We’re Going to Italy!

Andiamo Italy!

To those who have previously accompanied me on my adventures in India and Cuba, welcome back, and a very warm “Benvenuto!” to those who are visiting my travel blog for the first time.

From May 5 to 27 of this year (!), Arnie and I are going to Italy, with a few days in Croatia. I am beside myself with excitement because – unlike almost everyone I know, including my own children – I have never been to Europe. A few days ago, I finished booking hotels for the trip, and I am beginning to believe this is really going to happen.

Aside from reserving rooms and a few tickets to museums that we might not have been able to get into if we’d left it to chance, I have been doing the usual things in order to prepare myself for our journey: reading a few books, including The Lonely Planet Guide to Italy, and learning to speak some Italian with the help of Duolingo (Como sta?).

Arnie and I also recently watched a fun movie called The Trip to Italy, with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Despite the pair’s tour around the Italy of Byron and Shelley, two poets I’ve loved since university, the film primarily made me hungry. The hotels they stayed in (such as the Villa Cimbrone, “a medieval palazzo perched above the gulf of Salerno” @ $700/night €460) bear no resemblance to the ones I’ve booked.

Our departure date is about six weeks away at this point. I invite you to join me in the anticipation. In the next few weeks I’ll be posting about our preparations, and welcoming your ideas of what not to miss while we are there.

Andiamo!

One Senior Running (3)

Da Doo Run Run, or What’s in Your Headphones?

running-music

Sometimes I listen to podcasts when I run, but I find it hard to concentrate on a single subject when I’m out there. My mind likes to drift and become distracted, and I like to let it do that. Sometimes the drift leads me to solutions to problems in my writing or my real life, and sometimes the distraction draws me to ideas I’d never otherwise have had. Sometimes nothing much happens: my mind just drifts. Time passes. The run starts… the run continues… the run ends.

I find music to be a better accompaniment to running than a podcast[1]. It gives me something to focus on without requiring that I sustain that focus. I often listen to the words to songs for a stanza or so, for example, and then realize a couple of other songs have gone by and I haven’t paid any attention to the words for several minutes. Or sometimes I’ll try to get my feet to hit the pavement[2] coincidentally with the beat of the music, but I quickly get distracted from that as well. I find that the availability of such diversions is particularly useful when I first set out, before I hit my pace (when the going can be tough) and at the end, when I’m tired but still have several blocks to run (when the going can be tough).

Music also reinforces the runner’s high that I hope for every time I head out there (but don’t always find. More on that in another post). But when I am fortunate enough to start feeling like I’m floating above the ground, like I am strong, free and half my age, the pounding of “Go West” (Village People) or “Beat It” (Michael Jackson) or “Grace Kelly” (Mika) in my headphones is the icing on the cake. It makes a great run perfect.

Running music needs to be chosen in advance, of course. You don’t want to suddenly find your library has shuffled  you into Renee Fleming’s “Ave Maria” or Kris Kristofferson singing “Sunday Morning Coming Down” when you are trying to improve your speed.

When I first started running, back in the 1990s, my listening device was a tape inserted into a Sony Walkman, and the tapes used to take me hours to create: I’d put a record on the record player, press the “record” button on the system’s tape recorder, press “pause” on the recorder when the song was over, find the next song I wanted on another record, and so on. In those days, my lists included “Let’s Get Physical,” “Bette Davis Eyes,” Rita MacNeil, MC Hammer, ELO: a wide range. The Walkman wasn’t too steady so the music sounded like it was rolling around in an empty drum half the time, but it worked for me.

As the years progressed, I moved from the Walkman through the Discman to the iPod to the iPhone, which is where I am now. The music I listen to has moved through the decades, too – today, the latest Beyoncé and Adele are as likely to be out there with me as Gwen Stefani or the Black-Eyed Peas. I also listen to songs that I loved in my teens and twenties, and a few that were released even before that. But what has changed the most is the ease of creating a running list. Now I can just drag and drop.

In fact, I don’t even have to do that. Instead I can download a workout list that someone else has created on Spotify, or buy an album like Running Hits (image above. Not a bad anthology) from iTunes. If I were so inclined, I believe I could even figure out how to get my iPhone to play songs from my library that echo the beat I want to run to. Or keep time with the beat of my heart. The possibilities are limitless.

I wonder what the Crystals would have thought if they had known that “Da Doo Run Run” might one day find itself on in the wireless headphones of people who were running, and accessing the song on a phone they were wearing on their wrists.

Probably thanks to recent movies, I went through an ABBA/Queen phase when I started running again in August, but I’m ready to move on. In fact, am considering creating my own running list on Spotify specifically for baby boomers who still want to run.

What songs would you put on it?

[1] Many people think that runners should forego the music and just enjoy the sounds of nature. Not me. I get enough silence when I’m working, so being able to listen to music is a welcome part of the break. In addition I tend to run in busy areas where it’s safer, rather than in the river valley. Not too many sounds of nature out there on Sheppard Ave.

[2] People tell me that I shouldn’t run on sidewalks because they are harder on my joints than roads, roads usually being made of tarmac rather than concrete. See Note 1. Plus, if I ran on the road, I couldn’t listen to music. Because of all the cars and cyclists. 😉

 

One Senior Running (2)

Starting Out with a Zero to 5K Running App

Couch to 5K RunnerWhen I began to run the first time, at about the age of 40, I took a “Learn to Run” course at the Running Room in Edmonton.  It was a great way to start, and I highly recommend taking a course like that if you haven’t run before and one is available nearby.

There are many good reasons for taking a course. One is the information you receive during the pre-run talks on such topics as nutrition, hydration, pacing, buying shoes, etc. Another (very important) benefit of running courses is the camaraderie. Running with other people is highly motivating. In addition, running-course instructors know how to manage groups so that newbies minimize their chances of getting injured, and how to raise the spirits of those at the back of the pack.

Group runs in learn-to-run courses typically start off with “one-minute run, one-minute walk, repeat 10 times,” and then gradually build up over 8 to 10 weeks until the group is doing one-minute walk, ten-minute run, repeat three times” (or something to that effect). You’re expected to do a couple of runs between each weekly class.

In the years following that first running course, I signed up for several other courses – each of which had a target race at the end of it. I took the 5k course, the 10k course and the half-marathon course. When I moved to Saskatoon, after a long layoff from running, I signed up for the 5k course at the Running Room there, and met a whole new group of runners. Most of the courses have the same classroom content, of course, so after the first one or two, the main value is the motivation of being in a group to get out there and run: to run longer and longer distances, to run faster, to run hills, etc. And every instructor puts their own spin on it, so you are always acquiring new tips.

When I moved to Toronto at the age of 60, I signed up for another 5k course but by this time enough years had passed since I’d done any serious running, and enough arthritis had set in, that I felt I was slowing down the group. Please note that the group did not make me feel this way, and neither did the instructor: it was all in my own head. But I quit after a few weeks, discouraged.

 I didn’t want to get discouraged by a group of younger runners and quit again. Most of all, I didn’t want to be embarrassed.

On reflection, I suppose I should have started again with the learn-to-run course rather than the 5k class. But I was also getting tired of spending money to get the same “chalk talk” I’d heard several times before. Another option would have been to simply join the drop-in run clubs that go out from most running stores each week (check local listings for run times) — no charge for those — but I was feeling heavy and slow and old, and I didn’t know anyone who I could run with (i.e., not anyone as slow as I was).

When I decided to start running again this past August, I was living too far away from a run club to make that option viable, and I was also quite certain that I was not going to be able to keep up with anyone else at all. There are many people who walk faster than I could run. I didn’t want to get discouraged by a group of younger runners and quit again. Most of all, I didn’t want to be embarrassed.

So I decided that this time I would use a “Couch-to-5k” app for guidance and motivation instead of an instructor-led group. There are several apps that offer different options depending on what you want from them as you build your endurance, most importantly at this stage being verbal reminders of when it is time to stop running and take a walk break. Most also offer motivational bits of chit-chat (“Good for you for getting out for a run today!” Fortunately you can usually turn this feature off if you don’t want it).

Running apps are also useful for keeping track of where you ran, how far you went, how long it took you, etc., but keep in mind with your first app that it is going to help you achieve a definite goal: running 5k, for example, or running for 30 minutes without a walk break. After this stage, you will want another app as you continue to run further and faster. So the long-term dashboard options are less important in the first app than they will be in the one to which you will graduate after the first ten weeks or so.

My First Running App

I started with the Couch to 5k Runner. It starts out with 25 to 30 minutes of exercise in total, starting and ending with a 5-minute warmup/cool-down walk. As you work through the eight-week program, you go from from 1.5-minute walks alternating with 1.5-minute runs until you reach 30 minutes of straight running, and then you increase your running time until you are (ideally) at 5k.

I wasn’t that fast. But it didn’t matter. I went as far as I could in the allotted time, and stuck with the program, which was the most important part. By the time I’d finished with this app, I was able to run 30 minutes without a break. I started with a two to three minute warm-up walk and a similar time for a cool-down walk.

It’s important to note that the couch to 5k app never presented me with more of a challenge than I could manage. The only hard part was getting out the door.

One Senior Running (1)

The Author at the End of her First “Over 65” 5k

In Which I Decide I’m Not Too Old to Run

Last summer – at the age of 68, osteoarthritis everywhere, and with one bout of foot surgery already behind me and another in my future – I was in a blue funk. I had (re)gained about twenty pounds in the year and a half since the foot surgery, and I needed to get up and out, to get some exercise. But I was discouraged by my options.

Swimming was one option. As everyone knows, swimming is very good for ageing joints because it doesn’t put weight on them. I love love love swimming, more than almost any other activity – but only in lakes, rivers and oceans. Out there, I feel wildly free. By contrast, I find few recreational activities as tedious and irritating as swimming lanes in a pool with two dozen other swimmers who are constantly smacking you with their fists or feet and are either determined to pass you, or to prevent you from passing them as they crawl along more slowly than you do.

Exercise classes and machines were other options. A few years earlier I’d joined the Y,  and for about six months I’d gone over there religiously several days a week. But that was time-consuming – and it was also boring and seemingly pointless. Gradually I stopped going, at which point my monthly investment turned into a waste of money.

I’d tried yoga. God knows I’d tried yoga. Not my bag. Plus the downward dog was how I’d broken the plate the foot surgeon had installed to protect my big toe from further pain and damage, necessitating another round of surgery at a time still to be determined.

What I really wanted to do was to run. Every time I saw someone running, I longed to be out there too. I used to run, starting when I was about 40, off and on until I moved to Toronto when I was about 60. I had never been a fast runner (far from it) but I had signed up for 5k and 10k runs and had enjoyed training for them and running them. The best one was the Melissa 10K road race in Banff, a challenge and a half, set in the most beautiful location imaginable, which I did three or four times. I’d even once done a very slow half-marathon in Vancouver, way back in my forties. But now I hadn’t run for five or six years or more; part of the blue funk was me mourning the fact that I couldn’t run any more because I was too old.

What had made me decide I was too old to run? Well, it was partly a phenomenological conclusion: since I never saw old people running, I reasoned that most old people must be incapable of running (aside from the one or two centenarians who make it into the New York Times each year). But primarily it was my infinite capacity to imagine disaster that held me back. What if I wore out my hips and knees permanently and ended up in a wheelchair? What if I fell down while I was out there (seniors are always falling down, aren’t they?) and had to listen to the emergency medical services personnel say to one another, as if I wasn’t there, “What was she thinking????” Worse, or at least more embarrassing, I might drop dead on some nice young family’s front sidewalk in the neighbourhood, and traumatize them all. 

It wasn’t as though I was in any shape to run, either. After I’d moved to Toronto, existing problems with my feet (bunionettes, a hammertoe, arthritic joint swelling) had grown worse and worse, and it had taken me five years to get in to see an orthopaedic surgeon for the first operation. I also had long-standing issues related to a pulled muscle in my thigh (still unresolved despite the assistance of several allied health professionals), not to mention large knots of discomfort in my hips and my lower back. I tended to walk lopsidedly, as my family liked to point out. (“Why do you walk like a penguin?” one grandchild had asked me helpfully.)

In short, “running” was not a recommended option for someone with my physical limitations. But I wasn’t interested in doing anything else. So I sat and moped and sat and moped and sat and moped. And ate. For months.

And then one day in August of this year, soon after I finally got a pair of orthotics that supported the toe with the broken plate in it, I decided to hell with it. If running was all I wanted to do, then running was what I was going to do. I’d already envisioned the worst possible physical outcomes, which meant (my years of experience told me) that they wouldn’t happen: something else would. And in the meantime, so what if I embarrassed myself in public? So what if I was the slowest runner on the planet? What other option did I have?

So I downloaded a “Couch to 5k” app, dug out my old running gear, tied on my running shoes – with the orthotics in them – and (without telling anyone what I was doing) headed out the door.

(Stay tuned for the next instalment.)

 

Watch. Listen. Learn. Cuba 10: Afterthoughts and Reflections

Six months later.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Horse drawnAs has happened with other places I have visited, since our trip to Cuba the name of a familiar Cuban location in a news headline immediately attracts my attention. And with Barack Obama’s historic visit to Havana in March of this year, there has been no shortage of media coverage about Cuba since Arnie and I returned from our trip six months ago. There have been news stories (e.g. Shaquille O’Neal Lands in Havana to teach basketball as sports envoy, 7 News Miami, June 24, 2016; Harlem/Havana Cultural Exchange: First Ever Festival Celebrating Two Legendary Cities Announced, June 26, 2016, LA Times), travel items (“Canadian Tourism in Cuba: Will American Travellers Affect the Experience?” CBC, Feb. 2016) and opinion pieces (“Cuba For Sale,” The Guardian, Feb. 2016).

Social Conscience and/or Capitalism

One of the best items on the subject of Cuba that I’ve come across is a long piece written by Stephanie Nolan and published in The Globe and Mail on January 9, 2016. “A Cuban Revolution and the Stark Divide Between Rich and Poor” is an in-depth look at the economic, social, political, and even philosophical issues that are the subject of much discussion in Cuba as the American boycott of the country comes to an end. Nolen, a foreign correspondent with The Globe and Mail, is an outstanding writer and for many years I have found myself fascinated by articles she’s written about whatever topic she has chosen to investigate. (Notable among these was a series entitled Breaking Caste, which appeared after my trip to India.)

Nolen’s essay about Cuba reflects what we saw and heard when we were there, and expands on what has happened to the country since it was plunged into economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago. Today, the black market combined with new, legally sanctioned forms of enterprise are gradually changing the economic picture, but as one Havanan told Nolen, “Some people are getting very rich, and a lot of people are still very poor.”

The situation is complex. Nolen reports on a story she heard about a family that went to a bank to get a loan to help make things easier because they have a disabled child. The bank said they should just take the money and not pay it back. “There is still, today,” Nolen writes, “a strong social consensus about the role of the state in protecting the vulnerable.” But others she interviewed questioned how long that would last.

Nolen says, “The generacion historica, as the Castros and their former guerrillas at the top of government are known, have had a moral legitimacy and an ethical purity that have made Cubans willing to tolerate much from them.[…] There is real debate whether others will share their crystalline ideological purity.”

What comes next?

A lot of people express the desire to “get to Cuba before it changes,” by which they normally mean before the Cuban culture is overwhelmed by that of the Americans. I must admit that the timing of our holiday reflected this concern as well. However, before I went to Cuba, I thought that the impeding American invasion would be a wholly bad thing. I don’t think that any more.

Most of the Cuban people are very poor, and the influx of U.S. dollars is going to make an enormous difference to them. I hope that in the long term the U.S. influence will also cause the powers that be in Cuba to address the human rights issues that Obama raised when he was there.

In addition, with any luck, soon Cubans will have affordable access to the internet from their homes as well as from city squares, and in other ways will be able to join the 21st century – for all that is good and bad about it. However, individual Cubans with whom we talked were very concerned about preserving their culture in the face of American tourism and investment, and I can only wish them success in that regard. Cuba is a wonderful, richly textured and interesting country, and I would love for future generations to be able to get a taste of the way it is today.

Of Horses and Patio Furniture

Several people have asked me “What was the best part of your trip to Cuba?” but I can’t make a choice like that. From the Bay of Pigs to our tour of the Che Guevara monument to Viñales to the salsa dancing, it was all great, and I’d happily do it all again. Our hosts, our tour guides and our travelling companions were all wonderful, which enhanced the whole experience.

If I were forced to choose one “best thing” about the trip, it would be the Cuban people. We felt safe all the time, even in Havana but particularly in the smaller cities, and everyone we talked to was kind and helpful and – especially – cheerful. Despite all of their deprivations and hardships and shortages, and the run-down appearance of so many of their buildings, it is a pleasure to listen to their voices rising and falling as they talk to one another and laugh together. I know that there is misery everywhere, and I know that Cuba has lots of it, but the only other place I’ve ever been where everyone at least sounded as happy and as interested in the world as they do in Cuba has been in New York City.

A couple of additional, final, unrelated and irrelevant notes:

  • Although I loved all the old cars in Cuba, as everyone else does, I also enjoyed the many non-automated forms of transport still in use in Cuba, from horses to horse-drawn carriages to human-powered bicycle taxis.
  • Cuba has the heaviest outdoor furniture we have ever encountered anywhere. It is not just that it is made of metal, it is such heavy metal that it is almost impossible to move a chair even the few inches required to bring yourself closer to a patio table. I am certain that these items of furniture are not only theft-resistant, but also impervious to hurricanes.

Adíos

With this post, I conclude my musings on Cuba – with regret but also with relief: I had no idea it would take me this long to get around to completing the story of our trip! Thanks for sticking with me, Dan (and anyone else who is still following).

I am eager to get started on our next adventure: all details still TBA. Stay tuned.

Watch. Listen. Learn. Cuba 9: Varadero

Too little sun. Too much surf. Not enough Imodium.

Sunday, January 10 to Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Screen capture showing location of Varadero in relation to Havana, from Google Maps

We spent our last three days in Cuba at an all-inclusive in Varadero, a popular tourist sun-and-surf destination on Cuba’s north coast. When we’d booked our stay at the hotel, we’d envisioned concluding our ten-day trip to Cuba with three days on the beach – reading books, swimming, eating great food, talking about what we’d seen on our tour, and generally just relaxing before returning to reality.

It didn’t quite turn out the way we had imagined.

When we arrived at the all inclusive, the Royalton Hicacos Resort And Spa (photos above), we immediately discovered that the Cuban sense of time (which is non-specific, to say the least) extended to the tourist spots. Neither of us was feeling particularly well, so we were looking forward to checking into our room and getting settled. It took two hours for that to happen, despite our having timed our arrival to make sure it was well after the official check-in time. The delays included two last-minute room changes in the midst of a downpour.

Undaunted (well, Arnie was undaunted. I was ready to rip someone’s head off. And that isn’t only because Arnie is a calmer person in general than I am. For some reason, when I had been in Cuba proper I’d been unfazed by lengthy delays and mix-ups and the inability of almost anyone to understand English. I was fully aware that this was their country, and I was a visitor, and however Cubans did things was how they did them. I was cool with that. But when we got to the resort, I was suddenly bereft of empathy, sympathy and a few other forms of basic human kindness. I think this is because the place existed to serve tourists, primarily from Canada, and although it was a bit worn at the edges, it looked like it should have known what it was doing. Visually, it was a good imitation of an international resort. But the service, with a few exceptions, was ridiculously bad) we stowed our luggage in our room and set out for the beach.

There we learned that the sea was too dangerous for swimming (although a few fools had ventured into the water), and that it was unlikely to improve over the rest of our visit. (I did not blame this on the hotel. I was very zen about it.) In fact, as it turned out, that first afternoon offered the best weather, and we did get an hour or so on the beach before we went back to change for dinner.

Soon after that, we were struck in earnest by traveller’s tummy, referred to in other climes and places as Montezuma’s Revenge, Delhi Belly, and perhaps other equally charming epithets that I haven’t yet learned about/ experienced (“Barcelona Biliousness” may still be somewhere in my future). I had brought about 18 Imodium with me, but having doled out quite a few of them to various members of our group earlier in our tour, there weren’t enough left to use even judiciously during our current bouts of stomach upset.

A detail of the medical report on my "food transgression"

A detail of the medical report on my “food transgression”

Finally, after a sleepless night of intestinal uproars on both our parts, we requested a visit from the medical team at the resort, which consisted of Dr. Isabel Amable Alvarez and the nurse who was her assistant (whose name I don’t seem to have written down). These strict but kind women saved our lives – or if not our lives, at least the final days of our vacation.

A towel folded by our housekeeping staff

A towel folded by our housekeeping staff

They advised us (as others have before) to avoid treating diarrhea with loparamide (the main ingredient of Imodium) because it does nothing to treat the cause of the stomach upset, and can have undesirable side effects. (I am happy to follow this advice as long as I don’t have to go anywhere in public when I have a case of diarrhea. I will take anything that prevents my having a disaster in public.) They gave us injections and prescriptions involving an antibiotic, a stomach-acid inhibitor (ranitadine), electrolytes, and something called buscapina. They also warned us against eating anything acidic or greasy or containing milk for 48 hours – which limited our selection at the hotel’s several buffets considerably, but since we weren’t feeling too well, it wasn’t very difficult to comply.

IMG_4583 (1)

On the road to recovery – with our outstanding medical team

The medical attention (including medications) cost us about 100 CUCs each, and we got most of the money back from the Government of Ontario  (OHIP) and our insurance companies, so it was well worth the call. We had a great visit with Dr. Amable Alvarez when we went back two days later for our recheck. Among other interesting facts, such as how Latin American women get their double-barrelled last names (When they are single, their first last name is their father’s first surname and the second their mother’s first surname. After they get married their second surname may change to the first surname of their husband), we learned that doctors in Cuba earn only about the equivalent of USD 70 per month, while nurses earn about half that.

The stay at the all inclusive was not a total waste by any means. We did sit by the pool when it wasn’t raining, we ate in a couple of the four restaurants (there are also two buffets and ice-cream bars and a grill on the beach) and we enjoyed one of the nightly song-and-dance performances. However, the primary advantage of staying at the Royalton Hicacos was the fact that it was part of a SunWing package that got us fantastic rates for our flights to and from Cuba. It was worth it for just that – anything else was a bonus.

When it was time to go to the airport, we arrived at the entrance to our hotel five minutes before the appointed departure time, and found no other passengers and no sign of a bus. We considered how ironic it would be if the only vehicle that was ever early during our entire time in Cuba had been the bus to the airport – causing us to miss it.

Fortunately, we that didn’t happen – the bus was predictably late (but only by about five minutes). We learned on the bus that our misadventures with the Royalton Hicacos were nothing compared to the horrors others had encountered at neighbouring hotels. These ranged from five sick family members receiving no clean laundry, items being stolen from rooms, plugged toilets, etc. I think that a few years of American tourism is going to do a tremendous favour for everyone who visits the all-inclusives at Varadero, as Americans are much more likely to complain about bad service than are the Canadians who have for decades been the area’s primary guests.

At the airport, we made haste to turn all of our leftover CUCs to Canadian dollars, since they cannot be exchanged outside the country, made our way through customs, did a bit of shopping, and then we were off for Toronto.

 

Watch. Listen. Learn. Cuba 8: Havana

Motor City Boogie, Havana Style

Sunday, January 10, 2016

On our last morning on the official tour, we packed everything up, left it at our casa to collect it later, and met the group at the Hotel Ingleterra for our car excursion through the city.  At the hotel, I was told, they were filming an episode of House of Lies. If I’d ever watched the series, I might have recognized someone famous, but I hadn’t and I didn’t. However, one of our group said that Kirsten Bell was there.

Four classic cars had been booked for our Havana tour and we happily climbed into them. Ours was a red 1955 Ford Victoria with a 5-litre V8 engine.  The driver told us that the 61-year-old vehicle had been owned originally by his grandfather, then his father, and now it was his. He told us that the entire engine had been replaced, and that it used 20 litres of gas per 100 km.

For the car buffs among you, I am including an assortment of photos of a few of the old American cars we saw that day. We saw other cars on other days: they are not only in Havana but everywhere in Cuba.

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We saw a different side of Cuba as we toured in our convertible beneath spreading deciduous trees through neighbourhoods of middle-class homes in “new Havana.” We drove by the Colon Cemetery (1876) which is historically significant for the range of people who are interred there, as well as for the architecture of its tombs and memorials. I’d have loved to have looked around in there for a while, but we didn’t have time. I understand that it accommodates over a million deceased people and is now full. However, it is still a popular destination, so many of those who have been buried there for a while (three or four years) have to be disinterred and stored elsewhere to make room for the newcomers. I also understand that a lot of the tombs have been desecrated or are in disrepair, especially those belonging to families in exile.

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We stopped at the Plaza de la Revolución, which is surrounded by governmental and cultural buildings, to take photos of the huge metal depictions of the faces of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, and the José Martí Memorial (109 m tall). The square is 72,000 metres square, and is used for large political gatherings. Fidel Castro (or now his brother Raúl) address Cubans in this plaza at least twice a year.

Our next stop was a lovely park named Parque Almendares, also known as Bosque de la Habana (Havana’s forest). We wandered along the edge of the river and enjoyed the overwhelmingly lovely greenery, but we were warned to keep our eyes open for the remains from chicken sacrifices and other unsavoury litter as voodoo is a big thing among some of the park regulars. The area is gradually being restored and revived as part of the Gran Parque Metropolitano network that will offer safe outdoor activities for people of all ages. It is a truly lovely spot.

After parting for the final time from our group at the Hotel National, we wandered down the famous Havana Malecón (the word means “pier,” and the street’s official name is the Avenida de Maceo). The street, promenade and and seawall – which features in every film about Havana, often during storms when waves crash up against the wall and into the streets – stretches for 8 km along the coast. (For information on the bare flagpoles, read this article.)

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As the scheduled time for our departure from Havana approached, we caught a bicycle taxi back to our casa, collected our suitcases, and took a cab with another couple to Varadero There, we would spend our last two days in Cuba at an all-inclusive – mostly under gentle medical supervision.