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Charlie Chaplin and Don Quixote at Cuban Customs

Whenever I visit a new country, I make the point of buying a piece of local art.  During my recent trip to Cuba I bought two wooden sculptures, a light fitting and some paintings and went to the DHL offices in Havana to courier them home.  The resident customs official blocked my consignment.  I had to get certification of clearance from the customs offices in town, she ordered.  Being a customs officer, couldn’t she herself please clear them, I asked.  No, she couldn’t.  Please?  Glum stares.  Nothing to do but pack my boxes back into the taxi and drive half-way across town to the imposingly named National Office for Cultural Treasures (Beneficios Culturales).

Havana Customs Office

Cuban Customs office and my stuff

There I am received, if we can call it that, by an unfriendly, fidgety, officious, overbearing official.  The officials who could look into my case are busy, she says.  I have to park my parcels on the floor and wait, wait, that was all and I shouldn’t ask, she says.  So I wait, I mope around and wait, losing and regaining countless cycles of hope.  After ninety minutes I sedate myself with a cigar on the verandah, trying to regain courage lost to stonewalling officialdom.  After a foreshortened vision of eternity I’m eventually beckoned to a well-lit room.  Seated at an oval table are two female officials and a boy.  They leer at me and my parcels in mouth-distorting distaste.  Where was I from, what did I have in the boxes?  Nothing of value, wooden sculptures actually.  Oh?  Well, the law requires that I open them.  But the artist had taken hours to pack them properly for shipping, it would be a pity to undo his work, I plead.  That they could see, they say, but they were nonetheless inviting me to open the parcels.

Charlie Chaplin comes out

Charlie Chaplin comes out

A knife is produced and my taxi driver and I set about slicing open the first box which had been painstaking wrapped in layers of protective materials.  The box yields.  Out comes Charlie Chaplin, kicking foam and packaging material all over the place, soiling the office.  The boy admires the sculpture and inwardly assesses his future as a Cuban customs official, seeing the bright side of officialdom.  Charlie is intensely scrutinised and measured in five dimensions, some measurements taken twice just to make sure.  This is done with the time that the good Lord in his wisdom has granted only to bored customs officials.  Charlie’s vital statistics are noted and annotated in government triplicate on folio No. 0143856, export code CHA-03, Invoice No 20121448.  After ages they are eventually done with Charlie and we could pack him away, but it was impossible to get all the packing material back into his box so we make do with a patch-up job.  “Pity to undo such meticulous packing”, smirks one.

Cuban Customs Form

Now, wondered Officer No. 1, they had viewed Charlie Chaplin, may they now ponder as to which illustrious personage lurked in the other box?  Indeed they may, I grant with sweeping magnanimity, but I would prefer to save them the trouble by telling them outright:  It was none less than Don Quixote himself.  “Really?  How literate” they approve.  “Now, could I be so kind as to expose him for them to read him a little?  Please would I, if I didn’t mind, Amor?” cooed Officer No. 2.  Amor, she called me.  Love.  The love that had to better open his packages or else.  If you’ve never digested dripping sarcasm, these were gourmet offerings.

Charlie Chaplin himself

Charlie Chaplin himself

I readily accede.  The taxi-driver and I slash Don Quixote loose from his wrappings, being now really good with the knife.  Suppressed anger helps.  My slashes are physically directed at the box but mentally directed at Amor.  Blood and gore, I see it, I smell it.  Think B-grade horror movie Brutal Custom Official Slashers etc.  Styrofoam, packaging materials, cardboard, masking tape, socialist newspapers, bubble wrap, the works go flying over the table and onto the floor to the utter insouciance of the officials.  Is it their problem?  At that stage things no longer seem worth it.  Why had I bothered?  Don Quixote starts diminishing greatly one of literature’s figures in my mind.  As for Charlie Chaplin: the infuriating little creep!

Don Quixote emerges

Don Quixote emerges

Don Quixote in turn gets the prolonged measurement treatment and after another hour we’re done.  Right, says Amor, this office can ratify the sculptures, but the light fitting, being possibly an antique, would take at least six days to assess, but at another office.  Far from here.  Impossible, I say.  I was leaving Cuba the next morning.  Tough, she says.  I should try to get my money back from the vendor, or leave it to someone I know in Cuba.  Leave it to someone I know in Cuba?  Was this the windmills of my mind I was hearing?  I know nobody in Cuba.  Who would she prefer I left it to, Ché or Fidel?  The beneficiary was irrelevant, she says, not missing a beat, but I would be in big trouble if I tried to smuggle it out.  As for the paintings – well, those were better checked by customs officials at the airport – they could not be processed at this office.  But please couldn’t they make a plan?  No, mi Amor, no puedo.  I needed to go to another office across town but it would be closing at 2PM which meant I would not make it on time.  I should have come a week earlier, says Amor.  But I only bought this stuff two days ago, I say.  Amor flattens me with the dumbest shrug.  “These things take time in Cuba, si, Amor”.

Don Quixote damaged

Don Quixote damaged

I send off my now-sanctioned sculptures by DHL, then hard-pack the paintings and my light fitting (in parts) into suitcases and check them in at the airport at 4AM the next morning.  I all-too-easily sail through customs first time around, which, uniquely in Cuba I think, you pass after checking in your bags.  This calls for celebratory coffees, but too early, for as I’m about to board the plane shortly before the gate closes I’m publically called by a COPA airlines announcement.  Alarms.  I’m wanted at customs, they say, and scurry me off to an office manned by two over-alert officers for that time of morning.  The lifelong effect I have on customs officials immediately kicks in; upon seeing me, the female official turns predictably sour, screws up her face and curls her claws.

Charlie Chaplin and Don Quixote

Charlie and the Don

Please, I’m in a rush”, I say.  “Open everything!” orders Amor No 2, “and stand aside!”  So I open everything and they rummage through the most intimate of my belongings, adult wear etc.  They pick up each item individually, inspect it with an unwholesome curiosity, look me straight in the eyes and then cast it aside in disgust.  It takes more than that to shame me.  Years of therapy have steeled me against this.  Time runs.  At a stage Amor No 2 suppresses a thrill upon pawing a stinky sock.  The way to her heart?  More time runs.  I show them Folio 0143856, saying I acted in good faith, having gone through all the official channels etc.  Total deafness.  I panic for time.  Please, I beg, could we hurry as my plane was about to leave and I would miss my three connecting flights to Panama City, Sao Paolo, Dubai and Cape Town?  Por favor, por un grande favor.  More deafness, busy silence.  Seconds pass.  A big hole gnaws through me.

That’s hardly our problem”, splutters Amor No. 2.  “You should have been here three hours ago.”  Right then, my vital centre collapses.  I droop my shoulders and mentally give up on my flights, my purpose in life, its meaning, everything.  They’ve corroded my resolve, they’ve won.  I crumble.  It’s back to therapy for me.  The endless rummaging continues with a grinding persistence.  Each item is painfully lifted, unwrapped, inspected and flipped…  After the passing of a second eternity I’m eventually dismissed with a toss of the head.  I roll up my paintings, now devoid of much protection, snap shut my bags and am rushed back to the plane, just making my flight that Copa Airlines have mercifully held back.  An air hostess hurries me down an aisle from which passengers stare at me.  The hollow shell that’s me collapses exhausted into the only open seat on the plane.

Of course, Charlie and the Don were damaged in transit, the Don badly so.  You don’t want to go through this, you just don’t.

oooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

The next windmill?

The next windmill?

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