Walking the Cyprus E4 (Part II)

Jun 4, 2006 by

The first part of this essay is the May 4 posting

ONE OF THE REASONS travelers endure hardship is because they expect to reap something for the trouble – perhaps an insight, a sense of accomplishment, a tougher hide, or even just a good story to self-depreciatingly boast over later. But sometimes the hardship you fetch upon yourself brings nothing except head-shaking bemusement when you look back on how senseless it was.

Reflecting now upon day three – the day following our forest fiasco – of what was supposed to have been a hiking trip along the E4 European long distance path, I can say that trudging 20 or so primarily uphill kilometers on the concrete shoulders of roadkill-littered routes while loaded down with a rucksack packed for backwoods hiking offers few kicks and no compensation. The only occasional thrill consisted of an alarming gust of air as a 18-wheeler blared by, not exactly the stuff of adventure travel. A roadside trek had not been part of our anticipated route, but having strayed the previous day from the E4 path, plans had changed. We were so far south of the trail that we just decided to walk directly to our final destination, Kato Arodes, the village where my cousin Christos had provisional residency rights to a Turkish Cypriot house. This alternate route meant we would be finishing our hike a day or two earlier than expected, but Kato Arodes was on the outskirts of the protected Akamas wilderness and so there would be plenty of roaming possibilities nearby.

Since we had out of necessity splurged on a hotel, we had vowed the previous night to indulge in a luxurious idle morning and so we did not begin hiking until after midday. It had been only minutes after we set off that it began to rain lightly. Our previous night’s sodden misery was still fresh in our memory and so this harmless sprinkling affected us as screeching tires might affect a recent car crash survivor. After a few failed attempts to flag down a passing pick up, the driver of a mid-sized truck pulled over for us. It would not be until a few days later that we would discover how lucky we were to have so easily caught a ride on a busy road, and from a Cypriot at that, as we would be spending the hottest hours of Saturday with upended thumbs on the roadside, groaning and swearing as innumerable drivers sped by us.

The driver was surprised when Christos spoke to him in Greek. He was even more taken aback that we had started our hike on Monday in Kaminaria. “And why?” he asked. “Ten or fifteen kilometers I could understand, but from Kaminaria?”

Our conversation turned to the subject of Cyprus’ accession in the European Union, and our driver expressed an opinion I often heard among the Cypriot working class: “The EU just makes the rich richer. It’s destroying our farmers.” This was no backwater ignorance. I had recently spoken to numerous Cypriot farmers who claimed they were facing financial ruin due to the flood of cheap agricultural imports from European mega-farms now that Brussels has demanded that Cyprus lift import restrictions on other member states. The centralized top-down approach of European Union decision-making, similar in many ways to the British colonial model that Cyprus experienced in the first half of the twentieth century, has not sat well with those accustomed to local control, even if those holding the local reins are irremediable scoundrels and bunglers.

The driver drove us 15 km to the Polemi gas station, about a kilometer downhill of the town Stroumpi. He then continued on his southwesterly route towards Paphos while we set off along a torturous uphill in a northwesterly direction towards Arodes. The uphill was to persist unrelentingly for the rest of the day. We had caught a ride along the day’s only stretch of downhill. As it had stopped sprinkling and as we did not want to make an utter pansy capitulation of our day’s hike, we did not attempt to flag down any more of the pickups appealingly zooming by us. But in the end, we turned out to be not pansies but fools, our feet sore from hours of impact on concrete, our minds numbed from the mulish roadside trudging. It was not as bad as highway hiking, but it was tedious. By the end of the day we would be craving a desolate trail just as badly as we had been craving a busy road while lost in the woods the previous evening.

After passing through Stroumpi, we stopped at a coffee house where we ordered two “Kypriaka” (Cypriot) coffees, an espresso-like drink that one sips down to the sludge. A 40-cent coffee can offer not only a caffeine perk but also a window into one’s future. If a willing fortune-teller is on hand and offers her services (coffee soothsaying is, in the Delphic tradition, a gift bestowed upon women) the cup is then upended onto the saucer so that the coffee rind can seep down the sides of the cup in seemingly random patterns that to the discerning coffee cup reader will reveal future trips, traps and, if one is single, trysts.

Upon setting the coffees before us, the waitress pointed at a man sitting two tables over. “The coffees are on him,” she said. We had exchanged a few words of greeting with him upon entering, but no more. Yet it was not surprising that he paid for our coffees. We had been treated in this manner several times on our trip. The tradition of island hospitality has not been snuffed out by the increasing materialism of Cypriots. And hospitality also serves a utilitarian function: it is a conversation opener. We thanked the man, whose ample facial features gave him a remarkable semblance to the President, Tassos Papadopoulos. He had seen our packs propped up against a stone wall outside the coffee house and asked what we were doing. Upon hearing that we were on a multi-day hike he nodded with the single utterance “Malista.” When used as a response, the word ‘malista’ indicates that the other person’s statement has been unambiguously understood and – if asserted vehemently enough – even approved of.

“People have grown soft in Cyprus,” he said. “Now everyone has cars with air conditioning, eight gears… everything has to be easy… they can’t be bothered with anything else, can’t go to any troubles at all.”

Christos is not garrulous, but on this trip he struck up conversations as affably and easily as an experienced talk show host. This enabled me to sit back and participate merely through attentiveness and occasional nods. It seems that every pair of travelers consists of a talker and a listener, regardless of whether or not they are equally gregarious in temperament. It must be some intrinsic traveling requirement, just as a functioning battery requires a positive and a negative end. On this trip, it quickly became apparent that I was, to my great pleasure, the battery’s minus sign, the listener.

The conversation between Christos and the President’s potential stunt double turned to the subject of the ceaseless construction razing the island. Thanks to accommodating politicians, real estate developers in Cyprus have gone a long ways in actualizing their dream to convert every stretch of untouched verdure into a strip of profitable concrete. In their carefully controlled paradise the only greenery consists of prudish hedges and lawns that resemble a soldier’s buzzcut, which is not surprising since real estate developers and militaries generally tend to operate in similar ways, though wreaking their violence upon different subjects. The northern Paphos, the region that spans outward from the island’s northwestern Akamas heel, has seen the least construction south of the Green Line, and it is claimed, especially among Paphites, that this breeds a people who are a step more rugged, vigorous and heels-in-the-earth than other Cypriots.

“But they’re going to ruin this area too,” Christos said.

The man pointed at Christos and nodded. “Bravo, my son,” he said. “That’s it, you said it.” He looked out the window and his body heaved with a sigh. “Malista.”

We continued our ascent. After winding up seven or eight kilometers past vineyards and a few solitary olive trees the road leveled off and came to a T. I retrieved some dried figs, koulouri (dried sesame bread ring) and a jar of peanut butter, while Christos lay down on his back, propping his legs up on the metal guardrail. A family car soon drove by, the young faces in the backseat crowded against the window, their heads pivoting and eyes riveted on us as the car drove by.

Christos looked up into the now-cloudless sky: “Those parents are telling their kids: ‘Don’t become this when you get older.’” He mused over a piece of koulouri as he continued in the voice of the parents. “They come to our island and don’t even spend any money in our restaurants, the bums.”

Two hours before sunset we arrived at the town of Pano Arodes, only a kilometer from Kato Arodes. There are two groceries in the village. The one Christos usually shops at was closed so I went down the road to the other grocery store, which Christos avoids. I could see why. Here they did not even bother wipe the layer of dust off the canned food lining the shelves. I bought only the minimal foods necessary for a decent dinner and breakfast but it was no easy task. The old blackclad woman behind the counter began to follow me around.

“Where are you staying? Kato Arodes? With whom? Who? I don’t know him. What are you looking for?” I told her I was all set. “What are you going to cook?” I reached for some pasta. “ Oh, spaghetti, well then you should use this sauce…” She tried to hand me a can of pasta sauce but I declined with a smile and fled to the other end of the store. I thought my locomotive advantages would buy me enough time to get a few potatoes from a dingy cardboard box on the floor and then get to the cash register, but she was unnaturally swift, especially considering her humped form, and she was soon hovering apparition-like at my side, even the white hairs of her sparse beard sticking out intrusively towards me. “Put some more potatoes in that bag, they’re good I tell you. Go on put more, more. Here…” She reached down, barely having to bend, and grabbed a clawful of potatoes. “Okay, okay,” I said, trying to muzzle my frustration, which was mounting into desperation, and tossed a few more potatoes in the bag. I hoped this would appease my trailing harpy but her ability to influence me only strengthened her tenacity to volunteer herself as my personal grocery consultant. I finally resigned myself to her. “Is this bread fresh?” I asked, motioning at several loaves on a bread rack. “Yes, that’s good bread,” she answered. “But is it fresh?” I insisted. Avoiding my gaze, she grabbed the bread and took it to the counter. “You’ll like this bread, you will.”

I found Christos waiting for me outside the other grocery store, which was now open, with several bags of groceries at his feet. Christos had knocked on the owner’s front door and the man had obligingly unlocked the shop for him, a common enough practice in the villages. A number of other customers had already gone in and out of the store. Christos told me he had overheard one woman whispering, “You mean, they speak Greek?” Only soldiers and foreigners wield backpacks in Cyprus; the mere act of carrying a backpack had transformed Christos into a stranger in a place that he has been visiting about once a month for the last decade.

A pickup truck with the engine running was parked on the road outside the store. “Where are you from?” the driver asked us, leaning on his elbow out the window.

“Nicosia,” Christos says. “I know, not many from Nicosia do this sort of thing.”

The man shrugged. “But there are Paphites who can’t even walk from here to there,” he said, motioning to the store. We walked off towards Kato Arodes, amused, as the man sat in his truck, waiting for his wife to finish buying the groceries.

Before 1974 Turkish Cypriots lived in Kato Arodes. But the ’74 coup by the Greek junta and the subsequent Turkish invasion led to the separation of the island’s two main ethnic communities, with Turkish Cypriots relocating to the island’s north and Greek Cypriots to the south. Those homes south of the Green Line that formerly housed Turkish Cypriots were offered provisionally (meaning until a political settlement took place) to Greek Cypriot refugees, but because most refugees settled in or around cities, many Turkish Cypriot homes in the remote villages like Kato Arodes remained empty. Those Greek Cypriots willing to put a certain sum towards repairing a house were for a minimum monthly fee then permitted access to it until there was a political settlement. It was through this process that Christos now possessed the house key. It was not him who had originally paid for the renovations, but a middleman, who then sold the provisional rights to Christos for more than he paid for the renovations, illegal but hard to prove and common practice. The property issue in Cyprus is an intractable mess and where there is a mess, there is money to be made; and where there is money to be made there is a Cypriot with a feverish resolve.

When he bought the provisional rights to the house, Christos knew that should a settlement take place the next day, the house would have been returned to its Turkish Cypriot owners but not the fee to him. It was a gamble, but considering the past record of officials on both sides involved in that schoolyard spat euphemistically called “the negotiation process,” the odds were overwhelmingly in his favor, or at least would be for many more years.

It was my duty the next morning to cook breakfast because I had lost to Christos in backgammon the previous night (he won 5-2). We had bet that the loser was to prepare and serve breakfast for the winner, as well as wash the dishes. Christos reveled in his victory, both that night and throughout the breakfast of fried halloumi, sausage and eggs. I did not hold it against him, since obnoxious gloating is the supreme purpose and prize in betting against a close family member or friend, especially a competitive one. I vowed to avenge myself upon him next time, but it would not be tomorrow. It was perhaps in order to lift myself from my sulking regret at my backgammon loss that I decided to descend in the morning to the southern end of the Akamas peninsula.

We had arrived at Arodes two days earlier than expected and so I would still have time to camp on a beach tomorrow night and then, rising at daybreak, round the peninsula and hitch back to Kato Arodes in time for dinner and backgammon revenge. I also felt I had to use my tent at least one night after lugging it so far. Christos had been in the Akamas a number of times and he wanted to do some yard work so he decided to stay in Arodes, though he would hike with me for the day down to Lara beach.

So after breakfast we set off for Lara, me with the full backpack, Christos with a water bottle. While passing through the neighboring village of Ineia, I stopped in at the general store to buy food for my hike. There was no one else in the store except a boy behind the cash register. “How long have you been working here?” I asked as he tried with difficulty to add up my few purchases.

“Since last year,” he said.

“How old are you?”

“Twelve.”

It was a Thursday morning and school was in session. It was only after I left that I realized I had been charged only two pounds—just over four dollars—for my three large plastic bottles of water, a package of dried Anari cheese, and several carrots and apples.

Our hike down towards Lara was uneventful except for a solitary renegade sheep that came charging and baaing up the road towards us, only to come to a standstill 20 feet away. It eyed us with contempt for several courageous moments and then, overcome by its genetics, bolted off in terror up the thistly hillside.

Though we were hiking down an old paved road, only about one car per hour passed us by, mostly tourists. These were desolate regions, at least by Cyprus standards. Christos had planned to catch a ride back upon getting to Lara but as it was afternoon he was growing concerned he may not find someone driving back up this way and wondered whether he should have caught a ride with the last car.

“This reminds me of a joke about the man who feared nothing because he believed God would come to his aid in times of trouble,” Christos said. “There was once a massive flood and the surrounding river waters threatened to submerse a town. Police came from neighboring communities to assist in the evacuation. But one man refused to go. He told the policeman, ‘I don’t put my faith in men, but in God. If I need help, God will come to aid me.’ He was the only man from the town to stay behind. The waters rose, submerging the houses on the lower elevations. This time police returned in a rescue speedboat and motored to the man’s house, where the water lapped against his front door. ‘This is the police,’ they boomed through a megaphone. ‘Your life is in danger. You must evacuate this house immediately. Come with us now.’ The man stuck his head out from his upstairs window and shouted back: ‘I put my faith in God, not men. God will aid me if I need help’ and with that slammed his window shut. Soon the waters submerged the entire house except the roof, onto which the man had climbed. A state helicopter came clipping overhead and an amplified voice boomed out: ‘This is the government. We are ordering you to leave this house. If you stay, you will drown.’ The man shook his head and waved them away with irritation, yelling inaudibly against the roar of the blades that God would protect him. The waters continued to rise and the man drowned. When the dead man came before St. Peter, he demanded to see God. So insistent was he that St. Peter finally relented and granted him a brief visitation. The man entered God’s chamber. “God,” he said, “all my life I have believed unswervingly in you. I pray, I read the scripture, I follow your commandments. Why then did you forsake me? Why did you let me drown?” To this God replied, “Let you drown? I sent you a van, a speedboat and finally a helicopter. What else did you want me to do?”

As if Christos had perfectly staged his account, a pickup appeared around the bend below us. “Well, he said gleefully, flagging it down. “Remember the proverb: when help comes, don’t turn it down, or it may be your last.” After exchanging a few words with the driver, he climbed into the front seat and off they went.

An hour later I was at Lara beach. To my surprise the seaside taverna that hugged the edge of the bay was open. As it was a weekday and in such a remote area, approachable only by dirt roads, there were only tourists there. I wrote and read over a Kypriako coffee and then shelved all bookish activities and attended to that most cherished of Cypriot national pastimes, eating. I had expected dinner to consist of bread, Anari cheese, carrots, and a partial sausage leftover from this morning but with the restaurant open, all that could wait till tomorrow. I ordered a village salad (a proper salad, including at minimum fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, feta, and onion, unlike the cud found too frequently at American roadside eating places that involves a heap of watery lettuce, a slab or two of water-repellent tomato and a few croutons for token diversity), battered squid rings and fries, and a KEO beer.

I regretted Christos was not there to enjoy the meal. Had he known the restaurant was open, I am sure he would have continued towards Lara. Only later would I find out that the farmer with whom Christos caught a ride lived only a half mile up the road and so Christos had to walk back most of the way. Had he not made a parable out of the joke about the godly man, he would have gotten a seafood meal and then a ride back home with one of the other customers.

The taverna owner said I could tent at the foot of the restaurant, which was out of the way of the loggerhead and green turtle nesting grounds farther down the beach. I pitched my tent on a sandy area dotted with pastel-colored flowers and then went for a swim. I had considered staying out of the water as I had not packed any moleskin and did not want the two pieces that were by now glued firmly under the two leftmost toes of my left foot to wash off in the sea. I had awoken yesterday morning in the Pano Panagia hotel to find two yellow blisters the size of marbles under those toes and I felt that the moleskin was the only thing preventing a mess in my sock. But this seemed a meager reason, even if a rational one, so I swam, forgetting about the blisters. I splashed about and sculled in the crisp water for ten minutes or so and then rinsed off under the restaurant’s outdoor shower, where I found to my surprise that the moleskin had not come loose.

I retrieved from my pack a flask of zivania—a clean clear Cypriot firewater made from pressed grapes—and sat on a rock by the shore, watching as Orion brightened into view in the darkening sky above the sea. The face of the waves glistened under the light of the half-moon just before they broke, and the creamy surf leapt up at the pebbly shoreline. The small stones gurgled and tumbled over one another as the sea inhaled to make way for the next breaking wave, its curling face briefly illuminated by the moon before expending itself.

It had been a long time since I had been alone under the stars at night, and I remembered again why one must occasionally extract oneself from the noisy hyperconnected world, even just for a few hours of solitude and repose. As I sat there silently on the beach, the night, the sea, my very own life suddenly turned momentous and profound. Even if the feeling is mere illusion, which I do not think it is, it is a worthwhile delusion to occasionally indulge.

Having said that, I am not one to preach about great intervals of solitude. At the moment of writing this, I am in western Vermont, having interrupted my job at the Cyprus Mail to return to the US for my yearly lucrative six-week stint planting trees along the banks of streams that wind through pastureland. It is hard work, with 11-hour days the norm, in which I generally work alone. Outside of bushwacking through a novel, this is far more time than I need or like to spend with myself. So with a walkman I distract myself with radio gibberish and books on tape, preferably books about hardship and travail (recent highlights include George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, The Best American Travel Writing of 2001 and—considering the subject of this essay—Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods) which are the only sorts of books that make me feel better about the fact that I am passing my days slouched in the manure-rich muck in either buggy 80 degree sunshine or showers and occasional downpours.

But there on the Lara beach I had no responsibilities, no work, and so I was perfectly happy there, alone. Of course, this was Cyprus, and one cannot be alone for too long. Three dogs, which I assumed were from the restaurant, came rushing over at me and after a five-minute fit of barking, calmed, with one even mustering the courage to near me for some patting. After that, he became my faithful watchdog, following me everywhere, and even held vigil at the foot of my tent with his head on his paws as I slumbered into the dawn.

The third and final part of this essay is the July 4 posting

Constantine Markides


 

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