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


Hitchhiking Tales: Körfez to Ankara

October 30, 2010

Part One: The Walk

It was time to leave Körfez. Many people said not to bother hitchhiking, as it was a tiny town. But I was obstinate and lucky, as said town is right on the highway to Ankara.

My host gave me a square pistachio chocolate bar, some chocolate sandwich cookies, two red apples, filled up my water bottle and pointed me to the left from her place, saying to ask for McDonald’s, which was right by the highway, 10-20 minutes down the road.

I didn’t keep track of the time, but there was a junction that looked like it went toward the highway, so I asked a guy at a corner shop in basic words (“Ankara? Autostrade?) if I was going in the right direction. He looked totally shocked to see me and thrown off by my question. Since he kept saying ‘Izmit’ in his explanation (the closest decent-sized city), it was clear that he was trying to get me onto a bus to Izmit to a bus to Ankara. “No, no,” I told him, “Autostop” (hitchhiking).

He tut-tutted me. No, no. Bad idea, in his mind. He tried to find someone in the immediate vicinity who spoke English, including a woman who seemed to work at the shop with him, who clearly had no higher English level than his level of being able to say ‘English’, ‘Turkish’ and ‘no’ (which isn’t too far off from my level of Turkish). I told him it was OK and went away. The problem was, I wanted to continue down the street that his shop was on toward what I thought might be a highway entrance, but as he was watching me, I knew he would think I was confused about his directions and come try to ‘help’ me again, even more frustratedly.

I figured I would try to work my way around the next block to avoid his laser vision. When I looked back at his store and saw that he wasn’t there, I turned back around… And then ran into him and the woman walking toward me.

They scooped me up and tried to find us someone who spoke English, presumably to get me to understand that I really needed this bus to Izmit. I asked them about the McDonald’s. Yep, one in Izmit (or so I guessed he said). We went into a pharmacy. I was totally out of place, with my huge backpack and two smaller, but packed backpacks. After a while, since no one seemed to know English or know how to talk to me, they led me back out, presumably to start walking me in the direction of a bus. On a street corner, they found a middle school kid who spoke some English.

I asked again about the McDonald’s. The kid knew what I was talking about and pointed straight, saying “Go straight”, then indicated I take a left, saying “Go right”. Unfortunately, these directions were through a crowded market with no clearance for my head or backpack. So I asked the kid if I could keep going and get to the same place. He saw the problem and said that yes, if I just went to the next street, that would be fine.

Walk walk walk. Almost to the next main street and I heard someone panting behind me. It was the middle school kid. He said to follow him. We took the next left and walked through what was the continuation of that earlier market. He asked me if I was hungry. I wasn’t sure if it was because he was being hospitable or if it was one of his go-to English questions from class. I said I was all right.

He saw another middle schooler that he knew and explained to him what he was doing (the words ‘American’ and ‘tourist’ were all that I understood).

We got through to the end of the market and there were some metal stairs over a wall. I followed him and on the other side was a fast food place, with the highway on the other side. But it wasn’t McDonald’s. It was Burger King. A small difference, perhaps, except when you’re trying to find a landmark that doesn’t actually exist.

Part Two: The Hitch

The kid wrote down in my notebook how to ask for a ride to Ankara (in Turkish). I asked him for a pic together, but he politely declined, shook my hand and left.

Right next to the Burger King was a gas station. Past the gas station was an entrance to the highway. Perfect hitchhiking locale. But there were attendants at the gas station, which made me a bit wary of hanging out there or attempting to ask drivers for a ride.

I walked a little bit past the station, toward the highway entrance, put my bags down and wrote ‘ANKARA’ on my plastic sleeve that I’ve been using for destinations.

I kept inching my way up, because there were various ways people could re-enter the highway if they didn’t go to the gas station. People drove by and did their usual “If I don’t make eye contact with you, you won’t see me and taint me with your bohemian drifterness.”

Less than 10 minutes after setting my bags down, I got a ride from a guy in a nice Toyota. As soon as I sat in the passenger’s seat, he gave me a fork, so I could share these little dessert sticks with him, which are called lokma.

He pointed out sites as we drove along, such as the biggest tunnel in Turkey, which had a cool feature, overriding radio stations to give you information about speed limits and emergency call phones.

He told me that he was going fast (170 km/hr, at points (105 miles/hr)), because he was going to visit his kids. He was a geologist from Ankara that works in mining. As soon as he said geologist, I thought Randy Marsh from South Park. But other than occupation, moustache and having a son and a daughter, there weren’t any other obvious similarities.

Along the way, he also pointed out vans that were going back to Diyarbakir (the heart of the Kurdish part of Turkey), as they are summer migrant workers who go to Istanbul for the middle of the year, then head back home.

We tried to call my host in Ankara, but no answer upon multiple attempts. Eventually, we got to his kids’ school in Ankara. He said, “OK, Roni”, ready to let me out. I told him that I had no clue where I was or what to do now. Luckily, I had the number of a second guy from CouchSurfing. We called him and he was more than happy to take me in. The two arranged that the geologist would drive me to a mall, I’d wait there until 8 PM when my new and improved host would arrive.

We left the school and stopped by a soccer field to pick up his kids. Turned out that they were twins. The boy was playing soccer and the girl was on a math team. They were very, very confused as to my presence. He told them that I was a tourist. They forgot about me and went to what sounded like a very normal father-child conversation. The girl kept saying “Hayır, Baba!” (No, Dad!)

I got dropped off at the mall. It was a lot like when I hitched to Antalya. My ride dropping me off at a mall for me to wait for a few hours for my host to come. And just like that mall, there are metal detectors at the entrances. I put my bags through the machine and walked through the metal detectors. Unlike airports, I think they’re mostly concerned about big bombs, so you don’t have to take stuff out of your pockets.

The rest of the story becomes pretty lame:

  • I go to an authorized Apple retailer to see about getting my MacBook fixed (the bottom is slightly coming off).
  • I use WiFi in the food court until it’s a few minutes until 8, then go downstairs.
  • My new and improved host and his friend drive me to his place.
  • We hang out, my new and improved host shows me how to drink rakı (pronounced ‘raku’), a traditional alcoholic drink.
  • He makes me spaghetti. I eat said spaghetti.
  • We all hang out, while using his WiFi on our respective laptops.
  • I go to sleep.
  • Hours later, my host goes to sleep.

Another successful hitch completed.

ROL Moment: Roni’s 27th Birthday

October 10, 2010

Roni gets a birthday treat from a random Turkish family, when he gets lost in a tiny coastal town.

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