Mehmet was a no nonsense kind of guy, and he made that very clear from the get go.
When I first met him, I liked that about him, not quite knowing why.
“No smoking inside the cabin; no flushing of toilet paper down the WC; no air-conditioning past 10 PM unless you are willing to pay extra...."
The instructions he rapped out to me in the sailboat’s cabin, in lieu of introductions or pleasantries, in heavily accented, broken English, were akin to a machine gun’s staccato. That was not surprising given he used to captain the Turkish battleship Ottoturk, during his 30s and 40s. Opting for lighter work load and better lifestyle, he had become captain of the much smaller sailboat Sofya. I spent three days on Sofya, the summer she sailed me across Turkey’s southern coastline, along the Mediterranean.
The time I spent with Mehmet, getting to know him, was a reacquaintance with myself.
This is his story.
Mehmet was ruggedly good looking, like any mariner expected to be, especially one who had spent the better part of his adult life out at sea. At 6 feet, he was taller than me. His hair was shoulder length and he would prefer to tie it in a ponytail, or while sailing, held back from his forehead with a plain red bandana. The jet-black hair lacked any strands of gray or white, which made him appear perennially young. The color of his eyes matched that of his hair. Those intensely black eyes would piercingly outstare you, unless you were in his good books; then, those same eyes were infinitely kind and genuinely inviting and curious about you. His muscular biceps were tattooed; the right arm had an anchor (inevitable for a seaman), while the left had Sofya written on it in bold red, mystical Turkish calligraphy.
Unlike his name, the general demeanor, including his bandana, pierced ears and tattooed arms, might have reminded you of a buccaneer out of Pirates of the Caribbean or Treasure Island – sans the eye patch or wooden leg of Long John Silver. In reality though, he was quite unlike any pirate I had met before, or since.
That first night there wasn't any sailing. Settling down on the yacht's deck, after filling myself up on doner kebabs and vermicelli pilaf, I was hoping that motion sickness wouldn't ruin my trip, soon into the marine sojourn. Lost in thought, I didn't notice the other person on deck, Mehmet, sitting on the dark side, smoking, and observing me.
"Smaller and more frequent meals while at sea will do the trick".
That was one more unusual thing about him; he seemed to be attuned to what I was feeling. Was he a mind reader? I didn't have the courage to ask him directly, but then he probably already knew what I was thinking.
"Sorry to bother you, Captain. I didn't know you were there." Saying so I turned back towards my cabin.
"Stay. I've been expecting you."
A stalker perhaps…a nascent thought was taking root in my head, but I quelled the urge to let it get any further, being cognizant of Mehmet’s ability to know what I was thinking.
Had this kind of interaction with Mehmet been the first of its kind for an itinerant observer like me, I would certainly have been further spooked out of my skin. I recalled Erdogan, also from Turkey but from a lifetime ago, his mind reading abilities and how he had ensnared me in the hamam-that-was-not in Istanbul; how my ego and my body had taken a beating; a story to be retold another day. I then recalled Kevin from some other lifetime, who also had the ability to read my mind; but unlike the one with Erdogan, my interaction with Kevin had been nothing but delightful.
This time around with Mehmet, although I feared the kind of power he potentially yielded given his physiognomy and stature, part of me did not feel insecure. In addition, there was no going back then because he had an aura that pulled you in further.
"Sorry, though, I'm late". I quipped, after bringing myself back to the present.
"Better late than never". Mehmet retorted, maintaining the quid pro quo.
That night we sat on the deck and chatted for what seemed like a long time, enjoying each other’s company. I noticed that after a while I understood his spoken English quite well. The difficulty in comprehending his accent had only been a preliminary thing.
As the familiarity built itself up, I felt he already knew me or of me - much more than what I had initially anticipated. He knew I was a busy professional with a family in Karachi, and that I was on his boat for a self-enforced time out from work. He also knew that although I was in the 'healing profession', I did other things, like writing for fun, playing the piano and spending time outdoors. It was uncanny how someone you’ve just met knows you as if they’ve known you a lifetime. And some you’ve known all your life, know you so very little.
Although I was not entirely comfortable about his knowledge of me, I vowed not to ask. I was never going to ask.
"How did you know all that about me?" I couldn't help blurting out.
"I was waiting for you, didn't I just say so? As for how or why – those things you will not understand..."
Part of me liked the skipper even more, while another feared to be on his wrong side. Although there was a premonition intended in what he said, I chose not to heed that instinct then.
"Try me! I'm here to learn." I said eagerly, instead.
All my life I'd depended on myself to find answers - whether to how the world functioned or why I, or people, did what I, or people, did. Yet, I'd kept an open mind and heart for that one sustainable teacher, other than me, who could also guide me. I had almost given up hope on finding him...or her. Maybe Mehmet was the teacher I was seeking?
I woke up in my cabin. It was daytime. I could tell from the sunlight that came pouring in from the small window. At first, I was confused, wondering why the room was rocking. And then the realization dawned upon me. Per the itinerary, the yacht had set sail early morning. Starting at the coastal town of Fethiye, Sofya was to sail from one island or peninsula to another. After the first few nights in Turkey spent in the hustle and bustle of Istanbul, I was a bit afraid that the quietness of the seascape, especially on a sailboat, might be too much to handle, with potential of monotony setting in.
Oddly enough, I couldn't remember anything from the night before, past that strange, incomplete conversation with Mehmet. Try as hard as I could, there was no recollection of what he had said in response to my question. Maybe he said nothing.
Trying not to overthink what might have happened, I focused on the first meal instead - a traditional kahvalti (breakfast) of bread, cheese, olives, cucumbers, water melon and bottomless chai (tea). The rest of that fine morning was spent either on deck or in the Mediterranean waters, whenever or wherever the ship would dock. Once I got into my swimming trunks and jumped off the deck into the azure waters below, what followed were hours of frolicking in the sea with all kinds of activities in addition to swimming, since I had access to floaties, floating mattresses, snorkeling gear, fishing tackle, motor boat and kayak.
The crystal-clear sea changed its colors, chameleon-like, depending on depth. The deeper sea was dark blue whereas the shallower parts, closer to the shore, held a turquoise hue. The sea was resplendent with polychromatic fish, exact species being unrecognizable to a novice like me. That morning I also got into the kayak, and on getting the hang of it, zestfully explored the area around the rocks. Just the backdrop of the Mediterranean was sufficient to invoke the mind, so I let it run amok. While kayaking I was the sole mariner - the captain specifically - of the yacht that had capsized. Marooned at sea, I was looking for solid ground that was not overrun by savages or predatory animals. The time in the sea also gave me an opportunity to practice my swimming; something I wasn't very good at. I would get breathless with just a few strokes and vowed to improve over the few days I was going to be at sea. Regardless, while swimming or snorkeling, I became one with the fish; sharing the brilliant blue Mediterranean with a diversity of them, albeit they were much better swimmers than I.
Exhausted and famished by early afternoon, I climbed back on board, where a warm traditional Turkish lunch was waiting to be consumed. Erhaan, the yacht’s chef, a young man fresh out of culinary school, had done wonders with the fresh produce, meat and vegetables per se. The resultant meal seemed and smelt scrumptious, or perhaps the ample exercising just prior to lunch ensured a hefty appetite
“What do we have here, Erhaan? It looks divine!”
“Sir what we are serving now is pide, Turkish pizza with a minced meat topping, along with dolma, vine leaves stuffed with veggies.”
As I was about to partake with gusto, I recalled Mehmet's advice about small frequent meals, from the night before. That stopped me in my tracks, so I opted for a smaller lunch.
Afterwards, I lounged on a deckchair, imagining what it would be like if I were the sailboat - how it would feel to rock or sway gently or harshly in submission to the vagaries of the sea. Such anthropomorphic thoughts again reminded me of Mehmet, hence I looked around on the deck expecting him there, among his ship's crew. I even asked one crew member if she could point me in the direction of the Captain’s cabin. Either she got frazzled by my request or more likely, I thought, did not understand what I was asking.
I decided to nap then, as Sofya’s gentle swaying coupled with the incessant ensemble of the chirping crickets within the trees and the waves gently lapping against the rocks, were conducive to an afternoon siesta.
“Sir, wake up. Dinner is served.” Erhaan brought me out of my brief, though restful, slumber.
While I had dozed on the deck, Sofya had set sail for a few hours prior to finding another breathtaking spot to stop for early supper and overnight stay.
Whatever food was being served below smelt heavenly.
“The nighttime meal cannot be a repeat of the lunchtime one…so, no leftovers!” I quipped.
“Not all sir! For the main appetizer, we have lahmacun, crisp flat bread with eggplant topping, followed by an entree of barbequed tilapia served on a bed of sticky rice and grilled vegetables”.
“As a special treat for our esteemed guests, we are serving the finest of red wines bottled in Konya.” He continued.
The sustained 5 course dinner was to be rounded up with a traditional Turkish caramelized rice pudding as dessert.
Erhaan’s pride in his culinary skills notwithstanding, I recalled Mehmet’s advice again. That was something I just couldn’t get out of my head since that first night on the sailboat. A bit reluctantly, I only consumed a small amount of food. Following dinner, I strolled up onto the deck, hoping to meet him. At that time, there weren't many passengers around, most preferring to be in the lounge below for the extended, elegantly served dinner. I didn't see him and that was a bit disappointing because I wanted to pursue what had been initiated the night before; well at least what I thought had been initiated.
I didn't feel like going down to my cabin right then, so I reclined on a deckchair to watch the setting sun. As my mind was already afire with imagination given free reign that whole day, I wondered what it would be like to be one with the cosmos above, with the stars or moon reflecting luminescence onto the waves below. Since neither were out, I focused on the clouds instead. At that time, there were several interestingly shaped ones in the sky.
"Now that one, way up yonder looks like a T-Rex chasing a velociraptor!" I blurted out aloud. Not expecting any responses, I closed my eyes for a bit and then I must have dozed off.
"Try vaporizing those clouds using your mind". Mehmet’s voice woke me out of my gentle slumber. He was on the deckchair next to mine, puffing away on his cigarette, calmly viewing my clouds.
I don’t know how long I had been asleep; likely no more than 15-20 minutes as it was still not completely dark outside.
He had not been there when I had made myself comfortable in that spot. If he was stalking me, then I couldn’t really let him know that I was on to him.
"How do I do that?" I inquired, in a calm and collected manner.
"Imagine you have the power to do whatever it is that you wish to do and you can".
Although that didn't sound exceedingly rational to me, I decided to give it a try, at least where the clouds were concerned. I picked a small one, an indecipherable blob. I then stared at it and imagined all sorts of badness inflicted on it; I beat it, swore at it to break its spirit, and so on. I didn't see the cloud change shape, nor dissipate, but in approximately 3 minutes it had rolled across the sky and out of sight.
"Success!" I was triumphant.
"That must have been a lot of hard work for you" Mehmet was amused.
Somewhere around that moment our newfound kinship appeared to be an old timeless bond and I feared him less and less with each interaction.
"You've got to agree that as a very first attempt I did really well". I continued, all camaraderie-like.
"You tried too hard using negativity to destroy something. Consider an alternative approach. At times, all a problem requires is blocking its awareness. And it does go away. It's about perspective."
Depending on context that made sense, so I agreed with him. No point in overthinking or counter arguing that stance, I thought.
"Mehmet, what happened last night when I asked you how you knew so much about me? I couldn't remember anything more after that."
"I said nothing and you seemed content with that."
Since I couldn't remember much past a certain point, anyway, I let it pass.
It was getting late, or it seemed like that since I was exhausted after the day's physical activities followed by flexing of my brain muscle under Mehmet’s able guidance. So I bid him farewell. As I walked back to my cabin my mind was full of queries. Who exactly was Mehmet? Was he my soul mate at sea, or my true teacher, one I had been ardently seeking all my life?
With those questions unanswered, I fell asleep as soon as I hit the bed.
(DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. Any names or characters, businesses or places, events or incidents, are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.)
Asad Mian MD, PhD is an ER physician-researcher-innovator at the Aga Khan University and a freelance writer. He writes on topics ranging from healthcare and education to humor and popular culture