Havana, Cuba: Lost City
On the trail of fine cigars, good food, incomparable daiquiris, and Hemingway's ghost in Cuba's capital
morning of our
and our little group—my wife, Patricia, our Canadian travel agent and host, Richard French, my friend Ethan, and a handful of others—are on a guided tour of the Partagás cigar factory. Patricia is here out of a quickly fading sense of duty, and Ethan out of mild curiosity. But Richard and I are here because we are consumers and lovers of fine cigars, and this place is the absolute apogee of the cigar-making art, producing three of the world’s five greatest cigars—Cohiba, Partagás, and Montecristo. It’s like visiting a vineyard in Bordeaux that produces not one but three Premiers grands cru classés, and I am a bit beside myself in a weird fog of zealotry and the dislocation you feel when something is so utterly not what you expected.
Founded in 1845, the factory houses six hundred workers on three torrid floors. On the third floor, maybe two hundred “rollers,” 60 percent of them women, sit inches from each other at ancient wooden desks for as long as twelve hours a day in a literal sweatshop. Entering it—like many other experiences in Cuba—makes you feel as if you have stepped through a looking glass into the deep past. Other than a few overhead fans turning hopelessly against the heat, some dim fluorescent lighting, and forties big band music trickling into the gaunt, cavernous room from somewhere, we could have been in a twelfth-century gargoyle factory, so empty was it of cell phones, computers, iPods, or even a machine or modern tool.
Entirely by hand, the rollers strip the veins out of chamois-soft cured tobacco leaves, cut the leaves into filler, press that filler into various cigar shapes, and then roll it into wrapper leaf with the rich nutty color and glisten of Guatemalan coffee beans. The women are dressed mostly in shorts and skimpy tops, the men in muscle T’s and jeans. They work in conditions that would set an American class-action litigator to drooling, earning the average Cuban salary of $10 to $25 a month from the Communist government (which owns the factory, as it does virtually all businesses in Cuba). And yet they are banging out some of the finest capitalist products of their kind on the planet: flawless robustos, torpedos, and double coronas, incomparable Partagás Lusitanias, Montecristo #2’s, and Cohiba Behikes.
Moreover, as we follow our guide around the room, it becomes apparent that they’re doing so not at all with Sisyphean resignation, but with merriment and lust. There is not a single Murmansk scowl or bleak Beijing stare in the place. Instead we have smiles, laughter, and a humid skein of meaningful glances crisscrossing the room. When I mention to our guide that the men and women up here seem...on very good terms with each other, he shrugs and says, “It ees a f**kfest on this floor.”
Yes, I think: That’s exactly what I want to hear about where my stogies come from. A personally valuable realization, but not the Epiphanic Metaphorical Insight into the elusive nature of Havana that I have the odd feeling awaits me in this place. That comes about three minutes later.
Our tour group of about ten people stops in front of a roller putting the finishing touches to a Cohiba robusto. In the group is a slightly dumpy but fresh-faced British girl, and she commences to stare at this roller—raptly, lips pursed, with what could be either profound concern for human rights or desire. Or both. The roller is thin and veiny, with a neat mustache and a sweat-stained shirt. When he notices the girl staring, he locks eyes with her for a full five seconds, his fingers massaging the cigar. Then he gives her a lupine grin, sticks out his tongue, and flicks it up and down.
Welcome to Havana.