Notes from a Mediterranean island

I’m in Cyprus with Mark, where we’re spending 3 weeks in the southern, self-governed part of the island followed by one week in the Turkish-run north. So far the people are quite friendly, the food is delicious (I’m having trouble differentiating between Cypriot and Greek food), and you can pick up a liter of local wine in the supermarket for well under €2. The weather is warm and sunny for the most part, with temps in the upper 60’s to low 70’s most days, but even still I’m surprised at how many deciduous trees are not only hanging on to their leaves this late in the season but their green color as well. Only occasionally do we see spots of any autumnal gold or orange, while the only red appears in the form of the flowering shrubs and trees, such as bougainvillea, which I’m happy to say is everywhere.

Our current accommodation (the second of four Airbnb stays in total) is an apartment in a 3-story whitewashed building just outside the small town of Polis in the northern Paphos district, surrounded by fields, olive groves, and the turquoise Chrysochous Bay.

Olive trees grow like weeds around here, and those not part of someone’s cash crop are bursting with fruit that, once ripened, drop to the ground and turn black, peppering the roadsides and staining my sandals black where I walk on them.

Less than a mile from our apartment is the small and charming Latsi Harbor, where fishing, tourist and pleasure boats all jockey for space amidst a cluster of restaurants. They all have names of course. This one was our favorite.

Being unable to find a small motorcycle, we’ve rented a 125cc scooter in Paphos, which has taken us all over the district.

In my eternal quest to see wildlife I scan the hills, mountainsides and beaches as we zip along from city to town, village to village, and up into the national forests. On foot we hike long and rocky stretches of trail that contain regular deposits of one animal scat or another, but of the long list of creatures Mr. Google tells us we might observe, there is nary a long-eared hedgehog, flamingo, fruit bat, blunt-nosed viper, fin whale or monk seal in sight. What I do see a lot of, and frequently, are the feral cats that roam the island. Feral might be a tad strong; let’s say semi-feral. While they don’t appear to be pets, people do put bowls of food and occasionally water on street corners for them, and though they’re skittish and shy to a cat, now and then one will succumb to the offer of a human touch. There are no fewer than 15 of them resident on the grounds of our apartment, inherited according to our hosts by the previous owners of the building, who continue to come by three times a week to feed them. These are some of the luckier felines around, as they are also provided with shelter in the form of five or six wooden houses between them, and they are neutered and spayed. They must make due between feedings with lizards, mice and whatever else they can find. We’ve noticed no evidence of rodents anywhere we’ve been so far, which is almost certainly attributable in part to the abundance of cats tolerated, even encouraged, by locals. It doesn’t hurt either that there is no shortage of public trash cans, recycling bins, and restrooms. Indeed I’ve been quite impressed with the level of cleanliness everywhere we go. Occasionally we see litter but it’s not because there aren’t facilities supplied to prevent it. Sadly, I suspect there will always be people everywhere who would just as soon toss an empty food wrapper or soda can into the gutter than hold on to it till they come to a waste basket.

Today we decide to venture up to the Troodos Mountains in search of the elusive Mouflon, Cyprus’ national animal. While there is some debate as to how long these unique creatures have inhabited the island (with some people claiming since Neolithic times or about 8,000 B.C.), there is little doubt that they were hunted almost to extinction. Now a protected species, they roam freely across the high peaks of the Paphos National Forest, and as part of a conservation effort or a tourist attraction or both, a small group is also kept in a large fenced enclosure a short ways up a hillside close to the forest station. As we don’t see any of these shy and fleet-footed sheep in the wild while hiking around the park, I’m glad for the enclosure. We see what I’d describe as a small herd, including more than one large male with enormous horns.

On our way back to Polis, we decide to follow the signs pointing toward the north, taking us through Pomos and along the coast. After about five minutes, the paved road ends and we have to either turn around and go back the way we came or continue on a dirt and gravel road. We were explicitly instructed by the scooter rental agent not to ride off-road “under any circumstances, or the insurance will be void.” Naturally we agreed to these terms, and anyway Mark has stated repeatedly that this little scooter isn’t capable of travel off-road, especially as we’re two-up.

“Shit,” Mark says. We’re low on gas, and it’s 21 km to Pomos, but 36 if we go back in the other direction. “I don’t want to, but…” Slowly, hesitantly, we move forward. In a matter of minutes, it’s clear to both of us that we’re in for a long and bumpy ride. By the time we’ve gone five kilometers, which feels like twenty, the only thing I can hear between bursts of whining engine is the sound of Mark gnashing his teeth. On either side of us great big trees screen out all but the strongest rays of sunlight, and pine cones and dried brown needles carpet the very edges of the rock-strewn, rutted road. I’m convinced that any second now the scooter will splutter and die, or one or both tires will go flat. Perhaps they’ll actually burst like punctured balloons. So what? I think, what’s the worst that can happen? There are still two hours of daylight; there are no wild beasts in this country who’d want to eat us; and so far this broken excuse for a road has been mostly downhill. We can take turns pushing the scooter and walking for the remaining… I do the math… roughly ten miles and eventually we’ll arrive in Pomos only slightly the worse for wear. We’ll be a bit tired, that’s all.

Long moments pass, and by the time I see the next mileage marker to Pomos, I’ve begun to notice how much smoother the other, right side of the road appears to be. As we are in a country that refuses to join the 21st century and drive on the correct side of the road, however, Mark is struggling to navigate our itty bitty scooter two-up over and around pot holes and boulders instead. I can feel the strength with which he’s concentrating on keeping us upright and avoiding a flat tire and as quickly as I open my mouth to speak I close it again. I know better than to speak, of the road, of the needle fast approaching the little red line on the gas gauge, of anything.

Eventually a paved road emerges before us, and we both momentarily hold our breath as we wonder if it will continue on into Pomos or if it’s a temporary tease. The sight of houses up ahead reassures us and we both exhale a sigh of relief. I instinctively reach forward and pat Mark on the arm, the silent equivalent of Well done, thank you. He annoys the crap out of me at times (as, I will admit, do most people), but in situations like this he proves his mettle.

The scooter too, has impressed me. It’s not much to look at, it’s a wimpy and underwhelming piece of machinery with barely enough get-up-and-go to achieve third gear going up an infant hill, yet the tires on this baby are made to last. Or as Mark puts it, “They’re Indian made and tough as old boots, but bloody slippery in the wet.” Thank goodness it didn’t rain today.

PS. If you find yourself in a supermarket in Cyprus after a long day and you don’t have the energy or time to cook a proper dinner nor the moolah to eat out and you see a frozen pizza labeled “Cyprus classic” with a little old peasant woman smiling out at you and a picture of a vegetarian pie covered in luscious goodies like eggplant, tomato, mushrooms and peppers, don’t trust it! It will in actuality be covered with nothing but ham and corn. That’s right, corn. Surprisingly, it’s not half bad.

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