The following tale
The following tales
are true, first-hand accounts.
Cairo was a marvelous sensory assault. As I rambled along the great city’s back-streets, intoxicated with the excitement of experiencing a foreign culture, I realized this was nothing like Europe. Everywhere were colorful bolts of cloth on display, gaudy trinkets, brightly shined brassware, loudspeakers wailing Arabic chants and calls to prayer, the fragrance of incense here or spice markets there, masses of robed Caireens – all this amidst the old world atmosphere of mud buildings and alien temples.
As I made my way to the Citadel, at a high point of the otherwise flat city, street urchins accosted me for pennies, only to be chased away by an old man with a stick and vicarious embarrassment.
“Is not good they beg,” he explained. “First they ask, then they take. Welcome to Egypt.”
The view of Cairo from the Citadel was an other-worldly spectacle. As dry as the region is, visibility was limited for the dust that rose like smoke as if the city was on fire. The late afternoon sun served to magnify the effect, casting the metropolis in a series of varying shadows resembling an infinite range of mountains that stretched to the horizon. I’d found my spot for panoramic photos and quiet contemplation.
“Halloo! You from America?” inquired a voice from behind. Without waiting for a reply, the voice added, “Welcome to Egypt!”
I turned to see a short, smiling man in a black military-looking uniform – I’ve always wondered at their choice of that shade during the heat of day – his graying temples topped with a beret. It was fascinating to watch how he twirled his wooden baton. For an area so rife with poverty, he seemed supremely confident with how he handled his only apparent weapon of enforcement.
“Ahmed” was quite friendly, and immediately assured me of my safety while visiting this land of pharaohs. His dark skin and black mustache – in a city of over ten million, clean-shaven men could be counted on two hands – contrasted all the more with his toothy grin, and I felt completely at ease.
After a few moments of halting, half-pantomime conversation – my Arabic was much worse than his English – he posed an intriguing proposition.
“It is closing time,” he said, indicating the dwindled number of sightseers making their way toward the palace exit. “But I can show you a very special place.”
He outstretched one hand and, rubbing his fingers together, gave the trader’s universal sign. I opened my wallet and complied with a five-pound note – about $2.00 – thus immediately becoming an elitist conspirator.
Ahmed looked over his shoulder to see that everyone had left the grounds; then, he gave me a nod in the direction of a massive double door at the far end of the complex.
“Come with me, I show you,” he whispered.
The guard unlocked the doors and we descended a wide stone stair to a magnificent foyer, the far wall of which held a mirror from floor to ceiling. More passages led off in other directions. The coolness of the stone room was a welcome relief.
“This is special place, no?” Ahmed inquired with an excited smile.
For $2.00, I was unimpressed.
Off we went through another door, and into a darker recess of the building. Obviously, our goal lay beyond, and I re-assessed the value of my excursion.
Having walked a good distance, we came to yet another door which Ahmed unlocked. On entering, I immediately observed a rather large man sitting in a wooden chair, reading a newspaper. He had a slovenly appearance, dressed in a worn and crumpled suit with loosened tie, and needed a shave besides. Ahmed spoke something in Arabic. The man approached with a smile, outstretched arms and, hugging me happily, said, “Ahh, welcome to Egypt!”
I suddenly didn’t feel all that enthused about my situation. I’d been taken to a remote location, and was now outnumbered. Discomfort was on the rise in spite of the pair’s joviality.
Another few Arabic phrases passed between them; then, “newspaper-man” bid goodbye – and left!
I silently rebuked myself for being so paranoid. After all, Ahmed seemed a genuine friendly type.
We had entered a sort of courtyard, and skylights cut from the stone ceiling cast rays of sunshine on the far wall. About half way along its length was a portico with a narrow open doorway. Beyond was a worn stone stairway trailing down into blackness...
“We are here. This is very special place. This is Mohammed’s Well,” proclaimed Ahmed, pointing to the doorway. “Come with me. I show you.” He gently touched my back, directing me to the entrance.
I hesitated. That feeling of discomfort was making a yet another appearance. For someone who was constantly beckoning me to follow, how now wanted me ahead of him as we would descend the stairs.
“What-is-down-there?” I slowly enunciated in my clearest English, wishing both to avoid repeating my words, and hoping for a similarly clear and understandable response.
To no avail, Ahmed only beckoned me again. For added incentive, he took a flashlight from his pocket. “See, no problem,” he added, as if the flashlight would completely relieve my misgivings.
I decided it was time to call it quits. “No, thank you, I should go back now,” I said.
Ahmed, however, was insistent.
“Come. This is a very special place!” If he’d had a better grasp of English, his enticements could have been more varied, and possibly more effective.
I held firm.
“I-want-to-go-NOW,” I demanded in my most firm and convincing manner. I turned back toward the courtyard entrance, walked a few paces, then turned to face him. It was time for him to follow me.
Was the door still unlocked? I’d forgotten. Had it automatically locked behind us? For an instant I was tempted to try the latch, then decided against the move. In an instant, my mind’s eye played out the scene of me nervously fumbling with the locked door, thus putting me at psychological disadvantage for whatever might unfold. Keeping my voice low and firm, I commanded, “Let’s go.”
My brain was reeling with alternative scenarios, none of which gave me comfort – or Ahmed the benefit of a doubt.
I had suddenly realized my situation. Here I was, a lone traveler with no one about, in a remote part of an empty complex, after hours, in the company of at least one stranger adroit with a nightstick. I had traveler’s checks, sure; but I also probably had more cash on me than this poor guy made in a month, and several hundred dollars worth of camera gear, even on the black market.
I think Ahmed and I were on the same page: Who would ever know what happened in the sound-proofed darkness of Mohammed’s Well…?
For just an instant we stared at each other. All I could think was: Don’t blink – and put on your toughest look.
Then with a shrug and a sigh, Ahmed walked up and opened the door. It wasn’t locked. With that single revelation, I felt a pang of guilt that I’d unfairly judged the man and the situation.
As we returned along the corridor, I felt the need to make small talk, and asked Ahmed how long he’d been a guard at the Citadel. Did he have a family? Children? Was it always this hot? And so on.
By the time we reached the foyer, about to re-enter the “public” world, I’d almost put the incident out of mind or, at least relegated it to a case of over-cautious paranoia. Given another minute, I’d probably have invited him to dinner.
Then it all came together in less than three seconds.
At the top of the stairs, just as Ahmed opened the door into the fading light and heat of a Caireen day, I noticed a less-than-subtle motion he made as he reached inside his pants, pulled out a small holstered pistol and clipped it onto his belt.
I stared. It was a set-up!
Deliberately moving my gaze to his face, I caught his eye for the briefest moment –I wanted him to see the loathing, the anger, the hatred – then turned and, without a word, walked toward the exit.
“Welcome to Egypt…,” he muttered, as I left the building.
It had an odd ring and a different meaning.
The travel bug was upon me, and it was time to hitchhike the open road again.
Not caring enough to stay current in either my Number Theory or Transformational Geometry courses – experience had already shown the folly of missing class – I stuffed my well-worn backpack and tried to imagine what new adventures lay between my campus dorm room and southern California.
It didn't take long to find out.
I'd no sooner crossed the Illinois border than a fluorescent-flowered VW van whipped past my carefully reserved spot near the on-ramp's merge with the interstate. The driver's long-tressed head had turned in silhouette – to judge my character, no doubt – and, in an instant, the bug-bus veered into the emergency lane.
My well-chosen spot had paid off! Not only had I snookered the other travelers queued back along the entrance ramp: I was first seed for mainstream traffic whose drivers I reasoned were probably more bored – and looking for company – than those just entering our defense highway system.
The boxy little van sat there patiently putt-putting while I snatched up my gear and started running down the highway. For some reason, this exercise always left me with the same anxiety that, just as I was about to open the door, the vehicle would speed off, its driver laughing as if to say, "Just kidding, sucker". Maybe I subconsciously associated hitchhiking with the lifestyle of down-and-outers.
But the van stayed put as I slid its side-door open. What luck! My gut told me this was going to be a good ride for quite a stretch.
In the quick instant I realized the driver wasn't the long haired beauty I'd fantasized, he shouted and half-laughed from the front seat, "Hey, throw it anywhere, man,... yeah... that's cool."
I quickly clambered on board while appraising my patron. He was youngish, with a red headband holding back a mass of blonde hair long enough to sit on. His complexion was sallow, as if he lived in a cave, and his blue bloodshot eyes seemed beyond the age his thin caterpillar-like mustache implied.
And that laugh! Everything seemed funny – even in silence – as if the world around us was a universal joke.
Then there was that distinctive tobacco-like smell throughout the compartment. It took but two seconds to surmise my host was in the throes of reefer madness. Oh well; 'keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel'... except we were not going to the roadhouse and I did not know that in a little while I was not to have a 'real good time', with apologies to Jim Morrison.
For someone I thought would only be able to communicate in grunts, I found "Paco" quite an engaging conversationalist. He'd decided to take his own break – he'd just quit his job – and was headed for the southwest. I could see he was lightly provisioned, as if he'd made the decision to go traveling quite impulsively.
"I’m just lookin' for peace, man," he offered. "Everything's a hassle back at home, man, y'know? It's like, y'know, bad karma. So I just split, y'know?"
It was surprising, then grating, to learn of his obsession with gaining inner peace. He spoke of race riots, political assassinations, international arms races, the Iron Curtain, and any number of other current turmoils, seeming always to end rhetorically with, "Why can't we just get along, man, y'know?" or such other variable on that theme.
I wasn't so sure this diatribe was for my benefit; rather, I thought maybe he belabored the issue of "peace" in order to convince me of his sincerity, which I doubted more and more as he ranted on, but cared less and less. I wished the radio was working so as to tune him out and enjoy some rhythmic syncopation.
We'd been driving about an hour when the van's steady drone was broken by a gleeful, "Hey, man ... more company!"
Up ahead I spied two bodies seated on the asphalt shoulder. Paco was already beginning to brake and veer off the road. As we approached the two men, they stood and hefted their bags while sizing up their new benefactor. With the same greeting I had experienced, Paco hailed them into the back seat, and we were off again.
As I observed the men, a queasiness began to develop. Our new traveling companions could be assessed in one word: Trouble.
Scruggs, the older and much larger of the duo, was dressed in black from head to toe – it was a hot day – and the knuckles of both hands were tattooed with LOVE! and HATE!, respectively. The other man, Tyler, had the ugliest scar and meanest sneer I'd ever seen. From his furtive glances, he appeared to be the lookout – and the brains – of the pair.
My anxiety wasn't misplaced. Just as before, Paco queried the two about where they hailed from.
Scruggs blurted out, "We just got outa' the joint." As I looked in Scruggs' direction, I couldn't help notice Tyler send him glare of daggers. Scruggs abruptly shut up.
Terrific! A stoned pseudo-peacenik at the wheel and, at my back, two of the seediest, roughest-looking felons I'd ever beheld. My ride, however long it might last, was beginning to lose its appeal. As we drove along in silence – Paco wasn't being as talkative – the two in back sat close, heads together, whispering. My feelings of comfort and paranoia were going in opposite directions.
In seeming response to something Tyler had whispered, Scruggs abruptly said to no one in particular, "This is a nice camper. Maybe we should just take it ourselves."
I was stunned by two immediate thoughts: That I may die today; and, how extremely stupid Scruggs must be to telegraph their criminal intent.
The van immediately began slowing, and veering onto the emergency lane. I looked at Paco and discerned nothing but a look of serenity and that incessant open-mouthed smile that seemed on the verge of a laugh. Would he have the same demeanor while being pummeled to death?
My sphincter involuntarily tightened. I was fast approaching a fight-or-flight situation and, being unarmed on the interstate highway, there would soon be everywhere – or nowhere – to run.
It happened so fast, yet with such fluid motion, Paco caught everyone unaware of his actions.
In the instant the van rolled to a stop, his left hand, previously out of sight, emerged from the map pocket. I saw only a glint of metal, but was thoroughly impressed by the immensity of the .45 automatic's barrel as it swung past within six inches of my face. It was huge!
I noted, however, the smallest trivia in that frozen second of time: The end of the gun-barrel was cavernous, deep and dark, but seemed to be lightly coated with a clear viscous material that resembled the juice of a chocolate-filled cherry. Mired in the stickiness was a common picnic-variety ant, just inside the barrel, oblivious to all but its survival on a deliciously sweet meal.
The gun cut a deliberate arc and came to rest across Paco's right shoulder, pointed squarely between the conspirators in the back seat.
He cocked the hammer.
"Wrong thing to say, man," said Paco with smiling eyes and a toothsome grin.
"Please get out, OK man?"
"He's just kiddin', man," replied Tyler. He was nervous, and his eyes were incessantly blinking.
"Yeah, I didn't mean nothin'," confirmed Scruggs. I'd never seen such a large man so scared.
It was fortunate that everyone with something to say had exercised their prerogatives.
I felt the concussion blast at the same instant I went deaf.
Had my side-vent not been partially open, the explosion would have blown out the windows.
Predictably, the .45 slug tore through the seat between the rear passengers, and bits of upholstery foam and vinyl showered the back of the bus.
Pandemonium reigned. They were screaming, I was screaming, my ears were ringing, and the pungent smell of gunpowder filled the compartment. Then I bore witness to how fast such a large-albeit-terrified man can move. With a single motion, Scruggs grabbed his bag with one hand, yanked the door handle with the other, and made a leap from the bus that was a perfect trajectory into the borrow pit along the roadside.
Tyler was right behind him.
In that moment, Paco gunned the engine and we were down the road again.
"Get the door, wouldja', man? Thanks."
I climbed over the seat and, even as we gathered speed, forced the sliding door closed.
"Why can't we all just get along, man?", Paco rhetorically asked.
I was still somewhere between shock and disbelief, but had become convinced of one thing and unsure of another:
A facsimile of peace can be had with a gun; and, I wondered if the ant found its meal worth dying for.
Hitchhiking toward Idaho to see the family during Christmas break was becoming uneventful and even a little boring. I was almost two days out of Illinois and had just passed Evanston, Wyoming. It was cold, and I’d lost all interest in the challenge of getting home on less than ten bucks. The days were short, the snow was getting deeper, and my rides thus far lacked any colorful qualities like on other treks.
It’s funny how things can change so quickly.
Bearing down on me was a beat-up Buick with a blown muffler. It was tearing along the highway, headlights flashing, and spewing rooster tails from the wet surface. As it was, he saw me long before I noticed him, and the headlights had been to get my attention. Were it not for the car’s condition, I would have judged it a state cop in high-speed pursuit.
Having no desire to get “slushed”–I was already freezing my butt off–my first thought was to get farther from the pavement. I didn’t know the car was actually going to stop until its angle of trajectory skewed in my direction. Braking hard as it pulled onto the shoulder, the big Buick did a rather dainty half-pirouette, sliding into the snow-filled ditch.
The driver got out, a small wiry guy clad only in shorts, black-and-white sneakers and a tie-dyed T-shirt, an unusual ensemble give the nasty weather. He ran his fingers through his greasy hair, observing the car’s precarious attitude, then looked at me with a toothless grin.
“Qua-ahht the landin’, hunh?”
“Need some help?”, I generously offered.
“We-e-ll-ll…, dunno. Need a lift?” he replied.
There it was: Classic symbiosis with no requirement for further talk.
Given my wealth of experience as a highway adventurer, I sized up the situation immediately: This guy was as sharp as a steel ball and slicker than whatever kept his hair plastered to his head. The only thing I wasn’t sure of was the type of weapon he kept under the front seat.
But, what the hell… I was cold, it was getting late and, as a hitchhiking college student, I wasn’t going to discriminate about my choice of traveling companion.
We proceeded to get the Buick pointed in the right direction and he beckoned me to get in–the car was still stuck–so I clambered aboard after tossing my brand new, techno-science, buckle-waisted, tubular-framed backpack onto the back seat next to a massive German shepherd with a snow-white muzzle and very sad eyes.
The car’s low-cycle vibration and un-muffled roar shook me to my boots as the driver gunned the engine while the Buick fish-tailed back onto the highway.
“Name’s Roy,” the man offered. “Where ya’ comin’ fum?”
“Where ya’ headed to?”
Twin Falls, Idaho.” I was wondering whether he was a reject from the Masons, or just a curious sort.
Roy seemed amiable enough, offering me a taste of whatever was in the brown bag he took from the door’s map pocket. I worked in my dad’s tavern when I was a kid, and surmised the shape to be a wine bottle, notwithstanding the unmistakable smell of Petri Muscatel permeating the compartment. I graciously declined, thinking one of us had better retain the reflexes to grab the steering wheel in case of any more near-disasters.
Roy’s canine companion in back looked more mongrel than pedigree, with that hang-dog, don’t-beat-me-anymore expression of forlorn resignation. For a species inclined to sniff everything, the dog seemed conspicuously un-interested in the novelty that had taken the passenger seat.
“That’s Pecker,” Roy offered somewhat proudly. “I call him that ‘cause he’s a real lover, know-what-ah-mean?” Roy giggled, winked and poked me in the shoulder with his elbow, dousing me with wine while adding even more purple stains to his soiled T-shirt. It wasn’t tie-dyed after all.
I began to settle in, glad to be out of the cold, and relishing my good fortune at making up time as we exceeded all speed limits. Having a seatbelt on would have given a more consoling sense of security but, after a quick search, I found their absence explainable. “Don’t b’lieve in ‘em,” the driver said matter-of-factly. “They jes’ tie ya’ down.”
Roy then proceeded to tell me how he was headed for Reno to find himself a new wife. He didn’t have anyone particular in mind; just a new wife.
He’d been married six times before, he said. Well, who was I to question his veracity? I mean, I was trying hard to accept things at face-value, with ensuing analysis commensurate with the other person’s importance to my life. But he suspected I didn’t believe him, so he reached over and snapped the catch on the glove box. It’s contents sprang out onto my lap and–by golly–there were no less than a half-dozen neatly folded, if fingerprint-smudged, official-looking documents among the odd comb, shotgun shells, and general detritus that fills a glove box over time.
He wasn’t kidding. He’d gotten legally married more times than I’d even thought about it. As Roy explained it, for a guy like him, getting married was the tough part; leaving them was a breeze. All he had to do was pack his ditty bag, round up the dog, and aim his Buick down the road.
Two thoughts occurred to me almost immediately: I was beginning to understand about the lack of seatbelts; and, as far as I was concerned, Roy was embellishing–his general “aura” belied ownership of a ditty bag.
We’d been driving for about an hour when I began having the urge to make a road-side stop. The way Roy was knocking back Muscatel, I figured he wouldn’t mind taking a break either.
Pecker must have been telepathic. No sooner had the inclination to relieve myself come to mind than Pecker brought it to fruition. Diarrheic dogs probably get that way when they’re kept in a car for five-hundred miles. Suddenly, the Buick’s engine noise was supplemented, if not overwhelmed, from the back seat by yet another low-cycle vibration, the sound of which resembled ripping canvas.
As I turned to identify the source, Pecker bounded over the front seat. It was then the first malodorous wave hit me and I saw to my disgust that–well, there’s no delicate way to put this–the dog had crapped all over the back seat. Not only had it plastered my backpack–I had such nobler plans for its christening–but I noticed an expensive, wool-lined deerskin coat similarly coated with excrement.
“Aw…shit, Pecker,” Roy correctly observed.
In a maneuver reminiscent of only any hour ago, Roy again jockeyed the Buick to the highway’s shoulder and into the ditch. This time the dog leaped from the car, but not before I’d first extricated myself. I pulled out the backpack, sliding it along the snow to clean off the dog shit as best I could. Roy grabbed the coat, turned it inside-out and, with a grunt that I thought might start another gastric incident, hurled in into the snow.
“Damn. Now I gotta’ git me a new coat, too. Let’s go, boy,” Roy commanded.
I wasn’t sure whether he was addressing me or the dog; and, not wanting to chance miscommunication, I said, “Roy, I think I’ll just hang out here. Thanks much for the ride.
“Yeah… well…, yuh want th’ dog?” I wasn’t sure whether he was offering sacrifice, or just wanted to further lighten his baggage.
“I’ll pass, thanks.”
“Yeah… well…, take ‘er easy”.
The dog got in the car, looked back at me as if to ask forgiveness, and the Buick doused me with slush as it roared out of the ditch and down the road.
My next ride, with a trucker, lasted the final few hours it took to get home.
Tired but glad to have reached my goal, I opened the front door to the sight of happy and smiling faces, my family, home for the holidays.
My sister, with a diapered baby in her arms, gave me a peck on the cheek and said, “Merry Christmas. What’s that smell”?
My dad nursing a glass of wine, extended his empty hand in welcome and, as I shook it , said, “Glad you could make it. What’s that smell?”
Then Mom came to me, took me in her arms and, after a long warm hug only a mother can give, looked at me with a tear in her eye and said, “Welcome home, honey. How was your trip?”
The ferry ride from the isle of Rhodes to Marmaris, Turkey was fairly short but far from pleasant. The seas off the Dardanelle's were rough and, since I hadn't logged much time on watercraft, had left me with a sour stomach.
Finally, the gangplank was down and I took my first tentative steps onto land. A border guard's cursory look at my passport and a perfunctory "Welcome…"; a short rush through the turnstile and there I was: Turkey! Land of ancient history, mystery, culture and castles – and a new diet to get used to.
Pulling the map from my jacket, I had little time to get my bearings before being mobbed by young boys. It was instant bedlam.
"You need room, Mister?" they echoed, almost knocking each other to the ground to gain a dominant position in front of me. Given the time of day, a quick assessment of priorities indicated the need to find lodging. Without much thought, I selected the boy with the cleverest smile and off we went through the back-streets of Marmaris. A twenty-minute walk ended at a dilapidated stucco building and, a few flights of stairs later, in the boy's home. His parents graciously welcomed me and showed me to a clean if small room at the back of their apartment. I was exhausted from the day's travel and did little but wash my face before collapsing on the bed for a good night's rest.
With my awakening at sunrise came a unique excitement tempered with anxiety. After a simple breakfast and happy farewell, I was on the road east to explore Turkey's southern shore, the famed "Turquoise Coast."
Back-dropped by the shear Taurus Mountains on the left, the coastline below sparkled as precious stones with myriad shades of Mediterranean blue, and luxuriant greens of dense vegetation broken by pebbled stretches of beach-line. Every now and then was that picture-perfect setting where, off in the distance, a medieval Crusader castle poked above the trees.
From little more than whimsy and the suggestion of an acquaintance made on the ferry, I turned off the coastal road at a small half-hidden sign that simply said, "Gocek". Quickly consulting my map, I saw no reference to the town that lay at the end of the serpentine path descending the mountainside. It was unmarked – perhaps unknown to the outside world – although the attraction of the small harbor seen from above would undoubtedly be familiar to the yachting crowd.
Nevertheless, adventure lay ahead.
The dirt road ended at a small square surrounded with quaint old-world buildings of blazing-white stucco, capped with orange tiled roofs. A short walk around the village showed its mainstay to be commercial fishing and, from the dock's well-kept appearance, as a way fare for sailors.
Lunch at the local restaurant was a culinary delight: Lamb, aubergine, tomato salad, bread, orange juice, yogurt, and just a little raki- a licorice-tasting liquor – watered down to an opaque liquid called "lion's milk."
As I was finishing lunch, a ruddy-faced and heavily-bearded man approached the table.
"Halloo, there! Welcome ta' the garden spot o' the Turkish coast", he offered in a distinctive brogue. As it turned out, "Brian" was from Wales, and had lived in Gocek three years as the property manager of a small island off the coast. His employer had seized the opportunity to invest in the land as a destination resort for the sailing-tourist market. As Brian put it, they were biding time, waiting for the replacement of the current local politicians by "...those who might be more attuned to the area's progress."
A few days had passed since I'd had more than a halting conversation in "pig-English," and I was glad for Brian's company. He hadn't seen a Westerner in the village for months, and his only exposure to the King's English was in Fetiyhe, the nearest large town to the east where he re-supplied. He seemed to be enjoying my company and kept up more than his end of the conversation.
"Have ya' bought a carpet yet?" Brian asked.
Now I was in luck! I'd considered investing in a 'Persian" rug for several weeks now, but was intimidated by the possibility of getting ripped off. Brian offered his assistance and promptly left, promising to return. Within twenty minutes – just as I downed the last of my lion's milk – he returned to advise me he'd reserved a small apartment on my behalf, set an appointment with the local rug merchant, and lined up a boat and driver to show me the coastal environs – all subject to my approval, of course.
My very own man-servant!
The room was impeccably clean, on the second floor of a private home, and overlooked a small bay – a tremendous bargain for $6.00 a night. After stowing my gear we walked back to the square and entered a small carpet shop. Its owner, Amal, flashed that incongruous smile only a swarthy Turk can wear and, on the heels of a loud "Welcome ...!", produced a carafe of tea and two cups.
It seemed to be Brian's silent signal.
"I'll finish arrangin' for th' boat" he said, and took his leave, promising to return shortly.
Amal brought me to the back of his store and began to unfurl what eventually became twenty carpets, every one for sale. Never mind they were cotton rugs in spite of my adamant preference for wool. The merchant just wanted me to buy, and pay dearly in the process.
Brian poked his head in the doorway, and I turned to hear him say, 'I've arranged the finalities on the boat and driver. They wait your convenience." With that, he just as quickly ducked from sight.
"Wait up, Brian - I'm leaving anyway. This man doesn't have any wool carpets."
I courteously re-stated my non-interest to the merchant, thanked him for his time, and quickly left the shop. From a last glance at the man, I perceived distinct displeasure.
As we walked to the boat, Brian said apologetically, "I didn't want to leave you alone, but it's bad manners to accompany you into a transaction like that. Ahh... here's the boat."
He introduced Odzul as our driver – I insisted Brian come along on the excursion – and we piled into a well-used dinghy with a 10hp outboard. Another adventure!
We shoved off and Odzul steered for a distant island. As we made our way along, Brian pointed out some of area's history, literally carved into the surrounding cliffs.
"Lycian cliff-tombs", he offered. "They've all been long-since robbed o' course".
In the rock walls above, massive square cuts – some looked to be twice a man's height –extended into pitch blackness.
"We can climb into a couple o' them, but we'll need ropes", Brian said.
"I'll pass, thanks." Meanwhile, I was hurriedly rewinding the spent film in my camera, intent on chronicling the ancient culture all around us. These would make for some great photos and, as few Americans as I'd seen along the coast, might bring premium fees for publication.
We arrived at our first stop. Odzul cut the motor, and we drifted to a small dock. No sooner was I on dry land again than I noticed the reason for our stop. Not one hundred feet away, and partially submerged in a grotto were the remains of Cleopatra's Baths. It seemed so appropriate to come upon this treasure of antiquity, since the Turkish coast had been a playground for Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen.
"The islands are lousy with ruins like these," said Brian. "That's one reason we're so lucky to have the property. Everywhere else is 'hands-off". I'd already heard horror stories about the consequences of disturbing Turkey's cultural artifacts.
We were off again. The sea breeze was as invigorating as the afternoon sun was soothing. I was fast drawing the conclusion I'd found paradise: That one perfect place I'd always want to come back to. To be able to capture this on film...
We approached another island and tied up to a small dock. Two little boys, tanned and barefoot, ran toward us and Brian spoke a few words to them in Turkish. The boys laughed and looked at me as if I had two heads. They'd never seen an American.
We walked along a dirt path to a small cottage of stone and thatch. A man approached from behind the building.
"Brian, my friend!" he smiled. His name was Kamil. He was the island's caretaker.
Brian winked at me and, with an embarrassed smile, whispered, "Well, ya' couldn't expect me ta' actually live out here, could ya'? Besides, Kamil and his family have lived on this island for generations, so it seemed only fittin' for me to convey my duties of care
At their father's instructions, the boys had run off to bring in the cattle. The cottage door creaked, and a woman – presumably Kamil's wife – emerged with a look of curiosity mixed with embarrassment. By all appearances, the family was very poor.
"And this is Kamil's wife," Brian explained. I never learned her name. A few rapid Turkish words from Kamil and the woman disappeared to the back of the house. She returned in a few minutes with a dozen fresh eggs, chives, tomatoes and green peppers.
"We will have omelet," Kamil said in halting English. Meanwhile, the boys had come into sight, walking through a thicket, and snapping two cows' flanks with switches.
For no apparent reason, the boys began screaming and jumping around as if possessed by demons. They ran in circles, then ran in opposite circles, flailing at the air and piercing it with screams. It was clear they weren't playing. They raced toward their father, and it was only when they reached the sunlight that I saw the last of the bumblebees return to the thicket. A half-dozen spots on each boy had already begun to swell. Their mother offered soft Turkish words of re-assurance while she applied yogurt on each of the bee-stings.
After settling down from that harrowing incident, Brian explained the history of the area while Kamil's wife continued preparing the omelet at the fireplace in the front yard.
I couldn't help hearing only half of what Brian said while I observed the wife's culinary preparations. She filled a large black skillet with olive oil to a depth of nearly an inch, then quickly sliced the vegetables and added some garlic and large black olives. A dollop of yogurt and the beaten eggs combined to a thick consistency, which she poured into the hot oil-filled skillet. As the mixture roiled, she sprinkled the vegetables and various spices over the top, then covered the skillet with a lid.
After a few moments, the lid was removed. My mouth watered as I savored a blast of trapped steam laden with the scents of spice and fresh vegetables. Out of the skillet and onto a plate, the omelet was topped with goat cheese to became a most delicious feast accompanied by fresh bread and home-made wine.
After we'd finished I fished in my pocket for a couple Turkish pounds to compensate my host for the meal. Ever conscious of the local customs, Brian quickly yet subtly advised me it would be bad manners since I was a guest, even if my host was destitute.
"Well... how about if I took a few photos of the boys?" I asked.
That met with concurrence; so, I lined the boys up with the beach and trees for background and made a few quick shots. There they stood, similar as brothers can be, tanned little urchins with baleful looks, still smarting from the bee-stings now covered with white splotches of yogurt contrasted against the their brown skin. As I finished, I shoved a couple Turkish pounds in the boys' pockets – a modeling fee, of sorts – and they dutifully dashed off to their mother, depositing the money in her apron.
The entire experience of that day several years ago is no less vivid now as then.
* * *
A year after my return, I was surprised by a phone call from London.
It was Brian. He was taking a vacation from Turkey and he'd promised Kamil to try to find me.
"Do you still have the photos of the boys on the island?" he inquired.
He explained that mine were the only photographs ever taken of Kamil's sons; and Kamil was anxious to obtain a copy.
"He'll pay anything you ask," Brian added.
Of course, they'd long since been thrown away – they were "snapshot" quality, of no commercial value – and I apologized to Brian that they no longer existed.
I heard a groan come across the phone line.
Kamil's younger son, Brian continued, had been playing on the dock one day and taken a fall into the water. He'd gotten tangled in the boat's mooring rope, and pinned between the dock and the boat.
The boy had drowned.
It is difficult to describe the combination of sadness, guilt, embarrassment and queasiness I felt at the news.
I edit my photography somewhat differently these days.