Friday, September 23, 2011

Sour Grapes in the Land of Bitter Lemon, 2001

Welcome to the Hotel Lavadhiotis, Cyprus.

Such a lovely place! The flight here was rather non-descript, lo and behold—there were no touts, hussies, taxi sheisters, hipsters, flipsters and finger poppin’ daddies waiting to pounce on me as I de-planed the plane. This must be the ‘low season’ as the airport is quite deserted here in Larnaka, Cyprus. The first building I saw as we touched down was a mosque located next to some salty marsh. Apparently, it is supposed to be the fourth most important Islamic religious site in the Middle East. It contains the tomb of the Prophet's (PBUH) Aunt Umm Haram who died here after falling off a mule on a journey. She was buried on the spot called Hala Sultan Tekkesi (tekke means Muslim shrine). This site has become something of a pilgrimage for Turkish citizens of northern Cyprus and other Muslims in the Levant.

I actually had to bug someone to give me a lift to downtown Larnaka as the cabbies were all too busy watching TV and drinking cups of (dare I say)—'Greek coffee'. The drive was in subdued light and I could barely make out the mosque which is set beside a salty marsh lake that was dotted with Pink Flamingos—the kind that Costco sells. I finally got to the Lavadhiotis Hotel, which was right downtown on a busy side street. It looked quite posh and a buxom bleach blonde receptionist with a husky voice greeted me—
Kal mare!” she said.
I answered—“No I’ve already eaten. Thank you
She replied—“No, that is a traditional Greek greeting”.
I said, “Oh. I thought that was fried squid ”.
Yanee, she was probably thinking—what a wanker! Her huge Ionian green eyes gazed deeply into mine and for a moment I was bewitched. Her husky voice broke the spell and she calmly told me that it was the 'low season' and it would be only 11 Cypriot pounds per night—so much for romantic notions as hard economy set in.
It really was the 'low season' so I got a break on the price and besides there was hardly anyone staying at the hotel. Hardly anyone here except for a Swedish guy who tormented us with a raucous imitation of Jellyroll Morton.  The Swede was constantly trying to learn how to play "Fly Me To The Moon" on the saxophone. Naturally, I sang the melody in a Mel Torme style (George eat your heart out!). 
There was a French couple with a rather precocious daughter who went around staring at everyone during the buffet breakfast. That was until I did the kid’s routine of “see food”—that usually breaks them up, especially with bananas and bran!

The 'rooms' here are really self-contained apartments with TV, balcony with Ikea chairs, a 4-burner stove top, fridge, sink, plus dishes and cupboards. I settled in and decided to go for a wee walk. Larnaka is known for its impressive promenade that stretches the length of a long sandy beach. The boulevard is lined with palm trees, tavernas, pubs, McDonalds, bistros and yes, even a little kiosk that sells Dairy Queen ice cream—How could they? The beach is quite wide and there must be a brisk trade in beach umbrellas, chaises lounges and melanomas during the peak months. The sun was waning so I headed over to some rocks to catch a bit of the sun. It felt nice on my face and I almost fell asleep but the neighbouring cats that were prowling amongst the breakwater rocks kept me awake.

Next day at breakfast

The ‘Continental breakfast’ at the hotel is quite substantial. For two Cypriot pounds you get a huge smorgasbord: Tang or a lemon drink (not bitter), a huge pot of tea or Nescrape, as much toast as you want, chocolate chip cookies, some kind of orange and peach conserve, blackened olives, corn flakes, hot boiled eggs, cheese and mortadella. Of course, I brought along my smallish jar of Marmite just to piss off the British patrons—“Sod off you lot and get your own jar!” There's was an Armenian Christian having brunch behind me—she must have snuck off on her parents. She is quite the beguiling babe: a statuesque olive-skinned beauty with long tresses of almond hair. She is chatting with some Greek boyfriend but she is carrying the conversation. She has an American or Canadian accent.

Earlier I went for a bracing walk along the Corniche against the wind but on the return portion the sun warmed my face and body. There were lots of Euro-eccentrics on the plage. Some old geyser was running along the beach in his native raiment— a g-string whilst others were doing their part for the Larnaka lunatic chapter of the Polar Bear Club. Blimey, but it wasn't the slightest bit warm, rather chilly actually—talk about shrinkage! It's incontheivable to believe that I would be wearing long pants, covered shoes, Columbia Safari jacket and a Mountain Equipment Coop Gore-Tex wind shell to keep out the biting wind—the shame was too much to bear. It felt like a spring day in the Canadian Rockies: the kind where you burn your face but freeze your arse off because of the cold wind howling off a nearby glacier which keeps you true to the season.
At any rate, there's lots of Turkish influences here and there must be Muslims still living in the area as I saw a sign for Ismail Mohamed—Exporter.

But, maybe they buggered off because the Turkish minority suffered so much at the hands of those Greek Cypriot gang's which was prior to the Turkish invasion in 1974. There's a huge mosque called—Imam Pasha's Mosque and it is presently undergoing renovations to prepare the minaret with huge ashlar blocks. God knows when they worship as I have not heard the call to prayer yet. However, I did hear church bells this morning that woke me up at 6:00am. Lots of interesting looking old buildings, arches and the old Sultan's Hammam (Turkish bath) has been turned into (of all things)—a youth hostel! I do not know if I could handle that lifestyle or way of travelling anymore by staying in a youth hostel—I have become too much of a softie and enjoy my creature comforts. Now I am just a frivolous raconteur, somewhat of a savant rather than the penniless vagabond of the 1980s and 1990s that most of you have come to love and cherish. During those halcyon years, I wouldn't have imagined staying anywhere posh so I suppose that is why I could travel on the cheap and for so long. "We live the life we choose, we'd fight and never lose those were the days, oh yes, those were the days—la, la, la"—ya, Lalaland. Anyway, the drugs were better back in those days so who remembers anything—right!

I wanna go home, oh how I wanna go home

Today I had the brilliant idea that I would head up to see the Turkish side of Cyprus—a much-debated point around these parts. First, I had to run a few errands then I ordered a 'service taxi' that would take me to Nicosia/Lefkosa for 11:00am. With a mad Ahab at the wheel, we roared off to the appointed site in a Dodge Caravan amidst lots of Greek curses, hand waving and other rude gesticulations by our driver which didn't seem to alleviate matters but he blew off sufficient steam. Nevertheless, all the passengers were a complete wreck by the time we got to our destination and individually we felt like throttling the driver. However, he did manage to take me to Checkpoint Charlie at Pafos Gate which was kind of him until I realised I owed him another 2 Cypriot pounds—rotten sod! And to further compound my agony, I found out that I had missed getting into the 'other side’ (the Turkish side that is) by a mere five minutes. No wonder the Gleek (plick) border guard had a smile on his face. He was probably just as happy that I wasn't going to give those damn Turks any business—HA! To say the least, I was just a tad pissed off with the Greek hotel hussy and the taxi driver as they must have known what time the border closed—it couldn't be that much of a secret could it? But then on further peregrinations, I realised—Why on earth would a Greek Cypriot want to go to the 'dark side' of northern Cyprus? The Greek Cypriots don't even recognise North Cyprus nor the Turkish Cypriots who our living there. Furthermore, the Greeks are probably not welcome there. This became even more evident because if you were to cross in this 'no-man's land' and get a Turkish stamp, you would therefore, not be allowed to re-enter back into the Greek side. The plot thickens—thus, you would be obliged (nay forced) to seek departure from a northern port back to the Turkish motherland. The Greek Cypriot maps don’t pull any punches either with bold letters stating—“AREA INACCESSIBLE BECAUSE OF THE TURKISH OCCUPATION”.

The Turkish side does their best to rub it in because upon arriving near the outskirts of Nicosia/Lefkosa, everyone who travels on the road north get a visual prompt that reminds you of where you are and in particular—where the Turks are. There is a mountain range that acts as a backdrop to the lovely city of Nicosia and on this mountain has been painted or carved out of rock a huge Turkish flag. Beside it in equally imposing white letters set against the grey rock face—KKTC (KUZEY KIBRIS TURK CUMHURIYETI) or the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. I smiled when I first saw this sign but this was frowned upon by the scowling taxi driver who saw me in his rear mirror—too bad he didn't see everyone else he just about hit on the road!

So there I was, stuck at the Greek/Turkish border—what could I do? I was barred from entry into the beloved homeland of Ataturk and that modern Turkish-Cypriot born first President of Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus—Rauf Denktash. Apparently. Denktash is the stick in the mud in recent negotiations between the Greek and Turkish communities who are trying to sort out the divided island. Apparently, the EU has told both parties to get their shit together and get this island problem settled or as a result, neither the Greek Cypriots nor the Turkish Cypriots will be accepted into the EU. This seems like a rather daunting task given the intransigence of Denktash’s position in spite of a mellowing from the mainland Turks.  Nevertheless, there was lots of propaganda that were promoting the atrocities that had been committed by those Turkish imperialist forces under Turkish President Ecevit. In particular, there were pictures of two martyrs to the cause—called the Deryneia Martyrs. Deryneia is a Greek Cypriot town that lies next to Famagusta on the Green Line that separates the Republic of Cyprus from Northern Cyprus. Tasos Isaak was part of a Greek Cypriot crowd of supporters who had gathered for the march for ‘unification’, which ultimately ended badly. In all the confusion and confrontation with the Turkish community, Tasos got separated from his mates and was set upon by a paramilitary group of Turkish nationals—none other than the Turkish variation of Nazis called—the “Grey Wolves". The 'Grey Wolves' beat the Greek guy into submission with iron bars and wooden beams right under the eyes of the Turkish police. Perhaps, this guy should have heeded a warning that American Tim Sawyer (who teaches in Stambool) told Mike Bowie and myself—"Don't get a Turk mad at you". Tall Tim (AKA ConstanTimople) should know about this as he had the boots put to him outside a Stambool bar by some young Turks a few years back.

This martyr madness didn’t end here. Three days later at Tasos Isaak’s funeral, a friend was so overcome with grief that he sought some sort of retribution for his friend’s untimely and unfortunate death. Solomos Solomou decided to outrun both the UN security forces and Greek Cypriot police to pass through the border, shimmy up a Turkish flagpole and try to take down the Turkish flag. What was the guy thinking—that the Turks would allow him to defile their ground and flag? He was dropped by five bullets from a dozen Turkish sharpshooters. What the heck did this guy expect? Moreover, did the other Greek Cypriots expect that the passionate Turks would allow their flag to be pulled down—unbelievable? And pray, what would you expect to happen if it was an American, Israeli, British flag or anybody's flag and right in front of their armed troops—geez, it's not shocking is it? OK, maybe this guy's a martyr but he's one stupid f*#%**g martyr if you ask me! All of these atrocities were captured on film or video for posterity and act as a rallying cry for the Greek Cypriots. I’m sure that the Turkish Cypriots have their own ‘dark stories’ to tell of their incursion at the hands of the Greek Cypriots.

Enough of this blood wrenching martyrdom, I was starting to get hungry. I sashayed past bombed out houses and hotels, shot out windows as most of the buildings were pock marked with bullet holes. Sandbags were propped up against walls and they looked like they weren’t going to be moved any day soon. I headed out through Pafos Gate, which isn’t a gate in the true sense but rather a huge thoroughfare into the UN sector. I skirted the battlements of the old city walls that demarcated the Turkish from the Greek side—the Green Line. These ramparts are quite stunning in architectural terms and afford the Turks an excellent view of the 'other side'. These are correctly referred to as –the “Venetian Ramparts” and they were originally built by the Venetians between 1567-1570 as an attempt to rebuff the Ottoman Turk invaders to Lefkosa. I saw a few lonely Turkish guys looking down from a chai stand high on the ramparts rather wistfully at the slender ladies in short skirts of Greek persuasion. These lads and their glances of longing reminded me of one of my Syrian workers at the site of Tel ‘Atij in northeastern Syria—Mohammed Ahmed. After work, Mohammed would get dressed up in his finest with sunglasses and peer from his nearby house over to our little encampment. He always looked like he was waiting for an invite from us in the hopes of sampling our ‘sundowners’. But, it was not to be. I figured that he just wanted to fit in with “the westerners” but he would never be able to and that’s what these Turkish lads reminded me of. They and Mohammed yearned for western liberalism and freedom but I am not sure that they could have handled it. What we in ‘the west’ take for granted as democracy is actually “quite intoxicating” as my good friend George Evashuk so rightly pointed out to me on numerous occasions.

Nevertheless, I was looking a little wistfully myself but I was walking behind said babes. I walked down a few side streets but there were signs that warned of “Absolutely No Photography”, as this was a UN safety corridor between the two factions. I kept walking with the intention of keeping as close as I could to the “Green Line”. I wanted to see how people lived and carried on under the oppression of a divided city. There was one stretch of buildings that looked like an old market souk with lots of little arches and arcades. These were mostly full of carpenter shops, ironmongery, balcony builders and upholstery shops. There were Greek blue and white flags at certain intersections that were manned by Greek forces. I continued on until I came upon a small group of tourists with cameras at the ready. I thought-AHA, now I can take some pictures. It was, in fact, the only lookout where you could take pictures.

The Greek army guy guarding the “Green Line” observation post looked like Nik Kypreos’ (the hockey player) brother except he had traded a hockey stick for an M-16. I climbed the steps that led to a sheltered platform that afforded me a view across no-man’s land. To be truthful, I don’t know what all the fuss was about regarding photos, as there was absolutely nothing worth photographing. All that’s there is dirty old discarded laundry that is strung up haphazardly, empty lots, deserted houses, shot out windows and some old mouldy sandbags propped up on the Turkish side. What could possibly be offensive about taking photos of a ghetto—there were no people to speak of? I suppose this is what Beirut must have looked like after the Israelis, Amal Militia, Palestinians, US, Syrians, and Phalange all took a turn bombing the shite out of the place. However, here, the Greeks have turned it into something of a national shrine with a renovated museum cum tourist information cum propaganda mongering centre. Also, the street that leads up to the gun post has been transformed into a boulevard lined with trees and tiny tavernas. There was quite a feeling of gaiety in spite of the severity of the situation. Naturally, I was famished and I sought sustenance of a Cypriot variety. As per usual, the Krauts and the Pommies were all getting pissed on cheap beer and a high cholesterol diet of soggy, deep fried fare. Whilst the French and the leather clad tres chic Italianos were trying to outshout each other in their own ‘special’ romance language. I opted for boring instant soup and some prehistoric bread, which could have caused personal harm if loaded into a bazooka. What was killing me was the music—oh, please release me! The taverna owners had gone out of their way to find the most annoying pap from the 1960s and 1970s! Maybe it was karioke but there was a cheap imitation of some Greek diva doing a poor take on Bette Midler's-—“From a distance…” track. Really, I wish I did hear this from a distance instead of right on top of me. And the band played on…”God is watching us.” and I thought of what my grandfather would have said—“…and Jesus wept…” To temper all this unleashed passion was a sign that I kept seeing everywhere on the Greek side—“Nicosia, the last divided capital city in the world.” Funny, but I think the Israelis and the Palestinians might have something to say about that one. The song that finally drove me out of there was when some truck driving, drug taking, tobacco chewing, son of a gun started singing—
I wanna go home, I wanna go home…oh, how I wanna go home.”
I took that cue and started to head back to Larnaka.

I weaved around some of the street and came upon a disused mosque called Arablar Mosque. I poked my nose inside one of the shattered windows between the iron bars and the place was bereft of rugs, furniture except for a weathered old wooden minbar where the mullah would have led the faithful. Further along, I hit upon a street called Ippokratous which is some sort of taverna mall that was strictly for pedestrian traffic. It was kind of neat and intimate with nice coffee rooms and cosy little tables set up outside for late night of frivolity and enchantment. Too bad the place was deserted as it was in between mealtime. Nevertheless it was chock a block with taverna after taverna all set on cobblestone streets. In amongst all this were tiny little tourist shops selling everything from antiques, coins, maps, postcards and your usual bric-a-brac. At one point in the bowels of this food area I noticed that there were many cute Filipinos girls parading their stuff. I had been told that there were around 20,000 indentured slaves from Tamil Nadu and Filipinas who were ‘domestics’ but these girls were too dolled and beat up to be ‘domestics’. Further along I saw some neat postcards so I decided to buy some. It was a pokey little shop that was more a kiosk than a shop. There were tattered paintings and old posters with a thick layer of dust on them. I was busy talking to the Greek Cypriot stamp collector and his odd looking girlfriend who I thought looked Russian. It turned out that she was indeed Russian and that she teaches Russian in Nicosia.
Where are you from?” she asked me.
I’m from Canada.” I said proudly
Can I go to Canada?” she asked
Yes, but you need a visa.” I added.
Can you get me one?
She asked me as if I was an ambassador. The collector had some old postcards that I started to leaf through and eventually I picked a few of them. They were pre-invasion postcards depicting a carefree state of affairs in Kyrenia and the great beaches of Famagusta in northern Cyprus. This storeowner asked me if I needed stamps and I said of course. So he handed me a wad of stamps that he pulled from a dusty binder under his desk. I never thought any more about it and dutifully pasted onto my new postcards. It wasn’t until I was later in Limmasol that another store owner pointed out that I had, in fact, not only bought  ‘antique’ postcards but also ‘antique’ stamps. The stamps were not as old as the cards but they were 1981 vintage. I was a bit worried and wondered if the Post Office would accept them. At any rate, the coin collector gave me a tip in getting a ‘service taxi’ back to Larnaka as it was starting to get late. Taxi trip back to my hotel was just as hectic but this time I was in the front seat beside the harried driver of a beat up old Mercedes stretch station wagon.
Later, that evening, I was part of an interesting conversation with a vivacious blonde night clerk at the Hotel Livadhiotus. Actually, it was a three-way discussion about the Turkish question in Cyprus. There was an older British couple who were part of the discussion too.
I hear there is cheap property to buy in Turkey.” I asked the older couple
Yes, especially along the Turquoise Coast.” They added
Where?” I asked.
“The south western coast is the nicest.” He added.
But you’d better hurry before Turkey gets accepted into the EU.”
What will happen then?” I was curious.
The prices will all go up—they are cheap now.” Said the wife
The Greek beauty didn’t want any part of the Turkish population—
Those fucking Muslims.” She yelled.
We were shocked by her tone.
What’s wrong with them?” I was curious about this animosity
They destroyed everything, all the churches…” her voice was rising now.
 Yes, the Turks have a bad record against Christians especially the Armenians of Eastern Anatolia and the Kurdish populations.
The Turks invaded our island—it was ours.”
I wondered why mainland Greece didn’t come to the rescue. She was quite bitter about the whole experience.
Those Turks will screw it up for us getting accepted by the EU.” She said.
Why do you want to be part of the EU?
Because we want the euro.”
But you are already European.” I countered.
In Larnaka there is absolutely everything you could ever want from Europe. Cyprus is by no means backwards and on the contrary, appears to be quite affluent if not a tad expensive. There is no way that such a country could afford to have ‘domestics’ shipped over from the Philippines or Sri Lanka otherwise—the Greek Cypriots were already ‘living high on the hog’.

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