After work on Friday, Sept. 21, Eric, Eda and I caught a ride with a colleague to Iskenderun in Hatay Province, directly south of us. It was our first time out of town since arriving—which was a total of eight days, but our first week was packed! We knew the Mediterranean was near, but we still had not seen it with our own eyes. It was also nice to get a better sense of where we are located and what surrounds us. Although the air is humid, we live in a pretty dry region. We have yet to see experience any rain. There are many olive groves and citrus trees, as well as pines and other trees I have not yet identified, but the ground is dusty.
The drive was quick and exciting, and full of new landmarks. We were dropped in Iskenderun’s city center and quickly caught a dolmuş towards Arsuz. Soon, the Mediterranean was in full view. We were driving along the coast, with the calm sea to the west and the Nur Mountains to the east. As we were cruising along this coastal highway, the sun was setting over the water—and it was gorgeous!
Before long, we were in downtown Arsuz. Arsuz is a “small fishing village” with a varied history. This little town, as part of this region, has been part of the Seleucid, Roman, Arabic, Byzantine Empires, and occupied by Seljuk Turks, Egyptian Mamluks, Ottoman Turks, and Syrians by way of the French. In 1938 the entire province was the independent Hatay Republic, only to join Turkey in 1939. All the while, Arsuz has served as an important port, and today provides lovely beaches, seaside dining, and a diverse population.
After checking in at Hotel Yunus (which I would recommend for anyone venturing to these beaches) and strolling through the streets of Arsuz, we chose one of several dining options along the canal. It turned out to be an excellent choice. Our dinner consisted of meze, or small plates of various appetizers. Here we had hummus, baba ghanoush, salad, and a flat bread.
Next came fish—delicious fish—very minimally seasoned, with only a bit of salt and a lemon to squeeze about. Grilled to perfection. We paired all this with rakı, the national drink of Turkey. Rakı is in the same family as ouzo and sambuca, but with rakı one adds water and an ice cube and sips. It’s strong anise flavor wears on you within a few sips, and I cannot imagine anyone not enjoying it. Plus, before long, the conversation is much more interesting than before.
Towards the end of dinner, we witnessed the man next to us slip an engagement ring into his date’s wine glass. We three were quite tense as we waited for the unsuspecting woman to make the discovery. How would she react? Had she already noticed and was avoiding the situation? Several cigarettes later, the man eventually quit fidgeting (and we could too!). She finally noticed, and apparently consented. They were soon calling all their friends and people started showing up to congratulate them and wish them luck (in planning?). We sat by and smiled, sipping our Turkish coffee and finishing off our rakı.
The next morning, we were thrilled to discover the view from the breakfast balcony at the hotel. Stunning! We were right next to a mosque as well as a military base, with the mountains behind us and the Mediterranean no more than two blocks away.
We said goodbye to Eda, who was catching a bus back to Iskenderun for a wedding, and then hit the beach. For about three US dollars, we had access to the manicured beach all day and a beach boy carried mats for us to the wicker umbrella of our choice. There were not too many people in the morning, and though it picked up quite a bit in the afternoon it still was never unpleasantly crowded. The water was the epitome of perfection. Cool, but not too cold, smooth, calm, blue, and not too salty. The water stretched out as far as the eye could see, and looking back the mountains rose on the horizon. The only troubling aspect was the knowledge that only about fifty miles south, war is raging on. Fellow citizens of the world are dealing with loss that I cannot fathom. This reality should serve as a daily reminder to be thankful for every day, since we never know how drastically things can change.
The rest of our Saturday was spent relaxing at the beach, catching up on reading and contemplation, discovering the best döner kebab yet, and finally finishing the evening with an excellent dinner. We decided to check out the restaurant at Arsuz Otel. When we walked up, the chef and waiter were standing by the door, seemingly waiting for customers to saunter in, just as we had. It was a beautiful setting, right on the beach, and lightning was entertaining us in the distance. The chef wanted to know what we were interested in eating, so before sitting down, we discussed our dinner preferences with him. When it came to choosing our fish, we were invited back into the kitchen to compare our options. The kitchen was immaculate. I wished so bad I had my camera in tow, and that I had an excuse to shoot a spread for a magazine. This was one of the cleanest kitchens, rustic, very well organized and even color coordinated. I snapped a photo or two with my iPhone of the chef preparing our salad. Everyone was so nice, and we were the only guests. It was a priceless experience.
Sunday we once again savored the view at breakfast, lingering over our olives and çay, breathing in the salty sea breeze. We caught a dolmuş back to Iskenderun, where we met Eda for lunch. Then, we three hopped yet another dolmuş, this time all the way back to Osmaniye, which took around an hour and a half, and cost about four US dollars. One cannot help but make friends on a dolmuş, especially on a long ride. People pile in, sitting on stools, standing, squeezing onto benches. Children tend to contribute to adults becoming friendly, smiling at each other about whatever cute or funny thing they muster.
I can’t forget, when Eric and I were getting off the dolmuş from Arsuz to Iskenderun, I was handed a baby to bounce and keep quite while it’s mother and the dolmuş driver struggled with the baby stroller. Eric was stuck on the dolmuş, so unfortunately he didn’t get a photo. Maybe next time!
We are so happy to have found the sea and know for sure that it is not that far away. We will return! Inshalllah.