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The best cigars in the world

It doesn't matter where you are in Cuba -- if you are a tourist you'll be asked if you want to buy cigars. Perfectly decent looking people will engage you in perfectly normal conversation, only to conclude with, "By the way, would you like to by some cigars?" Sleazy looking people do it as well, of course, only they are far less subtle. The fact is, we were in the market for some Cohiba number 2's -- a friend of Pat's had asked her to bring back a box of Cohibas, preferably rolled on the thigh of a young virgin, but if that wasn't possible, at least cigars of good quality. 

We checked the prices at the duty free shop in Schiphol, and then, once in Cuba, compared the Schiphol price with the price in the official stores. Our friend, we discovered, would be getting no deal if we made the purchase in an official store. As for the cigars offered for sale on the street, we were highly skeptical of their quality, and neither of us had the slightest idea of how to tell a good cigar from sawdust wrapped in cornhusk. So we resisted the urge to take a chance on black market cigars as we tooled around Trinidad, Havana and Guanabo, confronted by more and less credible offers of cigars (as well as beds, dinners, and 3 peso coins adorned with the face of Che Guevara) and pathetic pleas for soap and ball point pens. 

We had been planning to go to Pinar del Rio, a couple hours west of Havana -- not because it was the heart of Cuba's tobacco growing region, but because we wanted to get off the beaten path. On the way, we decided to stop in Viñales. "It's very beautiful," we'd heard over and over again. 

To get there, we needed a car, so one afternoon, I walked down the street to the Guanabo office of Havanauto Rentals and asked if there were any small cars available. I was told that Tony was the man I needed to see. 

"Big cars, I have," said Tony, with an odd smile, as if he thought something about me or my request was rather amusing. "But small cars -- maybe. Maybe tomorrow. You come see me tomorrow morning at 7. I am here the whole night -- till 8. So come tomorrow at 7, before I finish working." 

I groaned but agreed to return in the morning. A bit before 8 that evening, we took a stroll down to the beach to catch the sunset, but by the time we got there, the sun was gone. That seemed to be a pattern -- hurrying to catch a sunset and arriving a minute and a half too late. On the way back, we passed the Havanauto office and I saw a tiny Daewoo that was just the car we wanted. 

I knocked on the door and Tony greeted me with that smile of his. "That's the car, isn't it?" I asked. 

"You have to come tomorrow morning," he answered. "Come tomorrow and I'll take care of you." 

"Not now? Can't you write up the contract for me now and reserve it? I can pay for it now if you would like. And then I can pick it up later." 

"Tomorrow. I'll take care of it for you. Come at seven -- before I stop working." It seemed pointless to try to get an explanation, so I shook his hand and said good night. 

Sure enough, Tony was as good as his word. The next morning, he filled in the contract, and even agreed to give us a few extra hours on Friday afternoon. "I work till 4. So you just bring it back before four o'clock." He presented me with the keys to the Daewoo Matiz. 

We'd decided to check into a hotel in Viñales rather than staying in a private home, but when we arrived all three of the Spanish operated hotels were booked (so much for getting off the beaten path). Fortunately, we had the name of a friend of a friend renting out rooms in her house -- that was how it worked in Cuba -- so we decided to give that a try. We easily found the home of Fernando Diaz, right next to the Casa Don Tomas, and were greeted there by an old man -- Fernando, we assumed -- sitting in a rocking chair, holding a cane, and wearing thick glasses and two hearing aids (we later found out that Don Tomas, the first tobacco planter in Viñales, was this man's grandfather). He pointed to his hearing aids, stood up, and shuffled into the house without uttering a word. A moment later, a corpulent middle-aged woman appeared at the door. We found a linguistic meeting place halfway between our abominable Spanish and her marginal English, and came to understand that she could not house us that evening, but her friend could, and that we could return the next day to stay with her if we wanted. 

As we were waiting for the woman to make arrangements, we were greeted by a thin man of about thirty, with smiling eyes and the complexion and carriage of a Spanish gentleman. This was Fernando Jr., who lived next door. "You like cigars?" he asked. 

"Me? No," I replied. "I don't smoke." 

"But you should try. Here -- please have." He reached into a pocket, pulled out two cigars, and handed them to Pat and me. That evening, we made the rounds of the vast majority of several of the finer and more popular eating and drinking establishments in Viñales, staggering into bed when the last of them had closed. 

The next day we hired two horses and a guide to ride around the lovely countryside and to reconfirm what we both recalled from past experience -- that controling a horse looks far easier than it turns out to be. That evening, we asked Maria to fix us a dinner, and later, when we saw Fernando Jr., we invited him to join us and broke out the Havana Club 7-year old rum we'd been carrying with us -- one of our many valuable discoveries during the trip had been that this fine local product left no hangover in its wake. 

We spent the evening lowering the center of gravity in the Havana Club bottle (the old man sat silently in the living room watching the Cuban baseball league playoffs on television, though it was not at all clear how much of it he could see or comprehend). Fernando told us that he had studied engineering, worked two or three years in Havana, but came back to Viñales to manage the family's tobacco farm. "I don't like the city," he said. "I want to be on the land." It was hard work, he said, but no two days were ever the same, and he could decide for himself what he needed to do, or if he could afford to take a day off. He was perplexed by our desire to visit Pinar del Rio. "It's like every other city in the world," he said. He himself stayed away from Pinar del Rio as much as possible, but sometimes he would have to go for equipment or to sign some papers. In most cases, then, he would saddle up and ride the 25 kilometers over the hill. 

He seemed to believe that nothing would ever change -- Fidel would live forever, the system would always stay the same, and he would always receive far too little for his crop. He had a wonderful theory about the motivations of the Florida Cubans in the Elian Gonzalez case - they knew that the Cuban government would organize demonstrations, pull people out of work, print posters and T-shirts and flags, and all of that would cost the government money and labor that it could ill afford to waste. So the Florida Cubans were prolonging the affair as a way to weaken Cuba economically. 

He described in some detail the whole process of planting, harvesting, and drying tobacco, and boasted quietly that there was no finer tobacco than that which he himself grew. 

"What about the cigars people try to sell us on the street?" Pat asked. 

He twisted up his face in an ironic smile. "Don't buy that. It's junk," he said. "It looks ok, but it's not real." 

"But the cigars they sell in the stores are just as expensive as they are in Europe," she said. 

"You know, I don't smoke those cigars either," he said. "What I do -- I choose my own tobacco, and then I have cigars made for me -- we call them criollo -- the authentic Cuban cigar. You see, when you buy a cohiba it is wrapped in a special tobacco leaf. And it looks very good. But this leaf doesn't taste so nice. Now my cigars -- they don't look so nice. Actually, they are ugly. But they are very good. Better than what they make in the factory." 

"So I shouldn't buy the cigars from the factory either?" 

"Whatever you like. But I don't smoke them." 

"And your cigars? Could you sell me some of yours?" 

"Hmm. I've never thought of that. I guess I could. I never sell them -- it's just what I have made for myself. But I guess I could do that. How many would you like? 

And so, from perhaps the only man in all of Cuba who didn't want to sell us cigars, we bought 25 cigars for Pat's friend and 25 more to distribute to our friends, without knowing in the end whether they were, as Fernando claimed, the "best in the world", or just more junk. 

The next morning, as we packed the car and said our good-byes, the old man, who I'd assumed by now was dumb, shook my hand. "Bueno viajo," he said. Then we were off to Pinar del Rio, which was definitely not like every other city, but also probably not worth the trip, and the following day, we returned the car to Guanabo. 

"A good trip?" asked Tony. We assured him that it was, and that the car had served us well. "The next time you come to Cuba, you come to see me," he said. "I'll take care of you."

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