“I was somehow convinced by a total stranger that it was necessary for me to purchase a box of Montecristo. Foolish feelings aside, I thought it’d would’ve been a great story to tell when I get home. “
It was definitely one of the most intense moment I have ever had. Sitting alone under a gazebo in the middle of some plaza in Habana, I felt like a fool. Another feeling was that I was a fool for feeling like a fool, but the worst was feeling that somebody had taken me for a fool; either choices, in my gut feeling whatever I did was a tad foolish. Every now and then we hear stories of tourists getting themselves into scams and we shake our heads thinking “Boy, how did they not see that coming???” And then we often think that we will not be that dumb tourist.
That was until I handed a total stranger $100.
Perhaps getting me a good deal on a furniture was a better idea. Maybe even hitchhike around town, or an invite to a private event? But no, I was able to get me a deal on something I didn’t need. It was all peculiar to begin with – it wasn’t just about trusting a stranger in a foreign land, it was that I didn’t want nor need the box of cigar! However, I was somehow convinced by a total stranger that it was necessary for me to purchase a box of Montecristo. Foolish feelings aside, I thought it’d would’ve been a great story to tell when I get home.
Most country have their signature souvenir; whether a bottle of tequila from Mexico to a box of chocolate from Belgium, perhaps a carpet from Morocco or coffee from Colombia, there are certain souvenirs travelers just have to bring back home as a piece of something authentic taken from that culture, and in Cuba’s case it would undoubtedly be the cigar.
You need not be reminded about this piece of Cuba’s culture, it was practically everywhere. From bus shelters to cafes, out on the street or just hanging out on their balconies, over a heated argument or conversation, in midday or just before going to bed, it is a vice shared by everyone in Havana. Sometimes it gets too disturbing to see little children taking a bit of tobacco, but in no time yours truly jumped in the band wagon.
It was in Calle Neptuno when I met Evelio. He was about in his mid 40s, a well dressed man with gray hair and sporting some 6 o’clock shadow. He had kind eyes and did not have an intimidating persona. When he approached me he asked “Tienes fuego?” asking if I could light his cigarette. “No tengo,” I said.
“Ah! Where are you from?” he then spoke in English.
It was from Evelio that I learned my education about Cuba; the history, the system, and the economy. It took me until that day to understand why I paid $1 for a slice of pizza while the locals paid a tenth of that? It seemed a bit unfair to me. We walked around a few blocks and bought Cafe Cubano, he paid ten cents. If I were to buy coffee it would cost me two dollars. Certain things did not make sense to me that I just tried to ignore. After further more discussion of my introduction to Cuban culture Evelio remembered that he was after lighting his cigarette.
“Have you tried our cigar?”
“Not really. I don’t smoke”
“Ah. If you buy a cigar, you will pay more than what I pay”. I believed him after witnessing the coffee purchase, I would believe that I could pay more as a tourist. Amid the blazing heat Evelio has invited me back to his home to have some refreshments and talk further – getting to know more of him and about his country. In his living room, we spread the map and discussed which part of Habana I have visited and still should visit. “Habana Vieja is expensive. If you want to get cheap things and eat cheap food you have to go where Habañeros go. It’s good that you are staying in Vedado, that is where real Habañeros live. Centro Habana is what we call…you say ‘downtown’? It is also cheap there”
“Now look here,” he pointed to an area on the map. “This is Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas. This is where they make the Montecristo Cigar. There are two entrances – one for me, and one for you. They separate us because of the double economy, remember that. If I go and buy a box of cigar I can buy it for eighty dollars, if you go inside and buy a box of cigar you will pay two hundred and eighty”
A little puzzled I inquired as to why? Double economy, what a pain. Eighty dollars for a box of cigar still seemed like a bit too much but compared to what I would have paid if I did purchase it sounded a lot. I’ve already confessed that I did not smoke cigar but Evelio kept insisting and discussing the difference of cost. Perhaps I could buy it for my dad, he said. No, my dad quit a long time ago as far as I was concerned. For your friends? I pondered for a bit, I do have quite a few friends who would enjoy cigar, but an entire box? There would be at least twenty five, I did not know twenty five friends who could benefit from this. I love my friends, but I was hoping I could get something…er…cheaper souvenir.
After much convincing that it was necessary for me to take home a box of Montecristo I found myself walking in the streets of Habana, without looking at the map and letting Evelio lead the way, we marched to the factory. At parque La Curita, Habañeros can be found hanging around socializing and the fumes of tobacco filled the air. Schoolchildren ran a muck, vendors stood by their stalls, men played chess and women entertained in gossip.
“You can wait for me here. Give me the money, I will go inside, buy the cigar and give it to you. Will you wait for me here?” he said as he instructed me to stay put under a gazebo in the middle of the plaza.
It was a bit nerve racking. Though I built a friendship with Evelio a part of me thought I shouldn’t. What if he didn’t come back? I’d lose my eighty dollars and I was already tight on budget. I did know where he lives, well at least I could figure it out on the map. Did I really have to do this? I could always back out but it was way too late to change my mind, however, I really did not need that box of cigar.
“Do you trust me?” he asked.
“Yes,” and in a blink of an eye he took my money and went off into the crowd.
“This cigar is a cigar that locals buy. Not Montecristo or Cohiba. A cigar is just a cigar”
On the other side of town I enjoyed a conversation with a wonderful couple Ulysses and Paquita, both originally from the city of Santiago. I stumbled upon their humble bookstore situated at the very back of Cafe Literario in Nuevo Habana one day. On average they would sell at least 3-5 books on a good week at a price of $5 a piece.
“Habañeros make about twenty five dollars a month,” Ulysses said. Compared to what I spent the entire day already, $25 seemed a lot to them and the understanding of double economy in this country started to make a bit of sense. It isn’t fair that I pay more than anyone else, if you came to my city you’d pay the price that everybody else paid;. same taxes and fees applied. However, if this was how tourist can help the economy of Cubans I shouldn’t be complaining but rather be willing to cash out my wallet. A buck for a slice of pizza, I couldn’t even get a piece of pepperoni for that price back home!
“We need tourists to come here. They are the only ones that buy our books. It is sometimes hard because everyone goes to Habana Vieja or the resorts and nobody really comes to see the real places of Habana like here. So when they come to see our bookstore we are happy to see them because they help us”, said Ulysess. He didn’t need much convincing from me as I have been eyeing on the “Into the Wild” that displayed in front of me. I have purchased the novel a long time ago on my trip to California but left it in the hotel and haven’t finished it. “How much for this book?” I asked. Four Convertibles. I made a deal. As I hand in my cash Paquita gleed with joy hugging and kissing my cheecks followed by a multitude of gracias. I made their week.
The celebration continued with, you guessed it, a lighting of cigar. “This cigar,” said Ulysses “is a cigar that locals buy. Not Montecristo or Cohiba. A cigar is just a cigar” I guess we could compare it to wine. Why buy an expensive tobacco when you can get a more economical brand for the same pleasure? Tobacco consumption was indulged, Ulysses and Paquita made their quota for the day, I walked out with a novel for a fraction of a price, and a friendship that I will remember forever it was no doubt a win-win situation.
It may have seemed forever but really it was just about fifteen minutes. Nerves got to me as I looked around looking for a sign of Evelio. I squinted my eyes trying to see if I could spot him like a game of Where’s Waldo? and the prize would be Montecristo. What was he wearing again? Darn, I couldn’t remember for the life of me. Twiddling my thumbs I thought about the worst case scenario: he ran away with my money. Just when I was about to give up hope in humanity, I spotted him.
“Evelio!” I yelled. In slow painstakingly motion he walked towards me with a plastic bag in his hand and a smile on his face.
“How are you my friend?”
“Happy to see you!” I exclaimed.
He opened the bag and showed me the yellow box labelled Montecristo. In the box we counted twenty five and in gratuity I gave him two. “Do you want to light one now?” I asked.
And so we did.
Whether they were authentic Montecristo tobaccos or not didn’t bother me. Savouring the tobacco I reminded myself of a lesson I learned a long time ago and have forgotten.
A stranger is a friend you just haven’t met yet.