Thursday, August 5th, 1999. 4:30 p.m. Yuval and I are standing in a short line at the check-in counter of the Israeli airline company Aeroel, which is to take us to Cyprus. Behind the counter a uniformed young woman is checking in the passengers and joking with a young man in a t-shirt (company employee?) sitting beside her. We overhear them say the flight is delayed, and that the company planes are the type that you need to go “foo, foo” to make them move. The two behind the counter are still giggling as we check in. They tell us to be at the gate at 5:30 (flight is scheduled to depart at 6) for more information.
Up in the departure terminal, the Aeroel attendant arrives at 5:45, and tells us that the flight will be leaving shortly. Meanwhile we have seen the small plane land. At 6:00 we are on the bus ready to be ferried out to the waiting plane. And then we wait, and wait. Finally, at 6:30 we are bussed to the plane. Having settled into our seats we are informed that five passengers who checked in have not boarded. Would everyone please step off the plane and identify their luggage, which has now been offloaded next to the plane. Ten minutes later the door is shut and the plane begins to move. Two minutes later the plane returns to its parking slot. The cargo door is loose. Quickly fixed, we move off to the runway, and take off without further incident.
The Aereol company’s claim to fame is its service to Haifa. Once we are in the air the pilot announces that the flight is traveling directly to Cyprus, without stopping. Applause. Obviously, the plane should have been full, and no one was scheduled to get on in Haifa.
By eight o’clock we have cleared through the Larnaca, Cyprus airport and most of the flight passengers are directed to a bus which will take us to Ayia Napa, an hour away. Fifteen minutes into our journey, George the bus driver gets a call on his cell phone. We don’t have all our passengers. We wait at an intersection until they arrive by taxi. Once we reach Ayia Napa the bus lets off passengers at several different hotels. We get off at the Aeneas, considered the best hotel in this beach resort town.
Our room is pleasant and comfortable. The beds are hard. No view of the ocean, which is across the street and probably not visible from any of the rooms in this low-rise hotel complex.
We realize we are not in the center of town, but figure there are restaurants nearby. We walk a couple blocks down the main drag and find a couple outdoor restaurants. We read the menus posted outside and pick one. Our waiter is a Cypriot with an Australian accent – I think he said he grew up there. Yuval has a pizza and I have a salad. Together with a beer and a soft drink the bill comes to 10 Cypriot pounds (20 dollars!) We discover that Cyprus is not cheap.
Friday morning after breakfast, we spend an hour lounging at the hotel pool – a massive pool that surrounds the complex, and even has individual steps leading directly into the patios of a number of pool-side rooms. We decide we want to see the beach. We pack a knapsack with water bottle and a towel and take off. When we reach the beach we discover a paved path (boardwalk), and we begin walking in the direction of the town center. Along the way we stop and view the scene.
After about a mile and a half we reach the main beach area, and cut back into the main avenue. We find souvenir “schlack” shops, restaurants, motorbike rentals and all the trappings and traps of a tourist area. I find a great pair of much-needed sunglasses for 6 pounds ($12) on a rack in a souvenir shop, and write and send a postcard to 4 Kirkwood Road. We stop and have lunch at MacDonald’s! We walk around the old area of Ayia Napa, into the courtyard of a monastery and churches from the early days of this fishing town.
True to what I have discovered in my Internet research, the town is buzzing with young kids – Israelis and Europeans. Many are on motorbikes. Apparently you can rent them without a driver’s license. Meanwhile we have begun looking for the Force car rental agency, whose rates I found on the Net. Turns out there are no numbers on the buildings. We are now walking on the main avenue back towards the hotel, ready to get on a local bus. We almost board a bus, but decide to walk one more stop. And then we discover the Force office. When we walk in I tell the proprietor, Andros, that he was easier to find on the Internet.
He won’t have a jeep until morning, but he agrees to let us take a small car for the evening. Leave the keys to the car at the reception desk before you go to bed, and you’ll find the keys to a black jeep when you get up in the morning. We ask him where to go for dinner – someplace with good authentic food and not expensive. He gives us the names of a few restaurants in several nearby towns.
We drive out of Ayia Napa to Cape Greco, an enormous cliff overlooking the sea in an area designated as a nature preserve. It’s just a few miles away. Lots of kids on motorbikes also make their way there. Yuval meanwhile is practicing driving a left-hand vehicle on the left side of the road. He keeps turning on the wipers instead of the turn signal! The roads are narrow, and we have to be on the alert for the cyclists.
By now it is late afternoon. We stop for a drink at a kiosk at the entrance to Cape Greco, and chat with the young fellow running it. He tells us he is from Sotira. We say we have the name of a restaurant in Sotira – Costas. “Yes, very good. I ate there last night,” he says. “There is a festival in the town tonight.” Sounds interesting – that’s where we’ll go.
Having showered and relaxed back at the hotel, we drive out to Sotira, a few miles away. Indeed, in the town center we find Costas restaurant, and nearby there is a small carnival in swing. We walk down a lane filled with booths of sweets, toys and housewares – a kind of festive shuk – leading to the town church. Many people are filing into the church looking at things on the walls and the altar. Outside the church a row of elderly women dressed in black sit and chat. Yuval does not want to go in, so I stand at the doorway and simply observe.
We return to the restaurant. Our waiter is friendly and gives an explanation about the meaning of this religious festival, which we don’t really understand. He’s not a regular waiter. Costas, the owner and chief cook, has brought in all his family and extra help to cope with the expected crowds tonight. The place does not get really crowded until we are nearly finished with our meal. Andros from the car rental had told us to order meze – which we understand is a variety of dishes. We ask our waiter how much the meze costs, and are told 4 pounds apiece. Unlike the Arab restaurants in Israel which set out a dozen plates of salads, pita, humous and pickles soon after you sit down, the meze is a different story. First we are served a salad – lettuce, cucumber, tomato and a slice of white cheese on top. Then a plate of lamb comes out, then fries, and then chicken, and then bread and stuffed grape leaves, and then fish rings, and a delicious spinach-zucchini-egg dish, then more grape leaves, and more lamb. Every time we finish a dish, something else arrives. When we ask the waiter how much more he plans to bring, he asks if we’ve had enough. When we tell him we are full, the plates stop coming! I guess this is how they prevent waste. We don’t know if we’ve missed anything in Costas’ repertoire, but we have no more room to find out. With drinks and tip we spend 10 pounds on the meal – definitely a bargain. Although we detect a few tourists, the clientele is mostly local – families with kids, especially. It’s a real treat.
Sure enough, the jeep is waiting for us Saturday morning in the hotel parking lot. When we realize the jeep has no top, we head back to Force, and Andros finds and attaches a canvas roof top. After we have driven a few miles out of town, I realize I have forgotten the camera, and we return to the hotel to get it. So we don’t get out of Ayia Napa until about 11.
We head towards the Trodos mountain region in the central western Cyprus. We are equipped with excellent maps. Only we discover that some roads marked as unpaved are actually paved, and others are closed to vehicles. We follow an itinerary I had found on the Internet (from descriptions of guided “Jeep Safaris” that you pay to go on). When we reach the entrance to the road to the Caledonian Waterfall, we find it is blocked. We head back to the hikers entrance, make a few inquiries, and learn that the only way to the falls is by foot – a kilometer hike up. Okay, we’ve come this far, let’s do it. We pass many tourist-hikers along the way – but no Israelis. After half an hour we reach the falls and are very disappointed. The 75-foot waterfall is not very impressive, with barely a pool at its bottom (the spot we are at). Perhaps there is so little water because it is summer.
The hike down is much quicker. When we return to the jeep I discover a Hebrew guide book of Cyprus on my seat. Where did this come from? I don’t recall seeing it among the maps in the glove compartment. Perhaps someone spotted us and tossed it into the jeep. (The jeep was not locked, since the canvas top only covered the roof.) It’s a mystery.
We weave our way on the mountain roads through the town of Trodos, and pass the entrance to the road leaving up to the Olympus peak, the highest point in Cyprus. We’ve gone high enough. Meanwhile it is cool and cloudy, and has even rained a bit up here in the mountains. We reach a quaint mountain village called Pedhoulas, recommended for its restaurants. We don’t find the exact restaurant we’re seeking, until I spot its sign after we’ve already sat down and ordered a meal at another restaurant. The meal is very filling and tasty. Yuval has a beef stew and I have a meat moussaka. It is 6 o’clock and this is both our lunch and dinner. The bill comes to 9 pounds. We plan to have ice-cream when we get back to the hotel.
We leave Pedhoulas on a winding and narrow road heading north. We pass through villages built along the road. Houses are built right up to the curb. People sitting on their front porches spill over into the street. There are no sidewalks, so we risk hitting pedestrians. Parked cars block an entire lane, so we also risk hitting oncoming cars as we round the curves. Yuval is incredulous. He breathes easier when we reach the main road which takes us past the outskirts of Nicosia.
We reach Ayia Napa soon after nightfall and stop for gas at a station near the hotel. Yuval asks me to get out to see which side of the jeep the tank is on. In the hotel parking lot, as we gather our gear, I cannot find my new sunglasses. I had them hooked on my shirt. They must have fallen off at the gas station. I send Yuval back to the gas station, in the hope they have not yet been crushed by a car. He returns with 3 broken pieces! I am annoyed, but am certain I saw another pair on the rack at the souvenir shop, and we plan to get another pair in the morning.
Sunday morning, after stopping to purchase another pair of sunglasses, we take the jeep and head up along the coast in the direction of Famagusta, which is now in Turkish-occupied Cyprus. We pass through a town called Protaras, also a beach resort – but not as big or as tacky as Ayia Napa, and seemingly populated with more local vacationers.
We drive along the dirt roads close to the beach and see many lovely spots. Rocky coves with sandy spots. The water is calm and clear and warm. These areas are filled with assorted forms of shacks and shelters. We get the impression that the locals hang out here all summer long.
Just below the U.N. patrol station and the “green-line” (that’s what the Cypriots call the border between Greek and Turkish-occupied Cyprus), we find a lovely beach. We hesitate at a No Entrance sign. A car behind us beeps, and the driver motions that it is okay to go down to the beach. People nearby direct us to the safest, sandiest place for entering the water and swimming out to a raft about 100 feet away. Yuval goes for a swim. I simply sit in the water near shore, in a kind of tub created by the rock formations.
We cannot stay long, since we have to check out of the hotel by noon. The checkout procedure takes longer than expected, as we – along with three other Israeli couples (not in our charter group) discover we have been billed for watching more than 3 minutes per day per channel of the hotel’s five pay-TV channels (sex and movie channels). Yuval had understood he could preview up to 3 uninterrupted minutes without charge. Turns out the computer tallies up all seconds per day of interrupted viewing. We barely passed 3 minutes on two channels, and are being charged nearly 14 pounds ($28) for “watching 2 movies”. I tell Yuval just to pay and get out of here. He wants to see what will happen with the other Israelis who meantime have become very angry and abusive (their bills are much bigger than ours). The hotel reception staff call in their security guard and threaten to call the police. Speaking to “the person in charge” is of no use. “It is the pay-TV company’s computer,” everyone is told, “the hotel can do nothing about it.” Yuval finally pays the bill. Meanwhile a new charter group of Israelis has arrived and is waiting for their rooms. We warn them about the pay-TV channels.
We are due to be collected by a bus to the airport at 6 p.m., so we still have the entire afternoon. Yuval and I drive south of Ayia Napa, and find another terrific beach. There is an small island just off the shore and the beach is very sandy. We don’t spot any Israelis. Only locals and European tourists. And lots of topless Scandinavian-German women. We sit on sunbeds under an umbrella. After a while an attendant comes (as expected) asking us to pay 3 pounds. We read and relax and swim.
We drive back into Ayia Napa for another MacDonald’s meal (the cheapest place to eat), and then back to the hotel. We lounge around the pool, and then use the pool showers and dressing rooms to change into clothes for the flight back to Israel. We had been told that that we could stow our luggage in the hotel baggage room and use the pool after checking-out.
Our fellow-passengers congregate in the hotel lobby at six. A rumor quickly spreads that our 8 p.m. flight is delayed until 4 in the morning! Someone has called the airport and this is what they were told. Before anyone has a chance to contact the travel agency’s local representative, our bus arrives, and we get on it.
Upon arrival at the airport, we discover there is truth to the rumor. But it is not clear what time the flight will leave. We are not allowed to check in. We are told to wait. An agency representative (an Israeli woman living in Cyprus) shows up and explains the situation. There is a mechanical problem with one of Aeroel’s planes (the company has two small planes and one large 737). Another flight to Israel has been delayed since the morning. Aereol will send the large plane to collect us all. But the return flight will not stop in Haifa – flights cannot land at the Haifa airport after 9:30 p.m., and besides, the 737 is too big to land in Haifa. Passengers for Haifa will be bussed from Ben Gurion. One young fellow goes ballistic – “We paid extra for the convenience of flying to and from Haifa!” (He and his group were not on our outbound flight.) “I have to be at work tomorrow. I have a business to run.” No one seems particularly impressed with this man or his business. Most of us have to be at work on Monday. We are promised vouchers for dinner. We also discover the four youngsters who failed to board the flight on Thursday. They claim the airport Information booth had told them the flight was leaving at 7, and they apparently got involved in duty-free shopping and didn’t listen for boarding calls. They are annoyed because they had paid more money to get on another, later flight on Thursday, making their trip even more expensive. Everyone else of course remembers being annoyed at our delayed departure because of them. These kids were very rude to the airport staff. At one point I even said to one of them, “Serves you right that you had to pay more for the trip.”
Nearly two hours after reaching the airport, we begin the check-in. We are a small group of passengers, but unable to form the orderly line that the Cypriot security guards are demanding for luggage inspection. I try to help them organize a line, without success. As one fellow-passenger put it – Israelis lines are defined by width, not length. There is one small rope that is ineffective in preventing the surge of passengers from forcing their way toward the check-in counter. As if they won’t get on the plane, if and when it comes to get us. I tell the security guard, “I’m sorry that people like this give all of us Israelis a bad name.” Another passenger concurs with me.
Yuval and I take it all in stride. We do not have kids or a babysitter at home. He uses a Cyprus phone card to call his mother and tell her not to worry.
Our wait in the line through passport control takes 20 minutes – for others it takes half an hour. Once we reach the upstairs departure lounge we are pleasantly surprised. Whereas the check-in area was shabby and dark, upstairs is well lit and pleasant. There is a very big duty-free shop and an Italian-food cafeteria. (Yuval tells me it is a restaurant chain.) There are plenty of tables and chairs, so we get dinner with our vouchers – a filling but non-Cypriot meal: Yuval had pizza, I had spaghetti.
We strike up a conversation with a young Israeli couple on our charter, who had stayed at another hotel. They’d rented a car and been in an accident on Saturday. He didn’t realize that, as in the U.S. but not in Israel, you cannot immediately turn on a green light since you must yield to oncoming traffic which also has a green light. That, combined with left-hand driving had resulted in his collision with another car. It had really ruined their trip. Just be grateful you were not hurt, we tell them. They also didn’t realize they had to check out of the hotel at noon; he says he completely lost his temper when the hotel informed him that they had to vacate their room. We find it hard to believe this young man with a great sense of humor could behave like the “ugly Israeli abroad.” We use up our last Cypriot bills and coins by treating each other to coffee and cokes as time drags on. The plane is coming …. it’s coming. For a while our flight is listed on the departure board as leaving at 12:1 [sic]. Midnight passes. Then one o’clock. I stop checking the departure board. It is sometime after 2 a.m. when we finally board. We do not have seat assignments. We sit wherever we want as the plane is not full. The stewardesses take abuse when they try to explain that the 737 has taken so long to arrive because air traffic lanes were not clear. It makes no sense to the passengers, who only understand that the original plane had mechanical trouble.
On this large plane the flight back to Israel takes only 30 minutes (plus 6 hour delay)! At Ben Gurion we clear through passport control and collect our baggage quickly, only to wait 20 minutes for a shuttle bus to the long-term parking. Now we cannot find our parking stub. The attendant checks the log against our license plate, finds our entry, and finally collects the fee.
Home and in bed at 4:30, we awaken to the sounds of neighborhood traffic at 7:30. Falling asleep we are awakened at 8:30 by a phone call from Yuval’s mother. Groggily we get up and shower and dress. I call the office and say I will be late. “Oh, it was a charter flight?” comes the response, “that figures.”