In the first century A.D., Saint Paul the Apostle was tied to a stone pillar in Pafos, Cyprus and given 39 lashes as punishment for preaching Christianity to the locals. In 1989 A.D., as a disorderly 13-year-old, I sat atop that very pillar and casually smoked a cigarette while two like-minded friends sprawled out on the surrounding Roman mosaics and blew smoke rings into the air.
The ruins are fenced off now. There’s a plaque to commemorate the ancient ordeal and the site has been added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. But straddling that piece of ancient archaeology remains a fond memory for me. Not because of the youthful sense of entitlement. Because of the nostalgia and experience of living in a time and culture where there were few rules.
As kids in Cyprus, we drove motorbikes and cars without licenses. If the police stopped us, we said we left our documents at home. They’d wave us on and sometimes even chuckle at our flimsy lies. There were no parking meters to worry about, or even parking spaces for that matter, and speed limits were merely suggestions. We drank at the local bar before we had hair on our faces and people—adults—bought us rounds. We spent many nights sleeping on beaches and rooftops and no one ever came to chase us away. Swimming was simply a matter of pulling the car over onto the sand and jumping into the sea whenever the fancy grabbed us. And, of course, hitchhiking was a perfectly acceptable means of transportation.
Then there were the ruins—the Roman temples, Hellenic tombs, and Byzantine castles that we made our personal playgrounds.
An acquaintance once described life in the developed world as having “no grace.” I’m not sure what he meant by that, but I always interpreted it to mean that life is less impulsive, more restricted, and less charming than the one I knew as a kid. My youth was defined by freedom—from rigidly enforced laws and the predictability of living in a society where reason is king. It left me ill-prepared for later life in America where I discovered pay-for-access beaches, frivolous traffic tickets, endless background checks, ever-present liability, high service standards, and a cultural obsession with “making sense.”
There’s a danger in romanticizing developing nations. They’re often rife with traffic-related deaths, corruption, incompetence, and a laissez-faire attitude that can stifle much-needed development. But the charms outweigh the drawbacks for some people. Retirees from North America regularly flock to developing nations for the lower cost of living and the slower lifestyle. Younger people seek out niches in foreign countries hoping for a more interesting life.
There are aspects of the developed world I’d hate to go without. But I doubt you can have both—the charms of a loosely governed society combined with western security and comforts. Cyprus has changed since 1989, as have many other nations that were then in a transitional period between traditional and modern life. At some point, the government, and then the culture, decided to upgrade their ways. Once the process begins, it’s impossible to go back.
You can still bribe security guards in Egypt to let you climb the pyramids at night; you can sunbathe nude in southern Europe undisturbed; you can jump a train in India; and you can drive in many parts of the world with little more than horn-blowing skills. One thing is certain though, it’s been a long time since an undisciplined thirteen-year-old could climb on top of an ancient Cypriot ruin of religious significance, light a cigarette and say something like, “Hey, you guys wanna rent motorbikes and go get drunk out at the sea caves?”
No grace, indeed.