As a 19-year-old who had never been out of the country (besides Tijuana), the task of packing up for my junior year abroad was daunting. Yes, I was studying in the UK, so I wasn’t too worried about complete culture shock. More on my mind was that I would be spending three weeks travelling with my parents ahead of time before they dropped me off in London until the following June.
After a quick visit to Edinburgh and its festival, we headed off to Rhodes, Greece, where we had booked a chartered Mediterranean sailing trip with some friends of my parents who bucked tradition to live an exotic maritime lifestyle. Hailing from Laguna Beach, I don’t remember how they met. All I know is that Rob was a salty bloke from New Zealand, and his wife Val was his adventure-loving sidekick. The fact that he was a wooden boat aficionado was the only requirement my father needed to count him as a friend.
Sailing. I knew it well. My father, born in Holland and raised with boating in his blood, had me well versed in seamanship. Other family friends from New York joined us for our epic maritime adventure. At least I had the company of their 14-year-old son Robbie; we bonded over our embarrassing parents and annoying things they did that pissed us off.
Rhodes harbor– my first taste of Greece
Arriving at the Rhodes airport before dawn from London, it was a whole new world. I could smell the sea and immediately feel the pace of life as I knew it slowing down.
Chartering a boat in the Mediterranean is something most people would find exhilarating and luxurious. Growing up amidst sailing fanatics has the added bonus of making such a fantasy become reality. The Elentari is a beautiful vessel. Such craftsmanship, all wood, and quite remarkable that such a small space can be so efficiently fitted to accommodate six passengers and two crew. I had a tiny berth up towards the bow. Robbie had the berth right above mine – I made a mental note to sit up suddenly in the night or I’d whack my head pretty good.
The Elentari, in all her glory
The thing with boats is that no matter how well they are laid out, the quarters get stuffy. There’s this boat smell – a mix of varnish, fuel, and salt water. It’s hard to describe unless you grew up with it- so familiar, but a little stifling. And as the cabin curves in toward the bow, you can feel the cramping of space even more. My parents had the bunk at the front. That’s an odd arrangement, because it’s nothing like the shape of a real bed. Imagine a mattress pointed where your head should be; that was where your feet went.
We set sail from Rhodes’ harbor. How magnificently blue the Mediterranean Sea is. The blue – it’s pure cobalt. I’ve never seen anything like it. Sitting up on deck with the wind and sea spray of the ancient Mediterranean Sea in my face – I mean, we were in Greece headed off to Turkey. I didn’t have a care in the world.
When we were about halfway to Fethiye, our first stop, Captain Rob had to change the Greek flag to the Turkish flag. At the time tensions were brewing between the two nations, and you wanted all the friends you could have at sea. A Greek flag would not be welcome in Turkish waters. All these things you had to know.
Fethiye is a tiny little town about 50 nautical miles due east of Rhodes. We spent the night there before we set sail again in the morning to the town of Marmaris. Everything wonderful you could imagine about the markets and bazaars of Turkey is true. Copper, hookahs of all shapes and sizes, rugs, spices, silver, jewelry; visual treats beckoned from stalls around every corner. It was a shopping paradise. Rob and Val easily made their way through the street market mazes - they had been here many times before with other groups, and the vendors knew them enough to know what to hold aside as far as food and other perishables.
Val and me shopping the bazaar
some of the fish markets were a little intense for me - no question it was fresh
We stocked up with provisions and prepared to set out the next day. The real treat was yet to come. Between these two towns lies a little cove. We sailed right for it and dropped anchor behind a little gem called Saint Nicholas Island.
fellow charter boat on our way in to Gemiler Bay
Saint Nicholas Island, otherwise known as Gemiler Adasi, (Island of the Sailors) is the legendary birthplace of the St. Nick of Western culture Christmas fame, otherwise known as Santa Claus. I can tell you it was pretty rustic - a rocky escarpment of fantastic ruins, dry brush, olive trees, and goats, yet sublimely serene. In this cove only a couple of other boats like ours were anchored.
a view from the top of the island out to sea
what remains of the basilica
On the shore of the mainland, what looked like a small restaurant was set up – if you can call it that. Some families actually lived here and cooked for tourists that came in on chartered boats. Rob would call for the little motorized dinghy to come pick us up and bring us ashore.
the local dive
We didn’t have much choice of what to eat; we ate what they served up. I think it was some kind of lamb or beef kebab with bread and rice, maybe a few vegetables. And for dessert? Turkish delight, of course. Not to my taste, this is a super sweet confection almost like marzipan, but gelatinous. About this time I would have preferred something more along the lines of chocolate mousse, but when in Turkey, as they say. None for me. I also passed on the traditional hot tea, another sweet concoction I wasn’t used to.
It was so quiet and beautiful out here. I’ll always remember the stars and the black glassy water at night as our tender zipped us silently across the bay back to the Elentari after dinner. You could hear the bleating of a goat or two as the last lanterns were extinguished for the night. This was the life at its simplest.
The following day I woke up a little off. I wasn’t feeling well. I thought maybe the smell of boat was a little overwhelming, or that maybe I was just now realizing how from familiar civilization I was. Delayed onset seasickness? Hopefully not. I had my sea legs from birth! Whatever it was I thought it best to come up on deck for fresh air. My mother was already up in the sun reading her book. I distinctly remember telling her I felt bad – she seemed annoyed and tried to convince me it was all in my head. Translation - “Toughen up.” This was not surprising given my adversarial relationship with her (my mother was not known for her nurturing soul). It was no use trying to squeeze out empathy from a stone, so I decided to go back down below for more rest.
I swear it hit me hard. I was going to be sick. And I knew I had to make a beeline to the head or else.
Let me explain a little about boats and “bathrooms.” On boats a toilet is referred to as a head. Efficiency is king, remember, so the floor of the head was a teak lattice panel because that’s also where you showered. The showerhead was right above your head on the ceiling. Everything had to be water friendly and drainable. The tiny basin sink was inches from the toilet. And so it came. The upheaval of the worst bout of vomiting you can imagine. And not only that. It was moving down quickly. Let’s just say thank God for the toilet, because that was needed as I simultaneously threw up into the sink. Oh Lord have mercy. May you never know the horrors of what I went through. Endless sickness exploded from my wrecked body. I’m surprised my ears didn’t burst. It was like the movie Alien with the little creature exploding from his chest, only it wasn’t my chest. And l felt equally fortunate that the floor was slatted for drainage, because, well –
I don’t know how long I was in there. I really don’t remember. I had moments where I slipped in and out of consciousness. I think Val brought me a bucket when the runs let up so I could at least free up the toilet for others. No doubt the shower had to called upon to clean up the disgusting vestiges of my crippling affliction. Ironically, one of the first thoughts I remember at the time was that I could say to my mother, "See, I told you I wasn’t making it up.” But it wouldn’t have done any good, because she was next! Boy, did she get it bad. And so did the wife of my parents’ friends we were travelling with.
Here’s what I didn’t mention; I have vomit phobia of the worst kind. Not only myself vomiting - I am wrecked by the sound of someone else retching. It’s a bit of a pickle to find yourself caught a situation where there is no escape if that sound instills dread into your soul, and particularly unbearable to be in such close proximity to those equally stricken. It was horrible. The next night I thought I could stagger up on deck for fresh air, but Jane had beaten me to it. She was not as far along as I was. The epidemic was unavoidable and she was caught in its peak. I was trapped on a vomit vessel from hell, although it would have been far worse had I not been too sick to give a crap. I resigned myself to my fate and slunk back to bed.
I remember coming to a little when my father rushed by without even stopping to check on me (a whole different ugly dynamic) as he went to tend to my mother. I could see she was practically motionless in her bunk. The funny thing was she had all her voluminous grannie panties hanging up across their berth on a makeshift clothesline, no doubt trying to dry after washing out the stains from her own onset of misery. It could have been a small victory had I been less out of it - a photo opportunity of shame that I unfortunately missed out on.
Now the good part. My mother, Jane, and I were severely dehydrated. Of course we were. You can’t get through something like that without a king’s arsenal of fluids pumped into your body to replace everything you just expelled. The decision was made to sail back to Fethiye to fetch a doctor.
I remember lying in my berth still with my bucket at the ready as a smartly dressed man in a suit came on board with a real doctor’s bag, the kind you see in movies.
He had something wrapped up in paper that caught my attention. It looked like one of those squares of baking chocolate in a tiny envelope. But it was powder. He unfolded the contents on my tongue and I will never forget that intense bitterness. The last words I remember him saying were, “Take this and you will dream in Technicolor."
Isn’t it funny how we remember some things so vividly word for word? I was deathly ill and burning up with fever, yet I’ll never forget his soothing voice.
I did dream in Technicolor, for probably two days.
What woke me was a pungent aroma that hit me like a ton of bricks. Val was cooking spaghetti with olive oil and garlic; the smell was overpowering in the small space that still reeked of sick. I’m sure that’s what she was trying to cover up, but it was almost too much to bear. When you are that sick, strong odors don’t help. Luckily I was on the mend but it would be a couple of days before I could eat again.
We stayed docked in Fethiye until we got some of our strength back. Only then did I find out the three of us had contracted cholera, and without a doubt, from that little taverna by St. Nicholas Island. We must have eaten something really bad. I still wonder why only the women succumbed even though we all ate the same thing.
But then I see a picture of the kitchen. Hmm. This looks a little shady to me.
just what was Captain Rob looking at?
The only thing that would reset our bodies was opium, the purest grade in powder form. I guess Turkish doctors who make house calls on boats know the secret to putting you out of your misery.
Yes, I was given opium. Too bad I couldn’t really enjoy the full effect. It makes a great story. Got cholera? Take some of this here – you will dream in Technicolor. That would make a great ad in a magazine. Why not?
The rest of the trip was recovery for me – trying to regain strength as we sailed back to Rhodes. Changing flags again, we decided to stop part way for a little swim. The water was irresistible, and nice to have a bath at sea. God knows we could all use it!
As for my mother and revenge that she didn’t believe me or care enough to see how sick I really was?
Toilets on boats flush, but into the sea. You are supposed to use biodegradable paper. We were coming up the ladder after our swim, and I noticed the current sending over a nice little cluster of what appeared to be toilet paper. A boat had just passed us, so it could very well have been. Its trajectory was straight toward us. I was ahead of my mother on the ladder; she was treading water waiting for me. I saw the floating remains and called out that she should hurry up – someone’s toilet paper was headed her way quickly. I then took my sweet time on that ladder making as much of a commotion as I could about how disgusting it was that we were swimming in filth after our ordeal, stuff like "All we need is to get sick again!" Who knows if it really was toilet paper? That wasn’t the point, though, was it?
How she freaked out, screaming at me “Hurry up, damn it! Hurry up! Oh my GOD! MOVE IT!”
All in all I lost 20 pounds from that ordeal. It took weeks to recover. The thing that finally put me right again was rice and plain yogurt. That’s a heads up for anyone who is ever so sick that they can’t even think of eating. I found this out while traveling through Cornwall with my parents after our adventure at sea. They we furious with me for being so sick – I was spoiling their vacation and causing them glitches in their eating schedules. Luckily for me, a kind woman at a hotel we stayed in offered to cook me up some rice with yogurt on the side. I slowly revived and got back on course.
As for my parents? Pssh. More for another time.
To this day the word “taverna” makes me shudder.