Photo by David Corrie Jr./Contributor
First glimpse of fitness
My first few days in Havana Cuba have been quite an experience. When first arriving in the country, we took a van to the hotel and had a nice journey through the city as we explored some of the outskirts. One thing that was very interesting to see was a building that looked like it was built for Olympic athletes to train in, as it had the big Olympic games symbol with portraits of different types of athletes. The building had a sign but all I was able to catch was “deportes” which I believe means “sports” in Spanish. This would be an awesome place to go back and check out for my project on cultural fitness. I also spotted two women working out with what looked to be a personal trainer from a distance as I watched them holding a dumbbell weight in one arm and performing oblique side tilts. It was cool to see them performing an exercise that I have prescribed for my clients in the past as well.
Once we got to the hotel we settled in and shortly after took a walk to do some minor exploring close by the hotel before the welcome dinner started at 8 p.m. After not much walking my roommate and I ran into an old stadium where we saw kids playing soccer on the field. There was also a dirt track around the field where we saw people jogging around, and a set of monkey bars and push-up bars for others to perform calisthenics on. Seeing all of these things gave my project topic assurance that it will end up working out just fine, as it wasn’t hard to find some of the fitness culture in Cuba.
After coming back to the stadium to take pictures, we discovered that it was an old recreation center with basketball courts, a volleyball net and pools that were empty. I found out that this building was built in the 1800s, which explained why the building was so run down but nevertheless still standing. So far Cuba has been amazing and I am looking forward to more awesome experiences to come soon!
New friends and new experiences
Starting off the week for the first couple of days has been very eventful, to say the least. On Monday we finally met our translators that would be working with us during the week. I was in Lionel’s group, and he turned out to be a really cool guy to talk to that shared many similar interests of mine as well. I first found out that he is a huge American sports fan with his favorite team being the Patriots. I thought that was super funny because I am a die-hard Raiders fan and both teams have a big rivalry, so it was fun to talk a little smack to each other which I thought helped break the ice a bit.
After talking for a while with the group, Lionel took us to a cafeteria called Super Burger, which he said was like the Cuban Burger King. On the way back to the hotel I ran into a gym that looked like it had a lot of equipment inside. It was closed at the time that we stopped by, but I was nonetheless excited to find my first lead on my topic of fitness culture in Cuba.
On Tuesday, my group met up around 2 p.m. to start our day exploring the city. I didn’t realize at first that we shouldn’t have gone in such a big group since everyone had different topics, but I wanted to come along for the ride and explore a different part of the city that was very fascinating. Luckily while traveling we ran into the University of Havana where I got to go inside the sports stadium they had and take pictures of a group of young kids playing a game of soccer.
It was awesome to go inside another country’s sports stadium and see the layout of it and what they have going on compared to the college sports stadiums back in the states. This was a place where a lot of young kids and teenagers enjoyed hanging out and socializing as well as playing some unorganized soccer. I was definitely glad to find something during the trip that related to my project, even though I was along for the ride for other people’s interests.
Fitness scene es muy popular
On Wednesday I was rushing to get ready because there was a meeting planned at 8:30 a.m. in the U.S. Embassy that I didn’t want to miss. I had to change my clothes twice because I was told to look professional. By the time I was done the group had already left, so my roommate and I had to run out there as fast as we could and barely made it by the skin of our teeth. The meeting went well and I learned a good amount about different topics relating to Cuba, like that the current president of Cuba, Raul Castro, is stepping down in 2018, which will make for some interesting changes in Cuba in the future.
Switching topics, I was able to visit a gym about six blocks away from the hotel called 17 y E, which was also the same name as the address. The people in the gym were super friendly and allowed us to take pictures of them working out. I talked to a gentleman who I learned was also a student. I interviewed him about the Cuban fitness culture and he said that it was becoming more popular in Cuba due to health as well as looking good. He also explained how it was also a social thing to be able to meet new people and talk to trainers about advice on workouts and nutrition. He believed that the trainers who worked at the gym were certified and had gone to school for their profession, but after talking to another gentleman who was the lead trainer at the gym I found out that wasn’t the case.
Alo, the head trainer, explained that he started working out at a young age and through his own research and experience he became a trainer that overlooks the gym and is there for anyone’s assistance if needed. He explained that he has around three to four clients that he trains every week and invited my partner and me to watch him train an Italian rugby player who wanted to start wrestling.
After being out here in Havana for over a week, I have taken my fair share of taxi rides and the experience has been different than any form of transportation that I have ever used before. First off, the throwback cars from the 50s include over 90% of the taxis in Havana, each being able to fit a group of six people if needed. The cars may not be the best for the environment, as there are clearly no smog checks in this country, but the ride is smoother than you would think, with comfy leather seats to make up for any bumps in the road.
Another important thing to note is that there is no set price on rides unless you use the taxis parked directly outside the hotel. What I have learned is if you walk a few blocks away from the hotel, you will be able to find a better deal with taxi rides as you can talk down the price enormously. Typically you can get a ride from the hotel area to Old Havana for 5 CUC with five people with you, so if you do the math that is only 1 CUC per person, which is way cheaper than an Uber back in the states. Of course, some taxi drivers will try to charge higher prices but if you tend to be good bargainers and stand your ground the drivers will typically give in.
Lastly what I found to be very crazy is that most of the taxi drivers that I have met are only part-time drivers and have other careers outside of driving. One man who I talked to said he was a mechanical engineer, but he earned more money as a taxi driver, which I thought was crazy. What I’ve learned is that people don’t earn much at their day jobs and therefore have to resort to a second side hustle in order to live a more comfortable life. Unlike the drivers back in the states that follow a set price given by the company they work for, the taxi drivers here are just trying to hustle as much as they can to put food on their plate. If that means accepting less than they originally ask for, then so be it, because at the end of the day they really need the extra money.
“Cerrdo por alumerzo”
The gyms that I have visited in Havana all had distinctive traits that made them all stand out in different ways. Some gyms were smaller than others while having really good equipment, while others that were big had very limited and unorthodox machines being used. However, I believe one of the nicest gyms in all of Havana was discovered yesterday, located right down the block from the U.S. Embassy called Osorio’s Gym. This gym was the most modern out of all the gyms that I have been to as far as the lighting, equipment, and spacing. This was a gym I could see myself working out in, which I did the following day.
My workout partner and I ended up arriving at the gym at 11:30 a.m. to workout legs. We started out by hopping on different pieces of cardio equipment that were there to get the body warmed up. After getting the blood flowing, I spotted the only squat rack in the entire gym that was open for the taking, so we snatched it quickly and decided to do some front squats for our first exercise. Of course, we started off with a couple warm-up sets with small weights to prevent any injuries, and then we threw on some big-boy weight to kill the legs. We did about four sets of squats and were sweating like never before. The humidity was nothing to play with, as there was no form of AC within the building to save us.
Once getting a good pump in the legs, Russian dead lifts were next on the list to show the hamstrings some well-deserved attention. While transitioning into different exercises, we noticed that the music that was playing in the building turned off and that we were the only two people working out in the gym. We weren’t sure what was happening but we continued to work out. Once the owner realized that we weren’t getting the hint, he approached us and said that the gym was closed for lunch and that it would open back up at 3 p.m. It was a bummer, to say the least, because we were only there for less than a half hour before we had to leave, but it was a good learning experience. Most businesses close around noon and open up later on in the afternoon. Now I know either to go early or later in the afternoon if I don’t want my workout to get cut short.
From trainer to trainer
I always tell my clients that achieving one’s fitness goals does not come from a quick and easy fix but from a lifestyle change. Exchanging old habits for beneficial ones are always key. Solidifying my project was last on the list by getting the chance to actually work out with a trainer from Cuba. Osorio was the owner of the gym previously mentioned before, and he was also crowned bodybuilding champion of Cuba twice back in his prime of weightlifting. Now at 42 years old, he still maintains good fitness standards and loves to help out anyone who steps into his gym.
Arriving at the gym, Osorio looked engaged with other members in the gym so I decided to start working out and hopefully get his attention later on to share some advice, trainer to trainer. It was upper-body day and seeing all the equipment for chest and back was an exciting feeling, as I knew it would give me a chance to really feel how Cubans here work out. Nothing looked super out of the ordinary; it was just very old equipment and knowing that there has been many who have worked out with these same weights, including champions of fitness like Osorio, gave me joy and motivation to go hard in my workout.
Doing some seated rows was on the list as the handles were two long rusted vertical iron bars that had no specific area on where to place your hands. It was a long reach to the bars from the seat, so I grabbed the top portion and started lifting. I was shortly approached by Osorio who explained the different ways to hold the bars and how it would affect different muscle groups. The way I was holding the bars was predominately focused on targeting my biceps, and he explained grasping from a lower position would put more emphasis on my rhomboids and trapezius muscles. Of course, this was all said in Spanish but I felt very aware of what he was saying, maybe because we had a trainer bond that connected us together that was spoken universally.
More equipment was explained and techniques were properly shown as I had a machine adjustment, but at the end of it all, I was pleased to know that us trainers were more similar than different. The next day I was sore from back to front, but I loved every minute of it knowing I gave it my all, regardless of where I was.