NATALIE TOMS visits the lefty student haven of cigars, Che and communist charm The silence is getting quite embarrassing. I don’t realise at first – I’ve been distracted by the man at work on the No. 1 Bolivars, who seems to be able to roll together the four types of leaves in under half a minute – so I only hear the question when Miguel, the guide, repeats it, accusingly.“Do any of you actually smoke cigars?” His eyes travel around everyone in the group, one by one, until we eventually look down, ashamed. In the end a Canadian kid tries to help him out, “Er, yeah, I smoked one once.” He then catches the eye of his mother and starts to splutter, “In Paris. It was when I was in Paris. You know, in France.”The protruding eyeballs of the baseball-becapped woman are able to retract again and the whole group heaves a sigh of relief. That clearly explains it all. But then we are left with the silence again. Someone else tries to break the deadlock by saying that their best friend is a big fan of Romeo y Julietas and they’re going to take some home. I consider joining in, explaining that I also know some people who smoke cigars. But on second thoughts I decide that our Miguel’s life is probably strange enough, what with having to listen to the Cuban state newspaper being read out all day while avoiding earnest Canadian questions about politics, without also having to listen to an explanation of the weirder side of Oxford hackery. So, the silence seems conclusive. It is clear that no-one on this tour of the Habanos Cigar Company factory, in Havana, Cuba, actually likes cigars at all. While Miguel seems to consider this quite shocking, I’m not really sure why. I mean, surely the kind of people who go to Cuba aren’t that likely to be going home to gentleman’s clubs in the Strand. We clearly all consider ourselves to be superior left-wing adventurers, after all. Not that this stops anyone from piling into the souvenir shop at the end of the tour. It’s as if there’s been an implicit unspoken agreement – we can muse about the up-side of Castro’s policies when we return home, but here, we’re just going to search for souvenirs and top up our tans.This is the problem with travelling to Cuba. You go assuming that because the country is such a politically exotic one-off, Havana will be gloriously difficult, a place in which only the most hardcore of hardened backpackers will excel. A big step up from those oh-so-passe trips to Delhi, Cuzco and Ko Samui. It ought to be a lefty student haven – Che Guevara’s face isn’t just seen here on t-shirts for god’s sake, but on billboards and statues (though also on a great deal of t-shirts, which for some reason I find weirder). But Cuba is anything but a typical backpacker destination, perversely for the same reason that gives it the student allure: the peculiar nature of Castro’s revolution. Havana may be dirt-poor, but it isn’t dirty. There’s less litter than in London. There are no street-children, no touts and no drugs. For some strange reason, this provides more of a culture shock than the reverse would have done. The most annoying thing is a general lack of touts (well, apart from the prostitutes – the one unrestricted capitalist market in Havana). For anyone who wants to do some superior political analysis whilst on holiday, there are very few people to ask patronising questions about whether everyone really likes Castro… But the real nail in the coffin of Che obsessives is that Havana is really very expensive. The reason is simple – one of Castro’s methods of escaping the economic “special period” following the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe was to initiate a parallel dollar economy for tourists. Cuba maintains the peso as a currency for its own citizens, but all foreign visitors exchange only US dollars in the course of their trip. And everything costs only marginally less than it does in dollars. While Castro and contemporary history dominate the air in Havana, Cuba still holds on to its more ancient past. Faces on the streets bear the stamp of cultural intermixture and migration, and next to the dark spires of imposing cathedrals, wafting incense and camelias, are shrines to Ogun and Chango, gods brought to the new world by African slaves. The striking cross-fertilisation of faiths is apparent in whatever religious establishment you step into in Cuba. In certain neighborhoods of Havana and the villages skirting the city, cherubic black Marys and Christs are worshipped. While Cubans Catholics are in the majority, Voo Doo and Indian rites are never very far from their day to day lives. In the face of such cultural fusion, it might be easy to forget the violence with which it was achieved. Three main native groups inhabited Cuba when Columbus reached it in 1492 – the Ciboney, the Guanahatabey and the Taino. When slavery and the establishment of large plantations began with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors the indigenous population was quickly decimated by disease, fighting and maltreatment. But despite its turbulent past, the result today is that the vibrancy and variety of Cuban culture is notorious and not, as I found throughout the trip, without good reason. As Castro’s hair grows whiter, there is more and more speculation about his likely successor and whether the Communism that has characterized the country for decades will develop and ultimately endure. So all in all, Cuba isn’t simply a backpacker haven or place where hairy leftys (even the hairiest may get pissed off at the lack of shops after a while) can hang out and chill. But the beaches are bloody nice.ARCHIVE: 1st Week MT2003