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Nothing comes between me and my Optimise A.I.R.

Tim Van Berkel (AUS)TRIATHLON - Ironman Cairns 70.3 / Cairns Airport Adventure Festival - Palm Cove - Captain Cook Highway - Cairns Esplanade - Cairns - Queensland - Australia - 2014

I’ve been racing for a few years now (that makes…

Even Giant-er!

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You may remember, last November, that I was very excited…

Wetter But Better at Challenge Melbourne

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Twelve months ago in Melbourne we were swimming in a…

Back in Melbourne for some good weather and racing

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Sunday is Challenge Melbourne and I’m looking forward to heading…

La Carrera – Epílogo

I was pretty spent after the race as it was a fairly intense 75 minutes.  The rain had let up and was done for the day.  Most of the American delegation hung out at the finish line cheering on the rest of the competition whom I’d like to thin…

Nothing comes between me and my Optimise A.I.R.

Tim Van Berkel (AUS)TRIATHLON - Ironman Cairns 70.3 / Cairns Airport Adventure Festival - Palm Cove - Captain Cook Highway - Cairns Esplanade - Cairns - Queensland - Australia - 2014

I’ve been racing for a few years now (that makes me wise… not old!) and the more you race, in all kinds of conditions, the more you understand what really works for you. That applies to training programs, race tactics and especially to gear.

Challenge Australia Ironman - Melbourne

For example, the ideal triathlon race suit is high-tech, incorporates state-of-the-art fabrics and is designed by the best brains in the business using the latest research. It looks cool and keeps you cool, protects you from the sun, cuts drag and helps you to perform at your best. Ideally, it’s like a second skin – it’s so comfortable, you don’t even notice it’s there.

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Scody triathlon race suits. My relationship with Scody goes back a long way. Like their race suits, Scody exists on the cutting edge – of technology, of expertise and of innovation. And that’s allowed me to keep pushing the envelope of performance – competing comfortably and confidently in my custom Optimise A.I.R. Triathlon race suit. It looks good, feels good and gives me the freedom I need to do what I do.

The only difference between Scody and their race suits? Sometimes I forget the race suit is there… but Scody – I’m always aware that they’re in my corner. I’ve appreciated their support in the past and so I’m really excited today to be announcing their continuing sponsorship into the future. Thanks guys!

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Even Giant-er!

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You may remember, last November, that I was very excited to announce that I’d re-signed with Giant for at least another two years. I had a chuckle when Kelly Minahan (on Facebook) thought that I’d ‘resigned’ not ‘re-signed’. Two very different things! Relax, Kelly, it’s all good!

I’m proud to be associated with Giant, so I was even more excited recently when they sent through a draft of their Press Release. I’ll let you read it for yourself…

Press Release – Tim Berkel

Awesome stuff! In response, I just want to say a public thank you to the team at Giant. Thanks for your continuing support, not to mention the promotion – moving up to global athlete status sounds impressive!

Seriously though, I’m loving the Giant Trinity Advanced SL and I’ve got no hesitation in recommending Giant gear to anyone who is serious about riding the best – you guys are at the cutting-edge. And I know you’re always working hard to stay ahead of the game- doing your best for all your riders, sponsored or not.

I look forward to working with the Giant engineers and designers to see what we can come up with in the future. I know there are already some cool things in the pipeline. Exciting times!

So, go hard… and ride Giant.

Wetter But Better at Challenge Melbourne

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Twelve months ago in Melbourne we were swimming in a calm, clear Bay, speeding along picturesque Beach Rd and fighting dehydration. And I finished the day standing on top of the podium. Last Sunday Melbourne showed its ugly side – we slogged through half a metre of chop, raced through heavy rain and gusting winds… and fought hypothermia. Talk about a contrast!

I was disappointed not to have been able to defend my Challenge Melbourne title, but my 2015 result was definitely a step in the right direction and a big step in my preparation for the IM Asia-Pacific Championship back in Melbourne on March 22. Here’s how my race went down…

Swim

It was dark, overcast and there was a howling on-shore wind whipping up the chop on the Bay for the start of the swim leg. Conditions were rough and visibility in the water was really low. Obviously it’s hard to maintain good technique when you’re constantly trying to avoid sucking in a mouthful of delicious Port Phillip Bay water. I sat in the main group, coming out not too far behind the three guys in the front – which including Clayton (Fettell) who ended up having great swim and bike legs.

Bike

Despite the assurances from the commentator that ‘Things are going to fine up… just wait and see!’, the rain set in and was continual through the ride. The wind was coming off the Bay, swirling around in some places to create a serious headwind at times. The combo of rain and wind certainly took its toll on some of the competitors, with Luke Bell retiring in lap 2 of the bike leg. Spectators said he’d turned blue and was shaking with the cold. The wind chill factor can certainly suck your energy in a big way.

With visibility so limited it was hard to keep track of who was where and how far ahead they were. And I definitely had to keep my wits about me when turning – wet roads and lots of competitors can be a dangerous combination if you’re not onto it all the time.

I didn’t feel like I had a great bike leg (2:13) but entered into T2 around 6th and about 3 minutes off the pace.

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Run

After getting buffeted on the bike it was good to get out on the run. I started off well and felt really good. Matt Reed took off hard and then Robbo took off. By the end of the first lap I was still only 3:30 back from Griffo, but starting to drop back.

It’s a tough run course, especially when you’re running through the single-track areas. Fortunately running in the wind didn’t bother me, because it was howling!

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The Bottom Line

I finished up coming in 6th with a time of 03:54:06. Of course, I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to defend my title, but in terms of my preparation for IM Melbourne the race has served me very well. Plans for the Asia-Pacific Championship are progressing nicely, but I know there’s still a lot of work to do before then.

Despite the crap weather, Challenge Melbourne was definitely a worthwhile outing. Congratulations to Griffo for a well-deserved win in very trying conditions. And thanks to the Challenge Melbourne team for putting it all together. Good job, guys!

Oh, and a special thank you to the guys from First Off The Bike who tweeted about my ‘coordinated colours’. A bloke’s got to look good out on the bike, right.

Back in Melbourne for some good weather and racing

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Sunday is Challenge Melbourne and I’m looking forward to heading south to defend my title. Mind you, you always feel like a bit of a marked man in these situations!

Auckland was a bit of a shocker, but the last few weeks have been really good, getting my head together and just getting back into the routine. I definitely feel a whole lot better prepared than I was for my last race.

The Melbourne course is great – very fast swim and bike legs. Water temp at Brighton will be around 20˚C and the weather prediction is warm but not too hot. Mind you, Melbourne is well known for serving up four seasons in one day. Last year it was really hot. This year – well, we won’t really know until we’re racing and even then it can change. Just got to be prepared for anything.

The ride is three laps along Beach Road – it’s undulating, fast and it’s a classic spot for Melbourne cyclists. The run leg heads out towards Sandringham and is a bit different. Most of the way it sticks pretty close to the beach and it’s a single track, which can make it a little tough when it gets congested.

For all the age-groupers competing – my advice is to keep your wits about you on the run. It’s twisty, there’s some loose dirt, so watch your footing and be careful. Don’t forget to have fun, go hard and I’ll see you at the finish!

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La Carrera – Epílogo

I was pretty spent after the race as it was a fairly intense 75 minutes.  The rain had let up and was done for the day.  Most of the American delegation hung out at the finish line cheering on the rest of the competition whom I'd like to think was, at that point, pretty stoked to have anyone cheering for them, given the weather.

At this point, we hadn't been given any indication that there wouldn't be any amateur awards and since Amy had won the female division, we packed up our gear and rode over to where the elite awards ceremony was to take place.

We didn't have to wait long to witness history.  The American National Anthem was played for Renee's win in the elite women's race.  I have to believe that this was either the first time or certainly one of the very few times that song has been played on Cuban soil.  Certainly since the revolution.  I don't get goose bumps often, but man, I sure did then.


All the Americans who'd remained at the conclusion of the awards ceremony gathered for a group picture with the president of USAT, Barry Siff, and the president of the ITU, Marisol Casado.

Making History
Now that the festivities and competitions were over, for us anyway, we could get on with being tourists (even though, legally, American tourism is not allowed in Cuba).  Some of the group decided to take a cab back to their hotels, but a group of about eight of us decided to ride back - in our Team USA gear.  It must have been quite a sight for the Cubans seeing us ride through the streets.  We got horn blasts and thumbs ups from bus drivers and stares from pedestrians.  One driver sped on ahead of us, stopped in the middle of the three-lane road we were on and took pictures before we rode by.

With all the rain, the ride back was very wet and very dirty.  We tried to capture just how dirty our legs were but the photo doesn't quite do it justice.

Dirty Legs
We agreed to meet on a time for dinner and broke up to go get cleaned.  I didn't even bother trying to ride back to my hotel this time, instead opting for a cab.

La Carrera

This was not Cuba's first time hosting a triathlon, but it was the first time hosting one so official as an ITU competition that was also a championship race.  They still have a lot to learn.

We used the same racks as the elites, but more were set up.  We discovered shortly that they weren't actually stable, being held together by zip ties and duct tape.  As more bikes were racked, the problem erupted with all the racks (and thus, bikes) falling down in domino fashion.  After a conversation between the ITU officials, it was decided that we would use the ground as our transition area which meant the bikes were lying down too.


Because everyone and everything was so wet, body marking was impossible and was effectively nonexistent.  We had timing chips, but in retrospect, I'm not sure what for as no age group results for the sprint were ever posted.  I managed to get in a very brief warm-up swim near the water exit ramp.

The swim lay in the closed end of the marina, the water level of which was not ground level, but rather a good two meter drop from the top of the retaining wall at ground level.  We lined up on the wall before someone pointed out that it was probably not a good idea to have amateurs dive in and that having an in-water start was best.  We all jumped in and treaded water next to the wall attempting to avoid the rocks, shellfish, and other sea life that dotted the bottom.

Out of nowhere the horn blew and we were off.  I tried to hang with the lead swim pack but after only 3 weeks back into training they eventually started pulling away.  They were fast and I never found the fast feet that I normally do so my swim time wasn't my best.  I managed to average 1:40/100m for the 750m.  Out of the water and up the ramp there's another American right in front of me.  I think he passed me in the last 100m of the swim.  We are the first two Americans out of the water.

Unused to the current transition situation of everything lying on the ground, I completely miss my bike, but not by too much.  Not trusting the situation for leaving my shoes clipped in, I'd unclipped them and left them on the ground.  I slap them on and proceed to mount too early.  I'm used to a clearly marked and labeled mount line.  Running a bit further, I find the correct mount line, mount a second time and headed out on the bike.

The rain had stopped, but only temporarily.  At some point during the first of four laps on the bike, the skies opened up again and didn't stop.  I recall a Cuban kid riding up ahead but continuously looking back, like he was waiting for me to bridge the gap.  We were told it was not a draft legal race and so I remember thinking this odd.  He hops on my wheel and I just hammer on.  Turns out, it was a draft legal race and so he got to recover in my draft while I, being so worried about a penalty, dropped back out of the draft zone every time he pulled ahead.  We eventually overtake another rider somewhere from Central America, I don't remember where.  He hops on our wheel and a little later I hear a yell from whom I think is the cuban and feel someone rubbing my back wheel.  I turn and the second kid has pulled off to my right.  I yell something about keeping his line and to pay attention.  He takes off and I don't know if I scared or motivated him (or even if he finished), but I never saw him again.


The Cuban kid clearly wanted to work together but I still didn't know it was a draft legal race so I did all the work and continued to drop back when he overtook.  We ride our laps in the pouring rain through massive puddles praying no potholes lurk beneath the surface.  I had a damn good bike for a January and only three weeks of training.  My normalized power turned out to be 240 watts, only five shy of my 2014 peak.

We come into T2 and I don't even bother with my socks as everything is just soaked.  I start running and I feel my feet sliding around in my shoe.  Not a great situation to be in when one is looking for stability.


A few km into the run, an American passes me and I can't keep up.  My Cuban biking buddy is long gone up the road.  The rain continues to pour.  A little while later, the lead female, also an American, passes me.  I remember when my run used to be strong and vow that this year my run results will be different from 2014.  Three years off from racing and two knee surgeries did their job well.  I stay mentally strong and gut out a finish.  The run was long by nearly 500m but I'd managed a sub 8:00 pace.  Not great, but for January, it was fine.

Results were never posted so I have no idea on placing, but I was fairly close to the front.

Swim:  12:29, 750m
Bike:  37:14, 20km
Run:  26:36, 5.5km

Día de la Carrera

I wake up Saturday morning knowing I wouldn't be able to make the elite women's race which went off a little too early.  This turned out to be too bad as the US women placed 1-2.  I had already intended to watch the men's race so I gather all my race gear and schlep my bike downstairs.  I get a taxi driven by a guy jamming to Lionel Richie off a USB stick plugged into his radio.  While most of the cabs are from the 50's, nearly all have retrofitted Pioneer or Kenwood quality stereos that play CDs or take pin drives.  We head towards the race venue with my official race bracelet acting like magic as my taxi is waived through checkpoints at which he would have otherwise been forced to stop.  My driver was very happy and impressed.

I get to the race site and meet up with some of the other US athletes.  The US men are warming up and I say hello to former Boulder resident and fellow FAC member Dan McIntosh, who now resides in San Diego but whom I'd unexpectedly run into at the the airport in Mexico City waiting for our Cuba flight.  None of the US men had a great day, but one climbed his way to sixth with solid run - even after being stuck in the first chase pack on the bike.  At some point during the men's race, the skies opened up and it absolutely poured.  Everyone tried to huddle under any awning or tent that could be found.  The rain let up by the time the men finished racing, but it was only temporary.

Friday Afternoon/Evening

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.


Nearly every building in Cuba is falling apart or looks like it's about to
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.
The Malecón

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.

Friday Morning

I wake up Friday morning in a better place than I was the night before.  But I had a knot in my stomach.  I wasn't sure what to do.  I was completely out of my element and not dealing with it well.  While I speak a decent amount of Spanish, VERY few people speak any English and it's difficult to communicate effectively.  I pull myself together and go to the hotel lobby for breakfast.  I'm careful to avoid anything that looks raw as I have no idea what's safe at this point.  I hear a Brit order food and watch him walk through the buffet.  I decide an omelette with peppers is ok.  It was.

I head to the front desk to ask about making change.  The woman working informs me that this hotel doesn't make change and that I would have to go to the bank.  I ask where it is and she tries to describe it before telling me to go upstairs to the gift shop to buy a map.  I do, but the map is three CUCs and I only have 1 left from the previous night.  She points out the street where all the banks are and lets the take the map making me promise to return and pay the additional two CUCs.  I head back to my room, reassemble my bike and pack my bag to bike over there but finally decide that a cab is the best way to go.  I load up my necessities: passport, Canadian dollars, health insurance card (we were told to carry it everywhere), wallet, and iPhone which is currently a $400 paperweight that can also play games.

The view from my room
I go downstairs and get a taxi explaining to the driver what I need to do.  Change first, then a SIM card for my phone.  Changing my currency was easy.  We drive for a while to where a Cubacel office is passing all the embassies:  Kuwait, Sri Lanka, Malaysia.  We start passing one that keeps going and has a massive concrete tower that overshadows the entire compound.  I ask what embassy.  Russia.  I forgot to take a picture of the Russian embassy, so I shamelessly ripped them off of Wikipedia.  Like every other building, the embassies are old.  The Russian embassy looks like something out of a Steven King novel.  Old, greying concrete from the 50's comprises all the buildings.  Seeing the brand new Audis parked in the compound is just flat out weird.

Russian Embassy (courtesy Wikipedia) 
Russian Embassy (courtesy Wikipedia)
We arrive at a Cubacel office but the line is at least 40 people deep.  I ask if I can get a SIM card for my phone from one of the locals, a kid, waiting in line.  He says yes, but I have zero interest in waiting for several hours.  He takes me around to his buddies and asks them if any of them have an extra SIM card.  They don't.  I go back to my taxi and ask if there's any other offices.  He says yes, but it's in the complete opposite direction of my hotel than we went.  Disheartened, I told him to just take me back to my hotel, but he tells me wait a minute and we find a hole-in-the-wall satellite office on some random side street a few minutes from where we were.  There were only a few people in line and one of them speaks perfect English.  I ask why so many people are waiting at the offices and he says that it's the last day of a 2:1 promotion by Cubacel.  All Cuban cell phones are prepaid and the promotion is for every CUC you spend, you get one.  No limit.

I get my SIM card and take it next door to be cut to fit in my phone.  I plug it in and turn it on.  After unlocking, I see full bars and Cubacel in the corner and nearly cry.  I speak with a man who has family in Miami and he shows me how to make an international call.  No texting.  The Cuba systems don't talk to the American ones.  The embargo is present everywhere.  I call my wife and get her voicemail.  I finally break down and cry babbling something incoherent about needing to talk to her and then hang up.  I have the cabbie take me back to my hotel trying a few more times to reach her.

I try again when I get back to my room.  Success!  I try to keep it together while I talk to her and fill her in on the previous 40 hours.  I am doing much better.

In Cuba and Back in Time

It's late Friday night and I'm about to spend two hours trying to get through Cuban immigration.  There are 30 counters all with officials working but there are literally 400 people waiting in various lines.  Apparently 7pm is when all the European flights get in as well.  I pick one that looks shorter but after waiting 20 minutes and literally not moving, I pick another.  And then another.  This last one turned out to be the winner, but when each person takes two to five minutes at the counter I did the math and settled in to wait.  I chatted with the two men behind me in line who were on my flight from Mexico City.  One is an attorney for casinos and the other is in marketing.  They are here for a bachelor party, only the bachelor missed his flight.  Mexicans come to Havana to party.  It is to them, what Cancun is to Americans, but without Americans.  The attorney's son was born in Dallas and he speaks about his many ski trips to the U.S., including several weeks he spent in Telluride.  We then talk football; the American kind.  He's a huge Raiders fan.  I apologize.

I finally get to the front of the line and it's my turn to play 20 questions with the officer.  Where are you from?  What is your flight number?  Have you recently been to Africa?  I....wait, what?  Africa?  Have any of your family members recently been to Africa?  Cuba takes the Ebola threat quite seriously.  Do you have health insurance?  Show me.  She finishes and unlocks the gate to let me pass.  I go though X-ray and then on to baggage claim.  Since it's been two hours, our luggage has already been offloaded.  I find my suitcase.  It's missing the brand new REI luggage tag I just bought.  Maybe it got ripped off.  Where are the bicycles?  I ask some official looking person in Spanish.  He rattles something off that I don't understand.  I ask him to speak slower.  They are in the corner.  I find my bike box and it, too, is missing it's luggage tag.  They were ripped off all right.

Exiting baggage claim and into the terminal, I'm met by hundreds of people all waiting for someone or something to go through those doors.  They all stare at me.  After all, I have a massive box on wheels.  I push it around the terminal looking for cambio, change, where I can get some CUCs, convertible Cuban pesos.  Cuba has two currencies:  the CUC which is used by foreigners and tourists, and the Cuban peso which is not.  In reality however, it seems like everyone uses the CUC.  The CUC is pegged at 1:1 to the American dollar, but there is a 10% penalty for converting dollars to CUCs so I brought Canadian dollars, which have no such penalty.  I was told that it wasn't all that long ago that locals would be arrested and thrown in jail if they were caught with American dollars.  Wow.

After wandering around for a few minutes, a cabbie walks up to me and asks if I need a taxi.  I say, si, pero tango no Pesos.  Yes, but I have no Pesos.  He shows me to the second floor where I make change.  I ask about Cubacel, the national cellular carrier.  He says they are closed.  There will be no phone calls tonight.

We go outside to his cab and along with only one working headlight, his cab held together by will alone.  We barrel along on pitch black streets at speeds your mother told you never to drive, barely missing cyclists who wear no lights or helmets.  Everything is old.  Everything is run down.  Think of it as buying a brand new house and car in the 1950s and then just letting them sit.




I get to my hotel and check in.  They have no WiFi.  It dawns on me that I cannot contact my wife at all and tell her I made it and I'm ok.  I get to my room on the 12th floor and my first thought was "Oh.  Hell no."  All the reviews I'd read online and ignored were right.  It was a two star hotel.  I changed into some warm weather clothes and took a taxi to the National Hotel which I knew had WiFi because some of the other athletes had posted.  Not only were they fully booked, the business center which sells the WiFi cards was closed.  I tried to make change at the change counter but was told it was for guests only.  I took a cab back to my hotel and nearly lost it and broke down.

Completely disconnected.  Alone.  Exhausted.  A stranger in a strange land.