This post is in memoriam of Sue Wahab. May she rest in peace.

Despite the passing of Sue Wahab yesterday, who was a loved member of the Trinidad family, the show had to go on. Certainly, that’s what she would have wanted. Though a bit late, Gustava Garcia Bello and his hosts from Trinidad arrived at Uncle Chili’s last night and proceeded to put one on a show that most would find hard to forget, so skilled was he in his Art.

Like a maestro, careful, methodological and purposeful, Senhor Gustavo put together cigars made to order by an appreciative audience. Corona gordas, robustos (his personal favourite), pyramides and even the artful panatelas rolled off his desk in magnificent form. It never ceases to amaze me to watch the transformation of a bunch of wrinkled dried leaves into a stick of subtle art.

The person next to me asked, “What makes him a ‘master’?”

I replied, “It’s in the consistency. A master is not only adept in all the critical vitolas, including the extremely difficult diademas, but he is able to make 100, even 1,000 sticks of each that look, feel, draw and smoke exactly the same as each other. It’s a lot more difficult than it sounds, believe me. That is what a master makes.”

Watch this in HD if you can, his skill deserves it

And Gustavo Garcia Bello is one such master. Hailing from Havana, he works on the factory floor in the Partagas factory, a famed landmark of the cigar world. One of the very few rollers who has been entrusted with rolling top-end cigars outside of El Laguito (hint: the 1966s), Gustavo speaks excellent English and regaled the crowd with stories of his life, and the life of his fellow cigar roller. Through a flurry of heavily accented words, he described how his day begins with a visit to the master blender who hands him his inventory of tobacco for the day. Given specific instructions on the composition of the cigars he has to make that day, he often takes short notes, before proceeding to his desk to work. The first cigar he rolls? That’s the one he’ll smoke.

“Cigar rollers are allowed to smoke from the cigars they roll. It helps keeps things in perspective; we try to save some to meet the daily quota!” he laughed. Rolling between 100-150 cigars on a good day, the mark of a “master roller” is his or her consistency of production. Variables in a hand-made product are always going to exist, certainly in something as subjective as a cigar. The very best rollers are able to minimize that variable between sticks.

His attention to detail is amazing; in a dazzling display of dexterity, he puts together 5 corona gordas (a very popular vitola, or “size” of cigar). Each cigar looks exactly the same but that’s not all. “Each will also taste the same!” Gustavo declares proudly. Amazing, considering the leaf he used came from three different piles, had different shades of colour and even variances in individual texture.

As the evening wore on, and the crowd slowly thinned out, Gustavo slowed down, sipped on his espresso, and took short breaks to languidly puff on a short cigar he had rolled for himself. That’s when the discussion turned a bit more serious.

“Which cigar is your favourite?” someone asked. With a slight sigh, and shrug of the shoulders, it’s obvious that this is a question has often been asked. He takes a moment before answering, “You know, i can smoke any cigar i want, and i have, and i love them all. But i can’t afford to smoke the cigars i make; on my salary, an aged cigar, a gran cigar is beyond me.” He shrugged again, and got back to his craft.

Quite an indictment of the state of life in Cuba for the common man, or in this case, an extraordinary man. There aren’t many Level 9 rollers on the island, and those that do attain this rank, are the elite of the cigar producing fraternity. It was humbling to hear the words uttered by such an elite; imagine the lives of those who have not shared his opportunities. Suddenly, the cigar he had rolled for me, felt very heavy indeed in my mouth, and the smoke took on a slight tinge of bitter.

Sensing the sudden change in the mood, Gustavo recovered quickly, and returned to lighter topics such as the weather in Cuba, and the recent batches of cigars leaving the island that he remarked were “excelente“, especially the remarkable Cohiba 1966.

But, i was still thinking about what Gustavo had said earlier: many of us, around the world, far removed from the streets of Havana, or the rustic time-warp of the tobacco vegas, we take for granted the joy that a Cuban cigar gives us. It’s easy to forget the person who put these cigars together, are real people with lives, thoughts, loves and hates, just like us, but unlike us, struggle in a difficult society. Their passion allows us to enjoy great cigars whenever we want. What are we able to give them in return, commensurate with their skill, dedication and perseverance?

Even later on that night, with my cigar half burned down, i sat down next to Gustavo, keeping him company with light banter and tales of Malaysia. As our cultures mixed and exchanged, i suddenly said, “Thank you, senhor. This is an amazing cigar.” I took a long draw to punctuate the point, then smiled. He looked at me for a moment, understanding perhaps what i really meant, and returned the smile, “This is the joy for me, when a customer looks me in the eye and tells me he is happy.”

Perhaps that’s all that needed to be said.