“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.
“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.?”
“Did the bankers go to jail there?”
“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.
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.
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.