New directions for GPS

gps-tracking

With phenomenal new accuracy and tower costs, the Global Positioning System is becoming the ultimate tracking and seeking tool.

You’re driving in the dead of night through Nebraska corn fields when you see bright lights in the distance. As you get closer, you realize the lights are in the middle of a field far off the road. For a moment, you think you’re going to have a close encounter with a UFO. Then you realize you’ve been watching too much TV. It’s a farmer driving a tractor with a big sprayer on the back.

A farmer? The thought hits you as you speed by. He’s really extending his work day! But even with headlights, how can this farmer possibly navigate through all the bumps and pits in his field? At least you have a road to steer by. That farmer must be crazy!

Not really. Like a sailor of old who used the stars to navigate, the farmer is using a network of 24 satellites orbiting the globe to precisely guide him around his field. Known as the Global Positioning System, or GPS, this satellite navigation network is quickly becoming a familiar tool for everybody from farmers to weekend hikers to scientific researchers. Driving this boom are a number of factors: the declining cost of manufacturing GPS receivers, the easing of government restrictions, and new ideas – like precision farming – about how to effectively use GPS technology.

GPS is expected to blossom from a business with revenues of about $1.5 billion in 1996 to a massive industry worth as much as $8 billion annually by the year 2000, say industry experts. This means that four years from now, you won’t be able to go very far without experiencing or witnessing GPS in action.

So what is GPS? Like the Internet, GPS is an information utility. Put into orbit and maintained by the U.S. Department of Defense, GPS is a constellation of 24 Navstar satellites that circle the Earth every 12 hours and, like a bunch of gossips, continuously emit radio signals giving their position and the time of day. On the ground, a GPS receiver measures how long it takes for the signal from at least three satellites, but preferably four, to arrive deriving longitude, latitude, and altitude from these calculations. You’ll also get the correct time.

GPS accuracy is good enough to determine your position within 350 feet. While this is phenomenal, accuracy would be within 100 feet if it wasn’t for “selective availability,” an error deliberately introduced by the U.S. military to give its own GPS receivers an edge on the battlefield. Selective availability also helps prevent enemies from “spoofing” a soldier’s GPS receiver – sending confusing electronic signals that can make the receiver display the wrong location.

The U.S. government has decided to phase out selective availability over the next few years, largely to alleviate foreign fears that the United States could monopolize GPS if it chose. The military, meanwhile, will use a stronger, harder-to-jam GPS signal, called the Precision Code, to drown out competing GPS signals on the battlefield, and to foil GPS-guided missiles, which are expected to be developed. GPS isn’t considered to be a serious military threat to the United States, but it does pose a problem for allies who lack the U.S. military’s defensive capabilities.

While the demise of selective availability has been hyped in many press reports as a breakthrough, the actual impact has been overstated. It’s true that without selective availability, GPS accuracy will be much improved, but the GPS receivers available to Joe Citizen still won’t be able to tell you exactly where you are. For instance, rent a car from Hertz with a Rockwell International GPS navigation system and you’ll only get resolutions down to one-eighth of a mile.

Some people will benefit from the improved accuracy that will result from the disappearance of selective availability. It may be a little easier for a fisherman to find his favorite spot on a lake, for example. But for the vast majority of commercial users, even an unadulterated version of GPS won’t provide the accuracy needed to implement new ideas. To achieve greater accuracy, many users already couple GPS with ground-based radio beacons to create a system called Differential GPS, or DGPS. On the coastline, these beacons are maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard for boats and ships. Inland, DGPS signals can be transmitted on an FM sub-band by a local radio station. Regardless of their source, the ground-based beacons provide extra reference points that dramatically improve the system’s positioning ability: Astonishing accuracy down to one centimeter can be achieved. With this kind of precision, builders, for example, can use DGPS to make sure a tower is perfectly vertical.

It’s with DGPS that the most innovative uses of the technology are expected. For example, DGPS makes it possible to do “precision farming”: applying chemicals and fertilizers to specific areas that proved troublesome in past years, rather than blanketing an entire field. With DGPS also providing the ability to link soil tests to specific locations over time, farmers can increase yields and reduce chemical costs, and the environment comes out ahead. DGPS may even be used to steer farm machinery across a field, so a tractor can keep running long after the farmer is exhausted.

DGPS can be used in a wide variety of other applications too. Shippers can put DGPS receivers on individual containers to track deliveries, whether they are being made locally or across an ocean. Real estate agents can use it to file the locations of different types of homes. Police, firefighters, and other emergency workers can use it to respond to an exact location. Civil authorities can tag water and gas lines, valves, and electrical sources that need to be found quickly in an emergency or that need to be regularly maintained. Scientists can use the technology for tasks such as marking the locations of rare plants, mapping archaeological sites, and tracking whales as they surface for air. (GPS signals can’t penetrate water.)

DGPS is likely to become part of your daily existence as well. Arrive at a theme park in the near future, and you’ll be handed a pocket-size GPS locator. First you’ll mark the location of your car. Then you’ll put GPS badges on your children, so even if they wander off, you’ll still be able to find them. The display screen on your GPS unit will show the location of all the park’s attractions, with routes continually updated relative to your changing position.

GPS locators may someday be sewn into children’s clothing, worn as amulets, or built into wristwatches. As a watch, GPS would be more than just a locator – GPS transmissions would guarantee that your watch is always set to the correct time. GPS can be built into any device already sporting a display. Expect to see gadgets like handheld TVs adding GPS – Sanyo is already selling one in Japan.

The most noticeable application may be car navigation. Rental companies like Hertz and Avis are moving away from complicated block-by-block map displays that take a driver’s eyes off the road. Instead, simple directional arrows and voice prompts are proving more effective. Car companies such as Cadillac, meanwhile, are taking full advantage of GPS’s capabilities, integrating them into vehicles so that more than merely navigation is provided. Cadillac’s OnStar system, for example, combines GPS and cellular phone technology with a central monitoring service to provide everything from navigation and emergency assistance to help in finding the nearest ATM banking machine. OnStar will even open the car’s doors if you lock yourself out.

To reach its full potential, though, GPS has some limitations to overcome. Buildings and trees can block or reflect GPS signals, causing inaccurate readings. GPS devices compensate for these “clock holes” by estimating a position until the signal is reacquired. But in the future, GPS receivers may be sensitive enough to find a lost child in dense foliage, for example.

Also looking for a role in improving the performance of the technology is Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS), a constellation of two dozen satellites that recently became fully operational. Overseen by the Russian military, GLONASS is strikingly similar to GPS, although it reportedly is not as accurate at the centimeter level. A few companies are developing pricey receivers capable of using both GPS and GLONASS signals; these devices seem destined for use in aviation. GLONASS could be used as a GPS backup in crowded air corridors, and in areas where landings are difficult and require extreme precision.

Still, the cost of adding GLONASS reception to devices will effectively limit use, particularly in price-sensitive handheld models and car navigation units. GPS receivers from companies such as Garmin, Trimble, and Magellan are already available for under $200 in some stores. At this time, no major GPS manufacturer has plans to include GLONASS in such devices. Another concern is the long-term funding of GLONASS by the Russian government; with the popularity and accuracy of GPS, GLONASS may prove to be a redundant system too expensive to maintain.

Meanwhile, low-priced GPS receivers are gaining in popularity. And as they become more accepted, new applications will be discovered. Imagine yourself playing a relaxing game of golf. A Best Golf GPS display in the golf cart shows you the distance to the next green and offers you tips on how to play the hole. You’ve got plenty of time, because the golf GPS locator on the cart allows the course manager to monitor traffic flow. This time, when you birdie, tip your hat to those satellite birds orbiting above you. And when you buy, remember to read golf gps reviews at golfgpscenter.net. They helped.

RELATED ARTICLE: Where Am I?

I’m standing in the middle of a field in the High Peaks region of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, holding a Magellan GPS 4000 receiver in my hand. I want to find out exactly where I am in these mountains, so I’m going through a procedure the hand-book calls “initiatizing.” Basically, I’m telling the orbiting GPS satellites how to find me.

Judging from the receiver’s display, the satellites and I are getting along famously. A bar graph indicates that first two satellites and then a third have spotted me. A few moments go by – as if there is a conference offline – and then the receiver displays my longitude, latitude, attitude, and the time of day. Bingo! I’m communicating with satellites orbiting 12,400 miles above Earth, and the feeling is awesome.

I save my position in the receiver’s memory. I can backtrack to this spot if I go for a hike right now. Or at some future date, I can press the “go to” button if I want to return here: An arrow on a display screen will point me in the right direction. The $230 receiver, available from Radio Shack, can store as many as 200 locations.

I’m still getting a charge out of my new direct-to-satellite relationship, but in a corner of my mind I realize the 10-ounce receiver in my hand isn’t the easiest device to master. There are a lot of display screens to choose from, and a lot of technical details to digest. If GPS use is going to be widespread, these devices need to be simpler to operate. Right now, operating the Magellan GPS 4000 is a lot like learning Latin – well, almost as bad.

At the moment, though, I’m feeling a little superior. Communicating with satellites is something special, and if a special language is required, so be it. But when the ecumenical council convenes to translate all this GPS data into simple English, I’ll be cheering. – F.V.

RELATED ARTICLE: GPS plus GLONASS

Also employing 24 orbiting satellites – the last of which went online in January – GLONASS mirrors GPS performance in almost every way. There are two major differences: The Russians who operate GLONASS don’t deliberately degrade its accuracy, unlike the “seLective availability” of GPS. And GLONASS uses a different set of radio frequencies than GPS does

While selective availability is fading as a GPS issue, the difference in radio frequencies means that any device employing both GPS and GLONASS – which would be more accurate than either system alone, and useful in tight situations like city streets – would have to use two receivers and then be able to integrate the two signals. Also, when GPS and GLONASS are used together, one extra satellite must be in view to account for the different reference times used by the two systems. These requirements are likely to keep the cost of a dual receiver high. One manufacturer, Ashtech, charges $6,000 for a GPS/GLONASS circuit board and $10,000 for a PC Card. Only a few businesses, such as commercial aviation companies, can afford to spend that kind of money. – F.V.

Gulf Exploration

Golf might one day bridge the divide between Cuba and the U.S., but the prospect seems dim to one recent visitor

The third in an occasional series about golf’s special places

The eighth green at seaside Varadero GC Cuba’s only 18-hole course. Vintage American cars like this 1956 Dodge getting a push start are common in Havana. Island sights: Revelers dance on the Communist Party of Cuba’s “appreciation day.” <p>The relationship between the United States and Cuba reminds me of the relationship between two people who’ve gone through a traumatic divorce. There was the betrayal of what had once been an intimate friendship; there were property disputes, then a period of antagonism that included some attempts at settling scoresBay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, Mariel Boatliftand now the two former lovers have settled into a long, cold silence in which they periodically spit and snarl at each other but refuse to speak.

I have this notionprobably crazythat golf could act as a kind of post-breakup counselor. The two nations might never again find their way to the marital bed, but maybe golf, a joy that transcends linguistic, cultural and political differences, could at least put them back on speaking terms. If Cuba became a golf destination for large numbers of Americans, maybe some kind of decent communication could be reestablished. Maybe old sins could be forgiven. Maybe, as has happened all across Eastern Europe, the dictatorship would finally collapse.

The place to go if you want to play golf in Cubathe only place, reallyis Varadero, a finger of land that sticks out into the Caribbean two hours east of Havana. With its luscious air and spectacular coastline, Varadero was once home to people like Al Capone and Fulgencio Batista, and was patrolled by private police forces and popular with expensive hookers. These days, in winter especially, flocks of Canadians, many of them golfers, flee their icebound land for the peninsula’s sunlit luxury hotels, magnificent beach and single 18-hole golf course.

In pursuit of my crazy notion I recently slipped into the island nation along with some of these northern travelers in order to investigate the golf scene. I say “slipped in” because for most Americans it is technically illegal to travel to Cuba. Yes, I could have applied for a journalist’s license and gone there on official business, as it were. But I didn’t want some Marxist minder from the Bureau of Tourism following me around and showing me only what the Castro boys wanted me to see: the museum of the Revolution; the site where Che Guevara gave a famous speech. It’s easier to do it the way I didfly direct from Montreal rather than via Cancun or the Bahamas. And, lastly, truth be told, I was suffering from a mild paranoia. A few years ago I published a novel that revolved around a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro, and I did not exactly want to enter the country with a sign around my neck that said “American Writer. Author of Fidel’s Last Days .”

So I packed my sticks, made the five-hour drive from my home to Montreal, hooked up with one of the package deals, endured the four-hour flight to the new airport in Varadero and figured all would be well.

But all wasn’t well. When the passport-control officer, a friendly man named JosA[c], examined my documents, fingered the passport in a dubious way and wondered aloud what an American was doing in Varadero, I showed him the assignment letter from my editor at this fine magazine. Which proved to be a mistake. JosA[c] looked over the letter at some length, pursed his lips, sadly shook his head and said these words: “You are the writer.”

Canadians relax after golf at MeliA Las Americas. Seafood at Starbien in Havana Planter’s Punch at Varadero’s Club Xanadu. A man scavenging for useful rubbish in Old Havana, the poorest section of the capital city. A young woman waiting for friends on Havana’s waterfront. Golf balls from the United States via Panama. A lady and her decked-out cat at a tourist attraction in Havana.

I admitted that I was.

“American, yes? Merullo.”

“Yes.”

“No good then.”

“No good?”

More headshaking. “Now you will have to go see the people at that table over there.”

I turned, half-expecting to see three hombres in green fatigues holding handcuffs, but there were only two attractive women at the table. (Note: The word “attractive” or some higher adjective, can be applied to 90 percent of all women in Cuba; my guess is that my female friends would say the same thing about the men. Cubans come in all shades and shapes but are, it can be argued, the nicest-looking people on earth.) At the table a conversation of some complexity ensued. One of the women spoke good English, one did not. My Spanish is at the level of my Swahili, but I understood the second woman, now in possession of my passport, to say these unnerving words: “See, he’s been in Russia. He’s the writer.”

When the other woman told me the visa was no good, I said, “So you’re not going to let me in?”

She smiled, “You just have to go to the immigration in Varadero and get the new visa. You are here on business. You need the business visa, that’s all.”

I went back to JosA[c], who kindly refrained from stamping the passport and wished me a good rest.

My hotel in VaraderoMeliA Las Americas it is calledhad a curved bar that served free drinks all day, a piano being played by a woman in spike heels and pale people speaking Canadian French everywhere. I thought I heard the sound of breaking waves. I glimpsed a golf course nearby. Before venturing out to play, I caught a cab to the immigration office and was told that, “As long as you do not teach golf in Cuba, this visa will be OK.”

No worry there.

My driver, Ivan, was happy to hear the good news. On the way back to the hotel, he pointed out various beautifully preserved Detroit trophies that brought me back to my youth. “Fitty-five Chebby. Cad-ee-lack, fitty-two.” Some of them had “Rent a Fantasy” painted on their doors, ah-oo-gah horns, CD players. They plied the two-lane road like museum displays let out into a shabby showroom of old Soviet Ladas (“Be careful, car backing up!” one of the Ladas had been trained to announce in tape-recorded Russian). There were also huge tour buses and farm trucks puffing black smoke, and on a water tower, in faded Cyrillic: Dobro Pozhalovat’ which means “welcome” in Russian.

Soon enough, a tourist in good standing, I was out on the course. And a very nice course it is. Before the revolution this piece of Cuba belonged to Irenee du Pont of the famous family. The mansion he built herehe named it Xanaduoverlooks the turquoise sea and stands right next to the clubhouse. You can rent one of six guest rooms, relax on the third-floor veranda with a post-round cigar or have dinner in a luxurious dark-paneled dining room, choosing from a menu that includes, among many other items, “Lobster DuPont style.”

A worker weeding at Varadero GC. Rodolfo Martinez caddieing for an Indonesian diplomat making time for nine holes at Havana GC, a 2,946-yard course established prior to the Revolution by by British diplomats. Crude hole markers underscore the overall lack of attention the venue has received in recent years.

Or, as I did, you can snap a photo of the Xanadu and go next door and play golf.

Playing as long as 6,856 yards and set on seaside land that is pierced here and there by flower-fringed salt inlets, Varadero GC reminded me, in places, of the Blue Monster at Doral. There were wide landing areas, flat and well-bunkered greens, palm trees, mangroves and almA cigo trees along the fairways, ibis and helmeted guinea fowl on the ground, pelicans overhead and Cuba’s curly-tailed lizards scampering for cover in coral caves. The first 12 holes are nice enough, with tight lies and decent, if slow greens, but the finishing six are truly wonderful. The tee shot at 13 plays to an angled, elevated plateau with a drop-off left over a head-high coral outcropping. Fourteen is a risk-reward dogleg with a cuttable corner. Fifteen has a long-carry second shot over water to a very wide but shallow putting surface. Sixteen is a par 5 that crosses the water twice and can be played, in cautious fashionlong-iron, wedge, wedgeor with a riskier second shot. Seventeen is a 200-yard par 3 to an elevated green with bunkers right and left. And 18, with the Caribbean running all long its left shoulder, goes from a high tee to a low, bunker-pinched landing area, then up again to a sloped green.

Real golf, in other words, in a place where I never expected to find it.

The Varadero golf operation is overseen by an affable 55-year-old named Pedro Klein, who goes by the nickname Chubby. Chubby was kind enough to sit with me for an hour on his clubhouse’s second-floor bar/patio, so close to the 18th green we had to lower our voices when people were putting. He’d studied languages in college, he told me in his very good English, and had planned on a career teaching German. But after a couple years in Varadero, the demand for German teachers dried up and, knowing of his language skills and comfort with foreigners, the government asked Pedro if he wanted to take over the nascent golf business there. The problem was, Chubby had never touched a club. He was sent to Havana for a two-week crash course with the Cuban pro, JosA[c] (Pepe) Ferndandez. He learned the basics of the gameequipment, rules, swing mechanics, tournament organizationand came back to Varadero to build a golf operation basically from scratch. “Right away I liked the atmosphere,” he says. “I bought the balls and clubs, arranged the tournaments, everything.” A bit later on, with some enthusiastic lobbying, he convinced the governmental powers to put some real money into Varadero golf. By then it was the 1990s, Soviet financial support had dried up, and Castro must have reluctantly realized that the decadent game meant tourist dollars. He hired the Canadian architect and former Trent Jones associate Les Furber to expand the old du Pont nine-holer into a full 18. In 1999 and 2000 Chubby twice hosted the European Challenge Tour’s Grand Final at Varadero (FedEx Cup champion Henrik Stenson won in 2000), and it soon becamefor Canadians, at leastthe golf destination he’d envisioned. In 2008 the operation reached a high mark that still stands35,000 rounds.

These days Chubby oversees a tiny coterie of excellent Cuban golfers, most of them employees of the nearby tourist hotels, some playing to scratch. But at $77 per round, plus $33 for a seat on a cart, Varadero remains completely out of reach for almost all of Klein’s countrymen in a land where the average monthly salary is roughly $20. The vast majority of Varadero customers come from the tourist hotels, and sometimes this can be a problem. “A Russian or an Eastern European tourist will sign up for golf as part of his vacation package,” Chubby laments. “He thinks it is like the other things. If you have never done the scuba, you can take a lesson and make the dive with supervision. If you have never jumped from a plane, the same. But golf is different, and they don’t always understand this.”

Still, difficult as the job can be, Chubby enjoys working with tourists. He speaks perfect German, strong English, some French, and well understands the value of foreign currency to the struggling Cuban economy. “If the situation [the American embargo] changes, new courses would be built in Cuba,” he snaps his fingers, “like that. Millions of Americans would come here. It could be a weekend destination.”

It could be, but Chubby admits the Cuban government would insist on it being a joint venture, and it seems the question on investors’ lips would then be: We’re investing all this money, time and effort. How can we be sure the course won’t be nationalized in a few years? “I have spoken with many, many foreign investors who are ready to do this. The future of golf here is closer now,” Chubby says, pointing hopefully toward the 2016 Olympics. But he offers no concrete evidence to support that optimism and does not expect Cuba to field a national team quite yet.

Klein, who oversees the golf operation he built at Varadero GC, planned to teach German, but his language skills and ease with foreigners caused the government to ask him to run the business. Visiting golfers, mostly Canadians, leave their mark on carts at Varadero.

After three days and another round at Varadero, fattening myself at the Las Americas’ abundant buffets (extensive salad bar, cooked-to-order omelets and thin steaks, seafood, crepes with rum, four or five good cheeses, fresh-squeezed juices, free wine and beer, a dessert table from Biggest Loser hell), I decided to abandon the pleasures of Varadero and see the real Cuba. Enjoyable as the hotel was, with its great swimming, good golf, nighttime entertainment that included acrobats performing impossible feats and stunning models promenading across the tiled lobby, it did not turn me into a fan of organized travel. So I slipped away from the tour, made a deal with a taxi driver to take me to Havana for $80 Cuban, (note: American credit cards, checks and traveler’s checks are not accepted in Cuba. Bring cash.) and headed out to play Havana GC, the only other course on Cuban soil.

The four-lane highway that links Varadero and the capital is well maintained, and the land it cuts through is mostly flat andin late March, at leastvery dry. To our right was the ocean, Varadero’s sandy beach replaced now by a ragged coral shoreline and the occasional oil derrick humping away. The houses were solid-looking cinder block and stucco, crowded close, with a few four-story apartment buildings that looked like they had been slapped together by Soviet construction workers drowning their homesickness in vodka. Everywhere, you saw people at the side of the road, waiting on the commuter buses, or Wah-Wahs, flagging down passing Chevys with dollar bill in hand, lugging plastic bags bulging with groceries, or making out in the morning sunlight with a languorous Latin passion. The air was dry and warm, the light a luscious gold, but the gleam and shine of MeliA Las Americas was replaced almost at the end of its driveway by a particularly Cuban species of poverty that blends Caribbean simplicity with the clunky Marxist-Leninist idea of pragmatic aesthetics.

Still, I found Old Havana to be a gem of a place. A tattered, unkempt, raucous, tremendously sad gem of a place. I moved into a large but windowless room at a hotel on the port and immediately went out walking through block upon block of Spanish colonial buildings with elaborate facades, carved cornices, heavy wooden doors and balconies with wrought-iron railings. These treasures stood as monuments to a more prosperous era, but 98 percent of them were in a state of disrepair that bordered on collapse. The pastel paint was faded in irregular patches, the stucco peeling or altogether gone, the railings rusted, the wooden doors splintering, the sidewalk and street pavement a minefield of potholes, protruding cobblestones, dog feces and refuse of various sorts from condom envelopes to soda cans. Tourists clogged the old colonial squares, like the one in front of the 250-year-old cathedral, and there were pesky hawkers there suggesting taxis, cigars, T-shirts. But, almost always, after one simple ” no, gracias ,” they smiled and desisted.

This is the strange thing about Habana Vieja: Outside the tourist hangouts especially, the streets are a noisy, sometimes wild mA[c]lange of kids playing stickball with balls made from bunched-up electrical tape, legless men in wheelchairs, couples sitting on doorsteps and young weightlifters promenading in threes, but there is no sense of threat. For all their apparent poverty and lack of certain freedoms, the Cubans retain a happyI want to say a nonviolentdignity. I saw a woman mopping the sidewalk in front of her humble house and singing. I saw an old man riding a bicycle with a milk crate filled with plastic bottles on the back. He was also singing. On one of my eight-mile walking days I stopped into a bar where I suspect no decent tourists ever go and sat beside a bar girl and had a terrible cerveza and bought her an overpriced mojito. She talked about her children and made me various salacious invitations, all of which I declined, but it was all done in a way that was somehow different than it sounds. Less tawdry, more human. When one of the other patrons started yelling at me and, confused and a bit concerned, I started yelling back, he came over and shook my hand and said, ” Suerte Estados Unidos! ” and the woman told me he’d tried to ride his raft to freedom and had been arrested and locked up and had just wanted to greet me and say good things about my land.

I don’t want to gloss over the poverty. At one point a man with a raw, quarter-sized hole in his throat approached me with his hand out. On another walk I saw an old man pawing through a dumpster looking for food. One waitress accepted a bottle of ibuprofen as if it were a pair of sapphire earrings. The apartments I glimpsed through open doors were small and cluttered, no doubt broiling hot in summer. But in three days of walking, morning and night, I did not hear one voice raised in anger or see anything remotely resembling a physical confrontation. Before serving me the best meal I had in Cubaa whole fried red snapper with rice and beans, potatoes and cabbage saladthe proprietor of La Gallega, one of the new private restaurants RaA*l Castro has recently allowed, told me, “You are now in the safest country in the world. We have no guns. There are almost no drugs here. The people are poor but we smile. What else can we do?”

Not play golf, apparently. On the morning after that meal, I caught a ride in one of the unofficial taxis that ply Havana’s streets (and which the travel guides caution tourists to avoid), a ’55 cream-and-cherry Chevy Bel Air with five on the shaft and the suspension of a 17th-century stagecoach. The driver of this elegant craft, an honest and friendly man named Munchie, had his wife sit between us and playedI am not making this up for narrative convenience”Hotel California” on the CD.

As seen from a 1957 Chevy along the highway, a billboard with revolutionary Che Guevara’s image has a Cuban slogan meaning “Until Victory Always.”

You can check out anytime you want

But you can never leave.

We bumped and jolted out of Havana through a landscape of desolation, the sad Marxist landscape of monstrous apartment complexes bereft of any aesthetic appeal. A horse-drawn cart clip-clopped along carrying a child’s car seat in its bed. People hawked hands of bananas and kissed by the side of the road, backed by billboards showing a smiling Che and Fidel and slogans like, “We work to preserve and perfect socialism!” And: ” Socialismo O Muerte !”

Before going to Havana, I’d heard the golf course there described as “damaged.” I am sorry to report that the term is overly generous. If Varadero is not the real Cubaand it isn’tthen the nine-hole, 2,946-yard Havana GC, established in pre-Revolution days by British diplomats, is no longer real golf. Yes, there is a decent layout crawling across a hilly landscape. And yes, there are recognizable greens with tree branches for pins and rakeless bunkers. And yes, one can hire a caddie like the friendly, competent Amado who carried my bag, and one can have a drink in the bar beneath photos of Ernie Els and next to placards telling clients, “You Have the Right to Have Your Needs Met.” But the turf is crabgrass-241; really, I would have had better lies playing on dirt.

And dirt is what I played like. Things went so badly that Amado, a self-proclaimed 30-handicap, started giving me advice on the first hole. “You are going like this with the shoulder. You are … like this,” he said, showing stiffly straight arms at impact. I liked him, ignored his advice, and hacked my way around in the hot sun, shooting 10 strokes higher than on the front nine at the much more challenging Varadero. At one point a wizened old man carrying a machete followed me for two holes, as if he wanted to learn the game by watching … or wanted to express his sympathy but could not find the right words.

Or maybe he was old enough to remember golf before the revolution, when there were a dozen good courses on the island and the likes of Sam Snead, Lloyd Mangrum, Jimmy Demaret and Claude Harmon made the short flight from the mainland. Bob Toski remembers birdieing the last hole to win the Havana Invitational at the Donald Ross-designed CC of Havana in December 1953 and the $1,500 check that went with it, a harbinger of success the next year when he was the tour’s leading money-winner. “I have good memories of Cuba,” he told me in a phone conversation. “The people were fantastic. They treated the pros like God. I spoke a little Spanish, but they were more interested in how well we played, and how much we drank, and how much we laughed and how many stories we could tell.” Toski would like to go back and see if anyone could show him where the old courses were, but there is a long, rough road between the gleaming old CC of Havana with its great food and music and elegant clubhouse to what is left of golf in Havana now.

Pre-1960s American cars pass in front of “El Capitolio,” the capitol building in Havana. Benito Ramirez Tamay is a caddie at Havana GC. While some citizens in the poor nationthe average monthly salary is roughly $20work in the sport, few locals can afford to play.

“Concentrate now. Concentrate,” Amado would say as I stood over a shot, and if I managed a rare solid hit I’d hear, “You can play, yes. You are a player, I know it!” After the round, when I gave him a U.S. Open cap and offered him a new sleeve of balls, you would have thought I was offering to give him my car. “Oh, no no,” he said, and he meant it. He’d been an economics major in college and now worked here, presumably because, in Castro’s socialist paradise, caddies earn more than economists.

Like Chubby Klein, Marlene, the head person at Havana GC, had studied languages. In proficient English she told me she loved her job, loved golf, loved everything about Cuba. But these words had the same ring to them as those of the people who told me there were golf courses in the works for Cuba now. Yes, I think there is one being planned for CamagA1/4ey. Or one of the Keys. Yes, the government says there will be several new courses. I have heard that it is written down. Are there kids’ programs? Oh yes, there will be. When? Soon, soon. I have heard that they are planning such programs.

I recognized this approach from my years of working in the U.S.S.R. Though I understand the awful inequities that made a new system seem enticing before both the Russian and Cuban revolutions, it seemed particularly clear on this visit that communism cannot stand unless it is buttressed by lies, propaganda and a shaky scaffolding of hope that the government stops by and polishes from time to time. It’s a sad spectacle, and I rode back to Old Havana in a sorrowful mood.

Perhaps saddest of all was the sparkling Russian Orthodox church that stood next to my hotel. With its whitewashed stucco and neat iron gates, it might have been the best-built structure in Havana. Inside, the Russian-speaking caretaker, who was paid 10 dollars a month, told me no one attended the services. No one. Not a soul. The church was not used. “People come, they step in through the door, look around, ask why there are no pews, and step out again. It was built as a thank you to the Russians.”

“A thank you to the Russians!” I thought. And in 2004, more than a decade after the Russians had left town with their subsidies, military men and construction engineers! At the cost, no doubt, of hundreds of thousands of pesos and many man-hours of labor. There it sat in its forlorn Slavic emptiness, looking out at the broken-down customs building across the waywith its female officers in miniskirts and fishnet stockings, with young men sitting idle on the curb, with police officers (“our Mafia” one taxi driver called them) swinging their batons and eyeing passing vehicles, with sick childrenthanks to a malevolent combination of Castro’s policies and our futile embargohaving trouble getting necessary medicine.

I loved Cuba, loved the dignity and grace of the people, the music in the streets, the cigars and rum, the view from the rooftop patio of the Ambos Mundos Hotel, where Hemingway started For Whom the Bell Tolls . I loved the 18-hole putting green at Varadero where the cart girl hugged me and said, “God bless you!” and the gorgeous women and the mild air and the husky kid I pitched a tennis ball to on Obisbo Street, who lined it deep to left, off someone’s fender. But I departed the island nation and headed home wearing a heavy coat of sadness, worried that, with so much hurt, pride and stubbornness on both sides, this could be a post-divorce animosity that even golf won’t soften. If the embargo were to be relaxed, if doors were suddenly to open, if new courses were suddenly to be built, yes, maybe some of that tourist money could trickle down to average Cubans like the hardworking, ambitious young woman at one of the Old Havana restaurants where I had lunch. But no one I met seemed to really believe in that future. The woman sat with me as I ate a nice fillet of swordfish, and she pointed through the open window at a scene across the streeta beautiful old doorway with a balcony above, the door broken, the stucco walls chipped and stained. “That,” she said happily, almost proudly, “is Cuba.”

My Town: Erik Compton’s Miami

VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LOCAL LIFE FOR THIS TOUR ROOKIE AND SOUTH FLA. NATIVE

Although South Florida is considered a winter escape for retirees from the Northeast, Erik Compton is an exception. Born in Miami in 1979, Compton has lived in southern Florida most of his life, making him uniquely qualified to pass along advice to visitors beyond simply what course to play.

“I like the variety of the area,” says Compton. “There are so many things to do. Along with some really good golf courses, there are fantastic restaurants, great beaches, boating and an energetic nightlife. I’m an outdoors guy, so I like all the area has to offer. Plus you can do things all year round here.” Compton also notes the easy access to the Florida Keys for those wishing to extend beyond the reaches of the city.

So what is one of Compton’s favorite things to do? “You have to appreciate Miami for the diversity of its people,” he says. “The people watching is just unbelievable. Just to watch the expressions on the faces. You might hear 10 different languages in just one night. It’s really fun.”

COURSES

There are some great hidden, little-known places for visitors to play. I practice a lot at Melreese CC at International Links Miami. The course bumps up against the airport, and you actually have time to go there and hit balls during a layover.

The course at the Biltmore is near my house and is worth playing. I’d also recommend Miami Beach GC and the courses at Doral. One of my favorites, however, is Crandon Park GC at Key Biscayne. I rank it as one of the top five golf courses I’ve ever played. It has a great history from when I was a kid watching Lee Trevino and Chi Chi Rodriguez playing in the Royal Caribbean Golf Classic. It’s mangrove lined and extremely long and windy. But you have great views of the city and, on some holes, the ocean.

DINING

There are restaurants everywhere in the Miami area, and you can’t beat their variety or quality. Joe’s Stone Crab on Miami Beach is quite famous for its seafood, and I’ll put Il Gabbiano, which is downtown, up against any Italian restaurant in the world. They have an appetizer of fried squash or zucchini that is cooked in olive oil and salted. It’s almost like chips, and I’m definitely addicted to it. It’s a great setting with an authentic Italian feel.

Mr. Moe’s in Coconut Grove is a wonderful sports bar with not only burgers, but their own Sloppy Moe and some good barbecue. A lot of the college kids from the University of Miami go there. In the Coral Gables area Tarpon Bend is a good place to eat and has an excellent raw bar.

WHERE TO STAY

Two places truly stand out. The first is the St. Regis Bal Harbour. My father-in-law works there, and my wife and I went there for our anniversary. The rooms have magnificent ocean views, and the hotel has outstanding restaurants and amenities.

There’s also Fountainbleu. Some recall this as the place where James Bond and Goldfinger played gin rummy by the pool. What makes this place great is thataside from wonderful roomsthe pools are right by the ocean, and many of the rooms have views of the water or the lights of Miami Beach at night.

DON’T MISS

The Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is a great place to look at exotic plants, palms and fruit trees. There’s also the Deering Estate at Cutler. It’s one of Miami’s historical landmarks. It’s on the water. If you like shopping, go to the Miami Design District. On the second Saturday of the month they block off the street so you can walk there. There’s also Lincoln Road Mall with plenty of shops and restaurants with outdoor seating. The Art Deco district is a must-see and, of course, the beaches. There’s a great one in Key Biscayne next to the Ritz Carlton.

And in my opinion, you should read all golf gps reviews at golfgpscenter.net, so you can buy yourself a golf watch in here.

ERIK COMPTON

Compton, 32, is a pro golfer whose story goes well beyond the course. He has undergone two heart transplants, one in 1992, the other in 2008. He is an active advocate for Donate Life (donatelife.net). In 2011 Compton won the Mexico Open on the Nationwide Tour, finished 13th on the money list and earned a PGA Tour card. Now in his rookie season on the big tour, he has made 13 cuts in 21 starts.

How to beat the heat

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If you’re getting the vapors from this heat wave and don’t have air-conditioning, don’t sweat it. There are plenty of cooling options available for the hot and bothered.

Folks in cramped Boston apartments will melt over the space-saving Bionaire Best Tower Fan ($59.99 at Linens ‘n Things). The rectangular turbo contraption comes with a remote control so you won’t have to get up until you run out of refreshments. The fan also features a timer.

“The 7 1/2-hour timer lets you set it to shut off in the middle of the night,” said spokeswoman Maryellen Cronin. “Some people only need some cool air to fall asleep.”

If you have more room in your house and in your wallet, you can go for the Vornado Adjustable Stand Fan ($99.99 at Bed Bath & Beyond). The angled pedestal and quiet operation can ease your struggle to keep cool. A few hundred bucks also can buy you a tropical bamboo or palm fixture at www.ceilingfan.com – Hey, it’s cheaper than an island vacation.

Or get wind of these deals: a 12-inch oscillating table fan is just $19.99 at Target, and a 16-inch oscillating stand fan is about $12 at Aborn True Value in Brookline.

“Many students have to buy fans,” said Jose Monroy, Aborn’s manager. “It’s a good deal.”

If you can’t imagine surviving the summer without air-conditioning, you can buy a window unit for less than $300 at Sears (the Kenmore 5,250 BTU model regularly sells for $99). Many come with remote controls.

“It’s good because when you’re in bed, you don’t want to get up to adjust it if it’s too cold or too hot,” saidJ.R., a sales associate at Sears in Cambridge.

If you prefer to stay active in the heat, keep your cool by slipping The Sharper Image’s Personal Cooling System 2.0 around your neck ($39.95).

“Inside the arms that go around your neck are two sponges you lightly dampen and a tiny fan, which evaporates the water on the sponges, to keep your neck cool,” said Joan Enos, the Boston store’s assistant manager. “It lasts longer than a wet washcloth – up to five or six hours, depending on the humidity of the day. People use it to work in places with no ventilation like a barn or kitchen, or for Rollerblading and jogging.”

Seeking natural relief? You can always settle down on a sofa in your basement, soak your tired toes in a basin of cool water and indulge in ice cream. You wouldn’t even need a remote control.