Forces
James Leavey's Corner
My First Trip To Cuba

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by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland


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"So what was it like"" asked the man serving drinks at Bar Cuba, in Kensington High Street.

"Cuba was the place I dreamt about for 30 years," I told him, "after reading Hemingway's novels and Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana.It's funny how over the years little things fix an impression of a distant country in your mind.Cuba was the place I thought you only got hijacked to.

"But what clinched it for me was that I used to have a girlfriend, Colette, at the Sorbonne University in the mid 1960s, until the student riots broke out in Paris.The last I heard from her was a postcard, from Havana in 1967."

The bartender poured another Marguerita, and said: "But what was it like when you finally got to Cuba a couple of months ago""

Well...

When the Iberia 747 landed in Havana after a gruelling ten hour flight from Madrid,it was a late 1950s General Motors bus that was summoned to transport its weary passengers the final 200 yards into Cuba.

Unlike most of the other passengers, however, we hadn't travelled over 4,500 miles just to marvel at this living transport museum, or even for the sun, rum, sea, sex or salsa.Our eight day trip was inspired by the Champagne of smokes - the Havana cigar.

Of the 1.2 billion cigars sold annually in the UK, just three million of them originate from Cuba - mostly via Hunters & Frankau, which has been importing them for over 200 years.

The West London company's marketing director, Simon Chase, joined me at the Hotel Nacional in Havana for an ice-cold mojito (Cuba's national cocktail of Caribbean rum, soda water, sugar and a large sprig of fresh mint) and an informal briefing on what to expect.

"Cuba's a wonderful country," said Chase, exhaling a Montecristo No.3, "as long as you're not a vegetarian.

"I love it.Havana in particular is a very exciting place.I've been coming here for over ten years on business and holidays and the Cubans have always been as warm and friendly as the climate.And we all know how great the cigars are."

The Nacional is Cuba's most elegant hotel, a huge Italiannate wedding cake built in 1930.Its post-war guests included Frank Sinatra, Eartha Kitt, Orson Welles, George Raft and American mobster, Meyer Lansky,before he got kicked out by Fidel Castro's Revolutionary government in 1959 when it closed down the casinos and nationalised all the foreign-owned businesses.

As Lansky, who lost millions of dollars in the process, later said: "I crapped out."

Forty years later,the high rollers had long gone but the Nacional's atmosphere of latin opulence had survived, albeit disintegrating around the edges.

You could still see where the Mafiosi and other gamblers used to play penny-ante poker around the outdoor pool (the casinos were for suckers) - to the sound of the Caribbean's waves washing over the Malecon, the seaside drive that runs from the San Salvador de la Punta fort to the entrance to Miramar.

Only one of the marbled hotel's original four main lifts worked on a regular basis, its brass indicators permanently pointing somewhere between the basement and ground floor.That combined with the countrywide power cuts that had been reduced from up to 16 hours a day a few years ago to about four hours a day, seemed symptomatic of the economic crisis faced by this feisty little island.

Like the other tourist hotels in or close to Central Havana (known as 'Centro') - theRed Light district in the good old bad old pre-Revolution days - foreign tourists were again under siege from hookers, pimps, charming beggars and the shady sellers of illegally produced cigars (which are crap and best avoided).

While violent crime is still a rarity in Cuba, petty thieving is on the increase in some tourist areas.On my first night, I bumped into two Brits who'd had their camera snatched outside Hotel Capri, minutes before.

Feeling brave and slightly drunk at 3 am, after an evening of Salsa and sinful dancing at the Hotel Riviera's nightclub, I shook off several attractive hookers who I'd fed on ham and cheese sandwiches all evening by emptying my pockets and saying "no dinero".And decided to walk back to my hotel along the Malecon.

Five Cuban men immediately ran across the road to join me and ask for dollars."Why would I be walking if I had money for a taxi," I lied, my watch safely hidden in my pocket."It's OK for some people," the leader said, angrily, "who can afford to come here just to walk around."With that they left me alone.

Crumbling, pot-holed and zig-zagged by classic automobiles and thousands of Chinese bicycles, known locally as Flying Pigeons,the Malecon provides Havana's best, if occasionally precarious,free entertainment.It's where habaneros meet, sunbathe, eat, drink, fish, haggle, play music, flirt and shag.

With no hard currency to pay for paint or home improvements, and no easy getting away from sharing crowded family homes,the Cuban's life takes place on the streets where everything's a front, including the wearing of the latest, much sought-after trainers (but where do they get them from").

The Cubans' staple diet is beans and rice, leavened by the occasional chicken and piece ofpork.Meat, bread, milk and other staples are rationed and cabbage trucks are commonplace in Havana's backstreets.Tourists eat relatively well in hotels and the few restaurants that have remained open, mostly on roast pork, chicken, lobster, rice and beans, and lots of fresh fruit.Illegal restaurants are another option, if you can find someone to admit they are running one.

Despite their problems, Cubans were some of the friendliest people I had met anywhere, bearing in mind that only a few years ago they would have been arrested for talking to a foreigner.The rumour is that they also used to get one year's hard labour for every US dollar found on their person.

What's suprised me is how well-educated they are, which explains why Cuba probably has the world's most literate beggars.Where else could you discuss Bertolt Brecht and Karl Marx with a doctor or dentist who is working part-time as a hotel porter or bar person.

Professionals and manual workers are all equal and get the same wage, the national average of which is about 180 pesos a month.To survive this inadequate income, most Cubans take second jobs,preferably in the tourist industry for dollars.

Despite the US embargo, and total lack of American tourists, Cuba's economy thrives on the US dollar. Most of the locals I met had no time for the recently floated Cuban Peso, as it doesn't buy much on the Black Market.

After a day visiting a tobacco museum in Old Havana, and several awe-inspiring cigar shops, the tour headed for the cigar lover's mecca.

Our destination was Pinar del Rio, a dramatically-landscaped, beautiful region at the western end of the island, where the unique combination of humid climate, rainfall and red loamish earth are deemed perfect for the production of the world's finest tobacco.

Having convinced our tour guide to switch off the coach's air conditioning, open the windows and install a chimney, we settled down to being pleasantly educated on the production of Havana cigars while smoking ourselves into a decline from one end of Cuba to another.

Cubans have been tobacco growers, or vegueros, since the 16th century, and today (1995) the island produces about 170 million cigars a year, 50 million of which are exported for the delectation of cigar afficionados around the world.

Standing under vast sheets of white muslin that protect the young tobacco plants from the sun at the Vuelta Plaantations at San Juan y Martinez, it was evident that just as much artistry and hard work was needed to produce a great cigar as it was to produce a great bottle of wine.

Later we visited a casa de tobaco, which resembled a wooden wigwam, where thousands of leaves are hung to dry in pairs over wooden racks before being sorted into wrappers or binders, depending on which part of the plant they have been picked from.

Other diversions included a visit to an Indian Cave, followed by lunch in the open serenaded, as usual, by local musicians belting out Guetenamara, and a fine poolside meal of roast suckling pig at a newly refurbished hotel overlooking the Vinales Valley.

Hot water had been inadvertantly plumbed into one tour member's cistern so that everytime he flushed the toilet, steam rose from the bowl, and most of the rooms had exposed wiring over the baths.But the dramatic view from my balcony at sunrise made it all worth while.

We returned to the capital for a classy cigar dinner at Las Ruinas restaurant in Old Havana.The next evening was spent on a mock-pirate ship cruising around the harbour, entertained by a mock-pirate battle, crunching hundreds of cockroaches underfoot while we did the British version of the Son (which developed into the Salsa).

After a lunch of pork and rice at one of Cuba's most favourite restaurants, the graffiti-scrawled (by Ernest Hemingway, and others) La Bodeguita del Medio,Robert Emery of JJ Fox & Robert Lewis in St James's Street joined me for a frozen Daiquiri in another, recently rebuilt, Hemingway hangout, El Floridita.

We then each bought a Cuban flag for $10 and got totally lost in one of the worst areas of Havana.It seemed like a good idea, at the time.

The next day the tour was shown around the Partagas and La Corona factories.Despite the widely-held myth that all Havana cigars are rolled on the thighs of beautiful Cuban women, up to the early 1960s all cigar rollers were men.

Most of the rollers are now women (many of them beautiful, and flirtatious) and work in large rooms where the old custom, begun in 1984, of reading aloud from newspapers in the mornings and the world's classic literaturein the afternoon, still continues.

I could understand why British singer Gary Glitter chose a Cuban girlfriend, when I spotted him at Havana airport just before our return flight home.He was living it up in the first floor cabin upstairs, while I was throwing it up from last minute food poisoning, downstairs.

In spite of everything, it was worth the wait.

Copyright James Leavey, 1997.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.

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