Cuba Libre The author explains how to illegally enter a foreign country as well as what it's like to hang out with prostitutes in Havana.
There are a few tricks for getting into Cuba that any American visiting the country illegally should know. The first challenge is successfully passing the luggage inspection. Now every country has those questions on their customs forms that everyone giggles about, no one takes seriously and to which you dutifully check off "no" on the cards they hand out on airplanes. Those are the questions about whether you’re bringing in livestock, carrying arms, smuggling narcotics and so forth. Of course there are the trickier decisions such as deciding whether to declare your liquor when you have exceeded the allowance by say, a dozen or so bottles but in general, the questions are pretty straightforward (except on my recent trip when I’d been handed the card printed in classical Arabic).
Unfortunately, customs officials in Cuba take their jobs a little more seriously than those of other nations where a sense of humor is still legal. I had placed a neat little row of X’s down the "no" line of the Customs form (after all, I had come to Cuba to buy contraband merchandise; I wasn’t bringing any in) so I was a little surprised when the guard standing watch over the x-ray machine had spotted something suspicious-looking on the monitor as my bags made their way through the conveyor belt.
"You may enter Cuba," he said pulling the offending item out of my luggage, "but not with this."
It was an apple. A nice big, red juicy apple. The officers would let a capitalist-bred American illegally into a communist country but not if she wanted to bring in things like produce. So that was my choice: some of the world’s best rum, cigars and salsa music or one-fifth of the recommended daily allowance of fiber.
"No problem," I said to the guard, adding my apple to the trash can overflowing with illicit peaches, grapes and bananas.
"No agricultural products," he explained apologetically.
"I thought you were talking about things like sheep."
Then it was onto immigration, which was a simple enough process. While all the Dutch, German and French tourists added a Cuba stamp to the back pages of their passports, I had the guard kindly place the stamp on my visa, a little white card stapled to my passport that had been issued to me by my Guadalajaran travel agent.
And that was it. I uttered an enthusiastic "gracias" and officially entered Cuba.
Umberto was a thirty-something businessman from Mexico City and when I learned that this was his twelfth visit to Havana, I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to tag along with him. Of course, it actually was a bad idea, a real doosey of a bad idea, but hindsight always comes into focus after the fact.
Meeting him had been a strange coincidence. We had casually struck up a conversation at the Guadalajara airport where we discovered that we were both departing on the same flight to Mexico City. Then we found out we were sharing the same plane to Cuba and that we even had reservations at the same hotel in Havana.
It turned out that we had a lot in common: I was going to Cuba because I had nothing better to do; he was going to Cuba because he was divorcing his wife and had no one better to do. But he wasn’t into gringas, he informed on the taxi ride to our hotel. Or smart women, he added, rolling his eyes at what I assumed was my intellect.
Luckily, I had ruled him out as a potential romantic partner hours earlier. It had happened sometime after we had met and sometime before he began yelling "Death to all Americans!" out the window of the cab. One minute we were driving along discussing Cuban food and beaches and the next minute, he was shouting with his fist in the air: "Yankees go home!"
Needless to say, his outburst had come as a bit of a surprise. Luckily, he noticed my startled expression and quickly explained the reason for his outburst: "Don’t worry, I don’t think that way at all. I was just reading that sign over there." I looked over and caught a glimpse of anti-American slogan spray-painted on the wall.
"I’m Mexican," he continued. "And we like Americans. It’s just the Cubans who are against you. It was just a sign. There, you feel better now?"
"Umberto, what country did we just leave?"
"And what country are we in now?"
"Do you really think I feel better now?"
At that moment, I suspected that hanging out with Umberto was going to be one irritating incident after another. Sure enough, by that evening, this premonition could no longer be ignored. It was annoying talking to him, it was annoying being with him and it was annoying having to hang out with so many hookers.
An authentic Italian meal, Umberto had promised me. And my first night in Havana, there definitely was a pizza on the table, but with all the prostitutes in front of me competing for a place on Umberto’s lap, it was hard to concentrate on picking off my anchovies.
Umberto grinned over at me, happy as a boy in a Nintendo factory.
"Which one do you think?" he whispered over at me as a peroxide blonde in a tight orange dress ruffled his hair.
"So many to choose from — difficult, isn’t it?"
"Yes. I’m so glad you understand. A Latin woman would never understand. Take my wife for instance. She would never be sitting where you’re sitting now."
"I imagine she wouldn’t."
"Are you having a good time? I want you to be having a good time, you know."
"Umberto, if it makes you feel better, I’ll tell you that I’ve never had more fun surrounded by prostitutes and anchovies than I’m having right now."
By the time I had gotten rid of all my unwanted toppings, Umberto had whittled the women on his lap down to just one. One was fine. I could deal with one. I just didn’t want to have to deal with her alone.
"Be right back. Have to go to the bathroom. You girls sit and chat."
So there I was: eating pizza in an Italian restaurant trying to find something in common with a fifteen-year-old prostitute from Havana. But it turned out she liked anchovies so she filled the remaining time (and her mouth) by plopping one hairy fish after another in between her well-defined lips.