Friday, February 23, 2018

Cyprus Capers: How my Singapore Passport almost failed me.

Hello guys! First off, Happy Chinese New Year! I've actually got lots to share including my customary Valentine's Day prank. How...

Hello guys!

First off, Happy Chinese New Year! I've actually got lots to share including my customary Valentine's Day prank. However, due to some logistical constraints, that will have to wait.
So anyway, we were in Cyprus at the start of the year! It was part of our trip to Turkey and the adjacent regions. Turkey's a big country and there's lots to do there. But we thought that we would dedicate a few days to exploring another country, and came up with Cyprus. And I have a very exciting story about Cyprus, which is how the world's most powerful passport almost failed me. But anyway! Before I start, the first question you might ask is...

Where is Cyprus?

Cyprus is a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean, located to the south of Turkey. I say it's a small island, but it actually has a land area of 9,251 km2, or in other words, approximately 13 times the size of Singapore.

What's the big deal about Cyprus?

So the interesting thing about Cyprus is that the country is divided into two (or three if you're being pedantic). The northern third of Cyprus is otherwise known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), and the southern two-thirds is, well, the Republic of Cyprus, EU member state where residents view the country as historically Greek, not Turkish. Separating the Northern and Southern areas of Cyprus is a border wall, which is heavily patrolled by UN border forces. Like, no kidding. Can you see it just overlooking the football field?
No? Okay let me show you another picture of the guard post. With me in the foreground of course.
But jokes aside, the UN Buffer Zone is a demilitarised zone which have been patrolled by the UN Peacekeeping Forces since 1964. While there are many guard posts still in service, many are abandoned and sad looking.
So you see, very intense stuff. Oh, and I also mentioned that Cyprus is technically divided into three parts, and that's because there are Sovereign Base Areas within Cyprus which remain under British control. The Brits. They are everywhere. Even in my own home.

What has this got to do with your passport?

So I had planned our trip around Turkey and James suggested that we venture somewhere else to kill the last few days. And I looked at the map and was like, oh! Cyprus is really near, and flights from Turkey were really cheap. Around $60, which is approximately the price of four cocktails in a bar. I can do that.

And Cyprus looked amazing, with lots to see and do! Of course, I found it strange that I couldn't fly directly to the more convenient airports located at the southern parts of the island. I mean, it was a bit fishy that I could take a quick one hour flight directly to Ercan (North Cyprus) for $60, but travelling to any one of the more happening airports in South Cyprus would take a three leg flight and cost at least five times the price.
But all seemed well and good. I booked our flights and moved on with life. I mean, everything was set. We were to land in Ercan at a reasonable time, get our rental car, and begin our mini-roadtrip around Cyprus. Easy right?

WRONG. Because from then on we were plagued by mini-catastrophe after mini-catastrophe.

#1 The car rental companies were sketchy.

So we tried to hire cars from the airport, but all the rental companies at Ercan didn't sound very reputable. "Ercan Airport Rent a Car". "Sun Car Rental". "Kyrenia Car Rental". "Pacific Rent-A-Car". Why didn't they just have the usual Avis, Hertz, Sixt, or Europcar?!
But I trawled through Lonely Planet which said that Sun Car Rental was quite legit. So we set about booking it.

#2 The cars don't cross the border.

So we were about to book a small car when we saw the fine print:
"Crossing the Border to South Cyprus is not allowed as the insurance is valid only in North Cyprus."
WTF. Most of our plans are based in South Cyprus what do you mean I am confined to North Cyprus?! We checked the rest of the car rental companies in Cyprus and found that this was a common theme — that you can't drive your rental car across the border.
(Via Giphy).

We checked some forums and found people who bought third party insurance to drive their Southern Cypriot cars to North Cyprus, but not the other way around. But okay. Nevermind. We are quite resourceful. So we thought that we would just take a taxi to our car and pick-up the rental car from a nearby Hertz the next day.

#3 Europeans don't typically work Asian hours.

In Singapore, we have become accustomed to shops, restaurants and amenities being open at all hours of the day, seven days a week. Regardless of whether it is a public holiday, there will be at least one store open which will cater to your needs at whatever weird hour of the day it is.
(Via Quick Meme).

But this is not the case in Europe. So we were to land in Cyprus on the 5th of January, at 3 pm. Which is a great time. But for some reason, ALL the car rental places in Cyprus close by 5 pm. And it was a Saturday/public celebration the next day so none of the car rental places would be open the next day. And oh they are also closed on Sundays. So, the only option for us to get a rental car for our roadtrip, was to pick it up within 2 hours of landing.

So yes, that seems fine. All settled. I had booked us a taxi which was pick us up from the airport and take us across the border to our car rental place. And that was that. We had a great time in Turkey and drove to the Izmir Adnan-Menderes airport to catch our flight to Cyprus. It was great. I bought sweets and we had Burger King for lunch not because we wanted to, but because that was the only store that was open aside from DFS. It was really sad, and makes you appreciate Changi Airport that much more.
Me being pleased with my sweets and James with his Burger King burger.

#4 Then came immigration...

So James passed through TRNC immigration really quickly. Which was annoying for me because when we had arrived in Turkey, he had to queue up for a visa-on-arrival while I just breezed through visa-free. One of the many perks of owning the most powerful passport in the world you see.

So I was standing at the immigration counter when the woman got a bit aggressive and started asking a whole barrage of questions. Not just the usual, how long are you staying here for and what is the purpose of your visit. But, what do you want to see in Cyprus, did you book a return flight, show me your return flight booking now, where are you staying, show me your hotel booking, what is this hotel, where is this hotel...basically proof that I wasn't trying to carry out some sneaky business in Cyprus? I don't know.

Anyway, when she looked at my hotel booking, she started shouting to her colleagues in the adjacent cubicles and they all replied in hawker-centre toned shouts. You know, loud, rough, mildly interested, but dismissive. I don't know. I don't speak Turkish. Then she turned to me and went...
Me, "What?"
Me, "A what?"
Me, "But my passport is visa free?"
And I just kind of, stared blankly at her. I mean, what was I supposed to say? Oh you are right, let me book the next flight back? Oh it's okay, I will just stay in North Cyprus which I heard has terrible hotels and nothing much to do? Oh well, let me try to sneak past the border anyway? And most importantly, what is this shenzhen visa you are talking about? The only 深圳 I know is in China, which by the way, I also have visa-free entry to. Anyway, she kind of shook her head in resignation, stamped my passport, and decided to let me go on my merry way to find out that I would be detained at the border.
(Via Giphy).

I headed to James and poured out my story to him and we went over to the information counter, which was of course, empty and unmanned because this is not Singapore. After standing there for a considerable amount of time, a friendly guy approached us. Because people do that in Europe, not Singapore. The nice friendly guy was a tour guide, who listened to our dilemma and dispensed the following advice.
Friendly man, "Singapore - is that in EU? No? Then they will not let you pass. American, British, EU. Other passports? No. I am a tour guide so a lot of my customers want to go to Larnaca. But then, cannot. Because they cannot pass the border if their passport is not EU."
Well, as it turned out, she was talking about a Schengen visa, a visa which allows free movement of holders within the 26 Schengen countries. But I would only find this out later while frantically Googling in a car ride.

#5 The car ride. 

So I had booked us a transfer with a taxi company to the Hertz location in South Cyprus. I had read up about this company, and they had glowing reviews. Not many, but glowing all the same. Our driver looked serious. Like he was from the mafia. A teensy bit like the solemniser at our wedding.
Anyway, gruff driver guy (whose name was Mehmet) said that we were off to the border, that we will stay in the car, and that it's "TWO MINUTES, MAYBE FASTER. NO PROBLEM". Okay I put my faith in you driver man. Although we didn't. It was the longest 45 minutes of my life. The rain was pouring down in sheets, and I was panicking from what the woman at immigration and the tour guide had told me. Then I started reading travel sites and forums.

You've got to be kidding me. I found hundreds of examples of people being arrested, detained, deported....just because they tried to cross the border from North to South. I also poured through pages and pages of government policy documents and websites trying to see if there was any way for me to cross the border without getting arrested, but all the websites (the embassies, Cypriot Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Visa application pages and travel sites) all said the same thing — that I could be arrested for entering Cyprus via an illegal port.

So we were nearing the border and Mehmet asked for our passports. He didn't blink when he saw mine. Were many EU passports, contrary to my belief, a bright red? Anyway, Mehmet drove up to the booth, and passed the dude our passports. The dude said something and laughed and Mehmet muttered something back. WHAT WERE THEY SAYING? WAS MY PASSPORT A JOKE? WERE THEY GOING TO THROW ME IN JAIL?! I CAN'T I CAN'T I CAN'T.
(Via Giphy).

But no it turns out that Mehmet had to take down the sign from his cab which said "taxi" before driving across the border.
What you see above is the checkpoint on the way back to the airport. That's why it's sunny instead of pouring with rain. Also why I am actually thinking of photos instead of my life. Oh and you can just see Mehmet's head in the windscreen window as he puts his "taxi" sign back on.

Okay yes so our holiday in Cyprus went quite well after that incident. Well, there was a bit where we got Mehmet lost because I knew that the time in Cyprus was an hour behind Turkey, but apparently, many TRNC residents keep to Turkish time. So we thought that they Hertz was closed when it really wasn't. So poor Mehmet had to drive in circles and from one place to another. But, all was good in the end. We got out car, a Toyota Aygo, in the nick of time!
Also not the same day.

So yes, I managed to cross the border. The travel guides that you read are helpful, but all of them assume that you're crossing from South Cyprus to North Cyprus, which is not really a problem. The problem arises when you fly in from North Cyprus, and try to cross over to South Cyprus. Would I do it again? Probably not. But I would like to go back to Cyprus! There's lots I've yet to do there. I'd just, enter via the EU-recognised route the next time around. I don't know if they routinely let people through, but I assume that the TRNC immigrations has never tried to cross the border as a non-EU citizen. But I also don't know if travelling with someone with a British passport helped, since you know, they have a few defence bases in Cyprus. Oh and in case you were wondering, Mehmet was from Ercan Taxis. I highly recommend them!

Anyhow! The few days that we spent in Cyprus was amazing... and here are some of the highlights (which I hopefully will expand upon in a future post).
Graffiti in Nicosia.
More graffiti in Nicosia. Aiyah sorry la people from Singapore never see graffiti before.
Empty streets!
Neolithic settlement Choirokoitia — from 9000BC!
Huge waves at Aphrodite's Rock. The rock is not shown here, but you can see the waves. The rock is very big, so from the top of the rock, the waves don't look so impressive.
Segwaying in Paphos.
Hanging tree of hankies above the Agia Solomoni church and catacombs.
#nofilter blue skies.
Kyrenia old harbour in TRNC.

And now I will end off my post with a good song.

Okay that's all for  now. TGIF guys!
❤ Jac.

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