Like every great journey, every great travel book is a process of falling in love. There’s always a certain moment – a turn of phrase, an insight that echoes deep in your bones, a joke you weren’t expecting that makes you spit whatever you’re drinking – where you’re suddenly pulled over some kind of emotional event horizon, and it absolutely has you.
Perhaps if you’re on a great journey - like some combination of Wheel & Anchor’s multi-stage LiveAway adventure next year - you’ll find somewhere enroute where you’ll get a strange shiver down your spine, and the urge to pinch yourself. Am I really here, doing this? Well, yes, it seems I am. Whaddayaknow.
But in reading Colin Thubron’s Journey Into Cyprus, I’m smitten when the author squeezes his way into an ancient toilet:
…I was able to rest with my face turned upward to a thread of sky: a vision of paradise. I was staring through a deep crack in the pavement, and listening to a strange, regular drumming. The next moment a crepe sole landed high above my face and I saw the billowing skirt of an elderly British tourist. She was staring down.
“Look there, Leslie.” The tone was brusque and capable. “The standard of hygiene — isn’t that astonishing?”
An obedient voice murmured its astonishment.
She peered down harder then suddenly, with a stifled exclamation, stiffened and frowned. From the gloom of the Byzantine sewer an eye was staring back at her. Her face, haloed by a sun-hat over a sensible hairstyle, was puckered in revulsion. Yes, a dark Cyclopean eye (my other eye was closed) was gazing unwinking through phantom layers of excrement. The eye might even have been laughing. She jerked upright. Impossible, of course. There was no such thing as a sewer-demon. She refused to look any more. The next moment she had vanished from the slit of sky and I heard the exorcising click of her tongue and the march of practical shoes over the pavements.
He’s investigating the ancient ruins of Paphos (now called Κούκλια), and spotting a tiny opening under a gate-tower, he crawls in to investigate – and finds a 1500-year-old sewer, polished clean by centuries of rainwater:
I edged forward again. A minute later the sunlight splashed into the tunnel from the opening above me, the passage ended in a blank wall and I lay beneath the perfect ellipse of one of the seventh century latrines. A thousand years before I would have looked up at the threat of a Byzantine bottom. Now there was only the framed sky, an oval of deep and purest sapphire, and my own laughter.
It’s the Spring of 1972. In a couple of years, Cyprus will be split in two. To advocates of enosis (reunification with Greece), the island’s recent independence is an anomaly. To the Turkish forces that invade from the north in July of 1974, responding to a pro-enosis political coup, Cyprus must remain independent to guarantee their national security. Between these extremes are a million variations, each worthy of consideration, and involving people who want a say. Both Greece and Turkey have claims to Cyprus that seem backed up by the weight of history. For decades it’ll remain an impossibly complicated situation, resistant to meaningful political solutions.
Today, things are easier, and the old divisions are softened. The Cyprus of today isn’t and could never be the island Colin Thubron walked around, tense with the growing political storm. Forty years is a lot of healing, as the increasingly healthy tourist industries on both sides of the buffer zone are keen to stress (especially as Cyprus has some of Europe’s cleanest beaches). It’s long enough for most of everyone to want to reach a solution and move on.
But let’s go back 50 years, to the Cyprus Thubron found. This is a book as old as I am. It’s also a glimpse of my childhood, because I grew up in Nicosia/Lefkosia, following similar paths and climbing some of the same mountains. But the main reason this book got under my skin is because it’s about a deliciously huge walk.
When he explores the world, Colin Gerald Dryden Thubron relies heavily on his feet. In Journey Into Cyprus, he walks over 600 miles. Why would any sane person do this when there are perfectly good buses?
Can you not even afford a bus fare? Oh, you must be so poor.
Even today, epic walks take a lot of explaining to become socially comprehensible. You’re a travel writer? Oh, well then, I suppose that makes sense. But it’s a terribly long way. Can’t you just…hitch a lift or something?
Indeed, why not? What is the appeal of walking everywhere?
Here’s one thing Thubron discovered: if you stay on foot, many folk people will assume you’re poor, down on your luck, or downright eccentric – and therefore pretty much harmless. So those people move closer, offer you a beer, invite you back to their house for dinner. Entire communities open up to you. You sink deeper into the human landscape – less an observer, more a participant. And all you had to do was walk around a lot.
This is a book about sleeping under open skies until the stars come out, sometimes in wryly-tolerated discomfort.
It’s about poverty and generosity, because many of the people he encounters have nothing, but still offer the maximum possible hospitality to this wandering English school-teacher (Thubron’s disguise) with his ruddy cheeks and worn boots.
It’s about history, because Cyprus has plenty of that in every possible sense. Much of the book is spent diving into the past, into religion and architecture and ancient copper mining, into the reasons the Greeks, Ottomans, British, Byzantines, Lusignans, Crusaders, Templars and nationalists of various affiliations have squabbled over this island for the last 2,000 years.
But above all, it’s about how you experience the world when you walk over it.
Walking is a dominant theme in modern travel writing – take Bill Bryson’s bumbling assault on the Appalachian Trail, or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, an unflinchingly frank account of how a thousand-mile solo hike helped Strayed reassemble her shattered life. But there’s also something very British in this variety of adventure. The author concocts a hare-brained scheme, they feel (and almost certainly are) under-qualified for it, they’re wracked with self-doubt, but in the spirit of good old British bravery/idiocy, they throw themselves in – and suffer immense discomfort, communicating that misery to the reader in with ghoulish details flavoured with merciless self-deprecation.
It’s a formula, and a hugely popular one.
“Somebody gets into trouble, then gets out of it again. People love that story. They never get tired of it.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
Because I’m so in love with this genre, I see this pattern of storytelling all the time. But Journey Into Cyprus is special to me. I picked up my battered paperback copy when I was a teenager. It was my first introduction to the idea that it was possible to sleep under the stars and not instantly expire from hypothermia, or be consumed by the local wildlife. Thubron spends weeks doing it.
It’s a spectacularly well-researched book, showing Thubron’s fascination for the island’s history, and also his skill in never letting it get in the way of the story he’s telling. In later books he allows his wider life to intrude on the narrative (for example, in To A Mountain In Tibet he’s notes he’s there to grieve) but in this one, he keeps his deepest thoughts to himself, only letting them creep onto the page in moments of frustration, such as an attempt to argue a desperately poor antiquity-robber into choosing a new profession. This is far from being a memoir. The main character here is Cyprus, and Thubron makes no attempt to steal the limelight.
It’s the story of a walk, bolstered with a wealth of historical detail. And it’s magnificently well-written. Every page has a line that knocks the breath out of me.
Why walk? (And why travel?)
Answer: because you get to experience a place like this.
Wheel And Anchor will be returning to Cyprus in 2023 with its second LiveAway programme. Check out Gordon’s recent announcement here. And regarding Colin Thubron, he’s still going strong at the age of 82 - his latest travel book, The Amur River, was released last year.