Travel sketch: Hard questions in Cuba

‘Why is your camera so big?’ the Cuba customs officer asked. ‘This is a professional camera. Why do you have this?’

I’ve been asked this question many times before. Usually I laugh it off or make a joke and the guy waves me though.

But not this time. I’m at José Martí International Airport… Cuba. It’s a place where they take surveillance of their Communist government seriously.

Vintage car and phone Cuba Double-Barrelled Travel

Cuba street scene… in 2014

Sweating it in customs

The Cuba customs officer is a big fellow, sweating heavily in the humid arrivals hall with a three-day stubble and dark circles under his eyes and armpits. ‘You need papers for this camera. Permissions to have it here. Why are you bringing it here?’

My mind goes into overdrive. I had anticipated that something like this might happen in Cuba – we all know it’s a tightly controlled Communist country with media censorship and a dim view of foreign journalists – any journalists for that matter unless they are government lackeys.

I run through a scenario as the officer waits for my answer. If I tell him the absolute truth – that I am a travel blogger who’s come to Cuba to write stories and produce videos about my experience – then I’m pretty sure he’ll haul me off to some blank room for questioning. I’d then make the mistake of telling him I used to work for BBC World News and probably get taken to an even blanker room for more interrogation.

Bollocks to that.

Tractor Cuba Double-Barrelled Travel

Farming equipment in Cuba

Lies to the law

‘It’s for making holiday memories,’ I tell him, regaining my confidence as I draw into a big well of deceit filling up in my brain. ‘I know it’s a big camera but it’s very good and I like it. I have it because I like to make good memories of my holidays.’

‘No,’ the officer insists. ‘This is a professional camera. I have seen these before. Filmmakers use them. News people. Tourists have smaller cameras…’

‘Yes that’s true,’ I say, interrupting his flow. ‘But you don’t have to be a professional to have a camera this big. Tourists have these all the time. I bought this from a regular shop. I just think it’s a good camera to make memories with.’

‘No. You must have papers for this camera.’

Queue for shop Cuba Double-Barrelled Travel

People queuing to enter a store in Cuba

Channelling my external calm

On the outside I’m confident, calm and collected. Inside I am a jellyfish. I imagine tigerish guards swooping in from all directions, dragging me into a van that takes me into the bowels of some concrete ministry building decorated with Soviet propaganda. ‘You capitalist pig,’ they say as their steel-toed boots smash into my ribs. ‘The glorious revolution will triumph for all eternity!’

Bloody hell. This is getting a bit heated. ‘Look mate,’ I say to the guy. ‘I’ll admit it’s a bit of a ridiculous camera. It’s big. But I just have it because I like it…’

‘I’m his wife,’ cries a voice.

We both look over. It’s Carmen, hands on hips and seemingly a foot taller than usual. ‘ I’m his wife and this camera is just for our holiday.’

The officer squares his shoulders and thinks for a long moment. ‘Fine.’ He passes the camera bag back to me and walks away.

Store in Cuba Double-Barrelled Travel

No, not a museum but a shop in Cuba

Safe in our Havana hideout

Later, we check into our Casa Particular in downtown Havana and as we unpack I slide the big camera under the bed. ‘I don’t think I’m going to use it while we’re here,’ I say to Carmen. ‘I bet I’ll get hassled every time I pull it out.’

‘That’s a shame,’ she says. ‘But probably for the best.’

For the rest of our time in Cuba we use our other, normal sized camera to take videos and photographs and have no trouble at all. We meet scores of incredibly friendly Cubans. But always on the edge of things is the threat of state disapproval.

Commie eyes are everywhere

We see police officers aggressively questioning a lady who runs a tourist agency in Vinales, rifling through her papers while she sits in mute terror. While taking rides in taxis our drivers have to pull over for check after check after check at police stops. Another lady we speak to about the day-to-day difficulties of life in Cuba lowers her voice and looks over her shoulder constantly as she speaks.

The Cuba presented to tourists is all smiles and service but that masks the troubles that are both on the horizon and deeply ingrained into life there. One need only look sideways and you can see the shackles imposed by the rigid Communist government and America’s confusing embargo of the island’s economy.

There is TV – but it only shows low-grade sport, terrible soap operas, bland news or political speeches and rallies by Castro and other big name officials. There is barely anything on the shelves in the supermarkets. People queue to get inside department stores and internet cafes that have dial up connections and heavily censored web browsers. There are few books and even fewer magazines and newspapers.

As a Westerner used to freedom of speech, the free market and the obsession with Googling everything, these restrictions freak me out.

Street party Cuba Double-Barrelled Travel

People still love a good time – dancing on the streets of Cuba

Life in Cuba goes on like normal

But the locals could care less. They have ingenious ways of getting around all of these inconveniences. They get relatives in Miami or other parts of the USA and the world to email them news articles which they then copy onto USB sticks and pass around.

They grow their own food, or trade, or smuggle it in on the black market. They ignore the TV and play dominoes and drink rum and smoke fat cigars, knowing their universal health care system will take care of them.

They see the government as a nuisance more than a threat, something to be endured or blunted. Even the government workers are mostly slack, simply going through the motions. In fact, I’m pretty sure now that the immigration officer was just having a laugh at my expense. Perhaps he was bored.

Leaving Cuba for Cancun

Two weeks after our arrival, Carmen and I fly away from Cuba and land in Cancun, Mexico – which might as well be a suburb of Las Vegas, Nevada. There’s bright lights and disco balls and all-you-can eat seafood restaurants, puking girls and fighting boys as thick as thieves. Switch on the TV and it’s 200 channels of garbage, news, documentaries, movies and soft-core porn. You can say what you like, do what you like and be whom you like – no one bats an eyelid.

And no one questions the size of my camera. They’re more interested in the size of my wallet…

Have you been to Cuba?

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About the author

Dave is the co-founder of Double-Barrelled Travel and has been nomadic since May 2013. When he's not busily working on a novel, he can be found exploring a war museum, sailing a yacht (unfortunately not his own), or hiking up a mountain.

8 comments on “Travel sketch: Hard questions in Cuba”

  1. Andrea Anastasiou Reply

    “We both look over. It’s Carmen, hands on hips and seemingly a foot taller than usual. ‘ I’m his wife and this camera is just for our holiday.’” This made me laugh no end! On a more serious note, we definitely take our freedoms for granted. It’s only when they’re taken away from us that we realise how important they are.
    Andrea Anastasiou recently posted…Month Four In ReviewMy Profile

  2. Valerie Reply

    Awesome article, Dave! I was curious to see if you guys would ever cover this side of Cuba after we chatted about your travels at TBEX; I’m glad you were able to enjoy it and gain some insight. The interesting thing is that Communist communities often forget that while people could potentially write negative things about their countries, it doesn’t really make a huge difference to people who really want to visit from coming. It’s still on my list; someday when we decide to get along again!
    Valerie recently posted…Day 2 at NASA (of 3)!My Profile

  3. Heather Reply

    We just spent a week in Varadero. We had a scary time in the international bank. They have vey different and rigid rules than we do here in Canada! It gave me a huge appreciation for our freedoms here at home!! Not sure if we’ll ever go back to Cuba. .

    • Carmen Allan-Petale Reply

      Wow, that’s not good! Thankfully we didn’t experience anything too frightening in Cuba, aside from that incident at the airport. We tried to avoid the banks though! Glad you got out safely.

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