Read this if you're an American photographer going to Cuba / by Al Argueta

You gotta love being singled out for “special treatment.” The thought hit me in a sort of tension-breaker/reality check as the strangely-clad customs agent at Havana’s international airport, in her green military get-up paired with black fishnet stockings, walked me from the X-ray machine to her superiors in the Customs office.

Along the way, we passed a newly imposed (new to me in the last ten years since visiting Cuba, at least) health inspection station where a full-page form filled out on the plane was thoroughly checked. Diarrhea? Nope. Coughing? No way. Not that I’d tell you if I was. The white coats worn by the two women doctors collecting the forms and mentally assessing travelers’ health seemed eerily reminiscent of WWII Nazi movies. I half expected her to ask me the answer to a riddle, like the pathetic Nazi doctor in "Life is Beautiful." I think what saved me was my response to her “First visit to Cuba?” question. “No, it’s my third,” I told her. “Do you like it?” she asked. “I love it.” Insert big smile. Bye, now.

I’m used to being singled out when going through airport X-ray machines. I carry a fair amount of photography gear, though I tend to travel light for a photographer. But this was different. The agent actually took my passport and sort of paraded it around with a ‘so what are we going to do about this?’ attitude as she approached her superiors. Another agent asked me where I was from. Survival mode quickly kicked in and I responded, “Guatemala.” I have dual citizenship. He asked me if I was born there, to which I honestly (and somewhat dejectedly) replied, “New York.” I really need to get a Guatemalan passport one of these days…

In the end, the head honcho was approached about “what to do with the gringo.” He looked over at me from about ten feet away. I waved and smiled, not really knowing what else to do. Then he just waved me on. “Gracias. Muy amable,” I said. Fishnet Stockings was visibly disappointed, like someone who pays $500 to see a prizefight, only to have the favorite contender knocked out in the first minute. *

Finally, I crossed the threshold to the other side and the awaiting masses of Cubans welcoming home loved ones. And I felt free, like that scene in Inception where Leonardo DiCaprio enters the U.S. after so much has transpired. At least this is how I consoled myself temporarily. I really didn’t feel free until I was back on a plane a few days later, glass of wine in hand, headed back to San Salvador (and on to Guatemala City).

*On my first visit to Cuba in 2004, when I had a lot less photo gear than I do now, I was pulled aside due to my U.S. passport and taken to a small room for questioning by Customs authorities. All of my belongings were gone through with surgical precision. I’m convinced my Spanish fluency helped deflect suspicion. After about 40 minutes, they finally let me go.