities, Santiago has a tourist bus service called Turistik that runs a circular route around the city. You get on the bus, get off wherever you want, and linger at each stop, or not, as you see fit. We decided to use the bus to get around, so we paid CLP$20.000 (see what I did there? about US$40) for an all-day pass, then caught the bus right in front of the hotel. It first stopped at Parque Arauco, a very large and verrrrry upscale outdoor mall where I had dinner and my movie last night. If you’ve been to Redmond Town Center, Levis Commons, or Fallen Timbers, you’ll get the idea (except that Parque Arauco has a car dealership too, so take that, yanquis!) We stayed on the bus and went to Cerro de San Cristobal, where we’d planned to hike the trail to the top. Unfortunately, as we found out after a long walk to the trailhead, the trail on the side of the hill where we were was closed, so we ended up taking the funicular to the top instead rather than hiking around the hill to the other trailhead. The weather was still fairly overcast, but there was a very refreshing breeze on the top of the hill, and the haze wasn’t as bad as it was last weekend when I was there.

After a short walk around Bellavista, we caught the bus again to Mercado Central(the Central Market), an indoor market that combines several large restaurants (we had lunch at Donde Augusto, which was excellent), a fish market, fruit and vegetable stands, etc. It’s completely touristy but was still pretty interesting.

 

From there we walked to Plaza de Armas, which contains the central cathedral of Santiago, the main post office, and several other major buildings. They were setting up for a concert of some kind, so the square was crowded and busy.

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The Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago

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a Rapa Nui-inspired statue in Plaza de Armas

Most of the museums and other public facilities were closed, so we didn’t get to do much of the traditional tourist stuff. We walked back to the Mercado and caught the bus again; when it stopped opposite Cerro Santa Lucia, Dave said “hey, that place looks neat; let’s go check it out.”

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the fountain in the courtyard

The whole hill is layered with stone staircases and various structures, including several small gardens, a church built in 1872 by Benjamin Vicuna McKenna, and two forts originally built for defense of the city. The views from the top of the hill are spectacular, too.

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Pedro de Valdivia, first governor of Chile

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city view from the top of Santa Lucia; you can actually see mountains in this one

As we were exploring, we could hear what sounded like a marching band off in the middle distance– a little unusual, given that they were playing an assortment of songs including movie themes. They didn’t seem to actually be marching, though. We made our way back down toward the street and I noticed something unusual: there was a medium-sized crowd of people thronging the street, and at a nearby underpass there were big arches of purple and white balloons. We watched for a few minutes and watched as a group of dancers in what I presume was traditional Incan dress (given that their jackets said “Atahualpas de Paramonga”, preceded by a group of drummers, danced their way up the street.

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A dancer; not shown: non-traditional tennis shoes

As the dancers moved down the street a larger group came into view, carrying a large, flower-bedecked bier and preceded by a group of women in what looked like purple habits. The women were walking backwards and swinging censers, producing a cloud of smoke such as I haven’t seen since the last concert I went to at Shoreline.

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a mysterious object borne through the streets

As they passed, I was able to read the sign on the nearest corner of the bier and learned that the bier was carried by members of Hermandad del Señor de Los Milagros, or the Brotherhood of the Lord of Miracles. We had lucked into part of the annual procession honoring the Lord of Miracles, which takes place on the last Sunday in October. The tradition started in Peru but has spread worldwide. As the procession neared the underpass, the waiting spectators dumped glitter and balloons on the celebrants below, who gleefully stomped on the balloons to pop them.

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fire in the hole

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I was able to capture a balloon intact.. before stomping on it

After the procession left, we walked back to the bus stop, but the bus was long gone. We walked for about a mile and a half until we found a cab, then headed back to the hotel, where I passed a quiet night working on slides for the webcast I did yesterday.  All in all, it was a day very well spent, and it was fun for a change to go prowling around the city with someone instead of kicking it solo. Thanks, Dave!

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Santiago, day 2

It’s a measure of how much I’ve been working that I am just now getting around to posting a travelogue from last Sunday. This week has passed by in a blitz of activity, which is good. My team has gotten a lot accomplished, which, after all, is what we came here for. But before all the work started, I had the pleasure of having a day to explore.

I’d planned to meet my coworkers Todd and Dave at the hotel after their flight arrived, then drive to Valparaiso with fellow MVP and well-known Chilean Jorge Patricio Diaz Guzman. Unfortunately, Jorge had a work emergency to tend to, so I kept the rental car I’d gotten on Saturday. I rented through the hotel by asking the concierge to find me a rental car, because this seemed to be the fastest way to get a car. Sure enough, within 20 minutes or so Maxima had delivered a car to the hotel: a tiny Chevy Spark with a manual transmission and almost enough room for 3 adults. (It has 4 seats but it is wishful thinking to imagine that four normal-sized American men could fit into it; luckily we only had 3 people.)

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they see me rollin’, they be laughin’

After Dave and Todd arrived and had a few minutes to unpack and freshen up, we set out for Valparaiso. The route to get there is very straightforward: get on highway 68 going west and keep going for 120 km or so until you hit the ocean. It’s a lovely drive, with two large tunnels and some long up- and downhill grades that our car could barely handle. The speed limit ranges from 70 km/h to 120 km/h, but no one except American tourists and people in underpowered cars like hours follow it, especially not big trucks. We made it to Valparaiso but decided, since none of us had any firm plans to do anything there, to go back to a restaurant Todd knew of in Concon, another 20 or so km down the coast. The weather was pleasant and there were great views along the coast, so off we went, braving significant traffic along the way. Both sides of the narrow coastal road are packed with restaurants, shops, and rental property but there is little parking, so we spent lots of time waiting while other drivers maneuvered in or out of parking spaces. We also made frequent stops for photos, both on the route out and back.

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a view of the coast while standing on a rock in a tidal pool (Nokia 920)

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ocean view (Nikon D5100)

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action shot! rock climbing + sailboat

Eventually we made it to the restaurant Todd had recommended, Punta del Este. It was well worth the trip– think Dave’s Cajun Kitchen, or your favorite hometown restaurant for those of you who aren’t from Houma, and you’ll get the idea. We had an appetizer platter of razor clams, conger eel, and several kinds of fish. I had tilapia with shrimp sauce, which was also excellent. Then we drove back, stopping at a few different places to take pictures; there was one gorgeous house that Dave was particularly smitten with.

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We haven’t picked out a name for this other than la casa de Dave

On the way back we needed gas, so we stopped at a highway rest stop that would be familiar to anyone who’s ever traveled the New York or Ohio Turnpikes. Fuel here is expensive, but at least you get full service at the station in exchange for your hard-earned CLP$. After returning the car (a simple matter of giving the keys back to the concierge), we walked over to Costanera Center, the nearby mall, to find dinner. We had an excellent meal at Le Due Torri, an Italian-and-seafood place that delivered very well on both fronts, then back to the hotel. e were all pretty worn out by that point but it was an interesting way to spend the day. I’d love to come back to the Vina del Mar/Concon area during the Chilean summer; the views are gorgeous.

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Santiago, day 1

Yesterday was my first day in Santiago, Chile, which means it was also my first day in South America. I’ve previously visited Asia, Africa, Australia, and Europe, so now all I need to do is contrive some way to get to Antarctica and I’ll be all set.

To get here, I flew on Delta’s flight from Atlanta, about which I can say that only that it was adequate. My Economy Comfort seat was decent, and I slept for a good six hours or so, waking up just in time to watch the sun rise over the Pacific.

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sunrise, before it got too bright to actually take pictures of

Upon arrival at Santiago’s airport, I found that Chile, like Brazil and Argentina, charge incoming visitors if those visitors are citizens of a country that charges Chileans an entry fee. For example, Chileans visiting the US must pay a $160 fee, so Americans visiting Chile have to pay the same fee. This is handled via separate set of stalls at customs: first you pay the fee and get your passport stamped, then you go through immigration, then you claim your luggage and go through a customs inspection. During this process, I learned that you are not permitted to import beef jerky (or other kinds of smoked meats) into Chile, which is too bad because I had packed a bunch of it for quick protein. Alas.

I’d already reserved a taxi through TaxiOficial.cl, as recommended by our travel department. After baggage claim, a quick stop by the payment desk netted me a receipt that I handed to the driver, who whisked me off to the Intercontinental in the business district. The hotel is well situated right near a major highway, a large mall, and, well, lots of businesses. I checked in, took a quick shower, unpacked, and set out to go exploring.

First, though, I rented a car. This was recommended by SantiagoTourist.com, a web site I found while at the hotel. (Oddly the hotel wifi seems to block Bing, but allows Google.) For about $60, I got a manual-transmission Chevy Spark, the smallest car I’ve ever driven. However, it proved to be adequate for my needs, since all I really needed was basic transportation. First I drove to the Bellavista area so I could go up Cerro de San Cristobal. (ed note: I’m typing this on a Windows machine that doesn’t make it easy to add accent marks, so I’m not adding them. Just pretend like they’re there.)  I parked in a public garage on Calle Pio Nono and walked about 8 blocks to the entrance of the park, from which you can take a funicular railway to the top, hike up a trail, or ride on a bike path. I elected for the funicular, which was a good call, as I got some excellent pictures on the way up. As you can see, it was a typically hazy/smoggy day, so the mountains were visible more as a suggestion of mountains than anything else.

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looking down onto the city from the railway

The funicular, which cost CLP$2600 (or around US$7)  stops halfway up so you can go to the zoo; I declined and went all the way to the top, whereupon I was able to climb up to the top of San Cristobal. There’s a chapel there, along with a large statue of the Virgin Mary, which you’ll see often in images of Santiago. However, from one angle I spotted something unusual—a ladder running all the way up the statue. I was sorely tempted to climb the scaffolding next to the statue and ascend this ladder, but since I didn’t think going to jail in Chile would be much fun, I decided not to.

After taking the funicular back down, I walked through part of the Barrio Bellavista area, more or less following the walking street-art tour that SantiagoTourist recommended. This turned out to be time well spent; some of the art was amazing, while some was just good, but there’s a lot of it. A few samples:

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A few of the many murals and street paintings in Bellavista

After Bellavista, I drove back to the hotel to plug in my gadgets for a few minutes and plan the rest of my day. (I made another stop en route, thanks to a suggestion from my friend Anne, but it’s classified until Christmas.) A quick glance at the map showed that I was close to Parque de las Esculturas, a large  open-air sculpture park and botanical garden, so I headed out to walk it and see what’s what. The park itself is right next to the Mapocho River, the level of which varies greatly according to how much snowmelt and/or rain is nearby. The park was full of people, mostly couples apparently looking for a place to smooch away from their parental units. Lots of stray dogs, too; that’s sort of a hallmark of Santiago (one night I saw three dogs in the middle of a six-lane road chasing each car as it passed; miraculously none of them got hit.) None of the sculptures especially resonated with me, but the park also has little islands of trees, most native to Chile and/or Argentina, and it was neat to see the differences in the native flora and the kinds of trees I’m used to. As an example, here’s a picture of an ombu treefrom the park.

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I’d never heard of an ombu tree before

After the park, I walked back towards the hotel, stopping at the enormous Costanera Center mall. It’s basically just like an American mall: it has a Dunkin Donuts, an Applebee’s, and a ton of other US-centric shops. That made me want to leave, since ordinarily I avoid malls like the plague. It was moderately crowded, so I could people-watch, and I was hungry, so I decided to stay. Luckily there were some local restaurants; the top-floor food court has a very nice assortment of sitdown restaurants, American fast food, Chilean fast food, and snack shops. I decided to sit down and have a steak… but took the waiter’s advice and ordered without looking at the menu, a mistake that ended up costing me $87 for what was, admittedly, an excellent steak, a platter of jamon and mozzarella, and a pisco sour. Still, I was surprised; Santiago is pricier than I’d anticipated. Apart from that, there was nothing remarkable about the mall except for its size; it has five huge floors with several hundred stores; if I don’t go back that will be fine with me.

By that point I was pretty tired, so I headed back to the hotel, read a bit, and went to bed. What I should have been doing was planning my trip to Valparaiso for the next day, but hey.

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Off to Exchange Connections 2013!

Off to Las Vegas I go! I am en route to Exchange Connections 2013, where I’ll be presenting 3 sessions: one on Exchange ActiveSync with the folks from BoxTone, one on Exchange 2013 and Lync 2013 integration, and one on Exchange 2013 unified messaging. I also plan to have breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, beer, snacks, or cuddles (well, OK, probably not cuddles) with as many members of the Exchange product group, MVP community, and world at large as possible. If you’re there, by all means please come by and say hello! (and if you want to go lift weights together, even better!)

Sadly, my book won’t be on sale there because it is still being printed. However, I’ll be giving away a copy or two in each of my sessions, so if you’re feeling lucky, come on by.

In related news, registration opened for the 2014 edition of the Microsoft Exchange Conference, or MEC. I am ridiculously excited about the return of the return of MEC, and not just because it’s in Austin and I might finally get to meet some of my Dell coworkers. The product group has been sharing a bit of what they’ve got planned with the MVPs and I can say, with conviction, that it will be just as good, if not better than, MEC 2012.

But back to now. Somewhat unusually, I am flying United, connecting through Houston both ways. Normally I wouldn’t, but scheduling dictated it and with luck I’ll be in Houston long enough to have some of my favorites (plus: Channel 9!)  Then it’s a ridiculously short return to Huntsville– basically, long enough to change suitcases and grab my running shoes– before I head to Vermont to run the Leaf Peepers 5K with my lovely sister (note: subscribe to her blog; you’ll be glad you did), thence to Hoboken to meet with customers.

See you at the show!

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TechEd Europe day 2, or, “A side trip to Segovia”

I woke up on time, showered and dressed, and took the shuttle bus to the convention center so that I could give my presentation on developing Exchange Web Services applications on iOS. While the talk itself went well, my demos failed, and I don’t know why– it didn’t seem to be the proxy issue I mentioned yesterday. I learned a valuable lesson, though; from now on I will always have a pre-recorded backup demo. In fairness, Navin Chand suggested that all speakers have backup demos, but I foolishly assumed that my demo would work (and, in fairness, in the nearly 15 years since my first presentation at a Microsoft event, they always have). Lesson learned.

Afterwards, I had another “ask the experts” session, along with Tom Kaupe from the Exchange Online Protection team at Microsoft. We got a few more good questions for the list of things I need to write about, but overall the session was fairly quiet– the attendees were obviously busy attending the day’s breakout sessions. When my shift was over, I took off for the metro station because I’d decided to make an afternoon trip to Segovia. Why? It’s full of good stuff, that’s why, including a Roman aqueduct, a huge cathedral, and the Alcazár de Segovia, a historic castle.

Getting there turned out to be fairly simple; RENFE, the Spanish national train service, has a high-speed express train that goes directly from Madrid’s Chamartín station to the Segovia station. The trip only takes about half an hour, so I jumped on the subway from the Campo de Las Naciones station adjacent to IFEMA, took it to Chamartín, and found that I had no idea how to buy a ticket for the commuter train. There is a ticket machine adjacent to the exit for the metro, but the trick turns out to be to exit the metro station and go aboveground to the actual train station. At that point I was easily able to buy a ticket for about 30€. With a bit of time to kill before the scheduled departure, I was able to find a shop selling sandwiches, where I had an excellent jamón serrano poboy– jamón on a baguette. It was delicious. Too bad it’s so difficult to import Serrano ham back into the United States.

To board the train, I scanned my boarding pass and sent my laptop bag through a metal detector. That done, I took my seat on the train, waited about 10 minutes for our delayed departure, and then watched the countryside (and two very long tunnels) pass by. Sure enough, in about half an hour we arrived at the Segovia train station, which can charitably be described as “on the outskirts of Segovia.” The #11 bus runs directly to plaza de Artilleria, which is on the southeastern edge of the actual town of Segovia. For 1€, it was money well spent. There isn’t much to see along the bus route, but as soon as the bus gets within a few blocks of its terminal stop, you can see the aqueduct, which looks much like this:

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In the central plaza there are numerous shops and restaurants, including a Burger King. Many of them were closed for summer vacation, though– it looks like much of the town shuts down from mid-June until early July.

As far as I could tell, there’s no way to (legally) climb on top of or walk along the top of the aqueduct; it’s possible that I just missed the directions on how to do so, but I don’t think so. Adjacent to plaza de Artilleria, there’s a tourist information office where for 0.20€ I was able to use the bathroom, after which they gave me a handy free map. The clerk outlined a walking route down XXX street to the cathedral, then along YYY street to the Alcázar. I set out with her estimate of a 30-minute walk fresh on my mind and a 25-pound laptop bag on my shoulder. I may have neglected to mention that it was just under 90°F when I got there…

Despite the heat, though, the walk was quite pleasant. The Cathedral itself is stately on the outside but doesn’t have the overwhelming feeling that Notre Dame, for example, always imposes when I see it. It is still quite an impressive piece of work, as you can see here:

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However, the real magic comes on the inside, for which I had to pay another 3€. Oh, and I stopped along the way for a frozen yogurt; the clerk asked me for a choice between mango and “sandía,” which I chose because it looked tropical. Surprise! That word means “watermelon”, yuck, spit. Actually, because European frozen yogurt doesn’t have anywhere near as much sugar as the American equivalent, the combination of the yogurt flavor and the watermelon was actually quite good… but I’ll be more careful next time. But I digress. Whatever your opinion of the religious beliefs which motivated it, it is hard not to be impressed with the craftsmanship and effort that went into the interior of the cathedral. I am not sure, for example, what this display is all about but it is certainly fancy:

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I think my favorite part of the cathedral was the architecture itself. For example, this walkway had a very welcome breeze blowing through it; it was quiet and cool, with a glimpse of the inner courtyard’s garden. I enjoyed the interplay of the lines and shadows with the patterns of stone on the ground.

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After another 10 minutes or so of walking,  arrived at the Alcázar de Segovia itself. You can’t really see it from far away because it’s set adjacent to a ravine which serves as a dandy natural moat. There’s also a pleasant park with large trees screening it. Walking past the park quickly brings the castle itself into view.

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Stepping off to the side really makes clear how the original structure takes advantage of the terrain– you can see that the ravine descends well below surface level. (It goes deeper still but the lens I had wasn’t wide enough to get it all). 

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The castle itself is full of all sorts of nifty artifacts, including a museum dedicated to artillery– the castle used to be the site of the royal college of artillery. There are also several suits of armor, cannons, and so on. I finished my tour by climbing the Torre de Juan II, which requires navigating 157 very narrow, very steep steps up a spiral staircase. Along the way you can see the engineering features that helped provide defense in depth for the castle: downward-facing arrow slits, holes for pouring burning oil, and the like. It was well worth the climb, however, because the view was superb. My favorite picture from this part of the excursion was this shot of the cathedral and the city of Segovia. I also had a good time taking pictures of various tourist couples who wanted their photo taken with the city as a backdrop. One of them returned the favor (notice my spiffy Exchange shirt; its presence makes this post TechEd-related).

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After my tour of the Alcázar and tower, I went to the small café located on the grounds. It’s located in the building that used to be the royal chemistry lab, and I can believe it; I’m not sure what kind of crack they put into the hot chocolate but it was the best beverage I’ve ever had– like drinking liquid chocolate pudding. Sadly they were out of churros, but that’s probably just as well. So fortified, I walked back into town, caught the #11 bus again, took the train back to Madrid Chamartín, then took the metro back to the hotel. All in all, a day well spent!

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TechEd Europe, day 1

TechEd Europe opened on Tuesday, while I was still in transit. I missed the keynote, which is pretty much par for the course. I think the last TechEd keynote I attended was the 2005 version that included BattleBots.

My first assignment for the day was working in the Ask the Experts area. That’s not necessarily what it’s called, but that’s what we all call it. ATE is my favorite part of attending conferences such as TechEd and MEC because you never know what kind of questions you’ll get from attendees. They range from very simple to incredibly complex and environment-specific. The interpersonal dynamics are fun too, because different attendees have different attitudes towards the product and their experience with it: some positive, some negative, and some befuddled. I always enjoy meeting live customers and finding out what kinds of challenges they face, and ATE is the perfect venue for it. (I have a separate post planned in a day or two summarizing the questions I’ve gotten while I’ve been here.

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After working ATE, I went and had a delicious lunch of grouper in some kind of salsa. It was certainly better than the normal convention-center food. And speaking of better, the event staff here has been fantastic– uniformly cheerful and helpful.

After lunch, I went to find the speaker’s lounge. Along the way I noticed a sign for the prayer rooms, something I’ve never seen at TechEd before. I considered going there to work on my demos, but good sense won out and I went to the lounge instead. While there I found the same problem I’d noticed at TechEd in the US: my demos didn’t work. The code they run attempts to do an Exchange Autodiscover connection to autodiscover.robichaux.net, which a) should work from anywhere because b) it’s hosted by Microsoft. However, it didn’t, and I couldn’t figure out why, so to do my New Orleans demos I tethered to my cellphone and used the network. I had the same problem here, sad to say,and I assume it’s because there is some upstream proxy or router stripping out a header that my code needs… but darned if I know what, and I didn’t have time to run through Fiddler to see. I decided instead to download NetShade, which fixed the problem pronto. 

Demos done, I went back to the show floor to walk around. There I had a great talk with Kemp Technologies’ Bhargav Shukla, who is one of my fellow MCM instructors (though he teaches both Exchange and Lync). Among other interesting topics, I learned that Kemp has a prototype load balancing appliance for Windows Azure– not a device that goes on-premises and directs some traffic to an Azure network, but an actual VM that runs on Azure and does load balancing natively there. Microsoft isn’t quite sure how to package and sell Azure objects that are not applications, but I’m confident that they will figure it out. Bhargav also let slip that Kemp is in the process of adding PowerShell support to their load balancers, which marks a first as far as I know. It speaks well of them as partners in the Microsoft ecosystem when they embrace Microsoft’s technologies in such a comprehensive way. (The other takeaway from our talk: I’m jealous of the two days Bhargav spent driving a motorcycle around metro Madrid!)

I also got to meet Ed Wilson of Microsoft, the original Scripting Guy. He offered me the opportunity to write a couple of guest columns, and I eagerly accepted. Look for more news on that soon.

In the evening of the first day, TechEd historically holds a reception n the expo hall where attendees can mix and mingle. We had a great turnout at the combined Exchange/Office 365 booth; I gathered several good questions from attendees that I’ll be writing about a bit later. The energy of TechEd Europe is always quite a bit different from the US show; it’s smaller, so it feels less formal and less rushed. The exhibitor mix is different, too. Even large companies such as Dell and Intel which have a presence at both places typically send different staff. Microsoft is no exception; in addition to many of the folks I’d seen in New Orleans, Nathan Winters and a host of other European and UK Microsoft staff were on site.

I finally got back to the hotel about 9:30pm after a short but slightly confusing ride on the Madrid metro system. This seemed late, but of course by Continental standards it wasn’t even dinner time yet. I took care of some administrative baloney with my bank and mortgage companies, then remembered: someone had suggested I visit Madrid’s old post office (better known as Palacio de Comunicaciones). Although  I could have taken the metro again, it was nearly 11 before I left my room and I was in a hurry, so I took a taxi there, shot a ton of pictures (my favorite is below) and then taxi’d back.

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I noticed on the return that the area around the Melía Castilla has a surprising number of tall, slender, very attractive women just loitering on the street. I have no doubt that they are there to serve as tourist guides for anyone who is lost and needs help. Madrid is lucky to have so many fashionable ambassadors in such a convenient location, but since I knew where I was going I was able to make it back without any of their help.

After all that activity, I was pretty well exhausted, so I checked in to tell the boys goodnight and hit the rack– though it has many other charms, I can say that the hotel beds at this particular hotel are not unlike sleeping on a brick sidewalk. Then it was time to get up and get ready for day 2!

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TechEd Europe: day 0

As I started writing this, I was in the back of a Delta MD-80 heading to Atlanta, thence to pick up Delta flight 109 to Madrid. The process reminds me in many ways of the first real set of international business trips I made, back in 2000-2002; Many aspects of the travel world have changed since then, but some have not.

For example, I have two laptops. Back in the day, I carried a ThinkPad for running Windows apps and a Powerbook for everything else. Now I’m taking my MacBook Pro because I need it to do demos in my TechEd session and my Dell-issued laptop because I need it for Dell work. All of the attendant weight, volume, and hassle constraints that come about from dual-wielding laptops are the same as they ever were.

Then there’s my cell phone. I have carried a Nokia 920 running Windows Phone 8 as my daily phone since November of 2012, and I am very happy with it. Unfortunately, AT&T wouldn’t SIM-unlock it for me, so I won’t be able to use it with a local SIM in Spain. That meant I had to dust off my iPhone 4, which is SIM-unlocked. I started using it last night and found it to be terribly clunky and slow compared to the 920. I don’t mean the data speed itself is slow, although it is; the phone UI itself is terribly slow compared to the 920. However, I like having iMessage available to chat with the many, many iOS users among my friends and contacts, and I am also toting my Pebble, which is completely unsupported and therefore essentially useless with Windows Phone. (Side note: I am eager to see what kind of Windows Phone announcements come out at Microsoft’s Build conference this week; I’m looking forward to more details on Nokia’s Amber and on Windows Phone Blue, or 8.1, or whatever it’s called now). So on balance, I’d have to say that the taking-a-US-cell-phone-to-Europe story is pretty much unchanged as well.

Delta surprised me with what’s known as an “operational upgrade,” or op-up, on the Atlanta-Madrid leg. That is, I didn’t buy a business class ticket, and I was not eligible for an upgrade based on my fare class, but Delta wanted to make more room in coach for paying passengers, and they had some empty business-class seats, so they moved me. I certainly wasn’t going to complain; this is the first time I’ve ever gotten an op-up and I was glad of it. I slept almost the entire way in the seat pod; by mashing buttons you can convert it into a narrow flat bed that ends up just about at floor level. The experience was oddly like sleeping in a mummy sleeping bag– the pod is only about 12″ at the footwell, and since I wear a size 13 shoe it was a bit of a tight fit.

We arrived on time at the Madrid airport, and I took a taxi to the hotel that Microsoft arranged for speakers, the Meliá Castilla. It’s gorgeous: very stately and European. Apparently it is near a bunch of nifty stuff but I was only there long enough to take a quick shower and catch a shuttle to IFEMA, the large conference center where TechEd itself is being held. I worked a shift at the “ask the experts” area and got a few good questions; more to say about that in another post. Then it was off to the speaker lounge to check my demos for tomorrow’s session. More to follow… 

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