Behind the cordon, a gigantic fence that circles the city, there is no movement. There are no people amongst the rubble, except the occasional rescue or army person. Birds don’t seem to want to go there and even rodents seem too nervous; I don’t see a single rat the entire time I am there. In the evening, no lights turn on in the high rises; it is like the heart beat of the city has gone. The cordon was put there to protect people from going in, while search and rescue and demolition efforts continue.
The cordon takes on an almost mythical status in the city. Rumours fly about rats the size of cats and of strange men who walk in the “Red Zone” at night, staying in abandoned hotel rooms, eating candy out of fridges. These make good stories but aren’t true.
In a way, after I left Christchurch I had psychologically put the whole experience there in a type of cordon, where I didn’t want to go. Emotionally things were too raw and I didn’t want to deal with the disappointing turn my life had taken. I just wanted nothing more to move on quickly.
But now I feel I don’t need to cordon, to ignore places or people anymore. I feel that I could just be. Because now I realize it’s not at all about “moving on” and pretending to be awesome…it’s about moving forward, without any cordons or emotional skeletons in my closet.
I wonder why we feel the need to cut things off completely, to have clear cut endings, to be so black and white. I promised myself that when I left I wouldn’t ever return to Christchurch to live; now I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.
I think the moment came to me when I take one weekend off with my buddy Eddy to go up to Castle Hill, one of my very favorite parts of New Zealand. The limestone rocks have been molded by wind for millennia and now have the most magnificent shapes. I feel a great sadness here; I find myself missing all of it. Christchurch. Lewis Pass. The Sign of the Packhorse. Magedelan Hut. The keas at Arthur’s Pass. The vicarage at Ross. All of my history with this place sort of flashes before me and I am humbled in front of this beautiful land. The land I hated. Because it had broken my heart.
“Being with you right now is kind of like being with a ghost.” Eddy says.
He is right.
I can’t bear the thought, in that moment, for this to be it for me and this place. I can’t bear the thought of never coming back, of not having it be a part of my life. It doesn’t sit well with my soul and I really feel the full grief. I grieve for what I had lost before I left and for what I had lost in the quake. I grieve for a future without my mountains. I grieve for my former life; for all that it was that I simply could not appreciate.
My love for this place is like the love you have for a reconciled relationship. After time apart, you can see more clearly the other person, what you lost and how important the person is to you. And I see things with the eyes of a wiser, gentler and more accepting person. I can see its beauty and its ugliness and know that in my heart this place is perhaps the city that I will love forever.
Speaking of reconciling old relationships, I spend some time with my ex mother in law, who is possibly the most lovely woman I have ever known. We went to Pomeroys one night and talked up a storm (actually I probably did most of the talking). Afterwards, she was dear enough to drop off some boxes stored at her mother’s house on my behalf.
I felt it was time to get my stuff back in one place (thanks Matt!) and not have to bother her anymore with the small stored details of my life. It also means now that our relationship has no pretense; if we want to send an email or stay in touch, for the simple sake of doing so, we can. She has been a magnificent part of my life to ten years and for that, I am truly thankful and hope that I can still email her or sit down with her to have a nice wine ten years from now.
It sits well with me to move the relationship in a positive way, so I can look back at all those years and feel proud of the time we spent together at family get togethers, holidays and weekend dinners, rather than be bitter or angry. I feel grateful to her that she let me do that; she showed me that I was a meaningful person in her life too and that she still cared about me and my life, even if things didn't go the way it was planned.
I work a lot still but as the weeks go by, my life becomes more routine with 9-5 shifts (ladies hours) and more manageable work load. I enjoy the work still and have a blast working with such an amazing variety of people. I am truly grateful for everything that each one of the them taught me over this time.
They say you can never go back, but I disagree. Things can never be the same, yes, but things can also be better, stronger, more resilient. Christchurch will never be the same; some things are gone forever. Even though I’m sad about those things, I am so grateful that I got to reconnect with the city that I had fallen in love with ten years ago. What I appreciate better still is that the city, like myself, has undergone massive change. And I believe that someday, it will be the better than before because of this trauma, just like me. Like I said, not everything happens for a reason but it’s how you what you do about it that is what matters.
I remember clearly the first day I arrived of the plane, ten years ago this year, to this beautiful Christchurch , looking out at the “Avon Creek” as I called it. Hey, it’s barely a river by North American standards. I remember looking around with curiosity and I was waiting for someone, I sat next to the Avon, near the old Chambers building under a weeping willow and just enjoying the September spring day.
It was, in fact, 11 September, 2001.
At that time too, I was thinking of my home, what would happen there, and the massive destruction that my country was facing. Life comes around in circles, swings and roundabouts, as they say in New Zealand.
It is just when I start to settle in again that I am called back to my new home in the Solomon Islands.
On Friday, I am certain I am staying on in Christchurch. I am so happy with this thought.
On Monday I get the word that no, I will be returning Wednesday. I burst into tears; I don’t want to leave while I still felt more work could be done.
On Monday evening, I am filled with dread at the idea of returning to the “Friendly” isles. I feel that my work isn’t done here and that I am pulled away too soon. I can’t sleep.
The problem with being in an emergency is that everything is immediate, it is now. And in the Solomons, every day could be considered an emergency, with very little infrastructure, access to health etc…but no one seems particularly bothered. It is a lesson of patience. Flying back was like downshifting from fifth gear at 200 kms an hour in a Ferrari to a leisurely pace of 20 kms an hour in a dirty old combi van in first gear…up a steep slope.
After a six hour delay in Brisbane, I get off the plane, pelted with big drops of tropical rain. It is dark and I, unfortunately, somehow manage to be at the back of the queue for immigration. I talk to a nun from Tonga. I’ve always been fascinated by nuns; maybe I’ll be one someday. Maybe. (I can hear you guys snorting from here, you know)…
I come back to a much changed Honiara. Marco is not returning from Rome. Mackenzie has moved into the house, as has Maggie, a lovely doctor. The house resembles the King Solomon Hotel with all the paintings now on the walls. I realize that my six weeks away, which seemed to fly by in Christchurch, did not go so quickly here in Honiara.
As we drive down the street in the morning, a puppy is crushed and killed by a combi van, while its sad mother looks on. There is a cholera outbreak in the Shortland Islands. I resume my two showers per day routine, along with the sweaty climb up the hill every afternoon after work.
Work also becomes routine again; am back to graphic design, writing and doing everything on a much more basic level. Gone are the amazing crew of people I worked with to make stuff happen. Hello me and my counter part, struggling away to get out a simple newsletter. But the work is good, if not as immediate or interesting. The issues here are long term, deep seeded and immense. It will take years to bring this nation up to even a semblance of development, like New Zealand.
I order a tuna sandwich at the Lime Lounge. After five minutes I check to see what is going on, why it was taking so long. The man had just started making it. I pace. I swear under my breath. I mean, how long does it take to make a freakin tuna sandwich, especially since I was the only person in line? I watch as he almost finishes my sandwich, only to pick up the phone, knife in hand to cut it and start talking away. He walks away from my sandwich, chatting in pidgin. Having up to here with him, I tell the lady at the counter to get me my sandwich. She tries to comply but that man pulls the knife away, still chatting away. Argh! It takes another five minutes to get my sandwich. Doesn’t this man know I have important stuff to do???
And then I remember. I am back in the Solomon Islands. Where relationships matter more than time, more than reports, more than the media. Everything stops when people talk story. Life slows down for me and I have to remember where I am at now.
I sit and look out at the ocean from my balcony. The table lizard (a small, little guy who I thought was a geiko but isn’t) pops his head up from beneath the slats, watching me. He pops his head up and goes back down. Over and over again he repeats his little game of “now you see me, now you don’t”, watching very carefully what I will do. Am I friend or foe? By the Tuesday, when my plate has a sticky, sweet dessert left overs on it, he feels free enough to slide on my plate and start licking. He stays there for quite some time, licking away. Definitely friend.
I feel guilty, in a way, to be back in this tropical paradise while my workmates and friends battle away in a broken city. But I also know that I’ll be back there soon, it’s only another six months at the most and I’ll be back in it.
I need this time for myself and I need to finish what I started.
Then I’ll be back, I promise.