Altitude training may not be all it’s cracked up to be

My friends in St. Pete expect me to return in top shape after a couple of months at altitude. But it didn’t really happen last year, my first extended adventure riding at seven, eight, nine thousand feet and above. In fact, when I first returned I was exhausted after a relatively easy ride. The Florida air felt like a brick wall, or at least a gel I had to plow through. It took about a week to get back normal sea level riding.

So I decided to research the issue as I returned to the hills this month. When I started with a few Google search terms, most of what I found was what you would expect. At altitude your heart beats faster. (I also learned that blood pressure increases, though it returns to normal after a few weeks.)

Yet, I’ve noticed when I ride at altitude my heart rate rarely reaches beyond 145 beats per minute (bpm) for sustained efforts. (My max heart rate is about 175 bpm.) One hundred fifty beats per minute feels like I would not explode so much as fall over as my legs crumbled and I gasp for air. Even at a heart rate of 125 bpm, my breathing is fast.

Turns out that may be normal. At extremely high altitudes, researchers found that maximal heart rate decreases as much as 30 bpm. While your resting heart rate is faster, and climbing stairs can put you out of breath, you can’t get the ticker pumping as fast during hard exercise.

That seems logical because at altitude, the thin air makes it more difficult to get the oxygen you need to work hard. The heart simply doesn’t have much to work with.

But heart rate is less important since I bought a power meter. I brought it with me to the mountains. But again, at certain power levels I felt I was working harder than I do at sea level in St. Pete.  Additional research led me to several articles that suggested that power levels need to be adjusted downward to coincide with the grater exertion you experience in thin air.

The most widely cited study suggested a formula: Percentage of power held at altitude = -1.12(altitude in km)^2 – 1.90(altitude in km) + 99.9. For example, at an altitude of 2.286 km (a little lower than where I live), power zones need to be about 89.7% of what they are at sea level. My functional threshold power (FTP) would drop from 210 watts to 188 watts, and the zones based on the FTP by the same percentage.

But training at lower power levels has consequences, according to exercise physiologists Ben Griffin and Michael Chiovitti.

The issue here is that the cyclist may in fact de-train due to never actually training at the physiological level of their [anaerobic threshold]. So when this cyclist returns to sea-level after altitude exposure and tries to ride the AT @ 300W it is going to feel extraordinarily hard as they have never actually pushed 300W since prior to going to altitude.

Maybe this is why I was exhausted the first week back in St. Pete last year.

I also found that “altitude training” is not the simply a weeks-long vacation in the mountains riding your bike. There are three basic varieties of altitude training:

  1. Train high, live high, which is what I do and what I think most pro teams do.
  2. Train high, live low, which literally means ride your bike at altitudes and then come down from on high to spend the rest of your day.
  3. Train low, live high, the exact opposite of #2 and a seemingly the preferred method these days.

The idea behind train high and live low is that training at altitude increases red blood cells, or the amount of hemoglobin, but you recover better at lower levels. Train low, live high advocates say simply living at altitude increases your red blood cells but you must train at higher power outputs. More on the three methods here.

Few of us can live high and train low or vice versa. Even those of us who can spend time at altitude must make a commitment as it takes at least three to four weeks to get any benefit from altitude training. Pro racer Michael Rogers says it takes at least a week to acclimate. Virtually his entire first week was easy (for him) riding.

But given that living and riding at 7,000 feet and above as I do here for a few months may actually hurt me when I return to sea level, what training methods can mitigate the loss of power (in spite of increase red blood cells)? Acclaimed trainer Joe Friel has a couple of strategies. The first is shorter intervals with longer recovery periods.

Something on the order of work intervals of two minutes or less followed by two minutes or more of recovery intervals will allow you keep power and pace high. The intensity of these two-minute-or-shorter work intervals needs to be above anaerobic/lactate/functional threshold. Ten to thirty minutes of total high intensity time within a workout, depending on the intensity, your fitness and your purpose, is probably about all you need two to three times a week.

Secondly, Friel says, is to give yourself a break and return to lower levels to recover your sea legs.

At altitude there is a loss of muscular fitness since the workouts can’t be as intense as at sea level. Coming back down for a few days (perhaps as much as two weeks) allows this muscular fitness to be re-established by higher-intensity training.

I can’t do that, so I’ll need to pay t20170715_120523he price when I get back to my flat land habitat. So, St. Pete friends, don’t expect much. Riding the hills may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. But it sure is pretty!

The day the Garmin died

This just goes to show you. If you observe the golden rule, pay it all forward, and stop beating your wife, good things will happen.

My Garmin died the other day. For those of you unfamiliar with a it, a Garmin cyclocomputer records everything about your bike ride: speed, distance, time, heart rate, power wattage, cadence and all manner of averages and maximums. Without it, you can’t record your ride on Strava, the ride app. (Well, you can, but the phone app provides limited data.) And if it doesn’t appear on Strava, as they say, it didn’t happen.

Saturday morning the screen froze. The problem seemed to be the “enter” button wasn’t working. Which meant I couldn’t even factory reset it. I had to ride without it. Which meant, I couldn’t know whether I was having a good time. Very disconcerting.

Being the weekend, I couldn’t even call Garmin support after the ride. They’re closed. What are those guys thinking? You would think, cyclists being a generally neurotic bunch, they’d have a 24-hour hotline to prevent us from hurting ourselves in these situations.

I stared at the frozen screen. It couldn’t stay that way, I thought. It would certainly drain the battery. By Sunday morning, it did. But the “enter” button did not have that familiar soft click to it. I was able to power it up, though that took hours, leaving me in a distressed state of fear, uncertainty and doubt while it rejuvenated itself. Yet, even after it was fully charged, the “enter” button still didn’t work. So I really couldn’t do much. It was still an expensive paperweight, a light one at that.

On Sunday’s ride, still no data. How much power was I generating? What was my cadence? Was my heart still beating? Same thing this morning. I would occasionally ask they guy riding next to me, “How fast we going?” He was cruel, “Slow,” he said.

Coming back to the house and my paperweight, I tried one more time. I powered it up. I was contemplating opening the back. My technical abilities are minimal. Which is to say, none. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if I got the back off. So I tried the enter button one more time.

It worked! The click is back! I could change screens. I could see averages, maximums, wattage, heart beats. I was alive! I took it for a test ride, and it worked flawlessly.

Maybe this is temporary. Maybe it’s just playing with me. But I didn’t do a thing but hope and pray. And my Garmin is back.

Maybe being such a kind and wonderful guy pays dividends. Even my friends assure me that’s not the case. Maybe it was just dumb luck.

Chicken Marsala

Just so you know, I make the best Chicken Marsala. My brother Paul thinks so. And I’m now convinced. I, of course, use mushrooms. And I don’t like mushrooms, though I’m coming around. Just as long as they’re on Chicken (or Veal) Marsala. That’s all you need to know.

Be nice to Kristen. It’s all she asks.

I’ve got to unsubscribe from the Tampa Bay Times. It’s a good paper, but the problem is Karla reads it cover to cover. It’s fine that she keeps up on the news. That’s one of the reason I fell in love with her. As my father once said, somewhat amazed but not surprisingly given his chauvinism, “She knows things.”

But she reads everything, including all the announcements of upcoming events. And because she’s now retired and looking for something to do, she wants to go to all of them.

So Pride Week, we went. Actually, I was able to beg off a party and then the parade, but she wanted to go to the festival on Sunday. She said it was billed as an art show. It was a festival, all right, with plenty of edibles, though nothing you would call a cuisine. The art, alas, was trinkets and trash. But we got out on our bikes and strode through the sauna that was a Florida summer afternoon.

The one event I dreaded, however, was the Friday night screening of “Lady Valor, the Kristen Beck Story.” Beck is an ex-Navy Seal transgender. I was not looking forward to the movie, much less the reception with Beck beforehand. I successfully dawdled before we left, retrieving my glasses and then my wallet and then something that would get me through the evening. Once we got there, I found a reason to go back out to the car, so that by the time I set foot in FreeFall Theatre, the movie was about to begin.

I found sympathy with Beck’s mother who told her, “Why can’t you be sort of normal, like just being gay?” I know I’m not alone in this. There are plenty of guys who find transgenders just a little far a reach. Our youngest daughter is gay, so I’ve gotten passed that a long time ago. And my liberal politics help a lot. Intellectually, at least, I’m cool with transgenders.

But not really. It’s like dining formally and not knowing which fork to use. I’m just not comfortable. There’s potential for a hell of a lot of faux pas’s. And Beck’s appearance was not what I expected. She didn’t look feminine. Rather, she looked and sounded like a guy in drag—and not very convincing at it.

The movie was pretty good at first, though like many documentaries, a little too long. (Hell, most movies are too long for me!) Yet, I couldn’t help feeling sympathy for her. She apparently (because the documentary was a bit unclear of some key points) came out while working at the Pentagon. Safe to say, that’s a tough audience for a debut. She recognizes that she made some mistakes by not helping people come to grips with her journey. She suffered mightily as she not so much peeled off the layers from Chris to Kristen but ripped the scab off.

With two kids from her previous marriage cut off from her, her mother not accepting her, and the continuous hate mail, often from ex-Seals or military gung-ho types, she was alone and lonely.

But there were a few who stuck by her. Ex-Seals. Beck worked with a couple of them in various consulting assignments. She can still rip the bullseye out of a target. She is a woman. She is tough. And the ex-Seals still were there for her. Certainly not all. But how many good friends do you need?

She spoke to the audience after the movie. She is not particularly eloquent or concise, but she drove home a point: She would like everyone to accept her and understand what she’s going through, but she’s OK with folks just being nice to her.

As I listened to her speak, I began to think, hell, I can be nice to her. That in fact is pretty easy. She is a bit spiritual and new age, what we called in my generation a hippie: Peace and Love!

Yes, I could be nice to her. There was nothing not to like about her. If the Seals could do it, I could. After all, it’s about the only thing the Seals do that I can, too.

We left before we had a chance to talk to her one on one afterwards. I was OK with that.

At the festival on Sunday, I met another transgender, someone Karla had hung out with at the parade. We talked briefly. I tried not to stare at her head, which was half shaved and with hair on the other side down to her shoulder. I barely said more than, “Nice to meet you.” But I made it through without thinking, I don’t understand this. I was nice to her.

That is a step forward for me, and enough for now, thanks to Kristen.

The false dichotomy between progressive & moderate Democrats

Much of the argument following Jon Ossoff’s loss in the Georgia 6th district Congressional race suggests that Democrats need to be more progressive to win. Being a Bernie wannabe seems to be the prescription for firing up the bases to win such elections in an era when the GOP’s leader is an orange-hair baboon.

Others think it’s enough to be simply anti-baboon but that we need to ramp up get out the vote efforts, especially in off year elections when Dems don’t show up.

Others think we need to remove Nancy Pelosi who regularly appears in GOP ads against whatever Democrat is running.

Certainly, we need candidates with passion, but not the foaming at the mouth type we got from Bernie. We need to get progressives and the disenfranchised out to vote, but that’s not a matter of more phone calls. And getting rid of Pelosi, alas, is an idea whose time has come. She simply is too great a symbol for Democrats to overcome. But more important, her strategies are not working. She’s a lightning rod, but also an ineffective strategist.

But missing most is a reason to vote for Democrats.

Here’s where I think we are as a country, politically:

  • Everyone hates the others side, i.e., hyper-partisanship
  • The GOP holds one clear advantage: They appeal to people’s greed. “Cut taxes” has been a winning argument for 35 years.
  • Yet, progressive ideas are actually shared by a majority of Americans. People want government to spend more money on a host of broad budget areas.
  • The GOP holds significant structure advantages in gerrymandering districts to ensure that though they get fewer votes than Democrats for Congress, they elect more members.
  • Everyone seems to agree that government doesn’t work anymore. That meme seems to be a given, and there is no solution. Government is riddled with waste, fraud and abuse and nothing can change it.

Matthew Yglesias comes closest to a sound prescription for Democrats: Stand for something. This makes sense for one compelling reason: Americans want vision. They want to know you stand for something, even if it is anti-immigrants, poor-people bashing racism. Tell us what you think. Be bold. This is where the GOP has always held an advantage. You know what guides their thinking. They’re not afraid of their beliefs. They make no excuses for them.

Who knows what Democrats envision for Americans, other than whatever you’re identity, we’re with you? Bernie tried to lay down some markers with free college, healthcare for all and bashing “millionaires and billionaires.” But it wasn’t grounded in any philosophy, no foundation of what he wanted for America, other than free stuff. People think Democrats want to please everyone and thus have no core principles other than to spend more money.

So what to do? Not that anyone has asked me or that I have a pedigree in political campaigns. I’ve been in a few, though, and spent a career trying to impact narratives. So why not take a crack at it.

Leading Democrats in the House and Senate need to sit down and hammer out a vision of only a page or two and then figure how to reduce it to a 30-second elevator speech. I’d suggest they bring in not only politicians and political activists but also experts in communications and cognitive behavior—people who understand how people think. If I were among them, here’s what I’d suggest.

First, adhere to the Constitution’s mandate to “promote the General Welfare.” Talk about how we see Americans as “being in this together.” Americans love our Founding Fathers. Ground our principles in theirs—why they got us rolling as a nation.

Second, admit that government isn’t perfect, but talk about making government more efficient to better “protect” (not regulate) Americans. (Already we’re seeing that framing among progressives.) Be an agent of change. Part of the problem is that law making is now done hand in hand with lobbyists with so much detail in our laws that the bureaucrats tasked with implementing them have so many rules they must adhere to the process becomes tedious and inefficient.

Cite how politicians have made government less effective in order to prove their view that it doesn’t work. For example, if you cut the IRS staff to the bare bones, you can’t then complain that it doesn’t do its job of catching tax scofflaws.

Talk about making the economy work for people without a college education and making a college education affordable for more people. Talk about vocational education, teaching the trades where there are a lack of skilled workers. Embrace “free enterprise,” but point out that we don’t have free enterprise anymore. We have corporations that have successfully written the laws that give them all the advantages that protect their profits and hurt consumers and workers. It’s no longer a level playing field. Today, corporations cop out by saying they must provide “shareholder value.” That’s not the only goal they should have, just as a father’s role is not simply to bring home the bacon. They have a responsibility to their workers, the communities they operate in, and the taxpayers who provide the infrastructure they use to move their goods and services. As a simple example, if a businessman takes a prospect to lunch, he gets to claim part of the expense as a tax deduction. Why should taxpayers subsidize his marketing efforts? If it’s a good idea to have lunch, let the shareholders pay for it.

Fourth, be honest in saying that many jobs are not coming back unless Americans are willing to pay far higher prices for popular necessary goods such as clothing, autos, technology. We need to work together on making the future better for everyone. There will be upheavals as there were during industrialization at the end of the 19th century. People moved from the farm to the cities. They learned new skills. It was hard. It was a change of life style, but in the end it brought financial rewards. People who’ve lost their jobs to globalization need to make a sacrifice to adapt.

And yes, talk about taxes. Say exactly who will pay more in taxes, about how much and what benefits they will get for their higher taxes. As an example, if I said you could reduce your health care costs by $2000 if we raised your taxes by $1,000 is that a deal you’d consider? The conversation doesn’t start with taxes; it’s starts with envisioning what we want as a society and then figuring out a way to pay for it. That’s the way families work. Parents want a better future for their children and try to figure out how to get it by not only watching their spending but  looking for ways to increase their incomes and invest smartly in their children’s future.

When we talk about taxes we need to put it in terms of what will people pay, not the aggregate costs. Years ago, I tried to convince Virginia Democrats who wanted to raise the gas tax that instead of talking about the dollars they needed to raise, talk about how much the tax would increase the average car owner. It was about $126 a year. That’s a number people can understand. $1.5 billion is not.

George Lakoff has long had the right approach. Progressives spend too much time appealing to people’s reason. People don’t vote for reasoned arguments. They vote their values, which is why, for example, a Congressional district in Kentucky where a majority of the people receive food stamps, Medicaid and other benefits of the social safety net continually vote for a Congressman who wants to cut those programs.

Lakoff believes the fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans is that the latter are paternalistic and the former maternalistic. Republicans believe in a strong father who lays down the law, expects obedience and believes in pulling yourself up the bootstraps. Democrats are more nurturing, want to see all boats lifted and empathize with those struggling.

The message of inclusion, both socially and economically, needs to reach not only rural whites, but the top 20 percent of income earners (those making more than $120,000 annually), according to the author of “Dream Hoarders.” The 20 percenters think they’ve got where they are solely through hard work without a bit of privilege, mostly the white kind. Moreover, they don’t think of themselves as rich because they compare themselves to others living in their sequestered neighborhoods. Many really have no idea how the other 80 percent live, where something as simple as a set of new tires can mean they can’t pay their rent.

What are Democratic values? Can we articulate them without worrying about offending someone? Can we say that, yes, many people have succeeded due to hard work (but with good luck, too), but not everyone can find that good luck that allows them to work hard to succeed? Can we return to those days when we saw all ourselves as being Americans who were “in this together?”

Happy? Birthday

My mother would have turned 96 today, if she were alive. But if she were alive, she would not be happy about it. She was rarely happy about anything.

I am always a little envious when people pay tribute to their mother’s on Facebook. The publicStella age 10 maybe accolades my mother would have loved. Public perception was big with her. She always was bragging on us kids.

I’m envious of my “friends” affection for their moms. Be sure, she was not a bad mom. In fact, in many ways she was the perfect mom of the 50’s and 60’s. She was always there when we scrapped a knee. Dinner was on the table like clockwork. She saw to it that we went to school and insisted we do well. She provided the basics impeccably.

But that warmth, that kind word or little affection that could make all right with the world was rarely there. I’ve often wondered why.

Why have I never seen a picture of my mom as a child where she was smiling? Admittedly, the sample size is small. Conversely, friends will see a picture of my mother in her later years and comment on the bright, broad smile. But that smile masked a certain sadness. My image is more of the long face with doleful eyes.

Mom didn’t talk about her childhood much. Never did I hear anything that would suggest dark secret of abuse. I knew both of her parents. While my grandfather was a quiet but seemingly gentle man. My grandmother, who lived until I was in my 40’s, was not phlegmatic but didn’t seem to allow much to bother her and was pleasant to talk to. She certainly did not seem the worrier my mother was.

But worried my mom did. So I come to it honestly.

But people change.

My wife also has few pictures of her as a child sporting a broad smile. As a teenager, she was almost brooding. She admits to being quiet, introspective, introverted and perhaps a little lacking in confidence. Yet, when I met Karla in her late 20’s, she was hardly Pollyannish, but certainly seemed to enjoy life. And over time she often displays a playful, silly side and has for many years, to the point where I can’t fathom her as brooding—ever. And she is the eternal optimist.

I was never the eternal optimist, and perhaps never will be. But I have changed, due directly to Karla’s influence. How can you brood when someone breaks out into a jiggly dance for absolutely no reason at all, if not just to make me smile. And of course, her optimism has been well placed. For all my concern as the kids were growing up, today they seem happy, no more neurotic than me and definitely not in jail.

Meanwhile, we’re “living the dream” in St. Pete and can transport it to Colorado when it’s too hot to dream in Florida. We ride bikes to very nice restaurants, walk along the water, or picnic by it as we did on Memorial Day without a long drive and a packed station wagon.

I want for nothing and worry for not much more. There’s little reason not to smile.

Sometimes it takes a while, but maybe the best lessons you get from parents are those you finally emphatically and willfully unlearn.

So it’s your birthday, Mom. Be happy.

The National Games

After the National Senior Games, I can say that as a bicycle racer, I am, like Garrison Keillor’s mythical children of Lake Wobegone, above average. Nothing more.

In three races, I came in above the midpoint in all three races, barely in one case.

I had no business being in the 5k time trial. In fact, I was arrogant to ride it, with my endurance frame road bike. I placed 20th out of 41 riders. It was an insult to the riders who train for the time trial, buy special TT bikes, wheels, handlebars and helmets, and race often. With a time of 9:20, I was nearly 90 seconds behind the winner. Still, I finished with that taste in my mouth that I describe as blood in my lungs but is probably neither blood nor in my lungs, but it does make me feel that I gave it my all. As does the cough that starts immediately after finishing and which I still have a few days later. I averaged 265 weighted watts. I was disappointed, but unless I buy a TT bike and train on it, I think that’ll be my last TT race.

1 - Before the 40K (003)In the 20k road race, I finished with the leaders, number 10 out of 41 riders. I was with the lead group going into the last turn, but as often happens in turns, I got spit out the back. I can corner tightly, but I think I don’t trust my tires, afraid they’ll slide out from under me. My weighted power average was 233 watts. Being in the top ten in one of the races was my minimum goal, so I finished that day feeling, if not good, not embarrassed.

But good enough that I thought I had a chance to compete in the 40k. Yet, the day I reconnoitered the course, I was intimidated by a 0.8 mile, 2.5% grade hill. While I made it up the one time in the 20k race, the 40k required three ascents. The first I made with the lead group. The second time around, I struggled. My legs cranked as best I could. Then that sinking feeling commences as I see the wheels in front pull farther ahead and I’m powerless, literally, to do anything about it. It’s not that my legs are tired or hurt. They simply have no power. They are too weak to hurt. They turn, but the bikes stays still, seemingly not to move at all. By the time I reached the top, the group of 14 riders was too far ahead. They were within sight for a while. Then they were gone.

I looked around as I crested the hill and found no one behind me. The other 20+ riders had fallen off the pace. Could I keep them away? For the next 14 miles I did, save one who caught me near the end of the penultimate loop and then promptly announced he was abandoning the race. I placed 15th of 35 who finished. (Several either abandoned or were pulled so the organizers could start the next race on time.) My weighted average power was 215 watts. I was nearly five and half minutes behind the leader.

Despite these middling performances, I saw glimmers of hope. Keeping the rest of the pack at bay was cool. I blocked out the riders in front of me and pretended those behind were trying to catch my breakaway. Staying with the big boys until the end of the 20k was nice. A perhaps pathetic positive was knowing that I will move up to the 70-74 age group next year. Maybe they will be kinder to me. (My time would have placed me third in that group.)

But usually I tend to focus on what went wrong. I lose speed in corners. Need to fix that. I need to lose weight. Ten fewer pounds and I might have made it up that hill. Getting closer to the front at the end of the race gives me a chance to compete for a podium spot. Being at the back doesn’t.

And I look at the guys who beat me. They’re old men with wrinkly skin and thinning gray hair!

Maybe, too, I need to train smarter. By that I mean not harder, but even more systematically and perhaps a little easier. In the weeks leading up to the Games, I had some tough weeks. The production of endorphins and their impact on me are undeniable, so it’s hard for me not to go hard. At the end of a tough workout, I feel accomplished and energized, even if I need a nap later in the day.

I would have liked better results. In the days before the races, I visualized my hanging on to the end, positioning myself just on the outside of a wheel toward the front and then sprinting for the finish. I even allowed to see myself raising my arms in victory. But still, the vision of that hill kept intruding. It looked steeper than 2.5%. I felt heavier than 190 lbs. I could visualize my legs giving way. And as it turned out, I witnessed the power of negative thinking, something I’ve struggled with all my life, mitigated only by 32 years of being with the most relentlessly positive woman in the world.

As a kid I rarely competed in sports. I ran track for a year in high school, but that’s the sport for non-athletes, the guys who could claim to compete only with themselves. Or perhaps for those who weren’t coordinated enough to play any real sport. I didn’t play football except in the touch variety in the streets. My mother, who never took chances, didn’t want me to play so I wouldn’t get hurt. I let her be my excuse for not wanting to compete. Same with baseball. I couldn’t hit a curve ball and didn’t want to learn in public. As a young adult, I ran a lot, but always training, never racing. In competition, only one guy could win; the rest were losers.

As we were driving home from Birmingham, I was fresh off my disappointment of not staying with the lead group in the 40k, the fast guys, the big boys. Yet, I felt oddly satisfied at the same time. Perhaps it was because I competed and lost and survived to tell about it.

So I am not the national champion and there are no photos of me standing on the podium with my arms raised in triumph. But then, I’m staring 70 in the face, and I race bicycles, for God’s sake. And…I’m above average. I’ll take it.

Cuba

We were in a windowless seat, so we had no view of Cuba as the plane descended. Our first impression was when we deplaned. The terminal looked worn, which we soon learned was the ubiquitous state of all buildings in this island nation. And worn is being polite.

The second impression was expected but still romantic: all the 1950’s automobiles, though they too looked worn, as they should be. The third impression was olfactory. Those old cars spew noxious fumes. It was a smell I remembered from childhood, though I don’t think it was ever this bad, even 60 years ago. The smell would be with us all five days we were here. It was a smell you could see emanating from the tailpipes. Our taxi driver from the airport quickly closed my window. Perhaps he was just showing off the air conditioning the old Chevy had. An aftermarket system, to be sure, it occupied most of the leg room in the front seat.

The price of the ride to old Havana where we were staying was $30 per car. We needed two cabs. Karla and I were joined by Sarah, whose husband Paul was taking a more daring route to Cuba from Tampa Bay, along with his brother Mark. Mark’s wife Paula and their middle child Charlotte were sharing the cab.

It’s impossible to ignore the state of the capital. Buildings were far passed their glory years. Many were inhabitable. Others merely looked so. But behind the cracked plaster and faded paint, people had shelter and often an interior that belied the exterior. Flat screen televisions sometimes were mounted on the walls and the furniture and everything looked much better than the outside.

We rolled up to Casa Una and upon exiting the taxi confronted another smell: raw sewage. It was concentrated in front of our house and didn’t stray far from the street. But it was unmistakably there and would remain so for the entire trip.

We climbed a marble staircase to the second floor of the house. With 20-foot ceilings throughout and well-kept dark wicker furniture, it looked far better than the exterior of most of our neighbors’ homes. There were tile floors throughout with similar but not always matching tiles. The beds were clean and sharply made, so much so that each night crawling into bed was like peeling saran wrap off a watermelon. My feet would fit only sideways at first until I worked the covers for a little room.

The bathrooms, always a crap shoot in foreign countries (no pun intended), looked promising. When Karla turned on the faucet the water hesitated a few seconds as if reluctant to come out. But she said it eventually worked fine, only to discover later that the water she had was what was left in the pipes. We soon learned that water was not a given. We called the host of our Airbnb, Navi, and he apologized and ensured us that we’d have water within an hour or two. Was he hoping for rain?

Navi is a dapper man, always wearing a straw hat, deck shoes with no socks and a sport coat, even if he also wears shorts. He welcomed us heartily and suggested we take a trip outside the city the next day, Thursday, to visit Vinales where we would tour a tobacco factory. He was proud of Casa Una and made sure we noticed the wall of photographs, most of which included young man with  a narrow chin and doleful eyes, sometimes with a camera in his hand. Many of them were with Fidel Castro. Navi’s uncle apparently was something of a documentarian of the revolution. Other photos of him were more recent. He is still alive. I would have loved to meet him.

The 6:30 am flight from the Tampa Bay was less than an hour. So despite the immigration check, which was no worse and maybe faster than that I’ve experienced in the U.S, we had a full day ahead of us, though the foreign exchange procedure tried to use most of it. There was one woman exchanging currency and another woman in a separate booth who seemed to count each pile of money she was in charge of six times. Then she would walk out of the booth and return to count it again. Finally she opened her window and then a third woman showed up. We finally got our CUC’s (which differ from CUP’s that are never to be accepted by unsuspecting tourists). We were on our way.

The five of us had previously planned a walking tour of “old Havana.” It would be another day at least before Paul, Paula’s husband Mark and the rest of the crew would arrive. They and three others were sailing a boat from St. Pete to Havana, a revival of a race that began in the 1930’s until it was interrupted by the socialist revolution in 1959. With the thaw in relations with Cuba initiated by former President Obama, the race was being revived.

That gave me and my harem of four (as a couple of Havana’s macho Senors would point out) time to wander…and wonder. Are the people here feeling deprived? The physical façade is beyond worn. Many of the streets are beyond pockmarked. Holes in the streets and sidewalks are enough to leave you with a ankle to hip cast. The sidewalks, such as they are in the old part of the city, cannot be navigated without a keen eye. Nowhere are they smooth for more than a few feet. They undulate and sport trip hazards at every step. And unlike in the U.S., there is no attempt to warn walkers. Even on dark streets, you traverse at your own risk.

Most folks walk in the side streets, and despite the obstacles and challenges, seem to have inner sonars that keep things moving. Cars, single cyclists and bike-taxis seem to have the right of way. Your warning may be a lightly touched horn, a bell or a whistle that’s easy to miss. Some of the mopeds must be electric because they are silent. Their drivers depend on the whistle. But it is remarkable that during our stay we never saw an accident, even a close call. This, despite an apparent shortage of Pare, or stop signs, at most intersections. Pedestrians walk like cyclists ride in a pack, never making a sudden sideways move. Which is fortunate as motorists don’t slow down much. And their passing tolerance is minimal. Swerve even a few inches and you’re either on the hood of the car or in the lap of a taxi pedaler.

Dogs and cats share the walkways. None have collars, so I assume they are strays. They use the streets as you would expect, which adds another obstacle to avoid. They are savvy creatures and don’t necessarily look undernourished. Even the hairless dog in our neighborhood looked plump. It’s not surprising.

The first day I was struck by how dirty the streets seem to be. Mostly, it was building debris but with a fair amount of trash and garbage, which probably account for the nourished animals. Some of the holes would slow cars to less than 1 mph, hoping to avoid bottoming out.

But by Saturday morning, either I had become accustomed to it, or someone was at work overnight sweeping. Many were the residents, who used primitive brooms and dust pans and then a wet mop to make the small space in front of their house presentable. The potholes were still there and the occasional overloaded garbage dumpster, but even the overage was neatly piled next to dumpster awaiting the truck that would somehow wend its way through the narrow streets. Of course, there was no way to position the truck to pick up the dumpster. One of the sanitation crew had to maneuver the wheeled container to a position where it could be picked up.

When it came time for our Old Havana tour, the guide was a woman who looked much younger than her 42 years. She was knowledgeable and pleasant. However, even when a foreigner speaks English well, the pronunciations always strain my ears. But between the missed phrases I heard a story of a proud city whose faded physical appearance could not dim the role it played in the New World, beginning with Christopher Columbus.

Our tour ended with lunch, by which time we were all ready to eat the tour guide. The tour cost included lunch and, of course, a drink, which I came to understand is necessary to do anything in Cuba. While the Mojito seems to be the national beverage, I gravitated to other sweet drinks—daiquiris, pina coladas and marguerites. The meal was good, as I adopted the strategy of ordering whatever the tour guide ordered.

Afterwards, it was time for a nap as we awaited word of the sailors. Charlotte had a phone app that allowed us to know where they were—or more precisely where the boat was—and their position in the race. At first, they seemed to be doing well, but their position slipped and it became clear that they would not arrive Thursday night as was scheduled. Winds were almost non-existent and their strategy of taking a wide turn in hopes of grabbing the Gulf Stream wasn’t working.

Which was just as well as Casa Una had no water. Another call to the host and our night time “security guard” also became a plumber. He a climb on the roof to fix the problem.

The next day we took the suggestion of our host to go to Vinales, a two-hour trip where we would see beautiful scenery and a cigar factory. There were some nice vistas as we drove, but it was a three-hour drive and the factory was a hut where they dried the tobacco. The tour was brief but informative, with a guy making it sound as if a cigar is required to get into the mood for love. We also saw how they roll cigars. But three hours was a bit much and probably more expensive than we should have paid–$200 round trip with five of us riding in a 1955 Chevy and a $30/person lunch where we were expected to pay for the driver’s lunch, too. I’d recommend passing this up unless you could spend a day or two there as there appeared to be some nice hikes available.

Dinner was less than mediocre at a place called La Familia, if my Spanish is correct.

The next tour was the best—the Ernest Hemingway tour of his house, the fishing village where he was inspired to write The Old Man and the Sea, and a few of his bar hang-outs. The guide, Reynaldo, was great. Hemingway’s house is supposedly just as he left it when he blew his brains out in an Idaho cabin. His father, brother and sister also took their own lives.

Our sailors made it there at the beginning of our third day. They were disappointed that they apparently finished 9th in their class. But they discovered that seven of the boats that came in before them were all disqualified for using their engines. They grew tired of sitting with no wind. So not only did our guys finish second, but they learned that the only boat that beat them used the same strategy of turning wide to catch the Gulf Stream.

Our last tour was a “Classic Car” tour, which I took to be a tour or exhibition of some of the many old cars you see on the Havana streets. But it was a tour in a classic car to a couple of highlights within the city, most notably Revolution Square, where Castro made his victory speech after taking control of the country in 1959. Riding in convertibles exacerbated the pollution problem. You literally inhale black smoke that lingers there. Many of these old cars are pretty loud, too, especially if they’ve been retrofitted with diesel engines.

Our Airbnb host suggested we eat dinner at La Guarida, which he described as the best and most expensive restaurant in all of Cuba. It was neither 5-star or expensive, with many entrees in the $8-15 range. It was in a most unusual setting. Walking up the steps you feel you’re entering a secret room where you’ll meet a Communist spy. The building, like so many others, looks almost inhabitable from the outside. But near the top, you enter the restaurant, which is well appointed. We were told that many of its workers also live in the building.

Restaurants and other businesses that serve tourists are among those that the government has allowed to be private enterprise. To what degree, however, is unclear. What is clear, though, is that many people there want to serve tourists as they can make a lot of money through tips, much more so than they get with their salaries. In 2011, the government also began letting people buy and sell their houses.

As I see it, there are a few tips for visiting Cuba:

  1. Learn Spanish. Few people speak English. Not knowing left me unable to enjoy the people as much as I thought I would.
  2. Exchange American dollars before you go. Get euros or Canadian dollars and then convert them to the CUP’s once you get to Cuba. That way you’ll avoid the 10% surcharge the government places on American currency.
  3. Seek out things on your own. Or at least be wary of tours and outings arranged by others there. Some of the government tours, however, were a bargain. So was the Airbnb place, though it did have its issues.
  4. Buy cigars either at the “factory” or arrange for someone there to buy them for you. Our group bought several boxes of cigars that were $60 each. In the stores, they can be three to five times that.
  5. Recognize that in many areas Cuba is still a third world country. Roads are poor and we were told that renting a car is a hassle and exposes you to “maintenance” charges, and no amount of American insurance will cover you.
  6. You’ll need a visa and Cuban health insurance before you go.
  7. We saw little evidence of crime and always felt safe. However, we were told that pick pocketing is a problem. But not violet crime. There was little police presence there, which surprised me.
  8. Old Havana is definitely a good place to book a room. It may not be the cleanest neighborhood, but it’s near most of what you’ll want to see in a 3-5-day visit. The big hotels seemed expensive. Book an Airbnb if you can.
  9. Restaurant service can be slow. We waited 30 minutes to place an order and another 45 minutes get our meals a lunch on our last day. And there are no “no smoking” sections.
  10. Be prepared to drink. Most mixed drinks cost $3-4.

 

Would I go again? Probably not unless it was a weekend trip and I learned Spanish.

How do we change hearts and minds?

In a postmortem shortly after the November elections, Harper’s writer James Marcus wrote:

“… it would be a fatal mistake to assume that every Trump supporter is a closet Klansman….if Democrats clamber up onto the higher ground of moral superiority, from which vantage point their opponents are bound to appear very small, and no more worth addressing than an ant colony, they will keep losing elections for a long time.”

Nearly two months after the election, I’m weary of the “how could this happen?” posts and the tendency to point out how out of touch with reality many voters are.

Such angst will not change anything. It’s clear we can’t shame them into supporting a progressive economic agenda. We need to urge the Democratic Party to reach out to those Trump voters who may have voted for Obama in the past or who voted for Trump out of frustration with the establishment. After all, their frustrations over the unavailability of living wage jobs, which play out not only in their vote for Trump but their increasing addiction to opiates, are similar though not identical to other disenfranchised groups Democrats usually support.

Progressives have failed to communicate how their policies would help rural and unskilled voters who no longer can find gainful employment. Not only the party needs to reach out to them, we voters need to reach out to them, and certainly that includes through social media. Whether personally or online, we’ll find plenty of Trump voters whose feet are cemented in an alternate reality. Once we see that nothing can come of engagement, we can move on. But there will be those who will engage constructively. If we (and the party) can convince them that we “feel their pain” and want to help, maybe they will not be Trump voters next time. We needn’t change the minds of all Trump voters, just a few thousands that made the difference.

I’m trying to figure out how I can make difference. There’s got to be more that posting on Facebook. Is it joining the local Democratic Party? Are there progressive groups that focus on reaching out to rural voters and dissatisfied unskilled workers? Are there Congressional members who we need to support and promote as willing to reach out to rural voters?

What can we do?

A Cyclist’s Catharsis of Walking

I had hoped that despite temperatures never seen in Florida I could ride while staying in the Rockies for the holiday season. It’s not happening. There is too much snow along the shoulders and lanes filled with sand that can destroy a bike’s paint job, to say nothing of creating a braking hazard.

So I’ve been walking almost everyday. Not hiking or trekking but walking the hills of my western neighborhood. The weather has been invigorating, mostly in the 30’s or 40’s but usually with a bright sun that keeps me warm.

I find that cold weather inverts the exercise experience from that of cycling. In the latter, in Florida certainly, I feel like I’m trying to expel the byproducts of exercise. I sweat and drink to keep cool. I’m trying to release the toxins exercising is creating, or so it seems.

Walking in cold weather it feels as if the heat I generate is plowed back into my body to not only keep warm but to fuel my systems.

And whereas in cycling I must keep my wits about me, scanning for cars, potholes and the phone-gazing pedestrian, with a walk my mind can freely wander, risking only a trip over a rock. I find a greater Zen component to walking.

I supposed walking could lead to greater clarity or insights to my world. Alas, I am as deficit in attention as I am any other times. Even walking has its limitations.