In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson observes that “Earth is not the easiest place to be an organism.” This is especially true if the organism in question is one of us, for as Bryson continues, “in terms of adaptability, humans are pretty amazingly useless. Of the small portion of the planet’s surface that is dry enough to stand on, a surprisingly large amount is too hot or cold or dry or steep or lofty to be of much use to us.”
I read these words while floating in the Aegean with friends on board the Dursun Reis, a 23-meter motor-sailor know locally as a gület. The occasion was a traditional Blue Trip, a seven-day excursion by boat that meandered among the coves and islands of that part of the Turkish Aegean known as the Turquoise Coast. Although we would occasionally and briefly call on a port – Fehtiye, Dalyan, Göcek – the point of a Blue Trip is really just to laze about. It’s an invention ideally suited to the Turkish temperament and climate.
As I read Bill Bryson’s account of how vulnerable we humans are to heat, I only had to pause for a moment and feel the impact of his words on my own body. Living under the the southern Turkish sun in the month of July, I found it hard to describe my feelings. With the exception of water sports, doing anything the least bit strenuous, including sustained thinking, became a test of the will: “Should I go below and reload my camera? Maybe later.” Fortunately, aside from the routines of personal hygiene, there was very little we had to do because our three-man crew made the Dursun Reis a dream boat.
We were fortunate that Orhan, our cook, came from the city of Antakya in Hatay. Hatay, a sliver of eastern Turkey that extends south between the Mediterranean and the Syrian border, is a land where cultures intermingle (many of its inhabitants speak Arabic as well as Turkish.) And it’s a land known throughout Turkey for the tastiness of its cuisine. To say we ate well is an understatement. Each day a wonderful breakfast would be outdone by lunch which, in turn, would be topped by dinner. There was even tea and cookies in the late afternoon. As I say, a dream boat.
The captain, our helmsman and navigator, had begun life as a sponge diver. (Diving for sponges was the way to make a living in the old days before the tourists came.) Later he became a ship’s carpenter and, with his sons, built the very boat we were sailing on. A master of his domain, whether on the boat or in the water, he would sometimes in the afternoon put on mask and fins and go hunting with his spear gun. Usually he came back with an octopus or a fish for Orhan to transform into a delicious side dish.
Sedat, the third member of our crew, was the captain’s son and a man of remarkable energy. Thin and wiry, he was nearly always in motion; now in the galley restocking the cooler; now on deck wiping, swabbing, and tidying; now below cleaning the cabins; now in the dingy tying the stern line to a tree on shore.
In the seven hot days we were on the Dursun Reis, a lot of real work got done and we, the guests, didn’t do any of it.
When the heat got to be too much, which was often, the cool, blue Aegean was our salvation. I don’t believe I’ve spent as much time playing in the water since I was a teenager. The boat and our fellow travelers were well equipped to support this. In addition to various kinds of fishing gear, there were masks, fins, snorkels, a kayak and a sea doughnut. The serious players, our friends Ismail and Serif, had brought their own wet suits and spear guns. The toys that amused us most, however, were the tubular lengths of foam rubber we called sea noodles. In the water, we could stand, sit or simply hang on to them. The Aegean is highly saline, so even without the noodles we were quite buoyant. With them, being in the water took no effort at all, and we spent long periods talking and laughing just for comfort.
Although our boat was spacious and comfortable by nautical standards, it was still a tiny world, and seven days can seem like a very long time if the company you’re keeping isn’t congenial. Fortunately, our friends Semin and Ismail, the impetus behind this trip, had planned it well. Of the fourteen passengers on board, eight of us were related by work and friendship. Semin, Tania, Gulay, Kay and I all teach for inlingua. Serif and Elif are a couple and are Semin’s students. Ismail and Semin are also married and had taken this trip a year ago on their honeymoon. (We celebrated their first anniversary on the second day out.)
Two family groups made up the remainder of our company. Ivan, Italian by heritage and of Argentinean nationality, was accompanied by his daughter Livia, a voice student at the fine arts high school in New York (remember the movie Fame?), and his son Pietro, soon to be an 8th grade student in Greenport, NY. This engaging threesome mixed wonderfully well with us. It’s so nice to be around young people who are smart, observant and fun.
The final family group, mother, father and their 14-year-old son, were Australians from Melbourne. Mother and son were generally pleasant, and we related to them in the normal sorts of ways. However, the father was something else. We quickly learned that his debilitated appearance was caused by Parkinson’s from which he had been suffering for ten years. He spoke infrequently and in a voice so low as to be almost inaudible. Though he didn’t add to the general merriment of the company, his presence was perfectly tolerable until the moment that it suddenly wasn’t.
It was in the middle of either the third or fourth night out that Kay and I awoke to loud voices and sounds of a fierce struggle in the corridor. A fight, on this boat and at this hour! What could it mean? My first thought was to stay in our cabin and pretend this was a bad dream, but after a few moments I realized I had to go out and confront whatever was happening. What I found when I went on deck was the sick man, who had been nearly catatonic until now, locked in the arms of the cook and the captain who were forcibly restraining him, whether to prevent him from jumping overboard or running amok I couldn’t tell.
Meanwhile, the man’s wife was pleading with him in a calm voice to understand that he was not at home in Australia facing strangers who wanted to harm him but rather on a boat trip in Turkey taken to celebrate his 6oth birthday. At the same time, quick-thinking Ivan, who had been sleeping on deck to keep cool, was hiding the spear guns, knives and anything else that might be used as a weapon. (We didn’t find the missing can opener until two days later.)
The man who until then had had the shuffle and voice of a ninety-year-old now had the strength of the truly demented and was raging loud enough to awaken people in boats 100 meters away. Fortunately, I guess, they must have thought he was a harmless drunk and no one called the jandarma.
We finally persuaded him to go below where his wife tried to lock him in a cabin. At this point he grew furious and would have succeeded in destroying the cabin door if the cook hadn’t unlocked it and begun to verbally belabor him. This seemed to bring the man somewhat to his senses, and he and his wife retreated to their cabin to begin a long discussion, punctuated now and then by angry outbursts.
Needless to say, no one was going to sleep well again until this family was off the boat which happened the next morning at Fehtiye. By then we had gotten medical advice and helped the wife develop a plan to return to Australia as soon as possible. We’ve since heard that they arrived back home safely.
After our night of drama and the departure of the Australians, harmony was restored and maintained until we all said goodbye to each other in Marmaris a few days later. Thinking back to that one strange night, I remember the wife saying that nothing like this had ever happened to her husband. Though I doubted her word at the time, I now think that perhaps she was telling the truth. Heat affects us all in strange ways.