Approx 8,700 words
© Joel Seath (2001)
Haraki, Rhodes (Greece) and Marmaris (Turkey)
Now these tales to tell from the Mediterranean Sea. First, the humidity here: we have to sleep by the watchful eye of the fan each night because it’s 30°C (86°F) when it’s dark alone; and day is worse and sometimes unbearable.
The pace here in Greece is slow at best. I don’t think there is a word for ‘fast’ in Greek. There can’t be. People would collapse if they ‘upped’ a gear. It’s just not possible. Physically. It just can’t be done. We climbed the hill to the castle and even the goats on the rocks up there were standing still in the heat; and, as we climbed, I tried to find the exact name and nature to the smell of the air up there . . . the heat like hot cinnamon and vanilla mixed.
Even now, sitting on the bar terrace, overlooking the dark and gentle blue bay, I can’t quite think and remember what that smell reminds me of exactly. Hot, spicy vanilla is as close as I can get. Maybe I’ll get closer as the week wears on. Maybe.
Now it’s Monday and the island of Rhodes is our hot, humid captor. That’s not to suggest a negative. The pace and way of life here, for me, is perfect. I could write for months on end, sitting here, the late evening trade walking slowly by, drinking German beer, watching, thinking, sinking down into the Greek lack of speed of things. We’ve been here two days now and I haven’t seen a single person rush or go faster than they absolutely need to. It’s just so unnecessary in this heat. It’s just so unachievable.
I thought, several times these last few days, what a way to lead a life, here: sit and drink and think and write and absorb the sun and sights thru’ osmosis. Of course, we all think like this when we holiday for a week or so . . . but what a way to write!!
Yesterday, I walked out round the bay and climbed the cliffs and, when I found the peace I knew was here, I found the bluegreen Mediterranean in between the rocks and sat in the shallows and drifted there whilst the whole world passed me by. A couple, nearby, were also bathing, naked, and it struck me how beautiful and natural this was and how they paid no attention to me . . . back home, this could never be done. Others wouldn’t cope with such flagrant self-expression and nor would I: the flagrant need for self-exposure to the beautiful heat of the sugarsweet sun.
In Lindos earlier, ten miles or so from here, we picked our way thru’ the whitewashed walls of narrow alleyways: the cotton and linen stalls; the roofs of the streets constructed of olive branches or thick-vined trees; the sun baking the pebble-mosiac pathings, far too hot for barefeet thru’ the bazaars and marketplaces; the donkeys on the hillside up at the Acropolis, still and slow in the heat; the white concrete boxes of the buildings viewed from way up there on the top of the hill, where the ancient Greeks built their temple – I looked down on the town and thought about the paintings of Cezanne, cubes of Mediterranean whites and pale blues and brick redorange tiles, here and there – and the fact that there appears to be no such thing as town planning in Greece – look down and see regular white cubes and alleyways all carved into the valley bay and there are no roads in Lindos, just cubes and spaces filled with linenladies and tourist stalls and tavernas with roof terraces built into the hillside and shaded by a single umbrella over closely laid smooth floortiles.
These are the images of Greece I kind of knew but didn’t really appreciate, before. Walking down and into the town, we saw an old doorway, surrounded by flaking, plastered concrete and the tight white alleys emblazoned with the letters of the Greek alphabet which, at first glance, are heiroglyphics indecipherable to the natural eye but, with training, shift themselves into shapes which the eye can discern.
Here, in Haraki, at eleven at night, it’s as hot as day in summer in England. The town is no more than 500 strong, we estimate, and literally no more than a single row of cubes of white apartments and tavernas laid out on a narrow strip right on the small bay which faces east towards Cyprus, Israel and Syria, far off on the distant horizon, and Turkey to the north. This is the furthest east on this world I’ve ever been, and the furthest south. This week we plan to visit Turkey: which means we’ll be in Asia, a fifty minute boat trip away. Asia. So close and yet so unreal. Like America for me: always there, always known, but being in the reality of the place is something else again.
I am in Greece. It hasn’t yet hit me fully. Almost as far east from home as New York is as far west. The world is a strange and small yet huge and close place.
* * *
Today, we drove out north to Rhodes Town, the ancient walled city where we saw a cruise liner from the Bahamas docked in shallow waters and the Byzantine stone town flanking the inner yards of old dirt tracks, no doubt (now paved in stone), mazing round and thru’ a labyrinth of linen stalls and rock high alleyways.
Later, we drove inland across the island, first down the west coast of the Aegean Sea and then sharp eastbound, across the mountain ridges. We climbed the mountain roads, higher and higher still, I thought the ascent would never end; thru’ tiny villages, just collections of shacks, and still upwards; hairpin mountain bends and sheer drops. Eventually, thousands of feet up, maybe more, we stopped and, on opening the car doors, the air conditioning off now, the engine was still, the baking heat of the furnace of sheer day hit us like a wall of fire, way up there, high up there in the mountain passes. A sauna in the late and open afternoon. But what a heated sight to see: miles of low-lit greens and undulations on the mountain-sides. Earlier, we’d driven up thru’ orange- and mango-groves (I presumed) and the palm trees and purple-budded bushes had overgrown the verges and spilt onto the roads whose concrete tapered off and sometimes fell away in sharp overhanging cantilevers so that, if by chance you drove too far right, you’d either ditch the car in a gutter way too deep or career it off the mountain edge. You soon learnt to drive slow, up and up and always up and the air-conditioned coolness inside belied the ferocity of the beat of heat of sun out there . . . We opened the doors in the tiny mountain village of Appoloni and sat on a low wooden bench like the locals do; watched the slow world slide: I thought, these old men in the open-topped tavernas must not go far from here; they don’t drive, they must have been born and raised and live and may well die up here in the mountains; and all the while, the world ticks by and life goes on and there is no other place but here. An old Greek woman sits outside a shop in the shade and there is so much more world than the usual world we narrowly and shallowly so always see. Maybe she will never know or understand or conceive of our world . . . but maybe we have never known hers either.
The world is huge but small.
* * *
Earlier, I wrote: ‘What a way to lead a life . . . sit and drink and think and write’ . . . well, if anything, the heat is pressing harder and the soft breeze does little more than shift the humidity in the air along and round in syruped eddies; coagulating on the skin and pasting your thoughts with a density, a paucity of action. It’s almost too hot to write: to pick up the pen and open the notebook. But I must write the images I see and smell and hear because writing is my camera.
As I re-read pages it seems I do nothing else but have the heat of Greece oppress my other thoughts into a stillness; a blankness; a non-existence. It pushes them back like squeezing words thru’ the vacuum of a tiny, silent black hole. They drift away.
But the sun has built this island; this country. Everywhere we go we see unfinished concrete cubes of buildings and can’t work out if they’re still in the process of being built or if they’ve been abandoned. Either way, the sun has built these, as yet unpainted, grey blocks with their jutting stumps of steel-reinforcing bars poking out like bones, reaching up in readiment for the next floor to be laid down. Reaching up for years in patient waiting. A block outside our apartment was started two summers ago, our barman told me, and still it’s a shell; windowless voids and concrete brick blocks scattered on the rough ground floor. It’s almost like these buildings, ruinous in arbitrary scattering along stretches of roadways and on the hillsides, are like bizarre post-modern imitations of the ancient temple ruins of the old Greek empire.
Bridges and roads are similarly left in a state of graceful decay and, when deemed necessary, it seems a replacement is built alongside, from new, instead of repairs to the old.
In Rhodes Town, up over the market squares, full of tourist stalls crammed into modern alcoves and selling the usual tourist paraphernalia as well as oddities like natural sea sponges, up above all this were shells of rooms with bare-timbered open roofs, gaping windowless frames and wood and stone rubble inside. It looked like a relic from the occupation in the war; the remains of a war-damaged place: I imagine mortar fire gutting the rooms and leaving the shells of their wall skins standing; or machine-gun fire pocking rapid curving lines of holes in the crumbled plasterwork and masonry. I don’t know for sure the extent of the island occupation during the war; I know the Italians were here and that they were in league with the Nazis . . . so maybe, if it was war-torn here, these buildings came under Allied fire. Maybe though, this disrepair is just another monolith of slow decay and eventual regeneration.
Above these timbered roofs, here and there, rise ancient Byzantine minarets and domes . . . all of which have lasted and stood witness to the crumbling around them. And in the distance, framing the clear sky, the graceful arch at the turn of the city wall.
This city wall is thick and high and solid; double walls in places where a wide moat maybe separated the two. Or maybe they found a way to let the sea in and flood the route of attack. Maybe it was always left, as it is now, as a space of rubble and dust. Why have water when the walls are sheer and hundreds of solid feet high?
It’s hard to tell which is merely old here; or which is ancient or relatively new. In the alleyways inside the old town walls, bright yellow masonry, clean and fresh, adorns some of the houses (scrubbed to ochre by sun and time on others) and the narrow passageways are covered over by thick dense purple-flowered vines, like fuschias, but darker and in perfect complimentary colour to the walls.
Two or three crates of melons and tomatoes are stacked in a small pile by the wall and a woman sits on a low wooden stool, as seems to be the Greek way, in the shade, laconically waiting and watching out for trade.
In the squares the café-bars employ a different method: waiters or waitresses lounge by the menu stands like lizards in the heat and, every so often, they will spot a group of tourists (always tourists, never locals) way across the square and shout: ‘Hey, you want? You like? Three people? Four? Drink? Beer, coffee . . .?’ whilst gesticulating numeric question-marks with fingers of one hand held up high. The waiters and waitresses carry on in earnest with their sudden spurt of energy, and in high competition, before retiring again to lounge and conserve energy or to retreat into the shade of the large umbrellas over the taverna tables to clear away plates or glasses.
We stopped in the square in one such café-bar and sat and drank beer and Coke and the owner of the place would shout, occasionally: ‘Hey, Leeza, Leeza . . .’ followed by a rapid flow of Greek, which, in my lazy laconic guessed interpretation meant: ‘Clear the tables’; or ‘Look, catch those people; don’t stop, more trade!’
Leeza, on repair to the shade, after just one such riposte, would roll her eyes to the sky, shout back, good-naturedly but confidently and in no mood to take hassle, a Greek flurry which would mean: ‘Yeh, yeh. Too hot’; or ‘I know, I know. I’m working on it’; and she fixed a half smile to me as she passed on her way shade-bound.
The family of Siamese cats, threadbare and unneutered, slope in between the tables and chairs and in between our feet in search of scraps.
Later, Leeza would chat with the waiter in the café-bar next to ours. Former competitors, they now swapped tales and woes and laughed and complained together: prompting us to postulate that all the café-bars in the square are, in fact, owned by one person (possibly the shady, dark, fat Greek sat at the table to our left, looking like he owns the place, not just the café but the town, continuously talking in hushed tones on his mobile phone and occasionally flinging us a warning glare): we surmise the cafés all belong to one guy who uses the fact that some people are turned off from going into one place by the waiters’ tactics, only to capitulate to the prospect of liquid refreshment at the other end of the square, maybe just to stop them from being hassled!! It’s all the same money going into the one pot, we reckon!! The Mafioso Greek glares at us as we postulate out loud and maybe he understands more English than we figure.
Now, as I write at a table outside a restaurant-bar in Haraki, under the shade of a strip of trees on the beach-edge, I drink a bottle of beer and close my notebook every time the waiter comes my way to check I’m OK or the food was fine. He speaks good English but I doubt he’s able to read my scrawl or even care what I write. He’s pleasant and courteous enough, but I close my notebook out of privacy all the same.
Out in the still water of the bay I watch a beautiful, dark-skinned woman in a white swim-bikini and of no fixed nationality (Greek? Italian? Brazilian, maybe?) And she plays with three children on an inflatable raft . . . a young mother, perhaps? She comes across as beautiful. The world goes too fast not to see such beauty as this sometimes.
In Lindos, the other day, climbing the steps to the castle, flanked on the rock side by cloth of linen and cotton and lace laid out on the baking boulders by the old ladies in preparation for the selling, all the way to the top where the donkeys loitered in the heat, cloth laid out under the deafening, rhythmic, high-pitched pulsing of insects, cicadas, all in unison and hidden in the trees . . . climbing those steps I was suddenly struck awe-inspired and absolutely still by a beautiful woman who will or should be the blonde muse for some young poet: German, beautifully barely-clothed . . . she could make a poet cry with love and adoration, sadnesses and frustrations. I leant against the wall and awaited her descent, passing me. Yet, with the humility of the angelic, she didn’t seem led by her beauty: she maybe didn’t even know I was struck quiet by her.
Earlier, I sat down here and ordered bread and beer and fries and Greek salad and watched the various partners on the beach; smoothing cream onto each other’s skins or just laying still with the sun in their hair, his head on her thighs, her fingers playing across the lashes of his closed eyes. The insects chirp their rhythm still, right thru’ the highest heat of the mid-afternoon; the waiters have retired into the shade and won’t be caring how long I sit here before I ask for the bill; even the shade is beginning to bubble with the heated air between me and the underside of the umbrella. It’s almost time to move on. Maybe to find a spot by the water for siesta time. Maybe to immerse myself again in the Mediterranean; taste the bittersharp seasalt. Maybe find another café-bar and have another beer . . .
* * *
And so on to Turkey. On to the Asian continent; or, at the very least, the crossroads between Europe and Asia. Technically, this title belongs to Istanbul to the north where the city spans the channel which opens out onto the Black Sea. But we enter the country by way of Marmaris to the south. I have absolutely no expectations: I haven’t thought what the place might be like. It hasn’t occurred to me.
Entering a town or a city or a country by way of the sea is always special. I remember entering Venice for the first time, across the lagoon and seeing the Doges Palace and St. Mark’s Square floating shallowly there far in front of me. I was told and always knew it was the only way to see the city for the first time.
We bought tickets for the hydrofoil at Rhodes Town and would cross the stretch of sea to Marmaris to enter this new town, city, country, continent. But the price you pay for a lazy, slow and undemanding pace of life in Greece is the associated Greek lack of organisation and system. We bought what we thought were our tickets the day before and, on our day of travel, we parked close by and joined, what in England would have been a queue, but in Greece was a large collection of assorted bodies under the shade.
We watched the rabble as the clock ticked and we only had ten minutes till our nominated departure time as it was. The crowd were fanning themselves with passports and pieces of yellow and green card which we didn’t have and no-one had told us about. I ran to the ticket-sellers’ kiosk, across the port-yard where we’d been the other day, and it took the man some time to understand my questions. He didn’t seem concerned that it was nine, eight, seven minutes to eleven. We were to set sail at eleven. Two Danish girls had tried to convince him before me that they’d been unable to board the day before because of over-crowding and needed a seat today. This took us all time. The man took my ‘voucher’ and his associate slowly, surely, recorded details. Eventually, I got our tickets and ran back to the crowd. But I needn’t have worried. We were on Greek time and we didn’t board and leave for thirty minutes or so.
Soon, we were out in the middle of the Mediterranean. ‘It’s weird,’ Tony said, ‘being in the middle of the sea with no sight of land anywhere around you.’ Our stretch of sea, back home, is flanked by our island, the island south of us, the island to the east and the mainland. We’re always in comfort-sight of land if we’re out there on the water.
We entered Marmaris by way of a channel which cut up between two fingers of land: on both sides, pyramidic uprisings of land heaped up. I thought of volcanic piles of long-overgrown lava-flows. Like the sea had pushed up heaps of rock in parallel archipelagos till it got bored way out into the ocean and then it’d found another game.
Out on the small deck at the back of the boat, nine or ten of us stood and watched the land float past us. I thought: this voyage is divided between those out on deck (the tribe of the Experiencers) and those content just with getting from A to B, inside, reading books, staring at the walls, rocking babies (the non-Experiencers). We, the former, were for the most part, silent at the sight of a new country swallowing us up on both sides of the channel. We watched in some sort of appreciated awe as we held the salt-encrusted metal bars (I raised my hand and saw the crystals clear and large on the palm of my hand – I tasted the thick sharp salt in the air as I closed my eyes, and then I tasted the salt on the skin of my palm). The boat puffed out a plume of thick blackgrey smoke which curved landwards and I watched the way our wake, pure white, curved round likewise and overlaid an electric-aqua blue strip beneath. It took a while, standing there, watching our trail beneath the smoke plume and against the backdrop of the valley hills, to discern the electric aqua colour of that wake. We all watched it all, experiencing. I felt part of a united group of true travellers. I don’t know what inspired them the most. Or me. Maybe it was the deep blue almost purple sea beyond us. Whatever, all of us out there just knew that the only way to enter a port town, city, country, continent was by the sea, with the taste of salt and the electric blues and purples and the wind on our hair. Tribe, Honey . . .
* * *
And if we thought it was hot in Greece, we still weren’t prepared for the heat of that day in Turkey. We estimated 40°C (104°F) though it may have been more. A relentless heat and humidity and a relentless day:
We’d stumbled into being part of an organised tour (well, as organised as Greece can get, at least). But, having said that, someone really planned our lives that day: and we never knew . . .
We stumbled into a tour and were picked up by a complimentary bus which whisked us all off, direct form Marmaris port, to the town, only ten minutes or so away. I, for one, was completely fazed already: imagine 40°C heat; the stimulus and weight of knowledge that this was a new town, city, country, continent; herded straight onto a bus; the language on the signs is different, the numbers obscure, the accents on the letters strange – it’d taken us a week to get used to Greek hieroglyphics, the currency, the pace, the ways, and we were there, we’d adjusted – but now, bang bang bang, we were in Turkey with Latin script not Greek, currency which dealt in millions of Turkish Lira to the English Pound not simply thousands of Greek Drachmas, festoons of red Turkish flags with the white crescent and star dripping from boat masts and the quayside – this reminded me of the Stars and Stripes on every street corner and on flagpoles over every intersection . . . we were bombarded from every corner in ten minutes of travel and up jumped our tour guide to launch into a direct, no-punches-pulled, stream of professional, slick, smiling, forceful, concentrated, precise, pointed, predatory patter. He timed it right, he knew our weakness, our stimulus, our buzz, the heat, the beat, the drain, the speed, the need to bang bang bang the tourists, he said: ‘Welcome to our country, to Turkey. I love my country, it’s a beautiful country, it’s a wonderful country, but our country is suffering, our country loves you, our country welcomes you, our country wants your money, we need your money, spend all your money in Turkey, we have no appreciation in goods here, we have 70% inflation rate, we need your money, we take any money, Sterling, Dollars, Drachmas, Deutschmarks, we love you and your money, we’re very friendly in Turkey, you will love Turkey, we take all credit cards, come and spend . . .’
Our tour guide told us no lies. Not direct lies, at least. But he didn’t tell us the whole truth.
He did tell us about the Freemarket in Turkey. He said: ‘In Turkey, we don’t have the same system as you; we have a market economy. This means there are no prices to anything you buy. You name your price and, if it’s a good price, you will be lucky. But, be careful, name your price, stick to your price. Everybody wants your money . . .’
Here he told the truth. Everybody wanted our money. Any money: Dollars, Drachmas, Deutschmarks, Pounds.
We always thought we knew about haggling and that market culture. But, on reflection, it drains you; it brains you and can leave you poor and poorly ready . . .
We got off the bus and, again reflecting, the system they employed was so polished, so neat, so thought out. We were asked to follow our guide thru’ the market-bazaar of Marmaris. The heat and the beat and the sights and the stream of being, there and then, meant we were powerless to resist. And he led us into a leather store where they’d arranged stools for us to sit and rest on in the beautiful breath of ice-cold air-conditioning and where they served us what they called ‘apple-tea’, but which was closer to ‘apple-juice’, to refresh us and then the owner of the place launched into his sales-pitch on leather goods and told us how the lining must match the outer material and how the quality of the goods was unrivalled and how we could come back to his shop, at any time of the day, our day in Marmaris, to sit and rest and cool down and drink free ‘apple-tea’, with absolutely no obligation to buy, typical Turkish hospitality, he said, and we drifted out, slowly, hit the sheer weight of the heat of day out in the bazaar, pondered over the leather goods en route, out of courtesy and gathered under the boiled shade of canopies to be told we were heading now, thru’ the alleys, someway, someplace, to the government-endorsed gold store.
There, amongst the rings and necklaces and bracelets, white gold, diamonds, precious stones and workers behind an air-conditioned screen, we received a similar speech, hospitality, offers of ‘apple-tea’ and respite from the heat.
This, I realised quickly, was our end of the bargain . . . in return for complimentary travel, tour guide, hospitality, we were to at least sit and listen, accept their selling, look at the goods, feel the quality, ponder courteously, before we all fell out into the furnace of the Turkish day and were left to our own devices in the marketplace, with all its traders absolute in their desire to attain our money, intense in their vending integrity . . . I thought, afterwards, home-bound (or, Greece-bound, at least), we were thrown into the lion’s den . . .
* * *
And the lion’s den was an overload of visual stimulus: canopy-covered alleyways which shaded us from the direct heat but only really succeeded in beating it into something denser; a labyrinth of marketstalls in open shopfronts selling clothes and trinkets, tourist junk and jewellery, sugared sweets and rugs, brass and marble-ware and carved wooden boxes. And all the alleyways looked the same to me: all sold the objects and trinkets and clothing of the alleyway at its intersection or across the other end of the marketmaze. I walked thru’ the place and completely lost my orientation with all the duplications and stimuli and with no sun in view thru’ the canopy to see and set my course.
Later, at the end of the day, we sat outside a café-bar on the corner of the busy street and watched the bewildering beat and buzz of the place around us like long-exposure photography: the hoots and blast of the Taksi’s which weaved around; the heave of people on the roads and the pavements; the marketplace bazaar behind us and the spill of the shoppers; the sight of thousands of flags on hundreds of masts on the boats in the harbour at the edge of the road: the reds and whites and stars and crescents. The heat and buzz and hoots and humidity and noise and babble of people in the streets and the sounds of the café and the density of the day. And, I sat there and took it all in , the long-exposure photography that is the camera of my writing mind. And I loved it. Such a beat of stimulus.
Earlier, in the marketplace, into the lion’s den after stumbling out of the gold store and into the oppressive dense air, we walked around, almost in a daze and I saw a low huddle in the middle-distance. Men in white, bent to the ground in orderly rows. I was drawn to the group. I wanted to see and even more so when I realised, of course, that it was prayer time here. Rows of Muslim men, white cotton-linen robes, heads bent down low on their prayer mats, all faced East in praise of Allah. I’ve always wondered how these prayer-sayers know which way is exactly East. Wherever they are in the world, they always seem to know and lay their mats down exactly eastwards and with such certainty. It crossed my mind, standing there, a respectful distance from the group of thirty or so, that here, with no discernable points of reference in the disorientation of the marketplace, no sun, that that task and knowledge of East was even more mystifying. Of course, in retrospect, they no doubt came here every day, at the same time, faced the same plinth in the square, at the same angle, and that was reference enough.
I watched the men in prayer and was fascinated by the culture and the act, performed closer to it’s geographical origins than I had ever seen before. Back home, the Muslims don’t pray in the open day – they go to the Mosques. There is no openness. Maybe, it was this that fascinated me out there.
We turned back down the marketmaze alley we’d approached the men in prayer along and, with mid-morning confidence (and an innonence of sorts) we thought we’d be fine here. We turned the corner and began the running of the gauntlet of all the stallholders and the Turkish men asking: ‘You like?’; ‘You want?’; ‘You need shave?’; ‘You buy rugs?’
And, in our innocence, we fell into the carpet-seller’s store. A small room, briskly air-conditioned, with stone floors and flanked by a small room to its side where a man and a woman lounged on a sofa playing backgammon. On our entrance, the door was shut and the man and woman ceased their game, surreptiously, and seemed just to disappear. They weren’t the owners nor customers. They were simply strangely there. And strangely gone. I felt an impending density despite the coolness of the air. Like having been locked into a cell where there was difficult escape. The rugs lay in piles in the corner on the floor and we ran our eyes over them, innocently like children. I wondered quickly how to engineer our escape.
‘Look at the quality of this rug’; ‘You like red?’; ‘You want big or smaller?’ Questions, questions, pushes. Tony insisted on playing the game. I watched the door and wondered if it was locked. Minutes ticked by as the Turkish carpet-seller laid out rug after rug on top of each other and expected us to buy. I felt he may take offence if we didn’t. Would he incarcerate us if we insulted him by not buying. ‘How much?’ we asked. ‘For this?’ he said. ‘Only four hundred Pounds. Quality rug. You like?’
Nervously, I played along. ‘Too much, too much.’
He disappeared into a dark space at the back of the room. On his return he laid out a rug, beat it with his hand like a thoroughbred horse. ‘Fifty Pounds.’ It was similar to the others. We shook our heads. He disappeared again, determined. I said: ‘We need to find a way to extricate ourselves from here,’ hoping that the use of long English words might convey my anxiety to my travelling partner but not insult our selling host in his non-comprehension.
I took sudden stock and action as the man laid down more wares. ‘No,’ I said, raised my hand, shook my head, deliberately didn’t meet his eye, moved towards the door quickly, all at the same time. ‘Thank you. But too much.’
I opened the door, which wasn’t locked, and hurried out, hoping my travelling partner would follow and the carpet-seller wouldn’t. Hoping we hadn’t insulted him or his salesman’s integrity. Hoping just to get away.
‘You want a shave?’; ‘You like this?’; ‘You buy?’
We ran the gauntlet and didn’t look back. ‘Why did you do that?’ my travelling partner asked as we headed straight on and still too close to the carpet-seller’s rooms for comfort. ‘Because,’ I said, ‘that didn’t feel right. Too much, too intense . . .’
Shortly, we came to a sweet-stall on the corner. And I stopped and looked. Sugared ‘Turkish Delights’ in lemon and cinnamon, orange and coconut, pecan nut, almonds and lime. Plates and plates of cubes piled up in glass boxes under iced sugar snowshowers. A girl of twenty or so came out from the shade and said: ‘You like? You want to try some? Taste it. It’s good.’ And I thought I should. She seemed so much purer than the carpet-seller, with her huge brown eyes and softness of approach. And yet, there was a hard streak there in her. Like a nut inside a cube of sugared ‘Delight’ she sold. She stared at me, sweet but citrus coated, as I wondered what to do. Eventually, I said: ‘OK’ and she disappeared to bring me some. And it tasted good, tasted sweet and succulent. ‘You want more?’ she said. ‘You want this?’ (she offered me almond-encrusted delicacies). ‘No,’ I said. ‘No, not nuts. This is good. This is fine. How much?’
And she told me but I was emboldened by the brown-eyed sweetseller girl and her soft but hard-centredness. So I tried to haggle her down. And she threw me a look of disdain and disbelief, so cutting as only a beautiful girl can do. I tried once more and she told me: ‘Come on!! For this?’ and I pondered a while longer, for the show of it, because, in reality, I knew I was beaten, and said: ‘OK’ rather like a dog been whipped might slink its shoulders. I offered the note up in the air and she paused a second or so, her fingers hovering close to the money, staring into my eyes with the hard little-girl-look of a victorious warrior, a tiny star in her eye, a trace of the upward curl at the corner of her mouth, such as a mischieveous child who’s won the argument might have . . . she snatched the note triumphantly with what (if not an audible accompiament) might very well have been a soft, cool: ‘Ha!!’
She didn’t smile, but I did.
* * *
In the alleys of the marketmaze bazaar, we were accosted by Turks who asked us: ‘You want to be my customer?’ When we stopped to browse over the odd trinket, here or there, they were on top of us and said: ‘English? Where do you come from?’ It was a sales patter, the first line in. So we told them where and they nodded their heads knowingly. We were asked often and soon tired of the standard lines. We told them, initially, we came from the south coast (which we do); then, when we tired, we told them the name of our city but that it was near London or in the middle of the country (which it isn’t). Ah, they nodded, always, and knowingly. ‘You know it?’ we asked. ‘Yes, yes,’ they said, ‘of course.’
We learnt quickly how to be wise. We ran our eye over the goods from a distance. Lest we were to be pounced on in the lion’s den. Stop, or touch the goods, and, always, a Turkish salesman was by your side within three seconds, imploring you to ‘Feel the goods’; asking if ‘You like?’; offering us a price which was, apparently, the best price in the whole market.
I tired of this too. I lied to a clothes-seller who offered me two pairs of jeans for twenty Pounds: ‘I can get the same for fifteen Pounds just over there.’ ‘Where?’he said. I made up a direction. I didn’t want the jeans, I was merely ‘feeling the quality’. They were all ‘two for twenty Pounds’ at every stall. He paused for a second or two and then, suddenly, he said: ‘OK. Your price.’ And he put up his hand.
But this was my epiphany of learning wisdom. I was not wise before this man. I was wise soon after. He put up his hand and I smiled because when they do this back home it is an acknowledgement of defeat or a reckoning of two equals and I would take his hand, back home, not in a handshake but in a high palm-meeting brief hand clench, and he would wish me well and I would leave. I took his hand and smiled and my epiphany was born. Somewhere in the back of my head a bell rang and told me, subconsciously, but without the proper words, as yet, that this was danger. I had acknowledged the sale. I hadn’t the words to know this yet, but I made to leave very quickly. I did not catch his eye as I left and expected him to chase me out, maybe with several brothers. I had, after all, gone back on my word, hands-met in agreement, to buy his goods.
Words came to my brain very quickly after I left his stall and I was horrified by them. ‘We have to go,’ I said. We had to go. This was when wisdom hit me.
* * *
Our coming of age in the span of half a day. We learnt not to catch their eyes or shake their hands or touch the goods. We learnt to walk away. We learnt to only stop if we really wanted to buy and if we had in mind a good and fair price. We knew which vendors were the ones we could beat down in price and which were the old professionals. We learnt how to keep moving and to come back if we needed to. We learnt about motion and guile and quick-wittedness in the lion’s den.
But, although we’d learnt all this, it was one thing knowing and another thing acting. The day was only getting hotter and the visual stimuli and effort of currency conversions thru’ three languages was depleting us. Because of the Turkish monetary situation if we bought in Turkish Lira it was cheaper for us than if we bought in Greek Drachmas or English Pounds. This, our tour guide had failed to mention. He didn’t tell us the whole truth. But we had no Turkish Lira due to the rush at the port in Rhodes and we didn’t know the exchange rate from Turkish to English. So, in the heat and beat and buzz, if prices were not stated in Pounds or Drachmas (which they mostly were, but not always) we could do nothing else but convert from Turkish to Greek to English to understand. This made us slow and caused us to become easy prey for some vendors. They used complicated conversions on their calculators to prove to our cynical questioning that what they said in Lira was what they told us it would be in Pounds. Still we did not believe because the results did not come close to our rough calculations thru’ three currencies. They grew restless and, their integrities wounded, angry with us. We, confused, were caught between trust and cynical disbelief of their techniques. Wisdom and coming of age had taught us cynicism.
Our tour guide had said to us, as we’d chanced upon him in the market, to meet him outside the gold store at a certain time and he would show us somewhere where we could have good lunch. We expected most of our fellow tour guide travellers there too. But it was only us. We were hot and hungry, confused and in need of beer. So we met him and he phoned someone on his mobile phone and told us we would be collected shortly and taken to a restaurant which was recommended. We only learnt later, as we filed thru’ the alleyways with our new guide, that he was a waiter at the restaurant down on the harbour front and that, yes, this was another marketing masterpiece and we were not getting away from this restaurant until we had eaten, drunk and paid, no matter how much it would cost.
The place was nearly empty but we were too tired and too thirsty to care. We sat on the terrace and ordered beers and salads and wondered what the price would be. No English, so we converted three ways and back again and then, when we’d checked and re-checked, we gave up and said: It’s only money, let’s eat. Lunch cost us the earth: three, four, fives times, maybe more, than what we’d normally have paid back home.
Wisdom is muted by heat and hunger.
* * *
The afternoon closed in, after lunch, and we wandered the alleys like lost souls. It occurred to us that Marmaris was more than just this place, but the marketmaze was all our world just right then. We walked thru’ side street lanes where small children sat at low tables and drank long drinks of fruit juice whilst the adults sat and drank shorts in tall glasses and played backgammon in the shade, watching us like cats watch mice from the corners of their eyes. We stumbed along endless rows of small wooden tables where Turks and German men sold rings and trinkets for unknown prices. We fell into a shop and were followed around, two steps behind us as we walked, the whole way round, by a young woman who worked there and who talked to us about the goods every time we stopped or touched something. We weren’t too threatened by the Turkish women; the Turkish men were more troublesome. The girl spoke to me in Turkish and I looked to her and thought I said: ‘I don’t understand you. Speak English.’ And she spoke in Italian or some such. And Tony said: ‘She was speaking English.’ The place had begun to warp my every sense.
When we met our tour guide by chance again, we asked him, wearily: ‘How can you sell such obvious fakes here and know it and charge so much?’
‘Fakes?’ he said. ‘Fakes? What do you mean? What is fake . . .?’
‘The clothes,’ we told him. ‘They all have designer labels but they’re all quite obviously not real.’
‘What is real?’ he said. He was a little perturbed. ‘What is fake? Feel the quality. Is this fake?’ (He rubbed his finger and thumb on the fabric of his shirt). ‘Or this?’ (He did likewise to ours). ‘This is real . . . This is real . . .’ (He slapped the back of his hand lightly onto our shirts).
We knew what we’d meant but we had offended him. His integrity had been bruised. But we weren’t quite sure if he knew it was all a scam or if, as he protested, it was all genuine goods and genuine quality and that he really believed in it. In the heat and glare, you felt you had to squint a little in the sunlight to see the real truth somehow.
He calmed down and took our photographs for us.
* * *
En route to the café where we sat and watched the heat and beat of it all in our long exposure photography kind of way, we came from the alleys like creatures in the rainforest struggling for the light. We saw that light, ten paces away, and, our money down to small coins and our wisdom drained, the clearing in sight, a friendly young Turk approached us, smiling but cautiously so.
I put up my hands straight away as I saw him, like prey to its predator.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said wearily, ‘we have no money left. Really. They’ve taken it all.’
I indicated back towards the lion’s den. He smiled and put up his hands too and said he wasn’t here to sell us anything. And my heart just leapt. The first man or woman here today who didn’t want my money. The exhiliration of that small thing. I said as much. I told him he was appreciated and struck out my hand for him, feeling safe and secure. He shook my hand and smiled. I felt conversational. Safe in the knowledge my opening up would not enter my chips into the engagement of a sale. He asked me if I had a wife or a girlfriend. He asked about my mother. He wondered if they might like a fine gold ring. Or a bracelet perhaps . . .
I stopped and laughed. I looked at him and smiled. The cunning Turk. Smooth and sharp and quick. ‘I really have no money left,’ I told him. And he didn’t persue the sale. He bowed his head slightly. He knew. I left him with a short glance of respectful admiration, left him with a look to the eye.
Tony said, once we were out in the clearing: ‘You didn’t see that one coming?’
* * *
At the port in Marmaris, we shuffled onto the quay with all the other weary travellers and waited for our boat to arrive. We were in a curious limbo state: the heat of the Turkish day manifested now thru’ a distant but imminent thunderstorm which rumbled over the hills someplace; the pace of the place behind us and borne out in all the many bags stuffed full with cheap clothes, chocolates, sugared sweets, trinkets . . . all at the heels of quiet travellers sat on benches and the grass around us; and ahead of us . . . our expectation of the boat to take us back to Greece. The limbo between the pace of Turkey and the inactivity of Greek Time . . .
The boat was late. We waited and stared out into the channel between the volcanic heaps in the distance for some sign of our boat. Some small speck or smudge to tell us we were Greece-bound. Still nothing. There were some of our group growing restless: small children began to cry; one man picked a fight with a guide and blamed her for the boat. She screamed back and the group, like grazing animals, sat up and watched.
Eventually, the boat came and we piled on dutifully. The man’s shouting and anger had not made it come any the sooner. The thunderstorm threatened deep but distantly someplace.
* * *
Back in Rhodes Town we climbed from the boat and put our feet down in cooler climes. The quayside was slick wet and the smell of just-passed summer rain was in the air. The lights of the town glowed reds and greens and yellows. We walked sleepily past a huge Maltese cruiseliner docked to our right. We still had the drive back to Haraki to navigate.
The darkness did not help our cause. It was my turn to drive but I didn’t really want to. Greece has few roadsigns in daylight and roadmarkings are rare. At night, when the lights fizzed from every direction and the cars were roaring their engines and hooting their horns and in a town where we hadn’t yet successfully escaped from cleanly and directly all week without detour, this task was somewhat daunting.
We thought we knew the way but we ended up on a long, brightly lit strip along what we guessed to be the westward coastal road. We needed south and the eastward route. It was getting late and the stimulus of the day was still thumping around my head.
We drove thru’ the bright-lit night, thru’ streets of dark colour and laid thick with people spilling from bars and the hedonistic strip of road didn’t seem to end as we kept on westbound hoping to cut southward at some stage soon. When we finally saw a sign for a town we knew of on the east side of the island we were way beyond anywhere we knew. We were lost in the night and tired. We drove southbound but found our way into narrow lanes that had no road markings and no signs and had to navigate by the moon. We hoped we wouldn’t end up in the mountains again.
We drove around in such a fashion for a long time. Time had no meaning or feeling anymore. We only wanted to get back to Haraki. But Haraki had no signs and nor did anywhere we knew on the east side. We watched the moon trace across the sky.
We drove in circles. Eventually though, we hit the road eastbound, more by luck than judgement. But still we weren’t entirely sure we would end up in Haraki. Maybe the cynicism of the day was creeping back up on us. Even when we were on the main Rhodes to Haraki east coast road again, we weren’t entirely sure. The landscape was different in the dark. The road didn’t feel like the road we knew. The hills were longer, steeper, different to navigate around.
But Tony had counted the petrol stations on previous trips and told me that we should be hitting another one soon. Our last chance to get fuel before Haraki. He was right. We filled up and the attendant spoke to us, straight away in German. We said, no. All week I’d been mistaken for German, Turkish, Italian. We answered her in English.
On our arrival back in Haraki, we felt relief. Checking our watches, time was strange: we’d only been lost an hour or so. It felt much later. We handed the keys of the hire car back to the owner (who was loitering there at the entrance to the town, waiting for us) and apologised profusely for being late. We blamed the boat from Marmaris.
We hurried off to the terrace of our bar and I drank German beer; my brain safely non-thinking now, safely home now under the guidance of counted petrol stations and the moon.
* * *
Back home in England, 5am, we get off the plane and it’s 12 degrees outside. It’s cool, almost cold and I feel strangely dressed for this country in my white linen trousers and white cotton shirt and beaded necklaces.
I doze in the car on the way home from the airport. I have been to Asia and seen the town where one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World was said to have stood (the Colossos of Rhodes). I have driven thru’ mountain passes and followed small trucks loaded with melons struggle up the coastal roads. I have survived a Turkish bazaar and seen some strange and beautiful sights. I have been almost as far east as New York is as far west. I have been to many places.
I would like to see many more.
Haraki, Rhodes, Marmaris