I submitted this story to the SA Sunday Times “Accidental Tourist” column in early December 2016 and was delighted to have it published in the Sunday Times of 26th February 2017, on top of which they actually paid me as a freelance writer (No, I’m not giving up my day job just yet)
This is the published article along with what I think is a delightful illustration :
And here is the original version with some photos from the trip to illustrate it :
“Our trip to Cuba some 5 years ago, was memorable for many reasons, none more so than a cigar-shopping expedition instigated by my son-in-law, in search of real Cuban cigars, but not those you can buy at a premium price in the tourist areas, he was after a “real bargain”.
Now said son-in-law is always on the lookout for a good deal, but I did not realise just how determined he could be until we found ourselves in Havana with an afternoon to spare.
Having done the normal tourist routes of Havana, we set off from our hotel in the older part of this fascinating city, heading in the direction of the Cigar Factory closest to our hotel, passing by some of Havana’s contrasting sights along the way – on the one hand the beautiful National Capitol building, in pristine condition, on the other the “Train Museum”, a collection of sad, rusty locomotives standing forlornly on an open plot.
We were soon at our destination, the Partagas Fabrica de Tabacos, and entered the showroom area which was crowded with tourists, took a quick look around, checked the price of a box of genuine Cuban cigars – around R4,000 – and headed straight out the front door again. This was not the place to find a bargain.
As we stood outside debating our next move, a man sidled up to us and said “wannacheapcigar?” or something along those lines. I was inclined to ignore him and walk away, but son-in-law – let’s call him A to protect his normally conservative reputation – decided otherwise and engaged our new friend in conversation. It seemed we would have to follow him to his apartment to find out more, which I thought very unwise, but not so A who eagerly fell in behind the, admittedly, quite pleasant looking cigar-agent.
A street or two and a couple of corners later we were in what can only be called a seedy part of Havana and climbing a flight of stairs which had clearly not seen a renovator’s hand in a long time, into an apartment with a front door so low I had to bend slightly to get in. Cigar-agent pointed to a battered sofa and suggested we sit while he fetched the cigar-seller, at which point my heart sank even further, but A still had his brightest face.
A panicky minute or two later a somewhat more intimidating man entered, muscled, bedecked in gold chains and carrying a large bag with an air of “no one messes with me”. The bartering session that followed between A and the gold-chain one was something to behold – A had him emptying his entire bag of boxed cigars, until the very last one seemed to take his fancy. By this time, I was eyeing the door and working out the best route for a quick getaway, but A insisted on opening the box, rolling and sniffing each of the cigars to make sure there were no fakes in between the genuine cigars, all at a relaxed pace.
Content with the quality, A then started the negotiation process, whittling the price down from the same R4,000 as the cigar factory to the equivalent of about R400, by which time the seller was looking very unhappy and, I thought, liable to take drastic action. Amazingly the deal was concluded with the seller close to tears, payment was made, cigars taken and we strolled out and down the passage to the stairs as nonchalantly as my nerves could manage, all the while expecting an angry roar and a dagger in the back.
Then, on the way back to the hotel……… but that’s another story, let’s just say I was mightily relieved to get there.”