Somehow, I never really connected that Cuba is a third world country. That changed before I ever left Miami.
Which was about twelve hours late.
I’m not sure what time we were supposed to leave originally–some say the flight was originally scheduled for 11am, which is when I first arrived at Miami airport for the meet-and-greet with other runners. I arrived in Miami the day before, because, well, Murphy is a good friend.
I need not have worried.
Like many travel passionate Americans, I wanted to see Cuba before it became Americanized. The myth and mystery that is Cuba. The eclectic architecture. The spicy flavorful beans and rice staples. The rum. The classic cars. The coffee. The clashing irreverent colors And of course, the dancing, sensual, uninhibited. All romance all nostalgia. Did I mention the coffee?
I had originally started looking for excuses to go about a year prior, early November. I remember the date because it was a week after the Marabana: the Marathon Habana. As soon as I saw the advertisement on InsightCuba, I knew I had found my excuse. I signed up for the notification that the trip was open again for the next year, which of course never came. Seasoned traveler that I am, though, I had a monthly reminder set up before I ever left the page.
Not long after I submitted my registration, President Obama began the process of opening the borders. It was both good news and bad, in many senses, personal and political. I knew intuitively the culture wouldn’t change overnight, but I didn’t want to see a single Mickey-Dees or Starbucks in my four days away. For Cubans, the news was all good: it was the first place I have ever visited where people were truly excited by the idea of being “invaded” by Americans. They see our democracy as their salvation, their freedom. But I imagine they’re not entirely sure what they’re in for. In many aspects, the romance we feel towards them is the same tinted, slightly skewed view they have of us.
I wasn’t long at the meet and greet before I noticed a familiar face. I asked the hostess, Jenny, if that was really THE John Bingham and she (his wife, it turns out) confirmed it. Mr Bingham is the face of us “penguins”, the back-of-packers, the turtles, the never-winners, the slow ones.. He single-handedly turned being slow into cool. He’s a big hero of mine. In typical introvert style, I smiled politely at him and then studiously avoided eye contact the rest of the hour. But John is outgoing and friendly, and we shared a couple of conversations over the weekend. Jenny was coaching many of the runners that weekend. In the first few minutes of meeting, she made jokes about ultra runners and comments on how hilly the Marabana is, not knowing I am a Colorado ultra runner. We got along famously.
As an introduction to Cuba, we were entertained and taught by Cuban dancer Lilian Lombera, a professor of Cuban Music and a member of 3Tres Musas Producciones, a network of female producers in America, about the history of dancing and the many types of dancing in Cuba. Dancing is more natural in Cuba than walking here–or maybe it would be more appropriate to say driving. Her enthusiasm and passion were contagious and she had many of us out of our seats and reliving our awkward teenage years trying to follow as she confidently and seductively maramba’d throughout the room.
Locating the check-in for the flight was next mini adventure. Turning left when I should have turned right is how I met Dallas Smith, a fellow runner in the group. It was one of the best wrong turns I’ve ever made. Dallas is a fellow ultrarunner, although I don’t think I’ve ever heard him describe himself as such. At this time, he has completed the VolState 500k twice, the oldest person to do so. He’s also a big hero of mine.
Dallas and I stuck together and eventually found where we needed to be, got our neon green t-shirts and our visas. Our athlete visas. As a certified penguin, it made me feel pretty special to have an athlete visa. Like I was a real athlete.
It was 2pm. The flight was now scheduled for sometime around 4pm. We decided not to push our luck and kept together to locate the gate. Which of course changed shortly before we got there and is how we met the final two of the quartet that completed the weekend. John is from Seattle and Laura from Houston. They were self-appointed gate directors to keep people from going to the wrong gate. The flight now scheduled for six, Dallas and I opted to assist them in their duties rather than spend more time on the cozy airport seating.
Six became ten o’clock. Sensing a mutiny, the InsightCuba representative gave everyone all the cash he had on hand, which came to about $16 per person. Most headed straight to the one bar in the remote Miami terminal.
The four of us decided to bet on the American Airlines club, where $20 each got us unlimited access to food and beverage. Dallas kept us entertained with stories from his life in Tennessee. Marveling at his storytelling skill, Laura told him he should really write a book. “Oh I have! Two of them!”
They are both well worth the read.
Finally around 10pm, nearly twelve hours later, the plane took off, landing a mere ninety minutes later and the adventure truly began.
A Cuban stamp on my passport!
With a two hour wait for luggage at the airport (with any checked electronics never to be reunited with their owners), Dallas, who had everything packed in a small well-loved backpack that he brought on the plane, waited patiently with us. We still are not sure why, but what a friend.
And began again.
And ended again.
I had paid extra for my single supplement (the always needling “single tax”) which that earned me an extra bus ride at 1am to another hotel, the first hotel having run out of rooms. That is how I met Luke, a Las Vegas fire fighter. The magic of Cuba–every negative event leading to an encounter with a never-to-forget friend.
My work project at the time was in Clark County, NV, and he had heard of it. We met for drinks and a bite to eat at 2am. I’m sure we chatted about building codes and running but my muddled mind didn’t retain much of the conversation. Just the marvel of meeting someone else I knew would stay in my life, if only for a short while.
7:30am cruel wakeup call. It was one of the swankiest hotels I’ve ever stayed in, a true five star. I heard no English being spoken at the breakfast buffet which went on farther than I was due to run that day. Continental treats, eggs in every shape and form, fruit from around the world Breads from the same. Coffees. Teas. Juices. Oh my. My stomach refused to play along, the three hour sleep fogging my entire body.
I was deeply regretful at having committed to the 9am pre-marathon 5k fun run–actually the kid’s run, but really open to kids of all ages. I dropped off my bag and met up with Laura, having left her the night at the original hotel. We enjoyed a nice easy run in the heat and humidity of the Havana streets, the joyful abandon of the local kids running propelling us along.
Shortly after the run, I checked into Hotel Gran Caribe, walking distance from the capital and the marathon start the next day. My room was on the third floor, one floor shy of the only two floors currently with running water. I’m not entirely certain how only the top floors ended up with water, but, well, Cuba. The difference between a four and five star hotel. The building itself was classic Cuban, a courtyard in the center, high ceilings and limited furniture which lent space to otherwise efficient rooms. I was happy to see I had my own bathroom, even if I couldn’t use the toilet until running water returned I’ve no idea how to properly describe architecture, but the lobby itself is worth the Google search. Walking the hallways was a step back in time, I could almost hear Hemingway’s typewriter.
The other upside to being on an athlete’s visa (aside from the heightened ego) and slow opening of the borders was that all we were required to do was run the race. Normally when visiting Cuba as an American, you’re required to have every waking second filled with cultural activities: lectures during meals, visits to cultural centers, tours of the areas of Cuba the government wanted you to see. We however were free to walk the streets with no plans and no chaperones.
The first order of course was lunch. The quartet had met up for our first real Cuban meal at a small restaurant not too far from the hotel. We were not feeling too daring the day before our marathon, but like many countries, following the directions of the locals proved beyond our abilities, so we ended up where we ended up. The food was delicious, not too spicy, but proved to be the downfall of Dallas. He excused himself from our afternoon excursion and spent much of the day in his room, hoping to recover before the race.
The remaining trio went first to La Prado, the art gallery on the street. The artwork varied from the mundane to the obscene to the overtly political. We each searched for a piece that defined how we felt about Cuba, all of us falling short. We wandered the length of it, debating where to go next.
I don’t know if it was the mystique of Cuba or simply the desire for forbidden fruit, but it many things are better from Cuba. Laura and I were in quest for Cuban coffee and Laura was searching for Cuban music as well. John and I were after Cuban cigars, and John wanted to partake of a real Cuban sandwich.
GPS devices are mostly prohibited in Cuba, so we made our way around with our old-fashioned paper tourist map. Only partly intentional, we circuitously made our way Old Towne Square, where we found three of the four–all but the Cuban sandwich. One of the interesting side effects of a communist way of life is that there is little motivation to sell. Unlike the markets of Mexico, one is not bombarded by hawkers selling their wares. It’s rather a pleasant silence, being able to peruse without pressure. John and I made our cigar purchases and Laura and I our coffee purchases. Laura held off on a music purchase, wanting to make sure what she purchased was legitimate Cuban music, not government issue.
We found some side shops and chatted with the shop owners. Laura and I ended up buying Cuban hats, which made for interesting coincidences in other adventures (including meeting a Cuban in Nashville).
It was a long day of walking the day before a marathon, but with limited time, we wanted to make the most of it, and we continued to meander through Havana, the amazement of truly being there never far from our hearts.
Our feet stopped outside of a bar, only to start some American “dancing”. The best music we would hear all weekend was dancing through the air. Laura immediately ducked inside to purchase a CD. I wasn’t far behind her. Heartbreakingly, once home, we learned it didn’t play. But the music was already a memory, a feeling. Lively, uninhibited, passionate.
Not far from there, we saw possibly the most bizarre sight of the weekend: a tree growing out of a dilapidated building. The next day, I was talking with Luke, who had spent the day talking with local fire fighters, countries and language not separating this brotherhood. They had told him that building regulations were more than a bit lax. Many tourists came for the architecture, so buildings that should have been condemned weren’t, and were left until they collapsed or burned. The true tragedy being the families using them as homes who were killed in these events.
Dinner was late at the hotel. It was then we learned the tragic truth about Cuban sandwiches. In Cuba, there is no such thing. Another American fabrication. John was heartbroken.
The 7am race start meant that breakfast was from a box. I hadn’t slept well again and couldn’t eat much of the stale, strange nourishment. I had no problem, however, downing a couple cups of generously sugared Cuban coffee. The water was again not working at the hotel, so we went in search of public restrooms.
What we found will never be erased from our brains. As a runner, you have a certain jadedness when it comes to port-a-potties. But this exceeded anything in running lore. We had no choice–we had to pee. I still have nightmares.
Somewhere around five thousand souls were out in that humid morning, running once again erasing the barriers between all of us. Less than 500 were from the States, up from less than one hundred in years prior. I had worn my t-shirt from a race in a French territory and found myself speaking French to a couple race participants and locals. I had to smile.
We four started together, ducking under a barrier to avoid walking an extra half mile to the end of mass of runners, but quickly lost each other in the bustle. I put on my music and started my slow pace, knowing the heat and humidity would hurt more than the flat would help. The race began by the capital and headed past La Prado onto the Malecon. It wound around the city featuring only the best, much like any city marathon. I had read that Castro, with the potential of new relationships with the US, was attempting to put communism a bit underground. There was still some propaganda on the streets and building, but it seemed to me to be not much different from any other city.
The marathon was two loops which was a little disappointing. I would have loved to have seen 26 different miles of the city. But the second loop did give me a chance to pick up the pace a bit to see if I could possibly beat the 5 hour cut-off, a lofty goal just two weeks past a hundred mile race. Not long after the start of the second loop, Dallas surprised me, coming up from behind. I was surprised to think he was behind me–he owns many age group records–and was passing me but he had stopped at an aid station and saw me running by. We spent a few minutes together, but his stomach was still bothering him. It was probably a good thing for him that the aid stations did not serve food, only plain and oddly flavored water.
A few miles later and John jumped in beside me, giving me a start. He too was lagging a bit, so we enjoyed a couple miles together before parting ways again. Jenny, there as support only, was a couple miles away from the finish, cheering us the last little bit. She had already told me she wasn’t too worried about me, and I was happy not to disappoint.
I finished five minutes before the cutoff, Dallas and John not far behind. Laura was already at the hotel. She had completed her own race, having unintentionally turned around at the 10k cutoff, but deciding to complete the half anyway, for a nice 30k race.
It was another hour before the water was on at the hotel and another two before it was hot. I was still too warm to care about a hot shower. The after was open and we decided to hit a few highlights of the city, including Hemingway’s favorite bar, La Floridita. We were hoping to have a drink but the crowd drove us back out.
There were several museums we wanted to visit, but trying to visit them on a Sunday proved fruitless. We were able to get into the Museum of the Revolution and a memorial to the Bay of Pigs. Both were stark reminders of how history is written by the victors. The Museum of the Revolution was in Spanish, but the memorial was in English. Reading what seemed to me to be a grossly slanted perspective made me wonder how slanted are the views with which I’m familiar.
Dinner was a group event, the only one of the weekend. We had not seen much of the other runners outside a couple chance meetings at the hotel. We all dressed up in our post-race finest, which mainly meant we didn’t wear the race shirt to dinner. Luke was in the lobby when we met up, so we dragged him with us to dinner. The Havana rum served with dinner came with an appropriate warning–it was definitely not for the faint of heart. I don’t know if it was the race that day or just the mystique, but the rice and beans dinner was better than any I’d ever had. We were treated to meeting native runners, one who sought me out in particular, having heard I am a fellow ultra runner. He had won a 100k in Havana, so in a different class but still a fellow runner.
He invited me to dance and I was grateful I had risked ridicule at the airport for the practice for a perfectly romantic Cuban moment.