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

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Much of the information we'd found on the Internet about Marina Hemingway is seriously out of date.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.   

Cuba Washington Post Megan Rosenfeld
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