I landed in Christchurch late on Valentine’s Day, Daniel patiently waiting for me outside my hostel when I got there. The priorities of the next few days, in order, were getting a dark beer on tap, a shower longer than two minutes, finding a new place to stay the next day, getting a decent cup of coffee and going to the beach. We took the bus out to Sumner beach, a sweet little cliffside town with a U-turn cave inside a rock (creatively named, I believe, Cave Rock) where the ocean waves would pull little tidal rivers back and forth between the two mouths.
Daniel and our friend Eric spent a few hours flying a kite up and down the barely windy waterfront, the teenage boys at the beach trying to pretend they weren’t interested in the rainbow kite for the too-cool-for-school girls with them. We spent the next few days with embarrassing inverted-bandit-mask sunburns, having apparently forgotten what the sun does to exposed skin.
We left for Wanaka a few days later, staying with friends in a beautiful house constructed of hay, clay and yellow paint, with a fat juicy vegetable garden, trampoline and wood-burning pizza oven on the patio. I hadn’t realized until I got there that I really missed having the ability to cook at Pole—so while our friends were out tumbling headfirst down whitewater currents and mountain biking, I made bagels and bread and curry soup with a little orange pumpkin from the yard.
We were home making lunch on Tuesday when one of the other women staying at the house called out, “did you feel that?” We hadn’t, and debated for a bit whether it was an earthquake or not. We checked the news a bit later and realized that there had indeed been an earthquake, the epicenter being in Christchurch, that the city was completely in shambles, and that many people had died, with the numbers of fatalities climbing rapidly.
That evening was a nervous one spent checking the informal shared spreadsheet of the 500 or so ice people in the Christchurch area that someone from McMurdo had created, detailing who had seen whom at the CDC, who had posted online that they were okay, who was already home, and those people who were unaccounted for. The really hard thing was that there were plenty of people who you shouldn’t have been able to get in touch with, who had been planning on tramping in the mountains for two weeks and who might not even know that there had been an earthquake.
The earthquake was far more devastating than the previous one in September of last year, even though it was a lower magnitude; the epicenter was more shallow and closer to the city. Temporary morgues were set up in the streets, the city unable to deal with the numbers of dead. Hundreds of people have died, many are still missing, even now, and hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses are lost.
And now, everywhere we go we’re hearing more earthquake stories, where people were and what they saw. Daniel’s coworker Pablo, whose wife and children had just met him in Christchurch after a long season at Pole, lost everything he had in the hotel, half collapsed and listing so severely that no one was allowed to enter; including his passport, newly stamped from all seven continents. We overheard a woman with her teenage daughter explaining to some tourists in Kaikoura, “We’re on extended holiday while we find somewhere to work and go to school… and live.”
We met a German couple on the West Coast who had been at the New Brighton beach surfing; the woman was in her underwear when the earthquake hit, her partner in his wetsuit, and amid the terrible noise and shaking the surf rental owner came running up to them yelling, “Gas! Gas!,” because the line had broken, but they didn’t know what that word meant in English. They tried to describe to us the total chaos and panic that the Chirstchurch suburb was exploding into: of changing out of his wetsuit in the middle of the street because there was nowhere else to go and wondering if he needed to return it, running out of gas for the car and not being able to get any, camping in public parks with other refugees. Not having any clean water or food, and seeing abandoned groceries behind walls of broken glass; “well,” he explained, “the thought crosses your mind at that point.”
One night they stayed in a park with a man who was playing guitar and sharing bread and beer given to him by a shop owner leaving town, talking about the comfort that the music and the friendly gesture provided them, thirsty and scared and trapped. In the end they finally left the city when a police officer siphoned the petrol from his own vehicle with his mouth—they praised him, their hero who helped them finally escape the madness.
We spent the rest of the week in Wanaka feeling really fortunate to have been away during the earthquake, leaving a little bit more time for snuggling before getting up in the morning, watching the evening news and looking vicariously through the rubble for landmarks and familiar faces.