Friday, August 19, 2011

Attempting to Leave Christchurch

On the morning of our flight, there was a slight dusting of snow.  Nothing serious enough to stay on the ground.  I made a comment to Andrew that I hoped this wouldn’t affect our flight.  He told me not to worry as our flight wasn’t for another 14 hours.  We dropped off the car as scheduled and settled in for our long wait.  The airport isn’t very big and you only get 30 minutes of free wi-fi so we had to entertain ourselves with our books and the 3 or 4 restaurants we could eat at, and the 1 newsstand.   Late in the afternoon we noticed it had started snowing but we weren’t really concerned as all the flights were taking off as per schedule so there was no reason for ours to be delayed.  By 11pm the snow coming down looked serious but we had already checked in at that point and were already waiting to board the plane.  We boarded the plane as per schedule and waited to take off.  And waited.  And waited some more.  Out the window the snow was a full snow storm and I was anxious to see the de-icing machines as the wings were completely covered in snow.  Again Andrew told me not to worry.  Around 30 minutes after we were supposed to have taken off the captain announced they were waiting for a decision on whether or not our plane needed to be de-iced.  We could see people walking around and inspecting the wings.  We saw 2 other planes leave so we didn’t have any cause for concern.  An hour later, the captain came on again and announced we would be getting de-iced but the airport had to remove the snow from the runways and they were waiting for the snow removal machines to arrive in approx 30 minutes and then it would take another hour to clear off the snow.  That meant we would be taking off at 3am.  3 hours later than planned.  Everyone groaned but there was nothing we could do but sit and wait.  I felt bad for a mother who was sitting 2 rows up with a 1 year old boy.  He was not happy just sitting there and was fussy as any 1 year old would be at 1:30 in the morning.  She was obviously trying to get him to fall asleep but with the captain coming on the speaker every so often her efforts were in vain.    Finally around 2:30am she got him to fall asleep.  I had fallen asleep myself on Andrew’s lap as we had an empty seat beside us and one of us could recline.  At 3am the captain came on to tell us the flight has been cancelled due to bad weather (no kidding…the snow was piling up outside) and we had to de-board the aircraft.  They would provide us with more info shortly.  That’s when I felt really bad for the mom with the kid.  She had just gotten him to fall asleep and now she had to wake him up again.  She just looked deflated.

After we de-boarded Andrew and I went to lie down on a couple of sofas we found but half an hour later an announcement came on that our plane was delayed until 12pm the following day and we had to go through immigration again.  Those who lived in Christchurch were urged to go back home and come back again.  Those of us who didn’t, we would be spending a night at the airport.  Unfortunately they didn’t have any blankets to provide to us.  By the time we went through immigration, picked up our luggage and found a place to sit, it was 4:30am.  We got around an hour of sleep as it was freezing (the temperature was turned down at the airport overnight) and it wasn’t very comfortable sleeping in a sitting position.  We figured we would get sleep on the plane.  But we started getting worried in the morning when the snow was still falling and flights all around us were getting cancelled.  At noon we were told our flight was delayed to 5pm.  At 5pm we were told our flight was delayed until the following day.  During this whole time, we weren’t offered any food vouchers or any kind of good will gesture.  We were told we could not be given any accommodation as due to the earthquake and all the flight cancellations they had over the past couple of days, there was a shortage of hotel rooms in Christchurch.

Needless to say people were frustrated.  I found out from someone they were giving our blankets in another part of the airport and I ran to get them as I knew they would be gone quickly.  I grabbed 4 just in case and they came in very handy during the night.  A lady who was on our flight and was sitting beside us had gotten the blankets earlier and some extra pillows so she shared with us.  We found a shower in the handicapped bathroom so in the evening, when the airport was shut down to everyone but us, we made use of it.  That night I had gathered up some stools to make a bed for myself while Andrew slept on the seat of one of the booth chairs.  We were woken up, quite rudely, by airport staff at 4am and told we had to get up as the airport was now open and operating.  The cleaning lady was furious as everyone had made up some kind of makeshift bed during the night from chairs, stools and anything else they could find, and she walked around telling anyone who would listen it would take her all day to get it back to the way it was.  At this point I had no sympathy to share as Andrew and I would be spending a total of 50 hours in the airport and I didn’t know what she thought the options were for the people who were stuck there.

In the morning the sun was shining and we were all excited as it would melt the snow.  But we were worried again as all the morning flights were cancelled again.  The sun just wasn’t working fast enough to melt the ice.  Overall the amount of snow that fell wasn’t more than 2-3cm, and we knew in Toronto the airport wouldn’t even consider cancelling any flights for this small amount of snow, but apparently Christchurch is not ready for any kind of snow.   Andrew talked to a couple of police officers and they told him they never get snow so I guess it’s understandable they don’t have the proper equipment to clear it.  It was still frustrating for us though.  Luckily, our flight was at 12pm so the sun did its job and melted the snow on the runways and we were finally able to take off.  Everyone clapped and cheered as soon as the tires left the ground.


On the way to Christchurch from Mount Cook we stopped at Lake Tekapo and took some photos of the church that’s very iconic to New Zealand.  We arrived in Christchurch late in the afternoon and started looking for a place to stay.  This is easier said than done as the whole city centre is closed off since the earthquake in February and it’s very hard navigating the city now.  The maps we had were all “pre-earthquake” so anytime we would turn down a street we had no idea if it would be blocked off or not (which in most cases it was blocked off) and to add to the confusion, Christchurch has, like a lot of cities, a system of one way streets.  We finally had to stop and call the hostel we were planning on staying at and ask what the best way to reach them was.

After check-in we went grocery shopping and made some dinner.  By that time it was too late to go and explore the city and the night life is really non-existent since the earthquake as well.  Not that we were feeling up to it anyway.  We had spent a good portion of the night prior battling Andrew’s insomnia.  Insomnia on its own is annoying but combined with a squeaky bunk bed in a dorm room can drive a person insane.  I’m usually very supportive of Andrew and his trouble with sleep, but that night I was ready to scream at the top of my lungs, I was so frustrated.  And if it wasn’t for other people sleeping in the room, I probably would have yelled at him.  The squeaking of the bed every time he tossed and turned drove me to the brink of insanity.  I finally asked him to switch beds with me, as I thought mine might squeak less, and it actually worked!  I think it was 2am by the time we had finally gone to sleep.  So when we arrived in Christchurch we just wanted a quite place to sleep.

After dinner we did some laundry and watched some shows on our laptop.  We woke up at 5:39am to find our bed and, really, our whole world shaking.  We were experiencing an earthquake!  It was a very surreal feeling.  You hear about it on the news and what it will feel like, but experiencing it is completely different.  I felt like it was absolute silence around us and all you could hear was this kind of whirring sound.  Kind of like a vibrating bed (not that I know too much about that J).  Andrew says he could hear the water splashing in the water bottles on our night stand.  It only lasted 10 – 20 seconds.  The weird thing is I wasn’t even scared and went right back to sleep once it stopped.  Tara called first thing in the morning and told us it was a 5.1 earthquake.  We had just talked the night before and she said all we had left to experience in NZ was an earthquake in Christchurch so it seems we have now experienced everything extreme NZ has to offer.
The next day we woke up quite late and had breakfast at noon.  We then went to find a post office and to buy an external hard drive.  Tara is flying to Canada in August and she’s going to take some things back for us since sending a 5kg package from NZ to Canada costs over $230!  And sending a 5kg package from Christchurch to Auckland costs $7.  I was worried she wouldn’t have room to take it with her but she’s taking two almost empty suitcases with her so she can fill them up with stuff from Canada. Her and I have had a few conversations about things you can’t get here, or you can but at an incredible price.  I don’t blame her for stocking up when she goes back.  One of the things we were sending was the hard drive with a backup of all our pictures to date.  We were worried that something might happen to our laptop and we’d lose them all.  So even though it wasn’t really in our budget we bought the hard drive, backed up our laptop and shipped it to her.

That night we drove around the city and witnessed a huge blazing fire.  It was in the closed off part of the city but it was near where the fence was so we could see it quite clearly.  Not sure how the fire started since it was an abandoned building, but we’re speculating it was probably set on fire to claim the insurance money.  Our clothes ended up smelling like smoke for the rest of the day.  We also went to see where our rental car needed to be dropped off and where the airport is.  And then again back to the hostel to eat dinner and watch some TV.  Really, in between all the scary and extreme stuff, we led quite a boring life in NZ.

The following day we decided to walk the perimeter of the closed off section of the city.  Driving around you get a sense of the damage as a lot of the buildings, even outside of the “red zone”, are condemned and ruined, but walking around you just get a feeling of doom.  It’s similar to being in an end of the world movie.  The streets are completely abandoned.  You do not see one single person and the buildings are standing completely empty, with lifeless cars or machinery out front.  In February, we had watched the results of the earthquake on TV in Sydney, along with the rest of the world, and you get a sense of what it must be like, but once you’re there, it’s a completely different experience.  It’s not 1 building that’s collapsed or 1 block that has been blocked off, it’s the whole downtown area.  I don’t know this for sure, but I think it’s unprecedented for a whole city centre to be shut down indefinitely.  Think what that does to the economy.  The businesses are not operating so they’re not making any money, and therefore they are not paying any taxes.  So not only is the city not obtaining any taxes, they also have to pay for the teardown, cleanup and rebuilding of the city.  And it’s not just 1 or 2 buildings that need to be demolished, it’s dozens.  The scale of this operation is unimaginable.  There is a couple of high-rise building, and one especially, that is heavily slanted and will have to come down.   On the perimeter, posted to the fence, are flowers and notes from loved ones to the ones who have died.  It’s really easy to think of the earthquake and think of the people who died as just a number, but when you see a note from someone whose sister has died, saying she really misses her, it helps you to associate that with a real person.  These people were mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles.  They left home that day and never returned.  They died in the rubble that is now Christchurch.  It was emotional walking around.  And surreal at the same time.  It didn’t feel real.  Real cities are not empty.  They are full of people and full of life.  They are full of traffic jams and people fighting for parking spots.  There is none of that here.  And most likely, for another 5 or so years.

I had a hard time wrapping my head around it all.  How do you not lose hope?  How do you continue? Where do you get your strength?  When I was looking at it all, taking it all in, I have to admit it feels a bit hopeless to me.  Why bother rebuilding?  What’s the point?  There will be another earthquake.  Christchurch lies on a fault line so it’s guaranteed.  Why invest all that energy into rebuilding it?  It’s almost like a bad relationship.  You invest all that time and energy with the hope it will work out but you know it never will.  You just don’t know when the next shakeup will be.  But the people of Christchurch have not given up hope.  Yes, there are those who have left the city because they are fed up.  But there are also those who believe, who have to believe, the city will once again be rebuilt.  They are not losing hope.  And I think we need more people like that in the world.  Because if it was all cynical people like me, where would we be?

That night we packed our bags and got everything ready for our flight the next day.  We were leaving a lot of stuff behind at the hostel for other people to use if they wanted.  We knew we wouldn’t need our sleeping bags anymore, or our gloves and hats.  Maybe others could use them.   We were getting excited about going to Indonesia.  I was looking forward to the heat and getting back to a country where we could finally afford to start doing things.  And I was looking forward to the beach.  I was a little apprehensive about the craziness that is Asia but I knew I would adjust soon enough.  The pros outweigh the cons by a long shot.

We had to wake up early the next day and get ready for our flight to Indonesia.  We had to drop off our car at 10:30am.  Unfortunately our flight was not until midnight so we would have a lot of time to waste at the airport.  And then a 16 hour journey, before we would finally land in Bali.