“Don’t take pictures of the checkpoint.” “Watch out – its under military occupation.” “You’re only allowed in for one day.” In 2005, at Dr. Alex Elder’s Trader Camp in Cyprus, we knew these rules when we voted to venture, as a group, to Northern Cyprus, a territory controlled by the Turkish army and unrecognized by the United Nations. A few campers had strong opinions about the unfortunate Greek vs Turkish conflict that cost thousands of lives on each side and declined the trip. They spent their free day on the Greek side of the island. The rest of us chipped in for the motor coach that took us for an unbelievably action-packed day.
On the bus we discovered Alex’s passion for history as he regaled us with a very articulate and well-researched history of Cyprus from geology, to the time of Christ when Lazarus became bishop of Larnaka, to the economics of Crusades, to the present time, all the while pointing out local landmarks. And we had thought it was a day without a lecture!
We crossed the UN checkpoint without incident. We could see a hillside painted with ball-field-sized flags of Turkey and Northern Cyprus. Although we were given a Turkish “tour guide” to ride on our bus, I never heard a peep out of her, which was surprising considering what happened down the road.
Our first destination was St Hilarion’s castle — a fortification left behind by the Crusaders. En route, we passed a military base. Men gathered in the courtyard, I heard unpleasant shouting, and I think some unlucky soldier was getting disciplined. The bus got quiet. But hum-de-dum-dum, we’re off to the castle and I didn’t think too much more about it.
A bit further on, the bus stopped. Backed. Inched forward. Stopped. What the??? We were in a large open plain, but the road narrowed to one tight lane and the bus couldn’t get through due to cars parked on either side. What to do?? Somebody had a plan: “Let’s move that little white car there over a bit so we can get by.” The guys in our group set to bouncing that car out of our way.
Soldiers came running across the field! Shouting! Oh-oh. Not good. Not good at all. It was a solder’s car! Our bus driver held his own in a heated argument and eventually we were on our merry way again.
Arriving at the St. Hilarion castle at last, we agreed on a fixed time to return to the bus and set off in small groups to explore the ruins. Alex asked me to carry a few things for him in my camera case. So we set off through the multi-level site and eventually got separated. Mid-way up I got word that Alex was looking for me. He caught up with me at the end of the beaten path — ready to be re-united with his goods which happened to be his passport and the collected cash to pay for the bus. I was getting ready to attempt the summit with my new-found New Zealand hiking buddies so I just gave Alex my whole camera case to carry now — which happened to hold my passport and cash.
The path quickly ran out and the three of us hikers soon found ourselves scrambling.
We were no sooner at the top, than the wind brought the rumble of large guns in the distance. Instinctively, my stomach tightened. I was on the far side of the line, far from my passport, and yikes! the bus was leaving in 15 minutes!! We hustled down the slope and made it in time to pick up a cool drink from the concession stand on the way out.
Next stop was lunch at Kyrenia, the harbor town we saw from the castle. A loud speaker called the faithful to prayer as we walked from parking lot to restaurant.
After lunch, most of the group chose to tour the local castle, but I felt too hot and dusty. A few of us cooled off in the local swimming area. Modesty seemed the best policy so I dipped in my shorts and t-shirt. My clothes dried quickly enough but too bad no public shower to rinse off afterwards.
The afternoon held one more ruined castle, this time overlooking the backyard pools of an upscale part of town.
Our bus brought us to the city of Nicosia/Lefkosia — the last divided capital on the planet.
The UN Buffer Zone used to be people’s shops and homes, before it became a war zone. Now it is a no-mans-land and I wondered what had become of the property owners. Both sides erected monuments to those killed by the enemy in this as yet unresolved conflict. I hope the good people of Cyprus can live in peace.
We ended our day with a fabulous feast and a sleepy bus ride back to Platres.
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