Smoke, Guns and Monkeys
In which the author journeys to the jungles of Honduras to be a man among men.
Thursday, March 4, 2004
The shop I work at—Hellam’s Tobacco on Alvarado Street in Monterey, arguably the oldest business in town (founded in 1893)—provides me intimate joy in my chosen identity as young tobacconist/journalist/socialite. We are more a family than a team of employees; we watch over each other; we help each other out.
In January, Hellam’s sent me to the Jamastrán Valley of Honduras to witness first-hand how tobacco is cured and rolled into small morsels of pleasure that the world either desires to purchase, tax, or ban entirely.
The news came early one afternoon. My boss Gene Palermo (Central Coast local) and store manager Mike Meile (New Yorker) were in a deep discussion at one end of the counter. Their discussions often sound like arguments, and can range from who has the best Chinese food (San Francisco vs. New York) to who will win the World Series (San Francisco vs. New York). In the midst of all this chaos, they took a brief moment to lay out their plans for sending me to Honduras, care of Caribe Imports/Camacho Cigars, a tobacco company Hellam’s deals with on a regular basis.
Camacho is famous for its Baccarat cigar, a mild, slightly sweetened blend of tobacco with a Connecticut or Cameroon wrapper. The company’s other trademarked blends tend toward the medium to full side, which means that if you’re not ready for it, the cigar will leave you dizzy and dangling like a monkey from a nearby pole.
The most interesting part of their plan was that I, the kid, the longhaired romantic with delusions of grandeur, would be flying off into the land of coffee, tobacco, and ripe fruit. It was an adventure just waiting to be plucked, a mystical challenge, and by the gods I wasn’t going to miss out.
A month later I stood in the terminal at Monterey Peninsula Airport waiting to board my American Eagle turbo-prop to Tegucigalpa via LAX and Miami International—a hellish trip at best and one I was pretending to be ready for. I looked like a pasty white version of Indiana Jones with my brown vinyl jacket, white buttoned shirt, and a pair of over-pocketed beige cargo pants I had purchased at Target about 15 minutes earlier.
With my passport and itinerary tucked neatly inside my jacket pocket, and every metallic item on my person stuffed in my carry-on, I charged through security hoping against hope that my dirty brass Zippo lighter wouldn’t be taken away. I had a hunch airport security would only take items that looked shiny and expensive, and maybe I was right, because they would let my darling Zippo pass again and again throughout the trip.
Twelve cups of coffee and two layovers later I was on a 757 leaving Miami and the good old USA, bound for the humid climate of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa (roll that word around in your mouth). On the plane were the other members of this excursion to the Camacho plantation, as well as missionaries and young military personal. I was seated beside a lovely young Air Force woman who spent the whole trip talking about the coming nine months she would spend in Honduras, as well as the horrifying landing about to befall the plane.
“You might want to be ready,” she said, mildly amused with herself. “It’s a bit scary for most people.”
I eased back in my seat with a brave smile and gripped the armrest. On the outside I exuded a cold, travel-hardened nonchalance, but on the inside I was whimpering with fear. The plane pitched into a 90-degree roll, the ailerons spun us sideways, the wings tilted into the cleft of what looked like two enormous mountains. I looked out over the wing and swore I could make out every single blade of grass that rushed past the plane at a few hundred miles an hour. One wrong move on the pilot’s part and I’d end up a smear along the Honduran countryside, and all this for a lesson in cigar manufacturing.
Then, as suddenly as it had started banking, the plane straightened, shifted, and slapped onto the hard tarmac of the airport, all brakes on and reversed engines wailing.
Inside the airport was a sea of humanity. A sign proclaimed that it is free to enter Honduras; sadly, however, the sign failed to mention that it costs $27 to leave the country, a fact that almost cost me a flight home a few days later.
I reached into my black leather bag and produced a bright red hat with Camacho Cigars and the company logo woven into the front. Out of some radical sense of fashion, or, perhaps, fear of marking myself as an American fruit ball, I decided against putting it on. The immigration officer asked me what I would be doing in his country. The words “Cuban,” “cigars” and “rum” seemed to catch his attention, and he immediately stamped my passport and sent me on my merry way.
Baggage claim was massive chaos. Picture a ramp about the length of your driveway, then picture 200 people in front of it all looking for their luggage, which is being hastily thrown off a truck. In the distance I saw the runway, with the enormous plane I just flew in on, and beyond it I saw a DC-10, a rusted old pale-blue icon of air travel.
That DC-10 was being fueled up for flight. Yep, I thought, I’m going to get lost in the jungles of Honduras and become a rum smuggler. This thought drifted out of my mind when I realized I’d probably end up drinking my profit, so I resumed the wait for my suitcase.
I hooked up with an older couple (the husband was wearing the same ugly red hat I had) and we moved on to customs, where a man rushed up to us delivering an onslaught of Romance language that two years of high school Spanish did nothing to help me decipher. He grabbed our bags and stacked them on a dolly, waving us through customs as if it were an annoying gnat. Bright sunlight poured down on our faces as we exited the Tegucigalpa Airport, searching the crowd for a congregation of ugly red hats—the group I would spend the next week with deep in the Jamastrán Valley.
This was my first real meeting with Camacho sales rep Terry Vincent, whom I’d seen briefly at Hellam’s a few months earlier. Vincent is a bull among the Hondurans. He carries himself like an old boxer behind bold dark-rimmed glasses. His voice slices through the air with tough matter-of-fact salesmanship and his take-charge personality tends to set most people on edge.
“Did you make it okay?” he asked us. We nodded numbly, not understanding a damn thing that was happening. I stared at the restaurants across the street—Church’s Chicken, Pizza Hut. Oh lord, I thought, not here.
We walked across the parking lot and packed ourselves into four huge Chevy trucks, then headed out of the airport in a single-lane convoy. To our dismay, the plantation was a bladder-busting two-hour drive away, almost to the border of Nicaragua. We passed the town of Danli some time later, all of us squirming in our seats, and then swung onto a dirt road and through the entrance to Camp Camacho.
The first thing I noticed was the monkey—not a large one, not even a very cute one, but a wicked long-limbed monkey that ran along the edges of a branch with a leash trailing behind it, the only thing separating us from aerial attack. The gate guard smiled at us and the monkey walked up beside him to grasp his leg lovingly. Carlos, the Camacho rep who ran East Coast sales, must have flinched at that moment. Later we would understand why.
Up a small hill was the bunkhouse where we would be sleeping. “Everyone,” Vincent spoke loudly over the vehicles, “check your shoes for scorpions and always keep your bags closed. They like dark places.”
Soon we were soon off to our rooms, loaded with baggage. I didn’t dare unpack, or take off my shoes. Instead I did a quick once-over for any hidden insects and, satisfied the room was clean, I walked outside and searched for the meeting spot somewhere at the top of a hillside to the north, crossing the path of a few dozen angry iguanas on my way.
The Main House was much nicer than anyone expected. Slightly pink clay walls were accented by lush green foliage and white rock, and a thick wooden door stood open on its iron hinges, beckoning us inside. The interior was a bright off-white with polished tile floors, and outside from the patio we could take in an expansive view of the Jamastrán Valley in all its glory.
Most people missed all that at first, choosing instead to focus on the open bar, the table stacked with the best cigars Camacho could offer: Baccarat, Camacho Diploma and Fonseca. We had smoked most of these cigars before, but now it held special meaning, for we were in the land of their birth.
As a businessman I usually taste cigars for education and flavor reference, but that day I lounged in a plush leather seat smoking a thick dark Camacho Diploma, letting the heavy, smooth flavor permeate my pallet like a fine wine. Clutched between my fingers was an ice-cold glass of aged rum on the rocks, a rum so smooth that I wouldn’t even think of tainting it with anything but ice.
Christian Eiroa, a young, well-educated man, was the first to introduce himself. He and his father, Julio Eiroa, are the owners of Caribe Imports and Camacho Cigars, overseeing the entire operation from the planting of the seedlings to the production of the wooden boxes that are shipped into the United States.
It was here that I met my posse, the group that would spend late hours of the night and early morning stuck on that very patio. First was Henry Lyell of Jackson, Mississippi, a soft-spoken Southern gentleman who stood off to one side and watched. Little did we know that Henry was a card shark—that would come later.
He and I struck up a conversation about books. “I’m kind of ashamed to say that I’m reading an Anne Rice book my daughter sent me,” he admitted, looking down. His face lit up when I reached into the hip pocket of my cargo pants and produced a paperback copy of Rice’s Blackwood Manor, which I slapped down on the bar with a grin.
The second member of our soon-to-be-inseparable group was Bear Hamilton of Cigar Oasis out of Rancho Santa Margarita. His slightly thuggish look was mixed with a wicked intelligence and the appropriate quick wit every socialite/tobacconist needs to survive a day in the cigar mines.
Beside Bear stood a bold, red-faced young Irishman who for the length of the trip would be referred to as Professor Mark, after his Website dedicated to Cuban cigars—the Professor only smoked Cubans and could talk about them all day. The other interesting fact about him is that he would eat a hot dog without the bun, leaving the bread mangled and divided on his plate.
After a short dinner we shuffled off to bed. I slept in my clothes, preferring to be better prepared to kill anything that crawled within 100 feet of me.
The first day was a riot. Completely sleep deprived, I smoked about three cigars after breakfast. My head full of smoke, I was herded with the group onto the back of a truck bound for the Camacho fields. As we pulled out I got another glimpse of the monkey, and beside me Carlos went pale.
“Last year that monkey bit me in the butt,” he explained. “They had to take me to a vet for stitches because there isn’t a doctor around here for miles.” That made me feel even better about the scorpions.
We arrived at the fields and stopped next to some white tents filled with tiny seedlings. These seedlings are cultivated until their leaves are just ripe enough to be hand-set into the rich soil of the valley. In the fields, different tobacco plants were being grown on all sides: Corojo, Connecticut Shade Grown tobacco, and all manner of organic product that would one day be rolled into a delicious morsel of debauchery.
Once we were back at Camp Camacho, we all headed to the Main House. It was time to dig into some Scotch and enjoy life on the patio. Within minutes, a vicious game of Texas Hold’em poker began. Henry was a master, shuffling with one hand and flipping the cards around like a pro. Bear was a dangerous bluff-master, and the Professor, well, he just sat there and smoked cigar after cigar, 12 total that day. I won occasionally but no one was counting.
It was then that the first Royal Flush I had ever seen in person came up in Henry‘s hand. He blinked at it strangely after collecting the stack of dominoes we were using as chips, and we all congratulated him. The odds against getting one are enormous, and the man would have made a fortune in Vegas, but we were playing for nothing but fun.
“So what did you think about the guys with guns?” Bear asked suddenly.
“I didn’t notice any guns,” I said back to him, staring at my cards.
They all started in at once: The drivers with the .45s, the guards with the M-16s and shotguns. Then I remembered the little barrels poking out everywhere from the waistbands and over the shoulders of most of the people who inhabited this portion of Honduras. It was strange to think that just across the valley from us, amid the agricultural fields, was a water tower that marked the presence of a military base which stood guard over the border between Honduras and Nicaragua. In that warm, peaceful environment it was easy to forget that not too long ago, Honduras was torn by violence. The Iran-Contra Affair tore into Central American politics through the late ‘80s, and in 1989 Nicaragua brought suit against Honduras in the International Court of Justice over the US-backed Contras’ use of Honduran territory.
The border has been quiet since 1990, but sitting that close to it even today gave one the feeling that Nicaragua and Honduras maintain only a tentative peace.
That, however, would be left to another, far more anxious person to worry about. At that moment our major concern was that we’d run out of rum.
The next morning, a wicked thing happened. Carlos was standing over to one side when suddenly he jumped up and grasped his leg in pain. He limped off to the bathroom to search his pants for bugs. It was an ominous sign for Carlos, because the animal kingdom has sort of a vendetta against him. Two years prior he had been kicked off a horse, and then a bat had attacked him one night next to the pool, not to mention the monkey that had bitten him in the ass. Now it seemed that something had crawled up his pants.
But he came back and gave the “all clear” sign with a shrug, so we loaded into the trucks to head into Danli, where Camacho has its rolling and packaging factories.
After a brief tour of the box factory, which looked like a carpenter shop from the late 1940s complete with old saws and ink presses for the labels, we drove to the rolling factory where we were handed a cell phone and our first chance to call home.
“Hey boss, I’m alive,” I said when it was my turn.
“Damn, I thought we’d gotten rid of you,” Mike’s familiar New York accent came over the line.
Then Gene got on the phone to razz me about how much I would be allowed to spend on product. We were looking to order some Baccarat tins, small cigars, but I found out that they wouldn’t be available until the spring.
Christian Eiroa entered the room and parked himself behind a dark wooden desk, initiating a brainstorming session with us on how Camacho could make its cigars better. This was a unique thing for the producer of one of the best cigars in the industry to do, and it strengthened my confidence in their product for certain. Bear sat directly facing him, telling him what he thought with a sly half-smile. The Professor was as stoic as ever, leaned up against the wall with a contented look on his face. He was smoking perhaps his tenth cigar of the day, so maybe he was just stoned. Henry sat beside me quietly watching the entire affair unfold.
Then it happened.
Carlos yelped in pain and grasped at something near his crotch. We all heard a distinct crunch that jolted even the mighty Terry Vincent a bit. Carlos rushed towards the bathroom with a worried look. We sat around looking at each other grimly until he emerged with a three-inch-long brown scorpion wrapped in tissue paper, crushed, but still twitching between his fingers.
The poor rep from Camacho held up the wicked-looking little bastard and immediately began asking how poisonous it was. Luckily, we learned, the brown scorpions only kind of numb you—it’s the white albino scorpions that mean almost certain death. So, with a limp, Carlos rejoined us for our tour of the Camacho rolling factory.
The first thing one notices in a cigar-rolling factory is the number of women who work there. “Women have a better sense of color, and can sort the tobacco by shade better than men,” Vincent explained, settling an ongoing debate I had been having with my girlfriend. Women have a better sense of color—not that any man will admit that to anyone but himself.
We were then invited to try rolling our own. I was directed toward a booth, and a petite young woman reached over to help me roll my very first Birk-en cigar. I meant it to be a cigar for the ages, a shining example for all to see.
At first my fingers fumbled at folding the wrapper around the long round tuft of filler and binder tobacco. The young woman helped me cut off most of the excess, and with a quick flick of the wrist I dabbed a cap on the end of it.
It was a complete wreck. The cigar I’d constructed looked like some twisted horrible creation, but I loved it anyway. I keep the ugly thing even now in a glass tube behind my desk at home. It is a reminder as to why I should never try to roll another cigar in my life, for the sake of humanity and all things decent.
Henry, on the other hand, strolled over and produced a perfectly formed cigar, which he then compared to mine for the flashing cameras.
The last evening in Honduras left us all a bit melancholy. We had a succulent dinner of fresh stewed goat, with farm-fresh tomatoes and salad, and a deep red wine. When dinner and the inevitable sales pitches by Terry and Carlos were over, the four of us wandered up to the Main House, spilled out the stack of black and green dominos, and reverently played our last round of poker.
I began to understand a deep and underlying truth that riveted me with its sentimentality. It wasn’t the cigars that made those moments of smoking on the patio so great. It was the companionship. This feeling bonds people, as it does in our little shop in Monterey, which is kind of a blip on the map of everything but is still similar in terms of the kinship one feels with the person smoking by one’s side. It is an excuse to let down walls.
I never realized the importance of having that kind of moment, the times in our shop when a homeless man comes in and orders a pack of cigarettes, then strikes up a conversation that inspires a wealthy man to add his own thoughts, and both views are equally respected.
We sat on that patio in Honduras and talked, straight off the cuff with no judgment. That moment, as with many moments I have had in Hellam’s, was shared in a fun, casual way. We might as well have been arguing over where to get the best Chinese food.
The next morning at the airport in Tegucigalpa was as crazy as ever. We all tried to stick together at the Duty Free shops but things got a bit wicked around boarding time, when we found out we each owed the Honduran government $27 or we wouldn’t be allowed to flee their country with our wares.
After paying that extortion, Bear, Mark, and I were determined to find a bar. By the gods, there was rum to be had and we were going to find it. We bought round after round, talking as fast as we could before the plane left. We were all seated separately on the flight, and this would be the last time many of us would speak.
The flight out of Honduras was a silent one. I sat at the window staring out at the countryside as the hills over the Jamastrán Valley sailed underneath the plane in slow motion. Bear, the Professor, Henry, Isam Alzio and his wife, and all the others that had taken this grand adventure would be a part of that moment with me forever. My romantic side threatened to get the best of me, and I swear that if I didn’t have such an Irish soul I would’ve cried like a loon.
Customs in Miami was as it always is—a nightmare. I saw a brief glimpse of Bear and some of the others behind the thick glass on the other side of the terminal as I left the airport for my overnight layover. It was a pathetic goodbye to a group of people I had become so close to, but I had their numbers in my pocket.
Sleep came hard at the Red Lion Hotel that night. I sat in my room waiting by the phone for a girlfriend who never called, and finally headed out at 4:30am to catch a flight to LAX and on to Monterey.
When I strolled into the shop the next day, fresh off the plane, Mike slapped me on the back and put a pack of Dimitrino Botschafters (my preferred brand) on the counter. “Welcome back,” he said with a grin. After a bit of talk I left and went home to sleep, still wearing the cargo pants I’d bought at Target.