If the Buffer Zone is ever demilitarized, swept for mines, and opened to all (which I am predicting, without much supporting evidence, will happen in my lifetime), it’s going to be an awesome piece of wilderness to explore-hopefully one that is supported by some ecological, environmental, and commemorative initiatives like the European Green Belt project. There is, in fact, a silver lining that comes with sealing off a chunk of land to humans for a generation or two.
This picture was taken very near the BZ from the Turkish occupied north.
At this time last year, I was couchsurfing with a university student in Morphou/Güzelyurt, North Cyprus. Her tiny flat was in a student village right next to campus directly above a bar called Beer Time. She and all of her friends were from Turkey. When I asked their opinion on the Cyprus problem, one of them told me point blank, “we are the invaders” between long drags on a cigarette. But it was hard to imagine that my new friends possessed any sort of malicious intent toward the island of Cyprus; their attitude was more like an apathetic shrug. They were similarly unfazed by the parallel strips of light illuminating the Buffer Zone to the south as we walked down a winding hill to another student watering hole.
One of the wildest and most distinguishing features of the Buffer Zone is the gradual, yet definitive slide into the overgrown weeds that separate the two sides. It’s not hard to guess why the homes and businesses around the BZ are in disrepair; no one wants to own property on the front lines of an unsettled war. But its important to note that the Buffer Zone is not a clean cut through a swath of Cyprus, it’s more like a disease that taints everything it touches and then some. Cities and neighborhoods can go on with an amputation, but not a festering wound.
I was still in a weird mental space at this time last year, frustrated that I wasn’t actually investigating the Buffer Zone and feeling discouraged by not having a very good plan to do so. I have always idealized the itinerant traveler and was also a little shocked by my inability to live up to this identity. I spent a good chunk of the morning walking along a beach, watching stray cats and the waves. From my notebook, here’s a quick snapshot:
“A mangy lion which is really just an extremely dirty cat limps into the sunlight at the beach in Larnaca, Cyprus. Last night was carnival and I am witnessing a party animal’s hangover ritual: a breakfast of ants, fresh off a nearby palm tree.”
This was the best sunrise I have ever seen. It broke over a tree-covered ridge where wind turbines spun eagerly in the first orange rays of light. I watched the sky’s colors gratefully as I ate a bowl of cold rice. A few minutes later, I smashed the pair of sunglasses I bought in Bethlehem when I forgot that they were stored in an exterior pocket of my heavy backpack. Sleepily, I cursed and shouldered my load.
The reason for my joy at sunrise was that the previous night had been one of the worst of my life. I had camped wild near Mosfiloti, perhaps a mile and a half from the Buffer Zone as the crow flies. The idea had been to explore some more difficult-to-access locations near the Buffer Zone on my way to Larnaca, but for reasons I can’t truly remember, I bailed on this plan and headed straight for the coast.
Night was awful as self-doubt and fear encroached in the darkness. There were unidentifiable howling noises and distant bangs, each of which my imagination amplified into twisted visions. Before these long hours, I had no idea that my mind was so powerful but susceptible, and could turn against me that easily. It was as if darkness had left me blind to everything I normally used to interpret and contextualize my thoughts and actions. I felt like I was down to survival mode after one sunset and a few hours.
While I’m not an expert, I have done a fair bit of camping, in places more remote and wild, and in more challenging environments. I am certified in wilderness first aid and I was reasonably well-prepared for my endeavor. I expected my experience to be liberating and a welcome get-away from the urban life I was used to. Instead, I found that I was just relying on a larger set of uncontrollable circumstances for my well-being which was terrifying and downright stupid.
The next day, I made it to Larnaca and spent hours wandering around different parts of the city looking for a place to stay. The campgrounds my map alluded to were closed and after walking nearly 14 miles I made my way to the same street corner I had started on and checked into the first hotel I had seen upon entering the city, took a shower and slept for 13 hours. I had never felt more lost or purposeless.
I was oddly delighted to find this little cafe less than 50 feet from the Buffer Zone in Nicosia. A lot of the buildings near the BZ were dilapidated and graffiti-covered, their owners having fallen prey to economic hardship when the UN made their location less than desirable. But here was one small establishment making the best of it by styling themselves after one of the most infamous icons of the 20th century. I had to smile.
The parallels between Nicosia and Berlin are so obvious that it is a legitimate marketing tactic to draw a comparison between the UN Buffer Zone and the Iron Curtain. Trading a little historical accuracy in exchange for name recognition, oddball kitsch, and a hip-sounding analogy seems like a decent deal to me.
There is also a prominently placed sign near the Lidra Street crossing, just above the police hut. It bears the name of the city in Greek, followed by “The Last Divided Capital” in English, French and German. The languages suggest that the sign is intended for tourists, but it’s not a marketing ploy; it reads like an epitaph. What, then, is the purpose of the sign? To remind visitors of the severeness of the Cyprus problem? To place Nicosia in the historical record? To align the city with other ‘reunified’ capitals as a message of hope? It made me feel better to note that this sign was affixed to plywood, propped between two buildings; it looked temporary.