Published: May 28th 2011May 5th 2011
When we arrive at the airport, we realize there's no petrol station, so we drive to the small nearby village of Dromolaxia. We have to ask our way to the petrol station, where we tank up and get the car washed, although I'm not sure whether the latter is really necessary. Finally, we return the car, buy the bus tickets to Nicosia, or Lefkosia, as it is locally known, and wait around until the departure.
The freshly landed are a who's who of whom I'd rather not be around: there's scores of dull, tacky-looking tourists, including bald blokes wearing English football jerseys and clutching Carlsberg cans, their upper arms tattooed with the standard club crests and their forearms with those squiggly Latin dicta or their kids' and ex-wives' names, popularized by David Beckham and scores of brutish Italian players. The chicks accompanying them wear grey or pink tracksuits to go with the bleached hair and ghastly orange fake tan. Some of them already have an unlit cigarette dangling between their lips, jittery and impatient to finally leave the terminal and end four hours of torturous nicotine-abstinence.
There's also a lot of Russians arriving, mostly in big groups. The only
difference between the British and the Russian women seems to be that the Russians prefer leopard leggings and botox to tracksuit pants and silicone.
The bus ride to Nicosia takes only about 40 minutes, but we have to wait around for another 45 until our host Vi picks us up as promised. We drive to her place, which is a bit outside of the old city. Vi was born in Thailand, but her parents moved to Nicosia when she was only 10 months old, as her dad worked for the United Nations. She's lived there ever since, apart from a 12-year break to attend college and work in Dallas, Texas, United States. I ask her whether the people of Texas knew what a Cyprus is.
"Actually, no. When I was asked where I'm from and I said Cyprus, they thought I was from Cypress near Houston or from Cypress in California. When I said no, from the Mediterranean island, they just said oh, ok."
-"So did they think that everybody in Cyprus is Asian?"
"Haha, I'm not sure, that would have been another issue to discuss, but they never asked in detail or seemed to take an interest
She says that before going to the US, she spoke with a British accent, but by the time she came back, she had adopted the American English one, and still utilizes that variation, for it's easier not to enunciate every single word when speaking. I ask her whether Greek is her first language, and am rather taken aback when she answers that her first language is English and that she doesn't speak Greek, unless she was in a remote mountain village where nobody understood English, but even then it would take her a long time to form a very basic sentence.
I find it disappointing and sad for an educated person to grow up and live most of their life in a country and not speak the native language. It feels like she chooses to be a stranger in her own country. I think one of the causes could be a lack of certainty about her own identity, being an anglophone Thai living in Cyprus. There are myriads of dictionaries and language textbooks on her bookshelf for Russian, German, Hebrew, Greek, Turkish, Spanish, French, Thai, Italian, Arabic, even Hungarian, but she doesn't speak any of these languages
and only ever took a fleeting interest in them, without following through and becoming proficient.
At her job as a web page programmer, the common language is English anyway. She says that most of her friends are Brits or Americans living in Nicosia, with the odd Greek Cypriot thrown into the equation.
For dinner, we go to the Syrian-Arab Friendship Club, a popular restaurant decorated with all kinds of faux-Oriental kitsch and an atmosphere balancing somewhere between posh and tacky. Me and Jaclyn order the vegetarian meze, which is a set of starters in lieu of a 'proper' dish. We get falafel, two spinach-filled pockets with yoghurt sauce, a massive tabouleh and another mixed salad with deep-fried pita bits, humus, baba ghanoush, potato mash with garlic and lemon, a tomato-capsicum salad, chili-walnut paste and lots of freshly-baked pita bread. Predictably, the food is way too much, but so yummy that I can't stop dipping the pita and stuffing myself with the incredibly fresh salads.
In the morning, we make our way to the Old City, which is surrounded by ancient walls built by the Venetians during their brief rule of Cyprus at the
Turkish bath dating back to the 14th century
end of the 15th century. The first impression we get of the Old City isn't necessarily a positive one; all we see is tourists, souvenir shops, overpriced cafés and restaurants for tourists, a pedestrian zone lined with shops and fast food-eateries. The further we venture into the maze of small, entangled alleys, however, the more we get a feel of the city's essence: we pass mosques, churches and museums as well as the Omeriye Hamam, which has been gorgeously restored using EU and US funds.
All of a sudden, most of the houses we pass look abandoned and dilapidated, and there's hardly anybody on the streets. As we approach a yellow barb-wired fence, I see a double minarets with the Turkish and Northern Cypriot flags flying between them on the other side and stop for a moment. That's when I notice that there's a tiny bunker before the fence, with a solitary soldier looking at us in a rather displeased manner. Only then do I realize that we're standing in front of the Green Line, the border between the Republic of Cyprus and Turkish-occupied North Cyprus. There's a thin UN Buffer Zone separating the two parts, dominated by ruined
The hamam has been reconstructed using EU funds as part of the Nicosia Master Plan
buildings reputedly peppered with landmines.
It is one of those surreal moments that, in hindsight, seems to have passed in slow motion. From the Greek Cypriot soldier staring at us hostilely, I look to the watchtower on the other side and see two Turkish Cypriot soldiers waving at me and wave back, more a reflex than a conscious muscular movement, before turning my head to glance at the ruined buildings and the sign that says 'No Photos' and then to the flags and the minarets on the other side again. "Let's get out of here", I say to Jaclyn, who nods quietly, no doubt feeling as uncomfortable as I do.
We move away from the Green Line towards the outer walls again, passing two mosques, which look very well-maintained, as well as the impressive Greek Orthodox Fanoremi Church, dominated by golden icons on the inside and intricately carved spooky gargoyles on the outside.
In a small alley, we pass a local kafeneio populated with elderly, dignified men, whose conversation grinds to a halt as we approach. When I say a friendly 'Kali mera!', they reply the same in unison, their frozen stares transforming to appreciative smiles. Sometimes
it's just that easy.
We are quite surprised to see so many done-up Asian women around. Most of them appear to be Filipina, there's even a Filipino supermarket, and I remember that Vi told us Cyprus had a problem with human trafficking, and that many Cypriot men had Southeast Asian wives.
We walk back to Vi's place, say our goodbyes, and walk towards the border crossing to North Cyprus.
There are more photos below