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A Cigar Smoker's Paradise

Living in Cuba is as close to Nirvana as a stogie lover can get
From the Print Edition:
Entourage, July/August 2009

It seems a shame that when President Obama loosened restriipections on travel to Cuba in April, he extended the slackening only to Cuban-Americans. While it's important that people with ties to the island regain access, there is great value in other Americans experiencing the culture of Cuba.

News reports have estimated that nearly half of the 1.5 million Americans with family in Cuba will visit the island during the next year. If true, their visits will constitute a mini-tourist boom for top hotels and restaurants in Havana and other key destinations around the country.

It will be an emotional experience for many of these Cuban natives. Only a small proportion of Cuban-Americans have visited the island in the last two decades. But it is estimated, by knowledgeable sources, that about 100,000 Americans illegally visit the island annually, and while Cuban-Americans represent a large percentage of that number, many are just curious travelers.

In total, slightly more than 2 million international tourists a year travel to Cuba. Most are either Canadians or Europeans who have booked package tours to the island's beautiful sand beaches, choosing the destination for cheap fun in the sun with little regard for the country's historical and cultural attractions. In fact, many travellers are switching to Mexico or the Dominican Republic today because vacations there are cheaper than in Cuba.

But if you're really interested in Cuba, much more is to be discovered and enjoyed. I have been to the island almost three dozen times over the last two decades, and each trip I find something new, something special. Granted, I usually only travel to Havana with the occasional foray to the tobacco plantations in Pinar del Rio. But Havana, the capital of Cuba, is a vibrant, exciting city, overflowing with history and culture.

Last winter, I spent a month in Havana living with a friend and experiencing the island's day-to-day buzz. I wanted to improve my Spanish plus gain a better understanding of what life is like in Havana—albeit with enough money to provide easy access to just about everything.

My experience shared very little with the daily drudgery of the local population who must deal with numerous inconveniences, from electricity outages to food shortages to overcrowded public transportation.

But Cubans are a resilient lot, and they maintain a positive outlook despite the hardships. The struggle of daily life, or la lucha as they call it, is something Cubans have dealt with for two decades, since the collapse of the former Soviet Union ended substantial subsidies to their economy. Known as the "special period," they still make jokes about it.

Most of my days were spent writing or taking Spanish lessons in the morning followed by writing or meetings with cigar merchants in the afternoon. A Mexican girlfriend once told me that I spoke like a Cuban when I saw her after a month in La Habana. Soy Cubano! Como tu eta? When speaking, Cubans eat many vowels and consonants or lose the ending of words while talking extremely fast. They are hard to understand, even for Spanish speakers. For instance, estas, or "you are" in the familiar, sounds like eta.

And they curse a lot, too. Coño is a popular one. While technically a vulgar reference to female genitalia, its common slang usage is more like damn or fuck in English. It can be used in both good and bad contexts like "Coño! That woman is beautiful" or "Coño! Her husband is with her."

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