Cuba Journal: Arriving in Havana With Trouble At the Airport

This segment titled “Cuba Journal” contains entries written from when I traveled to the country while making an upcoming film. I’m posting these journal entires completely raw, without editing them in any way. I didn’t just write these now… they’ve been written since I was in Havana the second time (I sadly didn’t keep a journal the first time through when I was with the baseball team).

I also have some videos to accompany some of these entries. These are mostly taken from a phone camera while I’m inside my room, although I’m going to try and find time to edit them a little bit to make them more interesting to watch, and to tell the stories better. Therefore, the video content in this journal “may” be edited, but the text will remain entirely untouched.

With that out of the way… Here’s entry number 2. If you’d like to watch and read number 1, click here.

Cuba Journal: The Airport

It’s 3am here in Havana, and I’m just now getting to bed. Our plane touched down about a half hour later than the schedule originally planned for, due to the complications in getting the engines started. The airport is the same as I remember, except this time we didn’t get loaded on the ground, and have to ride the shuttle to the door. This felt just like a normal airport experience, escalator included.

Getting through immigration was actually way easier this time than when we first went through with the team. Like before, I had to look into the little camera for them to scan my eyes and such, but no questions were raised to me. They never asked why I was here, how many times I was here… nothing. The woman simply stamped my visa, and sent me on my way through to the security checkpoint.

Getting through security was the easiest experience I’ve ever had in an airport. There was no need to remove my shoes, or take anything out of any of the bags I had. I needed only to remove my phone from my pocket, and the change (although I’m not even sure metal detectors will pick up change. Never tried). After spending what seemed like only a minute or two going through immigration and security, I made my way over to grab my bags.

Ahh…. there’s when the Cuba I remember showed its face.

Not only was the wait for the bags excruciatingly long, but many of us had a hard time leaving the airport without a little intimidation from the customs officers. Cuba has some of the nosiest, and most annoying customs officers I’ve ever seen, and tonight was apparently the night to get picked up and investigated by all of them.

On my bag’s tags were a bunch of writing in black marker. Others had the writing as well, and were pulled to the side for questioning all the same. The officers wanted to know the age old question: “What’s in the bag?”

Of course, I’m not one to lie to people, so I simply told them

“My clothes, a lens for my camera, and a hard drive to store files on. My computer is in the backpack. I’m a tourist.”

The writing apparently hinted that my bag had something to inspect inside it (they scan them all in the back before it goes out to me on the convertor belt). They asked me if I had pliers in my bag. This commotion was apparently going to happen because of some tools I had for my camera. Awesome.

Now you’d think that being questioned by customs wouldn’t scare me much. I mean, I’ve got nothing to hide that’s potentially illegal, and so I shouldn’t be worried… right?

Well, that’s not entirely true. The part that makes this dangerous has nothing to do with a little pair of pliers. Actually, the worry comes from the bags of medicine that are also found in my luggage. Lots and lots of drugs.

Before leaving for Cuba, each member of the team was given a duffle bag full of medical supplies. We then distributed this medicine within our normal luggage, to make it look more like it was only for us, and not for distribution. Having all the medicine together would have been a really bad thing anyways, since it would make it really easy for them to confiscate everything we’re bringing to the people of Cuba.

I was told to go wait in a line for customs inspections. Those who were at the front of the lines were getting drilled with lots of questions, and many had their stuff taken out of the bags. If my bags were going to get searched, I was going to need to explain the drugs in my bag. I really had no idea what I was going to tell them. We had all talked about it, and had been filled in with options to explain it, but it wasn’t promised that it would work in any way.

I was left in the line sweating in the hot airport for about 30 minutes while the line slowly crept forward. During that time, officials kept approaching me and looking at the tag on the bag. They would call a few of their friends over, talk a little in spanish, and then, ask me once again “What’s in the bag?”

Over and over they would ask, and each time I would repeat the same items (leaving out the bag of pills, bandages, and other medical supplies). It took a lot of repetition, and they consumed over an hour of my time, but eventually, the guy in charge was called over to investigate for himself. He asked why I had pliers with me, and I once again explained that I was a tourist with a camera, and that the tools in my luggage were for the camera. I repeated the items in my bag yet again, and after seeing that I was consistent in my story, he took out a stamp, and waved for me to pass out the door after placing a little mark on my luggage tag.

What a rush. I wasn’t even the one that got the worst of it. One other member of our group was held up for over 3 hours waiting in line for his luggage to be checked. We were waiting forever for him to come out of there, and after another hour of waiting, many of us left the airport while a few stayed behind. It was past 1am. We had spent more than 2 hours in the airport at the fault of ridiculous customs agents.

Charlie Pryor

Charlie is a media producer, writer, and a traveler. He grew up in Michigan, all of his life and attended Grand Valley State University for a B.S. in Film and Video Production. He's married to a wonderful woman named Hang, and simply hopes to one day turn himself into a man that many will remember long after he's gone.

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