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Posted March 06, 2006 by publisher in Cuban Cigars

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By VANESSA ARRINGTON | Associated Press

Passion comes in many forms. For hundreds of visitors to Cuba this month, it’s brown, rolled and good with brandy.

Cigar fanatics travel across the world and pay thousands of dollars to experience the supreme stogie at its source. Those making the pilgrimage to Cuba for the annual Havana cigar festival say the smokes bring them pleasure, peace and, often, big bucks.

“This is my life,” said Jimmy Ng, a Malaysian who left the travel business to become a cigar merchant 10 years ago.

Ng, 46, spends most waking moments devoted to his new trade. He owns hundreds of books on cigars and smokes five to seven stogies a day.

At his La Casa Cubana in Singapore, he sells only Cuban cigars - “I’m a purist,” he says - to a clientele that is 75 percent foreign.

Ng started smoking cigars when he was in his 20s, for “status” and to attract women. “But after five or six years, you get the right crowd, and you learn to really appreciate cigars from the brothers, the other aficionados,” he said.

Ng, now married and a father, meets with a group of 30 friends every month in Singapore for a cigar dinner.

Participants visit cigar factories and plantations and meet distributors at trade fairs and seminars. Multimillionaire businessmen and mysterious figures who decline to reveal their full names mingle with publishers, musicians and engineers.

The Cuban ballet and British actor Joseph Fiennes opened the festival Monday, and 850 people attended Friday night’s closing dinner, including Cuban Parliament Speaker Ricardo Alarcon, Vice President Carlos Lage and several of President Fidel Castro’s sons.

Cigar aficionados from around the world paid more than $720,000 early Saturday for five handmade Cuban humidors signed by Castro at the gala closing of the cigar festival.

The auction’s hot item was the Cohiba Humidor by sculptor Raul Valladares, fetching $300,000. Next came the Montecristo Humidor, bought for $230,000. Proceeds from the auction were to go to Cuba’s state-run health-care system.

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