PsychoGeography #28: The night the earth moved

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The Independent Online

My second ride on Ceres's capacious back came 17 years later.

My second ride on Ceres's capacious back came 17 years later. In the winter of 2001, my friend John and I were in Konya, Central Anatolia, to attend the Mevlevi Festival where the dervishes famously whirl. There had been much derision concerning the festival in the tourist literature we'd read. Apparently the "dervishes" weren't the real, impoverished, Sufi thing, but mere hirelings. It was true that the gig was held in a basketball stadium and appeared to be sponsored by a Turkish washing machine company called Arçelik, but for all that, the whirling quite spun us out. There was this, and there was the general austerity of cold-comfort Konya, a city of half-a-million-odd souls in the grip of Ramadan, as literally dry and dusty as it was metaphorically dry. John, having downed the sole can of beer provided in his minibar within an hour of arrival, tiptoed softly along the corridor to tap on my door and cop mine.

One evening we were sitting in the lobby of our hotel, the Balikcilar - a heavy joint, all shiny marble and knobbly stonework - when the divan we were sitting on was kicked by the gods from beneath. It felt as if this chunky leatherette banquette had transmogrified into a waterbed. The quake lasted for about a minute, then the lobby emptied in seconds - this was a region where people knew about earthquakes - and John and I found ourselves standing on a roundabout idly contemplating a bizarre bed of decorative cabbages.

At the time, the tremor failed to impinge. After all, we'd been in the grip of vicarious religious fervour ever since arriving in Turkey. It wasn't until the following evening, after a 300km drive into Cappadocia, when we saw on the BBC World Service that the earthquake had felled a minaret back in Konya and killed six people. I now found myself in the bizarre position of having escaped death in a natural disaster, only to be informed of the fact by people a thousand miles away in the Aldwych.

But anyway, Cappadocia itself was also bizarre. This was a landscape that looked as if it had suffered a peculiar vermiculation, bored into by the very nematodes of history. Up here on the high Anatolian plateau, troglodytes had been tunnelling into the ground for millennia: there were meant to be whole cities constructed souterrain, in which the natives had waited out the depredations of whichever invading army - Greeks, Romans, Persians, Ottomans - happened to be marching through at the time. Perhaps, I mused, it was one such legion of transients, cleverly tricked into tramping along a handy fissure, whose ghosts were now perturbing the earth?

Central Turkey had the look of antiquity about it. Even the modern settlements had the appearance of rime, as if their substance had crystallised out of the crust they stood on. Yet as subsequent earthquakes in Ankara and along the shores of the Black Sea would so disastrously confirm, contemporary Turkey was a society whose urbanity was constructed out of dangerously substandard concrete: powdery, friable stuff, readily pulverised by the slightest shake. Personally, I blamed the oblong shape of the country. After Nepal, Turkey is the most oblong country I've ever visited, but a glance at any reasonably good map will soon tell you that oblong countries have a high incidence of natural disasters and usually fairly grim human-rights records as well. Chile, Israel, Togo, Portugal ... this list is by no means exhaustive - or even fair - but when it comes to whacko theories there's no reason why psychogeographers can't get in on the act.

Anyway, to get back to Cappadocia, it had been a gruelling day's drive. As we'd ascended the plateau from Konya in our rental Fiat, I'd begun to notice a peculiar, prismatic distortion beginning in my left eye, which then spread gradually to the right. It was as if some sadistic ocular surgeon has inserted a prism into my retina, which was refracting the harsh light into swirling, kaleidoscopic patterns. I couldn't bear to tell John about it, because he might insist on driving. I don't do passenger.

There was this, and there was also the knowledge that this wasn't the first time I'd experienced the distortion. In fact, it had happened a couple of times before when I'd been ascending Scottish mountains. I'd be fine up to 3,000 feet, and then - bingo! - my eyes would turn into children's toys. Within hours of my descent, a kind of clarity would return. Sitting that night in the lobby of our troglodyte hotel, watching the earthshaking news from Bush House, it impinged on me that perhaps my eye problem was also an act of God. God wanted me to stay down, or even go lower, that way I wouldn't escape the retributive ruckling of his premier creation.