How we ended up walking through a demilitarized zone

I recently forced my husband to go on vacation with me. It’s not that the man doesn’t want to go on vacation, but he doesn’t have many vacation days and is trying to save them up for reasons I’m not at liberty to discuss (I like it when I can write stuff like that because then I sound like a super spy who has this thrilling exotic life). He finally agreed to go on a vacation. Yeah! But there were two problems. We only had a week and it was in January. Since we weren’t keen on a ski vacation, a vacation in January can be a bit problematic. And although we can fly cheaper than the average Joe, my husband is in planes and airports all the time. He didn’t want to travel 9 hours to go to the Maldives to enjoy some sun for a mere week. Maybe next time?

We ended up heading to Cyprus, which lead to some odd problems since we live in Istanbul. There are tons of flights daily to Northern Cyprus to an airport that no one in the world recognizes except Turkey, but we didn’t want to stay in Northern Cyprus. We wanted to get away for a week and Northern Cyprus aka Turkish Cyprus was just too much like Turkey for our liking. In other words, we needed to be somewhere where buying alcohol wouldn’t break the vacation budget. But how does one get from Northern Cyprus to Southern Cyprus?

Not with a rental car. I did my research and emailed several Turkish Cypriot rental car agencies. None of their cars can be insured for Cyprus itself. Strangely enough, I learned that if you rent a car from the Greek side, you can drive onto the Turkish side. You just need to buy insurance at the border.

I ended up finding a rental car agency with an office close to a border between Northern and Southern Cyprus. I thought we’d have a taxi drop us off at the border and then walk to the rental car agency. Easy Peasy. Well, not exactly. I’d forgotten that the border crossings had different names depending on whether you’re speaking Greek or Turkish. And trust me, the names are not similar – at all. Our taxi driver dropped us off at the wrong border crossing, which we didn’t realize at the time. Lucky for us, a nice Turkish man asked if we needed a lift and then proceeded to drive us around for an hour trying to find the rental agency. We got there in the end.

After a week-long visit in Cyprus, we headed back to Nicosia (or is it Lefkosa?). This time we were determined to walk across the border. Just to be safe, we asked the agent about getting a taxi and learned that there were no taxis willing to take us to the Turkish airport from the Greek side. But it’s just a short walk, he said. Go straight here and you can’t miss it!

Yes, yes, you can miss it. We walked straight for a few minutes and ran into a city wall filled with mortar and small arms ammunition holes as well as sand-bag filled windows. This must be it! We walked through the gate and ran straight into a barbed wire fence. The old Greek men sitting at a coffee shop directed us one street further. We dragged our suitcases another block and ran smack dab into the UN. This must be it! Um, no, we were actually trying to enter the UN headquarters and although that may work for Madam Secretary, it didn’t for us.

But then we saw a woman drop off some kids and walk through what looked like a border. Aha! We followed and before we knew it, we were in a demilitarized zone. The Cypriot Greeks didn’t bother to even check our EU passports.

So what was it like to walk through the demilitarized zone? Was it everything I expected? Not exactly. For some reason, I imagined a DMZ would resemble the border between West and East Germany from more than 20 years ago. I envisioned barbed wire fences with guards in towers manned by military men holding scary machine guns and a green zone of overgrown grass filling up the space between the two borders.

But that’s not what I got. For one, it was quiet. And eerie. There were no military men looking to shoot anyone who dared step in the wrong direction. We actually didn’t see another soul as we walked through the zone. And there certainly wasn’t any grass. This was a DMZ in the middle of the former capital of united Cyprus. There were deserted streets and empty buildings. It wasn’t quite like a warzone you see on television, but it was obvious that a battle had occurred here. As we passed the building housing the UN peacekeepers, my husband remarked “Someone had really bad aim.” He was referring to the numerous bullet holes which missed the windows of the building. After the housing, we passed a UN project sponsored – amongst others – by the Netherlands in which young people could write down their wishes for Cyprus. That’s the Dutch for you – always wanting to talk things out.

And then we were at the Turkish border. Unlike the Greek side, which was manned by one woman, this side had six men shuffling around only one of whom was actually working. After getting the requisite stamps in our passports, we found a taxi stand and negotiated a price to the airport. Our mini-vacation was over.