The sun very seldom sets before I’ve consumed at least four servings of fruit and double the recommended servings of vegetables. Despite, or perhaps because of, my proclivity for healthy choices, I am a Coke addict.
There are several gas stations within a five-mile radius of my house. They all advertise fountain sodas—any size—for only $.99. Ever the opportunist, I reach for the cup so big it makes my car’s cup holders look laughable. In fact, the cup’s contents would barely fit in a blue whale’s bladder.
When I travel at sea, however, my access to Coke drops exponentially.
Two Septembers ago, I found myself sailing on a 104-foot-long wooden gullet off the coast of Turkey. On day one of our voyage, I searched the tiny cabin like a drug dog with a nose for narcotics. Unfortunately, I found no evidence of Coke or even an off brand Turkish cola. I did learn, however, that fridge space was reserved for beer reserved for the Turkish men manning the ship. Port stops were few and farther between. In other words, it was the perfect time to quit my habit, cold turkey.
After about six days of soda sobriety, I snapped. On that fateful day, we dropped Muhtesem A’s anchor off the coast of a small island off the coast of the Turkish Riviera. In my mind, it had been weeks since we’d seen dry land. In reality, it had probably only been a day. But when you’re suffering from withdrawal, an hour can seem like eternity.
“Who wants to snorkel?” asked Ali, our Turkish guide. The four other girls making up Muhtesem A’s guest list dug through the bin of snorkel gear—searching for masks that were clean and didn’t leak—before plopping into the turquoise abyss. “Let them look for coral,” I thought to myself. “I have something more important to find.”
Five minutes later I was also in my bikini, leaving little to the imagination of the Turkish men who, if they were particularly observant, would have noticed my left breast was slightly larger, and richer, than my right. Stashed in a plastic bag stashed in my bikini top was 20 lira—enough to buy at least four overpriced cans of Coke. In the distance, on the shore we had no plans of visiting, I could make out a shack-like structure and a small dock. Surely whomever they belonged to had a cooler full of my fix. I don’t speak a lick of Turkish, but I reckoned lira talks.
Foolishly, I didn’t tell anyone on the boat that I was swimming to shore. I would have been too embarrassed to answer truthfully when they asked why. And I’m a terrible liar. Quietly, I slipped underwater and began to breaststroke my way toward the shack which seemed forever and a day away. If being sober makes an hour seem like eternity, then it makes 200 meters seem like a mile.
Finally, after 20 or so punishing minutes of swimming, I surfaced. Through the fog in my goggles, I immediately noticed a peculiar face attached to an even more peculiar body peering down at me. It wasn’t the fog distorting his features. His features really were distorted. Even in my exhausted state, I could see he was physically disabled from the way he held, or rather, didn’t, up his hands. My instincts told me to slip back under the water, to swim away from this strange man and return to the safety of my gullet. My cramping muscles told me that wasn’t an option.
He giggled nervously as I emerged from the water.
“Hi,” I said, nervously, wondering how long he’d been watching and waiting for me.
He blushed and looked down submissively. He didn’t speak a word. Instead, he half-gestured, half-fidgeted toward the shack. Because I had nothing better to do, I followed him, past a small wooden dory and an orange canoe tethered to a no-frills dock. I was silently praying he’d lead me to a cooler stocked with Coke. Instead, he led me to a small rickety table—the shack’s al fresco dining room. Several mismatched decrepit chairs were haphazardly scattered around it. My eyes were immediately drawn to one chair in particular. It was on wheels.
There are things you simply don’t expect to see on a remote island of rock in the Mediterranean. One of them is a wheelchair. Especially, an occupied wheelchair.
His unshaven face told me he was a man. But his inability to keep his spine upright and the drool on his chin told me he was a baby. Unlike the blue-eyed, fair-haired man who had led me here, he was definitely Turkish. From the euphoric look in his eyes, I knew it had been a long time since he’d seen a woman. He blabbered uncontrollably and restlessly squirmed in his chair/vehicle as though there was a knife-wielding murderer behind me and he needed to warn me. His intentions were there, but his lips refused to form words.
“Hallo!” At least the shack was talking.
A white-haired, white-bearded shirtless man poked his head out of the narrow doorway. “Have a seat,” he continued without hesitation. “Coffee or tea?”
“Coffee,” I said, somehow knowing now was not the time to ask for Coke. After a few minutes he came out with a pot of hot water and a jar of Nescafe. No milk. No sugar. No creamer. But, he did have a fancy, delicately wrapped Swedish chocolate for me. I wondered where the heck he had gotten it. I wondered where the heck I was. And who the heck was I there with?
“Do you want to see my pet baboon?” the old man asked while we waited for my coffee to cool. I looked at the two handicapped guys squirming in their seats and ogling me from either side of the table.
“Yes please,” I said without hesitation.
The old man led me on a short wooded path behind the shack. We eventually arrived at a chicken-wire enclosure. In it, as promised, was his pet baboon. “She’s about 25 years old,” he told me while juggling a handful of boiled eggs that had somehow magically appeared. The baboon, who had a name I cannot recall, eyed the eggs hungrily and ignored me. Unlike the two guys back at the table, she wasn’t amused by an unexpected visitor.
Five minutes later, over a cup of bland yet bitter Nescafe, I was finally introduced to the island’s human inhabitants.
The old man, who appeared to be in his 70s, was from Sweden. It didn’t surprise me. Like the younger man, his irises were so blue they made you uncomfortable because they left you with only two options, to stare or to look away. The younger man, albeit in his 30s or 40s, was his son, Yusan. Without going into detail about Yusan’s disabilities, the older man told me he was not normal. I believe the word autism came up. If Yusan could talk, he’d tell me about his love for boats and dogs. As if on cue, a pair of dainty golden spaniels of some sort yawned from underneath a nearby tree.
The older man’s eyes sparkled as he told me he had another son, David—if I remember correctly. David was Yusan’s older brother. I looked at the raven-haired, dark-eyed, hunched-over-mass-of-humanity twitching in the wheelchair. Surely, this could not be David.
He wasn’t. David was in Sweden. This fact I learned from the fading Swedish newspaper clipping the older man fetched from the shack. I couldn’t read the words, but I could see from the photos accompanying the article that it was a wedding announcement. Or rather, an article. It took up two pages, not the normal length of the news of someone’s nuptials. The bride-to-be was beautiful. The man next to her vaguely resembled Yusan, but instead of wearing shorts and a childlike hat that tied underneath his chin, he wore a tailored suit.
“He’s friends with the King of Sweden,” the old man added with a surprisingly authentic air of nonchalance. The woman David married, in front of the King who attended the ceremony of course, was one of the most famous journalists in Sweden. Not only had David made a fortune with his business (the old man said he was one of the wealthiest men in Sweden) he had also procured one of the most coveted blondes in the country. Just as I was asking if they had any children, the old man interrupted me.
“Did you know you’re sitting in the same seat Princess Diana sat in when she was here?” Again, the nonchalance was astonishingly authentic.
Had he not presented the newspaper article as evidence of his affiliation with Swedish royalty, I would have thought he was as crazy, albeit more articulate than, as his companions. I shifted uncomfortably in the seat. I was already uncomfortable, 75 percent naked in front of three foreign men. But the idea of sitting my still wet commoner butt in a chair once occupied by Lady Di seemed sacrilegious, at best.
(Later, when I had WiFi, I fact-checked the old man’s furniture claim to fame. Indeed, Prince Charles and Princess Diana had yachted through these very waters on their honeymoon in 1981. Who’s to say they didn’t wind up on this island, much like me?)
After discussing Princess Diana’s mischievous side and her penchant for swimming, the elephant on the island was finally addressed.
“He was an orphan,” said the old man, talking about the man in the wheelchair as though he was not sitting two feet away. The old man had been visiting the port city of Marmaris when he found the young boy, alone, afraid and afflicted with something I assumed was cerebral palsy. There was no question. The old man would take the discarded boy home to the island where he would raise him as his own. If I was surprised to hear that, then I was even more surprised to hear that he wasn’t the first disabled orphan to be reared on this otherwise seemingly deserted island.
“I’ve taken in several orphans with special needs,” said the old man as if he was telling me he had a weakness for stray cats. I wondered how someone could be so nonchalant. Meanwhile, Yusan nodded and grinned as if he fondly remembered each and every face who had once sat at this table.
Yusan wasn’t a talker like his father. He also wasn’t a blabberer like his adopted brother whose mouth moved uncontrollably, still futilely attempting to express something you and I could spit out in seconds.
No, Yusan was silent. But he was coherent. Aware of, but not disheartened by, his disability. I knew he knew he was lucky to not be in a wheelchair. He had seen worse. What was sad, however, was that it had been years since he’d seen his blood brother, David.
“Their mother was a stunning Jewish woman,” the old man said wistfully. “But she made the mistake of marrying a Lutheran.” In the eyes of the woman’s family, the old man was not even worth mentioning by name. The fact that their second son, Yusan, came out of the womb with obvious disabilities, was seen as further proof that the old man was an abomination. (David, a healthy baby and technically Jewish because his mother was, was deemed OK.)
As the old man continued the story, I watched his striking blue eyes turn into deep pools of sorrow. I began to wonder how many decades of heartache and pain were weighing down his already frail, tanned frame.
After Yusan’s birth, the woman took David and moved away where she could raise her barely acceptable son, alone. She left Yusan with the old man and refused to let them see their firstborn and brother. In fact, she told David his father was dead, and she never mentioned Yusan. (David wouldn’t learn the truth for about 20 years.) The old man, heartbroken and unsure of how to care for a child with special needs, did the only thing he could think of.
He moved to Turkey. With full custody of Yusan, he settled on an island that no one but cartographers and ship captains had ever heard of. Every few weeks, for more than three decades, the old man left his beloved tribe of unwanted boys on the island, along with his pet baboon. Not knowing if he’d come back with another orphan, he would empty his boat before heading to the port city of Marmaris to stock up on supplies.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that stocking up on essentials was why I had swum to his island in the first place.
When the final dredges of my Nescafe had dried and formed a stubborn crust in the bottom of my cup, I looked out at the wooden gullet in the distant cove. The old man read my mind and gave instructions, in Swedish, to Yusan. Like a dog obeying his master, Yusan jumped up from his chair and whistled. The dogs at his heels, he half-ran down to the dock to untie the orange canoe.
“You’re sending me out to sea in that?” I silently asked. “With him?” Up until this point, I’d put all my faith in the old man. He could talk. Despite the subject matter of his stories, and the fact that he had a pet baboon, he seemed rational. I knew Yusan could walk, but could he paddle and steer a canoe? With me and two dogs?
He could. Gracefully and with a grin that would make the Cheshire cat proud, he paddled me out to Muhtesem A. When we reached the boat, the Turkish crew and the girls peered down at us from the top deck. One of them took photos of Yusan and me with her cell phone. They had no idea who this strange man was. And why was there a dog in my lap?
To be honest, I didn’t know the answers to their questions. All I knew was I had desperately wanted a Coke. But despite my pure, albeit pathetic, intentions, I didn’t find one. Instead, I found a cast, and combination, of characters I could never dream up. Not even if I was high on real coke.
I won’t even try to lie and say that my visit to that island made me kick my habit. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ll die in this same, sorry state of relapse. But, I did learn something from my time with the old man, Yusan and even the wordless orphan on wheels. When you go to extraordinary lengths to get something, even if you don’t end up getting it, you set yourself up for encounters with extraordinary people.
If I found them on a remote island of rock, somewhere west of Turkey and east of Greece, who knows where else they’re hiding?