Joe is many things to many people. Father, president, managing director, guide, politician, photographer, farmer, author, character... The last of these is probably the best description.
I have rarely have any issues with people who are self-styled characters. Oftentimes they light up the room; when other people struggle for conversation or energy, there they are with a tall tale. They have the patter. Characters have cured many of my Sundays, while I’ve sat shaking on a stool trying to kill a hangover with more booze.
But they’re the good ones. The ones people invite to their table – they don’t (or at least they shouldn’t) run around proclaiming what great company they are. One of the worst kinds of bastard you can be lumbered with in a pub is someone who aspires to be a character, but is, in fact, a bawbag. They want to be heard; they laugh at their own jokes and have little patience of others. Often times this can be a side effect of the Wee Man Syndrome.
I’m not quite sure what side of the divide Joe falls – he probably straddles it. While he undoubtedly has an interesting life, I can’t shake the feeling that he’s desperate for me to quote him. In some ways, this makes my life easier; readymade statements from someone purposely trying to impress me by being pseudo-intellectual.
However, as we rattle along in his old Jeep, I catch old Joe looking to see if my pen is moving as he takes a deep breath and makes another proclamation on the order of the universe. “Butterflies have a short lifespan of only about two weeks,” he says. “But they have a purpose, even in that short time. I think it should be the same – we should have a purpose.”
See what I mean? I kind of agree, but when he says things like that (and he does four or five times) I can’t help feel that he was practising in front of the mirror before picking me up.
Regardless of his motivation, though, he is an interesting guy. Wash away the bullshit and you have the following: he studied as a biologist in Germany, but credits picking herbs with his mother as a child as the reason he knows so much about the flora and the fauna – and he knows more than anyone I’ve ever met; he travelled the world for work before returning to his homeland to set up a tour company; upon having children he cut out many significant risks from his everyday life, including travel; many international television companies come to him when they want to film on the island; he has a library of nearly 50,000 pictures taken from around the island and is exhibiting in Athens next year, the proceeds from which will help children with leukaemia, etc and so on.
We are driving in the Akamas Peninsula, a protected area in the extreme west of the island that was described by the great Greek geographer Ptolemy as “a thickly wooded headland, divided into two by summits [a mountain range] rising towards the north.” For a number of years, the British Army spent 70 days a year running around playing soldiers. Mercifully that stopped a few years ago and now the area is protected, not least because it’s one of the few sites in Europe that exhibits endemism.
We stop every 15 minutes or so to take pictures, which I’m very grateful for. His camera is a claymore next to my toothpick – it’s like taking a piss next to Jake the Peg – but I still manage to get some half decent shots.
Joe’s eye for the natural world, though, borders on a sixth sense. He sees things from the moving vehicle that others would miss with a microscope. For example, when he spots a butterfly hanging upside down (we see hundreds, if not thousands of them and he later tells me Cyprus is home to about 186 different species) he knows something is up. We stop, get out and discover that a spider, perfectly disguised in a thistle, has ensnared the colourful visitor.
Later while driving at a decent speed he spots a king bee floating about five metres behind the verge. It’s incredible, it really is. Yet, more impressive than the birds and the bees are the crops. Rather than dress it up, here’s the list of things he shows me growing, some of it farmed, some of it wild: peaches, lemons, capers, sour oranges, aniseed, bananas, avocados, artichokes, juniper, pistachios, peppermint, pomegranates, red grapefruit, figs, myrrh, regular oranges, sesame, tobacco, apricots, olives, potatoes, wild garlic, sage, thyme and grapes, of course. Loggerhead turtles nest on the beach later in the year and apparently the sea is almost as vibrant as the land. It’s a god’s kitchen and while it may have been captured as a strategic position by many empires over the millennia, they must have been overjoyed to find they’d commandeered such fertile lands.
Our tour lasts about five hours, during which I occasionally get the hard sell to promote his business and his family, which I’ll do anyway, but don’t appreciate being asked. It doesn’t drag though, not even when I’m sitting in the Jeep (or more often out taking pictures) while Joe raids fields for what he claims are the best capers he’s seen all season.
The tour concludes with a mammoth lunch in a small village and our conversation turns surprisingly personal, surprisingly quickly. By the end, when I say goodbye, I’m pretty much won over by him. The island already had me. Sitting back in my hotel room, I’m eager to get home, but only because I’ve seen the best the place has to offer and have no interest in the other side of it any more.
I drift off to sleep and am snapped awake by my wake-up call at 4:30. As the driver edges out towards the harbour, an English boy (you can tell, even in this light) stumbles along the street with a bottle of water in his hand, while a big, blood moon hovers on the horizon. “You can get sand everywhere and good food everywhere,” Joe said to me earlier. “But for me it’s the contact with the people that makes a place great.” Looking at the prick in the road, I disagree; what makes Cyprus really great has nothing to do with humankind.