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"My jaw hanging open, the other locals around shouted: "Pollo bandito, pollo bandito "(chicken bandit)."
- Kirk Stephan

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An Iowa Yankee in King Castro's Court
by Kirk Stephan, in Cuba, from Iowa, USA
Mar 29, 2000

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Santiago de Cuba is the island's second largest city. Like Havana and many towns here, it's also 500 years old. The big difference here is that the streets were really built for horses and carts. The impression, then, is of cramped quarters and automobile fumed-up streets. Like San Francisco, it's built up and down large hills that don't allow for space and sprawl. I felt it was over-rated and didn't care for the fumes, so I only spent two days there.

I longed for the cool air of Havana, and its richer foods, so I hopped a plane to avoid the long haul back by road or rail.

The second night back was Valentine's Day, or "Day of the Lovers". It may be the biggest holiday of the year here. Next to their kids, Cubans adore romance. Third would be cash of course, which is scarce. I couldn't find a restaurant which wasn't jam-packed and didn't have a line of a dozen couples waiting. Everyone had on their best and the streets were alive with giggles and smiles-but I was hungry.

I finally found a state-run cafe (famous for lack of service and poor food since the help isn't paid and gets no tip) with only one couple inside. I sat down, famished, and hardly noticed the salty toughness of my ham steak. The boiled potatoes were fine and the bill was $1.

The problem arrived when I discovered I only had a $20 US bill and no Cuban pesos. I presented it to the waitress, who, confused, came back a few minutes later with a $1 change. I explained to her that I needed another $18. She eventually understood and sent another person out to the streets for change. I thought this was just another typical Latin American change problem until all of a sudden, the manager appeared and proceeded to chew me out.

He kept saying I knew better and would be in big trouble if I ever tried THAT again. I finally realized that these restaurants weren't even allowed to accept dollars. He would've been subject to a big fine had an inspector come in just then!

New levels of gastronomic experience are available in Havana. We were eating in the restaurant "Vietnam" the other day. It's on a quiet side street and has a sunny patio inside. We were seated and noticed several patrons who'd been waiting for some time, drumming their fingers on the table and such. Two minutes later, to their stares of chagrin, plates of food were set down in front of us. Surprised, we took a few bites, to discover neither of us had what we'd just ordered!

"Mine's chicken, not fish."

"Me too, Pork, not steak!" So we hailed the waiter, who stared at the plates. "You're right." he proclaimed, and proceeded to take our partially eaten food over to the next table. The hungry customers seemed not to notice, or care, whether their food was all there or had been nibbled upon...

Our wait stretched to the more appropriate 45 minutes. We completed lunch and were picking our teeth when a truck stopped just outside. The noise level suddenly increased a few decibels and we began to fidget and try to get the waiter's eye. Two men, then, with large hose, climb through the window next to us, proceed through our room to the patio and on to the kitchen. It was the water suppliers.

In Cuba nothing is quite what it seems..

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