Jul 11, 2017
By Cherie Lee
Return to New Zealand
I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.
“Sorry?” She says.
“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.
She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.
‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’
My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.
I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?
My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.
I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.
We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.
“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.
“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.
Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.
115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.
Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.
The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.
Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.
Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.
You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.
We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.
Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.
Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.
The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.
Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.
I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.
I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.
I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.
There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.
I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.
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About the Author
Cherie Lee is a writer from Sydney, Australia. She loves bushwalking and G&T's.