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Havana on Nine Cigars a Day

Peter Weller
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

I'm headed to Havana. I was invited. Fully hosted. Two birds with one stone. The 30th anniversary of Cohiba cigars, and, more importantly--if there is a thing more important than a good cigar--I have just directed a film, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's Gold Coast for Paramount/Showtime. Gold Coast is set in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, against an opera of secondary expatriate Cubano characters. I want source music to be the real deal: rumba, mambo or salsa. From Cuba. Not Puerto Rico, Panama or Miami. So, I accept an invitation to meet Cuban musicians with the intention of using this remarkable music on my soundtrack. I jump a rickety prop plane from a French island and land in Havana, where I'm ushered into an eerie dead-of-night, Third World phosphorescent scene. I've seen it before, throughout Southeast Asia and East Berlin--The Third World Land of the Cheap Electrical. The airport terminal looks like a military landing strip from the '50s: one drab main building with soldiers lurking everywhere, lounging against the glass entrance door, scrutinizing everyone who arrives. The baggage area is a Graham Greene cop station, replete with plainclothes guys and Formica-top tables and the ever-present phosphorescent lighting. Bags are indiscriminately searched. Outside, there is no hotel representative, just a convoy of 1940s Chevys, Russian motorcycles with sidecars and a boulevard adorned with...phosphorescent street lights.

A petite blonde approaches me and, in English, offers a ride to the Melía Cohiba hotel. Usually, my one axiom of traveling is, if anyone walks up to you when you've got baggage in your hand, it's a scam. This isn't. She is a travel agent and her expected clients were not on the plane. She also asks if I will be going on the tour of the new Cohiba plantation out in Pinar del Río tomorrow, along with the rest of the 300 invited guests. Going with 300 people anywhere is my idea of thrombosis. I thank her for her kindness as the van pulls up to the Melía Cohiba and dumps me into what will be a five-day excursion among jugglers, aquatic jongleurs, singing doctors, Bahamian hustlers, salacious salsa dancers and a wacko Neapolitan photographer, named Gianfranco, who drives a Toyota left over from the great plague, all shrouded in the smoke of multitudinous cigars. Forty-five cigars, to be exact.

The concierge tells me there is a smoking room on the mezzanine. I move through the lobby and bar, crammed with puro collectors from Iceland to Singapore. It is a world convention of aficionados bound by obsession. To fly thousands of miles across the world to a Caribbean outpost, just to schmooze at a dinner, fund-raiser for a hospital or no, one must be mightily hooked on some anathema. In this case it is the "stick," the "heater," the "gar," the "stogie." The Cuban cigar. In the smoking bar, in the midst of my remedial Spanish with the barmaid, a beautiful Cubana named Sandra, someone taps me on the shoulder and it's... oh, let's call him "John." John is a walking tutorial on every cigar in the world, arguably one of the three most knowledgeable aficionados of this life or the next. John and I light up a couple of H. Upmanns, Sir Winstons. A great Churchill. Personally I prefer the kick from a Bolivar Corona Gigantes or El Rey del Mundo Tainos, but the Sir Winston is a nice surprise. The first, but not the last surprise of this trip.

My man in Havana, John tightens me up. I should blow off the trip to Pinar del Río and zip around town with him and Gianfranco, the Neopolitan, to visit the back rooms of cigar shops and factories.

I live part of the year near Naples, Italy. And I've driven in Bali, Malaysia and Mexico City. But I will not drive in Naples. And shoot me before I ride anywhere with Neapolitans, a passionate people who believe physical assault was the sole reason for the invention of the automobile. But I'm tempted. Although I say, "I must meet salsa bands here. Most of these guys don't start until midnight. If I'm back in time for the music, I'll go with you."

"The day is ours, the night is yours," says John.

Next morning the ringing phone sounds like a fire alarm. It's 7 a.m. and I went to bed at 3:30. "Ready?" growls John. In the VIP breakfast room on our floor he has a Churchill-sized stick waiting for me called Bauzá. Bauzá was an old Cuban company, moved to Miami, and adopted by the Fuentes in the Dominican Republic. On that popularity alone, the original cigar was reinstituted in Cuba, solely for Cuban consumption.

"Nice 'top-of-the-morning' 'gar," says John.

"I've never smoked a Churchill and certainly not a Bauzá before granola."

"When in Rome," John ripostes.

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