Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cuban Customs

"Are you going to include everything on the customs declaration form?" Dave asked, an hour before landing in Cuba.

"Of course."

He sighed. A sound I knew meant he had misgivings. He may have been sighing while I collected the antibiotic ointment, maternity vitamins, infant formula, Tylenol and prescription pain killers. He may too, have sighed, while we packed the night before. In fact, I'm quite sure he did. But I wasn't willing to hear it.

"If you get pulled out I'm not leaving you alone with the customs people," he said with conviction. Then he whispered, as an aside,"We're so close to Guantanamo..."

"It'll be fine. I'll be fine. As long as I declare everything, I'm not breaking any laws."

He sighed again. I laughed and had a flashback to a trip I'd taken to Sri Lanka by myself, the year before I met Dave. In Columbo, the capital city, soldiers with automatic rifles stood on every street corner, perched atop buildings, surveilled the parks. I'd never felt uncomfortable, even when I had one of those rifles pointed directly at my head while four soldiers ran at me, full speed, yelling. I was standing on a bridge, taking a picture of a train. In a city where the most recent terrorist bomb had exploded just three days earlier, I should have known better. My faux-pas was considered serious. But just for a moment. My Canadian passport was my 'get out of jail free' card.

Perhaps I was naive. But Cuba, and the possibility of upsetting a customs agent, and our proximity to Guantanamo Bay, made no impact on me.

At customs, Dave and I were separated. All couples were. Dave carried the suitcase with our bathing suits and aloe vera lotion, and the carry-on that held our Kobos and headphones. I dragged the suitcase and carry-on we were leaving behind in Cuba. Dave's bags went through the x-ray machine. Several other Vancouverites and Calgarians similarly walked through the screening without incident. The agents appeared to be asleep with their eyes open.

My carry-on entered the x-ray machine. The man with the sleepy eyes raised his right hand high and yelled something. Then he looked at me and pointed to the bag, "Yours?"

"Yes," I said.

"What?" he asked, pointing again at the bag.

"Glasses," I said, taking my own off my face and pointing at them.

As the saying goes, that's when all hell broke loose. Five agents and a security guard surrounded me. I could tell the security guard from the others by the fact that he wore a serious scowl and a gun. The female customs agents, by contrast, wore high heels, super-short skirts and blouses that emphasized their generous assets. Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.

My bags and I were escorted to an open area at the side of the large customs room. Dave was told to wait for me outside. He refused but was prevented from entering the roped area I was now standing in. I smiled, nodded to the agents and motioned my request to say goodbye to my husband. They agreed. I kissed Dave and told him I wouldn't be long, "See if you can find Pastor Moises and Jose. Maybe they can come in and explain."

Two of the five agents spoke English: the head agent and the younger of the two female agents; the one wearing the torn fishnet stockings. She smiled at me. He did not.

"What is all this?" he asked, waving his hands over my bags. "Open them! They're for the black market!"

"No! It's all declared. I have a right to bring this medicine to your country," I said, surprised at my confidence. "Wait. I have a document," I pulled a one-pager from my handbag, written half in English, half in Spanish.

He read the sheet and looked me up and down, shaking his head. "Empty your bags."

While the other four agents stood behind the table I'd been placed at, I emptied all of the medical supplies from the suitcase. "Do you want me to take out the clothes and toiletries?" I asked.

"Are they yours?" the young agent asked.

"Yes," I said, hoping she wouldn't test me and take out the brand new children's shoes or the size 2 jeans or the men's handkerchiefs or the six tubes of toothpaste; all the items we were bringing as a gift to the families of the two men who ran the community clinic from their Church. I closed and zipped the suitcase and placed it on the floor, away from me. I put the list of items I'd declared beside the pile of medicines. I prayed to Pastor Moises's God (since I didn't have one of my own to pray to) to keep that bag from being re-opened.

"Now this one, please," she asked.

I unzipped and opened the carry-on. All of the agents simultaneously gasped.

"They're just glasses," I said, not able to hold back my smile, wondering if perhaps a spider had made its way into the bag.

"For the black market," said the head customs man.

"No! For Pastor Moises. He's outside. For a clinic. Can you talk to Pastor Moises?" I asked.

"No," he said. "How many pairs do you have?"

"One hundred and forty."

"This is very, very bad," said the head agent walking away.

The junior agents spoke among themselves. Two started to write an inventory of all the medicines, checking expiry dates and making sure none of the containers had been opened. After an hour (they were working v-e-r-y slowly), the other two agents went through the exact. Same. Procedure.

"Why are you looking so closely at the vitamins and baby formula?" I asked the young agent, who'd told me her name was Yanni.

"Two, maybe three years ago, a tourist like you brought poisoned baby formula to our country. Many babies died. We have to be careful. Not everyone is as nice as you are."

I'd shown Yanni the pictures I brought of Pastor Moises receiving suitcases of medical supplies from other Canadian tourists. She'd immediately recognized him, "He was my pastor when I was a child. That was my church. He is a very good man. He helps a lot of people."

While the medicines were being examined, the reading glasses and sunglasses had been separated and counted out - not once, not twice, not even three times. Each of the four agents handled then counted every pair of glasses, enjoying themselves trying on the nicest sunglasses, posing for each other. A brand new, tags-still-on, pair of Oakleys were obviously coveted by all of them and sat to the side of the two, long runs of lenses.

After two hours, the head agent returned. The four junior agents laid into him, waving their hands, raising their voices, shaking their heads, walking away then returning to wave and yell and shake some more. I watched from a safe distance, seated on the one hard bench in the inspection area. I rose when he finally walked toward me.

"You have caused me a great deal of trouble. My staff are upset with me because I have to follow the rules and they want to let you take the glasses. That makes me very upset with you," he stared hard at me and I could tell his anger was sincere. "You can take the medicines out to your Pastor, but we are confiscating all the glasses."

I must have smiled. I certainly didn't on purpose, but he added, "They will be destroyed."

It took another hour for the paperwork to be completed. I was given a copy and sent on my way into the now dark night. Dave, Pastor Moises, and Jose were standing in a row, arms crossed, heads bowed. Obviously exhausted from three hours of standing and waiting.

I danced to Dave, tired but laughing. I threw my arms around his neck and we kissed.  "See," I said, "all that worry for nothing!"


  1. A very familiar story to me... I have been to Cuba six times carrying much needed supplies to families. Every single time, I am taken out of the line in customs and searched. Once, I caused a huge uproar with a laptop computer I planned to leave. The agents told me I would have to pay $400 in taxes if I planned to leave it as a gift. I said "No thanks, you can have it." I don't think they expected my answer. It was two hours of paperwork just to carry the laptop into Cuba and I had to sign papers saying I would not leave it when I left. How crazy?? In the end, I could have left it and no one would have known.

  2. As a writer, I easily carried my retired, 5 year-old laptop in to the country. My wife "accidentally" left it with a university professor whose own computer had died months earlier, leaving him to write his own Ph.D. and manage his class curriculum with pen and paper. And we were struck too, that all the forms we filled out were not even looked at when we left the country. Much ado about nothing -- in some ways!