When I was 23, I spent two months traveling throughout Turkey. I was called Indiana Jones during a party of belly dancers on the Black Sea and nearly died of food poisoning on the Syrian border. I was shown secret underground caves in Cappadocia for a bottle of raki by a wise drunk and slept in the back of a chocolate truck hitchhiking back to Istanbul.
But of all my experiences, the time I spent living on the Aegean overlooking a small bay and a Mermaid’s sea cave outside of Fethiye, with no other human beings except for a brilliant Aussie traveler named Daniel, was the most beautiful part of my adventures.
It was 1995, I had been living in Prague for six months and I had just traveled to Amsterdam to promote Yazzyk magazine, the art and literature magazine I worked for. Explosively hungover from the magazine’s release party where I DJed the event with the Voodoo Mambo crew at the Roxy, I was excited to board a plane and get out of the pollution, humidity, and dirty heat of the Czech summer.
I had been in constant chronic pain in Prague, and I wanted a retreat. Somewhere I could heal, get away from the pressure I felt, and the beer, parties, pubs, clubs, and constant muscle pain. In my mind, Turkey was a mysterious bridge between West and East, and I wanted to learn about it.
Living off the meager wages from the magazine and being a DJ had only added up to a plane ticket and $800. Traveling cheap was my plan so I could stay as long as possible. After landing, I went to the Sultanahmet area and figured a bed was too expensive, so I slept the first night on the rooftop of a hostel staring out at the glowing lights of The Blue Mosque rising up over me.
Woke by the Islamic Call to Prayer at 5 a.m., I realized that a passenger’s olive oil had leaked all over my backpack on the plane, so I threw away half my belongings and began my first week in the country.
I slowly made my way down the Western coast in thick tobacco smoke-filled buses. Washing my hands in lemon water, drinking lots of apple tea, and smoking inexpensive Samsun cigarettes ironically seemed to keep me from getting sick from all the smoke.
As I went, I traveled for a day or two with the various Europeans, Canadians, and Aussies I met. I had a ridiculous 90s Caesar haircut, a bone-thin body, and wore steel-toed punk rock boots with shorts and ratty tee-shirts, which had caused one Turkish merchant to call me a farm boy at the Grand Bazaar.
By the time I got to Fethiye, I knew I needed to slow down, or I’d run out of money. I went to the waterfront, and I went up to a corn vendor who sold me an ear for 5,000 Turkish lira, which was about ten cents.
As I ate the butter-soaked corn, I heard a friendly voice behind me.
I turned around and said, “Yeah, I am.”
In front of me, a similarly bone-thin, tan, young, and short-haired backpacker spoke, “Hey, mate. Daniel. I’m from Oz. Sydney.” His Australian accent was obvious but not thick as he stuck out his hand to shake mine.
“Gentry,” I said as I finished my corn, wiped my hand on the paper it was wrapped in and shook his hand.
“Gentry, eh? You don’t look like the landed,” he laughed. “You look like you need a good place to stay awhile for not much money. Today…I found it. I found a place.” He was filled with awe, eyes wide, and inviting.
“A place?” I replied.
“Yeah, mate. It’s the perfect place to just be. No one is there. No one. We take a bus to this little village and then hike over the mountains to it. You wanna see it?”
There are moments in life where trust, or even faith, does not describe your actions. It’s a knowing. Knowing that your decision is exactly the direction that your life was always headed. I knew that I needed to follow Daniel.
“I’m with you, man. Sounds fucking awesome.”
The next morning we met and took a minibus to a small Turkish village outside Fethiye. It was built at the bottom of a valley, a series of dirt roads running between small concrete homes with large gardens being tended by women in long dresses, their heads covered with scarves.
Rising up over the little town — and three times its size — were the ruins of an ancient village. A crumbling 2,000-year-old ghost town. To me, it felt like it once belonged to those who worshiped Poseidon. Building upon crumbled building lined the mountainside and up the middle were the ancient steps of a road that split the village in two then disappeared over the mountain’s crest.
It was still morning, but it was July. I knew the heat would rise to 100 Fahrenheit by noon. A dry, desert heat. We talked it over and decided we needed to get over the mountain soon to where Daniel said we’d find the sea.
There was one small shop and we stopped there for an apple tea and a smoke, befriending Ahmet the owner. We trusted him within just a few minutes. He was a generous man who let us keep our large packs in the back of his store.
We bought four large bottles of water, some cheese, bread, and two packs of cigarettes and filled up smaller daypacks with them, then headed toward the ancient steps of the ruined village. Each step was broad and broken but surprisingly sturdy. We walked then leapt up them, taking huge steps. Young men with energy and excitement. Anxiety and adventure burning within.
I felt my chronic pain rearing its ugly head under the weight of my pack, sweat pouring down as we walked between the ruins. But I didn’t care. Pain would not stop wherever I was headed with my new Aussie traveling companion.
As we reached the mountaintop, we saw below us, the shining, sparkling Aegean Sea, radiating in all directions. The ancient roadway now disappeared, and it became a very steep and narrow dirt cow trail, winding through boulders and scrub brush.
The trees toward the bottom began to greet us with their tops and then we slid into the shade. There, in a flat section under the pine branches, was the abandoned flotsam and jetsam of a fisherman’s things. Perfect for assembling a Treasure Island-style camp.
We dropped our packs, walked to the water’s edge, and stood on top of a cliff 15-feet high gazing down at the shimmering water. It was so clear you could see that it was probably 30-feet deep. Covered in sweat and coarse dust, we took off all our clothes, back-up, ran, and hurled our bodies in tandem off the cliffs into the gorgeous blue sea. The water was refreshing and salty to the tongue.
We were swimming beneath the rising mountains on a small bay and 200 yards across from it was the mouth of a cave that went back into somewhere. The sea spilled into it and disappeared. There were no people anywhere. We were in a mythological fantasy.
Climbing out of the water and onto the cliffside rocks, we sat looking out like nymphs under the sun, smoking, and finally getting to know each other.
It turned out we both loved Nick Cave and Tom Waits, Salman Rushdie and Charles Bukowski. Daniel had been everywhere. He had just been in India and Southeast Asia and knew all about Prague, but not much about America. We were both looking for somewhere to rest and escape but didn’t need to discuss why. The wounds hidden behind our eyes said it. This place could heal.
That night, we found canvas material to lay our sleeping bags down. Then, we made a fire on the rock cliff that pierced out into the sea. The toasted bread smeared with cheese was exquisite as the sky lit up with stars populating the night. Then, we found our beds under the pines.
In the morning, we hiked back over the mountain for drinking water and food, knowing we’d need to do that early before the heat of mid-day. The face of the mountain going this direction was a lot steeper, and we had to grab rocks and brush to get up the side, sliding on shale and then leaping from boulder to boulder.
At the top, we got to peer down on the village and its patchwork quilt of lush gardens. We decided we’d speak to some villagers with our smattering of Turkish words about buying some vegetables and ended up with armfuls of eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes. Then we hiked back over the mountain through the ruins.
Arriving, we did the same we’d done the day before, throwing off our packs and our dusty clothes, then diving off the cliffs into the sea. The afternoon was spent reading chapters of Tolkien and Rushdie, listening to Cave and MoWax compilations on cassette Walkmans, and dozing off under the shade.
When we woke, it was time to make a fire for dinner, and eat our sumptuous village feast. We ate and stared out into the cavalcade of stars reflecting on the water, wondering out loud if the mermaids who lived in the sea cave would visit us.
We were young men, filled with sex and desire, electrified by music and words, and the idea that magic female creatures would visit us was more than alluring. It was almost self-torture. But we finally wandered to our sleeping bags in the dark on the canvas-covered ground and went to sleep.
This became a daily ritual. Waking early every morning to hike to the village, visiting Ahmet for apple tea, buying our food and water, then hiking back for naps, books, music, dinner, and Mermaid fantasies.
We began to get more primal as the days went on. We created tree decorations from dead animal bones, stringing them on discarded, old fishing lines, then tying them from the branches around camp. Needing to shit, we would climb a hundred feet up the trail and then defecate across it, leaving a line of piles to dissuade any humans from visiting us.
One day, I had the misfortune of being an idiot.
I went for my afternoon movement with a roll of toilet paper in one hand and a lighter in the other to burn the used paper. Finding a good bush near our line of dung, I relieved myself. Knowing I would plunge in the sea afterward to rinse, the wiping was almost ceremonial. When I lit the paper on fire, I realized I was naked including my bare feet. I had not brought boots, so stamping out the flaming paper would be difficult and painful.
I tried putting it out with a branch then throwing dirt on the flames, but the fire moved quickly to the bush nearby. It began to spread. I kicked with my feet and dug my hands into the hard ground trying to toss as much dirt on it as I could, but the fire was moving.
Oh, fuck, I could be lighting the entire Aegean coastline on fire.
As I ran down the trail to get my boots, I couldn’t take time to watch where I was going so I sliced, bruised, and bloodied my feet on desert brush and rocks.
When I got down, Daniel was outstretched on his back, calmly reading, and said, “Hey, mate. Wassup?”
I said nothing, sweating and disturbed. The dry dust was turning to mud on my skin and running off me. I pulled my boots on, not tying them, then ran up the trail as fast as my naked legs could keep my balls from hitting the brush as I came up the steep trail.
There were several spots on fire when I returned, and I started stamping in all directions. My boots pounded on the small fires, then on my own shit, and back to the flames. I was naked on a dry desert Turkish mountainside surrounded by tiny brush fires getting covered up to my knees in flecks of excrement.
I was perspiring everywhere, and the fire made it worse, but thankfully there was no wind and I succeeded in putting everything out. I made sure by walking in circles several times to check.
When I got back to Daniel, my boots and laces were covered in shit, burnt toilet paper, mud, and pebbles. I sat down like a miserable, naked troll.
Daniel inquired, “So, ah, wassup? You light the world on fire?”
“I see that. Well, as long as no one saw ya commit murder, we should be ok.”
Daniel would not judge me for my own stupidity. I would need to live with that on my own.
Other than my moment of asininity, the rest of the time was filled with camaraderie and meditation. I did get stung by a bee while meditating on a rock naked in the middle of the sea one morning, but it was my finger and not another more valuable appendage.
As it leaned toward August, we knew it was time to leave when a wealthy-looking sailboat appeared in the bay one day. Daniel also began to have horrendous pain in his jaw at the same time. The raki we acquired for him to drink only numbed his tooth until we needed to go to Fethiye for his root canal.
The morning before we left, I woke early and swam across the bay to the sea cave. Its mouth loomed like a succubus. I needed to go in and see if the mermaids were there. I swam back deeper, as the cave grew narrower, and the light began to go out behind me. I was in the womb of the sea.
There at the end of the cave, still slightly lit by the outside sun, was a small, little room. Its own miniature cave, a few feet above the water. I climbed up and into it. Sitting there, I imagined that this was the mermaids’ boudoir.
I blew them a kiss along with a Turkish goodbye, “Güle güle.” Then I swam back out into the sun, to our primal camp, to the ruins of the ancient ghost village on the mountainside, to the dentist in Fethiye where I left Daniel, to Istanbul, to Prague, and eventually back to the West.