Friday, January 23, 2015
At this point, I still need to go and pick up my race packet so I look on the map for the marina where the race venue is hosted. It's just on the opposite edge of the map from my hotel. It doesn't look far so I decide to ride. What the map doesn't show, however, is that the most direct route does not allow bikes. I take it as far as I can before tackling the unlabeled side streets. 15 miles later (it's 8 in reality) I finally get to the marina and check out the only part of the course that was listed online. I see an old man riding an ancient Peugeot and ask where packet pickup is located. He's missing most of his teeth so I didn't really understand, but got the gist that it was back the way I came. I ask the guards at the entrance to the marina and they give me better directions. I find the location and get my packet before swinging by the mechanics tent to inflate my tires to the proper solidity. Having killed both my bottles, I look for a safe refill station. I find a bar that sells bottled water and while filling them up with the intention of riding home when done I see a large man wearing a Wisconsin Badgers cycling jersey and he's speaking English....to other people who are also speaking English. Hooray!
It was the rest of the U.S. contingent, or at least, a bunch of them. I follow and make contact. They were on an organized ride via a local from Canada who does Cuban bike tours. One of the riders, a radiologist, had hit a rock and gone down breaking his collarbone. Not good. I offer to watch bikes while some of the others get their packets. The rest contact the race officials and call an ambulance. It takes 30 minutes for it to arrive and I get the back story. Within a minute of him going down, a car stops to help. The occupants speak perfect English and it sounds like they just came from Brooklyn. We'd been told we would have minders; government officials following us. None of contingent believed it was a coincidence that they just happened to be there so quickly.
We get the doctor squared away and decide to ride back together meeting for dinner at 7 at La Hotel Nacional. We ride on the main road where bicycles are not allowed, but no one stops us. I show them the embassies, including the Russian compound, that I'd passed this morning. Just past it we get waved over by motorcycle police. We pull off on a side street and look at a map for legal road back. The police were totally cool and let us go. We get a lot of looks riding back taking care to dodge the rocks and potholes that litter Cuban streets. If Cuba does anything right, it's potholes. They are nasty. Even the cars have to avoid them.
We go back to the bike shop from where they'd originally left this morning and go our separate ways agreeing to meet for dinner. I attempt to ride back to my hotel which I know is only 2k up a road on which I'm not allowed to ride, taking side streets. 40 minutes later, I arrive back at the intersection from where I started and sheepishly figured I'd just brave the sidewalks. It was starting to get late and I didn't want to miss dinner with the group. I get to my hotel, shower, change, gather up all the donations I'd brought and grab a taxi to take me back to the bike shop. But I realize, I have no idea where it is or what it's called - there is no sign, I vaguely recall the area and so my driver goes up and down streets helping me look for it. He's a good sport about it. I'm late, and we can't find it. He encourages me to get out and walk as many of the streets are one way and it's hard for him to navigate easily.
Thankfully, I see the group standing on a street corner and ask them to wait while I drop off all the donations. We head to dinner led by the wife of our tour guide. The food was incredible. And ridiculously inexpensive. In the US, with that many people at that type of restaurant, dinner could have easily been over $700. It wasn't even $250.
I sat next to the wife of the guide; her name is Ana. She speaks some English but as the others fire way at each other in English she sits quietly. I engage her and get a history lesson. Cuba, with a few, clear exceptions, is not much different from the US. Prior to the revolution, people were racially segregated, blacks and whites (there are no Asians). After Castro took power, that all ended and forced integration was a result. Unlike the US, however, there are no racial tensions. But there are still stigmas attached to each race, VERY similar to the US. Havana is very safe and safety/security is taken extremely seriously. The healthcare system is very good. Most people are quite healthy and there are no fast food restaurants. It's still socialized medicine, so help takes a while. Our radiologist waited 4 hours to see someone. Ana explains that before she retired she, too, was a doctor. Only she made 30 CUCs/month. It's an impossible salary on which to live and she says that many Cubans survive because of relatives in the US sending back money.
After dinner, we walk back to the shop and split up with some of us opting for a walk. We walk along the sea wall and it is literally packed with teenagers, dressed like teenagers, doing teenager things (use your imagination). Nearly all of them have cell phones, which is ironic, because the cost to send a text message is more than many Cubans make in a day. The police are omnipresent but they only observe.
Ultimately, we wind up walking back to my hotel where some use the restroom before turning around and heading back. I remain, get my race gear together, and go to bed.