Saturday, March 25, 2017

Cyprus and the Lure of War

War is a strong tourist draw. That’s no surprise to me, I’ve toured many a battle field, from Culloden, to Saratoga, to Gettysburg, the Somme and the D-Day beaches. The one I visited today, however, is the most historically recent, and therefore sparks more genuine indignation.

The realities of who did what to whom on a swampy field in Scotland have been softened somewhat by the intervening 271 years, but when your land is still occupied and your house and possessions now belong to some family from the conquering country who moved into it after you were forcibly ejected, well, that can still feel a little raw, even after 43 years.

Our Greek-Cypriot guide started the day with a history lesson to bring us up to date, explaining how Cyprus was, from 1400 BC to 708 BC, under the control of the Greeks, then, from 708 to 333, they were under the control of Assyria, Egypt and Persia before being overrun by Alexander the Great. They were then conquered by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, the British, a Girl Guide troop from Milton Keynes and, for a short time, Harry Styles from One Direction.

I was dozing on and off during the lecture, so I’m not clear on a few of those.

What is clear—our Greek-Cypriot guide assured us—is that on 20 July 1974, the Turkish army mounted an unprovoked and totally unjustifiable attack on the northern side of the island.

The war was brief, but ugly, and resulted in a cease-fire that allowed the Turks to occupy the northern half of the island, while the Greeks held on to the southern half. A demarcation zone was set up along the Green Line (so named simply because it happened to have been drawn in green pen on the map) and is patrolled, in theory, by the UN, though I didn’t see any UN troops when I was there.

See, it's green.
The DMZ remained tightly guarded, and all but closed, for many years. There was only one checkpoint and the only way to get onto the Turkish side of the island was to go to Turkey and take a flight or boat from there, as Turkey was (and remains, I believe) the only country in the world that recognizes North Cyprus.

Recently, however, realizing the advantages of tourist dollars, more checkpoints were added and the restrictions on travel have been relaxed. So now, for the first time in a generation, Greek-Cypriots can travel to the north to see who is living in their family home. I hasten to add that Turkish-Cypriots can also travel to the south to see the same thing; war is never as black-and-white as our Greek guide wanted us to believe.

At the checkpoint, we acquired a Turkish-Cypriot Guide, who was to remain with us throughout our tour of the North, a requirement I associate with totalitarian regimes. But if the North is under totalitarian control, it is totalitarianism-lite, because our guide simply greeted us with a cheery “Hell-o” then settled down in the front seat of the bus and did sod all for the rest of the trip. Never in my life have I seen anyone with such a cushy job, and I was a New York State Civil Servant for twenty-five years.

One of the most interesting features in the occupied zone was the Ghost City. This is a large area of high rise buildings, the ownership of which has been under dispute since the partition. The whole area is surrounded by fencing and razor wire and no one is allowed in except the Turkish military and UN officials.

That's the Ghost Town side.

This is the opposite side of the road, where people actually live. It doesn't look much better.
So the towers stand empty, displaying the effects of war, and time.

But that’s not the strangest thing about it. The strangest thing is, the Turkish government seems to believe it can be made invisible.

We were told as we approached that taking photos was verboten, and that being caught doing so could result in arrest (and, one must assume, a visit to a Turkish hotel ala “Midnight Express”). We were allowed to walk up to the wire, but not allowed to take photographs. And on the beach, we could only take photographs if we were facing away from the enclosed area.

Uh oh, I better not take any photos!
To enforce this, a secret hut, staffed by Turkish soldiers, is located in one of the towers. These soldiers spend all day spying down on the thousands of people on the beach to be certain none of them faces inland while holding a camera. Good luck with that.

You are not allowed to point a camera this way.

You can, however, point the camera this way. The Ghost Town extends as far as you can see. 
Another special feature of the Turkish side is its hospitality and food service industry. During my brief visit, I had what was most certainly, hands down, the worst meal I have ever been served. And, as a bonus, it came with the most appalling table service I have ever experienced.

Long story short:

I ordered a Corona, my wife ordered orange juice. We were brought a Miller (“It’s the same beer,” the waiter told me) and lemonade (“It’s all we have,” he added).

This is what you get when you order a Corona in North Cyprus.

This is what you get when you order Orange Juice.
I ordered a burger with French fries. What I got was a stale bun with a post-it note sized piece of lettuce and an equally sized slice of tomato, a pickle and a 1/8-inch-thick burger patty that was literally (not “literally” like most people use it, meaning “figuratively,” but literally LITERALLY) raw.

I took one bite, realized how awful it was, and put it aside, focusing instead on my not-quite-done French fries. All 5 of them (yes, literally).

To be fair, the pickle was ok.

All of this for a mere 15 euro. I won’t be frequenting that establishment, I can tell you that.

They have their share of ancient ruins in the north, but they have bullet holes in them.
From there, we regrouped on the bus, exchanged horror stories (some other people from our group had chosen the same restaurant and had similar experiences), collected our Turkish guide (God knows where she went off to every time we stopped, but she never came with us) and headed south, to the land of the free.

Nothing special, just a lovely view.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Cyprus, Paphos and the DIY Hotel

We made it to our hotel. It’s a nice one, too—friendly staff, good food, clean room, close to the beach. And it has an interesting, and appropriate, motto: “Less like a hotel, more like home.”

I say “appropriate” because when I went to put my clothes in the bureau, the knob came off in my hand. Then I found that the shower was unusable because the metal thingy that holds the shower head in place is wonky.

Leaving Britain
Arriving in Paphos
My Swiss-Army knife took care of the bureau, and I was able to temporarily jerry-rig the shower head in place with pipe cleaners (I always knew smoking a pipe would come in handy some day) but to really fix it, I’m going to need some stout cord, electrician’s tape and a crescent wrench. And so, to that end, we’re heading out to explore the town.

Along the sea front, some guy was making a living by having people pay him 1 euro to have their
photo taken holding this iguana. For 2 euros, you didn't have to hold the iguana, and for a 5er,
you didn't even have to be in the picture. That's the option I bought for my wife.
We’re staying in Paphos, an agreeably smallish city that is not pronounced how you think, because the PH is sounded as F, as in PHISH. Locally, it is spelled Pafos, which makes much more sense.

Seriously, is this a big problem in Cyprus?
Paphos is in an odd sort of limbo right now. Despite the stunning blue sky, relentless sun and 80 degree warmth, it is still winter, and technically, the off-season. Therefore, we—the incomers—are wearing short-sleeved shirts and sun hats, while the locals are still in jackets and jumpers.

Another sign that we are still in the off-season is the continual, minor construction going on along the sea front and surrounding area—new sidewalks are being laid, walls are being repaired and, like anyplace in Britain where the Queen is about to appear, there is a pervasive smell of fresh paint on the breeze.

This may happen every year at this time—a spruce up before the summer crowds arrive—or it may be due to Paphos being a European Capital of Culture for 2017. I’m not sure how these honors come about. Perhaps they put everyone’s name in a hat, or something. This year, Hull is the UK capital of culture, so there you go.

Hull is home to thousands of naked Smufs, so it must have something going for it.

As I pointed out in my last post, Cyprus has a lot of history, but I previously focused on the bloodshed that happened as a result of that history. Those conquering nations, however, did do more than put the indigenous people to the sword, they built some magnificent structures, as well, and when a new conquering nation arrived to put them to the sword, they left these buildings behind. Really, the place is lousy with them.

A Roman Theatre

Another Roman Theatre

Yet another Roman Theatre -- I told you the place was lousy with them.

At the edge of town, they seemed to have randomly cordoned off a section of land (conveniently close to the tourist district) and called it an Archaeological Park. Included within the boundaries are four Roman villas, an early Christian Basilica, Greek structures, a medieval fort, a Roman theatre and lots and lots of columns—all within an area about the size of a city park.

(Okay, it wasn’t random, but it certainly was convenient, and so filled with artifacts that it is now a UESCO World Heritage Site.)

Really, you can't swing a cat without hitting something like this.

There are so many frescoes and tiled walkways that you are allowed to walk on some of them.
Not this one, though.
Found this on the wall of a Roman Lavatory. 

This was a fresco of a Roman family portrait.
Translation:  LtoR Back Vickie, Tony, Nicola, Aunt Amanda and Eric
Front: Cousin Earnie and his weird grildfriend Bertha, Uncle Jake, Bob (holidng Simon) and Sue
at Simon's first birthday party
In addition to all that, Cyprus is the birthplace of Venus – the Goddess, not the famously red planet – and this is where she sprang forth from the foaming sea.

Oops! I mean Aphrodite.Venus is the Roman equivalent.
Exciting as all this is, I still have a wonky shower back at my hotel. I managed to acquire some stout cord by purchasing a braided bracelet and unraveling it. But it proved impossible to find a souvenir crescent wrench and there are no Paphos-themed rolls of electrician’s tape on display anywhere, so I guess I’m just going to have to improvise.

Next time: The DMZ

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


I’m waiting to check my bags at the airport and it has just occurred to me that I am paying a premium to fly due to my short stature.

Think about it, I’m flying to Cyprus, and allowed to take a single bag with me that weighs no more than 30 pounds. Now, I weigh 160 (ish) pounds, so that’s a total of 190 pounds added to the weight of the aircraft at a cost of £X. So for each pound, it is costing me £X/190.

In front a me is a guy who, to be kind, weighs at least 200 pounds. So his cost per pound will be £X/230, meaning he is getting a better deal. Given this, it stands to reason that I should be charged less, or allowed to bring a suitcase weighing 70 pounds, to even things out.

(For you folks who went to school after the invention of calculators, lets say X=£200. So I’m paying £200 divided by 190, or £1.05 per lb, while the guy in front of me is paying £200 divided by 230 or only £.87 per pound.)

I understand why the airlines don’t charge people by how much they weigh, but you can see why I think they should.

So, why Cyprus? To my American friends, it must seem an unlikely destination, especially since, as I recall from my life in America, Cyprus doesn’t exist. In America, the world pretty much consists of America. If pressed, most of us will grudgingly admit to Canada and Mexico, and others might recall hearing about a place called Europe and a vague area known as The Rest of the World.

But Cyprus? Not heard of it. Did we ever invade it? No? Oh, that’s why I never heard of it.

Left to Right, Top to Bottom: Canada, Europe, America, the Rest of The World
Tiny little island: Cyprus

Cyprus, I understand, is an island in the Mediterranean, located somewhere between Europe and the Rest of the World, and rather closer to Syria than I should like it to be. For Brits, however, it offers the ideal holiday destination—it is sunny, warm and a member of their erstwhile empire, which means the indigenous population speaks passable English and you can get a breakfast that includes baked beans and fried tomatoes without anyone thinking you’re weird.

Nice enough island, but some dodgy neighbors. 

The selling point for us was, my wife had already been there and had found it agreeable. So that’s where we are going.

In order to avoid being the ugly American, I did some quick research on Cyprus (because, as mentioned earlier, Cyprus did not exist in my world until my wife showed me the travel brochure) and found it to be a rather intriguing place.

Any patch of land on the planet can only hope to realize a few good selling points: it can be strategically located, rich in resources, or both. The downside is, it will also be forever drenched in the blood of people fighting to control it. On the other hand, a patch of land might find itself inaccessible and/or desolate, in which case it will perpetually play host to a tiny population living in endemic poverty. (I’ve left “Stunning vistas” out of this equation because that was never really a selling point until the invention of tourism. You don’t think the Romans were up in Cumbria fighting the Picts because they liked the view, do you?)

At any rate, Cyprus had the good fortune (or the bad luck) to be the former. As a strategic stopping off point between Africa, the Middle East and Europe—with fertile soil, an agreeable climate and some really pretty beaches—it fell, at various times, under the control of the Assyrians, Romans, Greeks, Persians and the British, before gaining independence in 1960.

As an independent nation, it lived a quiet life until July 1974, when Turkey decided it looked interesting and blood flowed once again. The reasons were varied and complex but the result was rape, pillage and massacres on both sides and an uneasy truce that sees half of the island occupied by the Turks and a DMZ patrolled by the UN.

The bloodshed has stopped, however, and a generation has passed, so now the DMZ and the occupied zone have become tourist attractions in their own right. I’m looking forward to seeing them.

And that time is getting closer, as it is now my turn to check my bag. I wonder if I can convince the young woman behind the counter to give me a discount because of my size.