Dispatch, Cuba: A cigar factory tour


Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers is in Cuba on a six-day Friendly Planet travel agent fam trip, exploring Havana and its environs.

HAVANA -- The best piece of advice I heard today came from Elias Aseff Alfonso, a colorful narrator who explained how the origin and meaning of the African-Cuban religion of Santeria, a fusion of African belief systems, is portrayed in street art and music.

At the end of his dialogue, he laughed and said, "Enjoy my country, but don't try to understand it."

With that, four barefoot costumed Santeria dancers launched into an energetic, lively performance of dance on the cobblestones of Callejon de Hamel, one of the shortest but most interesting streets in Havana.

The storefronts and stone walls of the street are lined with artists' studios, vivid drawings, murals and sayings that reflect the culture and religious beliefs in this area of Havana.

Three days into a jam-packed itinerary, I am taking Alfonso's advice. So are the agents I'm with.

A tour of the Corona cigar factory, the biggest of the six government-run cigar factories in Cuba, was another glimpse into a way of life in Cuba.

Camillo, our guide, told us the factory turns out 30,000 cigars a day for 27 cigar brands.

Cigars, rum and coffee are Cuba's top purchases for travelers.

The factory floors resembled a sweatshop from the 1920s, with workers sorting tobacco leaves in one section. In other section, row upon row of workers cut, rolled and pressed tobacco leaves into cigars hour after hour.

On other floors, quality-control workers checked each cigar for defects. Those that were rejected later become chewing tobacco. Nothing is wasted.

The cigar rollers sat in straight-backed wooden chairs in large rooms where the humidity was kept at 90% to preserve the leaves.

"We have 625 employees here, 325 are cigar rollers. It takes nine months of training to become a roller and years to become a very good one," Camillo said.

"They have to roll 100 cigars a day. They're paid by the quality of the cigars they roll and the number. The workers get paid extra if they roll more than 100. Every worker gets five cigars a day to bring home. They can leave when they meet their quota or stay later each day if they want to roll more," he said.

The factory day runs from 7:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Average salary is about $20 a month.

Photos weren't allowed inside the factory. Before we left, we visited the cigar store.

Our guide Ari observed later, "You Americans really love to shop."

A popular request was the Splendida cigar, a brand favored by Fidel Castro in the years he smoked.

"So sorry. The Chinese group that was here before you bought them all," Camillo said.

Later, we visited the iconic Nacional Hotel, whose walls and hallways are lined with black-and-white photos of celebrities, gamblers, musicians and politicians who flocked to Cuba in its heyday years, before casinos were outlawed and the embargo took effect.

My day ended with a performance of the Buena Vista Social Club at the Cafe Taverna in Old Havana. Cuban music from the 1950s was performed by old, talented musicians. Young, energetic dancers pulled audience members into the routines.

A ticket to the two-hour show costs about $30, and includes a mojito.

On the ride back to the Melia Cohiba in a '59 Chevy taxi, Junior, our driver, pointed to the sea wall along the Malecon, where couples, families and groups of young people were sitting, enjoying the warm night.

By gesture and a bit of English, he said that this entertainment was free. "This is where we have our fun, and we sing and we talk."

Junior, like most of the Cuban people I've met on this too-brief trip, is excited about the changes coming to Cuba, although with shrugs and gestures he pointed out, "We don't know all the changes yet, so we have to wait."

The people of Cuba are good at waiting. They are used to it.

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