Cuba Car Show

cuba-car-showWant to see old US cars? Come to Cuba! You won’t be disappointed. Cars from the 50’s and even earlier are still on the streets, still running thanks to Cuban ingenuity. Some are old, just held together with Bondo and prayer, but others are pristine.

My first car was a two-tone green 1956 Chevy Bel Aire, and to see those same cars, running around Cuba is a special treat. These old American cars from the 50s are locally called yank tanks and many are used as cabs. And you will see these great old cars, not all of them freshly painted and restored! It’s estimated there are around 60,000 of these still on the road in Cuba, about 35% of the cars in Cuba. Tourists love to ride in these old cars, especially the convertibles.

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Cuba has two currencies, National Pesos or CUP which is the local currency and worth about four cents per peso, and the currency for tourists, CUC, or “kooks” that are one to one with the US dollar. As a tourist you are required to use CUCs. When you change your money at the government run change bureaus, and almost everything is “government run” so get used to it, you pay a service/change charge. If you are changing US dollars you ALSO you pay a 10% penalty. There is no penalty for changing Canadian dollars, Euros or British Pounds. And nobody accepts US dollars or US-issued credit cards.

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So the guy with the slicked up old US car charges 30 to 40 kooks an hour to drive you around – that’s $30 – $40! This is in a country where the average doctor makes the equivalent of $30 a month!!

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Visiting Cuba sometimes feels like you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole. The lady in the square, dressed up and with a big cigar in her mouth gets 1 CUC, the equivalent of $1 US, for a picture – and a good day can make twice what a doctor or teacher makes in an afternoon! Tourism is where the money is in Cuba.

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The poorly prepared, frankly lousy guide on the tour bus, who fills the time with heavily accented worthless chatter but never gives you any of the information you need or expect from a guide, is supposed to be tipped 5 CUC and the driver 3 CUC. The ship can forget changing tour companies since there is only one … you got it, “government run.” Your guide may be inexperienced and without a clue, but have a relative in the government who helped them land a cushy job. Or your guide may be great and have a PhD or MD but can make far more money as a guide. With twenty or so people on the tour bus, a guide can make the equivalent of $100 US in a day in a country where working as a professor or doctor they would only make about $30 a month! And these are all paid in cash.

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Ordinary Cubans can’t buy milk. Milk is reserved for children. You must get government permission to slaughter your cow because beef is only for tourists. These folks live on an island, surrounded by the ocean, but cannot eat shrimp or lobster … those are reserved for tourists. So, when your tour stops for lunch at a Paladar … the privately-owned “house” restaurants operated by enterprising entrepreneurs and permitted by the government during “The Special Period” after the fall of the Soviet Union when the Cuba was in economic free fall … you sit by the open door, being presented with a beautiful lobster dinner, while the locals look in knowing that they, as ordinary Cubans, will never sit down to a dinner of the lobsters harvested on their coast. Awkward, even if you only have an iota of sensitivity.

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Cuba is a fantastic country, a wonderful place to visit, especially for US Americans who have been denied the opportunity to visit and interact with their Cuban neighbors mostly because of international tit-for-tat games played by successive US governments and the late Fidel Castro, mostly for reasons that have almost been forgotten. But one does get the feeling that maybe the country, as well as the old cars, are held together by Bondo.

Cuba Cruise: Everything You Imagined and More!

The “forbidden” destination for US Americans. The old house down the street about whom the kids shared scary tales. The tiny little island that was supposed to take over the world for Communism, achieving what “Red” China and the Soviet Union combined had been castro-tombunable to accomplish. Tales of Hemingway and “The Old Man and The Sea.” next door about whom the kids shared horrible.  The domain of the US aging enemy, Fidel Castro.  And above all, a treasure trove of old US cars.

And it’s all here… well most of it.

Castro is gone and the Cuba economy limps along thanks to the US Embargo which, really, has accomplished nothing but condemn the warm and wonderful Cuban people to poverty.

Cubans eat dsc_0410chicken, rice and what vegetables they can grow and what they are given, free, from the official government stores in “abundance,” abundance as in 10 eggs per month.  Milk is reserved for children.  Cows, even your own, can not be slaughtered except by official government authorization.  Beef, along with shrimp and lobster, is reserved only for tourists, making even if you are eating in one of the now-allowed, entrepreneurial “Paladars” on the roof of someone’s home.

Copy of DSC_0362.JPGCuba is full of contrasts.  Incredible, stunning old Spanish and Art Deco architecture.  Some of it beautifully preserved or currently being renovated, and others crumbling.  Walking through a “typical” local Havana neighborhood of mostly incredible old buildings filled with locals, we had to squeeze around the huge crane removing the old balconies that had crashed into the street.

To the left is the old Bacardi headquarters, seized by the Revolution when Bacardi fled to Miami and Puerto Rico.

You have old Spanish architecture, French architecture, Art Deco, and even the ugly architecture of the Russians.  You can either take the tour, head guidebook-in-hand to the important plazas around which Havana is built, or just wander Venice-style and see what surprises you find down the next street.dsc_0317

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I’m delighted to be back and lecturing on the small-ship (200 passengers) PEARL MIST of Pearl Seas Cruises.  It’s an all-inclusive ship that attracts a fascinating array of upscale, well-educated and well-traveled, mostly “mature” like me, guests.  Because it’s small I get to meet all these fascinating folks … the guy who flew Air Force One for Regan, a Naval officer whose career was as Captain of US nuclear atttack subs that remained under water as long as 109 days, a former Deputy Secretary in the Regan years, the Merchant Marine Captain who took his ship to Cuba to return the Bay of Pigs prisoners and who told Fidel he couldn’t have Christmas Dinner on board his vessel becasuse Castro as head of a then atheist state, didn’t believe in Christmas!  A high-flying surgeon who ended up marrying into a Mafia family … and got out alive.  I’m not the most “social” person in the world, but a the daily complimentary cocktail hour on PEARL MIST is something you don’t want to miss!  Drinks flow freely and are included, as is everything else – no nickle and diming on Pearl Seas – and at dinner time you can continue the conversation since there are no assigned tables and you eat with whomever you wish.  And the food is great!

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WE had a fantastic trip, but these guys …

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DSC_0079Having just completed a wonderful 11 day voyage with Pearl Seas Cruises on PEARL MIST, cruising the Great Lakes & Georgian Bay , I stumbled on this video of an accident that happened back in 2001 in the Welland Canal.  We transited the Welland Canal by night without incident, but I thought you would find this fascinating.

The St Lawrence Seaway is a joint US/Canada project inaugurated in by US President Dwight D Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth in 1959 with the Queen sailing the Royal Yacht BRITANNIA all the way to Chicago.

The St Lawrence Seaway enables ships to pass all the way from the Atlantic to the far end of Lake Superior.  The locks of the Saint Lawrence Seaway taken together make up the world’s most spectacular lift system raising ships going all the way from sea level to Lake Superior more than 590 feet or 180 meters above sea level, as high as a 60-story building. To reach DSC_0241Lake Superior ships must pass through 16 locks, some operated by the US and some by Canada.  The most interesting is the Welland Canal, a series of  eight locks that lift ships 326 feet, the height of a 30 story building,  from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, allowing the ships to get around the Niagara escarpment and … Niagara falls.

There are a number of bridges across the Welland Canal which must be lifted for the ship to pass through.  And if someone forgets to lift the bridge or isn’t paying attention … here’s what happens.  [Warning: scary video!]

Here’s what happened …

In August 2001 the Bulk Carrier WINDOC was lined up on the Welland Canal’s Bridge 11 in Ontario Canada. After receiving the flashing amber approach light indicating that the bridge operator was aware of the vessel, the captain lined up on the centerline and maintained a speed of 5 knots. Minutes later while the vessel was half way through the bridge started descending.

The Bridge Team’s Story … When the vessel was approximately halfway under the bridge, the third officer observed that the bridge signal lights were solid red and the lift span was descending. At 2053, the master sounded a few blasts on the ship’s whistle. The master, without identifying himself or the bridge in question, called the TCC on VHF channel 14 about the lowering of the bridge. The master quickly stopped the engines and ordered an evacuation of the wheelhouse. The master and third officer left the wheelhouse by the starboard navigation bridge wing. As they proceeded down the external bridge access ladder, the span of the bridge struck the vessel in way of the wheelhouse front windows, subsequently destroying the vessel’s wheelhouse and funnel. The helmsman remained at his station in the wheelhouse and lay down on the deck as the bridge span passed overhead. He freed himself from the debris and descended by the deckhouse stairwell alive.

Miraculously no one was killed in the event. [GCAPTAIN]