Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Cuba, Part 4

We landed at Jose Marti airport, in Havana, deplaned, and we were all funneled into the customs area by a long series of corridors.

Customs was already filled with people. Apparently, another plane had arrived recently. The ceiling lamps, (that were not defunct), cast a yellowish-green fluorescent light upon us and buzzed hypnotically.

Ahead, lay the roped-off area to the booths where the customs officials were all stationed in a row. The booths were numbered one through eight. Danielle and Melanie got in line 4 and I got in line 5. I figured we couldn't put all our eggs in one customs official, er...basket.

The line moved slowly. The officials would chat with tourists while they leisurely perused their passports. Other times, they'd finish smoking their cigarettes while talking amongst themselves, and carefully stamp them out in the ashtray before calling the next person in line. Time, it seemed, did stand still in Cuba.

Then, it was my turn.

As I approached the official, I observed that he didn't look too friendly. The thick, wiry mustache, pursed lips, and dark brown eyes dared me to do anything out of line. I looked back at Danielle with an expression that said, "Well...whatever happens, happens!"

I got to the booth and stood in front of the guy. We were separated by the standard, thick piece of glass with a little semicircle cut out of the bottom to slide the passport thru. He lit up a new cigarette, puffed a few times, and a miasma of fumes filled the tiny, yellowed booth.

He eyed me up and down, silently. He was evaluating something, but I'll be damned if I knew what it was.

"Pasaporte, por favor," he asked perfunctorily.

I paused, sounding it out one last time in my head. Then, the words came out of my mouth.

"Soy americano. No estampe por favor mi pasaporte," I pleaded, holding myself as confidently as possible and sliding the passport thru the open space in the glass partition. I remembered that I had twenty U.S. dollars in my left pocket. But would I have the guts to bribe him if it came down to it? How much trouble could that get me in? Bribing a customs official in a country where I wasn't supposed to be? I shook it off, mentally.

He grabbed the passport, or maybe his mustache grabbed it, and he was still staring me down while he did so. He waited a few extra seconds before he looked at the cover of the passport that has "United States of America" written across it. Then, he actually whistled. One of those long whistles that authoritative figures sometimes make when taking a subordinate to task, and then he proceeded to leaf thru it and examine each page carefully. At some point, he must have noticed that all of my facial muscles sank in unison because, then, he started laughing. Not exactly a belly laugh, but it was uncomfortable for me, the gringo.

"Don't worry, man," he said, his face lighting up with a mischievous glee, "I'm not gonna stamp your passport. I knew you were American before you even came up to the window."

I breathed a huge sigh of relief. A long exhale.

He took out a small piece of paper, with the Cuban flag on it, from underneath the counter, stamped it, and tucked it inside my passport before handing it back to me. I turned completely around to booth four, but it was Melanie at the booth. Danielle was still behind her.

"Have a nice trip in Cuba! I hope you enjoy your stay!" he said to me with perfect English.

"Thank you very much...I will!" I replied overeagerly, and rolled my suitcase to the other side of customs, and, officially, into Cuba!

I watched Danielle go through without a hitch. Her customs guy went through the exact same process and, finally, wished her a pleasant journey.

These guys weren't trying to get one extra penny out of us! And God knows, we would have been happy to give it to them. They must have been under strict orders not to take any bribes. Imagine how much extra money they could make! But I guess it wasn't kosher with Fidel. So, therefore, no one did it.

Danielle came up next to me, rolling her large, black suitcase which looked almost identical to mine. As she did so, we saw Melanie running to greet her Cuban boyfriend. He was shorter than I had pictured, but handsome enough. The two embraced and kissed and I had to turn away. The passion of the re-union was almost blinding in a way. were we gonna get to our hotel...oh, wait, we didn't even have a hotel!



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