Flashback: Cyprus May 2018

03 May 2018

The first entry in my notebook log of this trip: Lauren picked me up at the airport. But the adventure started before that. This was my first big international trip.

I decided to pack light and only bring my small Patagonia daypack, maybe 20 liters. Since I didn’t have much space I layered up on clothing to get on the plane. Leggings under my pants and just a few layers of shirts couldn’t be that bad right? But in May in Seattle… I’m surprised TSA didn’t suspect anything or at least laugh at me as I came up covered in sweat. It was so damn hot. After passing through, I stripped off the layers and stuffed them inside or tied them to the outside of my pack.

I flew to London and endured an incredibly boring 6 hour layover in the middle of the night. The airport was shut down, but the lights stayed bright and the buses to the city weren’t running. I laid like an upside down turtle on my pack and tried to sleep on a bench in the main lobby. Sleep didn’t come and the night dragged on but soon enough I was heading towards my next stop, Ukraine.

It was a small plane. I had booked through a weird travel agency. I half expected to never make it there. The flight was cheap, there were few confirmations, and I didn’t know what I was doing anyway. It was about a 5 hour flight to Kiev, Ukraine from London. I slept most of it, as I usually do. But I remember waking up as we started the descent. I peered over my neighbor to look out the window. It was a desolate desert landscape below.

It was a bumpy landing. It wasn’t a prop plane but it was a small jet. The runway looked like it didn’t welcome a lot of visitors. We exited off the plane in the middle of the airstrip onto a bus. I was nervous – traveling alone and not knowing the language or culture there. I was either stupid for choosing a cheap flight like this, or confident enough to do it, which also sounds stupid. This was the cheapest route. No one in the airport spoke English but I anticipated that. I found myself completely lost though, I was not self-educated enough to even buy a water (US dollars or credit card). I felt like I didn’t prepare for this and hustled to my gate. A few hours later I was relieved I had found the correct gate. I got on another bus to the middle of a runway, got on a much smaller plane, and jetted off to Cyprus – the south side.

Cyprus had recently experienced a war – in the early 1970s. Turkey now owned the North side after invading the island previously owned by Greece… more on that later. I’d be flying into the Greek-Cypriot side into Larnaca. The plane had about 20 rows of seats and maybe a total of a dozen passengers. As we were landing in the dark in Larnaca, the heavily intoxicated woman behind me played the anthem of Cyprus on her phone. Everyone around me began singing to it.

After another bumpy landing, we arrived in Larnaca. Half asleep I stumbled through customs and looked for Lauren. Casually, in a bright blue t-shirt from the caving club, she lounged in the waiting area for me.  We collided and embraced with laughter. I was so happy to see her.

She had mentioned her trip to Cyprus a few weeks earlier and threw out the idea of me joining her. I asked if she was sure she’d want me to come because I’ll always say yes. She confirmed and I bought my ticket the next day. Here we were, on a caving trip…

The reason Lauren was planning a trip to Cyprus was to follow up on a Fulbright study she had done a couple of years prior. Lauren introduced me to the Fulbright scholarship when I told her I was looking for a way to go abroad. I applied later that year but my support letters didn’t come in on time, I’m not sure if I would have had a shot anyway. I tried again this year and am waiting to hear back… Lauren pitched a study to survey caves for bat use and novel spider species that were threatened by mining. She was participating in a caving course to provide local Cypriots with the knowledge to explore these caves safely and support the conservation of them. I had climbing experience and limited caving knowledge but agreed to help as much as I could.

We’d be staying with her friends who generously agreed to host us. We arrived at their apartment and were greeted with pork and rice with orange, for dinner. The food was delicious and conversation was lively until 2:30 AM.

04 May 2018

The next morning we woke up on their balcony. We had pulled out an inflatable mattress from their living room to the balcony the night before – it was too hot inside. On the balcony we were surrounded by plants, sunlight, and in the morning – weekday traffic. But we woke up in good spirits, though a little groggy. We went to a coffee shop nearby and swooned over the barista – a young man with a head full of dark brown hair and soft eyes. We’d go there often over the next week. Fueled up on caffeine, the next stop was a bakery for pastries and olive & cheese bread. I went to the ATM to get some cash in the appropriate currency (Euros for the Greek South side and Lira for the Turkish North side), then we went to the Cave School at 11 AM to get ropes. The goal that day was to do a cave called Pentadaktylus with Salih and Cyan.

Salih was Lauren’s academic correspondence in Cyprus. They had met in Atlanta, Georgia near her home, after he learned of her caving experience and graduate studies. Salih was older now and Cyan joked that he moved at turtle-speed. After finding the entrance of the cave, we descended into the cold exhales. We checked Salih’s spider traps which looked sort of like jars of anti-freeze to entice the insects. Exploring the cave, we found old bulbs, flares, and batteries from the original exploration. Debris now gathered in the cave, we debated about what the significance of the artifacts were. Should they be a part of a museum or discarded as trash since it was left behind garbage after all? We saw natural formations in the cave like soda straws and helectophiles formed by pressure within the cave. I took a photo of a goat skull as we exited.

After resurfacing, we looked for another cave entrance. Supposedly there were two entrances, the second not yet found. We hiked up between the fingers of the mountain searching with no luck but amazing views of the rock formation and Mediterranean Sea beyond. It was a hazy view, the air looked thick. Lauren said the winds were blowing North  and there were sandstorms blowing across the sea.

After giving up on finding the other entrance – though we explored many potentials – Salih suggested we get ice cream at Mardo’s. Mardo’s was supposedly the best place to get ice cream in North Cyprus, it did not disappoint.

Back at the school, we dropped off the ropes and gear. The school was an old farmhouse in the village of Kalyvakia. It was rural, quant, and homey. I quickly felt the importance this project had for Lauren. The life here was pure, friendly, and curious about the landscape they called their home.

The next stop was to gather a speleotherm sample and transport it across the border to the South. There, we would give it to the university to study the mineral structure to age it. We wrapped it in a cave club t-shirt and rolled up to the border. The patrols didn’t care to notice the wrapped speleotherm below Salih’s feet and only asked if we bought Turkish cigarettes.

Nope, no cigarettes – we answered.

We met Iris at the university to pass off the specimen around 9 PM, then decided to get kababs. Feral cats circled us as we ate them.

05 May 2018

We traded coffee served by the handsome barista for a salmon breakfast sandwich at Second Cup. Later, we’d head to the cave school for the next lesson. Since we were early heading up there, we stopped at Mustafa’s place. Mustafa was Lauren’s mentor in the village. He was also passionate about caves, caved himself, and wanted his community to understand how important it was to protect them. It was like Mustafa was the “mayor” of this small village that butted up against one of the mountain ranges threatened to be taken down piece by piece through mining.

It was 10 AM and already felt 90+ degrees. Mustafa wasn’t home but Lauren led the way to his patio behind his house. As I scanned the home, my eyes fell onto a goat head speared onto a fence post. I looked back over my shoulder to the goats I had just passed, and realized the butcher zone was in site of the others. Blood covered the patio floor below the speared head, it was a recent kill. We waited until Salih joined us and beckoned us to the school for the next class at 10:30 AM.

The class began with trip updates from the day before. The group had been split into multiple teams to explore the newly mapped caves of the island. For the evaluation of the students I joined for the presentations, peer reviews, and reviews by the instructors. The instructors came from various places – Cyprus as well as nearby countries like Slovenia, Greece, Lebanon, and of course Lauren from the US. They were instructing on “best practices” in caving. This included drilling for new rappel stations, minimal damage to cave structures, rope technique, and etiquette for entering protected places.

After the course evaluations, I learned a new changeover technique from a few members from Lebanon. After hauling myself up to the rafters of the cave school, I hung dangling learning a different technique to change to rappelling. They were incredibly patient as I learned the new system. After I returned to the ground, I indulged in a potent “coffee,” more like thick espresso, with Habib and Lauren. We practiced new knots over our shot glasses of caffeine. We soon discovered it was Habib’s birthday as part of the crew came out with chocolate cupcakes in song. As the school ended, we took a group photo together.

As a newcomer to the village, I was given a tour by the Muhtar (meaning “chosen” in Arabic:, is the head of a village). Lauren and I followed him around as he demonstrated the secret locks for all of the doors to his home. They were mechanical puzzles, requiring a specific pattern of moving pieces of wood and metal before giving way and opening the door. Salih and Mustafa had purchased a plot of land some ways out of town where they were building a traditional homestead. We drove an old car with chrome on the wheels and bumper down the sandy roads leaving town. Lauren crammed in the front with her leg jammed against the stick shift, and I in the back among blanket and clothes that had been left in the car. We drove the roads lined with olive trees until coming to an abrupt stop in front of the structure of clay and logs. It was impressively formed; it contained a kitchen area and upstairs bedroom, as well as a small pond filled with white ducks. We enjoyed a warm beer while we explored the plot with the Muhtar.

The drive back was more eventful. Half way back to the village, the engine stammered and we slowly limped down the road until we stalled. Luckily, Mustafa was not too far ahead and saw us stationary, enveloped in a cloud of dust, and backtracked to help us out. We bent over the engine but couldn’t figure out the problem so we attached a chain precariously from the front of our vehicle to the back of Mustafa’s. Mustafa floored it jolting our car forward. This resulted in us losing control of the vehicle as we slid past Mustafa (in front) and ran off the side of the road. As we were passing Mustafa, Lauren shouted “Do the brakes not work?!” We left the Muhtar’s car on the side of the road and crammed into Mustafa’s car, with Lauren and I folded in half in the trunk (it did have a window).

After getting back to town, we reshuffled into two vehicles again and drove up the mountain to a small restaurant called Alev Kaya, and had a beer with Mustafa and his wife. There are a lot of stray dogs in the mountains, especially around food establishments. A pair of golden pups pulled at our heartstrings as we ate.

Later, back in town, we had a huge dinner with the cave group. The restauraunt was near where Salih lived on the North side. Dozens of cats lingered around the door, periodically getting shoed away by the waiters. They would retreat and howl until someone tossed them some scraps. The dinner was eclectic since Salih organized it. We had an array of appetizers ranging from sheep brain, pickled snails, “mixed” glands of who knows what, liver, and some other things I tried and probably blocked out. We sampled each dish and would make faces expressing our impression of the oddities. We washed down the meses (appetizers) with Rakki and wine, then finally retired to the South side of the island hitting our pillows after midnight.

06 May 2018

The next morning was a strugglefest, our cumulative lack of sleep had caught up to us. Even the barista couldn’t wake us out of our daze as we slowly sipped our coffee and tried to rally for the activities planned for that day.

We would be exploring new caves in the Northern side of the island that day. They were located on old battle grounds from the war. It had been decades since the war was resolved but still hundreds of missing persons, likely killed, that families were trying to track down. Since the caves could potentially act as places to hide the bodies during the war, a UN member came with us. He brought his young daughter, softening the feeling of being strictly regulated. The first cave we descended into required one technical rappel at the beginning and dropped us into a room with a sloped floor up to the far wall. A name and date from the 1970s was etched into one of the rocks. While we explored the room, I found a small passageway at the top of the sloped floor that looked heavily traveled with drag marks on the ground. We took turns squeezing through the opening, which was barely large enough to wiggle through), then scrambled down a slanted wall. Throughout the descent, the drag marks persisted – it looked as if metal had rubbed against the rock breaking off small protrusions. At the bottom, there was a narrow passageway that you could walk down with shoulders brushing each side. We followed it as long as we could, squeezing under and through rock obstacles until it dead ended. We never figured out what had made the drag marks but proposed perhaps it was a place to store artillery or other goods needed for the soldiers.

We had planned to do a second cave nearby that day. Lauren had the GPS coordinates of it and as we peered down the small tire sized hole, I felt the ground start to give way beneath me. I looked down to find I had my right foot on a blunt-nosed viper! I jumped backwards as it began to uncoil. Getting bit by a one of these guys would make for a very bad day – especially up in the mountains, especially in an area where we didn’t know where the nearest hospital could be, and especially not knowing if my health insurance was valid here. The snake dropped down the hole and disappeared. Despite some arguments on whether or not we should still go down, we bailed and left the cave for another time.

Lauren and I split off from Florian and his daughter and made our way to Kyrena. Kyrena was on the Northern most side of the island and was a town tourists would visit. We walked the streets of vendors and looped our way back along the beach with the smells of the Mediterranean Sea. We indulged in a fancy dinner on a rooftop of a restaurant – we ate lamb, fries and drank a couple bottles of red wine. It was a bit upscale for us in our caving clothes and eruptions of hyena laughs but we didn’t care.

07 May 2018

We continued our visits to tourist attractions by making the trip to the North side to visit Saint Helarian castle. We wound our way up the foggy road to breach the hillside with the castle. As we neared, I could see one of the turret like posts peaking through the mist. The castle sprawled across the rocky outcrop summit of the hill. Just as we left the cruiser, it began to sprinkle. The castle was fairly intact though some rooms had missing ceilings or floors. Foliage began to take back the hillside and flowers and vines rooted into the bricks and crept out along the walls. We jogged and ducked into the different rooms and buildings as the sprinkle escalated to rain. Eventually we made our way up to the tallest point of the castle. What had looked like prayer flags from below was actually bits of trash tied to the platform, dyed to look decorative. It took some close lightning strikes for us to decide it was time to turn back and make our way back down to the car. I discovered Lauren gets anxious with slick steps after she decided to turn around and go down them backwards – throwing it in reverse. I could barely breathe doubled over from laughing.

We left the rain behind, though it didn’t matter since we were about to hop in to another cave – hot cave. It was, hot. Perhaps there was another entrance that allowed the arid hot air to pass through the cave system. Typically caves keep a constant cool temperature. We dropped into the cave on a simple rappel system and admired the formations that looked like bacon and bee hives, avoided stepping on stalagmites and helectotherms, and tried not to crash our helmets into the stalactites. There truly is an entirely different world underground, one could only imagine through an artistic mind. We hauled ourselves back up the rope dripping in sweat from the sticky atmosphere and labor.

Our sleep deprivation was catching up to us and luckily Lauren drove since multiple times I awoke to my chin dropping into my chest. Half hallucinating, we pulled in to the grocery store parking lot – we had offered to cook dinner for our hosts and despite our fatigue we rallied and marched into the store. A quick pass through, we brought back veggies and chicken and sluggishly cooked them up in their kitchen. Whether it was our cooking ability or lack of attention, the meal was turning out bland. Katarina saved the day by dashing in some of her spices. After a few rounds of cigarettes, the conversation turned lively again and we chatted on the porch until 1 AM.

08 May 2018

I had crammed my climbing shoes and harness into that tiny day pack hoping we would get a chance to climb somewhere on the island. We woke up early – as the week progressed with late nights and early mornings, at times I would feel the fatigue making me melt into the floor. We had limited time together here though and were determined to fill it as much as we could, even if it meant burning the torch at both ends. Or as we called it, red lining. We drove the Xeros Valley in the rain to meet up with some of Lauren’s friends – older from England, to climb. Andrew and Janet drove an old white jeep that was really really cool. We met them at a little shop where we put a bandaid on being tired with some coffee. At this point, the car locks were stripped and broken. To unlock the car, we would manually unlock the trunk, crawl across our shit ton of gear in the back, flop over the back seat, stretch and flip up the back door lock, then retreat back without knocking everything over or getting stuck among our ropes. We were becoming experts in this routine but it required more effort than we had energy to expend on. It was my turn so I asked Lauren to hold my coffee while I threw myself like a beached whale across the back seat. We hauled ourselves back into the car and headed out following the white jeep.

It took awhile to get down to the crag, maybe about halfway down the South side of the island. We drove in the rain along the twisting route up and over the hills of eastern Cyprus. The long drive actually gave us a chance to finally catch up on what was going on back in our daily lives in Seattle. We pulled up to the crag and met a beautiful but quite dumb dog named Steed. Throughout the rest of the day he would walk, lay, dig, and try to chew on our climbing ropes. The belayer would not only have to spot the climber as they hauled off shitty crumbly rock, but also babysit the dog. Just before we started climbing, Lauren got stuck – a state we would both experience as exhaustion snuck up on us. We had some stare at the ground time sitting in the shade until she recharged and was ready to climb. The rock truly was rotten and we tried to build up our confidence by top roping what the older English guy put up. Eventually, nerves subsided as we got used to pulling off pieces of rock and vegetation on the climbs and we decided to give a climb called “Safari, 6A” a try. Lauren began the first half of the climb and after the second or third bolt took a tumbling fall as she pulled off a platter sized rock off the wall. Her nickname from here on out was “the Excavator.” A little shaken up, she decided to come down. I followed her lead to where she stopped and then finished the route pulling off a few more loose pieces, it sure was a safari. We celebrated the “team send” and with enough excitement felt for the day, chose to be toprope heros throughout the afternoon having plain fun climbing. We parted ways with the noble steed and his caretakers and headed to Pathos, the town we would be staying in that night. As the sun was about to set though, our eyelids started sliding down and we took a quick break for a roadside nap. This put us in Pathos after dark but we took a long walk along the shore then returned to town to eat Sauvlaki for dinner. Sauvlaki is a Greek fast food consisting of small pieces of meat and vegetables grilled on a skewer. Our hotel was nearby and for the first time on the trip we slept in separate beds. The room was so large in fact we even had a small kitchenette and living room space. Looking in the mirrors in the bedroom I could see about up to my neck with my head cut off, I’ve never felt tall visiting a place until here. We passed out on time at midnight but this time planned on a later morning start.

09 May 2018

The sun peered in through the half closed blinds and woke us up from a much needed slumber around 9AM. We started our day at Palamari turtle beach. We didn’t see turtles but enjoyed a lazy day lying the sand, getting sunburnt, and swimming through the gentle waves rolling to shore. We walked the beach along the dunes and up over the rocky outcrops. It was still hot and hazy. Kite surfers rode the waves sometimes breaching into the air, it was spectacular to watch.

We left mid-day to return to Nicosia. Our plan was to pick up camping gear from our hosts and meet some bat biologists at Kapos Cave who were doing acoustic recordings and mist netting of bats using the caves in the Kyrenia mountains. We quickly stopped to refuel at a roadside sandwich shop just outside Limassol. The food was cheap but delicious, and we were quickly on the road again. We grabbed gear (tent, sleeping bags, and some leftover food) from Andreas and drove out to the cave site. The two men were already setting up the recording devices and nets when we arrived. I listened to the alien noises made by the small horseshoe bats caught on the recorder. They dipped in and out of the small cave entrance but managed to avoid the nets. We discussed using bat guano for species and sex identification at the openings of the caves. However, between cost for DNA analysis and tradition is using the acoustic monitoring system, this topic was dropped quickly. We made our way back to the car in the dark, cleaned and reorganized, then set up camp at Alev Kaya. We spoke into the darkness about the stars, our research, and how cool bats are, well into the night.

10 May 2018

We stammered out of the tent at 6:30 AM and threw everything into the car. We needed to be at the border checkpoint by 9 AM. After a quick stop for coffee on the way and a grocery store for “dinner” breakfast (chicken tenders), we finally arrived to pick up Diana and Gizem. Diana was Lauren’s older friend who worked for the UN. She was feisty, short and strong, medium length blonde hair, about in mid 50s/early 60s. Gizem was another friend of Lauren’s when she lived in Cyprus during her Fulbright. She was maybe in her mid 20s and was excited to go caving. We collectively got a coffee at Mardo’s (ice cream place) before winding up a bumpy dirt road to the cave. Today we would do Smokey Cave – somehow with 3 harnesses and 4 people. The cave was technical but not too involved to make this an issue, we just switched harnesses between rappels. The first was free hanging where, from the anchors, we traversed and stemmed between the walls of the cave before it dropped out beneath us into a large room. The second rappel was more of a ramp with a small drop at the end. We finished in a lower room with sights of a “forest” of stalagmites and stalactites and sheets of cave bacon along the wall. This was one of the most beautiful rooms of the caves we explored.

We ascended the ropes back out after a morning of exploring and slowly descended back down the dirt road. At one point, Lauren felt the car pulling to the side but after inspection but thought it was fine. The problem amplified on the highway as we drove back to the border and other drivers on the road looked at our tire in disbelief as they drove by. We realized the problem was severe and didn’t stop driving until we reached a mechanic, a friend of Diana. The mechanic dropped down to look at the tire and rose back up with a stone serious face – the tire was cocked out to the side, something was definitely very broken. We left the car, frustrated, but lucky to have made it to a place that could fix it. We walked to Diana’s house nearby for some tea. She used to race her horse, Alcolades, and lived in a brightly colored house in south Cyrpus decorated with photos, medals, and ribbons of her success as a jockey.

After tea, she loaded us into her little yellow jeep and drove us to the buffer zone. The buffer zone is a mile wide between North and South Cyprus and it really looks like a no-man’s land with vegetation taking over the remnants of the buildings of the military bases. Given all the free space, she kept her horse, Alcolades here. He was a beautiful horse, very tall, and well cared for. But he was spoiled as he bit and kicked at us wanting food, which he was promptly rewarded. Fox dodged in and around the obstacles in the pasture, hiding from us but also curious and perhaps looking for food as well. We fed, watered, and brushed Alcolodes – I cleaned out his hooves and barely avoided getting kicked. Then Lauren and I explored the apocalyptic scene. We walked over to an abandoned airport and peered up at an airplane with a missing nose and wing of the tail. An aloe plant towered above me, meters high, making me feel like I shrunk. It was completely desolate.

Diana drove us back to Andreas since our car was still undrivable. We showered and cleaned up and prepared to go into town to meet another friend of Lauren’s, Anna. We found the bar by following the music and met her and some friends at Zonkeys. We drank mojitos, celebrated someone’s birthday whom I did not know, and were filled in on Anna’s love life, which currently included the young drummer with curly black hair sitting across from us. Eventually, the scene faded and we took a cab back to our host. Lauren skyped into her course back at UW from 12:30 – 2:30 AM. After, we fell into a delirium laughter about the situation until 3 AM before passing out on the porch.

11 May 2018

Abruptly awakened early by the sun again had us moaning until we realized Katarina had made us coffee and breakfast. She dropped us off to meet a climber friend, Andreas “TNT” at Costas Coffee. We chatted about climbing and his hope to travel to the US to roadtrip through the Rocky Mountains, Utah, and California to climb. Though we wouldn’t be able to find the time during this trip to climb, we promised to track him down if he wanted climbing partners in the states. We made final rounds for Lauren to catch up and see friends from her time here before. Finally in the afternoon, we were told the car was fixed. We picked it up and drove up to Beach 1 on the North side of the island to meet up with some of her, and now my, friends. We shared food and wine on blankets under the stars next to the sea.

12 May 2018

In the morning we hopped into the ocean. I noticed the salt concentration here as it was so easy to float. The water was warm and turquois blue. Her friend, Ser, took a few photographs of us together on the beach – salty snarled hair, puffy eyes from camping, and big smiles. We had a Turkish breakfast at the nearby restaurant and met more caving friends, Jim and Bren, for tea. We followed them into Girne for lunch – traditional Cyprus sandwiches and mojitos. My flight would be leaving later that day so we had to keep moving. We dropped off the equipment at the cave school and Lauren said a tearful goodbye to Mustafa. I took a photo of her within the doorframe of the school that wouldn’t have been possible without her.

On the drive back, and running late, we ran into an epic hailstorm with golf ball sized bits of ice. All of the other cars were pulled over on the side of the road but Lauren just laughed as the lightning zigzagged across the sky and we could barely see a meter ahead of the car. We made it across the border, I threw all the things I had crammed in to my 16 L yellow bag along with a jar of homemade Nutella from Katarina, and got on the shuttle to the airport. Before boarding the plane, I enjoyed one last KEO (Cypriot beer) and wrote out a log of all the events that had taken place. Ten days of full adventurous shenanigans with little to no sleep and an excess of caffeine to make it all possible, had come to an end.

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