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Havana, day 2

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

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

Running along the Malécon

Running along the Malécon

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

Castillo de la Punta

Castillo de la Punta

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

Paul and Lance on the run

Paul and Lance on the run

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

The Old Man and the Sea-themed fountain

The Old Man and the Sea-themed fountain

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

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

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

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

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

Cuban pizza

Cuban pizza; note the skeptical looks of Tony and Julio

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

The imposing Hotel Naciónal

The imposing Hotel Naciónal

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

No word on whether he supports Fidel

No word on whether he supports Fidel

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

Riding dirty

Riding dirty

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

What a beauty

What a beauty

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

Grilled chicken? Why, yes, thank you

Grilled chicken? Why, yes, thank you

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

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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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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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My comments to the FCC on LightSquared

There’s been quite a debate raging recently between two powerful interest groups. No, I’m not talking about the budget; I’m talking about GPS. A company called LightSquared is about to roll out a nationwide wireless Internet system, apparently in partnership with Sprint. This sounds great… except that the frequency band LightSquared is planning on using overlaps part of the spectrum allocated for GPS use. In practice, that means that LightSquared transmitters work as fairly effective GPS jammers.

There’s no question about whether LightSpeed’s equipment interferes with GPS– it does, as their own tests prove. Their attitude is that the interference is partly due to the GPS industry’s failure to provide adequate filtering, although they don’t explain how the cost of this filtering would be borne, nor how it would work with the highly sensitive GPS receivers used in commercial and general aviation aircraft.

GPS is so widely used that any interference with it would have a huge impact on the people and companies that depend on it. Check out the member list of the “Coalition to Save Our GPS” and you’ll see what I mean: the aviation industry, farmers, surveyors, and city and county governments are all well-represented.

Here are my comments to the FCC. You can file your own if you’re so inclined:

When GPS was originally introduced, only visionaries thought it would be used beyond defense applications. Now it’s a critical part of our country’s economic fabric. It’s used to deliver precision timing, location, and navigation services to a huge range of users, including farmers, pilots, ambulance drivers, and telecommunications systems. Every day, GPS helps enable life-saving emergency services, efficient transport of goods and people, economical production of food, and hundreds of other vital activities.

Personally, my family and I depend on GPS signals to safely navigate the National Airspace System, both as passengers aboard commercial aircraft and while flying general aviation aircraft. We use it for navigation and location services when traveling. We depend on it in case of emergencies that require police, fire, or EMS response. In all of these cases, unavailability or degradation of GPS signals could potentially be quite dangerous, and even fatal.

LightSquared’s proposed frequency plan puts GPS at risk. For that reason I urge the FCC to deny their request to use the current proposed frequency range. GPS and LightSpeed’s current design are fundamentally incompatible. Although making high-speed wireless Internet service available over broad geographic areas is highly desirable, enabling the current GPS system to continue to work safely and reliably is even more reliable given how many industries and activities depend on it.

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Returning to Huntsville

This weekend was my first visit back to Huntsville in many years– I think the last time I was there was in 2005 or so. I will be visiting there regularly to see the boys, and eventually relocating there, so I was quite curious about what had become of the place.

I was scheduled to fly AA SFO-DFW-HSV, arriving about 10pm. AA was kind enough to match my Delta Platinum Medallion status and make me an AAdvantage Platinum, the equivalent of Delta’s Gold Medallion. Unlike DL, which gives their elite members unlimited access to upgrades, on AA Platinum and Gold elites have to buy 500-mile upgrade coupons– so a 1000-mile flight needs two coupons, a 1501-mile flight needs 4, and so on. I elected to request upgrades for the SFO-DFW and DFW-SFO legs, since the DFW-HSV leg is short enough not to bother with.

My flight ex SFO left 25 minutes late, with no announcements or explanation. Surprisingly, the aircraft I was on, a 757, didn’t have onboard Wi-Fi. That’s something Delta has led me to expect on pretty much every flight; even on what must be a heavily traveled route with lots of business customers, AA didn’t provide Wi-Fi equipment. Luckily, though, the plane did have in-seat power, using a standard 3-prong outlet, so I was able to plug in and get some work done en route.

Unfortunately, my flight DFW-HSV was delayed by an hour, so I didn’t get to pick the boys up until nearly 11:30pm. I had in mind that we’d make a tradition out of going straight to Dairy Queen each time I picked the boys up for a visit, but unfortunately I forgot to inform the local DQ, which closes at 10pm sharp. Luckily we went to Sonic instead. Thus began a great weekend. We ate well and thoroughly enjoyed each others’ company (well, except for a few minor fraternal disputes, but those are par for the course.)

One of the highlights of the trip for me was a return visit to the US Space and Rocket Center, one of my all-time favorite museums. They have completely redesigned the place since my last visit; there’s a beautiful new building that houses the Saturn V that used to be out on the back lawn, rusting away. It’s been repainted and refreshed and now occupies a place of honor in the main hall– as it should. We saw “Legends of Flight” (needs moar 787) at the IMAX theater and “Sea Rex” (not bad; fairly educational, though the 3-D effects made the picture a bit dim) at the 3-D theater in the new building.

Another highlight was the huge thunderstorm system that swept through Madison Sunday night. As I was driving the boys back to their mom’s house we were marveling at the lightning strikes, which were frequent, violent, and intense. The rain was so heavy that I had to slow down to below 20mph. This morning I learned that the storm had claimed a casualty in the form of one of Bo’s neighbors. That tempered my enjoyment quite a bit, but it was still quite a dramatic show– something we just don’t get in the Bay Area, along with good BBQ, Dairy Queen, and decent rock radio stations (why does Huntsville have 2 while the huge SF market has none? beats me!)

We made it out to KMDQ to have a look around; I got my first look at a G1000-equipped Cessna 172 (which rents for only $140/hour– considerably less than at KPAO!) I learned that, payload considerations aside, there’s no way to shoehorn me and the 3 boys into a 172, and I saw some really interesting “for sale” notices on the bulletin board. More on that another time.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a trip report if I didn’t talk about food. I was surprised to see which restaurants had survived since I moved away and which hadn’t. No more Green Hills Grille, for example, and Tim’s Cajun Kitchen was closed when we went there (turns out they’re still operating, just not on Sunday evenings). Kings Buffet in Madison lives on, as does Ivey’s. Even Tai Pan (formerly known as “Tight Pants”), my old standby Chinese place near Intergraph, is still there. The rest of the area has grown tremendously overall, too; the airport was booming when I left this morning, and there’s all sorts of new construction, including Bridge Street, a swank open-air shopping center near Research Park, and a ton of new defense contractors sprouting around various parts of town. More on the military-industrial aspect of Huntsville another time; for now suffice to say that drone wars are apparently quite good for business.

I’ll be heading back in a couple of weeks to see the boys again; this time I’ll do a bit more research to look for some specific places I remember.

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DC day 4

[OK, so I am terribly delinquent about not posting this, y’know, within a month of the actual trip. So sue me.]

Wednesday, Wednesday, Wednesday. What a day!

Here’s what we did: the Capitol tour, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Air and Space Museum, and the Library of Congress. That’s a pretty full schedule. A few brief notes because I’m too tired to write a long post rhapsodizing about it all.

First, the Capitol: it’s quite imposing, but the tour was wonderful. The Great Hall is amazing, and the statuary gallery is quite striking as well. Unfortunately, our elected servants were taking an extended vacation so we didn’t get to tour the House or Senate chambers, but the building and grounds were well worth seeing.

I loved the Library of Congress. David thought it would be like a public library, only bigger, so he was somewhat disappointed that he couldn’t just waltz in and pick out an arbitrary book to read. However, there are a ton of interactive exhibits, including one that traced the development of the Gulf Coast under Spanish and French rule; that was worth a good look. The interactives are all computerized touch-screen kiosks that are very well done.

For lunch, we went to the National Museum of the American Indian. This was surprisingly interesting, although I was a bit saddened to see that there wasn’t much in the way of buffalo-related displays, although they did have a really nifty collection of Native American art . However, the Mitsitam Cafe there was probably the best place we ate all week. I had a pulled buffalo sandwich that was superb, and everything everyone else had– wild salmon, a buffalo burger, and I-forget-what-else– was well-prepared and tasty. (In fact we went back to the cafe later in the week for another lunch.) The cafe was packed, which is a pretty good indicator that we weren’t the only ones who liked it.

After our lunch it was time for the National Air and Space Museum. What a fantastic place! I’d been to the Udvar-Hazy Center before, which is excellent in its own right, but getting to see artifacts like the Wright Flyer and the Spirit of St. Louis literally sent chills up my spine. They even have UAVs now, as you can see from the photostream. David and I flew in a 2-man F-4 Phantom simulator and had a blast, scoring the highest number of kills for the day (a whopping, not really, 7.) Like all the other Smithsonian museums, NASM closes at 5pm, so we left and went back to the hotel for a swim.

For dinner, we walked over to the waterfront area just south of L’Enfant Plaza. There are a number of seafood stands there, and I’d heard it was a good place to eat. It would have been, too, had it not started to thunderstorm. We sought refuge inside Phillips Seafood Buffet, one of the only restaurants to actually offer indoor seating. The seafood was delicious, and I’m pretty sure, given the quantity we all ate, that we represented a net loss to the restaurant despite the stiff prices.

Then it was time to head back to the hotel (thankfully, it had stopped raining) for a little TV and rack time. We had to rest up for Thursday, which was going to pack a 1-2 punch.

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