Trip Start Feb 20, 2002
26Trip End Nov 18, 2002
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-- Cypriot Detour
I arrived on the sunny Mediterranean island not knowing what to expect. Aside from the pictures of young, well tanned beauties laying on the beach which I'd glimpsed at in the Cyprus Airways office, I had no idea what was to do in Cyprus. Not being a huge beach-buff, I hoped there was more than just that.
Until then, I never knew how hard it could be to travel without a guide book
When I arrived at the airport, I had no idea where to go. The airport was in Larnaca. "What the hell is a "Larnaca"?" I thought while standing in the arrivals hall, clueless. "Should I stay here?", "What's *in* Larnaca?", I scanned the airport crowd to see if I could stop a fellow backpacker exiting the country to ask some questions. unfortunately, there weren't any. I could only see families and couples happily lugging their mountains of bloated suitcases to the check in. "Uggg... this can't be a good sign".
"Excuse me, do you have any guide books?" I asked the shop keeper in the arrivals section of the airport
At that moment I remembered another backpacker I'd met in Beirut. She had criticized me for being to "organized", to "dependant" on my guide book, "just go with it" she had said, but even she secretly clutched onto her Lonely Planet. After having traveled for 8 months, I was hardly a virgin when it came to backpacking, but still, I was at a loss, there was a reason why those guide books came in handy, because, as a backpacker, we didn't have time to hunt down all the little logistical details of a city.
So, I decided to ask the cab driver for a cheap hotel. A dicey decision in any country, but what were my choices. In India this would have instantly enticed the driver to take me to the closest grim looking hotel that would pay the driver a handsome commission for finding a clueless tourist and giving him the shaft, translating to a very over-inflated room rate for me. In Cyprus it wasn't much different.
"You're sure this is a cheap hotel?" I asked, not knowing any better as I popped my head out of the window to get a look at the hotel
"Yeah, cheap, no problem", he replied waving his hand in the air.
Although I wasn't sure if the hotel paid commission to the driver, the hotel was still a 50$ US per night deal, and that was even after a haggling session which lowered the price a petty fraction. This was the "Cheap" hotel the driver spoke of. Not knowing the price of other hotels in the area, and not having the patience of canvassing the other hotels for a better price with my luggage strapped to me like a suicide bomber, I decided to check in. I took the room for one night before embarking on an adventure to hunt down a book store that stocked a fresh Lonely Planet. Sadly, but admittedly, my savior.
First stop, a bank to see if I could change my Lebanese Pounds into something more useable.
"Excuse me, do you change Lebanese Pounds?" I asked the bank clerk.
"No.", he barked, not even bothering to look up from his paper work.
I was shocked to find that I couldn't change my pounds anywhere seeing as how Cyprus and Lebanon were within spitting distance of each other. I'd have to change them later in Jordan.
The clerk's manners weren't the best I'd seen before either
When I entered the tourist office expecting a kinder type of service and asked about the available diving on the island I wasn't surprised to receive the same type of service.
"Excuse me, which beaches have wreck diving on this Island?"
The man squinted his eyes, leaned forward and barked, "WHICH wrecks?", as if I should have known.
His snobby tone launched me into a defensive, "Which wrecks? I don't know, I just arrived on the Island for Christ's sake! You tell me... you are the tourist office right?".
I wasn't too happy with the attitude around here.
Worse of all, I was coming down with a cold. My eye infection, which crept up in Beirut was in full, eye constricting, force. One eye half shut, red, sore and itchy. My throat was starting to clench up too. A pain which I was having difficulty holding back. I had to face it, I was in rough shape
After spending the day finding my sacred guide book, which I finally spotted in a shop run by the only friendly people I had met on the island, who were of course, foreigners, I headed back to the hotel. Once I'd read only a few passages in the book, I chuckled that it often made reference as to how hospitable and friendly the Cypriots were. "Am I on the right Island?" I thought before flipping back to the cover to see that it was infact the guide book for Cyprus.
When 3 PM rolled around I was bushed, sickness was taking control and knocked me over the head like a mad Cypriot with a bat-sized piece of Feta. I passed out, hard. Tired and sick, I slept, only awaking when the clock flashed until 8am. A solid 17 hours of deep, coma-like sleep was all I needed to get back on my feet.
-- Agia Napa
The day I had arrived on the Island I had visited a travel agent around the corner from my hotel. Being roughly my age, the man behind the desk recommended Agia Napa as a place for a good time.
"Go to Agia Napa, it's like Ibiza" he promised, referring to the infamous, raunchy, anything-goes, Spanish party island.
"Sounds good, there are young people there right?"
"Ohh yeah, sure, just go. Trust me"
When I awoke the next day, feeling a little better, I packed my bags and went off to Agia Napa to see if the spontaneous recommendation held true.
On the bus, it was quickly apparent that Cyprus wasn't an independent traveler's paradise. The bus driver who had brought a tour group to Larnaca, was nice enough to haul me back to Agia Napa, back with his cleanly dressed troop of 2 week travelers. When I arrived at Agia Napa, I went straight out to the beach where hordes of middle aged, fat, half-naked (Uggg) package tourists with crusty brown, over-tanned breasts and oversized bodies stuffed into undersized speedos festered on parasol covered beach chairs.
My god, this was hell, what had I done to deserve this?
Disappointed, I went back to the hotel and squatted by the pool, in solitude.
The cheapest place in Agia Napa was on of the most expensive place that I had stayed at on my entire trip
"At least I can work on my tan" I thought as I spent the entire day laying on a sun chair by the pool.
While laying and thinking idle thoughts, I worked out my schedule for the remaining week in Cyprus, trying to see if I could get out of Agia Napa to see the rest of the Island, and hopefully get off the beaten.
-- Tan time
After 8 months on the road, I still hadn't yet mastered the art of the tan. I was focused on rectifying this before I went home and Cyprus seemed like the perfect place to brown my fluo-white skin.
I spent the next 3 days doing just that. Laying by the pool, reading and sipping the occasional beer. The easy life. As I laid in the sun, lathered up in lotion, sipping a Keo, the thought of sitting in my small cubicle back home tipping away was one I wasn't looking forward to.
-- Day trip to Ancient Cyprus
Getting around Cyprus quickly wasn't an easy task without a car. Unfortunately, I didn't have a Lada stuffed away in my daypack, so to maximize my time on the Island, I booked myself on a trip to Ancient Kourion and Paphos for a day
"I'm so bored!" I typed to my friend on MSN.
"I mean, it's better than being back in a cubicle working but, there's not much to do here."
"Are there alot of people there?"
"Errr... yeah but mostly package tourists, you know, families and cute couples. Well, I booked myself on a tour down to the south tomorrow but I think I might be stuck with a bus load of seniors and families."
"Ohh, oh. think you might regret having booked that."
"Yeah. I know." I typed cringing at what the cheesy day trip would be like.
Cyprus had been populated for centuries and it's prime location in the Mediterranean made a juicy target for many ambitious empires.
The day trip I had planned was one of those package deals which I typically tended to despise, but I didn't have much choice.
"Good morning everybody!" the bus driver announced through the bus' speaker system in an annoying sing-song way like a kindergarten teacher would greet a class room of 5 year olds
"Good morning!" The bus load of white haired, knee-high-socks-and-shorts wearing, package tourists replied in perfect sync.
"Ohhh... god... what have I done?"
The day wasn't off to a good start. Feeling completely out of place and scratching uncontrollably at the bus window while trying to escape, I managed to spend the day without speaking to a single person, aside from the bus driver who was just as annoying in person as he'd indicated by his unwelcomed welcome earlier in the morning.
The day dragged on quite slowly but we did manage to visit some of the most impressive sights on the Island.
First stop was Kourion, an ancient Greek theater, much like the 20 other Greek/roman theaters I'd seen since the start of my trip but this one was set, high up, looking outwards over the Mediterranean. I imagined that sitting in the U shaped amphitheater looking down at a play with the sea as the backdrop must have been quite spectacular
From there, we visited ancient mosaics in Paphos which were slightly interesting, enough to keep me from completely falling asleep. One particularly different mosaic dated back to Greek times and was made from black and white pebbles, unlike the typical multi-colored Roman mosaics. That would have to do for that day's stimulation.
The day ended with a round of enthusiastic applause for the tour guide by the wide eyed tourists on the bus as I snuck out back to my hotel.
-- Nicosia, the last divided capital in the world.
Early the next day I headed west, 60km, to Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus. I wasn't sure what to expect of Nicosia. Like most capitals, I wasn't expecting too much, those cities tended to be crowded and usually boring aside from having a smattering of vaguely interesting museums, but Nicosia had the potential to be different.
Nicosia, was the last divided capital in the world.
Since 1974, the city, much like the country, was divided into 2 halves. The northern Turkish side and the southern Greek side. All a result of a long history of tension between the 2 communities and a failed coup by the Greeks which sparked an invasion from the Turkish motherland. The invasion, aimed at protecting it's Turkish citizens in the country, resulted in advancing Turkish territory half way across Cyprus and it wasn't until the UN stepped in that the fighting stopped
The country, today, was divided by the infamous "Green Line", so called apparently because of the green line drawn across a map of Cyprus by a UN commander when splitting the country in half.
Splitting the city in half was no easy work considering it's odd shape. The old city of Nicosia was surrounded by giant, yellow stone walls which had been built by the Venetians. The unique feature of the circular wall was it's bastions. At four points on the north of the circle and four on the south, upside down heart shaped bastions broke from the circle, Looking, from above, like some odd shaped clock gear.
It wasn't possible for Greeks to visit the north and Turks to visit the south, which must have accounted for why Greeks knew nothing about the north. It seemed that every question I'd asked a local regarding the other side would be answered with an impossible response. I'd have to find out on my own.
When I stumbled into the small-family-house-cum-hostel in Nicosia, I asked the young Chinese lady in charge about crossing over
I dropped my bags on a dorm bed and readied myself to leave. "Excuse me, do you know if it's to late to cross to the north side?"
"Ooo. I dunno, meebee, why not you try?"
Not wanting to waste time I jumped into a taxi and headed for the UN border, the only place in the entire country where it was possible to cross.
The taxi dropped me at the first checkpoint.
"Ok, you get out here, I can't take you any further"
This sounded like my venture into Bethlehem, but I was sure that it was much much safer. After all, the UN had been there, stabilizing the two sides, for 24 years, and not since had a shot been fired in anger.
I was still on the Greek side. A few soldiers were standing around next to a giant tin gate. I walked into the booth to speak to a man sitting behind a large desk.
"Hey, I'd like to go to the north"
"Why?" He looked up from his newspaper and snorted
It was obvious that it wasn't encouraged by the Greeks to visit the north. Above the sergeant's head a hand written UN sign with rules regarding going to the north read:
DO NOT SHOP IN THE OCCUPIED TERRITORIES
DO NOT LET ANY ONE STAMP YOUR PASSPORT IN THE OCCUPIED TERRITORIES
Either the UN was discouraging tourists from giving their tourist dollars to the Turks or the sign wasn't written by the UN. I wondered how authentic the sign, posted on the Greek side of the Island, was.
I walked up and handed over my passport to the blue barret wearing UN soldiers which they glanced over and registered into their computer
"Ok, go upstairs, to Immigration"
Hearing the word "Immigration" made me realize that I wasn't just headed to Northern Cyprus, I was headed to a whole other country, Turkey.
I filled out some forms and was shown to the DMZ where I was to walk to the other side. The DMZ was barren. Rolls of barb and razor wire lined the quiet street. Sand bags were stacked next to UN positions.
The DMZ stretched out for approximately 250 meters until I finally reached the Turkish side, at which, surprisingly, no one was standing guard, I walked passed and entered.
-- It's quiet here
The first thing I noticed, walking the 1km stretch into the old city of Northern Cyprus, was that it was quiet. Much quieter than the south. Blue barrets dotted the street as children played soccer ( ok, ok, football ) by the Venetian walls surrounding the old city
I needed to sit down to figure out where I was and what I was going to do. A coffee shop would do the trick.
"I'll have a Turkish coffee please" I asked the man, happy that I could have a delicious Turkish coffee without, technically, having to go to Turkey for it.
"That's 500 please" the kind man answered.
"500? Cypriot pounds?"
"Nonono... 500,000 Turkish Lira"
Doh!, although I was still in Cyprus, I had to start thinking like I was in Turkey, because in Northern Cyprus, everything was just like it's northern motherland.
I Changed some pounds into Lira and chatted with the men at the coffee shop. People were friendly in the north. A nice change. Although it was always difficult to generalize, people in the Greek part of Cyprus were mostly quite unpleasant. In the Turkish part, I was happy to see that almost everyone was happy to chat, help and throw a welcoming smile your way. Unfortunately, I could only stay until 5pm, as dictated by the UN. Returning to the south passed 5pm would place me on the UN's "Black List"
As with most new cities, I walked around the town to get acquainted with it. A contrast from it's southern half, the Muslim north half was speckled with mosques and arabic calls to prayer filled the air.
I visited a few museums, one of which was a bloody, gut wrenching account of one particularly horrendous event which took place during the war. Greek men had stormed a Turkish doctor's house and murdered his family. The bath where the bodies were piled high and other macabre items where on display. Images of men brutally murdered, heads half missing, stomachs torn open, the message here was clear.
Although 24 years had passed since the war, I could see how images like these could perpetuate resentment for either side over the years.
-- Where to now?
I spoke with the man who ran the museum before leaving. We chatted for a while and he suggested that I should make good use of the remaining 3 hours I had before having to return to the UN.
He suggested I go to Girne, a small sea side town 20 minutes away from Nicosia. At first I was a little reluctant to tread any further from the UN checkpoint than I had to, not wanting to be black listed should I not be able to make it back in time but after some careful planning I decided to go
The mini-bus drove out, towards a long string of mountains which provided a stunning backdrop to Nicosia on which a prominent message was painted.
A giant, red and white, Turkish Cypriot flag was painted onto the mountain, as large as a football field, as if to say "We aren't going anywhere" to the Greeks to the south.
The flag was clearly visible well into the southern Greek part of the Island.
When we reached the other side of the mountains, the harbor protected by a massive venetian castle awaited.
Girne was a small port city, which had a quiet charm. It's busy port being a great place to sit for a drink, which I was eager to do.
Impressive as the city was, the jewel in Girne's crown, was the castle museum. Inside, prehistoric artifacts were on display but more impressively, the oldest recovered shipwreck was prominently shown. The shipwreck, an ancient boat dating back to 300bc had been found off the shore of Girne and the hull of the ship was modestly pieced back together. The cargo of coins and supplies, on display as well. Being bored of castles and churches, I was always looking for something different, and this was different.
Time was running short so I packed it in and headed back to Nicosia, walking back across the Green Line
"Have a nice time?" The Turkish guard asked.
"I had a great time." I answered before the guard looked over to see the UN waving me on.
As I walked back into the south I turned to the left, over the high stone venetian walls and could see a handful of people staring down, apparently at nothing, as I was the only one walking on the street. Later I found out that they had been standing at the only place in the North were it was possible for curious Turkish Cypriots to look down into the south, at a safe distance from any of the southern locals.
-- South side
The next day I decided to visit the south side of Nicosia, where I was staying. The southern greek side was more modern and several high quality museums provided tourists historical background on the country. Once I'd passed through all of the typical tourist sights I headed for the look out point. The UN Checkpoint where southerner's could peer over at the north side
To get a good view of the line, I followed it through the back streets of the city. This place was deserted. Only a few people lived in the decaying bordering houses near the DMZ.
"Hey Mr.! You want sex? Good sex, good price" A women, sweeping the floor shouted as I walked by taking pictures of the desolate area.
Aside from the low sound of the distant Muslim calls to prayer heard over the green line from the north and crackling of fuzzy TV sets, it was quiet.
Every 4-5 houses which I passed, I reached a street which led north, their wasn't any point to try walking north, as each street in turn had a UN checkpoint crammed between the houses. The checkpoints were no more than bunkers, sandbags and white and blue stripped oil barrels manned by a soldier
The way the green line was mashed together, using boarded up houses and oil barrels, it reminded me of early pictures of the Berlin wall. After the Russians had hastily evacuated people from their homes to board them up as part of a make-shift wall.
When I reached the end of the line, finally reaching the venetian walls, I turned back. 5 minutes down the road, I approached a bronze set of statues which portrayed Christians and Muslims being saved from a jail cell. A sculpture which I imagined signified the search for peace between the Muslim north and the Christian south.
As got nearer, I noticed that the Imam ( Muslim priest ), had a hole in his head. I moved in for a better look and noticed that someone had fired a round into the statue. The back of the head pierced and the wall behind grazed.
A peaceful solution may have been further than I had originally thought.
-- Back to the beach!
Still not pleased with the pathetically light beige shade of my tan and bored with Nicosia, I made an executive decision to return to Agia Napa for more beach time.
Unfortunately, as luck would have it, it was raining when I arrived
I spent most of my time reading, playing spot-the-farmer-tan and leaning out of the window looking for a clear patch of sky so that I could grab my things and run out by the pool for some sun before the next batch of angry clouds thundered in.
I did find an enclave of discos tucked into a back road north of my hotel which explained why I kept reading in the travel brochures that Agia Napa was the undisputed party center of the world. With 100 clubs back to back, it was easy to see how that could be, but it was low season and dead. I stayed out late one night to sample the carnage but was disappointed. I'd be better off coming back to try again in high season.
-- Time to go...
As 10:30pm Wednesday evening approached I was getting excited. Happy to be leaving Cyprus. At 10:30 I was flying to Jordan, where I would spend one day before flying to London ( just enough time for some last minute shopping )
Although my experience on the island wasn't the best one and my lasting impression not that rosy, I wondered if my opinion was only based on the fact that I spent the entire 9 days alone. Aside from having dinner with some Indian boys fresh from Hyderabad who had come to Cyprus to study, the older tourists on this island weren't all that welcoming, content with staying within their clusters of friends and families ( much like back in the west ). Cyprus did have a decent variety of activities and even though I'd sampled most, I would be leaving with a rather disappointed view of the place and wondering whether I would have been better off going back to Syria to spend the last 9 days of my trip in the Middle East.
Regardless, coming to Cyprus bumped up the "number of countries visited" on my trip and I learned alot about the conflict between the Turks and the Greeks. That had to count for something. Right? Right...