Most land-based Southeast Asians (like me) can’t quite comprehend a world in which the earth itself can suddenly start groaning, moving and in the most extreme cases, such as in Palu two weeks ago, turn into molten mud (the technical term is "liquefaction").
Before I moved to Indonesia some fifteen years ago, my only experience of an earthquake was a mild tremor in Kuala Lumpur when I was seven years old. According to my mother - I slept through the whole thing - even as our television (they had wheels back then) rolled gently across the room. There were no fatalities.
Maritime Southeast Asia (Philippines and Indonesia) is quite different. Situated atop the "Ring of Fire", a chain of unstable tectonic plates, these two archipelagic nations are constantly roiled by seismic activity.
Karim speaks to 53-year-old Nyoman Gerti and granddaughter Gita after Gunung Merapi’s eruption in November 2017. Ceritalah ASEAN
A 120-year-old woman evacuated to Tembuku Bangli camp in Bali. Ceritalah ASEAN
Mount Merapi in mid rumble, spewing ashes all around it. Its 2006 and 2010 eruption have wreaked havoc on the island. Joseph Tertia, Ceritalah ASEAN
Evacuees staying positive after Mount Agung’s eruption. Ceritalah ASEAN
For Indonesia, "Alam" (or Nature) has been a constant presence, if not a threat. Over the past decade and a half, there have been countless tremors, eruptions and tsunamis - so much so that my office administrator in Jakarta chose ground-floor premises because she was too afraid of being stuck in a high-rise building in the event of an earthquake.
My notebooks are full of first-hand accounts, stories of ordinary people battling the elements, coming to terms with loss and then rebuilding life. Each of the experiences is different - there is nothing constant, with the exception of the extreme fear and helplessness felt by the victims at the moment of impact.
Indeed ‘Alam’ in Indonesia is highly unpredictable.
There are times when it appears to be playing with mankind, toying with humanity like a cat with a mouse just before it delivers the final coup de grace. For example, back in 2006 as Central Java’s iconic Gunung Merapi threatened to erupt and all eyes were focused on the lava flows and ash being emitted, the tectonic plates suddenly shifted, sending a whiplash-like earthquake through Bantul’s placid communities far to the south. More than 5000 unprepared villagers died from the impact.
Similarly, earlier this year as the Balinese were preparing for the revered volcano, Gunung Agung to erupt, emptying the many villages and farms surrounding the smouldering presence, the Ring of Fire surprised us once again by unleashing its full force on the neighbouring island of Lombok - wreaking havoc on unsuspecting farmers and claiming 564 lives.
The stories are hair-raising and heart-breaking. In Aceh, one interviewee described to me how he was engulfed by a torrent of filthy salt-water (in the 2004 tsunami) and was swept along with garbage, cats, dogs, trees, cars and houses, losing his youngest daughter in the chaos.
In Bantul, after the 6.3 magnitude earthquake in 2006, local farmers described the nausea they felt as the earth itself swayed and shook like the open sea mid-storm. Indeed, I have tried my best to understand what it must be like when the land - something we take for granted as solid and immutable - is transformed into a writhing mass. Having experienced the mildest of tremors, I can only relate the stories of others.
Of course, the extreme disruption is matched by the extraordinary fertility of the soil after the earthquakes and eruptions. In the case of Gunung Kelud that erupted four years ago, spewing over 160 million cubic metres of nutrient-rich ash into the skies above East Java and closing down commercial aviation and airports for weeks, harvests in the region have been prodigious. According to my intern, Destya Darmawan whose family farms in nearby Kediri, in the years after the eruption of ash, their pineapple crop doubled and the rice harvest was 50% higher than normal.
But a growing familiarity with natural disasters doesn’t make the loss of life, disability, injury and destruction of property any easier to accept. If anything, it makes you understand all the more keenly the importance of faith and the constancy of religious practice in Indonesia - especially on the Island of Java. With the possibility of death always so close at hand, we need to keep up a constant stream of offerings, prayers and incantations. We can never just give up.
No one can ever be certain that the next outburst from Alam will be like the last.
And indeed, the earthquake and tsunami in Central Sulawesi has proved once again, Alam’s capacity to surprise and shock in the way whole chunks of Palu were reduced to molten mud that swallowed up communities, homes, churches and mosques like quicksand.
Essentially, tectonic activity exerted pressure that loosened the earth’s soil, making it fluid. Previously steady ground turned into a land tsunami, sucking in entire villages in waves. Plots of drier land ended up being carried across the tumult and deposited hundreds of meters from their origin. Liquefaction is Alam’s newest and deadliest trick.
If you live atop the Ring of Fire, you should never falter in your faith because no one can anticipate what will turn up next from Nature's arsenal of tricks. However much we learn, Alam will always reduce us - mere mortals - to supplicants.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.