Terrible news from Indonesia this week with earthquakes tearing the land apart and killing, so far, in excess of 700 people. As a frequent traveller to Turkey, another earthquake prone country, these events are not unknown to me.
Fortunately I was not in or around the epicentre of the 1999 earthquake which, though originating from the town of Izmit, did cause considerable damage to the city of İstanbul. At the time I was staying in the riverside town of Dalyan which, a few days later, experienced its own rather more ‘gentle’ earthquake which was centred on the coastal resort of Marmaris. I say ‘gentle’, but it was strong enough to throw me from my bed, to open up huge cracks in the main road into town and to actually cause fatalities in Marmaris itself. It occurred, as earthquakes often seem to, in the early hours of the morning. I remember lots of people in the street roaming around agitatedly in their pyjamas. I also remember how quickly the military helicopters went up too. Checking out possible damage to large structures as well as making sure that the ancient rock tombs of Caunos that cling to the cliffs beside the river had not started to fall into the water below. The image that has stayed with me from that event is however the spiral.
Once we had managed to calm ourselves a little, myself and a group of other people sat down beside the swimming pool of a neighbour. Someone, I don’t remember who, brought us glasses of tea and a few people began to talk. I didn’t feel able to do much beyond staring at the pool and drinking my tea, which is what I did until it occurred to me that what I was looking at wasn’t quite right. The normally motionless surface of the water in the pool was studded with what looked like tiny whirlpools. Little spirals that arose, whirled, subsided and were then replaced by others, sometimes bigger and sometimes smaller. A local man sitting next to me, noticed what I was looking at and told me what the spirals were. ‘They are after-shocks,’ he said. ‘Very small. But they mean that the earth is still moving.’ I watched those spirals for an astonishing three hours.
People who live in parts of the world that are not subject to earthquakes are not only lucky but also blissfully ignorant of the realities of these mighty conflagrations. Only three weeks ago I was sitting with a friend in her garden in a village in Cappadocia discussing just this subject. Swapping earthquake stories, as people in places like Turkey do from time to time, we talked about what each one of us actually does during a tremor. I said that for me the main thing was always to get out in the open. The thought of being entombed alive under thousands of tons of concrete, stone and steel does not appeal and I am always amongst the first to leave whatever building I am in. My friend, by contrast, said that she always tries to position herself underneath a strong door lintel. The hope here is that the lintel will hold and protect those underneath it while the rest of the building collapses. There is some virtue in this provided the lintel is strong. My own approach however, does have several major flaws. Firstly, running hell for leather into a road that could be cleaving in two can be fatal and secondly earthquakes are notoriously hard on the power cables that run over the top of most Turkish towns and cities. A falling electricity cable will kill you just as surely as a collapsing building. Running to an open space in the countryside was, my friend and I decided, probably the best course of action – provided one could run fast and far in a very short space of time. But even then the ground could open up at your feet.
The truth of the matter, and the reason why we fear earthquakes as much as we do, is that nowhere is safe. If you live in a country that is prone to these events all you can do is earthquake-proof your home (strengthen, and also build some ‘sway’ into the structure) if you can afford to do so, always keep water and some preserved food in case you are cut off and services fail and just basically, pray. I know of several people in İstanbul who, after the 1999 quake, kept hamsters in cages beside their beds. The theory was that the animal, more sensitive to movements in the earth than humans, would become agitated and wake the sleeper thus alerting him or her to the coming conflagration. As far as I know there is no scientific evidence to suggest that this is actually true. But if having something like this keeps people calm and reassures them, there is no actual harm.
The terrible scenes that have been broadcast from Indonesia this week have given myself and many other people I know, pause for thought. As well as our hearts going out to the victims of this disaster we all also look at bustling İstanbul and we wonder. It is ten years since the last big earthquake hit the city. The earth is clearly on the move again. I am not alone in crossing my fingers a lot.