Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Blog4NZ: The Earthquakes - a Personal View

The idea behind the Blog4NZ initiative is to signal to the world that the wonderful country of New Zealand is very much 'open for business' and to encourage travellers to book their tickets and get on down there a.s.a.p.. You can find out more here: http://blog4nz.indietravelmedia.com/. The idea is to look forwards to the future and not to focus on the past, particularly the earthquakes themselves. I, however, have nothing else to focus on. I have never been to New Zealand (see my previous post: http://worldteacher-andrea.blogspot.com/2011/03/blog4nz-world-teachers-blog-resurrected.html) so I'm blogging here through the eyes of my youngest nephew, Tom, who was living in Christchurch at the time of both quakes. His story, told here in his own words, vividly illustrates the anguish and devastation caused by these natural phenomena and explains what it was like to live through them. Far from dissuading people from travel to New Zealand, however, Tom's story should serve as a spur to everyone to visit and to help re-build the economy of this beautiful country peopled by, in Tom's words, 'kind, loving souls who were always going out of their way to help others, especially when the earthquakes happened'.

Tom left home in the UK in March 2009 at the age of 22. It was his first foray in to long-distance, long-term travel, and some family members suggested that he would probably be back home in three weeks! How wrong they were!! After spending a year in Australia, Tom moved to New Zealand, first to Auckland, and then on to Christchurch, which he loved. He was looking for somewhere a bit more low-key and smaller than Melbourne, where he had been previously, so Christchurch fitted the bill. He liked the fact that he could get to the city, the beach, or wherever he was working within 20 minutes by bus. And he particularly liked the people - always the people! He remained in the city after the first quake hit to help with the clean-up in his adopted home. Back in Europe, his family were all worried about him, but, at the same time, very proud of the decision he made.

This is Tom's account:

"When the first quake hit on September 4th at 4.35am, it was an experience that changed my way of thinking about life, the world and myself. My understanding of earthquakes has dramatically improved. An earthquake is not as simple as, 'bang, bang, shake, shake - did you survive or didn't you?' It's a slow and quite sadistic event. I awoke to everything moving. For about five seconds I just lay there not knowing what was happening. Was I dreaming? Was I being attacked? My brain hadn't contemplated what was actually happening - it hadn't caught up with the reality of the situation. Then I heard the sound of glass smashing. It felt like a slap in the face. Survival mode kicked in. I got up to run, but as soon as my foot touched the jelly-like floor, I collapsed. I scrambled to my feet, but then went down again as quickly as I'd got up. The noise was so intense, so violent, so crippling. I found my way to my feet and was falling for the third time, but I had made it to my door handle so managed to hold myself up with that. As soon as I touched the handle, everything slowed down. The giant train had passed leaving only a couple of ripples behind it.

Then, hearing the sounds of sirens, alarms and my housemates shouting, I rushed out to see if everyone was OK and to try and make sense of it all. Seeing glass on the floor and everything out of place, but knowing that my friends were OK, was a giant relief. Minutes later we heard another rumble and I know now that you have about two seconds to brace yourself and hope that it's a small shock.

The aftershocks continued for two to three months, going from seven or eight shocks a day to two or three and then none. The best way to describe it would be that it's like a ball bouncing from a great height, and then bouncing less and less and less, with the slight twist that the ball had been bounced a little harder on the seventh or twelfth bounce - kind of like a heart monitor.

For a couple of months after the quake, I would lie in bed each night just about to go to sleep and the noise of death would come to me and my body would clench up. Is it another big one? Is this the one? Sleep was very elusive during those months. You could tell that this was affecting not just me but the whole of Christchurch. I would walk into the supermarket in the days and weeks following the quake and people's expressions were always ones of sadness and sleep deprivation. The earthquake was the hot topic of conversation. There's not much else to talk about after such a big event, I guess. Christchurch needed a big hug, that's for sure, and probably, more importantly, a good night's sleep.

As for the infrastructure of the city, it wasn't as bad as I had thought. Where I lived, in St. Albans, we nicknamed it as 'the chimney capital'. One in three houses had no chimney. We got off lightly. Other areas had a lot of liquefaction where the ground had been sieved and all the sand and sediment had risen to the top. A couple of buildings had collapsed, but the only death had been due to a heart attack. So, as 7.1 magnitude earthquakes go, we had been very lucky.

So, as time went on, the shakes slowed down and people began to go out. They started to smile again. Life was getting back to normal, but every so often, there would be a shake just to keep you from forgetting. By December, I was sleeping and enjoying myself again. Then, on Boxing Day, we had another quite big aftershock which reminded me to always be on my guard. Then there was nothing really until February 22nd at 12.51pm. I really did feel that the quakes were all over.

I had always thought to myself, 'If another big one comes, will I know when to run?' We had had so many aftershocks that they had become the norm. First the noise, then the shake, and then ... nothing. So, we shrugged them off, but this time... I knew. The noise was back. The violence was back. In a split second, I ran out of my room to the lounge. The fridge door had been thrown open and all of the contents had been chucked out on the floor. Every cupboard was open. This was incredibly scary. I turned and looked at my housemate, Jackie. She screamed, 'Get out!'. So, jumping over everything to get to the front door, we escaped and leaned against the wall outside. Everything stopped. Then the noise of the alarms and the sirens started up. Seconds later, there was another aftershock. I watched a neighbour's car lift up off all four wheels. Then I heard one of the most sickening noises I have ever heard, or ever hope to hear. It sounded like a house collapsing, but, in fact, it was much worse. The wall connecting a whole terrace of houses had fallen down. Who knew how many people were under there?

I've learned a lot about earthquakes. The damage caused depends on many factors including the depth, the nagnitude, the force, the location and the time of day. The 7.1 was longer, but much deeper than the February quake. Being so shallow, the February one did so much more damage. Roads twisted, giant trees felled, rivers flooded - pure devastation.

Finding out that all of my friends and housemates were OK was a massive relief, but knowing what had happened to the city and to all those people who had died was very hard to get my head around. For two days I couldn't speak. The mental toll of earthquakes is so destructive - so numbing. I was lost. I didn't know what to do. We didn't have water. We didn't have toilets. I had to make a big decision. I found out that I, like many other visitors to Christchurch, was being offered a way to leave the country. I thought it was probably my best option. I had just an hour to say my goodbyes and then, after two years away, I was on my way home.

Now back in the UK, I still kind of feel that I ran away, but what could I do? I just wanted to see my family. That's all I wanted.

After everything that's happened, I would head back to New Zealand in a heartbeat. The people are fantastic. The country is so beautiful. There is so much more that I have to see. I will go back to Christchurch. I owe it to myself and to the people who helped me during a very difficult time in my life. My friends are still there coping with the aftershocks. I want to see them again.

As for travelling, I want to see every golden beach, every snowy mountain, every beautiful sea. I want to see it all and I will. The world is so small and time is so short. When it rains, I won't complain. I'm alive. So many are not. My problems are tiny compared to those of millions of people around the world. I'm going to live my life, that's for sure."

And so I post this on behalf of our nephew, Tom, who went away a boy and came back a man - a man who we're all so very proud of!

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Aphrodisias – Turkey’s Best Kept Secret

An unplanned visit to the ancient site of Aphrodisias turned out to be a highlight of our tour around Turkey. It isn't a well-publicised place; indeed, many Turks don't know of its existence. When I returned to school in Istanbul after our trip and told my students about it, none of them had even heard of it, let alone visited. And yet, for me, it is much more impressive than the better-known sites of Ephesus, Pergamon and Troy.

Aphrodisias is located to the west of the city of Denizli. If you're staying in Pamukkale, then there is a daily minibus service which will take you there, give you 3 hours to explore the site, and then return you to your hotel. The journey takes about 2 hours each way and the fare is 30TL per person. We knew very little about the site before our visit and were undecided whether or not to go, considering that it would occupy a whole day, but, fortunately for us, the owner of our hotel recommended it, so we decided to go. What a revelation!

In Roman times, Aphrodisias was one of the main centres for the worship of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and fertility, to whom the city was dedicated. The town also became the seat of one of the greatest schools of sculpting during the classical era, making use of marble quarried from the slopes of Babadag, just 2km from Aphrodisias. Recent excavations have revealed sculpting workshops, and sculptured figures found here have each single hair separately worked, the faces and eyes are full of expression and vitality, and the bodies appear supple and almost capable of movement. The work produced here was of extremely high quality and, indeed, many of the reliefs and statues found in Rome and Athens bear the signatures of artists from Aphrodisias.

What the visitor sees when he visits Aphrodisias today is the result of many years of hard work which still continues. The site was first discovered by Frenchman, Paul Gaudin, in 1905, but excavations didn't begin in earnest until the 1950s. Because of this, lessons were learnt from earlier digs, and all of the finds were kept on site rather than being shipped off to far flung corners of the world. Some of these are now housed in a purpose-built museum, so the whole story is there for you to see. Most of the major excavations were led by a Turkish professor from New York University, Kenan Tevfik Erim. He first worked at Aphrodisias in 1961 and continued until his death in 1990. Fittingly, he is buried on site, and there is a bust of him in the entrance to the museum. As I said, the work goes on and new evidence of this magnificent city is constantly being revealed.

The highlights that you can see today include a wonderfully preserved theatre with seating for 7000 people and a council chamber with blue marble seating for 350. There is also the temple of Aphrodite with its fantastic spiral-fluted columns and mosaic floor. The agora, measuring 205 by 120 metres, is also noteworthy, as are the baths of Hadrian. As if all of this is not enough, you must not miss the stadium. We almost did! As we were walking around the site, we noticed a knee-high sign indicating 'stadium'. We looked in the direction it was pointing, but couldn't see anything. It was a very hot day, so we were tempted to ignore the sign, but something made us go. I'm so pleased we did! We walked 500 metres or so along a rough track through scrubland. Ahead of us was a very high, long, grassy bank. As we got closer, we saw a break in the bank. We walked through this gap and were completely blown away by what we saw. It is a perfectly preserved sports stadium with seating for more than 30,000 people, and we were the only visitors! It is colossal - more than 262 metres long. We read later that in its heyday it staged athletics competitions to rival the Olympic Games, and that today it is the biggest and most complete stadium of its kind anywhere in the world. And to think that we almost didn't see it!

In Roman times, Aphrodisias was home to 15,000 people. None of the ordinary houses have yet been excavated, so there is still an awful lot of work to be done. Hopefully, we will make a return visit one day to see how they are getting on!

Treviso – A Gem of a Walled City in North-East Italy

I love living in a city where men still wear cloaks - not just to accompany the 'Phantom of the Opera' style masks worn at carnival time, but throughout the winter months as an effective and stylish way to keep out the cold. The sartorial elegance of the residents is one of the things which has struck me most during my time living here in Treviso. People watching takes on a whole new enjoyment when you are faced with costumes which wouldn't have been out of place in the city 200 years ago!

Of course, the fashions are not the only throwback to earlier times. Architectural historical reminders are everywhere. Treviso has been a fortified town since the days of the Romans. Today, the historic city centre is surrounded by 4km of near-complete, ultra-thick walls dating from the 16th century. These are punctuated by three hugely impressive gates which offer triumphant entrances to the old city. The walls themselves provide a perfect circular walk to be enjoyed at any time of the year. In places you walk inside the walls, at times on top of them and only rarely is it necessary to endure the traffic noise when walking outside.

This is another joy of Treviso - a virtually traffic-free centre. You are able to walk around the cobbled streets taking in the marvellous frescoed houses, porticos, Venetian villas, old mills, and quiet canals. At the heart of the city is Piazza dei Signori - a truly year-round outdoor sitting room where Trevigiani (inhabitants of Treviso) like to meet and ciacolare (chew the fat). There are two large eating establishments in the square, a bar and a pizza restaurant, both of which have numerous outdoor tables, but locals are just as likely to be seen standing in groups chatting - sometimes for several hours at a time!

The main thouroughfare of old Treviso is Calmaggiore which links the main square to the Duomo or cathedral. The city's main shops are to be found under the beautiful porticos of this street as well as in the pretty little alleyways which lead off it.

The city is famous locally for several magnificent churches as well as for its cuisine. Sadly, if the name Treviso registers at all with foreign visitors to our corner of Italy, it is usually only as the airport which offers a cheaper gateway to Venice than the bigger Aeroporto Marco Polo, serviced as it is by low-cost airline, Ryanair. Sometimes I wish that more people would pay us a visit instead of heading directly from the airport to the railway station or vice-versa, but, then again, perhaps Treviso would lose some of its innate Italian charm if it were to become a more prominent fixture on the tourist trail.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Blog4NZ - World Teacher's Blog Resurrected!

I can't believe that almost two years have elapsed since I last blogged here! It hasn't been that I haven't wanted to, or that I haven't had anything to say - it's more to do with external factors that are not worth going into now! Suffice it to say that I have been inspired by Craig Martin from the indietavelpodcast.com to resurrect my blog in support of his blog4NZ initiative.

Blog4NZ is a grassroots blogging and social media effort to support New Zealand travel in the wake of the Canterbury earthquake. It is a worldwide blogging event happening on March 21 - March 23, 2011. I urge everyone to get behind this worthy cause. You can find out more here: http://blog4nz.indietravelmedia.com/.
I've never visited New Zealand (although it's fairly high on my bucket list!), so why am I so keen to support this cause? Well, our youngest nephew was living in Christchurch both at the time of the first quake and also this most recent one. For his family back in the UK and here in Italy, it's been a really worrying time, but, for Tom, although terrified after living through the first quake, it was a real 'coming of age' experience and he stayed to help with the clean-up operation in his adopted city. I am currently interviewing him about his experiences and will be posting his thoughts as part of Blog4NZ.