cuba article from london times

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this was sent to me by a mate - gather it is from the london times, possibly sunday times.

Mojitos, cigars and tinpot socialism can be a bewitching but bewildering blend, as Brian Schofield discovers on the Cuban tobacco trail The sun is beginning to grow fierce as Jesus strides onto the valley floor. Sheer, broad-shouldered rock formations rear up around us like crouching giants as we take the dusty trail in near silence — the Cuban government, Jesus explains, prohibits the use of any machinery in the Viñales tobacco fields, the better to preserve the bucolic peace. Our state-employed walking guide, a self-taught botanist who’s never left this stunning, steamy valley in the midwest of Cuba, leads us to the centre of a field to explain the aristocracy of tobacco leaves — the wide, thick lower stems will make the world’s most celebrated cigars, while the tiddlers at the top will end life (Jesus can scarcely conceal his contempt) ground up in a cigarette.

We move on, past a “tourist tree” — “because it’s red, and its skin peels off easily” — to the next stage in the life of the great Cuban cash crop: the tobacco-drying barns. Still covered in hand-woven reed matting, because no labour-saving artificial roofing can control the humidity quite so perfectly, these noxious caverns turn green to gold as the months pass. If you think wine-makers have mastered the art of waiting profitably, you should witness the imposed languor of a tobacco farmer watching his crops dry.

However, the real profits come later in a cigar’s creation, so in Viñales it’s helpful to shave off a little elsewhere. “Maybe now we should go drink coffee in a real Cuban farmhouse?” asks Jesus. He’s not really asking.

As we sip scalding creosote around a knotted kitchen table, a farmer who looks like the inspiration for Slowpoke Rodriguez (the slowest mouse in all Mexico) silently rolls a few smokes from his own collection of rum-and- honey-soaked leaves.

The finished product bests anything ever lit up at the end of a long British wedding, and we gratefully pocket the spares and press the farmer’s flesh with precious tourist pesos (Cuba wisely has two currencies: a cheap one that only the locals can use, and a pricier one for you and me, to deter Thailand-style penny-pinching travellers). Jesus is no charity worker, though — as we leave, he “forgets something”, pops back inside and emerges, hand in back pocket, grinning and exhorting us, “Please not to mention this visit when we get back to town.”

Back in town, judging by the fresh paint, cropped lawns and local army of noisily cheerful children that characterise the parish of Viñales, the off-white market is proving an efficient way of distributing the pesos of the valley’s foreign visitors to its local residents. Homestay B&Bs, known as casas particulares, line the backstreets, offering a characterful, cheap place to stay and by far the best meals in town — even the tourists stranded in the bland state hotels above the valley soon ask how they can take dinner in a casa.

(Legally, they can’t, but if you cross the palm of the old lady who runs the local botanical garden, she’ll be waiting for you in the town square at dusk. Without exchanging a glance, she’ll then stroll to the edge of town, with you following at a nonchalant distance, and nod in the direction of the house that’s expecting you for dinner. That’s the Cuban way.)

The sum of all these shenanigans, combined with a government that’s always looked after the country folk first, is that it’s hard not to conclude, rocking on the porch of your casa with a glowing cigar in one hand and a cold lager in the other, that this is a pretty damn desirable postcode. Life here is good — and when I joke with Jesus that everything will change when los yanquis are allowed back into Cuba, he doesn’t laugh. Viva la revolucion.

DRIED AND bagged, many of Viñales’s finest leaves will find their way to Havana, and the Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas, the largest cigar factory in Cuba — where, this morning, factory tour guide Maria is behaving like someone who’s normally got sassy-and-cheeky down pat, but — perhaps handicapped by a particularly thick mojito hangover — she’s currently stuck on fantastically, startlingly rude.

“Before we start, do you have any questions? What, no questions at all? Are you stupid or something? Whatever, let’s go.”

Despite knowing she’s already blown her tip, Maria conducts the full tour, starting with the sorting room, where expert eyes categorise each leaf according to shades of brown. Next, the school, where rows of hopefuls spend nine months learning to hand-roll a cigar in the hope of securing steady employment — hen’s teeth in Havana — in the giant rolling room itself.

When we reach that industrious hall, 300 backs, hunched over wooden desks, perform the calm, elegant craft of cigar-making, a mix of culinary and aesthetic skill, dexterity, experience and instinct. At the head of the rolling room sits a middle-aged man with a microphone — now in his 16th year, Maria explains, as the factory reader.

“In the morning, he reads the newspaper to the workers. In the afternoon, he reads them novels — which the workers can vote for. Often, they want the classics, but some are always asking for erotic fiction, which he does not like to read. Last week, he just finished reading The Da Vinci Code.”

Now, though, it’s more like the classified football results, as the reader proclaims the weekly salary, based on output, of every roller on the floor. The room, of course, is all ears — many of the workers admit to hearing the reader’s voice in their dreams. We finally reach the alpha-workers’ desk — the tasters. Lighting more than 40 cigars a day, they can spot a flaw in a single puff, and will send the whole batch back. The best salaried job on the shop floor carries its own risks — the tasters are loathed by the rollers, who don’t get paid for the rejects.

Eager to understand whether I’m standing in a sweatshop (if you’re holidaying in Cuba and you don’t become fascinated by the realities of life, you’re not really holidaying in Cuba), I press Maria for details of the workers’ deal. Not, on first impressions, a loyal employee, she grudgingly admits that the pay, job security, holidays and notoriously wild office parties add up to a decent package. On balance, let the revolucion roll.

IT’S 9am in the shabby, noisy streets of Havana Old Town and the savvy, street-smart Sunday Times journalist and his equally seasoned travel buddy are heading back through the puddles and potholes to their casa particular after a hearty breakfast. A chirpy, sprightly young man who clearly wants to practise his English appears alongside and introduces himself as Octavio, a business student. “This is my sister, a primary-school teacher. I’m taking her to today’s open-air music festival on the other side of town. You want to come along?” Well, why not?

We head into Havana Central, the unvarnished, untouristy neighbourhood that’s yet to see any of the Unesco World Heritage affection lavished upon the old town, and Octavio polishes his grammar with an informal city tour: the Chinatown bar where the Buena Vista Social Club first gathered, the church where Pope John Paul II took Communion during his 1998 visit, the house where José Marti, the co-composer of the Hispanic world’s most ubiquitous ditty, Guantanamera, lived and worked, a corner ration shop where the locals still exchange their stamp-books for cheap food, wartime-style.

And as the morning wears on, and the regular stops for a stiff mojito start to kick in, Octavio begins to reveal some potentially valuable connections. Might we be interested in taking home some of Cuba’s finest cigars, straight from the Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas, for a very good price?

With factory workers allowed to take home three cigars a day for “personal use”, Havana’s black market in tobacco is generously stocked, and in just a few minutes we’re peering into the gloom of a mouldy ground-floor apartment, where a fat man sleeps on a bare mattress in his fetid underpants, surrounded by wooden cartons. Octavio shakes him awake, and the transaction is swift — a box of Hoya de Monterrey, one of the mildest and smoothest brands, at a plump discount, with a plastic bag full of H Upmann’s (a more everyday smoke) thrown in for free.

We shake, pay and leave — delayed only when Octavio forgets something and pops back inside — and we head to yet another bar to toast a deal well done. Here, our priceless guide leans forward, drops to a whisper, and explains the true source of our saving — we’ve just made our first purchase in Cuba’s secret third currency.

A new government issue, set halfway between the local and tourist rate, he explains, this covert cash allows those in the know to double the spending power of their dollars, euros or pounds, at no cost. To spend the rest of our time in Cuba enjoying this bureaucratic windfall, all we have to do is hand Octavio every last note of our foreign currency, and he’ll exchange it for the secret notes, as a personal favour. A dim light bulb flickers on. Certainly, my friend — let’s get a taxi back to our casa and pick up all our cash . . .

When the cab reached the door, I told Octavio, or whatever his name was, that he’d been rumbled. I thanked him for the 50 stolen cigars, the photographs he had so kindly taken of us — two half-drunk halfwits posing outside a house where nobody famous ever composed anything — and for an enjoyable morning spent with him and a charming woman who probably wasn’t his sister.

I suspect it’s impossible genuinely never to forget the look on someone’s face, but theirs will stick for some time — expressions toxic with the bitter, violent avarice of those who are sick and tired of being poor and jealous. This revolution may not have long to live.

Travel brief

Getting there: charter flights to Varadero are the cheapest option. Charterflights (0845 045 0153, has return flights from Manchester or Gatwick from £220 in late July. Also try Flightline (0800 541541, Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007, and Cubana (020 7537 7909, fly from Gatwick to Havana from £600.

Getting around: the reliable tourist coach service ( outshines the hassle and expense of renting a car in a communist country.

Where to stay: casas particulares (£10pp a night) are vastly preferable to state hotels and are easy to find once in Cuba. However, you need three nights’ confirmed lodging to get into Cuba, so your easiest option is to book three nights in a hotel then go it alone. Voyager Cuba (01580 766222, can fix that.

Tours: a Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas tour (10am-6pm, closed Sunday) is £11; Viñales walks start from the town museum at 10am every day, £3.60.

Packages: contact Voyager Cuba (01580 766222,, Regent Holidays (020 7821 4020, or Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315

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"in just a few minutes we’re peering into the gloom of a mouldy ground-floor apartment, where a fat man sleeps on a bare mattress in his fetid underpants, surrounded by wooden cartons".

That would be Rob after a heavy night surrounded by the czar cigar supplies ready to ship back to Australia!!!:cool:

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» "in just a few minutes we’re peering into the gloom of a mouldy

» ground-floor apartment, where a fat man sleeps on a bare mattress in his

» fetid underpants, surrounded by wooden cartons".


» That would be Rob after a heavy night surrounded by the czar cigar

» supplies ready to ship back to Australia!!!:cool:

:lol2: I Free Snake so my guess is Ken.

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