National Geographic

Treasure Island

Near Kellia, Cyprus, 34°58'29" N, 33°36'46" E

“In the distance are always mountains. And over the whole scene hangs a peculiar light, a glaze of steel and lilac, which sharpens the contours and perspectives, and makes each vagrant goat, each isolated carob tree, stand out from the white earth as though seen through a stereoscope.”

— Robert Byron, “The Road to Oxiana”

The ship docks in Limassol. Sunlight falls like a chrome guillotine. Gleaming. Sharp. Lethal. I stagger into it, walking down the iron gangway toward beaches pink with Russians on holiday, past the frozen coffee drinks sold at every corner shop, atop smooth flat asphalt everywhere (this inescapable feature of affluent societies will raise my first blisters since Africa), into the island of Cyprus.

Reflections on a Neolithic suburbia. Moving inland through Cyprus. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Moving inland across one of the planet’s oldest inhabited islands. Photograph by Paul Salopek

“The economy is down,” says my new Greek Cypriot friend, Savvas Sakkadas.

Savvas is a professor at the Department of Hotel and Tourism Management at Cyprus University of Technology. He spotted me walking through his village while he was mowing his lawn. He has invited me to sleep in his house. His minute country, he reports, has been bankrupted by the global recession—by the moneychangers trading on mountains of debt.

“One of our biggest banks shut down last year,” Savvas says. “One afternoon we had a normal life. Then—the next morning—panic. Long lines at the ATMs. People lost their life savings. They limited everyone to withdrawals of 200 Euros [$234] a day. ”

“They” is the European Union. It bailed out Cyprus.

“How are things in the U.S.?”

“Down.”

“Did the bankers go to jail there?”

“No.”

“Not here, either.”

This brings to mind a passage by the writer Nikos Kazantzakis: Zorba the Greek explains how you can judge someone by what they do with their food: some people turn it into art, others turn it into physical work, and still others turn it merely into dung. Bankers are obvious.

“Let us go to the oldest olive tree in Cyprus,” Savvas says.

It sprouted 700 years ago. Its gnarled trunk is broad, squat, and hollow. Savvas explains proudly, with great precision, that it once held “32 skinny French people inside of it. It was to set a record.”

Like many Greek Cypriot men, Savvas drives around the third-largest (but still very small) island in the Mediterranean wearing nothing but short pants. This is natural: the summer heat of Cyprus is suffocating, scorching, almost intolerable. But the sight of so many topless motorists is somehow unnerving. Such frail human nakedness set against our machinery highlights our species’ youth, its intense vulnerability, its veneer of modernity. We are Stone Age people strapped inside Toyota pickup trucks.

Stone Age fashion in Cyprus: topless driving. Vassa at the wheel. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Stone Age fashion: topless driving. Savvas Sakkadas at the wheel. Photograph by Paul Salopek

This happens to be genetically true in Cyprus.

Cyprus is one of the oldest inhabited islands on the planet. Hunter-gatherers somehow reached here 12,000 years ago. They barbecued the island’s dwarf elephants and hippos into extinction and then set about inventing some of the earliest villages in the world. One, called Choirokoitia, features round houses 9,000 years old. They look startlingly modern, like resort bungalows. What followed was a boggling parade of invaders thirsty for the natural riches of Cyprus, particularly copper: early Egyptians stormed ashore, then came proto-Greeks, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans, the British Empire, and finally the bankers.

The first interiors had no corners. Reconstructed Neolithic shelters at Choirokoitia, Cyprus.  Photograph by Paul Salopek

Reconstructed Neolithic shelters at Choirokoitia. The first interiors had no corners. Photograph by Paul Salopek

I walk north for a week. I am making for the Turkish-occupied side of the island, invaded by the Turkish army in 1974, from where I will sail on to Turkey. The vanished Silk Roads lead onward from there to China.

The interior of Cyprus is ghostly mountains. I skirt them. I take compass bearings instead to the towns and walk in beelines across fallow fields the ruddy color of sunburned skin. I ignore the Cartesian world of agriculture: the canals, the chalky roads, the right angles. I walk the way birds fly. I see only birds: shining black crows. The island belongs to us. The crows and I lay claim to Cyprus.

Over the course of this traverse—leaving one war behind in Palestine while inching toward another in Iraq—I do not encounter another soul out walking. For 150 kilometers I am the only thing that moves on foot. Such is the inward loneliness of Europe. I pull the world through my heart as one threads the eye of a needle. I watch it unspool behind me. I remove my shirt. I am free.

There are 42 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. alma whitla
    August 11, 2014

    Hello Paul, it must be a relief for a while to feel less tension and to walk through the less parched lands that you´ve just left behind and clad only in your caveman suit. EI am sure you enjoyed the solitude of the 150kms, you have so much food for thought with great company… the birds, I´ll bet they understand you! As usual, many thanks, Alma.

  2. shauna Lazarus
    August 11, 2014

    I am very glad you are out of the danger in Palestine. “Kalo Taxidi” as my greek friends would say. I so enjoy your dispatches.

  3. Stella Goings
    August 11, 2014

    Hi Paul. I join other in breathing a sigh of relief that you are safely out of Palestine and the dangers that now envelope its people and lands. Cyprus sounds like a warm and welcoming place. It must be wonderful to walk in straight lines — “as the crow flies” — without the walls and fences you found in the holy lands. I think of you and the first men to walk on Cypress, all looking toward the mountains. Travel safely and send another posting soon to those of us who travel vicariously with you.

  4. Linda Bennett
    August 11, 2014

    The last paragraph of this particular part of your journey is stunning ! I am enjoying it all but sometimes you just say so much in just a few words and you take me right to where you are or you open up my heart and my soul to new thoughts ……thanks.

  5. Bud
    August 11, 2014

    Hello Paul, it’s great to read your dispatch from Cyprus. I’m sure you get bits and pieces of news about your own homeland during your trek. Here’s one item you may have missed: The U.S. Center for Disease Control has recently announced that exposure to sunlight is detrimental to your health. Americans should not be walking, running or driving around topless. The CDC didn’t mention Cypriots in its news alert so I guess it’s OK for them to do so. I hate to be the party pooper but you need to put your shirt back on and slather yourself in SPF 100 sunscreen. As always, best wishes and safe journeying.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 26, 2014

      You’re right. I don’t have 6,000-10,000 years to re-evolve my melanin.

  6. Pradnya
    August 11, 2014

    I love the expression: I pull the world through my heart as one threads the eye of a needle. I watch it unspool behind me. beautiful!

  7. Matt Z
    August 12, 2014

    I agree wholeheartedly with the advocacy of walking, but found its contrast with mechanized transport especially startling today, as I watched the dramatic helicopter rescue of Yazidi children from the bullets and blades of ISIS atop Mount Sinjar. What a sad day.

  8. Mary Ellen Weber
    August 12, 2014

    Last Friday I had the pleasure of having coffee at the Shaker Dam Coffeehouse and attending a lecture by John Stanmeyer. It was a privilege and a delight to share his many stories and of his adventures with you. As you can imagine the Berkshires are so green and peaceful. I have been following you since you began and this is my first post, thank you for your stunning dispatches and insight. I am overwhelmed by the remarkable beauty of your journey and the incredible people you have met on the way. Take care, there are many of us who are traveling with you and look forward to your next post. I am learning so very much about our planet and its people.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 26, 2014

      Many thanks, Mary Ellen. John’s a great partner. It’s a privilege to work with him.

  9. Maren Gesine
    August 12, 2014

    Too bad that’ll be your only stop in Europe. It must feel weird to “suddenly” be in Europe. And lonely. P.S. Keep your shirt on. I think men who run around in shorts are boys, really. And not in a good way. How are the women dressed? They probably don’t run around in their underclothes, do they?

    • Paul Salopek
      August 27, 2014

      Beyond the medical considerations, I don’t have a problem with exposed flesh. Neckties came from 17th-century Croatian mercenaries. Bikinis got handed down—lightly—from ancient Rome. The Arabian thobe, or traditional white gown, may actually be Persian. Cultural clothing tastes are historical accidents.

  10. ASMA
    August 12, 2014

    Cyprus is old and has been trampled by many forces/powers over millennia. It is now split to 2 parts (one can argue, 2 outsider powers) yet they choose to reject the idea of endless conflict and fighting (in comparison to Israel/Palestine and Arab/Arab infighting) and I hope not only that they keep that peace but also to reunite themselves in one nation! Yes bankers are still an enigma of its own, but it is shared by the majority of the nations. However, with humans sharing 99% of their DNA, it is mind boggling that some humans are more inclined into infighting/disagreement while others into co-existence! If I were in the genetics/genomics field, I would target that question with unwavering passion! Keep on walking in peace with the birds and the wind.

  11. yasna mc Donald
    August 13, 2014

    Bravo ASMA….you wrote everything i wanted to write….no new words are necessary…love all the text you are emailing to Paul….
    as to Paul….what a great human being you are, doing what you are doing…..from our little corner by the Adriatic sea, we are sorry to hear that Europe is not in your agenda…
    terrible news is coming still from Palestine/Israel……will there ever be peace…??? hopefully yea, but my optimism is vanishing…..terribly sad. glad you are walking in safer lands, but for how long…..there are good people everywhere, but also some crazy ones…be careful…..very careful and my friends and family are praying for you…..God speed…..

  12. Berdj J. Rassam
    August 13, 2014

    Wow, to read that you came across no other human being – must have been tough.

  13. Phil
    August 13, 2014

    Look forward to your insights

  14. Tevan
    August 13, 2014

    Enjoy your walk and short stay in Cyprus. Your metaphorical expressions are so cozy and heartwarming. Take good care.

  15. Al
    August 14, 2014

    Glad you are walking safely.

  16. Sabine
    August 15, 2014

    Thank you especially for the last paragraph of this post. I felt I was lifting off the ground for a while, ready to fly.

  17. Meh
    August 15, 2014

    Paul,
    I hope you are considering walking through Persia too. I can’t wait to see how different your words are from what we hear, here, on U.S. mainstream media.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 27, 2014

      I’m trying, Meh. We’ll see what visas come through.

  18. Bea Winslow
    August 16, 2014

    So enjoying the step-by-step immersion we get a taste of via your posts. Thank you.

  19. Iñaki
    August 17, 2014

    The olive tree is the father and mother of us all. All come from the Mediterranean .. right ?. Wonderful tree, in Spain about the time of the Roman Empire … Animo Paul!

  20. Wendy
    August 17, 2014

    “Pulling the world through your heart” and watching it “unspool behind (you).” Magical, my friend. All is well here. Thanks for sharing your life and for trusting me.
    Wendy Beserra

    • Paul Salopek
      August 27, 2014

      Thanks, Wendy. We’re all stitched together this way.

  21. Linda Hoernke
    August 17, 2014

    I love your last sentences in this post…to walk…to be free….how wonderful~~

  22. Suzan
    August 18, 2014

    I love national geographic, however I am dissapointed that you have written that it is insinuated Turkish side is only there due to the ‘invasion’ my family have originated from there many generations, and Turkish and Greek people co-existed for many years.
    Apart from that part, I did enjoy the rest of the article.

  23. Jeff
    August 19, 2014

    This is a fantastic journey. Thanks for telling your story in real time.

  24. Noel Marquez
    August 20, 2014

    Thanks Asma, even though we are not in the genomics field…let us target that exact sentiment of peace and understanding with unwavering passion so we can continue walking together in peace with the birds and the wind and Paul, a symbol of an immigrant without borders bringing us more understanding of our human condition.

  25. Paul Lingas
    August 20, 2014

    Hi Paul,
    Been enjoying your journey, photos and posts. There are many things I could say about how wonderful this whole thing is, but I just wanted to say here that you are a wonderful writer. Exceptional work every single post. Thank you.

  26. Peter
    August 21, 2014

    Beautiful last paragraph, Paul, beautiful.

  27. Denise Morocco
    August 21, 2014

    This missive is pure poetry. Thank you, Paul.

  28. Antonia Poyiadji
    August 22, 2014

    I love what you are doing Paul! I would like to meet with you. I live in Nicosia but my village which I visit very often is in the North part of Cyprus in Kyrenia district. I deal with art and photography. If you have time we can meet wherever you choose and especially in my village Kormakitis. Looking forward to hear from you. my email address is: antonia.po@hotmail.com

    • Paul Salopek
      August 27, 2014

      Very kind, Antonia. Alas, I’ve already departed Cyprus. I did manage to visit stately old Nicosia.

  29. bernadette zoleta
    August 23, 2014

    wow, i really aspire to become a explorer like yourself sir paul, I am currently a tourism student in the philippines. I love to walk the path of explorers.

  30. Don
    August 25, 2014

    Good ‘ole Zorba the Greek!

  31. Stephanie Gavin
    August 25, 2014

    Hi Paul,
    I am sharing your blog with my new gifted 7th graders. They were wondering if you will have camels carrying your supplies throughout your journey? If so, will they be relieved of their duties at some point and replaced with new camels?
    We are hoping to schedule another Skype opportunity this year!
    Thank you! And good luck!

  32. Onni Milne
    September 2, 2014

    Thank you for your comments about bankers. They deserved every word. I think it is outrageous that these people created a situation that destroyed the lives of so many, yet suffered no consequences for their actions. I think that says a lot about the societies we live in today.

  33. BUCK GOTSCHALL
    September 17, 2014

    i enjoy your trek. keep trudging

  34. Alex Kalil
    September 18, 2014

    Hi Paul, You are doing something remarkable with the life you have. So inspiring -

  35. Eva Maria Huschka
    September 23, 2014

    One wonders how stone age people may have reached Cyprus. Well, it was Zeus who carried off the princess “Europe” to Crete. Maybe he carried another one of his “amours” to Cyprus.

  36. Gavin Pauley
    September 23, 2014

    Hey Paul, i just wanted to say you are very inspiring and really make me believe i can do anything with my life. Thank you for being a inspiration and a encouragement for me to follow me dreams.

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