Saturday, June 4, 2011

A visit to Christchurch

Yesterday I flew to Christchurch for a work-related visit to CPIT. Despite it being my first trip to the South Island, I opted not to take my camera, for fear of being ghoulish. It was a sobering visit. At first glance, the place seems very normal. The taxi drive from the airport into the city gave glimpses of homes under repair, but nothing too unusual, apart from a relatively high number of patched or missing chimneys. The road winds through Hagley Park, which is a large area filled, at the moment, with the with trees  carrying the last of the autumn colour, and people doing normal things like pushing prams and walking dogs- hard to reconcile with the images of people camping out there in the hours after the quake. 

Arriving in the central city though, breaks the illusion. The first thing, and the thing that struck me most, was the number of buildings with florescent orange, spray-painted, 'clear' notices with dates and initials on them... notices for searchers that the building had been checked for the dead and injured. Many of the buildings are red-stickered (no-entry, awaiting demolition), and I wonder about the people who went into them in the days that followed the quake, risking their own lives if one of the 5000-odd subsequent tremors were to strike whilst they were inside.

The taxi driver also undermines the illusion of normalcy. He talks endlessly about the quake. (It seems everyone does. Snippets of conversation heard during the day all seem to have the quake as a theme:  how they are coping, what they will do if there's another big shake that brings down the building, why they won't use elevators any more....) He adds another aspect of realism to what, for me, has been, until now, a largely academic understanding of what it all has meant. He talks about realising that he can't have faith in the ground he stands on any more... of how it feels  like he is standing on 'porridge' that will one day shake hard enough for him to sink. I found that oddly disturbing - solid ground is a cliché that we assume is completely valid. What must it mean to no longer be able to rely on that? I can't imagine.

The CPIT building itself is largely unscathed. The nursing school I was visiting was on, I think, the 4th floor. One lecturer no longer uses the elevator - people had apparently been trapped for hours in elevators with no power and constant aftershocks.  We were shown to the office allocated to us and left to our work, with strict instructions to take handbags, laptops, etc., with us, even on trips to the loo, in case of another shake.  After the February quake, people were stranded outside of buildings with no phones, and no car keys, unable to contact family members to let them know they were safe.  The surfaces of the office are covered in a grey, gritty dust - school had only re-opened three weeks prior to our visit, following inspections by engineers, and many parts remain as they were in February, with fallen shelves and thick dust covering everything. Lecturers had been carrying on business as usual from their homes and Lincoln University, 20km away. The view from the office window is over Cathedral Square. The damaged cathedral looms whitely against the grey day, its corners sliced open. Men in a gantry hanging from a crane work on the dome despite the wind. Shipping containers are piled against one side to prevent further collapse.

Lunch brings more reality - lecturers chat casually of where they were and what they had done after the February quake (rushing to find children or having to walk long distances to get home because their cars were in no-go areas) and of life now with no flushing toilets and no heating (an awful thought at the start of a South Island winter). We followed this with a short walk down to the main areas of destruction, literally a few hundred metres from CPIT. Even looking at the streets in the red zone, it was hard to comprehend what had happened. It looked like the images of Beirut that we used to see on television. Although the streets have been largely cleared, the pavements are still buried under rubble. Buildings with missing facades show interiors of shops and apartments left exactly as they were that day, Marie Celeste style, as if people will come back and pick up their interrupted lives. The Grand Chancellor Hotel lurches overhead, more crooked than it seems on TV. Ironically, the artist supplies shop on the corner of the street is open for business - its window display contains decoupage papers of the tower of Pisa. Blinds and curtains flap through broken windows in the old city council buildings. Gusts of wind bring the smell of sewerage.  Angry posters protesting the delay in accessing these final streets, and urging a respectful rebuild of the high street, are everywhere. Faded memorials are poked through the wires of the barriers surrounding the red zone. Dead roses; artificial lotus flowers, some ribbons which probably held things that have blown away in the wind.  A still-legible card sends love to someone. Amazingly, traffic still flows through the streets.

Everywhere, there are people taking photographs. And it doesn't seem wrong. In a year, or two, or five, the city will be rebuilt, and in the way of humans, the world will have moved on and forgotten. To a large extent, it already has. We've already forgotten Japan and Haiti, and Pakistan, and Chile... It will be good to be reminded of the scars. Perhaps it will remind us to be human whilst we too sail calmly on.

Musee de Beaux Arts - W H Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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