Cuba - a Third World country with first world people

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The Independent Travel
Bill Bryson's passport, as you might expect from a prolific and successful travel writer, is riddled with stamps - about 40 in all. Bill says he's been pretty lucky with his passport - he's never lost it or had any problems with customs, except, that is, in his own country.

"I'd been travelling all over the world," says Bill of a trip some three years ago. "And the only trouble I had was arriving in Honolulu. Great, I thought. Back to good old cheeseburgers. But the guy at customs started cross-questioning me. Did I have enough money on me, and a valid ticket to fly onwards? I said: 'Hey, I'm a US citizen - I'm free to come and go, aren't I?' The customs man just glowered and said rather menacingly: 'We can do this the easy way or the hard way, which do you want?' From then on, I just answered his questions."

The author of the best-selling Notes from a Small Island also had a shock when he was about to take a flight to Australia. At that time, he was living in Yorkshire. His PR agent called to check he had his visa.

"I asked her what visa was that?" Bill laughs. "The next day I had to take a plane to London and spend the day there getting an emergency one arranged. It was pretty hectic."

Bill also visited Havana for three weeks. Although Cuba is his favourite country, it's one of the only ones he doesn't have a stamp for.

"If I had a Cuban stamp in my passport the US authorities could seize it - it's effectively illegal for us to even go there. So when customs at Cuba see you have a US passport, they wave you straight through without stamping it. They do it to help us, and because they want our dollars. Although Cubans adore us, Americans have been blinkered for so long about what it's like there. It's fantastic, a Third-World country with first- world people."

One aspect about Bill's passport does make him sad. "My old one used to have 'Given leave to enter UK for indefinite period' stamped on it. Since I've been living in the US for so long, my new one doesn't let me do that. It's very poignant for me to have lost that status."

8 Bill Bryson's latest book, 'A Walk in the Woods', is published on 13 November (Doubleday, pounds 16.99).

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