The reports are becoming more frequent and, frankly, are a little unsettling. One always hears reports, usually second or third, or tenth hand of some tourist who was worked over in some undefinable location, often a result of doing something stupid; we have never paid too much attention to them. This winter it’s been different. Roads burned out by restless natives in Oaxaca. Campgrounds overtaken at midnight and the campers divested of their valuables at gunpoint. Drug violence. The Zapatistas. The latest? Two separate sets of retirees left standing on the side of the road with only their pets as their RV rigs (and everything in them) were driven off into the sunset by bandits. Both rigs were here just last week… drove on to Ciudad Victoria to the campground we stayed at there, and were cased out and their homes stolen on their way north. This is not the “culturally broadening experience” we are hoping for.
Lake Catemaco is lovely, and it’s a veritable beehive of celebration for Semana Santa. We’ve enjoyed walking into town at night and letting the children play their very first carnival games, munch churros and eat ourselves sick on a variety of tortilla wrapped delights. It’s just the pre-game show for what we’ll find in Veracruz over the weekend. We took the 18km drive out to see the local waterfalls and disappointed the locals who were shocked to find Gringos who were unaware of their claim to fame: These falls appeared in Mel Gibson’s Apocolypto, evidently some character in the movie leapt off them from the top. We haven’t seen it. This was especially disappointing to Oscar, our thirteen year old waiter, who has definite potential for the best restaurants in the world. What a great kid. He hung out at our table, practiced his English, talked to the kids and when the music started, asked me to dance… Latin men… boys even!
There were three “extortion stops” on the road out, between the waterfall and the cigar factory. We were prepared for this and had change on the dashboard, ready to donate. I have a budget item in our expense database for “extortion” but have never used it with as much regularity as I have this week. It reinforces our dedication to moving north as quickly as possible beginning Monday.
The cigar factory was your above average cool thing to see. Our guide, the retired owner of the factory, proudly announced that his is the largest cigar factory in Mexico. They make the “Te Amo” brand that is sold around the world. The tobacco is grown in the fields we’ve been driving past, dried in the barns between the factory and the waterfall and aged for at least two years in cotton wrapped bales in a cool, dusty warehouse; the first stop on his tour. “There are no machines here,” he explained, “Everything is done by hand. Everything.” We wandered through three big rooms filled with industrious workers in pale yellow shirts, bearing the factory name. In the sorting room bales of aged tobacco were unlaced and each individual leaf hand inspected, de-veined and piled according to size. From there we moved to the rolling room, where the piles of leaves are deftly crafted into “puros” of every shape, size and quality imaginable… at least for me, who spends little time imagining cigars.
“This room produces 16,000 cigars a day,” our guide told us, with pride in his eyes, “The workers are paid for how many they can produce.” This was obvious due to the speed with which they rolled. We passed station after station: flat leaves being torn and rolled for the first time… then placed in a tray and pressed… then a second leaf rolled around the outside… pressed again… then the final outer leaf, cut and rolled with amazing speed and precision by a woman’s tiny fingers, died absolutely black with tobacco residue.
I highly doubt OSHA would approve, but by Mexican standards, this factory seemed to be a pretty good place to work. I worried a little for the tiny lady, nine months pregnant, who was finishing the cigars off. “Surely there must be nicotine leaching through their skin!” I whispered to Tony… “OH YEAH, just be glad they aren’t licking them to seal them anymore.” Right. I hadn’t even thought of that… they use a tree resin of some sort to seal them now. The packaging room was no less fascinating than the rolling room, watching piles of little brown logs be made special with a little band of red and gold paper before being cello-wrapped and boxed for shipment. Even the boxes are hand made here, cardboard and wooden, hand labeled or branded. There may be tar, nicotine and lung cancer in those boxes, but there’s also a great deal of pride and love. Tony bought a year’s supply of the small ones he likes to smoke one of, on a clear Saturday night, and a few big ones to share with my brother. As we made our way to the van I hummed a line from one of our favorite songs… “it’s a beautiful excuse for a celebrative smoke, another yellow haired monkey for the yard.”