It’s a bit of a culture shock as we are dumped off of Air Canada’s plushy new jet liner into the customs area of Havana’s José Martí International Airport. From the airplane ramp, we’re herded along the narrow glass hallway between the tarmac on the outside and the terminal on the inside. At the end of the hall an escalator takes us down into customs, where I begin the head count. Five teenagers, two parents, one translator and me.
The basement room is as big as two basketball courts, brightly lit and severely air conditioned. The only way in appears to be the two down escalators at the back two corners, and the only way out is an entire wall of customs booths at the other end of the room. In the middle of the room there are two thick round support pillars wrapped by round counter tops for last minute paperwork.
We stand near one of the pillars as customs officials direct travelers toward the lines of people waiting to be processed. “Have your passports and visas ready,” they say over and over.
Our translator, Ian, stops the official nearest us. “Excuse me, miss,” he says, “we don’t have our visas. They are supposed to be waiting for us here.”
“Give me your passports and I will go and check,” she says holding out her hand. I notice our kids gawking at her without subtlety. One of the boys even mouths the word “hot!” She’s wearing a green military uniform, but the buttons seem open a little too far down the front and the skirt seems to be hemmed a little too far up the legs. Add to that the fishnet stockings and black heels, and this girl takes the standard out of standard military uniform. Hot indeed!
She is still waiting for us to hand her our passports so that she can take them to some other part of the airport and check on our visas, but I didn’t just tumble down the escalator yesterday. Our passports are going nowhere without us. I hand her a prepared list of our travelers with their passport numbers. She looks at the list, and finally says, “this will do,” and disappears. The room, once crowded with travelers, slowly begins to empty.
Emily, our tiniest teenager with a matching itsy-bitsy bladder, announces that she really needs the ladies’ room. As much as I try to avoid using bathrooms on airplanes, I had counseled my crew that they should use the airplane facilities before landing. The restrooms in customs are the worst in the airport, and if at all possible, they’ll want to avoid them. Perhaps it’s because they are in the basement, or maybe because thousands of travelers get to them after long flights, but they always seem to need a cleaning and deodorizing and at least one of them is usually clogged full and awaiting repair. To make things a little more awkward, there’s a woman outside taking tips and handing you a small ration of toilet paper. And for the men, if you don’t tip her she follows you in to make sure that you are only using the urinal.
In Cuba, toilet paper cannot be flushed, but is instead folded after use and tucked into small waste baskets, which are hopefully emptied on a regular basis by the attendant. I don’t know much about plumbing and sewage systems, but it seems odd to me that the Cuban system can handle all that comes out of our bodies, but not a few pieces of T.P.
The cavernous waiting room empties leaving us sitting in a corner on the cool tile floor. But, like the bible says, whenever nine or more protestants are gathered in my name a euchre game and potluck will break out. We deal cards and empty our backpacks of any airplane leftovers. On first look there’s half a bag of peanut m&m’s, a Ziploc of homemade trail mix, two rice crispy treats, plenty of chewing gum and a handful of jolly ranchers. It’s slim pickings until Emily returns from the the ladies room.
“Oh, I’ve got some food,” she says cheerfully. She unzips her backpack and releases the 21st century version of the loaves and the fishes. She has an unopened box of Cheezits, a bag of miniature snickers bars, starbursts, more gum, 6 nutri-grain bars and two liters of water.
After an hour, we see our fish-netted friend walk by and ask if she’s heard anything about our visas. She says she will check and disappears again.
The escalators buzz and the room fills again. We look up over our euchre hands and watch the crowd form into long lines that quickly grow and slowly shrink, leaving us alone again.
When ‘fishnets’ finally returns, she tells us that our host, Pastor Daniel, has contacted the airport. He has our visas, but is late due to car trouble. He drives a ’56 Chevy, with a Mitsubishi engine, a Russian Lada transmission and a home-made drive train. What could possibly have gone wrong, I wonder.
Another two hours of junk food and euchre tournaments and we finally get our walking papers. Two booths open up to accommodate our small group and I go last to assure everyone gets through without trouble. As my customs official is looking at my face, then my passport, then my face again, I hear Emily in the next booth begging her customs officer to stamp her passport as a souvenir. I am powerless to stop her. The officials are trained only to stamp our visas, not our passports. A Cuban stamp on a U.S. passport can cause trouble getting into other countries and at U.S. Customs. But she’s cute and blonde and eventually, the official relents. As if to say, “OK, you asked for it,” he stamps her passport.
After customs we enter another security check, complete with x-rays, detector wands and the occasional physical bag inspection. They see the prescription bottles in Adam’s bag and do a full inspection. Adam is recovering from major surgery and needs multiple prescriptions. Three uniformed officials pass his medicine around, reading the contents, checking the name on the bottles against his passport, nodding and mumbling to each other. I stand back, feeling they are unecessarily invading his privacy and I prepare to intervene. But just then the supervisor stuffs the bottles back into Adam’s back pack and sends him along. I hadn’t noticed that a similar thing was happening with Ian, two rows over. Ian had a book about the politics and culture of Cuba in an outside pocket of his bag. Two officers are passing it back and forth discussing its contents. Ian speaks to them only in English, so they don’t seem aware that he understands their conversation. They hone in on a particular chapter about Castro, a particularly negative assessment of his regime.
“What are you doing with this book?” one of them asks.
“Reading it,” Ian says simply.
“Do you plan to take it back to the U.S. with you?” he asks.
“Yes, of course,” he says.
They flip through a few more pages, then write his name and passport number on a clip board next to the title of the book. They hand the book back to him and say, “make sure you have this with you when you leave the country.”
Ian nods, shrugs his shoulders and heads toward baggage claim. Finally everyone was through except me. I have two carry-on items; one is a portable DVD player in a black canvas bag and the other is my back pack. I’m surprised when they show no interest in my back pack. It contains duplicate supplies of Adam’s drugs, the extra medications of every other person on the team, as well as medications for Cuban friends who can’t get them filled at the bare-shelved pharmacies in their town.
My official does however take a special interest in my DVD player, not that it’s contraband (so long as I plan to take it back with me) but it’s a rare sight to this young Cuban man.
“Is this yours?” he asks.
“Yes,” I tell him.
“You brought it to use in your vacation in Cuba?” he asks.
“Yes,” I lie, “but mostly for the plane.” It’s brand new, a “donation” for the youth group at a the church we will visit, but I had removed all the tags and packaging and stuck in a few old DVDs to make it look like I use it wherever I go. As he removes the player and inspects it I decide to distract him.
“Your English is very good,” I say, “you must have studied it for many years.”
With this, his eyes brighten and he looks up at me. “Really, you think my english is fine?”
“It’s very good,” I say again as he passes me through without further trouble. As I walk away, I hear him tell his colleagues, “he say my english is very good.”
I take one quick look back to make sure the last of our team has made it through security, then head to baggage claim where the fun really begins. The luggage “carousel” enters the room from a hole in the wall, hiding the inner workings from view by a black rubber curtain. Behind the curtain I picture underpaid and under-fed Cubans scanning and searching bags, dreaming that some day they might travel and have access to the clothes and medicines and electronics they see during their searches. I’ve heard stories of bags being confiscated, items missing, and things broken. But in more than a dozen trips, I’ve never had these experiences. Luggage is coming in on a belt that whines and klunks and creaks. But, since we were detained so long our luggage is already removed and stacked neatly in a corner for us, all 16 bags.
I know the minute I see the tags on them that we are in for a long stay. Each of our bags are marked for physical inspection and we will need to line up behind at least two dozen others who are waiting for the same treatment. The codes on our luggage tags indicated that medicines had been observed during the x-ray scans, as well as other possible contraband. As we organize ourselves and distribute the luggage , I remind our youthful travelers that until we are out of the airport, they do not speak Spanish, and they must insist on only talking to officials through our translator. This strategy accomplishes two things. First, it assures that no one says the wrong thing. Second, it puts pressure on the officials to process us quickly.
Saying the wrong thing can be costly. A simple mistake, like saying the items in our bags are “donations” instead of things for our own personal use subjects the items to taxes equal to their value subjectilvey assigned by the customs official. But, trying to convince officials that we each need 100 punds of clothes in various sizes, 6,000 miligrams of tylenol, and three dozen toothbrushes for our own personal use during a 9 day stay, can be a hard sell. Our translator, on the other hand, is trained to make the argument, boldly asserting and plausibly maintaining that “most” of the items are for our own personal use and the rest include a few gifts for friends. The nuance between “donations” and “gifts” is the difference between “taxation” and “negotiation.”
The second goal is to take our time. We have 8 people with 16 bags stuffed carefully up to the 50 pound airline weight limit. If each of us must use one transaltor, the officals will be motivated to negotiate as the line grows longer and longer behind us.
As I lecture, I notice three college age kids sitting near us, listening and perhaps taking note of my advice. They’re checking us out, while keeping one eye on the rubber curtain as luggage slowly pops into view and either finds its owner or returns through another dark orafice. Suddenly one of them, the only girl, shouts an exclamation to the other in a language I can’t place. The three jump tp their feet and run over to the belt where a large cardboard box barely fits through the hole in the wall. As they remove the box, another box enters and then another. They look around and take their boxes back to the wall using our large pile of people and bags to shield them from view. As I continue my instructions, the three students rip open the boxes exposing bycycle parts that are deftly assembled into working transportation. The three adventures, leaving a pile of cardboard behind, throw backpacks over their shoulders and push their bikes through the last checkpoint and onto the streets of Cuba. I stopped mid sentence to watch them, free of pampering hosts, crammed rental vans, and scheduled events. Free of adult reponsibilites for the safety of other people’s teenagers. Free of 800 pounds of luggage. I look over at the rubber curtain, imagining that a fourth bike might come through with a sign on it that says, “Free – Take me! “
I try to pull myself back together and direct my group to the growing line. The weight of our bags suddenly seems light compared to the burden of my responsibilities. Slowly the line shrinks and finally we are next to enter the luggage search area. Three rows of stainless steel tables would make the room look like a war-time morgue if not for the stacks of clothes and toiletries being removed, inspected and restored to open suicaces and unzipped duffle bags.
We tried to pack girls clothes in bags carried by girls and boy clothes in bags carried by boys, but therre wasn’t much we could do with the baby clothes, medicines, and shoes of all sizes.
I send Ian in first with Michelle, an attractive redheaded 17 year old girl. A strategy that will work only if one of the male officials is assigned. But no such luck.
“Don’t hold back the tears if she gives you a hard time,” I say as she is escorted to the cadaver table.
My 15 year old son, Ben, and I are called next. The customs officer takes us and our four bags to a table. He asks us to place the first bag on the table and open it. I understand his instructions, but cheerfully ask ask him to repeat them in English. The offical reaches in, feels around and pulls out a gallon ziploc filled with bottles of liquid children’s tylenal. He doesn’t ask any questions about the medication, but says to empty the bag and stack all the contents where he can see them. He leaves us to talk to the people at the next table as Ben and I began to carefully pull out men and boy clothes and stack them as directed, leaving meds and other supplies stacked between them, out of sight. Something falls and lands on lightly on my foot. I take a quick look down. It’s a hot pink satin bra, with tags still on it. Who donates a hot pink satin bra to be taken to Cuba on a mission trip? “Benny,” I say, “reach down and grab that off my foot and stuff it in the other clothes.” Ben glances down at my foot and sees the offending article of clothing draped over my right shoe.
“I’m not touching that thing!” he says.
Our customs official has joined in an argument with Ian and another uniform, so I take the opportunity to reach down and grab the bra, hiding it between two pair of jeans.
Ian’s conversation is getting heated, and he motions me to come over. “This is our leader,” he tells them pointing at me, “I’ll need to discuss it with him.”
Ian faces me with his back to them and says “They say we have to pay taxes on the value of everything that’s in all of our bags. I explained that it’s mostly used clothes and shoes and has little value,” he says. “I also explained that we’ll insist on itemizing each item taxed and discussing its value. Then I reminded them that there are 8 of us with two bags each.”
“Well?” I asked.
“Well,” said Ian, “they suggested we agree to a value of $20.00 per bag for any “donations.”
“That sounds pretty good to me,” I said.
“Yeah, I thought you’d like that, but don’t look to eager.”
We sealed the deal and I was sent to a window to pay $320.00 assuring our passage into the public area of the airport. It wasn’t exactly the freedom of three care-free, debt-free European students on bikes, but it felt pretty good.