Maybe my awareness is dulled by living in a time where tobacco is demonized, and by appreciating it, being branded as a SMOKER, the modern day equivalent of a scarlet letter. That harsh environment forces me the build up defenses, those rationalizations and justifications that I use for both personal and public consumption. But in the end, one of the things that happens to us all is that when we seek acceptable explanations—personal freedoms, pleasure, camaraderie—it is easy to overlook some of the other reasons, maybe truly primal reasons, that tobacco has been a part of history in Americas for several millennium. We skip over the fact that in the original colonial culture, one of the first things passed along from the indigenous tribes to the first Europeans who landed on the shores of the New World was tobacco.
There’s no mystery why I’m feeling this way. Spending four days in the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola, the history is simply inescapable. Santiago, the heart of the today’s cigar industry, is one of the oldest colonial cities in the Western Hemisphere. The names of streets and the monuments remind locals and visitors of the ancient explorers and Spanish conquistadors. Despite standing in the city in the 21st century, with honking horns, unmuffled trucks and a general cacophony on the street for 20 hours a day, you can still sense the history, the reality of what has come before.
But this isn’t just about names and events that fill our history books. There is an inescapably unique culture, one born of the tropics where the ease of living in year-around warmth is tempered by a constant awareness that the earth isn’t always a friendly place. There is a deep connection to that earth, a feral quality that pulses in the air, in the trees and permeates up from the dank dirty ground. There is a wild energy derived from the polyglot of racial origins that translates into a mesmerizing hybrid sensuality that influences art, music, language and the local cuisine. And, if you’ve ever been immersed in a real Latin culture, you know the deep emotions that pass between friends and family, the bonds that tie them together, at the same time as they welcome foreigners with open arms if the outsiders can step into their world and share their pains and joys, and their bonds.
Maybe that’s why cigars should mean so much to us, those of who have grown up in the industrialized world, and maybe why cigars threaten so many interests so intensely protective of their fiefdoms. Cigars might just be the Trojan Horses of that wild, feral culture, subconscious symbols that promise pleasure and joy first and foremost, before almost everything else, and in the minds of the puritans at the expense of industriousness, morality and even sanity. From the first days of anti-tobacco sentiment back in Old World kingdoms of Spain and England, when people were not just persecuted but often executed for tobacco use, the New World weed has been viewed as the devil’s own instrument, a path to damnation. And maybe in today’s version of the tobacco inquisition, its critics are as afraid of what it promises as they are determined to crush it out existence for its perceived risks.
Before you light up a cigar next time, close your eyes. Pass the rolled leaves under your nose, and take a deep breath. Smell the earth. Hear the buzz of a tropical night. Light it up. Let the smoke curl into the light. Imagine the swirls are pulsing to the beat of a salsa band. Let it transport you back to a time or a place where tobacco was part of a ritual, often an integral catalyst for a religious ceremony. Let your mind run to the place where a cigar comes from. Find the words to express what you see and feel in your mind’s eye. Maybe someone will understand better why you love to smoke a cigar, and share it with the friends and people in your life. Even if they don’t understand, you’ll find some solace in the origins of that cigar you are smoking.