Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Crossing the Border & A Restoration of Faith in Humanity

Cyprus is a country split by a border: the south is home to the Greek side, or the Republic of Cyprus, and the north is officially called the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Historically there is a lot of turmoil between the Greeks and the Turks, and it wasn't until 2003 that crossing points were established at the border. Now you can cross at two points on foot or at five points by car. I was wondering what it would be like to cross the border, imagining quite a tense encounter. I was incredibly wrong. My new friend from the U.K. and I decided to adventure to the North for a day trip. He is learning Turkish and wanted to practice with the locals and I really wanted to see Kyrenia, a harbor town founded around 1200 B.C.

When we got to the border checkpoint via Google Maps, the guard informed us that we were at a walking checkpoint, not a driving one. He said Google Maps often brings people here, when the driving checkpoint is actually only five minutes away. He has taken the liberty of making a hand-drawn map to help people find their way. We followed it and found the driving checkpoint, where we handed over our passports. We were chatted up by very kind guards who welcomed us and even offered us coffee. No guns, no hostility, no questions, only smiles and laughter. If only passing through immigration at the Philadelphia airport were as pleasant as crossing the Cypriot border, the world would be a better place.
We saw this Mosque from the road and decided to stop in. I am so happy that we did because it was a truly memorable experience.

Admittedly, I am not a terribly religious person - I try to live by the golden rule. I treated other as I would like to be treated and try to let kindness guide me throughout life. However, I have always been fascinated to see how people practice religion in foreign countries. In Sicily, Mexico and Nicaragua I have had memorable experiences in churches and I decided that Cyprus wasn't going to be any different just because people were practicing Islam instead of Christianity. Curiosity always gets the best of me, so I covered my head with this beautiful scarf, put an equally beautiful skirt over my jeans and headed inside.   
The service was very peaceful and the Mosque was lovely.  Afterward, the Imam, who leads the ceremony, welcomed me into the Mosque as a Christian and as an American.  He shook my hand and introduced me to his brother in law and nephew who were visiting from Turkey. He thanked me for being a teacher and told me I could take as many photographs as I wanted to. He encouraged me to come back anytime, reminding me that all are welcome. When we asked him how to get to the harbor, he told us he would just drive down and guide us and that we could follow him there.
There was a modest table outside of the Mosque, and the Imam told me that people often gather before service to share tea there.
I found these trees outside of the Mosque next to the little sitting area where then men drink their tea. The sign says the this is an olive tree that is 800 years old!
The Kyrenia Harbor (or Girne, in Turkish) was like stepping back in time. There was even a castle built by the Byzantine's in the 7th century to protect citizens from frequent raids by the Arabs. The boats were so unique and I really felt like I was in a whole different world. I wanted to see the harbor so badly and I'm really thankful that we made the trip.
A bad day fishing beats a good day working, especially on the Mediterranean!
A beautiful day to be on the water
Next, it was time to eat! We avoided the touristy places near the water and walked into town to look for a spot where people didn't speak English and there were lots of locals. We definitely found the right spot. There was Turkish pizza, which was thin yet crispy and incredibly flavorful. 
There were also grilled sausages, kabobs, vegetables and salads of romaine and cabbage with a tasty dressing that was very acidic, which made me very happy. We were given tea and yogurt drinks, too.
There are many stray dogs in Kyrenia, none of whom were starving by any means! They all had fat bellies and were rolling around, hamming it up for the tourists. One came up to greet me, and all of his friends followed. They were really nice and I think they wanted me to join their pack and the trotted alongside me while I walked down the street for awhile.
It was raining when I got back to Larnaca so I stumbled into this little restaurant near my hotel. The staff was so nice and they were clearly humbled by the gratuity that I left them.
Over a meal of huge mussels with tomato, feta and oregano, accompanied by lamb chops and a dry Cypriot house wine, I reflected upon my day. Crossing back onto the Greek side of the island at a different checkpoint had been just as nice of an experience as crossing into the Turkish side. The men were so kind and asked me about my photography before shaking our hands and sending us on our way with big smiles. I had been granted the opportunity to draw my own conclusions about a group of people who are looked down upon in my country right now, and I believe that my inclination has been right all along. There are extremists of every faith, many of whom put people's lives in danger, which I do not condone and saddens me deeply. But there are also kind hearted, welcoming people of every shape, size, faith and color all over the world and I am grateful that over the years I have been welcomed to observe and partake in their cultural customs in order to be a more well rounded human being. Kyrenia and the Turkish people showed me a side of the world that I have never seen. Cyprus has been such a breath of fresh air. It is a place that I can walk alone freely, without worrying about being robbed of my camera or being subjected to even one nasty remark or catcall from men. It is all sunshine and smiles here. I had a feeling I would really like Cyprus, but the people have made me fall in love with it.

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