The Cyprus Tug-o’-War

March 3, 2011

St. Hilarion, Cyprus (North)

The first thing that drew me to Cyprus is that they have another of those countries that doesn’t exist.

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is only recognized by Turkey itself. It’s also known as “North(ern) Cyprus”. According to the European Union (and much of the world), the whole island is one country. The reality of this is pretty clearly in dispute, as the TRNC runs its own border control at its (internationally unrecognized) various ports of entry. This all came about after the Turkish military came on the island in 1974 following a mess of events that year.

One of those ports of entry is Girne (Kyrenia), (North) Cyprus. That’s how I got in, via a ferry from Turkey.

Part One: The Turkish Cypriot

The first guy I met up with was a Turkish Cypriot whose family was originally from the south. They owned some shops in Girne/Kyrenia. He drove me around to different places in and around Girne, showing me a village that he particularly liked, which was basically Britain on Cyprus. Nice gardens on a secluded part of a hill. A shop had a sign in English informing its customers that they were going to eat the cost rise in beer, as opposed to passing it along to consumers. As I walked along, I was greeted by middle-aged white people saying “Hello”, not “Merhaba” (‘hello’, in Turkish). The guy told me that the Brits come there because it’s relatively cheap to buy nice places, as you don’t have to deal with European prices.

As we went around, the Turkish Cypriot and I talked about his sense of self. He said that he was Mediterranean. Not Turkish. Turkish Cypriot, sure, but there was a difference. He felt like he had more in common with people from Italy, France, etc. than he did with the Turks. He wanted Cyprus to be united, but blamed the Greek Cypriots for not agreeing to the most recent referendum on the matter.

We went to his friend’s cafe. They had grown up together in Girne and had known each other since the age of 2. As we drove back into the center of Girne, the guy waved and smiled to various people as we drove down the main drag. It was clearly his home, his element. Just a summer sort of a guy in a summer sort of a world.

He couldn’t host me, so I moved on to a Turkish guy, who also lives in North Cyprus.

Part Two: The Turk

The Turkish guy had been living in Cyprus for a bit. He was more than willing to talk politics as we went around more of the north, with no holding back on his critiques of American and Israeli foreign policy.

The first day, we went to St. Hilarion, a former castle made and run by the old French royalty that were formerly on the island. As it is high up with great views of below, it’s always been used for military purposes. And on the whole drive up, you see a base, with signs telling you not to take pictures.

All over North Cyprus, you see military bases. Apparently they used to be even more visible, with military vehicles being used inside the cities. I was never clear on whether the soldiers I was seeing were North Cypriot or Turkish. I’d assume a great deal of the latter, as the flags were Turkish. There are about 5,000 North Cypriot troops and 30-40,000 Turkish troops, for a northern population of less than 300,000. Occupation, from the world’s perspective. Protection, from Turkey’s.

Later in the day, we went to the other major city of the north, Famagusta. Aside from its walls, various imperial historical pieces, church converted into a mosque (above), etc., it has another oddity of the divided island.

The Ghost Town of Varosha

Varosha used to be the hottest part of Famagusta, which used to be predominantly Greek. After the invasion, it became military-occupied, off-limits to everyone else. Massive hotels are abandoned, falling apart. It’s a strange experience seeing a city that is just out of reach, perfect location, useless to everyone.  I asked my guide why it’s still there. He winked and said “it’s just a card in the game”. That really creeped me out. To see any of this devastation as a game was a jaded perspective that I hope to never reach.

I knew that I was only seeing, at most, half of the equation. I was excited for my time with the next guy that I would meet, a Greek Cypriot.

Part Three: The Greek Cypriot

The Greek Cypriot is a moderator for various online Cyprus reconciliation groups. I figured this would make him a fairly impartial person. But his family story and personality made that impossible. This isn’t to say he didn’t *try* to see the other side, but personal history makes that impossible in these conflict situations.

Talking to him turned my prior experience on its head. His family was from Kyrenia, the place that I’d gone around earlier with the Turkish Cypriot. His family left in 1973 during the rise in violence before the Turkish incursion in 1974. He grew up in South Africa and returned to Cyprus a few years back, as his adopted country was in post-apartheid decline.

It was difficult talking to him at points because he obviously had spent a lot of time desperately trying to come up with what he saw as an objective solution, but clearly could not maintain objectivity. He would wrestle with himself on how best to deal with the issue in as fair a way as possible, but would always go back to his inevitable conclusion that the Turks were in the wrong and to blame for destroying what he thought of as a relatively peaceful place before the invasion.

Not long after I’d gotten into the south part of Cyprus, we headed back to the border as he showed me around Nicosia, the Cypriot capital. The Green Line, part of the United Nations Buffer Zone in Cyprus, divides the Turkish and Greek parts of Cyprus. It used to be incredibly difficult to cross. Now, Cypriots (and most Westerners) can cross it as they wish. They barely seem to check when you go into the south (as they see it all as one island) and you have to go through a passport check and visa-on-a-separate-piece-of-paper-stamp for the North.

We stood and talked for a while on the Green Line (no, you don’t see an actual green line) in between the serious-ish TRNC border and the “look at your passport briefly, then wave you on ” EU border. I’ll never forget having a loud conversation about Cyprus’ history and future in no man’s land, watching cats jump between abandoned buildings in a UN-controlled area (with no UN forces to be seen).

After our chat, we went back to his place, an apartment complex that was originally made for Greek Cypriot refugees from the north. Over in the distance, there was a hill on the north side of the island. It had a light show on it, wherein the elements of the Turkish flag would pop up, then finally end with the Turkish Cypriot flag, a mildly altered version of the Turkish flag.


The views of the three, as I saw them:

  • Turkish Cypriot: North Cyprus is not part of Turkey. It’s its own entity only because the Greeks didn’t agree to reunification.
  • Turk: International affairs is a card game. You keep the cards to play them later. Turkey should maintain control of North Cyprus for that reason.
  • Greek Cypriot: Cyprus is one country. The Turks are occupying the north. They displaced a lot of people and destroyed the relative peace between the two groups.

Cyprus solidified for me how difficult these situations are. It takes a really strong desire for reconciliation to fix something like this. For a couple generations now, the island has been divided. The Turkish Cypriot grew up in the north. That’s his home. Yet, for the Greek Cypriot, that’s his home, too. The home of his parents and family. The Turkish Cypriot goes around Girne and feels comfortable. The Greek Cypriot sees the place that his father proposed or where his grandmother died and feels sadness, a longing for a home he never got to grow up in.

The one thing that I left out of all of this is the involvement of powers beyond the parties themselves. Cyprus used to be a British colony. The British still have a military presence on decent chunks of the island, with the Americans maintaining a presence, as well. With its proximity to the Middle East (Larnaca to Beirut is a 40-minute flight), it’s a strategic location. So don’t expect the international community to stop having a vested interest. But how much they can do depends on the Cypriots themselves. From the couple of guys I met from either side of the Green Line, it seems like a lot of Cypriots want to live together. I hope outside parties will work toward that or stay out of the way so they can do it on their own.

All pictures can be found at


Steal their Seoul in South Korea

November 3, 2010

This verse (Part Two of Five) is probably my worst traversed in my Carmen Sandiego series.

Steal their Seoul in South Korea, make Antarctica cry Uncle,
From the Red Sea to Greenland they’ll be singing the blues,
Well they never Arkansas her steal the Mekong from the jungle,
Tell me where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?

Seoul = yes

You’ve heard it before: South Korea is at war. They’ve only signed a ceasefire with the South. As a foreigner who wasn’t hanging around too long, I didn’t feel it until I got to the DMZ.

Highlights: The DMZ is an unparalleled experience. Being stared down by North Korean soldiers with South Korean soldiers in bizarre, half-exposed stances is very cool.

Check out the North Korean solider (background)

Half-exposed stance (soldier on right)

Standing on the border of the two Koreas

Lowlights: You know a trip has gone fairly well when the worst thing you can point to is missing your train and then having to sleep in a bed with two girls.

Antartica = no

I see no point in spending thousands of dollars to go to a nature place on my own, even if it is the only continent that I have yet to visit.

Red Sea = no

Having never been to:

  • Eastern shore:
    • Saudi Arabia
    • Yemen
  • Northern shore:
    • Egypt
    • Jordan
  • Southern shore:
    • Djibouti
    • Eritrea
    • Somalia
  • Western shore:
    • Egypt
    • Eritrea
    • Sudan

Or that far south in Israel, I’ve yet to go.

Greenland = no, but qualified

Greenland isn’t actually a country yet. It’s a constituent country of Denmark, which I’ve been to.

Arkansas = yes

On my road trip with Tav, we were in Jonesboro, AK. He talked on his cell phone. I tried to find us a host to stay with. We ended up finding someone in Memphis.

Highlights: Stealing Wifi outside of a hotel. Running in to use the bathroom at the same hotel. Not so much highlights as all that I did in Arkansas.

Lowlights: Having to deal with Tav being really excited about the sign for a tiny town with a stupid name. (Boogerville? Something like that.)

Mekong = just barely missed it

I must have been close, as it is very close to Ho Chi Minh City, the capital of Vietnam (formerly Saigon), where I was for New Year’s 2008, running into a Maltese guy that I met once on a train in SE Europe.

Dialogue upon seeing each other: "Thomas Laporto." "Roni Weiss."

All pictures can be found at

(Continued in Part Three: “Nashville to Norway“)

Roni Visits Syria

October 25, 2010

"Welcome to Syria"

Part One: To Go Or Not To Go?

One of my big goals on my current trip was to explore the Kurdish regions of the Middle East (as far as I could, with Iran not being on the table (I don’t want to be with a guide 24/7) and eastern Syria being almost definitely out of the question (due to security)).  On the way, I wanted to hit Syria, without getting a visa in advance.

Why no visa in advance?

  1. You have to pay the standard reciprocity fees that a lot of countries force on Americans, due to the fees for American visas for them. Namely, at least $131 USD.
  2. For Syria, you have to submit your passport to the embassy in your home country, which in my case would mean shipping my passport off to Washington, D.C., something that would severely inhibit my day-to-day country hopping.

What’s odd about Syria is that despite their claim that you need to get your visa in advance, they usually let you get one at the border. And at a lower price, as well. That is, unless you’re American.

All of the online research (including getting advice on the CouchSurfing forums from travelers and locals alike) had pointed to a June 2010 shift in Syrian policy. Before that, Americans got in after waiting at the border for 2-9 hours while their passport was processed via fax to Damascus. After the directive, no Americans were to be allowed to get visas at the border.

My problem was that an edict which conclusively changed a policy that wasn’t really respected anyway did not really tell me that it was absolutely certain that I would be denied, especially after various sources told me that they knew of Americans getting in after June 2010. I figured that if it wasn’t too big of a hassle, I’d just try. Worst-to-worst, I’d get a story out of it. (How meta.)

My original plan was to come in from the north, from central Turkey, but a ferry to Cyprus changed my itinerary. I ended up flying to Lebanon with the intent of trying to go from Lebanon to Damascus.

Pigeons' Rock - Beirut

When I arrived in Lebanon, I had days of contradictory information. I went to the Charles Helou bus station to ask the drivers about my chances of getting into Syria. Literally every time I asked, I heard the opposite opinion. One said impossible at the border, talk to the embassy, and the next would say no problem, just pay at the border. The last guy I talked to gave me some hope, telling me an extensive explanation of how it was fairly easy and it would be fine for me, even as an American. I wanted to believe it.

I went to the Syrian embassy, walking a couple of hours across Beirut, which was under high army patrol due to Ahmadinejad’s visit to the city. By time I got there, the embassy was closed, but they found me a woman (who I assume worked there, as she came from behind the metal detectors), who told me that it would be a waste of time and money at the border, but if I had 25-30 days, the Syrian embassy in Beirut could take of it. She once again emphasized to not bother going to the border.

Part Two: October 20, 2010

Taxi from Lebanon border town of Masnaa to Syrian border

In the end, I decided that I had to make the effort. I was going to Zahle, anyway, which wasn’t that far from the border.

(To figure out the maps, ‘Dimashq’ is Damascus and the grey line is the Syrian border.)

On October 20th, 2010, the guy that I was hanging out with drove me from Zahle to Chtaura (‘B’ on the map), the smaller town to get to the even smaller town of Masnaa (‘C’ on the map), the Lebanese border town.

Taxi from Chtaura to Masnaa was $2.

Probably should have cost me only $1 for the border taxi from Masnaa to the Syrian border, but I ended up paying $2, not realizing that I was actually at the Lebanese border at that point.

At the Lebanese border, I filled out my departure card and got an exit stamp. I had my electronics backpack with me, but I was slightly nervous that they would drive off with all of the rest of my stuff. It was another case where I wished I had had some info on the taxi that I was previously in.

We drove into the 8 km no man’s land between the Lebanese border and the Syrian border, seeing the mixture of ads for Lebanese stuff and billboards with Bashar al-Assad and Syrian flags.

After a few minutes on this building-less highway, with trucks on the opposite side lined up to get into Lebanon, we arrived at the Syrian border. What I saw was a shock to the eyes. Stupidly, I expected something ramshackle with a couple of guys smoking cigars, waving people in or denying them on their whim, akin to the border in Bolivia that you go to for the Uyuni trip.

Instead, a duty-free mall. Complete with a Dunkin’ Donuts.

Duty-Free mall at Syrian border

We all got out of the taxi. I gave the $2 that, by this point, I was sure was an overpayment, and walked to the Syrian border building.  Less chaotic, but no less professional (and a bit bigger) than the Lebanese counterpart. There were signs in English about whom to contact if you had complaints. On the far end was a counter for women. Despite there being signs for “All Nationalities” all over the place, it seemed like foreigners were told to go to the 2 lines marked “Foreigners”.

It didn’t take long for me to get to the front. They flipped through my passport a bunch without seeming to notice that I was American. For a moment, I hoped they wouldn’t notice at all and just give me an entry stamp and let me get on with it. While I was standing there, the guy on the line next to me had his phone go off. “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” was his ringtone.

Then the border guy flipped to the front of my passport and saw the faded American cover. After they confirmed that I didn’t have a visa, we had a very quick back-and-forth where I was told there was absolutely nothing they could do. He said the same line that I had always heard from the Lebanese, except applied to the neighboring country. “You are very welcome in Syria.”

It’s pretty much what I had read before. Very polite, but nothing they can do. It isn’t like they’re BSing, though. I had hoped that perhaps my French work visa or other reasons (just wanting to get through to Turkey, potentially wanting to teach English) would get me somewhere, but no dice. I asked if there was anyone else that could be called to make a different decision. After a few more pleads, the guy asked to take my passport back. I thought maybe they would do something. Another guy came after a while, took my passport, wrote down the info and called someone. I had no idea what was going on, but it seemed all right.

A new guy came, one that I hadn’t dealt with before. He took my passport and had me follow him. I wasn’t sure if I was going somewhere where I could maybe offer a bribe or plead my case. Nope. I was pointed over to the direction to get back to Lebanon. I asked about a toilet. The duty-free mall. Free bathroom. Asked a guy in a suit and tie that worked at duty-free how I could make a call to Lebanon. He said I could use his phone if it was an emergency. I said that I wasn’t sure what to do now, since I couldn’t get into Syria. I used his phone, called the guy from Zahle and walked to the other side to go toward Lebanon.

Various taxi drivers ran over to try to scam me, but I figured I would try to hitchhike. They thought I was nuts and tried to work $5+ out of me. I told them to go away. I had my thumb out. Every car that went by was packed.

After a while, I agreed to the taxi people setting me up with a $1 ride in a beat up BMW. The fair price. Less than a minute on the road, the taxi overheated. I took some video, and the guy next to me insisted that I take a picture with him.

Back in Lebanon, since I wasn’t successful getting into Syria, I had to get my exit stamp cancelled. When I asked the Lebanese border control guy about getting back to Chtaura, he said that I could possibly get a free ride on one of the buses that was coming by. He walked me over the the side where the buses were going into Lebanon and left me with the border guys there. I thought he had arranged it so they would talk to a bus. But they let the various taxi scammers harass me.  I told them that the other guy had made it sound like I’d get a bus. They seemed confused about all of it and annoyed that I tried to get into Syria. “Why Syria?” Realizing I was getting nowhere with them, I left most of my bags by the gate and went to go talk to the first guy.

He came back with me and sorted it all out. No bus, because the buses that were waiting there at the time were Iranian. And no guarantees when another bus would come. The border people figured it wasn’t a great idea to ask the Iranians about me going on. So, instead, they arranged a $2 taxi to Chtaura.

After that, it was a $2 taxi back to Zahle to a 4,000 Lebanese pound ride back to Beirut to take a $108 USD flight to Istanbul the next morning.

The Brits Hate Me

September 27, 2010

British Cuisine

The UK border people give me more trouble than any other country.

1) A few years back, using the same passport that I’ve had since 2003, I was yelled at by the passport control woman at London Heathrow. She told me that my passport was damaged and that if I came in next time, they wouldn’t let me in. I never got a similar threat after that, in the UK or elsewhere.

2) September 8, 2010, flying from Bratislava to London Stansted, they check my passport. Before you get to the officers, you’re warned by signs that “tough checks can take longer”. So I thought nothing of the guy grilling me on my job, my plans in the UK, etc.

But it kept going and going. And I began to get slightly nervous that perhaps the guy did see a problem. All of a sudden, he explained to me that he was going to give me a special stamp, one that showed that he didn’t necessarily trust my story, writing on the special stamp a number that was presumably the case file for all the notes that he was taking. (My true story: I’m an English teacher that is traveling for a bit with enough money to be financially secure for the next little while, with no outgoing flight from the UK to maintain flexibility.)

He told me that next time, if I’m doing this sort of a trip, perhaps I should have bank statements showing that I can support myself. Apparently, he didn’t believe the number of Euros I told him I had in my bank account.

By now, I’m over the sting. I’ll be leaving the UK soon. I’m not planning another trip again soon and after being hassled twice coming in, after no hassles elsewhere (including Russia, where everyone I’ve talked to a) wasn’t hassled and b) expected to be hassled), I’m not sure that I’m in any hurry to.

S2: Basel and Zurich

August 31, 2010

Roni eats Bavarian pretzels in Basel and discovers the hidden garbage secrets of Switzerland.

Roni’s Harrowing Scamming at the Peru-Ecuador Border

February 26, 2009

Another POS taxi driver

Go and look online for people that have been scammed at the Peru/Ecuador border.  You won’t have to look too hard.  A little digging and you’ll even find people that went through exactly what I went through.

Problem is:  People have gone through different things (s0metimes even scarier than my situation) when trying to go about this another way.

Here’s the deal:

Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: