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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The things we carried, down, and back, and our encounter with Boston Customs.

On the porch, back at home

We’ve been home two days now. I still feel like there is a lot I haven’t recounted. I am going to try, now, to describe our arrival back in the U.S. and encounter with customs in Boston, and then go back to describe several experiences, our “Hemingway day” as Hoji described it, the wonderful Havana Modern Art Museum, some info about handicrafts and souvenirs, and a brief bibliography of  the Cuba related books we read enroute. And whatever else comes to mind as I am writing.

Our arrival home: We had been given all the information about what documentation we needed from the Canadian company that arranged the tour, had it all approved by them, and received from them a detailed itinerary that described each day of our tour (Loring was studying water resources at every place we visited, and the week we spent in la Boca we were both doing preliminary research.) We were told it was a “do-it-yourself visa, for which no official approval from the U.S. government was needed. There was a self –proclaimed “affidavit” that we needed to have notarized. I had a letter from my employer saying I taught for them, and a resume, and Loring wrote himself a letter on his own letterhead, which the agency had also said was absolutely fine. This is a relatively new visa, perhaps a year old, and I had also located and printed the proper page of the U.S. regulation itself.

All seemed well and good. All of us on the trip had the same documentation, except for Evelyn who was on a different educational visa in order to do research in the Cuban archives.

Well and good, that is, until we arrived in Boston. “So, you’ve been to Cuba?” said the agent, quite friendly.He seemed interested, not suspicious, but said to excuse him, he hadn’t dealt with this before and had to check with his supervisor. Another agent came along, said she had spoken with someone who’d been to Cuba before, again really friendly, and asked if the country was as beautiful as she’d heard. I think she was also the one that said she thought things should open up in the near future. Or maybe that was one of the other various agents we spoke with in the next half hour or so.

I was still more concerned that they might take our souvenirs than that they’d hit us with a fine. Although the supervisor did say, you know, you could have your passports taken away. He wasn't threatening, though, just seemed surprised that we were doing this.  Our passports and all the papers we’d carried, (having been told by the Canadian agency that they never checked anyone, anyway) went thru several sets of hands as we sat in the office. Maybe I was just too tired to be worried, but I felt more curious than anything else. What really puzzled and continues to puzzle me is that no one at customs, excepting that one woman, and not even the supervisor, seemed familiar with the visa.  I am wondering if the others in our group encountered any problems or just sailed through. We did indicate on our re-entry forms that we’d come from Cuba, not just Toronto. I would have been much more worried about lying. But the travel group conducts tours every week, most of them about 24 people in the group, mostly Americans.

Anyway, the supervisor eventually decided that we were right, said they’d just had to research it, gave us back our passports and all paperwork, wished us well. The crazy thing is that they never looked at our bags at all.

These are the things I carried back: two crocheted tops, no sign of made in Cuba anywhere. One set of claves, (rhythm instruments I bought for Max in the Havana crafts market, as soon as the guy showed me how to hold and play them, he and another guy came up behind me and sang “la Cucharacha.”) The first week I held off all the sellers with my little speech that I was American and we weren’t allowed to bring anything home. The second week, as our tour comrades were buying rum and cigars and all kinds of obviously Cuban products I loosened up and bought a few things – two domino sets, two sets of earrings, a small inlaid box with the design of the Cuban flag but very subtle, not in color. 

  There were some great t-shirts, lots of Che designs,, including one in the form of a Warhol multiple image, one that said Cuba in Coca-Cola like script. ( Cuba is one of the few places in the world where Coke isn’t available, and yet a cuba libre is rum and coke, and they all call the cola here coke.) I finally found Loring a t shirt he didn’t feel nervous about bringing back – it said Cuba, but so stylistically that no one in our group even recognized it. Of course no one else will, either!

Also, in the Havana used book market, I found some old (I think) cigar decals. And, we discovered an amazing children’s book that showed the history of the revolution. It was made of stamps that you put on each image, like some books I’d had as a kid. (not of the Cuban revolution!)  We kept seeing the same book at different stalls, and eventually realized that it was a facsimile. But they had copied all the pictures and pasted them in individually, so it was quite effective. When I told Hoji about it, he said he’d had it as a kid. I wonder if they’d reprinted it years ago, or just more recently, and that his was an original copy. He would have had his about 20 or 25 years ago, so way after the revolution.

The book was actually one of the things I had been concerned about bringing back through customs. But I thought I could make a case of it being an example of propaganda. Just as glad they didn’t look at it, though.

So that's what we carried back. What we carried down was pencils and play dough and tiny bottles of bubbles, and stickers. I always bring stickers, kids always seem to love them, and those I just handed out on the street. Most of the people in our group brought things to donate, some brought huge amounts, in duffle bags. Medical supplies and school supplies and I don't know what else. I felt like we ought to have brought more. Those we just gave to the administrators at some of the programs we visited, and watched as they carefully sorted and recorded them. It was probably better to donate them to the staff, but I would like to have been there when things were distributed, not so they knew who they came from, but just so I could see what they really wanted and appreciated. 

I will stop here, for today, feeling nearly caught up. There are still a couple of events and places we visited that I want to detail, and will hopefully do that in the next day or two.

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