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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Test of my Havana setup

This is a simple test post to see how well my planned tech setup works. I’m typing this on a Logitech K380 Bluetooth keyboard, with my phone in a Stump stand. Wifi and cellular data are turned off. Here’s an embedded picture:


Why am I doing this? Well, Cuba doesn’t have much of an Internet infrastructure, both by design and by lack of investment. There are public wifi hotspots operated by ETESCA, the national PTT, and a functioning cellular data system. However, wifi access is limited to about 200 hotspots nationwide, and roaming data on AT&T is $2.05 per megabyte. My plan is to write blog posts and email while offline at la casa, then find a telepunto to upload and download once a day or so. I’ll still be able to send and receive ordinary texts and phone calls, but I don’t plan to given the expense. 

It’s an open question which real-time communications will work– I’ve read that consumer Skype and FaceTime are blocked, and that WhatsApp works. I don’t know about Signal, Facebook Messenger, or Skype for Business. My working assumption is that I’ll be reachable through at least one of these methods while I’m in wifi coverage, but if you really need to get a hold of me, use email.

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Office 365 Exposed, episode 7

In this episode, Tony and I welcome special guest and Office 365 MVP Alan Byrne, who comes off the top rope on Microsoft and their Office 365 reporting APIs. We discuss something Citibank has that you don’t, wonder where some promised Office 365 features have gone, and tell bad jokes. Actually, I don’t think there are any jokes in this episode at all– probably worth listening to it just for that.

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Focused Inbox in Office 365: making mail harder

About two and a half years ago, Microsoft rolled out a new mail-sorting feature called Clutter. It was intended to use machine learning to filter important mail from newsletters, shipping notifications, and other… well, clutter, leaving your inbox filled only with mail that required your attention. It was a great idea, and, although it had a few bumps in its implementation, soon evolved into a useful and dependable feature. Now Clutter is gone, and Focused Inbox has replaced it. How’s that working out so far?

First some history: in 2014, Acompli introduced what they called “Focused Inbox” in their mobile client. This represented a different take on inbox cleaning; machine learning would still be applied to sort important mail from clutter, but the important and unimportant mails wouldn’t be logically separated into different folders. This had the advantage of working across multiple email systems. Fast forward to today: Acompli was purchased by Microsoft in December 2014, the former Acompli team has been crushing it with their Outlook Mobile app, and key ex-Acompli folks have taken over some key positions on the Outlook team. Focused Inbox has become the new sheriff in town, and Microsoft is rolling it out to Office 365 tenants. One of my tenants was recently upgraded, so I wanted to write about my experience working with it as an end user. (Keep in mind that, as I write this, Microsoft’s January 26 announcement that they didn’t have a firm timeline for rolling out Focused support for Outlook for Windows is still in force.)

I use three primary clients: the Outlook Mobile client for iOS, Outlook 2016 for Windows, and Outlook 2016 for Mac OS X. I mostly use the mobile client to triage mail while away from my desk– I can quickly respond to important items and delete or file stuff I don’t need. In that role, I’ve been depending on Focused Inbox for a while, and I got used to the disparity between what I’d see on the Focused tab on my phone versus what showed up in my inbox– the desktop inbox showed all my messages, not just the Focused ones, but that wasn’t a big deal, as I was usually grooming my inbox by throwing away or otherwise dealing with the contents of the “Other” tab frequently enough to avoid ugly buildup.

When your tenant’s enabled for Focused Inbox, OWA and Outlook for Mac will display a prompt telling you so; when you click to acknowledge it, you’ll see the new Focused and Other tabs in the UI, just like in the mobile app. Here’s where the fun starts.

First up, Clutter is turned off when you accept that prompt, and it’s turned off permanently… so every message formerly  filtered into the Clutter folder now goes straight to your inbox. That means you’ll get a  notification (if that feature’s enabled) for each new message, much more frequently than you’re probably used to. I’ve long had mail notifications turned off on my phones, but now I have to turn them off on my Windows machine too.

Second, the mobile client doesn’t currently have a way to focus or unfocus a message– so now that Clutter isn’t filtering my inbox traffic, I get crap that I want to mark as “other” but I can’t until I get to a desktop. This is the exact opposite of what I want, and it breaks my normal triage-on-the-go workflow. Alert reader Dang Le Duy pointed out that you can focus or unfocus a message from the mobile client– tap the “overflow” icon (the three little dots) and you’ll see a popup that lets you change the message state, like this:

Yay! I didn't know this feature existed but it makes me happy

Yay! I didn’t know this feature existed but it makes me happy

 

Third, the Mac version of Outlook has long had a feature that combines the contents of the Inbox folder from each account into a single über-inbox (which the team calls the Unified Inbox). IMAP, POP, Exchange, gmail, whatever, all your messages appear in a single handy list. Unfortunately, you only get Focused Inbox in Exchange Online accounts that have the feature enabled– so when you switch back to the Unified Inbox view, all those messages that were neatly tucked away in the “Other” tab come back into your message list. When you select an individual account that has Focused Inbox enabled, you see what you’d expect to:

screen-shot-2017-02-05-at-07-29-35

However, if you go to the Unified Inbox view at the top level, you get something completely different– 6 of the 20 displayed messages appear when they would normally be hidden in the “Other” tab of their parent account:

Focused Inbox doesn't work in the Mac Outlook Unified Inbox

Focused Inbox doesn’t work in the Mac Outlook Unified Inbox

This to me is a significant loss of utility. It’s a complicated problem, to be sure; trying to figure out the right behavior for a mix of accounts (some with Focused Inbox, some without) is tricky. I hope the Mac Outlook team is working on a solution.

With these gripes, you may believe I’m down on Focused Inbox as a feature. I wouldn’t say that’s true. It is useful, and it has tremendous potential, especially when coupled with other machine-learning-driven filtering and prioritization capabilities. But the current client-side implementation takes away some of the utility we had with Clutter, and I want it back. Hopefully we’ll see not only a return to feature parity, so that all my unwanted messages stay tucked out of sight, but improvements that make Focused Inbox clearly superior.

(edited 2-8-17 to reflect that you can, indeed, focus or unfocus messages from the mobile app)

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