Usually I’m the one who gets stopped by the customs officer or pulled into a small, hot little room to be questioned by an immigration official who invariably says Momento and then leaves me alone in the room while he goes to get a supervisor or two. But yesterday it was Greg’s turn, the customs official pawing through his luggage with her blue latex gloves, digging like a dog after a bone until she’d unearthed what she’d been searching for: two boxes of Cuban cigars.
I had passed safely through customs and was standing on the other side, waiting for him, but when I saw him arguing with the official and pointing towards me, I hurried over. Here, as best we could understand it, was the problem: Greg was carrying a wooden box of Cohibas and another box of Montecristo NO. 4s, Che’s favorite.
“Usted sólo puede traer 25 cigarros en el país,” said the customs official brusquely, holding the two boxes of cigars in her hands as if they were plastic explosives.
“But one box is mine,” I told her. “Here, I’ll put it in my bag.”
“No,” she scolded me, wagging a finger in my face. It was too late for that. The cigars were in Greg’s luggage; the cigars were his. This was, she said, “irrefutable.”
I asked her to get an English-speaking supervisor. He was even less patient about the matter. The cigars could not be mine because the cigars were not in my bag. I had passed through customs. I should not be here. I needed to leave, now.
Greg tried a more diplomatic approach. What can we do here? he asked the customs official who looked both bored and angry.
It is simple, he said. Either you pay the custom’s tax, which is 475% of the value of the cigars (approximately $275) or leave the cigars with the officer.
“Esto no está bien,” I said. This is not right.
The officer shrugged and looked off, tired of the argument.
It was agreed that the officer would write a letter acknowledging that he had confiscated the box of Montecristo cigars. This would take a little time. The officer went off with the cigars. Greg and I waited. Ten, fifteen minutes later, the officer presented the letter.
“Did you enjoy Cuba?” he asked when he came back.
“It was lovely,” I told him, still angry. “The people there are very gracious.”
The officer nodded and smiled. “Some day I must go there,” he said.
“Yes, and when you do, perhaps you can buy your own cigars,” I said.
And so we left Cuba behind us. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.