Monday, October 25, 2010

Cuba Ahoy? Travel Writer Finds the 'Inviting Isle' Can't Even Provide a Decent Toilet

Cuba Ahoy? Travel Writer Finds the 'Inviting Isle' Can't Even Provide a
Decent Toilet
By Tim Graham | October 24, 2010 | 16:56
Tim Graham's picture

The Travel section in Sunday's Washington Post featured a huge picture
of a sailboat in the spray with the words "Cuba AHOY! Just 90 miles
offshore, the embargoed yet inviting isle calls out to a sailing family.
But there are provisions to consider." The headline writer was
overselling what former Post reporter Megan Rosenfeld had to say about
their sailing trip to Cuba, and "inviting" is definitely not the word
most would use:

Much has been written about the glories of Havana, the fabulous but
fading Spanish architecture, the amazing old American cars, the friendly
people. All true. But don't expect to buy a piece of fruit to tide you
over until lunch, and don't forget to take your own toilet paper - and
if possible, your own toilet.

Yes, there are "provisions to consider." As much as the Post might have
wanted to paint a romantic picture of Castro's paradise ("the journey
seemed so inviting"), Rosenfeld just couldn't find much to praise:

Other sailors have reported the entrance procedure as taking anywhere
from half an hour to 90 minutes. Ours lasts three hours....

This marina was built in 1958 and appears not to have been repaired
since....In the outward canals we find the legion of the lost: scores of
untended, abandoned and half-sunken boats, apparently left to rot in the
blazing sun and the humid nights. Long-missing owners and crews have
painted names and home ports on the concrete, giving an eerie sense of a
graveyard of sailing dreams....

Much of the information we'd found on the Internet about Marina
Hemingway is seriously out of date. There is no swimming pool, just a
cordoned-off section of the boat canals. The "modern facilities" are
hand-held showers without heads and - as we will find everywhere in Cuba
except in expensive hotels and private bed and breakfasts - the toilets
are without seats or paper. Only one of the six sinks in the ladies'
room works, with the broken faucets of the others lined up uselessly on
a windowsill. The chandlery, which in most marinas is a store for boat
owners to buy items such as paint, rope and turnbuckles, sells only rum,
beer and Bailey's Irish Cream.

The first question a Post reader may have had is: How is it legal with
for the Post reporter's U.S. party to go on a tourist trip around the
Treasury Department restrictions (and penalties)? Rosenfeld explained:

Officially, Americans may travel to Cuba only with a license, obtainable
for journalistic purposes, for academic research or to visit relatives
you've been sending money to. The problem is that you are not supposed
to buy anything in Cuba unless you have a license. This is not as hard
as you might think, because there isn't much to buy. The grocery store
in the marina, for example, although gleaming and air-conditioned, has
beautiful displays of toilet brushes and bottles of rum, but no milk for
Josie [the reporter's young granddaughter].

The restaurant scene also offered too much socialist realism:

But the food in them is pretty dreadful: The worst I had was a grilled
fish covered with a sauce that looked and tasted like library paste,
with a side dish of canned vegetables doused in vinegar. Friends who had
visited Cuba had advised us to go to paladares, small restaurants in
private homes. For a tourist, finding a private home that happens to
have a restaurant is a little daunting, but the one we do find is
through a waiter in a really bad public restaurant. Aside from the meals
we cook on the boat, it's the best food we have in Cuba.

But surely the infrastructure is better in a socialist system? No:

We rent a car for a few days from the state-run Cubacar. It's the first
car rental agency in our experience to instruct us to remove the antenna
and the radio whenever we leave the vehicle, and to do our best to avoid
potholes. Whoops! Too late. Driving on the highway we take south is like
slaloming on skis to avoid the craters in the road. But it is blessedly
free of traffic.

The best verdict Rosenfeld could render is hey, children play outside,
because no one has a video game system:

There is life on the streets: children playing outside instead of
staring at video games, a woman with her hair set in old-fashioned metal
crimpers giving herself a manicure, a boy climbing to the roof of a
collapsing house to tend his pigeon coops. I wonder how they can keep
those old cars running but not the water faucets.

Rosenfeld concluded "the thing about Cuba" was "For every discomfort or
inconvenience, there's a flip side, a charming scene or a delightful
contradiction." That's not what the reader would conclude at the end of
this dreary story.

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