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."
Cubans do swear a lot. But I had a good laugh when I found out that foreigners are called yumas and not gringos, which is what Mexicans call Americans. Both are derogatory, but the best conclusion local linguists can come up with is that the slang use of Yuma (which is actually a Native American word for the Arizonan tribe) derives from the country's fascination with the old Glenn Ford movie, The 3:10 to Yuma.
I realized finally that I was not going to learn excellent Spanish in a month even though mine did improve a lot. What I did discover is how much there is to do every day in Havana. On previous visits, I was usually too tied up with cigar events and meetings to check out other goings on in the capital. However, on this visit, I went to a museum, concert, ballet, jazz gig, or opera just about every day. And when I didn't, I regretted it, as something was usually happening that I was sorry to miss.
I became friends with a fantastic jazz pianist, Ernan Lopez-Nussa. He is considered the second best keyboard man on the island behind the amazing Chucho Valdez. Not only is Lopez-Nussa a maestro, he is a keen cigar smoker. We smoked a number of great cigars together. He even organized lessons with the pianist from the Buena Vista Social Club for my 14-year-old son Jack when he visited me for a week.
I also spent time with some amazing artists including Roberto Fabelo, Yoan Capote, and Harry Sam, and I attended various openings of art exhibits and showings. The Havana art world is intense and varied, a window on the inner soul of Cubans. Cuban art appears to be taking the world by storm. Some say it is the next big thing in the modern art world after Chinese artists.
Among the new friends that I made was Carlos Acosta, the lead dancer for The Royal Ballet in London. The Habanero is an amazing dancer and a cool, young guy. What an accomplishment to be part of The Royal Ballet, which is making a historic visit to Havana for 10 days in July. He was working on a program for CNN while he was in town visiting friends and family. Carlos is also an avid cigar smoker.
Of course, cigars were a central part of just about every experience. It was like the peace pipe of the Native American—a shared instrument of pleasure to improve communication among men and women. The only problem was deciding what to smoke each day. I would just drop into a cigar shop and pick out what I wanted that day. Or there were always smokes from the reserve collections of a few friends with lockers in cigar shops or in their home. I was spoiled rotten.
While antismoking laws were passed on the island a few years ago, no one seems to pay attention to them. I smoked just about everywhere I went, except for a police station and a hospital. (No explanation necessary in those two instances.) It's amazing how well you feel smoking cigars in Cuba. I guess it's because of the climate—the warm weather and high humidity. I like to say that Havana is one big natural humidor. Your clothes don't even smell of smoke at the end of the day, even if you have smoked three or four cigars!
Cubans love smoking cigars. The rolled leaf of a Habano is like fermented grape juice to a Frenchman or a pint of beer to an Englishman. The domestic market still consumes about 200 million cigars annually. Cigars are no longer included in their ration of food and house staples, but Cubans only have to spend a few cents to buy domestic quality cigars. Most are hand made but with short filler tobacco.
Following a dinner at a friend's apartment, my pianist friend said, "smoking a cigar is a pleasure and tradition in Cuba that everyone enjoys. It would be considered rude not to smoke a cigar if they were handed out after a meal or during a get-together of friends."
I fondly remember hours of sitting outside on terraces of houses or sitting rooms of apartments, or in restaurants in Havana with friends like Ernan talking about everything from the improvements of relations with the U. S. government to the tobacco crop to the latest art or music in Paris or London. The erudite Habanero is as educated and pensive as any members of the intelligencia in London, Paris, Rome, New York or any other sophisticated city in the world. I smoked a lot of cigars over those few weeks. Strangely, I smoked a lot of the same ones. I don't know why. I mostly smoked current production Ramon Allones Specially Selected, 2008 Cuaba Piramides Edición Limitada, and 1998 Trinidad Fundadores.
One of my best moments was smoking the new Cohiba Siglo VI Gran Reserva with some friends at the Paila restaurant in the suburbs of Havana. I lit up the cañonazo —the name the factory workers use—the moment I sat down in the small, private outdoor restaurant. It measures 52 ring gauge by 5 7/8 inches and is an amazing smoke with loads of coffee, spice, and tobacco character that seems to change every moment. I am dying to smoke another one. I might have to go back to Cuba to do it though!
You may not want to believe it, but it is a perfect cigar. I can't think of another young cigar in my life that has delivered such complex, multilayered character with such length and finesse. The subtle flavors lasted for minutes on the palate. It should be out soon and sell for about $65 a cigar. Cuba, particularly Havana, is a cigar smoker's paradise. There is no other place in the world better to smoke a cigar. And living there for a month was a life-changing experience. Let's hope that the President of the United States soon allows all Americans to legally visit the island.