I had just finished a memorable dinner at El Aljibe, the must-see Cuban restaurant specializing in savory roast chicken, black beans and rice, when the urge hit me—I really wanted a cigar. I reached into my shirt pocket for a Montecristo Petit Edmundo, removed it from its metal tube and clipped off its head. A few flicks of my lighter and the heady aroma of good Cuban tobacco began wafting around the dining room.
A waiter appeared at my side within moments—bearing an ashtray. He set it down without a word, and walked away.
This is the reception given cigar smokers in Havana, and for most cigar lovers from around the world, it's a completely foreign concept, or a vestige of an age long gone by.
Cuba is a cigar smoker's paradise, not only for the stocks of fine cigars found in the city but for the appreciation and respect given cigar smokers. I puffed away on that very same Petit Edmundo as I wrote this blog while sitting in the lobby of the Melia Cohiba Hotel. No one blinked at my smoke, and the busy lobby had at least five other men smoking away in peace as I wrote.
It wasn't always so. In 2005 Cuba, like far too many other countries, went through it's own non-smoking movement, banning smoking in certain places in February of that year. But unlike other smoking bans, this one seems to be largely ignored. On my Sunday through Friday trip to Cuba, the only places I encountered no smoking signs were in the main breakfast restaurant at the Melia Cohiba (and even I don't wish to smoke while eating breakfast, at least not on most occasions), elevators and in taxicabs.
But signs don't necessarily stop a person from smoking. I've lit up in most of the cabs I've travelled in here with not a single complaint, and I've taken my cigar into the elevator a couple dozen times. No one blinks. This is a city where you can smoke.
At dinner at El Aljibe, I noticed a variation on a very familiar sign. It was the familiar black-and-white image of a burning cigarette one sees in the United States, but this sign was missing one very important thing—the red circle and line. This wasn't a no-smoking sign, it was a smoking sign.
I followed the instructions accordingly—as I did everywhere in Havana. It's quite enjoyable to find a place where lighting up a fine cigar doesn't draw public outrage.
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