Wednesday, February 11, 2015. When a plane touches down at José Martí National Airport (or to anywhere else from the island), the inevitable but always spontaneous applause and glad shouts make me wonder about their motivation. Are travelers truly that delighted that they have returned home–meaning the place where they actually live, or in many cases the place from whence they emigrated years ago? Or perhaps the vacationers are so thrilled to get their Cuba on (or get their Cuba off and their shopping on) that they can’t contain themselves? Or maybe it is just that people are so relieved that nothing failed or broke or was mired in red tape, and therefore we made it in one piece to where we were supposed to go.
For anyone experienced with the Cuban way of life, the fact that something works like it should–and in good time–actually is nothing short of miraculous. So there I was, clapping and shouting with the best of them, ready to step off the plane into tropical climes with an enormous suitcase full of books for the International Book Fair (and two other suitcases full of gifts). The rolling staircase arrived! We deplaned with no problems! I made it through immigration in record time! As I stepped into baggage claim, the conveyor belt started turning, and luggage began to tumble out of the hatch! Several employees were present to help facilitate retrieval for those who needed assistance. February 11, a day before any of my Fair obligations, and life was rolling along smoothly.
Then everything goes to hell in a hand basket.
Suddenly the moving belt is no longer moving. Gears shift, literally and figuratively. For some reason unknown to mere mortals, the baggage department stops loading parcels and suitcases from our flight and instead starts delivering the belongings of passengers from the other flight just in from Miami–half an hour AFTER our own. By this time, two plane loads of people are milling around, shoving their way toward the circling rubber belt, and we find out what the employees REALLY are there for–to run interference for the many of us who began to panic, rage, or despair (as per our personalities) when our luggage continued to be absent. They scurry from one end of the room to another, conferring with counterparts out on the floor and back within the bowels of the operations department. They run back to assuage, promise, calm, and then off again to search for the hundreds of missing suitcases and over-sized, shrink-wrapped boxes. Yes, hundreds. From two flights. And who thinks that Cuba is ready for the embargo to be lifted so that 3 million US tourists per year can make this their new favorite destination?
Over two hours after passing through passport control, my shiny red polymer cases come into view–and I see them myself (no need for the porters/pr officers). Home free? Not hardly.
In Cuba, one has to then have one’s luggage weighed, in order to pay the proper import taxes–100% of the value of import. This in itself is a long line. Unfortunately, since my books were for the Fair, I have to wait for “special treatment.” As per the emailed instructions I received from Lachy and Yailán at the Book Fair International Relations office (print copy in my now damp and dingy hands), I would leave the books with Customs, and Fair functionaries would liberate them and pay the taxes in Cuban pesos–a substantial savings. But it seems as if this was an entirely unprecedented protocol, as one official after another glares at me suspiciously, telling me to wait. After another hour of waiting, the novelist laureate Mirta Yáñez intervenes personally, and I am relegated to a friendly Customs official, who asked for my story again. He is ready to help! He wants to help! He loves Mirta Yáñez! So he brings over a colleague, and together they take every book out of my luggage, in order to record, by hand, in pen on the proper form: every single title, author, ISBN, value, and quantity. Several signatures are garnered. I am able to leave, sans books, but with official paperwork for the Fair IR office.
I am exhausted and somewhat frustrated, but hopeful that all will proceed as predicted. After all, this was an annual international event, so they had to know what they were doing, right?
Oh, how naive I am.
Thursday, February 12. Mirta Yáñez and Nancy Alonso launch the beautiful Damas de Social, a meticulously researched tome about the contributions of female intellectuals in the 1910’s and 1920’s. Then after 5 pm we have to go to La Cabaña, the principal grounds for the Book Fair, to make the rounds and talk to the 5 people necessary (in 5 offices across the fair grounds of course) to arrange for the books to be picked up from the airport customs the next day and then be stored temporarily in the Fair warehouse. They tell me very sincerely that without a doubt the books will be available tomorrow. And then I will have to return to the Fair the next day in order to go to one office so that a protocol officer can accompany me to the room where our Sunday and Monday presentations are, so that she can say whether she will arrange for the books to be delivered from somewhere (our car or the Book Institute office) to the presentation room, And I personally will have to go to the warehouse to pick up the books, because god forbid they stay in the warehouse one more day to save us a trip into town. Sigh.
Friday, February 13. No books. The Cargo Administrator (who had left for the day) has failed to do what he promised me to my face on Thursday that he would do bright and early Friday morning, which was to take the paperwork from the airport to get the books. This was the agreed-upon plan, because our scheduled BOOK LAUNCHES AND SIGNINGS were to be on that very Sunday and Monday.
Author Uva de Aragón and translator Jeffrey C. Barnett at the 2015 book fair in Havana
However, he then after the fact decided that he would wait to get the other paperwork filled out for the books that translator Jeffrey C. Barnett had brought–paperwork which since Thursday morning had been languishing in an office in Havana. By the end of Friday they have found the paperwork, but no more trips out to the airport are planned. Weekend trips to the airport are not planned. It appears that we have not followed the correct protocol, which would have been to arrive and turn in paperwork at least four days before needing the books. We should call the Cargo Administrator personally to see if anything can be arranged.
Saturday, February 14.
We make many calls. I am told to come back and again present myself in the office of International Relations for the Fair, at the Fortaleza del Morro de la Cabaña. Again I am sent haring all over the fairgrounds, again accompanied by Lachy–a very sweet and handsome young man, the IR Protocol officer, to try to smooth my way with all the other functionaries with the Fair Customs office, the Exposition Room supervisor, the Cargo Administrator, and so on. However, evidently the Fair Customs office doesn’t have anyone working on Saturday or Sunday.
Nevertheless, I am assured that the IR Office is attempting to accomplish the impossible to get the books in time for the first presentation. If not that, then for the second book launching. I should arrive an hour early to check.
Sunday, February 15.
As I have come to expect, walking to many offices produces no books. The incredibly full and enthusiastic audience at the launching of Cubanabooks prose selections is disappointed. I am resigned. Mirta and the other authors are disgruntled.
The launch of prose selections from Cubanabooks, February 2015, Havana International Book Fair
We at least have one copy of each book that we brandish in evidence that this is no imperialist trick or plot, that truly we have bilingual editions of The Bleeding Wound/Sangra por la herida by Mirta Yáñez (trans. Sara E. Cooper), The Memory of Silence/Memoria del silencio by Uva de Aragón (trans. Jeffrey C. Barnett), and An Address in Havana/Domicilio habanero by María Elena Llana (trans. Barbara Riess).
And absolutely, positively, the books will be at the Fair bright and early the next day, for the poetry panel.
Monday, February 16.
We waltz in a half hour prior to the bursting-at-the-seams session with authors Nancy Morejón and Georgina Herrera, to launch their respective books Homing Instincts/ Querencias (trans. Pamela Carmell) and Always Rebellious/ Cimarroneando (trans. Juanamaría Cordones-Cook, María Rodriguez-Alcalá, and Alexander Michael Cordones-Cook).
Nancy Morejón, Georgina Herrera, and Sara E. Cooper (from left)
Our halfhearted inquiries are met with chagrined denials, but also with new assurances that a new person has been put in charge of the latest rescue attempt. A tall, beautiful woman with a no-nonsense air grimly affirms that she is disgusted with the inefficiency I’ve experience so far and will take matters into her own hands. Milena says I should plan to come in the next day to get our books.
Tuesday, February 17.
The first thing I heard when I drag myself out of my mosquito net-swathed, hard and lumpy single bed is Mirta telling me there is something she needed to consult with me. Which is to say, that early this morning the latest Fair functionary has called the house to let us know the next step to follow in this, our saga, of the books that we
brought into Cuba for the Book Fair and that have yet to appear.
So when the woman who professedly has made it her mission in life to get my books for me (and take that with a grain of salt) calls this morning and explains the latest glitch, Mirta is furious, and evidently she lets Milena have an earful, which of course makes not one bit of difference. According to unimpeachable sources the books have been recovered from airport Customs and have taken up residence in the Fair Customs Office. One would think that all is taken care of, that I can swing by and pick up the books, right? (which, by the way, is a MAJOR pain in the ass, since transportation is a hot mess here, gasoline being expensive, most cars being on the verge of expiration, Mirta’s partner Nancy—who drives when driving must be done—is on a strict schedule caring for her bed-ridden mother, and two other sets of foreign friends of theirs have come for the Fair and want to take them out on top of everything)
But no, it is not a simple matter of “swinging by.” Now that both presentations have passed, evidently, Fair Customs is of the opinion that we don’t need the books any more, and so they will not give them up. The workaround is to fictionalize a second set of Book Fair presentations, which will be held at ancillary fair grounds, one of many that are in operation throughout the city, and for which we therefore have legitimate reason to get the books.
Fairgrounds at La Cabaña at el Morro
Never mind that from the very first, we have communicated the fact that the books are to be donated to various cultural and academic institutions, rather than sold at the Fair. Today’s trip to the office of International Relations will be to sign a “proforma” detailing the titles, authors, quantities, and promotional price of the books to be sold at out fictional session. In the words of my new guardian angel, she “has every hope that today I will be able to walk out of La Cabaña with the books in my hands.” I will believe that when I see it, because she has had many other fond hopes that have been dashed to the ground.
Arriving at Milena’s office, I plunk myself down and don’t move from my seat until she has finished filling out and printing the “proforma.” Toward the end of the hour she is getting nervous, checking her watch over and over, because she fears the Customs personnel will go home early. We practically fly over to their office, me trotting to keep up with her long legged stride, and heave a sigh of relief at the open door. Social niceties are preserved, and after a while the officials look through all the papers with some degree of suspicion then finally sign and affix the seal. As we prepare to take the paperwork on to the warehouse, the officer in charge announces that he’d better go with us, to make sure that nothing goes wrong at the other end. Now we are three, walking at a much more leisurely pace.
The warehouse manager receives us, makes the requisite chit-chat with the Customs officer, then takes the papers Milena offers, and looks them over closely, frowning and occasionally glancing up with an almost hostile look. But he also must concede that everything is in order, and he does have the books. However, he says, we had better wait until “the boys” get back from lunch so they can transport them to the International Relations office (keep in mind that we are talking about a suitcase with wheels and a small box). Five of us trundle back across the Fair grounds, accompanied by the books, which still are not officially released.
Yailán, Lachy, and Milena, of the International Relations office
At the other end, you guessed it–the Customs official must take out every book and check it off the list. He then solemnly hands Milena her copies of the paperwork and announces that we have completed the entire transaction. The fiction has worked! We feel like heroes, returned from a quest for the Holy Grail!
Let there be books!