To Count My Montecristo

3 06 2011

“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.
“From Canada”
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.


The Green Apple

11 08 2010

Tony takes us on a eco-tour of New York City amidst the beautiful chaos and concrete jungle – a wonderful and different side of the Big Apple

Words and Photos by Tony Gazso

I made my way past the crowds of people. Out-of-towners and New Yorkers alike. Up past the joggers, and the sightseers. And as I go, the crowds thin. Slowly, but surely, I leave more and more of them behind until I’m lost in the woods. Wandering through dirt paths along a stream. Underneath a hidden stone archway, I climb to the top of a waterfall and sit on the rocks looking down as the ravine continues below. At last I am alone with my thoughts. The occasional person passes through, but for the most part, it’s just me. I hear the water as it runs down the rocks to the stream below. Birds chirping, even the occasional raccoon high up in the trees. Am I relaxing at some forest retreat in upstate New York? No, I am in Central Park.

In a city that never sleeps, everyone needs some quiet. And New York City has no shortage of it, if you know where to look. Central Park is a very busy place, especially on weekends, but the vast majority of people visiting the park, visit the southern half. That is, after all, where all the “sites” are. At least that’s what people think, but it’s the north end of the park that’s the quiet end. Even on a busy, summer weekend, very few people go to the North Woods. It is the quietest spot in the park, and not many people even know it’s there. It’s easy to forget you are in New York City, which is something most of us New Yorkers need from time to time.

There are quiet spots all over this city. Some of them are out of the way places, some are seemingly in the middle of it all. But if it’s quiet you seek in NYC, then I’ll et you in on some of the best places to find it. Queens is one of the best places to find some quiet spots. It always interests me that when people visit NYC, they tend to only visit Manhattan or maybe part of Brooklyn, and they are still amazed by how big the city is without stepping foot in the largest of the 5 boroughs. I may be biased, after all, I lve in Queens, but Queens has some great places, and not too far from Manhattan. Socrates Sculpture Park is one of those spots. Located right on the East River, Socrates is a great place to wander, sit and relax, and take in the ever changing sculpture installations. It’s rarely filled with people, and gives a sense of seclusion, while also giving you a great view of Roosevelt Island, and the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The nearby Noguchi Museum is also a great place for a little escape. They have an outdoor area with sculptures from the Japanese artist that beats most other “quiet” spots at the busier museums. If you venture further into Queens, you’ll find the site of the old New York Worlds Fair. Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is a sprawling, fairly quiet park on the grounds of the fair. If you do head out there, the Queens Museum of Art is worth checking out. This relatively quiet museum features changing exhibitions, but its claim to fame is the Panorama of New York. A scaled model of the entire city that was unveiled during the 1964 Worlds Fair (The museum is in what was the Hall of New York.) The Panorama is updated, and really gives you an appreciation for how big the city is.

“Queens is one of the best places to find some quiet spots. It always interests me that when people visit NYC, they tend to only visit Manhattan or maybe part of Brooklyn, and they are still amazed by how big the city is without stepping foot in the largest of the 5 boroughs”

Moving north, the Bronx is another underrated place for some seclusion. To most, the Bronx brings images of poor, unsafe neighborhoods, but the Bronx is home to some of the most scenic spots in the city. Just north of the Bronx Zoo (a great trip in its own right) is the New York Botanical Garden. The greenhouses attract visitors, but if its an escape you want, wander the grounds. You’ll find some of the most picturesque spots along the Bronx River which runs through both the garden, and the zoo. Van Courtlandt Park is another beautiful retreat. A spot full of wooded hiking trails that are easy to navigate, and even easier to get lost in.

That’s great, but what about Manhattan? Well, the most densely populated borough has it’s share of spots, though they aren’t as large as spots in the outer boroughs. However, if you want to escape without leaving Manhattan, you’re best bet is to head uptown…way uptown to Fort Tyron Park. Located on one of the highest natural spots in all of New York City, Fort Tyron Park give you a great view of the Hudson, and the New Jersey Palisades on the other side. There’s no shortage of things to do here either. In addition to typical park activities, the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) displays a great selection of medieval art. The most scenic part of the NYC Greenway is also up here, just across the Henry Hudson Parkway from Fort Tyron. The Greenway is a bicycle path that circumnavigates the island of Manhattan. The path from up near the Cloisters is almost as high as the park, but takes you downhill to the waterfront just underneath the George Washington Bridge. If not for the bridge, it would be very easy to forget you were in the big apple. Lower Manhattan has some spots where it’s quiet, Hudson River Park, Thompkins Square Park, but while technically quiet, they do have a good amount of people wandering around. Not necessarily a bad thing, but if escaping the hustle and bustle is your goal, then they might not be the best solutions….

There are far more places to go to get out of the city without getting out of the city. Some of which intrigue me, but unfortunately I have yet to visit. Places like the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Forest Hills Park, the Elevated Acre, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The list goes on and on. I love exploring the city, and do so all the time. It’s best way to find things you didn’t know existed, like a little secluded spot in the middle of the Big Apple. Maybe I’ll run into you while exploring the city. Maybe I even inspired some of you to check out the outer boroughs bex time your in New York City.

Tony is a Cleveland native and has called New York City his home in the last 7 years. A graduate of Arts School, he enjoys nature and owns too many toys for someone his age.

If you won a free trip to anywhere in the world where would you go?
Well, I’d say a trip around the world, but assuming I’m supposed to pick one place I guess I would say a Wildlife trip to a Central/South American Rainforest.

Heaven is Here: Pacific Coast Highway

2 05 2010

A pictorial journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

So long, city of Angels

…and then we passed by a wiener truck.

Crane City

And the pretty pictures start now…

The 7 hour drive turned 12 hour drive is well worth it in the end.
I mean, how can’t it be when this is what is waiting for you on the side of the road?

All photos taken by me.

Aliwan Fiesta

13 08 2009

Orville takes us on a one of a kind festival in Manila where Filipino cultures mix and showcase the best cultural performances of the country

Words and photos by Orville del Rosario

Summer breeze gave me goosebumps as my officemate, Francis, and I walked towards Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) complex in Manila to watch the Aliwan Fiesta. It was almost at the end of April, halfway out of the summer season, but it felt like summer was just getting started. The heat of the sun was pretty much right on! Good thing the clouds were giving the best shade at the time, hiding the mighty hot sun lights. We could see the towers of Star City as we were getting closer. I was so excited because this would officially be my first photo shoot ever. We were actually trying to enter a photo competition organized by a local AM radio station in the Philippines, the Manila Broadcasting Company (MBC). The theme was the Aliwan Fiesta, from anything taken during the street dancing competition and parade. I got into this because Francis, being a photography enthusiast, encouraged me (a newbie in photography ) to come with him to watch the festival and take some photos. He said that there was a photo competition and we should join. Of course I wanted to join, this was a new experience for me, both in my life and in photography. So we decided that we would come to the Aliwan and take as many photos as we can. We were joined by Ethel, another officemate, and the three of us were on the same team. Like I said, this would be my first time to attend a real photography event and first time to watch the Aliwan Fiesta.

The Aliwan Fiesta is yearly event where different provinces and cities across the country showcase their own festivals; for example the Sinulog Festival of Cebu, Dinagyang Festival of Davao, Panagbenga or the Flower Festival of Baguio City, Kadayawan Festival of Ilo-Ilo, and Karatong Festival of Dulag, Leyte to name a few.

This festival is not just about music and dances, they actually have their own stories to tell – stories that are native to their town or province of origin, like the Karatong Festival from the town of Dulag in the province of Leyte. Karatong is the Waray (a native of and language in Leyte) word for bamboo. During the olden times, way before the Spaniards came to the Philippines, the people in Dulag used bamboos to warn the town if there were enemies, such as pirates and tribes, who wanted to invade their lands. They would make loud noises to warn the townsmen of the arrival of the intruders, and would use it also as their weapon in the form of spears to fight against the enemies. With the story they have, they will make it into a series of routines, amazing music and dance moves.

To be in the presence of such diverse and rich cultures, it makes me feel so proud that I am a Filipino. We have different culture, traditions, beliefs, but through these events we become one united nation. Yes, the main purpose of the Aliwan Festival is to showcase the talents of each province or town, and that it is a competition more than anything, but this is also a time where different people, or shall I say “tribes”, from across the seven thousand one hundred and one islands of the Philippine archipelago, meet and be one as a nation. Together, they show to the world how rich our culture is, and how we preserve it, which is through our festivals.

“This festival is not just about music and dances, they actually have their own stories to tell – stories that are native to their town or province of origin”

All the festivals are great and we should be proud of them. On a personal note, the Karatong Festival in particular, is what I am most proud of. Simply because my mom is from Dulag, Leyte, where the Karatong Festival originated. She lived and grew up there, and I am proud to say that she is a native of Dulag, and I am proud to say that I have a blood of a Waray. And I was so thankful to God the He gave me the opportunity to have watched the performance of the Karatong Festival. I was so honored and proud that during the performance, and even got teary eyed. To simply be there and witness all that – not to mention how amazing they were with their performance – is just overwhelming and unbelievable. I was so proud of that moment, that I kept saying to my officemates that my mom is from where the Karatong Festival originated. God, that was so amazing! I am very happy I got to watch their festival.

Orville is a graduate of Electronic and Communications Engineer in the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. Currently working as an Associate Software Engineer at an IT company.

If you win a free trip to anywhere in the world, where would you go?
I’d say, united kingdom…hehe..I dunno, maybe because I love Harry Potter that much that I wanted to see London and all that…haha. But seriously though, I think the place is cool..with all the castles and stuff and I want to see the stonehenge.

CAPTURE: Punting

9 06 2009

On a fine beautiful day during my trip in England my friend suggested we head to the city of Cambridge, about an hour train ride away from Baldock (an hour and a half to two hours train from London). A quaint, peaceful small city, Cambridge is known for its University (Cambridge University, 4th oldest University in the world).

Like the rest of England, I was thrilled to see cobble stoned streets, cute little shoppes, century old houses, gargoyle-guarded church, cafes and botiques. Walking around the campus of Cambridge University are constant reminders of ‘Keep Quiet’ to give the students the peace they need to study. However, what stood out for me the most is a Cambridge tradition called punting.

Punting is a past time for Cambridge students (and locals), where a flat bottomed boat is proppeled by a long pole along the river Cam within the University. It isn’t like a Gondola ride in Venice but observing students flip through their thick text books while sitting on the simple raft and the chauffer pushes the raft along the river looked more serene for me. I could have gone for a ride but there were still a lot of places I had to see around Cambridge so I patiently waited until a ‘punt’ boat came along. It wasn’t easy waitig at the top of the bridge for boats to come by below you.

There were times were three boats came at the same time, and then just one but it went by too fast. Until I waited patiently for this punt to float along the river, slowly and took a few snapshots until I got a good one.

Punting” photo taken by me. Cambridge, England

CAPTURE: What in the world?!

18 04 2009

Exhausted we were from parasailing and being deeply disappointed with the submarine tour, my friends and I decided to explore the rest of Catalina Island more on foot. We passed by quirky shoppes, other touristy activities and a casino that turned out to be a museum (and worse, closed for the day), eventually we decided to just keep walking and relax for the remainder of the day before we had back to the port and get on the Catalina Flyer to take us back to Newport Beach.

Along the coastline, we noticed something peculiar with the palm trees. From below and afar, they looked just as fine but when we walked by a tree about our height we noticed there was something queer about the way it was trimmed. We laughed, and joked and thought whoever was their landscaper had a great sense (and dirty) of humour. The display was way too phallyc to be just a coincidence and a real close resemblance to…well, take a look at the photo and you decide.

Phallyc” photo taken by me. Catalina Island, California

CAPTURE: Windsurfing

31 03 2009

A photograph speaks a thousand words. It is a moment in still life captured on film through the eyes of the photographer. In every adventure and travel we take, we end up being in those moments that we just have to keep a glimpse of that excact seconds, a memory frozen in time forever. Some may be artistic, most will be beautiful, but only a few will have a story to tell. CAPTURE will be part of my travel blog to share those moments I’ve had, the world as I see it.

Here is my first CAPTURE, let’s start in my own hometown.

Taken back in 2006 I took the ferry to Ward’s Island (part of Toronto Island) and got there in time for sunset. As I watch the city from across the lake, a few windsurfers glide the waters of Harbourfront, I took a few snapshots and this was the best one. I posted it online and a few months later got a feedback from somebody praising my photo with “Love this shot. The colours make it feel tropical and warm…then you realize there are no leaves on the tree,” that’s when I realized I did take the photo back at the beggining of the fall.

CAPTURE will be a new series in my blog along with ‘Book Recommendations’ and the occasion Travel movie review. If you have any CAPTURE pictures you’d like to share, I’d be glad to post it.
Windsurfing” photo taken by me. Toronto, Canada