Thursday, 15 May 2014

Frightening Memories Of A Turkish Coal Mine

The recent mine tragedy in Turkey brought back vivid memories of my own nightmarish trip down a Turkish coal mine many years ago.  I was teaching English in a high school in Zonguldak, a major coal mining centre on the Black Sea coast, and noticed that one of the 40 students in my class would invariably sleep soundly during my lessons.

            One day I approached this boy of about 16 and said I realized my classes were not all that exciting and that he probably had limited use for the English classes required by the state curriculum. Nonetheless, I added, could he please avoid snoring quite so loudly? The other kids chuckled at my naïve and snide witticism.

            He was deeply embarrassed and apologized profusely. “It’s just that I work after school, my teacher, and don’t have much time to sleep.”

            I assumed he worked in a store or restaurant in the town. Not at all. He explained that he had to work down in one of the deep coal mines in the evening shift. His father had been killed in a mining accident and he was now the sole provider for his family. His shift finished only a few hours before school began. It was a minor miracle that he showed up to school at all. This explained why he always seemed to have a slightly dirty face and neck. It was very hard to scrub away all the accumulated coal dust every morning.

            Now it was my turn to be deeply embarrassed. To make up for my earlier gaffe I said I would like to join him one evening to see just what he had to go through. He was shocked and pleased that someone would actually like to experience what so many men in the town had to do every day. He said he would try to arrange it with the foreman and that I should show up at the mine entrance around 9 pm.

            I knew absolutely nothing about mining and blithely agreed to be there. How bad could it be, I asked myself? Bad -- very, very bad I found out later. The other teachers I spoke with said I was completely nuts. They edged away and gave me a look usually reserved for soldiers going out on a mission where the chances of survival were slim to none.

            The foreman at the mine entrance was sceptical about letting me in the mine, and finally agreed only after I promised to stay close to him. I looked around at the other men who had gaunt, resigned expressions on their faces as they helped me suit up and fasten the light to my helmet. The first 50 – 100 meters of our journey under the mountain were easy. The tunnel was tall and we could walk standing up. Then the tunnel began to shrink, and shrink, and shrink. Finally we were on our hands and knees crawling along with our heads bumping up against the ceiling of rock. By this time I was sweating buckets.
Haunting face of a Zonguldak coal miner
            We kept crawling for what seemed like hours, but in reality must have been only about 20 minutes. Then we came to an intersection with another tunnel where we were met by a billowing cloud of coal dust. I peered around the corner and could just make out about six men shovelling coal onto a small conveyor belt that ran outside the mine. I couldn't tell how they got the coal off the face of the mine. I could only hope that they had a mechanical digger and didn't have to resort to pick axes.

             While all this was going on rocks and pebbles kept falling on our heads. I was convinced this was the end and someone was going to have to tell my mother that her youngest child was buried under several hundred meters of a Turkish mountain. The men around me took all this in stride. One even said it was more or less normal. If this is what passes for normal what, I asked myself, would he consider abnormal?

            The foreman sensed that I had seen enough at this point and signalled that I could lie on the conveyor belt and head back outside. I took another look at the scene around me with head lamps shining dimly through the dust and men sweating in the heat as they loaded coal, and I gratefully took my place behind mounds of coal for the ride to fresh air.

            Once outside I took a look at my reflection in a lighted window and didn’t recognize myself. Covered from head to toe in coal dust with red-rimmed eyes I looked like something the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch would have created. To this day I refuse to go anywhere near a cave or other hole in the ground.

            After that experience I told my student he no longer had to come to class. His A grade was guaranteed. He should use the time to get some sleep.

            I lost touch with him after returning to America. Later I read of a mining disaster near Zonguldak that claimed the lives of 263 miners. I could only pray he was not among them.

            All these images came rushing back as I read about the latest mine disaster that looks to claim a record number of lives. I am in no position to comment on the safety precautions or lack thereof in this particular mine, but Prime Minister Erdoğan’s remarks were notable for their incredible insensitivity. He was immediately defensive and claimed that these types of accidents happened all over the world. Unfortunately for him the particular example he used in Great Britain occurred in the 19th century, which is perhaps where he is most comfortable. 
Erdogan adviser kicking protester

And one of his young advisers disgraced himself by kicking, yes, kicking another protester who was held down by two soldiers at the mine site. Undoubtedly Erdoğan will defend this fool’s reaction by saying he was ‘provoked’ or that the protester in question was a ‘terrorist militant’ who was trying to turn the mine disaster into a political statement. And indeed this is exactly what senior ruling party officials and their friends in the media tried to do. It would be comical if it weren't indicative of the lengths they will go to deny reality. 
One wonders if repeated images of the advisor’s neat black shoe slamming into the downed protester will finally wipe some of the Teflon off Erdoğan and the narrow group of arrogant sycophants around him. And will people start to question whether the country's miserable worker safety record is symptomatic of the fragile foundations of the recent economic growth? It will be interesting to see what impact, if any, this latest mining tragedy has Erdogan's political plans.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Rewards Of Leaving The Beaten Path

One of the pleasant surprises of visiting the Greek island of Andros in May this year was seeing the number of foreign tourists taking advantage of the island’s unique system of ancient foot paths that wind around the steep hills and down into the deep, heavily forested ravines cut by rushing streams.

           I came across one happy group of about 15 British hikers with what looked like an average age of 55+ resting briefly on an ancient bridge before setting off up a steep cliff walk and then down again to a small seaside town where they were promised a good lunch. I didn't have the heart to tell them that lunch was a good two hours away. At least they had a coach arranged to bring them back.
            In previous years I usually had these trails to myself as I struggled to follow poorly marked paths that should be there, only to have to them disappear and then re-appear on the other side of thick thorn bushes. It took a fair amount of perseverance and bush-whacking to make your way along the trails. But the perseverance was always rewarded with glorious views, fields full of brightly coloured wild flowers, beautifully constructed stone bridges, stone walls and stone paths, and poignant reminders of former settlements and water mills.

            Now, thanks largely to a group of volunteers organized into a non-profit project called Andros Routes, many of these trails are being cleared, adequately signposted and maintained. The group recently published an excellent guide called Hiking On Andros that not only describes several of the trails but also discusses the rich and unique ecology of the island.

            The guide notes that Andros, in the Cycladic group of islands in the North Aegean, has had human settlement since the 4th millennium B.C. Although there has been considerable depopulation since World War II there are still more than 80 inhabited settlements today. Many of the older residents of the islands can recall when the extensive network of trails was the only link between these settlements. You can still find people who remember taking these trails from remote villages to school in one of the main towns.

            Andros has also been well known since antiquity for its water supplies, Histories of the region are filled stories of seafarers, including Odysseus, stopping at the island to replenish their water barrels. The scenery is incredibly varied with high, steep hills, fertile valleys, small forests and numerous beaches – many of them inaccessible by car.

            Although the island now has a fairly extensive network of paved and semi-paved roads, the best way by far to see and appreciate the ecological diversity and the wide variety of rural architecture is to put on a sturdy pair of hiking shoes, long trousers, a hat and take to the trails.

            And there is no better way to explore these paths than with one of the leaders of Andros Routes, Olga Karayiannis. Olga has walked over most of the trails on the islands and has a deep appreciation of the history and biodiversity of Andros. I have had the exhausting pleasure of joining a small group of friends on two walks with Olga who has shown us places unknown even to the locals.
View from the beginning of the trail
           Last weekend she led a small group from the remote mountain village of Vourkoti to the lovely beach at Ahla on the east side of the island. We could see the beach from the village and foolishly assumed the walk couldn’t be that difficult. Wrong! Ten kilometres and four tiring, but fascinating, hours later I staggered from a beautiful grove of plane trees along a river bed onto the beach where, mercifully, one of our friends had arranged a boat to take us back to town.
Grove of plane trees near the beach

            The path was steep, mostly unmarked except for small red dots on some rocks, and was fairly difficult in parts. The scenery was stunningly beautiful, unlike anything one normally associates with a Greek island. We passed countless rare plants that Olga identified for us. There were well built terraces and old stone buildings. Ultimately we descended to the bottom of the ravine and came on a large, well-built stone bridge that passed over a stream lined with large flat rocks. No one seemed to know exactly how old the bridge was. It is in the middle of the forest and seems to come from nowhere going to nowhere. The only possible explanation was that it was associated with very old mining activity nearby.
The well hidden ancient bridge
         From there we struggled up to the monastery of Agios Nikolaos where we refilled our water bottles and rested for a few minutes before setting off for the beach that didn't seem to be getting any closer.

            As we came closer to the elusive beach Olga led us into a small farm house where a friend of hers had prepared some delicious unsalted goat’s cheese and traditional lemon sweets to give us energy for the last 20 minutes of the walk.
The goal of the beach at Ahla

            Many of the islands I have visited on both the Ionian and Aegean sides of Greece have their own charm. Travellers willing to go beyond the crowded beaches with head-splitting techno noise will be well rewarded with a new appreciation for the history, the ecology and diversity of this unique part of the world.

            Hikers interested in more information for treks on Andros can go the website or send an email to The group can also be reached by calling +30-697-733-4334.