Do You Smoke? only two a day.

This woman has smoked two cigars a day since the age of 13. She’ll be 100 years old if she makes it to 2021.

This is what she has gone through: she grew in extreme poverty with no school, very limited food, and no access to public places in a state of almost slavery. Then saw Fidel stepping up and after the revolution she received food, healthcare, education, a house, and free access to public areas like beaches and plazas. The US embargo and socialism started and no longer saw the rich people living in their big houses, instead government was taking over. She got some of the Russian goodies as they sent all kind of luxuries like food, basic cars, tools, drinks, machinery, clothing, etc. Then the socialism field collapsed and went through tough days without the Russian breast, “The Special Period”, no food, no nothing for about three years. Taping into some muscle memory from her poverty days, she would go through a complete day or more with no food. Slowly food was grown locally and not brought from overseas reminding her childhood days. Later Fidel stepped down and died. Raul and Manuel took power and soften the socialism allowing private property purchase and trading. In the mean time she had kids, they had kids, they also had kids, and they are having more kids. Thats about it.

Today she sees tourists every day from her granddaughter Casa Particular and gives them that peaceful and wise look while smoking a cigar, free of illness fear, and ready to let the world keep spinning on its own.

Grocery Delivery

We tourists get shocked when going to supermarkets only to find half the shelves are empty. Reality for locals is different though. Beside the government monthly share of rice, beans, pork, matches, and other basic food, they get to buy whatever is sold door to door. The bicycle above is from an onion and garlic seller about to start his day going through Viñales streets. Yes, he was actually able to ride that bike and not only push it. We got to see this with bread, empanadas, vegetables, flowers, etc.

We are not quite sure if this is part of the informal economy -not seen by the government- or if what they are offering is already their share to sell on their own after giving to the state their obliged portion at the price they are told.

High level government can obtain local information very efficiently if desired from any area of the country. The lowest level of power is a kind of zone inspector, he is the area expert. His goal is to serve the people and be informed about everything, he lives and works in that area and maintains relationship with all people around. He knows everyone, their names, where they work, and where they live. If you don’t enroll your kids to school, he’ll easily get to know and will be knocking at your door reminding you that education is obligatory in Cuba.

It is then hard to believe the government is not getting their share from the full production, however we did not get to ask to confirm. On the other hand we can safely say that, despite the lack of basic products offered at the stores, a generous selection of rum, and cigarets never fail to appear.

About 3 hours later we found the onion and garlic seller with half or less of the load on his bike meaning he had had a successful day!

Close But No Cigar

Viñales is an amazing town to hang around for dancing, eating, and drinking, and is surrounded by all kinds of tour options. Coffee, cigars, rum, honey, murals, horse riding, cycling, etc. Most price tags are north of $50. Be creative and talk to your Casa Particular or hotel owner to tailor what you want to see and if you can use your own bike to get there instead of them picking you up. Once you negotiate the tour price, expect to pay another $20 or so for their only option they’ll give you for lunch or purchase some of their organic good quality products, either of those will support locals directly.

We gave up the idea of horse riding as we had enough “riding” in the previous days and instead opted doing the cigar-coffee-honey tour walking. The whole tobacco harvesting, drying, cutting and cigar preparation is completely artisanal. The government have local inspectors who accurately count their complete tobacco production ensuring that 90% is sold to the estate. Every other product, like sugar or coffee, have a lower percentage because in comparison, cigars have a better selling price, higher demand, and lower cost.

The word Cigar, Cigarro in Spanish, came from the Mayan word Sikar, which means smoke rolled tobacco. It is commonly known that Habano is a Cigar coming from Cuba. However Habano means anything coming from La Habana. The estate company Habano S.A. owns the trademarks of every brand of Cuban-made cigars in the countries they are exported to. To control distribution Habanos S.A. exports to only one company in each country, except the US.

In 2000 Spanish company Altadis acquired 50% of Habano S.A. and restructured each product, sizes, and marketing –limited edition and special releases are now available– more inline with the global market and maybe with what US consumers would favor in the future when / if the US blockage is removed. Then in 2008 British company Imperial Tobacco acquired Altadis and is said that they are looking in selling their premium division including Habanos S.A. in case you are interested.

To differentiate from these giants, local producers come up with something completely organic -free of nicotine-, hand made, and they are sure of selling you the experience of buying something local from their own hands and forbidden in some areas. The obligatory 90% share to the government is priced at whatever the estate dictates, the other 10% is left to produce their own cigars and sell them locally. This last share is where they live from. They do Cohiba, Monte Cristo, and Romeo y Julieta -stronger to less-. You will get to try each of them and of course buying your 10 pack.

On February 7th 1962, to sanction Fidel’s communist government, Kennedy imposed a trade embargo. The day before though, he ordered to buy 1,200 Cuban cigars, upon the shipment arrival the next morning he signed the embargo order. When structuring the embargo he tried to exempt cigars, but the Tampa cigar companies objected. These companies were manufacturers that originally came from Cuba in the 1800s when the US imposed higher taxes. The solution? Move to Florida and plant your tobacco there. Today their products are close but nowhere near to what the well seasoned consumer would expect from a cigar.

Capitolio

Built during Cuba’s highest economic peak, the Capitolio was, by far, the most expensive building in Cuba. One of its many rooms held a diamond that belonged to the last Russian Zar but it was lost after the revolution and its whereabouts are still unknown. It is said that this diamond was used as the reference point (0 km mark) from which all highways would depart.

Its design was heavily inspired by the Paris Pantheon, St Paul’s Cathedral in Its design was heavily inspired by the Paris Pantheon, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and the US Capitol. Still today, even though each of the designs are very similar, Cubans proudly remark that the Capitol’s cupola is taller than its US counterpart. As a result of a severed relationship between both countries in the 50’s and the end of Batista’s dictatorship, Castro refused to maintain the monument nor did he want to give it significance.

El Capitolio in La Habana is the equivalent to a Ferrari in the garage of a falling down house that has been abandoned for over 60 years. It was built with what was thought of as “infinite sugar money” under a “democratic” dictatorship. Sugar was exported primarily to the US prior to the embargo, providing the government and private companies with endless finances. The idea was to continue investing money in the city at the same luxurious tune. However, the Revolution came. 

Recently, Russia has given Cuba financial support to revive the Capitol with the intention of making it useful for Parliament.

The Capitol at the end of a busy Habana vieja street.

The Romance of Reality

Many buildings in the 500 year old city of La Habana have this appearance. It is said that at some point the city was compared to New York and Paris for being vibrant and luxurious. This was one of the first cities to have a running train, Spain had its own later. Cinemas were built right after they were invented. Then the Revolution came bringing basic rights to all Cubans through socialism and with that the country was converted into a time machine, a coffer of memories where past and present share the same space.

Some old buildings fall by themselves, others have a planned demolition, on either situation the government is determined to save the facade -as shown in the picture- for a later rebuild respecting their original appearance. When resources are scarce and the government is the only powerhouse for building, projects are left on the back burner for years as the trees and bushes grow on the 3rd floor balcony illustrating this neglect.

The vision is romantic and in line with the spirit of bringing the city back to its glamorous architecture. In the meantime, reality is different. Habitants are forced to live on temporary grounds where no one has a sense of belonging. As opposed to other countries, Cubans rely heavily on the power of communities; they share skills, food, education, etc. not as an act of goodwill but rather a means to survive. Something like this is hard to create when everyone thinks they are there for a short time and a new house is around the corner.

Should the government opt for a quick, simple, low-budget building to accommodate their habitants, or is it worth the sacrifice of waiting and respecting the original architecture?

Domino game on a premium location.

A Drive Through Time

I love my SLR camera but it did not pass the first filter when initially fitting all of our belongings in 4 panniers for two people traveling. Still this iPhone night shot shows more light, detail, and colors (at an ISO 2000 and 1/8 second) compared to the 20/20 naked eye.

Given the tools and capability to source parts, Cubans do an incredible work of art restoring 60+ year old cars. Everything from the outside looks very authentic including the paint colors. Under the hood is a different story. The Cuban government buys 2nd/3rd/4th hand diesel truck engines from South Korea or China to sell locally. They arrive to Cuba -very likely- without the emission and noise reduction system to make the shipment cheaper and more compact. The process is well known depending on the handful of choices your car belongs to. It goes into one of the workshops that is ready to do the adaptations needed.

The result, a car that looks amazing but pollutes, drives, and sounds like a diesel truck. Quality varies, often it feels that the engine is not sitting on the right mounts. In fact, it feels like the whole car is the engine mount sending all the vibrations from the pistons to your bones. Chances are that the car’s lack of tightness creates a vacuum that pulls the diesel exhaust back into the cabin. Despite all of this, the car will make you will feel as if you were sitting on your own couch traveling back in time through La Habana Malecon listening to some Salsa tunes.