ON an island where folks normally don't buck the system, Zudlay Napoles is breaking an unwritten rule: she is a woman and she smokes cigars.
Not only does Napoles love to light up her favorite Romeo y Julieta No. 4: the diminutive 31-year-old has become the face of Cuba's cigar industry for countless international visitors.
In doing so, Zudlay Napoles has confidently charged into this man's world, pursuing a passion that requires her to endure the stares when she smokes.
She is a sommelier at La Floridita, a restaurant that supposedly served Ernest Hemingway's favorite daiquiri and is now a tourist spot.
In this capacity, Napoles helps customers match each cigar with the perfect after-dinner drink. And last month, she took first place in a worldwide competition at Cuba's 10th annual Festival Habano - as Cuban cigars are known here. The only woman and only Cuban in the contest, she proved her prowess in matching cigars with alcoholic drinks.
Although women are part of cigar-making in every step of the process, the final taboo has long been smoking them, Napoles said.
"Even girlfriends of my generation look at me strangely and say, 'You're going to smoke that? And the smell?' I tell them that it tastes good," Napoles said. "Once you enter into this world," she added, "you don't want to leave."
However, this world, if the cigar festival was any indication, has a hefty dose of testosterone.
A gala at the Karl Marx Theatre had the taste of a guy's trip to Vegas as jet-setters posed for photos with an army of tall, slender Cuban women who wore sport coats over bikini tops.
A few women participated but the festival has been so male-dominated that the awards handed out in the early days went to "Man of the Year". Only recently have they been given more gender-neutral designations.
"Being a woman in the cigar industry, you feel like a tiny grain of rice on the beach," said Hilda Baro, director of the Partagas cigar plant. But Zudlay Napoles feels at home here, gliding through the halls and getting hugs and pecks on the cheek from burly men in crisp white guayabera shirts.
Napoles says she never found cigars to be off-limits.
Her 82-year-old grandmother, Juana, smoked them at home and still is known to puff on one after dinner, she revealed.
But Napoles didn't smoke her first cigar until seven years ago when she realised it would help her advance at La Floridita, advice offered by her husband, then the matre d'.
"With my first one, the first seconds were a little hot," Napoles conceded. "But it wasn't disagreeable. By the second cigar, I was on top of the situation."
Baro and other female industry executives said women smoking should not be a rarity, given that so many work in cigar production. At most plants, nearly every cigar-roller is a woman.
As Napoles put it: "The Cuban cigars, since their formation, are in the hands of women. They are built with the muscles of women.
"In reality, they already have the female heat, the female touch.
"Now all that's left is overcoming this taboo of smoking."
At the Casa del Habano cigar shop, a pack of male employees and their friends pondered the gender gap as they smoked and awaited customers.
Alexis Abreu, who rolls cigars at the store, said he couldn't explain why women were left out of the cigar-smoking experience.
He said women often smoked cigarettes in public but that smoking cigars was kept behind closed doors.
The exceptions, Abreu said, were older women, those in rural areas, and priestesses in Santeria - a religion with African roots which incorporates cigars in its rituals.
Abreu praised women willing to smoke cigars because "in most situations, if society criticises you for something, you aren't going to do it".
It's clear that Napoles gives cigars respect, and even affection. After her shifts at the restaurant, she and her male co-workers serve splashes of cognac and other drinks, and then experiment with companion cigars.
Her winning entry at the cigar festival paired a 25-year-old Santiago brand rum with a Cohiba Maduro 5, a new line from the iconic manufacturer.
Napoles said this kind of knowledge ultimately earns her respect from men in the industry. She admits a certain pride at not toeing the line in a country where citizens generally do.
Still, she said, "This shouldn't be so unusual. It's something that we Cubans have in our blood. It's ours. It wasn't difficult falling in love with the cigar."
Monday, March 24, 2008