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Entering and Leaving Cigar Heaven

Robustos and large cigars are still dominating the rolling rooms in Cuba's factories
From the Print Edition:
The Blues Brothers, Jan/Feb 2008

I thought that the Bolivar Royal Corona might be the last cigar of my life, and I almost didn't mind because I have really grown to love this robusto. I quietly smoked my cigar in the morning with a cortado coffee and contemplated my life, my children, my friends, my girlfriend and my job. At least I wouldn't have to do any more columns or blogs, I thought to myself as I sipped the rich coffee with creamy milk and smoked the cigar. And I would not have to worry about all the antismoking laws around the world. Alimony, school fees, pissed-off girlfriends, feisty editors, bad-tempered immigration name it. Gone. No more hassles.

I will admit: I am afraid of Cubana Air-lines. The Cuban national carrier has one of the worse safety records of any airline, and I am already not a courageous flyer. But I needed to take the flight to Cancún to make my connection to Los Angeles. So I had no choice.

Anyway, I got to José Martí Airport, checked in and waited for my flight. I looked out the window and saw the beast of a plane I would be flying in. It was built in the 1980s in Mother Russia. It was none other than the AS Yakovlev Yak-42D. I drank a couple of Crystal beers at the gate for courage.

We boarded the flight and it was boiling inside. The air-conditioning wasn't working since the engines were still off. It smelled of warm and sweaty people with an undertone of damp carpet. I tried to look out the scratched window. My seat was broken as well. And my seat back kept falling in the lap of the person behind me.

They closed the door, started the engines and the air-con came on. It was much cooler, but a white smoke was coming from under my seat. It was condensation from the air-con system and it began to look like a Doobie Brothers rock concert I went to decades ago in a L.A. stadium. Lots of dry-ice smoke!

Anyway, we taxied out on the runway and took off at a dragster's pace. And the incline was more military than civil. My seat began to feel like a bed of nails under my ass. I felt as if I were in a time machine flying to some unknown destination in the USSR's Siberia. I shouldn't have had those beers.

A steward and stewardess, who looked like former Olympic shot putters (they probably were!), were in charge of in-flight service, which resembled prison food. The only upside I could see was that they were also selling five-packs of Romeo & Julieta petit coronas. They must be the last of the airlines to do so. But I didn't buy. I asked, but they wouldn't let me smoke them on the flight. "Entonces, no, gracias," I said in my bad Spanish.

About 45 minutes later, we landed in Cancún. I was happy. I felt as if I had cheated death yet another day. It was sort of the same feeling I have had during close calls on my motorcycle or in my sports car. And then I thought of the words of Mark Twain as I walked down the landing bridge to the airport: "If there are no cigars in Heaven, I shall not go."

Yes, it's better on earth at the moment, and seriously there is a lot going on in cigar heaven in Havana. For example, I visited the Partagas factory during my stay in the city in September, and my experience there illustrates how the top export factories have changed. They are focusing much more on producing limited-edition and specialty smokes—real blue-chip smokes. And, of course, they are rolling loads of robustos and similar vitolas.

It was hot and sticky in the rolling room of the Partagas factory in downtown Havana. About 300 rollers were busy handcrafting a range of cigars. I saw mostly large ring-gauge cigars being rolled. Most of the cigars were regional editions for the Middle East and Cohiba Maduros. The one regional edition that looked pretty amazing was a Bolivar Sublimes, which I believe is going to Lebanon.

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