Sunday, 21 December 2014

one week to go....

The very thought that this time next week I will have completed a marathon is rather exciting. I am doing my best to contain this excitement. I feel I have done everything I can for the big day.

One of the key things I am trying to concentrate on at the moment is how small this challenge is relative to my previous endeavours and those my friends are undertaking. I spent some time with an IronMan last week, and this week one of my inspirational mates has taken off on a solo circumnavigation around the world, he is also a marathoner and an IronMan, a Channel swimmer and a celebrated Kiwi. Then there is my friend who just had a baby (in the past fortnight not unlike the rest of you Mum's just the most recent in my life and also the most present!). When I think of a woman's endurance in child birth it makes me focus on my own mission and how this is altogether a lot easier than the challenges cast their way.

I have climbed to Everest Base camp, battled altitude sickness and endometriosis. My pain threshold and my perseverance have been tested. Next Sunday however, will be the greatest planned challenge of my life. I know each training run has led me to this day, each experiment with nutrition, hydration, sleep, rest, pace and mental tools have kept me in good stead. And each little morsel of support I have received has only helped the last part.

I have a race plan and the last piece of advice I had was "no matter what stick to the race plan" so here goes....

Monday, 10 November 2014

Miles and Miles and Miles

You may laugh but I went for a 20 mile (32km) run and all I kept thinking was "my dear friend is having her baby, this is surely much easier than what she is going through". Now in the still light of humanity with the joy of a smiling child nestled in her arms I'm pondering what I fuck did I go for a 20mile run for, am I crazy?

And the truth is I am (for the record said labouring friend has run longer and harder than I ever will!). Thats the thing with marathon training you push your limits on what you can and can't do. I now accept I am a plodder. I have always suspected. I have even in high altitude moments been delighted with my Turtle like behaviour. But understanding that I am slow does not mean I wont finish. What my training has taught me is that if you get out for a run each day you will improve yourself. It might be that you discover the only thing you did right was drink enough water the day before, or that you bought your Oyster Card to get home! But its still a positive and affirmation that your Girl Guide days really did ensure you will always "Be Prepared".

Here are some of my lessons so far

  • Contrary to popular opinion in long distance training going out slow does not work for me. Steady yes. Slow no. 
  • Hydration is king. 
  • Nutrition is Queen. I learnt early on my favourite crisps give me the runs after a run (TMI sorry, but it was a well learnt lesson and has made me eat better snacks).
  • Eating before any run (no matter how short) is a great idea. And this comes from a strict no running after breakfast kind of girl! Porridge is awesome.
  • The stitch can be cured. Keep running and breath through the run (many people saw me running with one hand in the air for about 6 weeks, this helps too!) 
  • Comfortable clothes are great and don't cost the earth (and in my case honestly never were meaningfully matched forgive me on race day!!!)
  • Bra's are more important than shoes. Get it fitted. If its too tight it will stretch. But if someone wants to invest a Garmin Heart Rate/Shock Absorber Bra that would be awesome I have hideous chaffing (thank god I'm single, although I'm sure there will be scars if that's what your into!) 
  • Shoes are as important as Bra's. Get them fitted
  • Gels are awesome. I love them. Now. I was a big "they're a gimmick" person. But now I get it. They really boost you in a way Fruit Pastilles don't - although I still would take FP's on a half marathon!
  • Knowing your route. Although fun to be carefree it really helps if you know where you are going and where there is a toilet and water stop. I pushed my limits on a couple of long runs without these facts. 
  • You don't need to run with an iPod. Mine has for lack of a better word Died. I'm seeing this as another thing that has prepared me for the day were you are encouraged not to run with a devise and hell I need all the support I can muster!!

I am about to embark on the longest run of my life. I am likely to do it slower than any living person I know. But damnit I am doing it. No
longer the screaming supporter I am the one running. I want to achieve this distance not the time. But if I get under 5 hours I would be delighted.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Rest is best for Fitness (and Marathon training)

I'm still hot and mildly sweaty (despite wearing sweat retardant clothes!) from a 5km run and it was easy. Now that sounds weird. I find it very strange to think running for 5km is easy. A year ago I could barely walk to the bus stop without taking a pause on route (not due to lack of fitness if you have followed the blog). And today as I return from one of my last runs before my marathon I feel a bit mah <ambivalent shrugged shoulders included>.

I know that "mah" is not a word but it feels like I have just been for a walk to the shops. Although easier, cos I haven't had to carry the bags back the 2km and up my 3 flights of stairs. I guess this is the all illusive "fitness" I have been working my way towards.

I have languished in 4 days inside my house. Over the weekend after my nearest and dearest being ill from various contagious autumn bugs, my body decided it wanted to hibernate. Ok so maybe it was my mind, but none the less I haven't left the 60sqm flat in 4 days and by god has the weather changed! Last week it was balmy 15-19degrees and well today its outright cold, puddle jumping, mud sliding miserable. These few days inside will probably do me the world of good for a few reasons.

  1. I have rested my body. And after a lovely lunch with a successful multi-IronMan any miles I put in now will really only be to keep the body in motion. Training now is only fatiguing myself for the day. 
  2. My body needs a break. I made it to the illusive 20miles a week ago so I have reached the training nirvana and with more energy in the legs after the run this seems like I have done everything I can for the big day.
  3. resting my niggles. Like all runners we get niggles and one that keeps on popping up for me after long sustained pounding of the pavement is a netball knee injury from 1998 (now I feel old!). 
  4. Nothing worse to run on low energy. And that has been a real problem this past week. I've boxed set it out. I have tried to push all my other problems (like unemployment, migration and life bewilderment) off the agenda for the lead up to the big day. I've made time to meditate. 
I can't say I'm enjoying this taper week. I want to start eating carbs and get to Valencia but for now I am moving onto making cushions for a friend and talking to more over excitable under-delivering recruitment agents. Roll on Wednesday!

Oh my gosh that was glib....I'll work on improving this!!!!

Thursday, 23 October 2014

All Creatures Great and Small

Running my first half marathon in 2010
What always strikes me when I attend a race of any distance, is how it takes all shapes and sizes, creatures great and small. And I am no exception.

There are people who are young and old, of every race and religion, men in turbans, women in headscarves, topless and toned, slim and leggy, rotund and rouge red, bouncing, compact and flailing. But like all things in life, if You put your mind to goal then it doesn't matter what your genetic code you're going to do your best to complete that challenge.

I had lunch yesterday with a dear friend and we discussed how we describe our body shapes on dating websites. She is a completely different shape to me exceeding 5'11 and with a booty I think JLo would covet. I am 5'6 with all the right curves in all of their respective places (I wish I had the confidence to say all the right places!). We both described ourselves as curvy....yet she thinks I'm skinny, sporty skinny but skinny. Whilst as a girl I swooned a thanks, I am comfortable enough to know I aint a Skinny Bitch (the title of a great book not a slur).

Perfectly formed for a marthon....
with one of my running role models
But it bought me back to an uber ride with a very educated man and explaining why I know my way through The City of London I said "I run". He cocked his head at me and said "but your not a size zero". And he is absolutely right. I am a size 14. I have cellulite and boobs, that despite my best efforts I can't run off! I have Kiwi girl thighs and an hourglass waistline and (as yet tested) childbearing hips. I've had to learn how to manage with the body I have. I had thought that training for a marathon would change my body shape more than it has. I have slimmed down my waist (more bra shopping required, oh joy!) and my legs are very firm - this has a more to do with my loathing the foam roller than I should, so I assure you this is not a good thing. My upper arms are slimming and I have a sense of being more firm generally but otherwise my hips are wide and I can't fit my skinny skinny jeans but I can run 27km. And in a months time I will make it around 42.2km.

See thats the thing readers, runners or otherwise, it doesn't matter what size you are, its about how you approach life, each step at a time. Are you pushing yourself physically? Are you stretching your mind? Are you being kind? These are things that only we can answer for ourselves truly. Noone else knows our potential more than ourselves.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Running is my life (no really thats what I do at the moment!)

I've let my blog go a bit dormant over the past year. This last few months have not really been terribly travel blog worthy but more a tale of running. I entered in the Valencia Marathon back in January and 10 months later here I am a month out from the big day.

I'm not going to lie, the training has been hard. Some days are definitely worse than others and some are quite simply the best days of my life. Curiously I have just read an article on Manic Depression and I think this is how my running feels while I am on the roads/towpaths/tracks/foot tunnels to bring in the miles of training that one needs to do to prepare for a day where you run 42.2km. But there is one thing for sure, every time I climb my 3 floors to home and I gulp back water I feel better. A sense of achievement sweeps over me and I recall the grafitti ("Have a nice day" was yesterdays discovery), the smiles and raised eyebrows of acknowledgement of fellow runners, fierce geese chases, disgruntled canal cyclists and clapping supporters.

My wee patch of poppy planting
at the Tower of London
Since July and an unceremonious fall down stairs at work where I sliced open my chin and immobilised my right arm for a month and my senses for longer, I have been unemployed. I decided to leave my job because I lost any sense of purpose, a deep loathing for the management style and a hope I could earn some man money for a change. And like anyone who has had a period of unemployment this can cause you to second guess every minute detail of your life. In a recent chat to my Mum I blurted "what do I care, I can't relate to anyone at the moment, I don't have a job, I don't have a partner, I'm not planning a wedding, building a house, raising a child/ren, and as for a mortgage I don't give a shit, I'm training for a marathon and noone wants to relate to being tired, let alone what motivates me to do it to myself!'. Poor Mum didn't know where to go with this, so turned my attention to charitable work she is doing instead. Bless her. I signed up to lay poppies at the Tower of London the next day to commemorate the start of the First World War.

When I signed up for the marathon I had a few friends suggest I do the run for charity. As is commonly done here in the UK people have to do something physical to gain funds. Suggesting its really useful to focus the mind when the going gets tough. This would involve asking all my friends with the above responsibilities to give to a cause of my choosing. No, I was running this marathon for me. It is My challenge. I just didn't realise how much of a challenge it would prove to be.

In the count down to the day I plan to keep a wee note on here of my progress and the tools I use to get me across the finish line.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Citizen of the World

Its hit me like a bolt from a the blue. Something I have never really considered but just now as I take a quiet Monday evening moment, I have realised I am a citizen of the world.

I qualify for this less than legally binding membership, simply by noting I have no ONE place in the world where my friends all live. No metropolis large or small that I can call on more than one of my favourite friends (who actually know each other!). There is the one I met at work who resides in London, the one I met in a hotel lobby who resides in Barcelona, the one I met at Kindergarten who resides in my home town, the one I met over break-up tears who resides in my University city and the one who I met at a sailing regatta who resides in the big smoke. These are just an example of the many best mates I have scattered around the world....but will those centralised in the City of Sails really want to spend time with me when I get there? Will they make the time and effort of those I have in London? Will I still share things in common or has our lives diverged beyond return? I have no partner nor a child to share interests with. I have no money for a mortgage or its requisite lawn mowing weekend chores.  I don't have a power career, just a collection of scattered friends in countries I love to visit.

This makes it all seem so impossible as I make up these pros and cons lists, committing to change. Begging questions like, where shall I live? how I will adapt? See with all these friends in all these places I am spoilt and like a cherubs bow will break hearts in my wake....this is by no means a romantic notion as noone likes a arrow through a vital organ but the sadness that comes with leaving friends makes my decision seem unbearable.

And then as I did do just that by ripping the band off, mentioning my thoughts of relocation hand shakes sealed deals, wine glasses were chinked and plans were hatched. If I am going to be a citizen of the world, then I am darn well going to live in it, for it and love every moment of it and meeting in the middle is definitely a mighty fun plan....

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Cigars and Sunshine - Viva la Revolution

To celebrate my return to health and with 2 months left to knock off some New Years Resolutions I got on Skyscanner and booked 2 weeks in Cuba. Now I am not your classic beach holiday kinda girl. I own a bikini but loath to don it at the best of times - let alone now I have some funky scars. Alas I know no-one in Cuba, so with hopes of experiencing life free of the trappings of Capitalism I rolled up my sleeves and set off on one of the strangest, friendliest, easiest, safest, stunning, peaceful, inspirational, theory destroying journeys.

I arrived in Havana late at night on Sunday and after delays in London and Madrid and the long queues at both Havana's customs AND bag collection, I fortuitously blagged a ride to the Hotel Nacional with a tour group of Brits. For anyone planning on going make sure you have a hotel booked and transfers sorted for your first night. I ended up in Hotel Victoria around the corner from The Nacional (Havanas crowning glory of a hotel which deserves all the accolades - except if you want dinner with your last bits of currency between 4-7pm as they don't serve food!). I was delighted with the quaintness of the hotel room with a rocking chair. I leapt at it like a small child. Only to discover now I am in a communist country, every room I was to stay in over the next two weeks offered an equally rocking chair. Oh the naive enthusiasm of it all.

In my jetlag I turned on the tele, expecting nothing less than all the Spanish language channels, only to discover a live link to Homeland (which I had to avoid for fear of getting out of order) and a fascinating documentary on Cannibas as a Medicinal resource for children with epilepsy. All in fact all in American. My ideals felt crushed. So I tossed my head out the window to admire the passing cars and general nightly bustle of a chaotic city. And ended up with a plume of exhausts up my nostrils from a passing 1950's Chevrolet.

Waking up early and enjoying breakfast in the hotel (a trap for tour holiday operators, so reliable) and learning about what a lychee looks like in the flesh. As per usual, I set out with a vague plan of events formed while I was on the plane. Seat of the pants travelling it may seem to you, but it allows me to never be disappointed. After breakfast, I walked the 8km into town along the infamous Mélacon, admiring the crumbling fascade of the majestic buildings and baffling the taxi drivers - but helping me recover from the jetlag. I stumbled on my first rations store with hoards of tourists taking photos like paparazzi outside. Dodging the crowds I wondered the streets before realising the pot holed street I was on, was infact the street I was to visit an ailing Doctor to provide him medicines given to me by my friend Federica back in London. Asking the locals if this was Doctor Jose's house I was met by the cheerful smiles of the Octogenarian (you will note my trip was dominated by 80+year olds!) and welcoming hugs for his new friend Joanne. He ceremoniously collecting the letters Fede has sent him over the past year and kissed her pictures "Mi amor". We conversed for a few minutes before I parted ways promising to return with his heart burn medicines.

Back at the hotel, erring on lunch time, I made the rash decision to ditch the city and head for the hills. My aim was a the Eco-resort town of Las Terrazas, securing a booking by phone for a room for the night, I made my way to the bus station. Alas it was not to be, there was no bus until tomorrow, so I rallied up some Irish folk and made my way with them by Taxi to the Limestone hills of Vinales.

A stunning drive, along barely populated motorways and back roads we arrived in the pretty tourist town of Vinales, nestled in the limestone hills amongst waterfalls and tobacco plantations. I stayed  with Roberto El Mucho a delightful man and his wife who revelled in feeding me monstrous portions and sharing tales of their grandchildren in Italy. This was the first of many Casa Particulares I stayed in - these are the spare rooms of family homes, where you have your own bathroom. It is very comfortable and allows you to see what family life is like for the pretty sum of 25USD a night (or Euros at Roberto's house if you run out as the town is too small for an ATM - ideal Xmas gifts for the Italian grandkids!). I took a horse out for a morning trek to a tobacco plantation in Vinales, which included Mojitos with the sweetest honey at 11am and hand rolled cigars made to fit for me. Our host was a delight and showed us the intricacies and in stunted English the process of making Cigars. Of which he smoked about 10 per day. Given they take about an hour each to smoke that is some commitment to his day! It was very wild west in Vinales and this adds to the charms along with the vibrancy of the house proud locals. At night after the tour buses from Havana had long since gone, I found myself drinking mojitos and sharing a freshly rolled cigar in a bar with a fellow backpacker, listening to my next Octogenarian with his band of son, grandson, grand daughter and grand nephew. It was magic. He lead with such pose, and whilst holding us in awe of his voice danced like a turkish dervish in the frequent instrumental sections. I knew then I loved Cuba. Not only did it have heart, it had rhythm.

After a rain storm took out power in Vinales I headed by bus for 7 hours to the city of Cienfuegos on the South central coast. Meeting an Australian couple on my journey, helped sort out my accommodation. Casa Particulares in the city have 2 rooms not just one and if they don't have a spare room, then their neighbour will! Same price, same neighbourhood - and if they aren't in a guide or on tripadvisor, probably a more authentic experience.This was definitely my experience at least. And by authentic, this means more ornaments than you could imagine an adult would want to dust in their right mind, and a few glamour shots to boot!.

Cienfuegos is a revolutionist city with some of the best Art Deco architecture, which in my years could only be compared to Napier, New Zealand. UNESCO has recently claimed the inner ten blocks of town as a world heritage site so the paint is finally being splashed about. However the most beautiful building I found was a crumbling monastry which fell outside the UNESCO limits. Cienfuegos gave me the opportunity to see what a normal city was like in Cuba, few tourists stop here and its straightforwardness was charming. I met an inspirational artist by the name of Vladimir and purchased some of his work. We discussed his choice to become an artist after studying and working for the government as an Architect (Everyone works for the government in a communist society) He is able to make more from the one piece of art he sold me than he can earn in a week as an Architect (20CUC or $20US). He is seeking further education in psychology as he feels it will improve his artistic expression. But has to have permission from the Minister of Architecture to veer off the Architecture path.

I enjoyed the curiosity of the city, but wouldn't recommend it as a must see, unless you need some time to recalobrate and want to try some excellent food experience. One of which is the El Travania where we had excellent service and ate in a rail carriage and the waiters dressed like station guards and we were able to join the band. Note I said experience....the food was reliable but nothing to write home about. On the other hand the delicious Paladar Ache - one of the best Paladars I graced in Cuba, offered brilliant food for a very hungangry crowd with grace and good service....and excellent English and even some Italian. Visiting this Paladar was probably the closest I got to Cuban food and in particular the dessert which was a strong cheddar cheese served with sweetened coconut. It could literally burn holes in fillings but was a delicious contrast to seemingly familiar French flans.

Along with my new Australians comrades we hired a 1952 Plymouth,  to the crowning glory of Cuba in 2013 in my opinion; Trinidad. Unlike the car - which had lost all its shocks and springs including in the seats we were grateful for the arrival! As the first truly hot day of my trip, I made my way down to the beach directly. Playa Alcon is about 15 mins by car from town and offers communist style accommodation for the package tourists from Germany and Russia in just 2 resorts, offering the rest of the beach to the town dwelling tourists. And what a treasure this beach was. For a few dollars we rented a beach chair for the afternoon and took dips between chapters and were offered sandwiches and refreshment from the Hotel staff (earning pocket money from this side business). The Cubans cannot be faulted for their entrepreneurial spirit that's for sure.

Trinidad is a stunning wee town of 50,000 inhabitants, which was founded by the sugar barons of Cuba in the late 19th and early 20th century. Its beauty is in its combination of beach, mountainous backdrop or the wealth of its yesteryear buildings. Culiminating in a city rich in artistic inspiration. Along with the sugar came a cocophany of immigrants from East Africa (by way of the Carribean), Spanish and Germans and the Americas. All chasing the sweet gold of Cubas rich fields, while trade around the Americas was thriving. One of the great remnants of this age is the Museo Historico Municipal in the main square. Offering views across the vast beauty of Trinidad and the surrounds and some insight into the cities history. Walking the streets  of grand homes with front rooms dedicated to galleries of the works of the family, bought you closer to understanding the crafts, painters, cartoonists and photographers. Each with their own skill and take on the Politically divisive nature of a communist society where censorship and sensitivity must be observed whilst continuing to fashion a unique style. One such artist I met was the fascinating Rameses, a cartoonist who I hunted down after discovering my Australian friends had bought the very piece I wanted! Rameses kindly joined me for a drink and gave an incredible insight into the culture of Cuba from his journalistic perspective. I would encourage anyone visiting Trinidad to track him down. Another delight of the city for any vintage lovers are the curiosity restaurants, where you eat in grand homes with the very silver and china that you can only see in museums at home (or at your favourite aunts if your lucky!). I loved drinking out of the beautiful glasses and felt like I was in a time warp eating lobster in this environment. So beautiful.

I made myself at home in Trinidad and enjoyed sunset walks along the colourful Calle Juan Manuel overlooking the Topes de Collantes, which I later spent a day walking and swimming in Cascada El Rocío. A lovely environment to cleanse the soul and for $30 I enjoyed a tour with one other backpacker allowing us to ask all the questions you might want to know about Trinidad, life as an accountant in Cuba, what home cooked food actually is and be reassured they all eat huge portions. And that the local drink Canchanchara drink should be your only drink of choice! So delicious with its liquid honey and that infamous Barcadi. The mountains may bring crowds because Che hid there in 1958 from the CIA, but they are beautiful and the waterfalls are worth the walk. Please note any trekkers will hate how slow the pace is but its great for a natter and unless your fluent in Spanish this is a delightful exchange.

My evenings all ended at the Plaza Mayor with the Casa De la Musica, an open air venue where bands line up to entertain both locals and tourists from the early evening. Salsa is danced by all and the locals are both gracious enough to invite tourists up to share in the dancing and excellent at showing off their skills. The locals are more sensible by brining bottles of rum in to drink themselves while a bar serves all the eager tourists.

With some negotiation I was expecting to be collected at 9am for Santa Clara, but solo travellers be warned, taxi drivers want to fill the car and can make a packet out of a 3 hour journey, so you may often find them on the street, trying to find someone else to join you. Alas I had found friends and saved a few pennies in the end. On arrival to Santa Clara I discovered another mishap. The Casa Particular that was booked for me was full (my previous hosts fault) but we were kindly housed down the road at La Casona de Jovier. Now travelling with an Italian couple who were on the Che trail I joined them at the Conjunto Escuitorico Commandante Ernesto Che Guevara - a massive park and intimate museum in his honour, which houses a detailed account of his life. But notably no reference to Che's birth date or the date of his death in Bolivia. A couple of things struck me in the museum, his Argentinian rugby heritage, and the last self portrait of him was of a portly, bril creamed, man in slacks and white shirt. I couldn't quite believe Che Guevara would die looking so ordinary. But I suspect that added to the camoflauge of hiding from the CIA.

Next door was the Museoleam for the Bolivian Revolutionists and an Eternal Flame lit by Commandante Fidel. All the bodies recovered from the revolutionist fight in Bolivia at the time of Che's death are held there, bar Che's. There was a real feeling of communist pride here. As a global memorial for the cause. It was heavy stuff.

We strolled down the road to find an infamous wall with revolutionist graffiti, which was both poinent and very pointed at the neighbouring USA. Our last stop was the train stop where Che and his men attacked a military train in 1958 and is revered as the fall of the Capitalist lead Cuban Government of Batista.Cementing Che Guevara as an icon of Revolutionists the world over.

Our evening in Santa Clara had low expectations and having taken dinner in the Casa we were invited by our host to stay for his daughters 19th birthday. During the course of our meal we watched a stream of young and old friends arrive in the interior courtyard. Dutifully as the guitar came out the 19 year old daughter asked for a bottle of rum and left with her friends for a club!. Seems her Dad was hosting all his friends to congratulate his wife on surviving 19 years!!! What ensued was one of those best nights of my life which you can't script. Two guitarists and a local export singer jammed the night away. It was simply amazing.

After much internal debate I took to the road with the Italians again to the least anticipated place of my journey Veradero. Veradero is a seemingly endless strip of coast with stunning white sand and an expanse of package tour offerings. Convinced to come for one last day on the beach, I was not disappointed by its sheer beauty. And the beauty was a tonic - when we didn't sit next to a military hotel - yes they have those with casinos - and coins released every 10 minutes breaking the serenity, along with a curious chap who used the fixed binoculars to parouse the beach and beyond...for threats?!

Veradero is a typical package holiday destination...and for its part not my cup of tea. We stepped into its culture for the night to try it out. Eating at a local paladar and being given cigars for the service. Then taking a classic open top pink  Cadillac to The Beatles bar (the Beatles were banned from being played in Cuba in the 60's and 70's) where Russians and French Canadians rocked to heavy Rock and made fools of themselves and got very very drunk.

What became very obvious is the Cuban consumption of rum didn't turn them into letchy lurching embarrasments to their mother. In fact as a single female I felt much safer in the company of Cubans than in the tourist areas. So holidaymakers unless you want to drink substandard drinks and have hangovers for a week - Veredero would not be on my recommendation list....even for a base! (I only feel smug for saying this because I did try it out).

Another mis-organised taxi ride had me trudge to the Bus stop and catch a cab outside with some nieve Canadians to Havana for 20CUCpp

Returning to Havana I was rested and ready. I had heard tales of scams and nuisances. I had met enough interesting folks to not need to pay for drinks and meals from "well meaning locals", and when two girls asked me the time as I was walking to the Revolutionists Musuem tried helpfully to tell me because it was the National Day of Salsa all Museums were shut. Thanks for your help ladies, but I was in luck, I enjoyed perusing your national history for a good few hours!

I wanted to see a Baseball game at Estasio Latinoamericano and after a failed attempt in the evening (misinformation from several people sadly) I secured a ticket for 3CUC at the gate, at 10am. Escourted to the tourist section I was joined by my Australian friends over some popcorn. The game was confusing but it allowed us to have a first hand experience of the national sport, see the players lodging across the street (remember they are all paid by the government on the standard $20pw wage- regardless of their skillset - unsurprisingly most of them head to USA to play for multi- millions and are never to return home). It was a treat to observe the men doing the speed tests of each pitch. The mechanics were interesting. Not least the Cuban flag wearing spectator who undertook the role of motivational cheerleader. I understand at the end of the innings Industriales beat Isla

Having located myself in Habana Central with Dr Jose's daughter I was within easy walking distance of all the main sites. By staying at the disintegrating end of town I was able to see life on the street a little out of the sanitised Tourist streets.

On the evening after failing to find baseball I asked the Taxi driver to take me to a famous place in town...were I can drink. He dutifully dropped me outside Floridita, reknowned as the home of the Daiquiri and a Hemingway hangout. I found a spot at the bar and proceeded to drink happily for a few hours, enjoying the band playing classics like Chan Chan, Guantanamero and Commondante Che Guevara which became the theme tune to my trip. A young German at the bar invited me to join him at La Bodequita del Medio close by. Famed as the home of Mojito I felt like my night was a cocktail success, when we arrived to the 8x8 foot bar bustling with a band crammed in the corner, salsa dancing and just enough space for us both at the bar to order some the imfamous drop.

Another best night of my life clocked...twice in a week, Cuba was really holding its own for me as one of the best experiences I have had travelling solo! Especially in the after hours category. I cannot emphasis enough how safe I felt in Havana. This may have been more luck than good management but honestly with a skinful I was really only ever walking directly places in the well lit central city and had no hassle.

Some other notable treats around Havana included in no particular order; Museo del Chocolat - tasty and reminiscent of Mexico. Cafe Paris - great Music - dive bar style and very friendly. La Factoria in Plaza Vieja - pina colada's served in Pineapples for a bit of cheesieness and ideal people watching. Dona Eutima - best  food in Cuba hands down. I ate here by recommendation of friends 3 times. Booking in advance, such was the popularity. The neighbouring Printing Press Gallery was a hive of hungry patrons waiting for their table...Stephanie I have a 1952 Chevrolet door for your collection to (Surprise!)

Havana sites I think is worth a mention;
Museo de la Reveolucion - last ticket sold at 4pm - former presidents palace - styled by Tiffanys of New York - one room even resembles Versailles. Its a really great example of propoganda and you can imagine school groups being swayed by the Castro ideals here. Those on the Che tour can see the boat (Granma) that the revolutionists arrived in from Mexico, and another eternal flame for the fallen revolutionists, all under constant guard (I'm not really sure why).
Museo Nacional de Bella Artes - excellent modern art...infact exceptional given the isolation of Cuba. The building is behind the Museo Revolucion
Capiltalio Nacional - under construction but pretty - old cars can be hired outside or the owners are just as delighted to have their pictures taken.
Calle Obispo - great shopping, bars, money exchange
Plaza Vieja - people watching and buildings - mix of periods from Art Noveau  to Baroque. There is a really popular cofee shop there too if you are on the hunt.
Plaza Cathedral - an example of baroque period and a great spot to wait for a seat at Dona Eutima Paladar!

My time in Havana was capped off by taking sunset at the Hotel Nacional. I had hoped to have a meal here as I mentioned, but with no food on the menu, I took to consuming my last convertables on Mojito and enjoying the company of an Argentinian Writer/Director. The Cuban Film festival was due to start the next day but with flags at half mast around the city and a national decree that there should be no activity to commemorate the passing of  Nelson Mandela, he was anxious his work would not be seen. I had learnt of Mr Mandela's passing at the baseball, so detached from technology (I haven't mentioned there is no or VERY limited internet outside of Havana and no international mobile signal). I was devastated by the news having seen Mr Mandela in London for his 90th birthday in Hyde Park.

Alas I departed Cuba (and its long queues at the airport) tipsy and fulfilled. I have seen Cuba as it stood proud in 2013. Lead by Octogenarian Rual Castro. Where rumours that Fidel was still alive were rife and recognition that if one of the Castro children were to take power that this would form a Monarchy of power.  Where communism is the way of life with rations and censorship, but a clear undercurrent of black market seemingly fuelled solely by the tourist trade helps keep progress in the national consciousness. So valued is our money and trade tourists are respected (that's not to say you don't get whistled at and ripped off but they do it consistently). I observed the poverty of a life on rations but the resourcefulness that comes hand in hand with this, that sadly the capitalist world has lost in the comparative 50 years of change. I also took note of the curiosity of the tourists at this time, experiencing life in a frozen in time environment, and all of the remarkably beautiful made items of yesteryear. I advised those locals I met not to be seduced by the foreign offers for payment of furniture and homewares in years to come, as I see these everyday items as a way to differentiate themselves as a place of historical importance. And I learnt first hand that to buy a pizza for 10CUC is not the same as 10National (equivalent of $10 v 20c)....cheeky bugger.

I am pleased to have experienced it in a time when restaurants were starting to boom and before mass tourism takes over. It is beautiful, and well worthy your airmiles to visit.

Before I sign off I have two confessions, I have turned on Buena Vista Social Club to write this post, because it is the backbone of the covers played by the many bands, and simply gets a girl moving. And secondly because of Cubas communist backbone, I somehow thought it would be more militaristic like Myanmar, Vietnam or even Cambodia; where  there is almost a national uniform. Cubans on the other hand, proudly wear the shortest school uniforms I have ever seen and the washing lines are always full of the brightest colours.

Top Tips

  • View The Lonely Planet with caution. Many people I spoke to were able to put lines through places that are no longer open and towns inaccessible 
  • Carry Cash - ATM's are in short supply. I would advise even bringing plenty of GBP/EUR to exchange in main cities. USD is not welcomed - but can be used in Havana in the street markets
  • Get your hands on the local currency - you'll save a fortune!
  • Pay the artists. We are their lifeblood. And they really do leave you with the soundtrack to a holiday more than any playlist will and their art can be enjoyed for years to come.
  • Go to Trinidad. It has everything - City, Architecture, food, beach, mountains, new, old and definitely quant. 
  • If you have ever wanted to travel by bicycle this would be a fantastic place to do it. I met a couple doing the entire country (excessive!) but the roads are near empty and if there are problems the only people who can get through are cyclists!
  • Smoke the cigars. They are both delicious and organic. I was given them in restaurants, smoked the authentic ones you buy in humidified rooms in London and the hand made ones rolled especially for me. I hate cigarettes but these are something else. 
  • Drink like you have never drunk before. The mojitos or daiquiri wont help with any diet, but screw it these are the best cocktails you will ever drink in ever back alley and government Restaurant going. 
  • Take Cabs, bargain and buddy up
  • If you want to see Guantanemo which I hear is beautiful make sure you organise internal flights before you leave home or Havana - its a full 28 hours from the South to Havana I was told. 
  • Read up on Revolutionists before you leave home. It'll help understand the fabric of this place. 
  • Every taxi you will take in Havana will cost 5CUC - feel free to bargain an there is a fixed price to and from the airport.
  • Its a pretty easy place to bdget as accomodation costs 25CUC a night and meals around 15-20CUC depending on your mojito and cigar consumption. 
  • you could eat Lobster every night for around 8CUC if you so desire. 
  • Bring all your left over cosmetics and medicines for your hosts at the Casa Particulars.People will stop you on the street and ask for soap so feel free to take the daily ration from your hotel room. What seems silly to you, really really helps them out. And the appreciation is very rewarding. If you track down a Dr, Nurse or Dentist they could give the meds you have to appropriate patients. They don't even have basic medicines here despite having the greatest number of Doctors per capita and trading them as a resource with other countries!
  • Brush up on your'll help no end. I was very naughty and enjoyed the benefit of others language skills.