Monday, 26 September 2011

The Year Round Island - Part 2

So, Cyprus.

I’ve been here nearly 2 months now, and I’m still enjoying it (apart from the time away from home that is – that still sucks).  The tag line of “The Year Round Island” seems to be holding true.  We’re now close to the end of September and the temperature is holding steady at around 30C, with clear blue skies.  There may be one or two fluffy white bits around some days, but generally speaking it’s as clear and summery today as it was when I arrived here.  The sea is a little cooler perhaps, and a little more choppy, but still nothing like the English Channel or the Baltic.  And certainly not remotely like the pounding surf at Maracas Beach in Trinidad this time last year.

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I’ve been out and about a bit.

One day we had to go to Nicosia for a breakfast presentation about some new work stuff.  It’s about 75km from Limassol. So we were picked up from the hotel at 7 by taxi, for an 8 a.m. start in Nicosia.  The drive was pretty uneventful, along the highway towards Larnaca (the airport route) in light traffic, then a turn off onto another highway north across the hilly spine of the country to Nicosia.  I was mildly confused as all the road signs were for Lefkosia, which turned out to be the local name for the place.  Traffic was again light, until the last 15km or so, when we hit road works and everything of course was bottled up and slowed to a crawl.  We were late for the meeting – didn’t go down too well with certain people, but hey – shit happens.  The drive back was better, the road works only affected the Nicosia bound carriageway so the road out was clear.  I didn’t see much of Nicosia: the meeting was at the Hilton Hotel, which is not in the centre of town and just off the highway, flanked by garages and furniture warehouses and shops and all the usual outer suburb buildings and rubbish you would expect.  

Nicosia is of course the capital, and the border with Turkish occupied Northern Cyprus runs through it somewhere, but I didn’t get to see that at all, nor the seat of Government or any of the other historical places around.  No opinion formed about it at all, I’m afraid – that’s maybe for another day.

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Mainly I’ve been beach hunting on my weekends here.   I hope to bring the family down for a few days before I finish the gig, and of course the kids love a good beach.  They’re used to sandy ones – I think all the beaches they’ve ever been to in their short sweet lives have been like that, whether in Crete, Portugal, Spain, Trinidad or Poland.  They love, like all kids, digging holes, or building sandcastles with little canals into the surf to flood the moat, or burying the old man…..the usual stuff.  The trouble is, southern Cyprus seems to be devoid of sandy beaches.  The beach here in Limassol is ok, narrow and sandy with umbrellas and sun-beds (for which I’m sure you’re charged an extortionate fee), but it’s a dirty grey looking sand, not the expected Mediterranean golden or white, and besides the bay is always full of freight ships and tankers waiting to get into the harbour to load or unload, which spoils the view somewhat.  So I’ve hired cars, consulted the oracle that is Google and tried to find a better alternative within a drivable distance.

Car hire is reasonably priced here.  Both times I’ve paid about EUR50 per day all inclusive (which is one days’ per diem from my company for being here, so effectively it’s free if I’m careful the rest of the time) and the cars have been upgraded at no cost.  The first weekend I had a Toyota Yaris automatic that was comfortable enough and got me around, but was dreadfully underpowered and had an appalling stereo.  Then this weekend I got a Fiesta, clearly a newer vehicle than the Yaris, with a five speed manual box that made it a very nippy little motor, much better and more fun to drive, and the stereo was excellent.  I put it down to the different hire company – the Yaris was from a local firm that was cheap and cheerful whilst the Fiesta was from Hertz, so a little more pricy but better quality.  As with everything, you get what you pay for.

I’ve had mixed results, really. On the first Saturday, I drove around half an hour westward, where there were recommended beaches at a place called Avdimou and, close by, an unnamed beach identified by a nearby restaurant.   Avdimou was actually ok, a long stretch of sand and shingle with a hotel (and sun beds for hire) in the middle.  To the westerly end of it there were a number of little shelters lying back in the bushes flanking the beach, evidently built and used by locals on the weekend for barbecues and so on, and at the far end an outcropping of white chalky rock similar to that at Governer’s Beach to the east of Limassol (as I described in my post The Year Round Island last month).  But there were also a lot of pebbles and larger stones scattered about along its length and in many places forming a dividing line between the shingle upper beach and the sandier surf line.  To the eastern end, it became stonier still, until you pass around the headland under high cliffs, where it becomes a succession of small coves, some only a few yards across and generally more sandy than the main beach, divided by a tumbled mass of rocks and cliff fallings that in places are impassable without wading knee deep in the sea.  They were nice enough and offered some privacy but with kids and the usual amount of baggage you need to carry, not really very practical.

The unnamed beach close to the restaurant was in a fact a succession of small coves, again backed up to low cliffs, with beautifully clear and calm water for swimming, but every one was stony, hardly any sand at all.  You could (and in fact I did) have a lovely afternoon there, sunbathing and swimming and relaxing with a book, and seeing hardly another soul, but again – for kids’ play they’re far from ideal.

The next day I drove a little further along the coast to a place called Pissouri Bay, another recommended beach.  It’s another long stretch of sand, pebble and shingle, with a good smattering of beds and brollies in the central part, below the car park and restaurants.   There is also a good watersports area where you can hire Hobie Kat sailing boats, jet bikes, canoes and so on, or book a ride on the banana boat inflatable, or try a bit of kite surfing.  Beyond that area, the western end of the bay curves round along the foot of steep sandstone cliffs, and becomes little more than a rock ledge for the last 100 yards or so.  I’m told you can wade around the headland in calm waters, with the sea just above knee height, to another selection of little coves but I didn’t bother.   (There is also a route along a narrow path along the side of the cliff that takes you to the same place; I gave it a try but about two-thirds of the way up a rock fall had taken about half the path with it, leaving a narrow strip about a foot wide for perhaps two strides.  You could probably continue with care, but not feeling suicidal I gave it a miss too.)

The eastern end of the beach was much better.  At its furthest extent, the big stones and pebbles give way to a finer shingle and sand, and at the base of the cliffs is a selection of rock outcrops that give a certain amount of privacy.  Beyond it, over another pile of rocks (or a knee deep wade of maybe ten yards) is another small, stony cove, and thereafter a succession of similar areas.  I was surprised to find that everyone at this end of the beach (three or four couples and as many individuals) was naked – I had read that naturism is very much frowned upon in Cyprus, apparently illegal and subject to spot fines of EUR200.  But hey ho – when in Rome and all that stuff…..

It was a good day.  Plenty of sun, plenty of swimming in warm, crystal clear water, read my book.  
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This past weekend, the lady from Hertz, when she delivered the car, recommended a drive beyond Pissouri to Aphrodite’s Birthplace.  Now whether you believe in Greek mythology or not is neither here nor there, the drive itself makes the trip worthwhile, she said, it’s the most beautiful place in Cyprus.  So Saturday, after another roasting at Pissouri beach, I decided to give it a go. 

The drive was indeed spectacular, and reminded me very much of the mountainous road from Chania to Elafonisi in Crete – still my all-time favourite drive.  The journey takes you up a winding and narrow road through Pissouri village itself (maybe three kilometers from the beach), then picks up a slightly better road signposted to Paphos.  It’s still twisting and undulating around what is now a beautiful range of sharp sided hill crests, separated by steep, sometimes sheer sided and evidently uninhabited valleys.  It runs like this for perhaps 15km, then you swing around a right hand bend, up a sharp incline and straight ahead of you, above the road that continues to twist and turn before you, is your destination.  It’s basically a huge rock, perhaps 80 feet tall, with a head-high tunnel running through it, and half a dozen smaller rocks scattered like children at its feet, all surrounded by the broad crescent of the beach and a clear blue sea.  That first sight of it is indeed spellbinding. 

There is a car park across the road that offers a snack bar, a narrow tunnel under the road to the beach, and if you’re so inclined (and prepared to pay EUR5) a shower.  The beach itself is like Brighton or Eastbourne or Pevensey – indeed any number of Sussex beaches – that is to say stony beyond belief, hardly a grain of sand to be found anywhere.  I got there late in the day, so there were few people there and most of them were packing up to leave.

It is a beautiful place to be sure, and the drive was fun, but I seriously question whether it really is the best place in all Cyprus!

Yesterday (that’s Sunday), I drove back to Governer’s  Beach, the scene of my first bus expedition last month.  I’d been recommended another little cove along to the west, towards Limassol, as being nice and sandy.  It was a bit of a mission: basically the proper road ends suddenly and you’re pitched onto what amounts to a dirt track along the low cliff tops.  In a Range Rover or something I’m sure it would be fine, but for the Fiesta it was far from ideal.  Most of it I had to take very slowly indeed, in first gear, to avoid wrecking the car – I could have walked it faster.  I pulled over a couple of times, to stretch my legs and try to spot this mysterious beach, but there was no sign.  In one stony cove a middle aged couple were obviously making out, on the next point over, on one of the big white rock outcrops, there was what I assume was a glamour photo-shoot going on  – the guy had a camera on a tripod, another guy was holding a bloody great mirror (as if there wasn’t enough sun already!), there were a couple of, I presume, make-up artists or something (since they were female) , and in the middle of this group, lying down and pretty much obscured by everyone else, the model.  I drove on, for maybe an hour, but could find no trace of this mythical sandy beach.  By this time I was getting seriously concerned about my shock absorbers and tyres, so I gave it up as a bad job, and headed carefully back to the main road. 

So I finished the weekend as I had started it, back at Pissouri – still the best beach I’ve found here.  On the way there I drove through a brief and violent thunderstorm (as I passed Limassol on the highway in fact) – the second in successive days, as it had rained heavily Saturday afternoon in Limassol (although I, 35km west on the beach at Pissouri, saw not a cloud).  I’m told it’s the first rainfall since May.  Today it’s back to normal – 31C and clear blue skies.

Anyway, all in all, Cyprus is a bit disappointing, at least as far as sandy beaches are concerned.  There are some at Ayia Napa, the party town the other side of Larnaca (so that would be around 120km from Limassol) and apparently more on the north side of the island, in the Turkish zone where car insurance bought in the Greek section is not valid.  But in this part of the island, the south westerly corner, nothing to speak of.  So Pissouri it is then….

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Driving habits are different here to Poland.  People seem much more polite and, interestingly, take note of the speed limits.  With the comparative lack of traffic on the roads, even at weekends, and the fact that everything is very English, it’s actually been a pleasure pottering around in my rental cars.  The only slightly nerve wracking time was on my first trip back from Pissouri.  I managed to miss my (very badly signposted) entrance to the highway and had to drive maybe 5km out of my way to get back on the right road.  I noticed, absently, that a bright yellow Seat that had followed me all the way from the car park at the beach was still behind me, and assumed once we were on the highway he would overtake me and be gone – it was a local car not a hire (the number plates are a different colour) so I figured he wouldn’t be lost.  But he stayed right on my tail all the way along.  I wasn’t rushing at all, it was a lovely evening and the highway from Pissouri to Limassol is a very scenic drive, and the guy had plenty of time and space to go if he wanted to.  At one point he pulled alongside me, and just looked across at me – obviously a local, dark glasses, black gelled hair.  I slowed more to let him pass.  He pulled back behind me and settled in my wake.  I had no clue what was going on.

Every time I sped up, so did he.  I slowed down and he was nearly in my boot.  All the way to Limassol.  I tried to dodge him by a bit of frankly illegal overtaking approaching some road works and a contra-flow system – the move he pulled to keep pace was even less legal and more dangerous than mine.  I was now getting quite worried.  I took the wrong exit from the highway, and got a bit lost going into the town centre, and he was right with me.  I went through an amber light at one junction, he went through a red.  Eventually, I got back to my hotel, pulled into the drive and parked up.  He pulled up beside me.  Right, I thought, if you want a row……  I got out of my car and glared at him as he opened his passenger window.

“What the fuck is your problem, pal?” I said angrily.

“Are you lost?” he said.  “I followed you all the way from Pissouri in case you needed help….  You were driving so slowly, looking around everywhere.”

I felt quite embarrassed……  I explained I was a tourist, had missed my turning, and was just enjoying the scenery, not a problem.  He smiled, and waved his hand.

“Well, enjoy your stay,” he said cheerily, and drove off.

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Over the past few weeks there has been a wine festival here.   Across from the hotel and office there is a small but very pretty park, that also houses an open-air theatre.   Every year, apparently for the past 50, there has been a local wine festival held there.  You pay your EUR3 admittance, spend another couple of euros buying a commemorative wine glass (or tumbler, the choice is yours), and are then free to wander around and sample at no cost all the wines on offer.  As an inexpensive way to get pissed it doesn’t really work, because each sample you take is little more than a mouthful, but some of the wines are quite palatable – though as I’m not a big wine drinker I couldn’t honestly say whether they’re good or bad.  I just quite liked some of them.  There are stalls scattered around the park selling souvenirs, and also food stalls and temporary restaurants selling local dishes as well as the inevitable pizza and kebabs.  I paid EUR6 for a very good plate of local sausages (very savoury) with fries and about three slices of pitta bread and salad.    My mate, who hasn’t the biggest appetite in the world, ordered chicken salad for about the same price, and when it was delivered had a whole barbecued chicken, about half an allotments’ worth of fresh green salad and tomatoes, and half a cottage loaf.  Good stuff.

There has been the odd concert held there too during the festival, but I never attended any of them.  One was a rock concert by some local band, very 80s big hair and shoulder pads music, early Bon Jovi sort of stuff, but by the screams and applause at the end of every guitar and drum solo soaked number they are clearly very popular.  I could hear it all very clearly from my hotel room 200 yards away.  This past weekend was the closing concert, choral music, but I’m in a different room now so didn’t really hear that one – shame, it might have been quite nice.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Two Leaders

It's an interesting thing, but since World War 2, The World Changing Events have been heavily influenced by the leaders of the US and the UK working (more or less) together.

World War 2.  A mad German painter instructs his adoring followers to invade half of Europe, intent on gaining sufficent land to allow his nation to expand as much as they like and rule the world (and as a bonus rid the world of Jewry).  He was in the end stopped by the combined efforts of an unlikely pair of leaders - the ageing aristocrat, romantic and near alcoholic Winston Churchill and a prematurely aged, crippled polio victim Franklin Delano Roosevelt.   They were of course aided and abetted - and ultimately outmanouevred - by the original Poison Dwarf, Uncle Joe Stalin.  Which set up.....

The Cold War.  Near fifty years of a divided Europe, the most costly and dangerous arms race in history and misery for millions.   Ended finally by another unlikely pairing  - this time a grocer's daughter from Middle England, the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher (and her legendary handbag) and an ageing Hollywood actor, union activist and California State Governor, Ronald Reagan.  An odd couple to be sure, but they shared a political philosphy and a love of freedom, and were prepared to face down the apparent might of the Soviet Empire.  They too were aided and abetted by a Russian leader, he of the strawberry birthmark and Western appearance Mikhail Gorbachev - but much more importantly by the Polish Pope, ex-goalkeeper and all round top bloke John Paul 2.  Between them, they brought to an end Communism in Europe, flattened the Berlin Wall and (re)introduced free market capitalism to millions of people in Eastern Europe, from former Soviet satellite states, who in most cases weren't ready for it and have spent the last 30-odd years coming to terms with it.  They're largely doing pretty well nowadays.

The War on Terror.  Now this will be a contentious one, I'm sure.  Ten years ago, 9/11.  A bunch of Islamic fundamentalist loonies fly packed airliners into New York's World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in Washington.  Another plane comes down in the Pennsylvania countryside.  Three thousand innocent people, of all nationalities and religious persuasions, die.  Air travel - indeed most travel, especially international - will never be the same again.  The American President, ex-Texan Governor and oilman, son of a previous President, George W.Bush, declares war on the nutters.  The British Prime Minister, wannabe rock star, lawyer, celebrity loving Newcastle United fan Tony Blair, jumps to his feet and echoes George's declaration.  Between them, they pulled together a coalition of like-minded countries, including ex-Soviet bloc nations like Poland, and invaded Afghanistan to kill or capture Osama bin Laden (the fucker behind 9/11) and while they were at it overthrow the extremist Taliban leadership.  Then they turned their attentions to Iraq, whose equally loony dictator Saddam Hussein was widely reckoned to be funding al Qaeda and as a side show developing an arsenal of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons - the fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) - that he was quite happy to use on his own people by way of target practice.  Today, 10 years later, there is a fragile democracy in both countries, the Taliban seem to be staging something of a comeback, people are still dying from suicide bomber attacks, Saddam and Osama are both dead (at least that was a good result), and there are still thousands of troops on the ground in both countries (largely from the US and the UK).  George and Tony have both gone, of course: Bush left after two terms in office (the most allowed successively under American law apparently), and Blair won a third term, despite being embroiled in a succession of public enquiries into Britain's activities in the Iraq war, all of them aimed at personally blaming him for the deaths of British soldiers and Iraqi citizens (War Crimes a familiar but unproven charge), before getting fed up of the whole business of politics and ducking out halfway through his third term, handing over to the ham-fisted ex-Chancellor Gordon Brown, and thus paving the way for Britain's first coalition Government since World War 2.

Not sure what they're doing for a living these days - apart from writing their memoirs, both lucrative best sellers of course.

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I've read both books.  Surprisingly, I enjoyed them both too.

First, Bush's tome : "Decision Points".   The writing style, though technically English is hardly literary, it is light and conversational, as you would expect from an ex-President widely ridiculed for the odd linguistic faux pas (though not quite on a par with Dan Quayle).  He writes the way he speaks, conversational and direct.   The book is broken down into sections that broadly link times in his life when he has to determine a particular course of action in his life and follow it, come hell or high water - hence the books title.  The "decisions points" are the predictable - to stand or not stand for Governor and President, to invade Iraq -  and the mildly surprising - his religious faith, and giving up alcohol.  I expected some evasions over the War on Terror and Iraq, given they shaped his Presidency and were no universally popular, but I think he was honest in his descriptions of why he acted the way he did:  basically, he was a President faced with an unexpected and totally unique experience - the 9/11 attacks - that demanded a strong response, but against a very little known and shadowy enemy.  Given the intelligence advice he received, in hindsight not always the best, he clearly did what he considered was right for his country and its people.  I don't see how you could argue with that. 

Some of the more contentious decisions over the years since then - like waterboarding al Qaeda operatives (or suspects), the troop surge - are discussed with honesty and clarity, and like it or not, he is unapologetic about either.   He clearly believed at the time the decisions were correct, and sees nothing since to change his opinion.  Stubbornly wrong or clear headed and right?   You decide: he's not asking for judgement or forgiveness, merely reporting what he did and why.  No excuses.

Overall, I thought he came across as a decent enough guy trying to fumble his way through an indecent situation, and in many cases whichever course of action he took would have been praised and condemned in equal measure.   Preidency, I suppose.

And what of Our Tone?  Well, his book "A Journey" is far more weighty than "Decision Points", written in a far more scholarly (ok, English) way, but with some entertaining, light touches and unexpected humour.  He comes across as a very ambitious poilitician, but the early years - his childhood and university years, his time as a barrister before becoming an MP, are hardly discussed at all, except for the odd poignant memory of conversations with his dying mother, and facing up to a school bully.   I could have done with more of that, to gain a better insight to how his childhood and adolescence shaped his character, and who influenced his political beliefs - there is little about that.  Even his earlier years in the Labour Party, and in Parliament, before assuming the leadership after John Smith's death, are lightly covered.  If the book is really about "A Journey" then the first few stations were missed.

The book is really about New Labour.  It's rise to government, what it did when it got there, and how it all went wrong.  It's very clear that Blair was the driving force behind it, ably assisted by Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell.  Gordon Brown, another architect of the idea, actually comes out of this rather badly, as someone who was a great Chancellor but never really bought into the New Labour philosophy, with predictable consequences in the end.  Old and New Labout stalwarts in the main are affectionately portrayed, especially the two Johns, Prescott and Reid, Charles Clark and David Blunkett.  Other figures fare less well - Robin Cook, Margaret Hodge, the current leader Ed Milliband (his brother David is more liked by Blair) and especially Ed Balls were clearly not Blair's favourite people in the world, although he's far too polite to say so directly.

He comes across as very much a convictions politician, and one who at critical times was very much in tune with public opinion in fact rather than for convenience or headlines.  He is very clear in describing the way his policy ideas came about and the internal battles he had to fight to get some of them adopted.  On 9/11, the War on Terror and Iraq, and the subsequent public enquiries and personal condemnation he suffered, Blair is very open and I think honest, and does not attempt to pass any of the blame on to others (like Bush, or the Intelligence Services for offering flawed information and advice) as he could so easily have done.  Instead, he quotes verbatim from a number of reports from the UN, the IAEA, Amnesty International and others, to illustrate the kind of information he may have been privy to (though the rest of us probably weren't) and explain why he took the decisions he did.  He expresses regret at the loss of life (and in one section describes meeting the family of one killed British soldier at Downing Street, then breaking down in tears in a one-on-one conversation afterwards with the widow) but stands by the choices he made.  Like Bush, he was clearly in an invidious position and did the best he could and what he thought was right at the time.

Blair also attempts something in his book that Bush didn't do - offer a personal view of the world and its current issues.  "Decision Points" ends with the handover to Obama, and George heading off to a Texan sunset and barbecue: the end.  But Tony, in a postscript, offers interesting and sharp views on the financial crisis, global warning, the Arab Spring, the Palestine Question and other meaty stuff.  It's an interesting conclusion to an interesting book.

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The interesting thing about the Blair - Bush pairing is that politically they should have been miles apart and probably loathed each other.  Bush the Conservative, small government, big on tax cuts, free market economy, America first and fuck the rest of the world.   Blair the progressive liberal, the Dmocrat.  Bigger Government (though less than traditional Labour peeople would want).  A kind of free market economy but with much more government regulation.  Britian important but not the power it once was, looking more to Europe than the US, but seeing the Special Relationship as a thing of value too. 

And yet, after 9/11, the arms length working relationship both admit to in their respective books grew into a close friendship and mutual admiration society.  Bush admits that Blair sometimes acted as a brake to the more excessive demands from Cheney and Rumsfeld, and a tireless advocate for the Coalition and UN Resolution prior to Iraq.  Blair professes an admiration for the way Bush handled himself in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and admits to having to work very hard to keep the American on the straight and narrow. 

It was an odd partnership, but it worked.  Whether for good or bad is a personal choice.

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And now? 

Well, it's all gone a bit pear shaped.  Obama came into the Presidency on a wave of optimism but doesn't really seem to have lived up to the publicity and expectation.  He's not helped by trying to run the country with the opposition Republicans controlling Congress.  It all seems to be getting very spiteful and petty and I can't see him winning another term.  A big disappointment: like John Major, who I thought offered much when he became Prime Minister but ultimately failed to deliver.

Cameron I really cannot make my mind up about at all.  As a council house kid, I have a little problem with his old Etonian Rich Kid background that doesn't sit at all well with his attempts at the popular touch ("Call me Dave"....).  To that extent he's a typical Old School Tory, ripe for leadership.  But I don't know, he just doesn't seem to have any real policies beyond knee jerk reactions and sound bites ("The Big Society"? What the hell happened to that idea?  What was it all about anyway?  And now it's "Our Broken Society"......make your mind up, Dave, please!).

It's all a bit of a worry, really. 

Sunday, 11 September 2011

9/11 - A personal memory

There are lots of historical events that lodge themselves indelibly in your mind, so that the question "Where were you when.....?" is asked.

JFK?  I was at a pantomime with my mum at the local WI Hall, aged 10.  I didn't understand the implications or what had happened, but it's stuck with me ever since.

England 1966?  Like a lot of people, sitting in front of a black and white TV watching it.  Then me and my mates went into the field and replicated all the goals over and over again.

Princess Diana?  Asleep.  I got up and switched on the telly and was as stunned as everybody else as the news broke.  We spent the rest of the day glued to the TV, as the news came in.

But 9/11.....well, it's in a class of its own.

It completely changed the world we live in.

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I was working at a bank in Warsaw.  We came back from lunch, and one of the guys, a Dutch bloke called Mike, booted up CNN News on his laptop.

"Look at this," he called.  "There's a plane crash at the World Trade Centre."

We all clustered round his desk and watched the drama unfold.  I remember feeling stunned that something like this could have happened in New York, given the undoubted strength of the US Military.  We all yelled in disbelief and horror when the second plane came in.  It was the same thoughout the bank, and the project managers, rightly guessing no more work would be done that day, sent us home early.

I got back to my flat and switched on the TV, which had probably the biggest screen I have ever seen, and put the kettle on for a coffee.  The news banner at the bottom of the screen was reporting the Pentagon attack and Flight 93 coming down in Pennsylvania, though details about that were still sketchy.

I was putting coffee in the cup when screaming made me turn and look round at the TV......just in time to see the first Tower crumble into dust.  The coffee went out of my mind - I poured myself a large vodka instead, and took a beer from the fridge to wash it down.  And then another.  But it was like drinking water.....

It was horrific.  I can still remember people throwing themselves out the windows, preferring to die that way, quickly, rather than be incinerated.  I remember the horror and confusion on people's faces in the Manhattan streets as they watched everything unfold.  The confusion as people ran in all directions through the choking clouds of dust.  And then the second Tower came down.  And later on the third, next door, WTC7.

I switched off then.  I had had enough.

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Not much was done at work that week.  My company had an office in one of the Towers, and for two days we didn't know if we had lost anyone.  I knew a few people there quite well.  Mercifully, there had only been a handful of people in the office and they managed to get out ok.  Everyone else was out on various sites - except for one guy, who had overslept courtesy of a hangover, and ended up stranded on the metro when it was shut down.  It took over a day to track him down.

On the Friday, I was due to fly home for a weekend in England.  US airspace was still closed, but things were getting back to normal in Europe.    On Thursday evening, Ania phoned me and pleaded with me not to fly - she even offered to take the day off work and drive me to Calais to catch a ferry: that's a long haul from Warsaw!  I tried to reassure her.  I told her that air travel would be the safest form of transport for the foreseeable future as security was sure to be ramped up.  I'm not sure she believed me, but in the end she agreed to let me fly, as long as I called her as soon as I landed at Heathrow - which of course I did.

In the event, the flight was fine: left on time and arrived a bit early.  Apart from tanks and soldiers at both Warsaw and Heathrow - a hell of a sight in itself, but reassuring - there was nothing odd about it at all.

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Since then of course the travel world has changed completely.  Security at all airports is extraordinaily tight now, what with baggage checks, personal searches and so on, meaning that now it's just not possible to turn up at the last minute and still catch your flight.  Even with hand baggage only, you need to allow at least half an hour, more at some places.  It's no fun any more.  And I can't foresee a time when the War on Terror will be won and things can return to normal - what we have now is "normal" and I believe always will be.

Are we safer now, after Iraq and Afghanistan and the assassination of bin Laden and others?  Probably yes......but not completely, because there are plenty of other nutters prepared to plan and execute their own atrocities.  Despite the tragedies in Bali and Madrid and London and elsewhere, there has mercifully been nothing on the scale of 9/11, so it would suggest the actions taken over the past 10 years is having some effect.  George Bush and especially Tony Blair have taken huge amounts of criticism over Afghanistan and Iraq, and I think a lot of it is completely unfair - here were two leaders, placed in a situation that no other leaders in history had been in before, and had to take decisions that in hindsight may (I repeat MAY) not have been 100%.  But they did what they felt was necessary to meet a threat that was largely unkown.  Could you have done any better?  Could anyone?  No.

So here we are, ten years have gone by, seemingly in the blink of an eye, and the images and sounds from that day are as clear today as they were then.   I hope to God I never see anything like it again.  And my thoughts tonight are with the 3000-odd who perished that day, and the families and friends they left behind.  It wasn't just Americans who died: 100 plus nationalities were represented in the death toll, and many religions - including Islam.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Year Round Island

Cyprus is called by advertisers – well, their tourist board, anyway – “The Year Round Island”.  Bit early to confirm that, given that I’ve only had a couple of weeks here, but so far it’s ok.

As with most places, the journey is a bit of an epic from Warsaw.  There are direct flights, but not every day, and those that do fly leave at something like 11:00 p.m., arriving in Larnaca at about 2:30 the next morning.  Since it’s a further hour in a taxi along to Limassol (or to give it it’s local name, Lemessos) that means arriving at my hotel at maybe 4:00 a.m…..not ideal before work.  The best alternative is a flight at about 7:45 a.m. daily to Vienna, a quick charge between terminals (changing flights is never easy) and then a 3 ½ hour flight arriving about 2:30 in the afternoon.  With luck I can get a couple of hours on site.    The home trip is as good – leave the office about 2:00 in the afternoon, again through Vienna, getting me home by 9:00 in the evening.

So off I went.  Decent flights, reasonable food, and in-flight entertainment consisting of some tourist films saying how wonderful a place Austria is, and a bunch of old Tom & Jerry cartoons.  Thank God for the iPod!

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The place reminded me of Crete, when I arrived.  The island is at the extreme eastern end of the Mediterranean, south of Turkey and about 60 miles offshore from Syria.  Throughout its history the population has been a mix of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, with both countries claiming ownership at various times.  It all blew up back in the mid-1970s into a brief, full blown and bloody conflict, courtesy of a Turkish invasion, that ended with UN intervention.  The island is now divided into a northerly Turkish part and a southerly Greek part, with the border (the so-called Green Line) running through the capital Nicosia.  There are still UN forces based here, and there is a substantial British base close to Limassol, and occasionally tensions still flare up.  Despite this, the island is a full member of the EU, and has even adopted the euro as its currency (God help them!). Travelling between the two zones is easy now, I’m told: you basically present your passport at a border post, fill in a form and they let you through, without even a stamp on your passport.

Anyway, back to the Crete similarity.  I remember when we went there for our holiday about 4 years ago.  We flew in under a perfect blue cloudless sky, over a parched looking landscape dotted with groves of trees, and winding dusty looking roads.  There were mountains, or at least quite high hills, looking equally starved of refreshment.  Here and there small villages of sandy coloured or dusty, white painted houses could be seen.  Cyprus looked identical to this, except the mountains seemed higher and were to the north of the island rather than, as in Crete, more southerly.

It was hot, too.  We visited Crete in late September and the temperature was mid- to high 20s.  Now, in late August (so roughly a month earlier) Cyprus is basking in the low 30s, a parched dry heat – no steaming up of the glasses whenever I step out of doors here.

At the airport in Larnaca, as at Chania in Crete, all the signs are in both English and Greek characters.  The advertisements are for mostly ailing Greek banks and apparently prosperous local banks, and of course property developers, trying to sell their latest beach side condominium.  Plus the usual mobile phone operators and car-hire companies (Avis, Hertz – the usual suspects).  All typical Mediterranean holiday isle.

I passed through Larnaca a couple of years ago, en route from Beirut to Athens for an interview, and remember being very surprised at what a crap terminal building supported the main airport on one of the main holiday destinations.  I remember it being small and dirty, lacking much in the way of duty free shopping and food outlets, not much better than Belgrade, which as I’ve written on here before is an absolute tip.  Since then, a new building has opened and it’s a cracker.  Well signed, a wide array of shopping facilities and food shops, very clean, spacious, light and airy, and efficient check-in and security facilities.  It could not be a bigger contrast to what was there before.  The only downside was, as I found out when I went home last week, the Star Alliance Lounge only admits Gold card holders, so I have no idea whether it is as good as the rest of the facilities – from the little I saw as they turned me politely away from Reception it very probably is.  Still, a chicken tikka wrap, lemon muffin and grande latte at the Costa Coffee outlet (total cost EUR8) put a smile back on my face.
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There the similarities with Crete ended. 

That island is part of Greece, so is very European – left hand drive cars on the “wrong” side of the road.  Impoverished looking businesses scattered alongside the roads linking hotels and beach resorts.  A single two lane highway linking Chania in the west to Iraklion in the east (although I have to say it’s a nice drive, running as it does right alongside the northern coast, with the mountains rising on the other side of the road to the south).  Crete basically survives on its tourist trade, and like the rest of Greece is suffering badly this year as the Government successfully bankrupts itself and brings the entire Euro-zone to the brink of collapse.

By way of contrast, as an ex-British possession, Cyprus remains a very British island.  The cars are right-hand drive, and drive on the left.  The power plugs are the standard British 3 pin variety.  In the supermarkets you can buy pork pies, and custard creams and jaffa cakes and marmite and PG Tips.  The restaurants serve good British fare like cottage pie and chips, bangers and mash, corned beef sandwiches and (of course) curry and chips.  The Sun and the Daily Mail are available on the newsstands (not that I bothered).  The Premier League, courtesy of Sky Sports, is shown live in bars all over town on big screen tv’s – just as it is in Britain. English is widely spoken.   I feel very much at home here.

As a tax haven and maritime centre, with a major port here in Limassol (the aid convoy for Gaza that was attacked by Israeli troops last year with loss of life and international condemnation sailed from here) as well as smaller facilities along the coast at Larnaca), Cyprus does not have to rely on its tourist trade to prosper.  Shipping contributes significantly to its economy, as does the offshore banking industry.  It has also led to a big Russian influence: around the island, and especially around Limassol, there are Russian enclaves, with shops and restaurants catering to a large and growing Russian community and its tourists.  The bank I’m working at is an offshore subsidiary of one of the biggest “new” Russian financial powerhouses, and I would not be surprised at all if some of its activities were not aimed at, shall we say, less than scrupulously honest oligarchs…..

There is a marked difference in the traffic too.  Most of the cars and trucks and buses I remember from Crete were, apart from the hire cars, a little worn-looking, as if they had survived a long and hard life.  New cars were few and far between, and luxury cars a rarity.  There are many such vehicles here of course, but there are also a good proportion of high end cars too – Porsche, Mercedes, Audi and BMW are common, I’ve also seen a couple of Ferarris, a Lamborghini and at least one Rolls Royce.  But the icing on the cake, so to speak, is a top of the range Bentley, clearly brand new, that I see most lunchtimes cruising along the highway by the beach in Limassol.  It is chrome.  Not just the bumpers and wheels, but the entire bodywork is chrome plated and polished like a mirror.  The driver and any passengers are totally invisible behind blackened windows.  God only knows how much it cost to build, nor how much it costs to insure and run nor what its obviously prosperous owner does for a living…..  I’ve never seen anything remotely like it in all my travels.

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My taxi ride from the airport was pleasant enough.  The taxi driver was a big guy with a magnificent black moustache and throughout the drive he had a Blackberry clamped to his ear as he argued with a selection of people in a wonderfully deep and mellifluous voice that rose and fell operatically with the rhythm of the conversations – it suited his bulky frame perfectly.

There was little traffic on the road at all, so the drive only took about half an hour to cover the 66km from the airport to the hotel, and again the similarity between Crete and Cyprus was evident in the parched landscape.  But the air-conditioned Merc was comfortable and the conversation (when he wasn’t arguing) was good – his English was excellent.  He drove me to the airport on my way home last Friday and picked me up again Monday, so I assume I’ll get to know him quite well.  Nice guy.

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At the weekend I decided to hit the beach.  There are beaches in Limassol that look quite good, sandy with umbrellas and sun-beds and gently sloping into a clear and warm sea.  At this time of year they don’t seem too crowded, but I didn’t want to spend the weekend looking out at the half dozen bulk carriers moored in the bay, waiting their turn at the docks to unload.  Someone recommended a place called Governor’s Beach to me, about 30 km east of Limassol, roughly half way to Larnaca according to the map.  The hotel told me to catch a number 30 bus as far as the Meridien Hotel, about half way, then change to a 31. Sounds like fun….so off I went, early Saturday morning.  Of course, no-one at the hotel had a timetable so it was turn up and wait until one came along, but the bus stop was by the beach so it was ok.  I waited nearly an hour before a 30 came along.  I boarded it with a collection of Russian ladies heading off to work at various shops and hotels along the route, and stood looking out of the window at the sea while we headed out along the highway to the hotel.  It took about half an hour.  I asked the driver where to catch the number 31.  Helpfully he had no idea.  I walked back up to the highway, and about a kilometer back to the last stop, that was signed 31 – Governor’s Beach: happy days.  And I waited.

For an hour and a half.  No 31.  I was told by the drivers of three number 30s that it was “on the way” and would be about “10 minutes”.  I never did find a 31 – in the end, I flagged down a cab and paid EUR15 to take me to the beach.

It was a little disappointing, to be honest.  It’s quite small, maybe 400m end to end, and no more than 20m deep.  There were loungers and umbrellas all along it, and also placed on lawns behind the beach where trees provided plenty of additional shelter.  It was also very crowded.  Those of you who have read this blog before will know that crowded beaches aren’t my favourite thing on God’s green Earth, and that goes whether I’m with the family or on my own.  So I struck out westerly just to see what was there.

A footpath runs along the low cliff top and I followed this.  After maybe half a kilometer all shade disappeared and I found myself trudging through a desert landscape, kicking up clouds of dust with every step.  Every few hundred metres a small bay would present itself at the bottom of the cliff, but frequently there was no way down.  The few that had access usually had a few people there, and were generally pebbly affairs, with rocks at the water’s edge and beyond.  All along were also huge white rocky outcrops, not chalk but something of a more solid consistency, but with little or no access to the sea.  Some of them, the ones where with difficulty you could get into the water, had sunbathers sprawled out on beach towels.  Eventually, after maybe 2km, I found my way down a narrow path onto a small strip of deserted pebbly beach, stripped off and dived into the water for a swim.  It was delightful.

I spent a good day after that, wandering from cove to cove, having the odd swim to cool off, and just lazing in the sun.  There was absolutely no shelter on any of the beaches, so by about 3:00 I’d had enough and wandered back to Governor’s.  Next problem: how the hell do I get back to Limassol?  I still had no clue really as to where I was, or where to catch the mythical number 31 or for that matter a taxi.  I enquired in a restaurant by the beach, and the guy spouted off a bunch of directions, waving his arms around for emphasis, and of course I understood not one word of it.  Anyway, I headed off in the direction he had vaguely indicated and found myself by a road – next question, left or right?  On the basis there were some buildings to my left and bugger all to my right, I turned left.  Almost immediately, I saw, about half a kilometer ahead, what looked like a blue minibus turning off the road.  I stepped up my pace (no mean feat: I was absolutely knackered and sweating copiously) and hastened after it.  I found it in a dusty old car park, with a lady of maybe 70 sitting on the step.

She turned out to be the driver, and the bus was indeed bound for Limassol.  I had time to duck into a shop and buy another bottle of water before we headed off.  The fare was a ludicrous one euro (that’s EUR1….) and as there were no other passengers it’s clearly a loss making service.  No matter: it got me back to my hotel in about 40 minutes.

So really it was a good day – but next weekend I will not rely on public transport, but hire a car, the cheapest one I can find……

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I’ve eaten well here.  As well as standard English grub, there is a good selection of international cuisine close to the office (a Syrian place serves a particularly good – and cheap – lunch), as well as international chains like McDonalds and TGI Fridays and good old Starbucks.  There is a micro-brewery a ten minute cab ride away from the hotel that, as well as serving its own excellent lagers, also provides good food in the most ridiculous quantities imaginable.  I’ve visited it twice, and both times failed dismally to finish the plates put before me…..very rare indeed!  The hotel breakfast menu is good as well – English fry up, Continental rolls and croissants, cooked meats and cheeses, cereals, fresh fruit salad and yoghurt.  So in the two weeks I’ve been here, I’ve put back on with interest the weight I sweated of in Abu Dhabi recently.

The hotel, the Curium Palace, is actually quite good, though it has to be said not as good as it presents itself on-line and in its brochures.  But the beds are comfortable enough, the rooms clean and light and all with balconies or shared terraces.  There is a very nice pool and sun terrace with a good bar that I relaxed in for a while last weekend – comfortable sofas and good local beer.  The tv’s aren’t so hot, old fashioned and with relatively small screens, not the big flat screen jobs that are increasingly popular in hotels the world over, and the choice of channels is pretty restricted, but they’re adequate for all that.  I have both BBC World and Sky News in English, and a couple of other channels broadcast English language movies so again it’s ok for the couple of hours a day I get to view.  No Sky Sports though….  Last week my room had a particularly small bathroom with a ceiling so low I cracked my head on it getting in and out of the little shower stall, and I had to virtually kneel down to get under the shower, but this week is better – bigger bathroom and higher ceiling.  Offsetting this is the fact that this week’s room is at the front of the hotel, so facing the main road and hence quite noisy (though no worse than home), whereas last week’s was at the back and overlooking the pool area, with a huge shared terrace.

Ah, well, you win some you lose some….

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So those are my first impressions.

I’m back now for another couple of weeks, and will be travelling here on and off for at least the next couple of months, and probably longer.  I hope to bring mon famille down for a week or so holiday in October, and will for sure be hiring cars and seeing more of the island as I get the chance.

Watch this space…..