Immigration

Immigration officials across the world are all sent to this common, secret school (run, I suspect by particularly virulent commissars of the ex-USSR) where they are taught the essential niceties of their job – a deeply suspicious look & the ability to never ever let the slightest smile (or even a suspicion thereof) escape on to one’s face, being the most important.

Two countries I have visited stand apart in this – Cyprus & Thailand.

The gate-keepers at the Larnaca airport smiled at me (giving me the heebeejeebies, since to the best of my prior knowledge these guys smile only when about to effect a cop) and – I kid you  not – asked about the weather back home.

The guys at Phuket were the best of the lot. Their interaction was as between mature adults. A smile breaking out of a ‘yeah, we know you are here only to have a good time and as soon as your money runs out, you will go away – but we gotta do this…’ look.

I have been to Saudi Arabia too, where I met the guys who took all the prizes at the commissar’s school.

North Cyprus Tourism Video

Run-of-the-mill tourism marketing video, except for one device. The voice over, which is that of a small kid, chanting la-la-la. If you plan to target the ‘family’ market, this is a pretty cool device to complete the association. Also, the video is a bit speeded up which presumably helps in a ‘gasp-isn’t-it-fun’ kind of way.

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Headlines from the Sunday Mail, Cyprus – June 22, 2008

Local media is often an excellent window to a place (ie. the real place, not the artificial world inside a hotel or in tourist traps) and if you have the luxury of travelling to a country that has English media, never miss the chance to riffle through its papers & mags. Here are a few headlines I found in the Sunday paper while in Cyprus.

Deep in Debt to beat the prices – Crisis, what crisis? Cypriots just keep on spending away

A story on how the general gloom in Europe does not seem to be getting to the sunny Cypriots who seem to be merrily borrowing loads of dough to keep at it.

Under the knife : men going the extra mile for their looksFrom nose jobs and hair removal to weight loss procedures, more and more young men are opting for surgery, but beware, it might not be for you…

Dr Andreas Chimonides, the plastic surgeon says ” you would be surprised at just how many men I treat this way”. Girls, Cyprus is hunk-heaven; visit it. Having said that, the girls are’nt too bad either.

Arty Landmark or eyesore: Should Big Mac stay put? - Unwieldy and out of proportion it may be, but the statue of Makarios in Nicosia has become a real tourist attraction.

What with Gandhigiri the rage in our land, this seems to be the season to get all affectionate with the father of the nation, in this case the Reverend Archbishop Makarios. But, is ‘Big Mac’ taking it a bit too far? The story is about mixed views on shifting a very big statue of the big man.

Who really owns your home? - Whether the house you bought is really yours depends on the procedures you followed when you signed the contract with the developer.

Evidently, Real Estate Developers in Cyprus have the same flexibility of character they have in ours.

Shhhh! Quiet copulation key for female chimpsThey cry out during sex to attract nearby males, but keep quiet when other females are around

So, finally the incontrovertible proof is in. We are descended from the apes. And it took the Sunday Mail in Cyprus to let us in on it.

and so it went. A lot of it sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Mediterranean Gardens in Cyprus

(More Cyprus garden photos here)

In the less than the full 4 days that I was in Cyprus, I managed to sneak into a couple of really lovely, serene gardens. Larnaca town is full of these surprising little groves. A really beautiful one was around a local post office. Another gorgeous one was around the local Art college, where I sat with my laptop for an hour on a lazy Sunday morning, writing up my first Cyprus post.

What I found particularly fascinating was the mix of flora one got to see. There were ubiquitous tropical blooms that I am very familiar with from my childhood pottering around my mom’s garden in kerala. Particularly hibiscus, the bright red variety. I do believe they are some of the most beautiful flowers on the planet. And added to such tropical flowers were the trees, shrubs and flowers clearly only found here. It was a fascinating mix.

Date palms, olive, pomegranate and other trees mixed easily with lovely bougainvillea, hibiscus, oleander and a number of other flowers I know by sight and whose names I shall one day learn. What I particularly liked was the effective interplay of sunny spaces and shade – to me one of the critical components of the Art of Gardens.

The sense of sitting inside a grove in the Mediterranean is quite different from that in the tropics. In the tropics, as you sit in the shade of a grove, you feel the perfume of the plants mixed up with the heavy scent of moisture in the soil. It is a heady mix that hits you as one acute sensory overload. In contrast, the dry, thin air of the Mediterranean helps you ‘feel’ the distinct perfume of each type of plant and flower. I almost got the feeling that the difference in sensory perception between the two, was exactly the difference in the sensory perception between having an Indian meal versus a Mediterranean meal. Sorry to jump into this food thing. But, think of the difference. Indian food is, in general, an amalgam of very many scents & tastes all presented in an absolutely overwhelming sensory mix. Contrast this to Mediterranean food, where each individual element stands alone and you can actually taste, feel & smell each part pretty distinctly. I know I have not described it too well, but those of you who have had both might get what I am trying to say.

Maybe I am being fanciful here, but I do find interesting, the possibility that Nature (and therefore Geography, really) has had a big role in evolving the ‘way’ food is consumed in each culture.

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Ofto Kleftiko, Halloumi & the world’s lamb capital

(No, Ofto Kleftiko is not the Cypriot term for an old lady by an oven – it is actually very slow-cooked lamb. Just put this photo in for effect!)

Kleftiko is a form of cooking in Greece & Cyprus in which the raw ingredients are put into a hole in the ground, sealed with mud and slow fired for 6 to 7 hours. Lamb done this way is a particular delicacy and having experienced it at the Mona Lisa restaurant on the other side of the Larnaca fort, I can say this with confidence. Go for it.

The origins of Kleftiko are a bit murky, but the more popular version suggests that Greek soldiers dumped meat & veggies into the ground in the morning, fired it with charcoal and left to fight the Romans. At sundown, those of them that survived the day’s battle would come back and eat up the stuff, which to their surprise had become deliciously tender by then. The good men at Mona Lisa plied me with the softest, most delicate Lamb I have ever had along with wonderful rice and potatoes. Kleftiko.

Halloumi is goat’s cheese and is another Greek/Cypriot favourite. Grilled or Fried, Halloumi makes a great course in itself. And if you don’t believe me, check out oomphy Nigella Lawson’s take on it.

As you can see, there is a pattern beginning to emerge. And it is – yes, Lamb.

The middle east & the Mediterranean are the places to go for those who like their Ovine repasts. If East Asia is the place to go for Seafood and the Americas for more bovine pursuits, Asia Minor is great for all forms of goat/sheep/lamb. Whether it is lamb kebab or lamb pilaf from Turkey or the Kleftiko from Cyprus, Lamb enthusiasts will never tire in this land. And after 4 days of unceasing effort in this direction, all I could say was baa.

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Cyprus, Greece and Turkey

As this map of the Mediterranean shows, Cyprus is really pushed into Asia and closer to Africa than to Europe. And as I lay bobbing in the lovely blue waters of Larnaca’s bay in the south-east of the Island of Cyprus , I knew that a bit further down to my left was Syria, straight down was Israel and to my right, Egypt. I was truly in the cusp of Asia Minor and Northern Africa and just a stone’s throw away from Southern Europe.

Cyprus is mostly Greek, which is surprising considering Greece is relatively far away. The other part of CYprus is Turkey. The Greeks and the Turks have been traditional competitors in the Eastern Mediterranean rim. And as is the case with such long running feuds between two countries who see themselves as ‘ancient civilizations’, history can never be forgotten and solving problems among the two is a pretty torturous process.

IN 1974 Turkey invaded Cyprus and took a portion of the Island. The Greek Cypriots screamed blue murder and now call the rest of the island (the non-Turkish part), ‘Free Cyprus’, which does seem to be a loaded term. In the span of just the 3 days I was there, I too got a small taste of the long running animosity. On the very first day of my visit, I was talking to a middle-aged lady owner of a book-shop. I casually asked her about the language of Cyprus. She looked at me for 10 seconds in shock and sniffed, “Greek. The Cypriots are Greek people”. And she absolutely refused to talk to me after that. Although 35 years have passed, the war is fresh in people’s minds and unsuspecting visitors can get caught in the cross-fire.

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An evening at the waterfront promenade in Larnaca

(Larnaca Waterfront Promenade)

The shrill whistle blew my reverie. The fat guy again, on the dot every 15 minutes or so. For the full 3 hours that I sat there, I did’nt see him sell any stuff. But he sat in front of his little shop with a mischevious inner smile just about touching his lips. And every 15 minutes, he would pick up a little whistle and let go, scaring the odd pigeon and causing ripples in absolutely nothing else. Larnaca’s waterfront promenade at twilight is a place nothing much can cause ripples in.

The wildest sights of the evening are the young studs walking about in marauding groups. And knowing the way Cyprus is, the most dangerous thing they will probably ever get up to is to overdo the hair-gel. Hey, but I cannot complain. I used to be one too, and soon, my elder one will get there. Whew. The chicitas walking in front know exactly what is happening. The poor guys behind, huge hormone cocktails all of them, frantically hurrying after lithe tanned legs in front, involuntarily caught in the oldest rip tide of Life – that of the mating call.

What a mixture of races this is. I can see the patrician Greek faces one remembers from old paintings that show oval faced Greek beauties with tendrils of hair over the faces. Well, go to the Larnaca promenade to see them. They are still there and they are beautiful. Is’nt it strange how the greatest civilisations have the best looking women – is that a Cause or an Effect I wonder?

Anyway, back to the Race question. The ubiquitous Filipino nanny is here too. What is it about the Filipinos that seem to make them great care-givers. For some reason, they seem to be a Race of friendly, caring people for whom the act of helping others is genuinely interesting. While economic necessity and the ability to speak English are often touted as the reasons why Filipinos are all over the world as maids & nannies (and of course, there is no doubt about these), I am starting to think there is more to it than that.

Funnily enough, there are a number of people who look fairly Indian. They look like us, but they also look different. Mysterious. Are they Gypsies? And then of course, there are the hordes of Northerners. Brits, Germans, Nordic types, Russians, Slavs…

Now, let us dwell on Northerners for a moment. They work hard all through the year, running hither and thither buying this, selling that and making money. And for one glorious month every year, they go to the Sun and hang about and do little, soaking in enough heat into their bones to help them pass the next 11 months in a harsh land. Geography determines all human actions. If you are born in a cold and hostile land that does not give you an even chance of survival, the only thing you can do is to Do. Move about, keep warm, forage and maraud – just to survive. Thousands of years of this imperative has given the Northerners a way of life that I am sure they never thought possible. They have almost effectively tamed the Elements in their favour and with their great expending of energy brought the whole world under their sway. So successful has this model of incessant work been, some of them have even coded it into their religion. They call it the ‘Protestant Work Ethic’. The idea that more work is morally & spiritually uplifting and someone who does less work deserves a boot from God. Get to hotter climes and you can see this idea start to wobble. Many years ago, I remember reading a novel by the American Frank Yerby, in which the first scene opens with a European pastor walking down the steps of his ship after a long voyage under the blazing summer sun, to find a small Indian curled up, sleeping under a tree. Confirms all his prejudices of the ‘indolent natives’. Now the whole world has unquestioningly adopted this ideal of incessant work and its pay-off of world domination. Come to think of it, this is a pretty stupid idea for people in warmer climes. After all, if your land is blessed by the elements and there is no threat of imminent death (as there would be in cold and hostile clime) I see no reason to work so hard. And young George, the Cypriot with a Dutch mother, who gave me a great introduction to Limassol and Lefkara (about which another post will follow) eloquently argued for the same thing. Alvin Toffler in one of his books has a chapter titled “Gandhi with Satellites’, in which he paints the possibility of the human race moving to a very small, local community based mode of a quiet life (much like our forefathers in the tropics did just a couple of generations ago) but with the important difference that technology allows us to be masters of the Elements everywhere on Earth and to communicate with each other across the globe. I believe the next century wil take us very close to this situation. Modern Cyprus is a harbinger.

In this medley of races is obviously a medley of clothes. Uber-chic western dresses mix with turkish head scarves with the odd traditional skirt thrown in. Why do Western women look so good in western clothes and not so good – sorry girls – in Indian stuff like Sarees (ok, ok, just to even the field, I think the reverse is true for Indian women). I think it has to do with Shoulders. Occidental women are generally big-built and this means wide shoulders. The more I observe western clothing the more I think it is primaily about adorning these wide shoulders. On the other hand, clothing for Indian women is mostly about draping the hips – the shoulders dont seem to count. And in this difference probably lies the reason why the twain can never meet.

And in these deep and grave thoughts, passed an evening at the waterfront promenade in Larnaca…

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A first visit to Cyprus

Cyprus has for long been on my list of places to visit. This Eastern Mediterranean island is at the confluence of Europe, Asia & Africa and so geographically is at a clearly fascinating place. And as is inevitable with such Geography, the history is pretty interesting too. The Turks, The Cypriots and The Greeks have been fighting over this piece of land for a very long time and I am told, scars of all of these battles remain.

Of course, given that Cyprus was a British Colony till 1955, it is a big destination for English tourists seeking Sun.

I have my visa done and tickets & hotel booked for a short visit to Cyprus.

Read all my Cyprus posts here.

See lots of Cyprus photos here.