Northern Cyprus – Part 3
The date was 16th January, the most depressing day of the year according to some. However, to my mind this theory only really applied to Northern Europe, where dark mornings, cold weather and the post Christmas drudge were in full swing. But we were in Cyprus, where even in January the sun was trying its best to turn me pink.
A large portion of the group had gone off on the bus with Tunç to the Karpaz Peninsula, the great swordfish-like spike emanating north eastwards. The thought of another day on the bus, visiting more crap miniature worlds had not appealed to us somehow, so we had taken the option of a free day. These additional trips were how the travel company was really making its money and damned if we were going to spend a penny over the £149 that had got us here. Not only this but we just wanted some time alone; this was our honeymoon after all. So, after a leisurely late breakfast we retired to our room once more for snoozes and to gaze out to sea (and stinking marsh). The balcony’s paving stones had been warmed to a pleasing temperature by the sun, which even by 10am was building up to an agreeable 18 degrees.
While Lisa slept I watched some Turkish music videos on TV. They all followed the same format: a young, handsome man with a very well-crafted beard wailed about a beautiful young woman who was now lost to him, she having usually been killed in some sort of tragic accident. Happier days were shown in the form of rowing boat picnics on swan-filled lakes, running laughing through the rain together and rolling around in each other’s arms beneath trees in a park. All of this joy was then swiftly terminated by either a) a car crash caused by the two of them smooching and not watching the road, b) her falling in slow motion from some unidentified precipice, or c) drowning in a major nautical disaster. Maybe these music videos explained why we had seen so few women in Northern Cyprus, because obviously they are all bloody dead.
Feeling suitably rested we headed to the beach. We found a stretch of sand right next to the hotel and suddenly felt very content. I had slowly begun to warm to our temporary home; despite initial misgivings its faded grandeur now seemed charming and I enjoyed its small town appearance. It had winding streets, a little shop, a casino and a curious man-made river running through the middle of it, with little wooden bridges for added quaintness. Now that the sun was out it no longer seemed important that the whole place was a bit beaten up; that was just part of its charm.
We took a walk along the beach but struggled to find anywhere decent to sit. For the most part the sand was litter-strewn or covered in a strange, crispy video cassette-like seaweed, in which you would expect to find a dead body covered in crabs. As we walked southwards evidence of the 1974 Turkish invasion emerged in the form of derelict pillboxes. It was difficult to imagine this now peaceful spot once being a scene of such carnage and this thought gave me a slightly sick feeling. The pillboxes were now falling to pieces, covered with graffiti and filled with empty beer cans. I had wanted to ask Tunç more about the invasion but he had been cagey about it when pressed by others the previous day. Maybe members of his family had been affected, or maybe he knew the whole invasion was a bit dodgy and should never have been allowed to happen.
Eventually we found a relatively clean section close to the hotel and set up camp. We both tried swimming but mainly thrashed around briefly and pretended it was all very invigorating. The sea bed was shallow and stony and peppered with glowing pieces of broken green glass. I had to keep reminding myself to be kinder towards this place; it was out of season and didn’t have the same wealth as south of the border, but would it really hurt to clean it up a bit? Stood knee deep in the Med I looked towards the horizon. We could jump on a boat and be in Syria in 3 hours, which was a sobering thought. It felt strange to be so close to such carnage and misery.
Back in the casino that evening we met Jill and Phil. They had spent their day exploring the coastline and had stumbled across a small fishing village called Boğaz. Here they had enjoyed a delicious (and very cheap) lunch at a friendly little cafe with a sea view. Across those very waves, the cafe owner told them, British jihadis had regularly been making the crossing to Syria. This was great news for the local fishermen, who were charging £1000 per person to ferry would-be ISIS fighters into the war zone. These young men were using cheap holiday deals to bypass the stricter border controls in Turkey and thereby reach their objective, which made me wonder whether anyone in our group was a secret Islamic extremist. There were certainly a few mad people on the trip (more on them in later chapters).
Our new friends had also explored an abandoned hotel we had passed in the bus the day before. It was a scene of decay and desolation, complete with collapsed roofs, piles of rubbish and graffiti daubing its walls. Astonishingly, a quick Trip Advisor search revealed that until only two years before this had been a much-loved and thriving resort. It was not the first or the last such hotel we would see on this trip; they were everywhere – huge skeletons of buildings that were either abandoned half-finished or abandoned completely. No wonder they were trying to get more tourists into the place in order to boost the economy.
All of this we discussed over more free drinks in the casino. Sue and Mike joined us and we merrily took it in turns to order rounds from the increasingly surly bar staff, who after a while stopped serving us all together. To be fair to them, we were taking the piss on a massive scale and eventually one waiter brusquely informed us that we would only be given more alcohol when we actually started gambling. It was then that I noticed the numerous cameras on the ceiling, like black eyes of Sauron watching everyone and everything. Clearly someone in the control room had sussed our game and banned us from the bar until we started to empty our money into the loud and colourful machines around us. The real gamblers in the place were hardly a good advertisement for the establishment: every single one of them looked miserable or on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A roulette table in the middle of the room was the scene of much distress for one young local who, judging from his anguished cries as more and more of his chips were raked off the table, had lost every penny he had in the world. Before he could be thrown out by the gang of suited heavies (where had they been hiding?) a friend bundled him out of the door and into the night.
We settled for tamer games and huddled around touch-screen fruit machines, into which we fed 10 and 20 Lira notes. The games were all essentially the same but had different themes, some of them so obscure it made you wonder who had thought them up. There was game called “Empress Sissi”, named after the tragically murdered Austro-Hungarian monarch of the 19th century. A line of three winking Sissis meant mega bucks and we welcomed each win with loud celebrations that brought envious looks from the regulars. Jill in particular had a superb run and won a very respectable 90 Lira on some sort of African safari game, while I prospered on the pleasingly named “Bonus Maximus”. A line of Julius Ceasars caused convulsive spasms of ecstasy as my winnings rose and rose. My God, this was a dangerous place. Maybe all those miserable faces in here had once been happy like mine was now.
The hostility from the casino staff was now close to boiling point. Yes, we had started to gamble but we weren’t supposed to actually be winning, for God’s sake. Thankfully we all frittered away our winnings and disappeared back to the safety of our rooms before we could be beaten up in a back room somewhere. Early next morning we would be leaving this place for Kyrenia, and already we were dreaming of finding a casino in that city, too.