This day last year was my third consecutive day of strange and unfocused experiences. I was couchsurfing with a couch potato and two Indonesians. I don’t think we did anything with our time except wait for it to be over. It’s funny how much the people I was with dictated my actions, it was a good reminder of why I enjoy traveling solo. I was also developing an admirable degree of patience which is the hallmark of an intentionally slow traveler, and a valuable platform for having all kinds of serendipitous experiences as a result.
But February 28th, 2012 was sort of ridiculous. The most interesting thing that happened was an intense hailstorm. We ventured onto the porch to watch. Dima had a cigarette. Then we went back inside.
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.
Starting over in Cyprus, socially and geographically speaking, was exciting, but difficult. As I also did on my first day in Israel/Palestine, I went on an incredibly long walk, didn’t really interact with any people, but tried to get my body and mind oriented to the space and the problem at hand. I think that in both cases, walking 10 miles was my nervous response to not knowing what else to do, and trying to suck the most out of a day. I came home to a lonely but symmetrical refrigerator.
Today was a travel day, and though I had landed in Cyprus by 9am, I was pretty shelled out by the efforts involved in the airport process. I don’t have any pictures from today, but here are a few random thought sketches.
Waiting on a street corner at 3am, with all of my possessions, for the Sherut to pick me up for the ride to the airport was a terrifying farewell to Nachlaot.
Airport security was not as bad as it could have been, but I’m pretty sure I was shunted into one of the more high-security inspection lines. My stuff was unpacked and inspected for explosive material; my harmonicas were apparently extremely suspicious.
Arriving in Cyprus was amazing. I felt totally relaxed in the airport while waiting for a shuttle to the capital, Nicosia. I was back in Europe, if a distant corner geographically speaking.
I was staying with a classmate’s family, though they were away when I arrived and I had the entire flat to myself, which felt astonishingly luxurious. I had an excellent nap as soon as I settled in.
That afternoon, discombobulated by daytime sleep, I wandered down a street with broken sidewalks to a market where I bought pasta, salad, bread, and bananas. I was surprised by how quiet the city felt and had a hard time orienting myself in the urban landscape. True, it was a residential area, though it seemed sparse and empty after Jerusalem’s fast-paced density. Welcome to the island?
February 20, 2012 marked the end of the first leg of Walking Walls, my last day in Israel/Palestine. I spent a lot of time uploading my photos to the cloud, backing up to my external hard drive, and wiping my memory cards to prepare for the legendary search operations at Ben Gurion. Apart from those efforts, I spent a lot of my day in the West Bank, starting the morning with a vigil at Qalandia checkpoint with Maschom Watch and later heading back to Walajeh, this time on foot, in search of a woman I’d been put in touch with by a mutual contact. She had told me to meet her under the giant olive tree in the village. Given my track record at this sort of quest, it’s needless to say that I did not find her or the group she was with. (We met in London a few months later.)
It was a busy day, and none of its hours added up to the milestone I thought it would. Transitions are hard, and they were especially challenging for this low-budget, plan-as-you-go adventure. Finding the time and energy to begin my mental transition to Cyprus didn’t fit in with my action-packed final days in the Holy Land.
That evening, I ordered a Sherut to the airport. I wrote letters to Jesse and Mori. I cleaned out my living space and moved my bags to the living room. And that was that.
I was glad to be going, no doubt, but I hardly knew where I was headed.
This time last year, I was ready to get out of the Holy Land. I was sick of the intensity, the thickness of the Jerusalem air. It was time to go. But before I did, I was determined to squeeze in as much as possible and I set hesitation aside for the last week of this first leg.
But an overpowering sense of ‘now or never’ led me back to Silwan, one last time, to bear witness to the destruction of the neighborhood community center. The building I had sat in a few weeks ago lay spread in front of me on the asphalt, twisted metal, a crate of chickens, Foosball tables and green onions. The video had been sickening to watch but I could not look away as the crane tore into the tin roof and dragged metal around aimlessly across the ground. In person, it was heavier, emptier, no crowd gathered to shout and protest, instead neighbors peered cautiously from shuttered windows.
I felt empty as I walked out of the valley with the sunset.