It was my girlfriend Ozge’s idea that we go to Dalyan. We both needed a holiday – and a break from Istanbul – and we didn’t want to go somewhere that would be crawling with tourists.
Dalyan is a tiny hamlet on a river delta that empties out into the Mediterranean. Part of the famous Turquoise Coast, Dalyan is a quiet alternative to the tourist meccas of Marmaris, Antalya and Fethiye.
Dalyan sits on what was once the city of Kaunos, a key Mediterranean trading post circa the 10th Century BC; today the tombs of the Lycian kings, carved into the rocks overlooking the town, are virtually all that remain of that lost civilization. These days it is a somewhat sleepy town, known for Iztuzu Beach, a protected area where each year the loggerhead turtles come to lay their eggs.
With Ramazan keeping most Turks at home until the bayram, the town was fairly quiet. There were tourists, mostly Dutch, German and English, but not too many, and the streets of the town accommodated them easily; coming from Istanbul, you felt you could breathe. With the river and surrounding lowlands nearby, there was a persistent silver chant of crickets and even cuckoo birds, sounds that almost seemed foreign, so accustomed were we to the clamor of Istanbul.
When we arrived at our pension, it was evening, and the proprietors were seated outside by the pool. Their names were Zuhra, a stout, blousy, middle-aged woman, and her thirty-something daughter, Ilknur. Ozge’s sister had stayed at the pension a few years before and had recommended it to us.
The pension, which has been around ever since Zuhra and her husband, Hassan, opened in the early 1980s, is on a quiet road just a two-minute walk from the town center. All around the pension are gardens, with orange, lemon, fig and chestnut trees.
These days, most of the day-to-day management of the pension is handled by the daughter, Ilknur. The mother Zuhra, helps a bit with the breakfast and reservations (“I have to watch her,” Ilknur confided , laughing, “because she screws things up”), while the father, Hassan, cleans the pool. But most of the work is done by Ilkur while her mother Zuhra lounges in a chair in front of the pension, catching crickets in hand, chatting with guests and looking out at the people passing by.
The next morning, we had breakfast on the terrace on the roof. It was a cool terrace, covered by a canopy of grape leaves, with bushels of green grapes hanging low so that you could just pluck a few and have them with your breakfast. The breakfast itself was traditional Mediterranean, with several cheeses, olives, tomatoes, melons, as well as toast served with jams made by Zuhra herself from fruits grown in the family orchard nearby.
“It does seem especially quiet this year,” Ozge said, while conversing in Turkish with the two women.
“Really?” Zuhra asked. “I wouldn’t know. I never go out. But now that you mention it, there do seem to be fewer people passing.”
Ozge and I finished our breakfast, and had coffee and listened as Zuhra and Ilknur chatted with a few of the other guests, which at the moment included a French family, consisting of a mother and father and their little girl.
“Bon soir!” Ilknur said, switching to French. She spoke English, French and a bit of German. Ilknur showered attention on the little girl, gently stroking her pony tail. The girl was trying to read a children’s story while dully picking at her breakfast. “Do you like ‘Pinnochio?’ Do you know “Cinderella?’ I will bring you them before you go. Beautiful stories!”
We found out that the husband and wife have been coming to the same pension for more than 20 years. There were other families like that. They were the mainstays of the little pension, and Zuhra and Ilknur always made sure they were well looked after, treated like family with that particular familial warmth that can only be felt if you have been to this part of the world.
“Did you notice Zuhra doing the laundry?” Ozge whispered, interrupting my thoughts.
“No, why?” I asked.
Ozge laughed. “Don’t turn around. Well, apparently the mother Zuhra forgot to hit the ‘Rinse’ button on the laundry. So all the clothes came out still soapy. So she took out all the clothes, put them in a bucket and now she is just stepping on them to get the soap out.”
Afterward, Ilkur cleaned up, with the help of a local high school girl was there each morning. Zuhra lay down on a nearby sofa.
“It’s so cool up here,” she said. “We should just sleep up here instead of downstairs.”
Indeed, with the help of the grape canopy, a constant shade and breeze cooled the terrace. Ozge and I would often go there in the late afternoons after our swims to rest and cool off before dinner.
Meanwhile, Ilknur came and cleared the remains of breakfast from the tables. We heard her put the food in the refrigerator, and lightly cursing, calling out: “Mama! I swear, you are the mouse of the house!”
The mother, Zuhra, either pretended not to hear or else had fallen asleep.
Ozge and I walked through the town down to the river. There were boats of various sizes and models. A Turkish man, very direct and dodgy, approached us.
“Hello, my friends! Where are you from?” he asked. “America? Turkey? Oh, you are Turkish?” He asked Ozge, and switched to Turkish for a moment. “Guess where I am from!” he said, turning back to me. “I am the neighbor, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder.”
I shrugged, confused. Which border was he talking about? He was an odd fellow. “I don’t know,” I said. “Are you Syrian, or Kurdish?”
“No, no,” he said. “I am English. You and me. Tony Blair and George Bush. We stand shoulder to shoulder. Together we go and destroy Iraq.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“My name?” he switched to a passable Al Pacino. “My name is Antonio Montana, now watcha’ wan’ from me, mane?” He laughed. “Just call me ‘Tony,’” he said.
This ‘Tony’ was a motley sort of fellow. You got the feeling that he was a shape-shifter, that he was willing, for a price, to be whatever you wanted him to be. Had we been Russian (large numbers of Russian tourists come to Turkey in the summer), he probably would have introduced himself as Alexi, and said that his father was born in Moscow.
Ozge and I might have thanked him and moved on, except at that precise moment, another man approached. He was a sturdy, lean man with a grizzled beard and firm handshake. He introduced himself as Ali, and was captain of a handsome, 30-foot boat resting in the harbor nearby. Alongside him was a boy of about 12 years of age, whom he introduced as his son and first mate, Ege. The boy was good-looking and already had his father’s capable-looking face.
The captain, Ali, spoke English, and quickly (with ‘Tony’ needlessly assisting in the negotiations) arranged a deal. He would take us out for the day, arranging to take us down the river to Iztuzu Beach, to the nearby bay leading to the Med, and also back down the river to the mudbaths later on. The price was very reasonable, so we accepted.
“We give you good price,” the man named ‘Tony’ interjected. He pointed at Ozge. “We do it for her, not for you.” He said, waving his hand at me dismissively.
“Why?” I asked, lightly.
“Because she is one of us,” ‘Tony’ said. “She is Turkish.”
I thought you were English, I wanted to say, but didn’t.
“But you need us too,” I said instead, “us” meaning the tourists.
“Yes, we need you to look after her,” he said, pointing at Ozge again. “Come on, man. I am only kidding.” He slapped me on the back.
He seemed harmless enough. Nevertheless, Ozge and I were both glad when the captain Ali politely motioned for us to get onboard the boat.
Ozge and I were excited. We couldn’t believe our luck. Normally, such boat tours host at least 25 to 30 people, everyone sitting on top of one another. Now, as we watched the captain Ali and his son Ege prepare the boat for departure, we were the only two people on board. We were setting sail for the Med in virtually our own private boat – how about them apples, eh?
Actually just as we were about to leave, a small group arrived. They were two Turkish couples, all of them in their early twenties. They also had with them another guy who came alone. Still, all in all, that made just seven of us, not including the captain and his son.
There was plenty of room fore and aft. In the back section of the boat, there was cover from the sun, and big cushy pillows, so you could lay up on the bow if you wanted to sunbathe, and then when you had enough, go aft and stretch out on the pillows and have a rest. It felt as though you were on some luxurious floating caravan.
The engine fired up. With Captain Ali at the wheel and his son Ege untying the rope from the dock, we set off down the river. We chugged along, the river winding back and forth, surrounded by tall reeds on both sides. High up over the river, there were the low mountains. We passed the tombs of the ancient Lycian kings, carved into the rock. Everyone stripped down to their bathing suits, and just kicked back while the boat continued on down the river. The water here was very brown from all the silt; I stuck a foot overboard and felt the water, it was very warm.
“Not now,” the captain yelled, motioning for me to get my feet out of the water. “The gendarmes might see.”
A few minutes later, we approached Iztuzu Beach – a long, slender necklace of a beach – that separated the Bay from the estuaries. We rounded the beach and entered the vast bay. Here the water was amazingly clear. In fact, you could see why here is called the Turquoise Coast because the water is just that – turquoise-coloured, and you could see all the way to the rocky bottom. I asked the captain how deep we were and he estimated about 30 feet.
“It’s OK now,” he said, meaning I could put my feet over the side now if I wanted. We were clear of the patrol boats.
Meanwhile, now that we were out on the bay, Captain Ali began cranking out the Guns n Roses’ “Appetite For Destruction” album in its entirety, the ragged, cutting opening guitar lines of “Welcome to the Jungle” slashing across the stern and drifting out behind us. It was odd and thrilling, like we were this rock n’ roll boat caravanning our way across the Med. The GnR put everyone in the mood for a beer. Captain Ali nodded to Ege, who opened up a cooler that was stuffed full of everything you could possibly want to drink. Bottles of cold Efes beer were passed around, and everyone drank beer, smoked cigarettes and looked out at the sea while “Welcome to the Jungle” powered on.
Presently, the captain cut the engine. The boy, Ege, went up on the bow, watched the rocky shore and helped direct his father to a proper point to drop anchor. That done, and with Guns n Roses moving on into “Night Train,” the boy Ege lowered a ladder on the stern, and we were told we were free to swim.
While the Turkish couples opted to go in by way of the stern, Ozge and I went up onto the bow, where there was a diving board. I went first. Standing there at the edge of the diving board, looking all around at the turquoise beauty of the Mediterranean, was a feeling I cannot put into words. All my life, I had dreamed of this moment, read about it, imagined it.
Bending my knees slightly, leaning forward, I sprung from the board, curved into a dive, and plunged into the sea. It was a shock for a moment, hitting the clear surface of the water. Surfacing, with the salt in my nose, it felt as warm as a bath. Looking down, you could see your legs and feet and toes, and far below that all the way down. All around, the waters of the Mediterranean lapped gently, and you could see past the point all the way out to a bright sea.
I heard a splash. Ozge jumped in, after I had cleared. I looked for her and she popped up, blowing her nose and wiping water from her eyes.
Ozge had bought a snorkel and goggles while we were in town. She put them on, and then dived like a fish. I swam for a while on my back, turned over and watched her as she threaded her way, frog-like, along the shore.
“What did you see?” I asked when she swam back.
“There’s not much to see,” she said, a little disappointed. “Some groups of little fish, and some sea urchins.”
“Oh, well,” I said. “Shall we dive again?”
We swam to the back of the boat, climbed aboard, then went back out to the diving board on the bow, which rose and fell gently with the waves.
After an hour or so, Captain Ali called us in, and fired up the engine. We moved back toward the beach, and stopped alongside a small vessel that was selling fresh crab. One of the men was tossing bits of crab into the sea.
“What’s he doing?” somebody asked.
“He says if we are lucky, a sea turtle will come,” said another.
Evidently we were in luck, for soon enough, from the clear pigments emerged a huge green shell, slowly flapping up, up, until a yawning, prehistoric head broke the surface, gasped, spat some water, then slowly went down, blurred and disappeared again.
Captain Ali steered the boat back into one of the salty estuaries, where the water was brackish, and turned off the engine. He went below deck and came back with some rudimentary fishing gear, just little circular devices you held in your hand and played the line out.
Everyone was a bit puzzled for a second as the captain handed the lines out.
“What are we doing, Captain? Fishing?” one of the Turks asked.
“Well,” the captain said. “If we are to have crab with our lunch, then first we must catch it!”
We were all a bit dubious, but as everyone began – tentatively at first, but then with increasing determination – casting their lines, it wasn’t long before someone or another shouted excitedly, “Here, Captain! Over here!” and the captain Ali rushed over with a net and helped bring the crab onboard. Ozge caught three of them herself. Before long, we had something like 30 crabs. The females and juveniles were tossed back. The rest were put on a barbecue and grilled along with some fresh eggplants, chicken and meatballs.
While we were busy crab fishing, and while the barbecue was going, the boy Ege was busy below deck preparing a pasta dish and salad that were served along with the rest of our lunch. With the table set up on the aft part of the deck, everyone passed the dishes back and forth, and we ate until we were stuffed. The crab was served as an after dinner snack.
Over on shore, not 20 meters away, a flock of goats passed along the beach. The goats stopped under an olive tree to rest under the shade, and they picked at the surf grass, having their afternoon repast as we on board had ours. It was a pleasant, pastoral feeling. By the time we finished our lunch, I looked over to where the goats had been laying, under the olive tree, but they had already gone.
By the time we returned to Dalyan, it was late afternoon. We all shook hands warmly with Captain Ali and Ege, thanking them, and they wished us well.
It had been a fine and memorable day, much more than we had anticipated. The fishing, for example, hadn’t been on the programme.
“I wish we had tipped him something,” I said to Ozge later, when we were back at the hotel, showered, and resting up on the cool terrace.
“I know,” Ozge said. “He didn’t have to do all that. I mean, with only seven people, he’s not making any money off us.”
“We were tired though. We just didn’t think of it at the time.”
“We’ll just have to go back sometime,” Ozge said.
We were very tired. Like most Istanbullus, we normally spend a great deal of time at work, and dealing with the traffic and thousand worries of the mega-city. Usually when we get home from work, we are tired and prefer to just sit in the living room on the sofa watching movies. In one day, we had swum in the sea, swum in a volcanic lake that the captain had shown us, gone crab fishing, and had mud baths – all under the hot July sun. It was a really active day for us and we were done in.
“What should we do about dinner, love?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Ozge said. “Let’s just sleep for a while first and then decide.”
So we lay on the cool terrace, letting the breeze coming in through the branches of the grape vines lull us to sleep.
All in all, we ended up staying four days. We took another boat tour that took us out to some nearby islands. In the evenings we dined in the local restaurants and drank Angora wine. On the last morning, we went up to the terrace at the pension and had breakfast. Overnight, some new arrivals had come, a woman and her two boys. We had booked a taxi to pick us up at the hotel, but Ilknur, upon hearing this, insisted on taking us to the airport herself.
“Why not?” Ozge said to me. “I’d rather give my money to her than to some stranger. And it’s really slow here now. They could use the money.”
I agreed. So after breakfast, we got our bags and went downstairs. Ilknur had the car waiting.
We each gave the mother Zuhra a hug, thanking her for the hospitality.
“See you next summer,” we said.
“Inşallah,” Zuhra said. “God willing.”
James Tressler was a reporter for The Times-Standard. His books, including “Letters from Istanbul, Vol. 1” and “Lost Coast D.A.,” are available at Lulu.com. He lives in Istanbul.