I needed some time off. I'd not had a holiday proper since Iceland, although I'd taken enough time off here and there to keep the HR people happy, and I'd had a quick flit to Rome for a wedding. On the whole, though, I definitely needed some time off. So, in my usual haphazard fashion, I told my boss I was taking the last two weeks of July, and then utterly failed to plan anything until the week before.
I'd not been completely haphazard. I'd tried checking the listings in the windows of a few travel agents, and I'd done some online searches. The thing is, it's pretty hard to find an online engine that will accept "send me anywhere for two weeks in July" as an input. Mostly when you do find one, it's catering to the US only, which Really. Isn't. Helpful. I wound up in the USIT offices on the 10th with the intention of making them find something for me. Jade-behind-the-counter decided that I'd like to go to Cyprus, and found flights and a hotel clocking in at just under €1000 - pretty respectable for that late a booking.
The next step, of course, was to find out what I'd gotten myself into. Here's what I "knew" about Cyprus: partitioned, partly owned by Greeks and partly owned by Turks; the U.N. ran the border between the two; and despite fairly recent attempts to get the sides together there was no real progress. I was unsure as to the status of the Green Line (the U.N. border), i.e. whether you could cross it, whether anyone or anything - such as ballistic lead - crossed it, etc. After digging around on the Internet, I assembled the following facts:
One simple reason: SUN. Nighttime on Cyprus is hotter than a good summer's day in Ireland. And we've not been getting too many good summer's days lately. So, off to the sunny island of Aphrodite to recharge my solar panels and get some quality non-work time in as well.
I should point out that the above list is deliberately skewed. The North vs. South divide in Cyprus is not only peaceful, it's no longer pragmatically considered an offence to enter the Southern part from the Northern part (although don't push your luck, I guess) and while I was out there, the two sides agreed to sit down together in September and try and sort something out. It's gotten more complicated recently as the Southern portion has joined the EU (and, as of January 1st, 2008, the Euro zone), while the Northern portion is only officially recognised by Turkey - specifically, it is not recognised by the EU - and to make matters even more entertaining, Turkey is attempting to negotiate its way into the EU also. Please turn to chapter seven of Convoluted Politics Volume One and read to the class.
The history of the split is also interesting: Greece - apparently with some support from the US - pushed a military coup on the island to, uh, "fix" the democracy there, and Turkey responded by invading the North to protect the Turkish Cypriots and, get this, restore the constitution. Cue the usual round of name-calling, shooting, blowing things up, etc. until everyone gets tired of it but noone wants to be the first to flinch, and you wind up with the current state of affairs. I'm reminded of a Garfield cartoon, where it's too hot for anyone to move: Garfield says, "ffft", Odie responds with "yap", and Jon weakly says, "quit fighting, you two".
And so on the 19th, I threw together what I thought I'd need, and took the Patton Flyer to the airport, which brought me to the airport via the Port Tunnel - my first time being through it, for what it's worth. I arrived in plenty time only to discover that there had been some sort of power outage and the check-in process had slowed to a glacial pace. To add to the fun, when I finally got to the counter (after at least an hour and a half of standing in line), the guy keyed in my details and said, "are you on standby?" No sir, I am most definitely not. So he pokes the computer with a stick, and it says, "ha ha, only kidding, Mr. Waide is a confirmed booking" and I'm good to go.
The conveyor belts for taking in the luggage were offline due to the power cut, so everyone was being instructed to simply drop their bags in a pile in the middle of the checkin area - without anyone watching them. I chucked my bag into the middle and wandered off to catch the plane. Somehow, despite all this chaos, and despite leaving a half-hour late, the plane landed early. Since this happened on all four flights (Dublin-Prague-Larnaca, and the same route back), I'm presuming it's because Czech Air gives the worst-case flight times or something.
I had two hours to kill in Prague, so I hauled out the Mac and played with the free WiFi, but it seemed a little flaky - after a while it just completely stopped working for no reason I could determine, and I couldn't get it to work again thereafter.
Back to the plane, and as noted we arrived early at Larnaca. The approach to Larnaca is one of those low-level over-water affairs: planes from the North fly past the airport, loop around over Aiga Napa, and then fly back in over Larnaca bay for the final approach. I took a few photos of planes coming in to try and capture this but it's tricky to get the sense of how low these planes are flying over the water.
The temperature was in the mid-20s when I exited the plane, and we had to sit for a long time before the bags started appearing. While we were waiting I found some local wireless networks but they were locked, and I also noticed that the cell info on my phone was updating with the name of the cell I was connected to. Neat!
I took a taxi to the hotel, attempting to field conversation from the driver who had ambitious but heavily-accented English, and who wanted me to get him a job in computers in Ireland (no, seriously); on arrival at the hotel, I'm pretty sure he stiffed me for more than was on the meter, but I was too tired to care.
But wait! No bed for me just yet! I'd sent an email to the hotel telling them I was arriving in the wee hours (it was about 3am when I got there), but I had received no acknowledgement. The guy behind the counter - who turned out, as best I can tell, to be the owner of this and at least one other hotel - basically phoned out for another taxi and told me I'd be taken to another hotel. No problem, I just want to sleep. While we were waiting he confused me further by taking my details and checking me in. Taxi arrived, and we drove off through the night to The Other Hotel.
It turns out the other hotel is out in the boonies. Like, WAY out. I'm pretty sure it's actually the next town along from Larnaca, in the same way that Bray is the next town along from Dublin (well, Dun Laoghaire, but you get the point). I half-wondered if I was going to end up in Aiga Napa or something, or if it was a mug-the-tourist scam. I'm also pretty sure we passed a strip club, followed shortly afterwards by an actual meat market (as opposed to a metaphorical one), and the proximity made me giggle. I could have imagined that, though. I was too tired to care too much about where the hotel was; the guy at the desk checked my passport, photocopied it, gave me a key, and told me I could talk to someone in the morning about where I was staying for the two weeks. I finally managed to get my head on a pillow at about 4am.
I succeeded in getting myself downstairs for breakfast (what sort of inhuman people offer breakfast that finishes at 9:30 in a resort location? Some people are only getting to bed at that hour...) which consisted primarily of grease with small amounts of warm pig-meat products which I would loosely describe as "sausages" and "rashers", but hey, I was hungry. Not hungry enough to eat more than a single bite of the awful sliced meat, though. I'm guessing it was salami, but it could also have been sawdust with glue.
A brief chat with the receptionist revealed that the owner of the two hotels had pretty much wanted me to spend my two weeks in the boonies while I was keen on staying somewhere within walking distance of the town centre. She was very understanding; while the substitute hotel was actually a three-star (versus the two-star I'd booked) and that much nicer, she agreed with the point about having to bus into town versus walking remained. She talked to the original hotel and they agreed to try and sort something out. I told her I was going back to my room to get some more sleep, and I'd be down later to find out what the situation was.
Before crashing out on the bed I discovered wireless access from the hotel across the road, which I later mentioned to the receptionist - she was highly amused, as they advertise themselves as having no Internet access. When I emerged from my restorative snooze at about 3pm, she told me that they'd sorted things out, I would be taxi'd back to the original hotel at no extra cost and my room was ready for me. Excellent!
So, into my third taxi in two days, and off to Larco Hotel. The taxi driver could have been Irish: bitching and moaning about having to go out to the boonies to pick me up right when the airport is busy, blaming the screw-up on the fact that the hotel owner hires untrained immigrants to do the work, saying he had to charge whatever he was charging because ... I actually lost the because. he had something going on about how Cyprus isn't a third-world country, but I couldn't follow his logic, if there was any. He didn't even have good regard for his own countrymen, pointing out double-parked and triple-parked cars saying "Cypriots will park anywhere". I'm sure, given the opportunity, he'd have told me how to solve the North/South divide, global warming, world peace, and so forth. At one stage he pointed out a SUV outside a hotel, telling me it was security for a Russian Mafioso (I didn't get whether he owned the place or was just hanging out there). Excellent way to make the tourists feel at home, Mr. Taxi Dude. I pretty much kept my mouth shut, and he eventually did the same.
Ah, irony is delicious. The "correct" hotel was not only a shabbier affair, the advertised Internet access consisted of a metered pay-for PC in reception with a cheapy base station attached to it, the range of which didn't extend to my room unless I sat out on the balcony with my (black) laptop soaking up as much heat as the sun could throw at it. On the plus side, as long as you had your own computer the WiFi access was free. I brought the laptop downstairs and used a VPN connection to my home network to check on email and the like before heading out for dinner.
I figured I'd get the traditional Cypriot meal in first, so I had kleftikos, which is basically lamb cooked in an oven until it's so tender that it falls apart when you make a loud noise next to it. Really nice. Afterwards I decided I'd do my usual "I live here, so I'll walk" routine, and of course I managed to get a bit lost, but did find myself wandering past an Irish bar. Larnaca's fairly small - at least, the area I was sticking to, anyway - and I didn't have too much trouble getting myself reoriented and back to the hotel. I had a few beers in the hotel bar, half-watching The Mask of Zorro on the idiot box and talking to the barmaid.
Who was an immigrant from Cameroon.
You remember that comment the taxi guy made about unqualified, uneducated immigrants screwing things up? This girl was working on hotel management and accountancy qualifications, spoke at least nine languages including better English than many native English speakers of my acquaintance, and had a two-year plan for how she was going to complete both her qualifications and get home to visit her family in Cameroon. The impression I got, to be honest, was that the hotel screw-up was entirely down to the manager, and I don't think it was accidental - it's a way of feeding lodgers to the hotel in the boonies where they wouldn't otherwise go, and because it's so far out it's more likely they'll stay poolside and spend money on food and drink there instead of taking that cash out of the hotel. If I'd actually been the sort to spend my day at the pool and my night in the hotel bar, I'd have stuck with the replacement hotel.
Eventually I figured I'd head off to my bed, where I watched Rendition on DVD which, well, enh. Great part of the world to be watching such a DVD, I guess, what with Egypt just over the water a bit, but really, I found the movie to be rather dull.
Monday set the pattern for the rest of the holiday: get up; wander into the town centre for lunch; back to the hotel for the afternoon to avail of either the air conditioning or the poolside area; out for a run as soon as it got cool enough in the evening; and then off in search of dinner and a few beers for the night. Variations included occasionally getting out of bed early enough to catch a swim before breakfast, and using the hotel wifi to catch up on news, email, etc. Since that about describes the entire fortnight, I will merely bundle everything into an unordered list of Things That Happened.
There's some sort of local catering company - Varoshotis or something like that - who own a bunch of restaurants and pubs around Larnaca. Their notional Irish pub was far more like an English pub; so much so, in fact, that I was sitting at the bar waiting for lunch to show up and wondering idly why they had an Oscar Wilde quote on the wall. It did eventually dawn on me when I looked at the placemat and saw IRISH PUB written on it.
Food servings were generally far too plentiful. In one place, ten euros got me more pork than I could eat and a 63cl bottle of beer. I have no idea why 63cl was deemed a good size for a bottle, either. The food was never fantastic, and paying more for food did not, on the whole, make it any better. Pretty much everyone served chips with everything, to the extent that I was half-expecting chips with the Chinese meal I had one evening. On my last night, I took a mad notion to have swordfish steak with a garlic bread starter, and after trying and failing to find a restaurant that (a) had both items and (b) was willing to seat me before I died of hunger, I figured I'd just hit up the next restaurant with at least the swordfish. I found a promising-looking streetfront menu and went inside, but once seated I discovered that the streetfront menu was actually for the restaurant next door and not only did the Wrong Restaurant not have swordfish, they also didn't have any beer other than Carlsberg. Being sufficiently hungry to abandon the original plan, I wound up having cod in either batter or breadcrumbs - I'm not sure which - which arrived coated in some white sauce and for some bizarre reason the combination of fish and sauce tasted exactly like a plain omelette. Not a trace of fishiness off it. Oh, and it was served with chips, of course.
Other food oddities included being served both rice and chips on two occasions, and the presence of unasked-for salad in pretty much any sandwich I had (e.g. a ham and cheese toastie turned out to be a ham, cheese, tomato, lettuce, cucumber and mayonnaise sandwich, lightly heated). One restaurant blew a circuit breaker (which was only operating external lighting) while I was seated out front waiting for my food, so while they waited for an electrician to show up everyone got candles on their tables. While I was there I noticed a Honda Civic parked really badly just down the road, and next thing some guy comes out of a house, bare chested, and he's a weedy-looking skinhead with a swastika tattooed on his chest. Posit: neo-nazi idiot who can't park. The "can't park" bit was confirmed as I walked home and passed the same car parked halfway out in the middle of the road.
Restaurant service was, in general, neither good nor bad; the most annoying part was that it frequently took an absolute age to get the bill - or more precisely to catch someone's attention in order to ask for the bill. As soon as you'd gotten your food, the staff generally ignored you completely. I did get an Indifferent Omelette at one restaurant, but it wasn't quite as bad as Seattle's Rude Coffee. Oh, and at one place, the head waiter (at least, the guy trying to hustle people in off the plaza) appeared to be drunk.
My Secret Superpower in action: freebies included a few shots of ouzo (two restaurants; I got the impression that for some places this is more-or-less standard post-meal fare), a glass of brandy, tequila from the barstaff's stash, a beer bought for me by the owner of a bar and another two from his staff, a couple of free non-alc items, and two free desserts. No, I really do not know how I do this.
Funny thing with "the local" I established for myself after a few visits: on one of the quieter nights, I wound up at a table with the barman, the dj, and the two owners. Introductions were made... sort of. The owners were very conspicuously not introduced to me by name, just simply as the owners of the place. I thought this was so conspicuous that when I was leaving, I addressed the group: "Kiri. Angelo. <pause>. The guys." They duly cracked up laughing.
I went to a beer promotion (at the aforementioned local) on the first Friday night. The promotion: drink the beer and get a ticket. Trade the ticket for a spin of a bottle inside a tray marked with prizes (and also with one dud slot marked "better luck next time"). Collect prize. Repeat. I won everything, including the baseball hat they didn't have (i.e. it was one of the prize slots, but they had none with them), and then at the end of the night the bar owner brought me over to the promoter, landed a fresh drink in front of me, and we talked for about half an hour about various things, during the course of which the promoter gave me a few more bits of merchandise that weren't included in the promotion. Go me!
I found three Irish bars: one was closed - shut down, that is - and the other two were distinctly English, even though one of them had a Dub behind the counter. No hope of getting anything resembling a decent pint of Guinness, either: I got a five-part pour on the first attempt (plus a bonus round of using a soup spoon to remove some of the head), and about the most pleasant of the stouts I laid my hands on was served from a can. Mostly I stuck to the local brew, Keo.
Cypriots will park anywhere. Triple-parking on a corner was not unusual. And the place was overrun with cars; there was a constant stream of traffic along the seafront road, ranging from bicycles to motorbikes to quadbikes to cars to SUVs to trucks.
My swimming is terrible. I didn't swim every day, but the days I did, I got tired very quickly. I guess I'm way out of practice but then opportunities for swimming while at home are limited due to the fact that the sea is freezing and my other activities at the gym tend to chew up my entire evening. Perhaps I'll adjust that, since I used be if not a good swimmer, at least an enthusiastic one. It also didn't help that I'd forgotten my goggles. Oh, and I'd done a few dives before I saw the "Strictly No Diving" sign, but noone seemed to mind, really. Nor did they mind me swiming at 8:30am when the pool wasn't supposed to be "open" for another hour and a half.
Running in 30-degree heat is... interesting. The first day I went out, I ran for about ten minutes, and used the distance I covered as my running loop for the rest of the holiday. Turns out it was about 2.25k, and by the end of the holiday I'd knocked my time down to 8:34.
The nearest thing I found to an Official Tourist Tat Shop had not just the usual bundle of Cypriot stuff (Aphrodite in various forms, things featuring maps of Cyprus, copied-from-archeological-discovery pottery and statues) but also the sort of cheap and nasty tat you'd find in the same sort of poky stores that sell wooden puzzles and incense sticks - you know, like wooden puzzles and incense sticks. And pewter dragons. And things with dolphins. And a selection of "witty" tshirts with slogans like "I'm not 50, I'm 21 with 29 years' experience".
One of the souvenir shops was selling a whole range of British paraphernalia, including Union Jack-themed items and merchandise for various soccer teams, and there was also a cabinet full of nasty looking weaponry - not just your average collection of butterfly knives, but also knuckle dusters and the like. I can only assume they were catering to their customers...
The hotel was pretty calm and quiet until the stereotypical Lads From London showed up. Several mornings I was woken up by someone banging on the door next to mine - why they couldn't just phone up from reception is beyond me - and I heard one of the hotel staff telling them off at the poolside for some reason. Mostly, though, I think this crowd generally stays down at Aiga Napa.
About the only real touristy thing I did was to go look at Larnaca Castle, which didn't really have much going on but did have some nice views over the bay and the waterfront. To the right of the entrance was a fairly nondescript set of rooms, one with a pit in the floor, and it turns out the latter was actually an execution chamber (although the gallows is long since removed) and was in use up until about 1945. It felt a bit creepy for no reason I could put my finger on. I contemplated checking out the aqueduct, but it turns out it's not a Roman one at all. They built it a mere 300 years ago.
I failed to find the post office on at least two occasions, and on my third attempt, I stopped to buy some postcards and the guy asked me if I needed stamps. Ha. No need for mister post office!
I bought some toiletries to make up for the stuff I'd not brought with me, including some shaving cream branded VIKING made in that Nordic stronghold of, er, Bulgaria. The top had some sort of weird plastic plug in it which I ended up savaging open with a nail clippers before discovering that the screw-on cap had an indentation in it which would have fitted the plug perfectly...
I was in my room for a week before I discovered that I had not one but two balconies; however, the second was inaccessible for some reason. Possibly to stop me from freaking out the people in the next-door apartment block whose windows I'd have been looking into.
I helped two greek kids get their laptop onto the hotel WiFi, and tried to debug the broadband connection at the local. Busman's holiday!
I spent some of my time catching up on things I'd downloaded to the laptop for later perusal, mostly reading material but also some movies. I watched Man About Town (interesting premise, terribly dull movie), a documentary about Orson Welles, Randy Pausch's Last Lecture (which everyone should watch, really) and the aforementioned Rendition and Mask of Zorro; I read Wicked, some Bruce Sterling short ficiton that I've had for so long that I've forgotten where I downloaded it from, God's Debris, Greed, and The Laws of our Fathers. The latter two came from a bookshelf in the hotel reception area where I also picked up a book called Jezebel in Crinoline, but I didn't manage to get beyond the first chapter or so since it was terribly written. I also watched most of the TED talks on my iPod. Annoyingly, you can't use your iPod as an outboard version of your music collection in iTunes - you can mount the iPod as a disc and randomly play the curiously-named files, but you can't actually use iTunes in any useful fashion to access the iPod content. Seems rather silly.
There was, of course, the obligatory nerding: I spent some time trying to do things with Lua that the language plainly wasn't intended to do (essentially 32-bit integer manipulation), and also managed to completely crash my Palm Pilot (albeit recoverably) while trying to hack something to integrate with the address book. Mostly, though, the laptop was either a media centre or something to browse news with.
Greek: efcharisto is thanks, and parakalo is please. Except parakalo is also what people say to you if you say efcharisto, and it's also apparently how you answer a phone. Oh, and yasoo is a sort of informal greeting/farewell as well, apparently, as being the Greek equivalent of "cheers!" when drinking.
Lots of Russians about. Although I can speak no significant amount of either Russian or Greek, I did find I was able to tell the two apart. I also found some people I'd guessed to be British from their general appearance were actually Russians!
There's a lot English signage, which is hardly surprising given the demographics of the visitors, but it's not always correctly translated. One place, for instance, served me "Chicken Gordon Blue". There's also a ton of English chain stores, like Top Shop, M&S, etc. I fully expected to find a charming little local place hidden away in the back streets where they serve Watney's Red Barrel and cheese and onion crisps...
The place seems to be permanently under construction (see the last paragraph of the previous link!) On one occasion I was jolted awake by the sound of masonry being dumped into a skip; the church of St. Lazaros was picturesquely situated next to a dug-up, half-paved square; and several construction projects were under way along the beachfront. There were also a few abandoned ex-construction projects, like (I presume) flats whose funding had run out.
I got a stretch Merc for my taxi to the airport, where I arrived at 1am for a 3am flight (and was again charged marginally more than was on the meter). Sitting on the plane surrounded by half-drunk, mildly rowdy Leaving Cert students put paid to any plans I had for sleeping. Stopped in Prague again on the way back for another two hours, ran into the same problems with the free WiFi - it dropped out at some point and wouldn't work properly after that. Had a ridiculously expensive Red Bull to keep myself going (cost over a fiver!) and then boarded the flight to Dublin. Landing in Dublin, there was rain on the plane's windows and we got stuck in traffic while en route to the terminal from the runway! Stood around for 15 minutes waiting for the Patton Flyer to show up, and back home an hour later. Thus endeth the holidy.
Photos here. I will attempt to drag some of them into this page with context at a later date.