Eli Shafak* in Island of Missing Trees writes “Once upon a memory, at the far end of the Mediterranean Sea, there lay an island so beautiful and blue that the many travellers, pilgrims, crusaders and merchants who fell in love with it either wanted never to leave or tried to tow it with hemp ropes all the way back to their own countries. Legends, perhaps. But legends are there to tell us what history has forgotten.”
As I devour this emotive saga about two teenagers, a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot, and their lives in rich magical ‘divided’ Cyprus and later in cold blistering London…. vignettes of this Mediterranean land of antiquities and halloumi filter through aqua memories of throwbacks and visuals 22 years later.
In June of 2000 I could neither tow it back with me to my country or stay permanently. My photo album is incomplete vis-a-vis my exposure and flipping through my meagre collection I try to recollect and reconnect my experiences in this sun-soaked historical Island.
Sharing my 2000 visit to Cyprus
August 2000: The vast expanse of glassy blue Mediterranean Sea made me nervous. There was no third colour not even a speck. Till I spied a lone speed boat cruising along with us and I smiled at my fellow passenger in the Gulf Air flight. We were on our way from Muscat, Oman, with stopovers at gold-plated cities of Dubai and Bahrain.
This was my first visit to the ‘Land of Aphrodite” in the year 2000. We were in Muscat, Oman, and would constantly be asked, “Have you visited Cyprus” and then “What! You are so close and still not been to Cyprus”. Finally out of curiosity I booked a ticket and was on way to the birthplace of ancient Greek ‘goddess of love’… Aphrodite.
Larnaca: Before touchdown I was hoping to spot sea nymphs frolicking in the cerulean stretch down below but the ruckus inside turned out to be far more entertaining. As the plane taxied onto the runaway there was a flurry of activity in the aisle, the race to disrobe and disembark had begun in earnest. The first to queue up were my next-seat neighbours, oil workers from Saudi Arabia, an Indian and a Phillipino on parole from a ‘covered’ country. I looked around at passengers in different stages of undress and felt ‘Victorian’ in jeans and full sleeve Tee shirt in the mass of exposed flesh. Once on the tarmac I gaped …plane after plane downloading their ‘cargoes’ of spaghetti straps, short shorts and bare torsos. My earlier derisive thoughts of fellow passengers turned into appreciation.
My brother had come to receive me and we drove out through the city to Nicosia, 45 kilometres from Larnaca. There is an international airport in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, but was not operational (year 2000) due to ongoing dispute between Turkish and Cypriot sides. Larnaca is one of the international ports of arrival.
Nicosia: The drive to Nicosia is through bleached craggy countryside, giving way to green fields and clean villages, the sentry towers atop ‘halloumi’ mountains with bushes resembling coriander sprigs. In the glow of the setting sun Nicosia came across as a city of surprises with old and new existing side by side as we moseyed through a bustling downtown packed with boutiques, shopping malls, high-rise buildings, pubs jostling for attention with ancient monasteries and ‘damaged’ houses. Complimenting the benign antiquity were fleetingly observed caroused older faces, crinkly, contemplative, shuffling along on disappearing pavements or relaxing on benches along lanes or cafes. The youngsters at Ledra Square or LaikiGitonia of old Nicosia add to the ‘waiting’ atmosphere.
In my 10 day stay I get the impression that Cypriots were ‘perpetually’ waiting. Whether it was waiting for a return to the past of one Cyprus; for recognition as a member of the European union (it has since achieved that); for jobs in USA and Europe or for a wedding in the family symbolized by the iron rods jutting out of semi-constructed or ‘dowry apartments’ portions of houses. Being an Indian I was intrigued by the ‘dowry apartments as we too have our share of dowry customs, often responsible for dowry deaths of young girls. What i read was that the unfinished portion is earmarked for unmarried daughter and given to her as ‘dowry’ on her marriage. If there were 2-3 daughters the second got the next floor and parents moved out to another accommodation. This probably must have helped improve marriage prospects of girls (similar to India). In return the daughter took care of parents and had ready-made family to fall back on.
The system is slowly fading out due to increasing number of nuclear families and younger generation preferring to live independently. Later on during my stay I met with women, professional and homemakers, and they endorsed the view that close proximity to the Arabian countries and Europe has fashioned a melting pot of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern value systems and it is the women who were caught between two cultures trying out the balancing act. My brother’s landlady, a beneficiary of the dowry-apartment, reasoned it out to limited provision for higher education for girls till a few years back. While their male counterparts went to Europe or USA for further studies, girls stayed in the country or went to Greece, loosing out on education. Now, with universities and vocational colleges, better career options and job training programs women are stepping out of their homes and country, going in for higher studies and employment. Sure, Cyprus has been affected by endless outsiders and their influences have stuck.
Throughout the drive from Larnaca, my brother had filled me up with the history of divided Cyprus. He had had first hand experience having stayed for six months near the “Green line” or wired border in downtown Nicosia. We visited his old house and he recounted how they were woken up by stray gunshots in the middle of the night. With UN forces patrolling the entire Line, running through Cyprus, an uneasy calm prevailed in the city. We saw the fluttering Turkish flag, on the border fence, thumbing its existence at the viewer on the road towards Nicosia. A gigantic in your face TRNC flag, painted on the hillside in north city where the Turkish presence and the divide under UN presence is very much noticeable. There are vantage points to have a look at the Turkish side and it certainly was greener on ‘our’ side.
The best view of the ‘other side’ and divided Nicosia is from atop Ledra Observatory, a museum cum observatory on the 11th floor of the Shakolas Tower Building. One gets a panoramic view of the whole town of Lefkosia or Nicosia and its landmarks dating back 5000 years back when referred to as Ledra or Lefkotheon. By Seventh Century it was Lefkosia to be renamed Nicosia, probably by the Crusaders and now used liberally. (Byzantine and Medieval Cyprus by Gwynneth der Parthog). The view of Nicosia from the Ledra Museum Observatory is breathtaking and one ends up comparing the two sides with information boards filling up on monuments and building.
Nicosia was designated the capital city after the end of Arab rule and it limped back into European mould with lingering Turkish influence on its architecture and monuments and remains the capital of South Cyprus. There was hardly any walking done in the city not because of cars but because of ‘disappearing’ footpaths. I cannot say about the present but the narrow and often non -existent walking spaces reminded me of Indian cities where footpaths are general use areas for food carts, two-wheeler parkings, squatters, trees, dogs and cows and no matter how much the municipal corporations try the people sneak in.
The Nicosia I saw in ten days of stay was a city of myriad facades, the influence of different names: The Greek- Cypriot Lefkosia ‘the place of the white Poplars’; the Ancient Ledra; the Turkish Lefkosha and the English Nicosia. But in day to day life, in sandwich shops and taverns, in the coves of the Akamas Peninsula, in the ancient Byzantine art of churches of Troodos Mountains, there is plenty that is just plain Cypriot, carryovers synonymous with isolation and poverty.
Troodos Mountain Trip: Cyprus is a potpourri of natural beauty of quaint and picturesque villages with profusion of flowers, beaches and mountains, the ‘women in black’ (widows wearing black dresses), the genial smiling seniors and the beatific smile on the face of a dowager at Omodos when I asked her to pose for a photograph. She did and as it happens at crucial moments the camera did not respond. I had been merrily clicking away at whatever took my fancy in this wine producing, Mediterranean village on southern slopes of Troodos Mountains and when I needed it most the Nikon refused to co-operate.
The Troodos was once a haven for dissidents and rebels and a stronghold for the Orthodox church, as evidenced by its wealth of monasteries and painted medieval churches but now it is dotted with resorts, hotels and restaurants and quintessential Cypriot villages adding that traditional imagery.
I opted for a conducted tour, from Nicosia, through the hill resorts of Akamas and Plateres, similar to British designed Indian hill stations, past Mt. Olympus the highest mountain peak, with stop at Throni tis Panagias the burial place of Archbishop Makarios, the first president of Cyprus. It was a welcome break, most of us were beginning to feel nauseous on the winding mountain roads, and the spectacular view of the valley and refreshments calmed us down. I was familiar with Archbishop Makarios as he was a friend of former Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru and there was a road named after him in New Delhi, capital of India.
From here we proceeded to Omodos, a delightful village with vine covered cobbled lanes, a wide village square with an old Byzantine monastery at one end with cafeneion or cafeterias, workshops of blue glass pottery, Cypriot lace, lefkara pottery with silver work and the manually operated, ancient wooden vine press in a restored old house on the other end of the square. I remember seeing my first carp at a fish farm and wondering at the ‘gold’ sheen of the fishes. It was here that I fell in love with the ‘cherubic old damsel’ and till date whenever I think of Cyprus it is her face that crops up in memory. Maybe she was participating in a ‘touristy charade’ but for me she was a symbol of mystique of Cyprus.
Kykkos Monastry: Our next and last stop was the 900-year old Kykkos monastery that turned out to be a reverentially soothing experience in spite of all the gold and silver opulence, the heavy candelabra and the ornate woodwork. The Russian tourist I be-friended on the bus preferred the cool interiors and not wanting to disagree I accompanied her spending minutes sitting on the heavy ornate furniture. One of the oldest monasteries, Kykkos has had political connections with its monks being part of governments ( former president of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios had been at this monastery from age 12). Being a Sunday, the gardens and the restaurants were crowded with vacationers spread out where ever one could find a place.Tasted Cypriot double Vanilla ice cream from the van parked outside the main entrance.
On return the bus dropped us at a Limassol hotel and from here I took one of those extended Mercedes cabs to Nicosia. This was another experience I can never forget and sure beats the old rattling taxis of New Delhi airport. There were seven of us, including the driver who insisted on driving at top speed. Fortunately for me two schoolgirls, visiting Nicosia, could read out the English address, I was carrying, to the driver. Being a pick and drop service the passengers were downloaded at their destinations and towards end there was this young man and lone Asian woman (me). The car was turning into a smoke den, the driver having smoked 15 cigarettes in 2 hours, and added by his constant chatter on the intercom, was beginning to irritate me. I was grateful when we reached our part of Nicosia. It turned into a comical situation as the driver expected me to tell him the direction but I was of no help, as all areas appeared the same, even the landmarks I had memorised. It was getting dark and as it happens in a new country one starts getting panicky and compounded by language barrier I felt I would be in a soup. Finally after what seemed to be endless circles we managed to locate the house and my effusive thank you was welcomed with a grunt and a stringer in his language.
Lefkara: Time was running out on me and there was Pafos, Aphrodite’s birthplace on the western coast to be seen. Somehow I could not make it so compensated it with Lefkara, the city for Cypriot laces. An historical mountain town with stony streets and genial shop owners soaking in the afternoon sun. Lace making, a Venetian legacy from the time when Italians ruled Cyprus, is the national handicraft of Cyprus along with terracotta pottery and halloumi cheese. Mass produced for tourist consumption one has to really search for the genuine handmade Cypriot lace from amongst the cheaper machine made Chinese copies. I picked up a lace tablecloth and coasters as souvenirs. Later I saw some ‘genuine’ lace at a friend’s place made by his wife. “ Once the children left home there was enough time for me to sit in the sun crocheting gifts for families and friends.” I felt embarrassed in telling her of my ‘real-fakel’ lace tablecloth for $10.
From Lefkara we drove to Machairas, a mountain resort famous for its Monastery. The hunger pangs must be giving wrong signals as we lost our way and ended at a village inn where a christening ceremony was in progress. The owner welcomed us saying that he had a special place for Indians. The then (2000) Cyprus President’s wife was an Indian from Mumbai and Cyprus enjoyed a special relationship with India. I had met with President Clerides daughter, thanks to Indian High Commissioner in Nicosia, and she introduced me to women’s organisations and the work they were doing towards women’s betterment.
Back to food – we tasted the special feast of Cypriot food with halloumi cheese, my favourite, fried potatoes and tried Koupepia i.e. vine leaves stuffed with meat and rice. I am forgetting the name of the village but it is an ideal get way if one prefers the salubrious mountain air to sunny beaches.
The best thing Cyprus has to offer, besides the beaches, is its villages, which are both primally Cypriot and also influenced by outsiders. I made two three trips up the Troodos Mountains enamoured by the slate grey exterior pinned with riot of colourful flowers, stained glass windows, the serenely photogenic old men, in braces and caps, sunning themselves on benches or waddling along the windy cobbled streets or lanes. Another speciality of the country are the Cypriot donkeys. I had read so much about them and had wanted to see at least one. I got the opportunity on way to Troodos, the dark coloured taller breed carrying tourists.
There are supposedly two strains, the large dark coloured ones of European origin and the small grey African breed. The donkeys were basically domestic and farm animals but were gradually replaced by tractors and trucks and left in the open. Now they are tourist attractions and rides. I came across leaflets of ‘Friends of the Cyprus Donkey Society’ and their protection and breeding programs somewhere in village of Vouni. It would have been an interesting visit.
Another drive embedded in memory was the one along the ‘Green Line’ from Famagusta (which is at present in Turkish area) through the sanitised, model village of Pyla where Greek and Turkish Cypriots live together, under UN supervision. It is theatrical ‘Wild West’ scenario where any minute bullets might whiz past. The Line continues through Nicosia, up the mountains and right across to the other end of the island. Sentry towers and Turkish flags keep you company throughout. A week before my arrival there had been a get together of people from both sides, of relatives and friends. But one wonders how long will it take to unite, to become one country. Changes are taking place and though Cyprus is still ‘apart’ the people are ‘together’.
Ten days went in a flash and I missed out Agia Napa, the Ibiza of Cyprus made popular by the Vengaboys, the Dutch Band of the 1990s hit singles ‘We are Going to Ibiza’. Agia Napa was not only a magnet for tourists but the drive through beautiful countryside of fertile red soil appropriately named the ‘vegetable basket of Cyprus’ would have been amazing.
Adieu: Finally it was time to fly out and I was feeling all feline..like the rotund, snooty cats roaming the neighbourhoods of Cyprus. There were equally fat cats in Muscat but here they measured you up before responding to your syrupy overtures and if found wanting would walk past with a swish of their tails: very much unlike the people who are friendly and unpretentious.