Triplogue - Greece

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Sasha and Dani scrounge for food in Igoumenitsa

"Welcome to Saint-in-the-box; may I take your order?"

23 September, Patras to Kalmari, 102 km (a)

We wished we could stay in blissful Dubrovnik for a couple of more days, but it was time to get back on board the Marco Polo. The crew was familiar from last week’s trip to Split, and the voyage to Igoumenitsa passed uneventfully. We did meet a couple of young cyclists from Germany: Sasha –a skinny sniffling boy with puppydog eyes and a nasty cough—and his more robust and gregarious girlfriend, Dani. They had traveled from their Fatherland as far as the Romanian border, where they turned around after being shaken down for Deutschmarks by immigration police. Part of me was very relieved to hear this story. Ever since we made the decision in Budapest to follow the safer route towards Turkey, I felt like we’d chickened out on a potentially phenomenal experience by skipping out on Romania. We compared notes on our respective journeys and were amused to find that they had suffered indignities similar to ours at the hands of the railway staff in the same shithole town in northern Croatia. Amazingly, neither had any real cycling experience before this trip and now they were on their way to India.

The next morning we met our new friends on deck –where they had spent a chilly night—as we approached the gritty port town of Igoumenitsa. Sasha’s cough sounded even worse and we advised him to rest before tackling the mountains, not to mention eat something warm and substantial before wasting away entirely. Dani entertained us with tales of their recent trip through Bolivia on the back of a burro, a trip which was not surprisingly fraught with hardship. "But we traveled for over six months on less than 1000 D-marks," she proclaimed proudly. While I always admire people who travel on the cheap (which proves to me that anyone can do it if they really want to), I’ve never quite grasped the motives of this certain type of budget-minded traveler who approaches his or her voyage as a sort of competition in which the object is to spend the least amount of money and endure the highest degree of discomfort. I would have probed her on this subject were it not for our boat arriving in port.

Once docked, we headed straight to the nearest travel agent in order to book passage on the first boat to Patras, which I calculated as being only two riding days to Athens. After much telephoning and futzing with various papers, the friendly but obviously incompetent salesgirl informed us that our ship would sail at two p.m., some four hours hence. To kill the time we rode up and down the unattractive seafront strip, stopping at various souvlaki stands and cafés. Dani and Sasha appeared after our second meal, hungrily eyeing the remnants left on our plates. When I invited them to help themselves, they fell on the food like hyenas, causing me to wonder if they had left any room in their budget for food. Predictably, they complained how expensive Greece was, saying that they’d wanted to buy a map but it cost too much. Increasingly concerned for their well-being, I offered them the map I’d just purchased, and reiterated our concerns over Sasha’s obvious ill health. We parted hastily since we were due at our boat, but when we arrived at the dock there was no boat to be found, nor anyone capable of giving us the slightest shred of information.

Our friendly travel bimbo smiled and said, "Oh, the boat is running late and won’t be here for another four hours at least." --news which we greeted with groans, since it meant more time in this armpit of a town. To compensate for this miserable fact, we sought out and found the trendiest café in town, where we dug in our heels for a long afternoon of reading, drinking and backgammon (a redeeming feature of Greek cafes is that they all have boards).

When we went back to the travel agent at the designated hour, she informed us that our boat would depart even later than anticipated, arriving in Patras at something like 2am. This made us decide to book a cabin, which turned out to be a Kafkaesque adventure in the still-Byzantine world of Greek bureaucracy. Reserving the cabin –not to mention obtaining accurate information on our ship’s e.t.a.-- involved several more trips up and down portside road where we had already passed countless times. Frustrating as it was, at least it served to occupy the time, and was humorous in its way. I thought to myself how the locals must be beginning to wonder about us…

When our ship finally pulled into port, she revealed herself to be a huge old Chinese vessel resembling a giant shoebox. Before we were able to board, we witnessed the five-act drama of unloading trucks. A piggy-back trailer full of cars had a hell of a time backing onto the dock, especially after one of its cars came loose and every Greek within two hundred meters began bellowing instructions to the driver. Even the relatively simple task of getting the key to our cabin was made into an ordeal. Worn down by the day’s mishaps, I turned to Fred to announce wearily, "In Greece, nothing is simple." We found our cabin in the middle of a labyrinth worthy of Knossos (we were traveling on Minoan Lines, after all). As our ship shuddered through the water, its muffled engines the only sound, I made a concerted effort to catch a couple of hours of fitful sleep in the purgatorial eeriness.

The anticipated and dreaded knocking at our door began at 1am, even though it was another two hours before we arrived in the unwelcoming town of Patras. After pedaling past a lively gypsy encampment, we found a room with little trouble; the half-asleep woman who managed the place even had a special spot for our bikes, thus earning herself a BikeBrats gold star.

Before heading out the next morning, we chatted with the hotel’s staff, including a Finnish girl who had married the owner’s son and moved to Patras –a very bewildering decision indeed. I made the mistake of telling her young husband that we were on our way to Istanbul, which elicited a prolonged anti-Turk diatribe.

We pedaled out of town through a confusing jumble of streets and dead ends. The map we bought at the first gas station wasn’t of much use, either. At one point we pushed our bikes through weeds and along railroad tracks in order to rejoin our intended route, which led straight into a wall of wind. Athens was feeling farther and farther away…

The quiet road was littered with a surprising amount of garbage, abandoned autos and a veritable holocaust of flattened kitties. It wound and buckled its way through ugly concrete villages and along polluted beaches. We hadn’t gone very far before Fred proclaimed Greece, "the Mexico of Europe", a very astute observation.

The further we got from Patras, the prettier (and hillier) the landscape became, and the stronger the wind blew. Every kilometer felt like ten, making it next to impossible to enjoy the scenery. As the sun sank appreciably lower in the sky, Fred and I both started whining for lodgings to appear. When the first sign indicating "Zimmer/Rooms/Chambres" finally materialized we issued a huge sigh of relief and threw ourselves at the mercy of the wizened man sweeping beneath it. Somehow I still mustered the energy to bargain him down in price (it has become a reflex after so many months on the road, and usually works, though in this case we would have paid twice what he was asking) before he showed us the way to a funny little cluster of bungalows that was to be our home for the night.

Dinner in a bare-bones taverna was delicious. We noted that all the other customers were men and wondered how the village women spent their evenings. Walking home with full bellies in the total darkness, we mused that while traditional culture can be colorful, it’s not a place we’d want to live. I also couldn’t help but wonder how Sasha and Dani were faring on their first days on the roads of Greece, saying a little atheist prayer for them before falling into the arms of Morpheus.

24 September, Kalmari to Athens, 127K (f)

My vision that all Greeks would be fun-loving, folk dancing, plate-smashing, smiling and happy was dissolved since quickly after our arrival here. Having made this realization, it came as no great surprise that our quest for a morning cup of coffee was so complicated today. After trying a few restaurants we came up with nothing. Even in a place that was marked as a café, using Andy’s best Greek and putting on our warmest countenances we were greeted with shock when we asked for a cup. The little trendoid girl with her bleached-blond hair, oh-so-tight jeans and giggly bare midriff was too confused by the idea. "Oh, English want coffee, Greek coffee? French coffee?" she said. "Yes! French coffee, please!" we responded. "We no have French coffee, sorry," she declared happily. Sometime later the mother appeared with Turkish coffee in hand. It tasted like dirt and metal but had caffeine in it.

Finally having the energy to continue, we rode along the Corinthian coast. It was harvest time in the vineyards. While riding we watched scruffy young country boys harvesting grapes. They brought the crates of freshly picked fruit to horsecarts powered by little tractors that resembled mechanized versions of their organic ancestor.

The lasting memory of the day would be that of the sound of autos whizzing by closely at dizzying speeds. Thankfully the wind that had pestered us throughout the day before had subsided. We traversed the disgusting new city of Corinth before crossing over the dramatic yet useless canal that joins the Bay of Corinth and Saronic gulf. (OK, it is not completely worthless; you could get a dingy through it and it does make a nice photo) Soon there were fewer towns and houses and our climb up the coastal cliffs on the way to Athens afforded us vistas over the Saronic gulf that were pretty, but no match for the Dalmatian coast. The major hindrance to my appreciation of the view was the carpet of trash that extended from the roadside to the sea and the chunks of debris floating in the water. This may have been the cradle of Western Civilization, but today’s Greeks have yet to learn to use a trash can.

We had two goals in mind when we hit the town of Megara: souvlaki and a train. Hungry from the challenging ride and not relishing the idea of riding in Athens we looked for both. I waited with the bikes while Andy went in search of the rail schedule. There would be no leaving our cycles to themselves for three hours while we went sightseeing in this burg. While waiting I watched herds of gypsy kids eye our bikes in awe, contemplating what they’d be worth in an Athens pawn shop. Strike one, no trains until six or so and it was only two. Strike two, no munchies to be had; so we were off to Athens.

The one consolation was that Andy crafted a clever route into town. We’d be able to skip much of the suburban traffic and rely on our second favorite form of transportation that begins with a "B" (a boat). We whizzed down to the seaside, hopped on a ferry to a little island off the coast, rode the length of the island and ferried into port. The only bummer of the whole affair was when I fell over at the ferry ticket stand in front of the hoards of passengers. Fortunately it was more embarrassing than painful. No Greek day is complete without a drama, and we saw one getting onto the boat to Athens. A military truck rushed to be the first on the ferry and then would not back up to clear the ramp so other cars could get on. The captain, his crew and the ten soldiers in the truck began to verbally abuse each other for fifteen minutes while all the passengers looked on. Finally the truck was shooed off the boat, the ramp drawn and we were off again.

Our general experiences with Athenians would be foreshadowed by the behavior of the drivers exiting the ferry. Long before we’d docked all cars and trucks had started and began to jockey for position exiting the boat. Before coming to a rest near the ramp many had cut others off driving the few scant feet. Several others were hurling insults at one another most insinuating the professional nature of their mother’s sexual exploits.

We waited for the dust to clear and the revving traffic to exit before making our retreat. The Brats were now at the peril of being struck by the oncoming traffic trying to board the boat who had waited a millisecond to let the cars clear before boarding. This scene gives one an idea of warmth and patience of Athenians. The remainder of our trip into central Athens is lost in a gray haze for me. I put myself in a trance so I could forget the automotive atrocities that would no doubt occur. What I do remember was a constant flow of honking traffic, a stop at the tomb of the unknown soldier (really ridiculous uniforms on the sentries!), and settling in at our seedy hotel near Omonia Square.

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The Corinth canal: Dividing the Pelops and the Pennese?!


Greece, where the women have mustaches and the men wear skirts

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Fred bids Athens a not-so-fond farewell


I spent no time in Athens looking for an "I (heart) Athens" bumper sticker. Compounding our distaste for the city, its smog, traffic, mean people and rude taxi drivers were the cold temperatures and rainy weather. Luckily Andy’s childhood (and current) friend Peter Demopolous is Greek, so he had been here several times and knew the city well. Even more fortunate, Peter’s mom, Popie, was there and was willing to store our bikes while we drove around in Turkey.

Mentioning that we were on our way to Turkey never seemed a good idea. The hostilities between the two over Cyprus were at a high point while we were there. I still find their mutual animosities hard to follow. They look the same. They eat nearly the same food. The women in the countryside cover most of their bodies and faces in both countries. And, their music sounds quite similar to the untrained ear. Still every time we said we were going we heard nearly the same response, "Why you go to Turkey?" "The people are bad, it is dirty, you will be robbed…." Strangely, when pressed, none of these Greeks had been to Turkey and most had never met or known a Turk. The propaganda machine seems well oiled in Greece.

There were a few high points during our stay in the capital of Greece. First, Andy was more than satisfied with the availability of good coffee. Next, we discovered an amazing little restaurant and deli called, imaginatively, "The Food Company." It was extraordinary for the fact it was a little slice of America in Greece. Barbara Hey of Minneapolis had married a Greek, moved to Athens and opened up simply the best eating establishment around. It was whacky, the help smiled, the food was great and for a moment we felt like we were at home. (Their cheesecake and carrot cake are unrivaled throughout the world!)

There were even a few memorable Greek things in Athens. The Archeological Museum is mind blowing. They are only able to display a small percentage of the artifacts they have, but what is on display is truly exceptional. The treasures from the burial chambers of Mycanae including the golden death masques and jewelry left me awestruck and the galleries of sculpture defy description. The only problem is that you have to go to Athens to see it.

When we returned to Athens from Turkey in order to continue our journey three weeks later, the city seemed to take revenge on our distaste for it. The weather was still worse than our first visit. (I’d actually passed through Athens on my way to Mykonos and refused to leave the airport though I had a lengthy stopover.) The storms were so strong that the port was closed and we were unable to get a boat to Rhodes. Our extra day there seemed like hell. We saw two movies to pass the time, (both worse than Athens itself) "Men in Black" and "Faceoff". We, of course, made a little detour to our favorite slice of America, the Food Company.

The one strategic error made in our exodus from Athens was not taking our bikes from Popie’s to the Pireas, Athens’ port, when we first learned our boat would not sail. Had we done that we’d have been there waiting for the first boat to leave. We’d been given the maritime schedule by the Greek National Tourist Office which clearly stated that our boat would leave at five in the evening. Consequently we took our time in the morning, had a leisurely breakfast, only calling the ferry company to find the status of the boat at ten-thirty that morning. The news they relayed was disturbing. Previous days storms had put most boats off schedule, ours to Rhodes would leave at one this afternoon. PANIC! Our bikes were still a half-hour out of town at Popie’s and from there an hour-and-a-half ride to the port under the best circumstances.

We called Popie and asked her to find out the train schedule to the port while we hopped in a cab for her place. Our cabby was the only calm one in Greece. He drove us at a nearly comatose pace across town, engaging in the annoying Greek taxi driver habit of stopping for every person hailing a cab and asking where they were going. This way they can double up on fares as well as driving time for time-pressed passengers like us. (I can’t wait to see how international tourists from places like New York and Paris react to this practice during the 2004 Olympics….)

More distressing news greeted us at Popie’s. The train would not leave until three in the afternoon. Left with few options we began to pack our bikes with the intent to ride to Pireas. I figured if we can’t make the boat, at least we’ll be there for the next. Athens had not grown on me no matter how good the carrot cake was. Popie’s cabinet maker called a friend with a truck and asked him if he’d consider giving us a ride to Pireas. He would but he demanded 25,000 agoutis, or nearly one hundred dollars! We were upset about the price, and bargained him down to 20,000, but only on the condition he could get to us immediately and have us at the dock by our departure time. We packed while waiting for the driver who took his time getting to us. He finally arrived in a massive Mercedes moving van at noon leaving only an hour to make it to the port. Even the driver seemed nervous about making the boat given the perpetual nature of Athens’ traffic. We threw our bikes in the back, hopped in the cab and were off.

Our driver had no knowledge of the passenger port and kept quizzing us on the location of the dock in Greek over and over. We took this as a bad sign and thought it would be his excuse for not getting us on time. He got us to Pireas at the expense of our nerves, hurling his truck around corners and through lane changes like Lady Di and Dodi’s chauffeur (it must be a Mercedes thing). Unfortunately he took us to the commercial and container part of the port and stranded us in traffic. We had to get out and ride the last kilometers in order to make it. The driver literally tossed a bike to me, nearly knocking me down and tearing my pants. Too shocked by the action and thankful I wasn’t harmed to make a fuss about it. We wove through cars parked in the street and found ourselves at the enormously confusing port. No one seemed to know where the boat to Rhodes was docked, but everyone was willing to give erroneous advice. We were literally the last on the boat watching the crew hoist the door as we locked our bikes and went to the deck to bid good riddance to fair Athens for now.

22 October, Rhodes to Lardos, 107km (a)

It was pouring rain when we arrived in Rhodes. We sought shelter under an overhang on the gritty, water-covered docks until it subsided a little. Fred wanted to change into biking clothes there, which seemed pretty pointless to me since we clearly weren’t going to ride that day. Besides, a handful of other people waiting with us made changing indiscreet at best, and I was especially anxious to get away from a large and ripe pile of dog feces that risked being stepped in or rolled through. When the rain let up after a little while, we made a break for the old walled town, only a few hundred meters away.

More rain, as well as confusing road signs, slowed our way to our very basic accommodation, where we stripped our bikes before heading back outside for a walk around town in our geeky rain outfits. Neither of us had any energy, yet felled compelled to play tourist for the day. And it must be admitted that Rhodes does contain some awesome sights. Our first stop, the town aquarium, was not one of them however. We liked the groovy deco design of the building, and the mosaic-y floors and grotto-like setting inside, but beyond that the place was pretty much of a yawn. More interesting were the famous old harbor once bestridden by the Colossus (its entrance now more tastefully marked by a pair of bronze deer), the chunk-filled archeology museum, and the castle of the Knights of St. John. This last contained a seemingly infinite number of exquisite reception rooms, each with a perfectly restored mosaic floor taken from an ancient palace on the nearby island of Kos.

The next day we were relieved to wake up with the sun shining. At breakfast we eavesdropped on our neighbors, all of them elderly Britannics on an ultra-low-budget package tour. Fred caught one of them secreting cheese from the buffet into a zip-lock bag, which caused us to suspect that lunch wasn’t included in the price of their holiday.

By nine we were already on the road, pedaling in earnest for the first time in nearly a month. It felt glorious, even on the heavily-trafficked road that led us out of town and past several nightmarish "villages" of cheesy tourist accommodation. After we passed the airport we had the road virtually to ourselves, though. It hugged the coast for many miles, past goat-filled pastures and garbage-strewn beaches, before making an abrupt turn towards the heavens. I suffered the first of a string of flats here before pumping up to a place called Kritinia for lunch. At five hundred meters, the air was noticeably cooler and the view of the sea below was breathtaking. Unfortunately, our lunch didn’t stand up to its surroundings. The souvlaki tasted like it might have been made from rat meat. I fed my entire portion to a very happy cat while Fred somehow managed to ingest his. Adding insult to injury, our mustached hostess demanded an exorbitant amount of drachmas, possibly in anticipation of the upcoming touristic dry spell.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent on a brutal roller-coaster through piney forests, followed by a juicy twenty-kilometer descent into the sleepy village of Apolakia, in the center of the island. Against our desperate hopes of a level route to the opposite coast, our Rhodes road climbed over an obscenely steep two-hundred meter ridge, before dropping us gently down to the beach. This part of the ride was sublime, with the pale sun lowering itself towards the sea in front of us and no need to pedal. Best of all, the utter lack of evil autos allowed us to ride side-by-side and chat for a change.

The room-hunting process was trickier than usual, since every place we stopped was either closed for the season or in the process of being closed. We ended up in a tacky beach-side mega-resort overrun by Germans. At dinner our waiters expressed frank astonishment when they learned we weren’t from Baden-Baden. After consuming more food than most people would consider humanly possible, we rolled off to bed, our legs aching and our heads filled with hopes that the next day would bring good weather for the continuation of our tour de Rhodes.

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Gettin' goaty in Rhodos

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Fred debuts his fall rain ensemble

Do we really want to board this boat?

23 October, Lardos to Rhodes, 60km (f)

We awoke to the patter of a heavy rain falling, flashes lightning striking and claps of thunder. Not an ideal BikeBrats riding day. Mary, the very patient desk clerk was extremely pessimistic about the weather and was already at work to try to find us a taxi into Rhodes as we passed the front desk of our hotel on the way to breakfast. Breakfast could have been in Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Munich or any German city, since we seemed to be the only English speakers there and were a novelty for the waiters and waitresses who were anxious to see the end of the season. Mary seemed more than disappointed when we declined the conveyance to town opting to take advantage of the momentary clearing in the sky. A decision we were to live to regret later.

The first half of the trip back to Rhodes City passed without incident. The uncrowded seaside road afforded us lovely coastal views blanketed by clouds. After making it half way we stopped at a market for a snack. Availability of fish roe in a tube at the market served as evidence of the Nordic tourist population in the high season. While munching crackers and roe we watched thunderheads form over the water and move inland. We mounted our bikes in the light drizzle and watched the thermometer drop, seemingly reliving our Swedish experience.

I don’t know what it was exactly, but something in my bones detected that it was about to pour. I noticed an abandoned shop with a large patio when I sensed the rain and we ducked into it. Five minutes later cats, dogs and buckets were falling from the sky. Wind, rain and hail pummeled the island. The road and shoulder became a river. A few losing games of backgammon to Andy (and vowing never to play him again) and over an hour later the rain was still falling. We set times that we would go, regardless of the rain and watched those goals come and go without moving. Feebly we tried to flag down a truck to get a ride to town without success. Getting drenched in the downpour added injury to insult.

Finally a little red pickup truck with two cute Greek boys stopped. Andy ran to ask them for a ride only to discover they’d stopped not for us but because their truck was not functioning. We battened down our hatches and rode a few hundred meters to a café in order to find a taxi. There was none to be found on the island. The rain put them in demand and none wanted to come 25K to pick up a couple of soggy cyclists.

Calling the shipping line to find out if our boat was on time provided no comfort. The woman at the office told Andrew that the boat would arrive and depart immediately, leaving as much as an hour early. We were over an hour from port, which meant that the boat would leave before we could get there if Irene from Salamis Lines was correct. I called her back and tried to find out more. She told me that in fact the boat had not yet arrived. She reiterated that we must try to get to the boat or risk losing our money on our fare, and that she still didn’t know when it would depart. To complicate matters it was still raining. Before getting on bikes once again we contemplated what we would do if there was no boat. Plans ranged from retreating back to the US to crying.

This was clearly not the average rainfall in Rhodes. Raging torrents washed underneath bridges, leaving us wondering if they would wash them away as we crossed. Water stood on the roads and had damaged roadworks projects in progress, providing us many obstacles as we rode. Riding as fast as we still found ourselves looking down on the harbor some 20 minutes late for our boat. From above we could see one boat docked and another attempting to land in rough seas. When we reached the harbor we watched the drama of the Nissos Kypros unfold. A line had broken as they tried to dock and now the boat was pinned by the wind and waves against the dock denting the sides of the boat and breaking pieces of asphalt off the pier. In order to dock properly it had to come around 90 degrees, putting its stern and ramp against the pier. Passengers on the boat looked on with horror, listening to metal grind against pavement.

Luckily the other ferry left port and joined a tugboat in helping to right our boat. The crew was frantic to have everyone board quickly. Ten of them stood shouting sometimes conflicting orders to passengers and vehicles boarding. We boarded only to find that we needed to have our passports stamped at the foot of the pier before we could leave with the boat. We raced there and back making it in plenty of time. The crew was still trying to find places for the last vehicles as we rolled up the ramp.

There a cast of characters on the boat fitting of a circus or sitcom. Just after locking our bikes in the hold I bumped into a sarong-wearing, bongo-playing and patchouli-oil-soaked hippie on his way to his love van. Another passenger, an aging paranoid stricken Britannic bloke, warned us about leaving anything on the bikes. He claimed that he’d had something stolen out of his camper the last time on the Nissos Kypros, and with "all these beatniks on board who knows what might turn up missing." He continued, "you know, how else can they finance their travels except by stealing."

The one thing that many would have in common regardless of their place on the social ladder would be sea sickness. The storms had the seas churning and the wind blowing. In the dining room the wind wasn’t the only thing blowing. More than one person made a hasty retreat from their table grabbing barf receptacles that looked like Chinese food take-out (take-away if you are from Britain) containers. I found myself just short of nabbing one and giving up my dinner. The lighting in the dining room was no help. Harsh fluorescent bulbs rendered everyone’s face a sickly blue-green that made even the most sound-of-stomach look pre-vomitous. Luckily I was so tired from our rain-swept ride that I hit the pillow snoring, though Andy reported difficulties getting to sleep due to the violent pitching of the craft.

Worth mentioning is the hassle we had with the Nissos Kypros staff. Obviously still rattled by the dangerous docking, they treated us to their worst face upon boarding. The left hand didn’t know what the right was doing. One staff person demanded our immigration cards, the next our passports and the third, unaware of the actions of the others was surprised to find we had neither in our possession when we got to him. After finally receiving a cabin assignment from the disoriented staff we descended into the bowels of the ship through diesel fumed corridors. Their we found that our hideously cramped cabin was substantially less than we’d been promised. The ships purser claimed that we’d been given what we paid for. Andy found the ship’s brochure describing the classes of service and I was left to argue to get another cabin in the right class. We kept the key to the original cabin to pay them back for our trouble and gave it to a passenger who had booked deck passage. John, who had come to Cyprus for only two days in order to see the green line saved the key for his return trip to Rhodes.

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