An Illegal Flight into Cyprus

I had never been to Cyprus and knew very little about the political situation when I landed at the airport. All I knew was that I had been able to get a ticket from Istanbul to Nicosia for $25. Let’s face it, there’s not a lot of planes that will leave the ground for $25. I booked my ticket and then started the process of renting a car online. Something was not right about the car rental. For some  reason, I couldn’t seem to book a car at the airport. What was even stranger was that when I used my car rental websites, I couldn’t even find the city in their drop down menus. I’m not talking about some small town; I’m talking about the capital of the country, Nicosia.

With a little research I found some car companies that rented inside the city. I wanted to save having to pay for a taxi from the airport, but it seemed to not be possible. I decided that I would just book at a car rental agency when I arrived at the airport. I kept running into the word Lefkosia and soon discovered that the capital was divided by the Turks and the Greeks and each one called it by another name.

When I arrived at the airport the car rental agency  was happy to  take my money. There were very few of the usual formalities and I was just about the receive my keys when I mentioned that I would be driving to Larnaka. It turns out, rental cars booked in Northern Cyprus aren’t allowed to cross the border. Border? I remember hearing about a border a long time ago when Berlin had one, but this was 2014. Hadn’t all the borders disappeared? I knew that I wanted to visit the southern part of the country so I canceled my order and walked out the door to  get a bus.

There were no buses.Just taxis lined up with the usual hustler asking me “where you go?” I explained that I was looking for public transport so I could rent a car. He laughed and explained that there were no buses, but he would take me to a car rental  station on  the other side of town for $130. I wasn’t about to  take a $25 plane ride and follow it with a $130 cab ride! In the end, I discovered there was no other way to get into town and I negotiated a $45 cab ride to the border. The $2/minute ride stopped at a small outpost with fences, barbed wire and a few strolling officers. My driver explained that I would have to walk down the short road through customs and then continue on to the Greek side. A quick stamp and I was done. I walked down the border road Greek control. As I handed them my passport, the woman just sort of rolled her eyes and waved me through. A subtle way of denying that there was a Turkish side maybe? I wasn’t sure. There were no cabs on the other side. I was happy to see a bus station and I had 2 Euros left in my jacket pocket from another trip that should get me to the center of town where I could get some wheels. An unshaven Greek man with a plastic bag full of curios sat down next to me to wait for the bus.

As we waited for the bus, he started to fill me in on the history of Cyprus. It had been under British rule and had been cut loose in the 60s. Everything was fine and dandy until the Turks  (the story varies depending on who’s telling it) decided that Cyprus should be connected with Turkey around 1974. There was a little military action and the UN came in to settle the matter. Someone decided that a wall had worked pretty well in Berlin, so fences were raised and people were shuffled. If you were Greek, you had to leave your home and all of your possessions and head south. Turkish people had to go to the north. It was like parents separating two children who had been fighting by putting them in separate rooms. Ironically, the British kept a couple of spots for military bases just in case they needed to shoot missiles at Lebanon or Turkey.

After 40 years, the divided country parts are very distinct. If you’re on the Turkish side, everything is in Turkish and Turkish Lira is accepted as the currency. The music and food is Turkish and for all practical purposes it seems a lot like Turkey. If you go across the border, everything becomes Greek. Neither side trusts each other and the whole thing seems pretty silly.

I soon discovered that the airport I had flown into had been built illegally. According the UN agreement the only way to fly into Cyprus is from the recognized country of Cyprus. The Turks were having none of that, so they built their own airport; an illegal one. I thought it was odd that I didn’t have to take off my shoes or get rid of liquids. It seemed even stranger that no one seemed to be concerned that I beeped when I went through the airport scanner. I guess there’s a few advantages of travel through illegal airports.

I continued my trip to the southern areas of Cyprus and started getting a little concerned about how I would get back to the controversial airport. I remembered years ago someone telling me that you could cross the border one direction but not the other. Would I have to buy another ticket at an official airport? Should I not have let them stamp my passport? Would other countries be upset that I had entered Cyprus illegally?

In the end I discovered that for 40 Euros  I could hire a special taxi who had insurance which allowed him to cross the border and bring me directly to the airport. When I arrived at the crossing I was asked if I wanted my passport stamped or if I’d rather have them stamp a loose paper. That seemed pretty accommodating I thought. No one shot missiles at us. No one ran out into the road with bombs strapped to their chest. I suppose after 40 years of tension, stuck on a little island, things have a way of becoming more relaxed.  As the plane took off I decided that I needed to come back and see the northern part. A divided country like this is not going to stay that way forever.

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