Pirates of the Mediterranean
Sunday, August 26, 2007
Welcome to our nation-state. It is 43 feet long and 23 wide -- a bareboat catamaran, if you prefer. We are plying the Mediterranean coast of southern Turkey, wandering at will among bays and coves, tying up where we like, doing whooping cannonballs off the bow. Our chartered craft flies the French flag, but we aren't French. It makes us feel like pirates.
There are eight of us -- friends and friends-of-friends. We are bad sailors with good attitudes. Our skipper is Captain Marco, a Californian (like most of us) who last roamed these waters 15 years ago as a charter captain. He will maneuver the boat with more ease than I could pilot a bathtub toy, transform us into a crack crew and regale us with tales of his past exploits -- whether we like it or not. These waters are known as the Turquoise Coast. They could well be the source of the word "turquoise," which is simply French for "Turkish." If not, they deserve to be. Looking out to sea, we summon up all the words we know for "blue" and still leave shades unnamed. The water is so clear that, in shallows, it glows incandescent from rays of sun bouncing off the sea floor.
Over the next seven days we will sail from Marmaris to below Fethiye and meander back up to Gocek. We'll snorkel among shards of ancient amphorae, cavort in mud and play amateur archaeologist. Two Dutch yachties will stand on their stern, serenading us with harmonica chanteys as we dance an impromptu jig. One morning, I'll come up from my cabin and spy Winston Churchill, reincarnated as a bulldog, strutting along the deck of a sailboat docked next to us. Another, I'll be awakened by Pavarotti, the opera-singing donkey. We'll fix cucumber salads and fry up lamb chops onboard. We'll wash down smuggled French chocolates with duty-free grappa.
Our shoes -- banished to the hold by Captain Marco -- will ferment, forgotten, sloshing in a splash of seawater.
Food, Mud, History
As Mamaris dims to a murmur in the distance, we test ourselves at sea, taking the cat up to eight knots under sail. Stealing speed from the air makes us giddy. We think we could go anywhere.
We turn east and overnight in Ekincik, at a restaurant-with-a-dock that serves up food and hot showers to boaters. "I'm Captain Marco!" our skipper shouts to the kid who comes to catch our stern line. "Captain Marco! Remember me?" At most, the boy has seen 15 summers. Marco is sweetly oblivious to math and time.
At night, we rock below deck, in four tiny cabins wedged into the boat's double hulls, lulled by the slap of waves and the groan of mooring ropes.
In the morning, a battered wooden motor launch fetches us up the Dalyan River, past a powdery crescent of beach where sinuous flipper tracks from breeding loggerhead turtles disappear into the sea. We weave through tall reeds to the harbor town of Kaunos, which lies marooned by silt -- as well as by history. It dates from the 9th century B.C., though the remains are mostly Greek and Roman. Outside an amphitheater sited to catch sea breezes and dispense panoramic views, a goat climbs halfway up a tree to snatch tender leaves.
Past the shell of a Byzantine church and ruined baths, down a stone road, warehouse foundations and mysterious monuments are all that's left of the harbor's bustle. One in our party helps a French woman descend from a crumbling wall. "This is not the first time America has come to the aid of France," her husband says with a touch of irony.
Upriver, Lycian tombs dominate the cliffs. Their carvings mimic Greek temple facades, with pediments and columns, hovering halfway up the rock face. The Lycians ruled this slice of coast long before the Greeks arrived. They had their own language and alphabet, created the first known democratic union and were fiercely independent. Lycia was the last holdout on the entire Mediterranean coast before finally being absorbed into the Roman Empire in the 1st century A.D. These tombs are remnants of their ancestor worship.
Further upriver, we wallow like pigs in a mud bath, coating ourselves in sulfurous gray ooze, then letting it dry and crack in the sun. We look like bush tribesmen but feel like fools -- until we stand rinsing off in communal showers and discover how soft our skin has become.
At Dalyan town, we forage beyond the tourist shops rimming the dock and find a greengrocer who sells us strange, leafless branching vegetables that look to have been bred on an alien planet. She breaks off a piece for us to taste, and it's salty. (Later, back home, I find out they are "sea beans" grown in marshlands.) Through pantomime and a bit of English, she tells us the freaky greens should be boiled then tossed with olive oil and lemon. Her proud friend elbows into the cooking lesson to show us photos of her son living in North Carolina. She points to each person in the snapshots and explains all about them in Turkish.