What is the first thing you think about when somebody mentions Cuba? I wager that cigars will feature top of many people’s list.
When Christopher Columbus reached Cuba in 1492 , he discovered the locals “drinking smoke” from an early version of a cigar. It was very much a local production for local consumption, as they had been doing for centuries.
This eventually brought tobacco to the attention of the ‘Old World’ and the Cuban cigar factory and centuries of Western addiction were born.
In Trinidad de Cuba cigars are still made the old way.
We were just ambling down the street having just had fun exploring ancient locomotives at Trinidad’s train station (more to come on that in a later post), when we had the call, “hey mister, wanna come and see cigars being made?’
We didn’t need asking twice and for a discretionary fee of €2 each we were in. We laughed at the ‘No Smoking’ sign at the entrance and entered the fray, blinking to adjust to the light, a mix of dark corners and bright natural sunlight dazzling through the open windows.
The waft of fresh tobacco made for a very pleasant aroma as the 80% female workforce rolled leaves into coronas and panetelas.
We stood and watched one of the few guys make some cigars, which you can view here.
It was clearly mind-numbingly boring work and you just knew that they would be paid a pittance. We therefore bought cigars despite being non-smokers, just to give a little bit back.
This wasn’t one of those touristy factories that has been sanitised for the foreign visitor. Everybody seemed happy though and just got on with it as if we were not there. This probably had something to do with the eagle-eyed gaffer that sat at the front to watch out for slackers.
We were delighted to see some lady workers surreptitiously handing around a cigarette. Power to the workers!
I was especially tickled when I looked into the manager’s office. On the back wall next to a triumphant picture of Fidel hung the factory mission statement and vision. Only investors in people to go I thought to myself!
All in all it was a very pleasant and totally unplanned half-hour. Sometimes these are the best types of experience – the four of us who ventured in all had a huge smile on our faces, that’s for sure.
Despite the US trade embargo, cigars remain vital to the Cuban economy, being their third highest grossing export in earning some $200 million for the government’s coffers. Not all cigars are exported however……
* Condor was a brand name of pipe tobacco popular in the UK in the ’70s & ’80s. They were well known for their humorous TV adverts – “nothing should disturb that Condor moment” – see an example here.