It’s been a week exactly since the tectonic plates beneath Lyttleton Harbor brought Christchurch, New Zealand toppling down. The city’s famed cathedral spire lay crumbled in the town center, twenty two visitors feared crushed beneath it.
The stories keep coming. The 14 year old boy, on a local bus headed into town to plot how best to spend his birthday money; the bus is crushed; the boy, not heard from. The young woman trapped under her desk, texting her fiancé, who led rescuers to her then helped as they dug her out; they were married, as planned, three days later. The husband who survived the quake, then hoofed it over Bridle Path (the bridges & tunnels closed) to reach his family; “I’m OK. Walking. Home in 10,” he texted, just before he was struck and killed by boulders tumbling down during an aftershock. My heart breaks everytime I read another story, hear the latest fatality count.
Less than 24 hours before the earth shook, we walked those streets, exploring this quaint little city so proud of its ongoing recovery from last September’s quake. We frittered away the morning at the Boat House Café, Sacagawea and Dundee pedal boating and kayaking up and down the Avon, while Columbus and I enjoyed a scone and a cuppa. We’ve not heard the fate of that beautiful little boat house since.
Midday found us in Cathedral Square, Columbus drawn into the act by a unicycle-riding-juggling street performer with an inflated surgical glove on his head who needed a ‘big strong man” for his theatrics. That open-air stage now lay in heaps of rubble, the epicenter of mourning for this frightened little city.
As the afternoon wore on, the kids and I hopped a city bus back to the port in Lyttleton and settled into a hole-in-the-wall pub for some fish and chips, while Columbus hunkered down at a swanky internet café to get some work done before meeting us back on the ship. The signage from the café can be spotted in the footage of the rubble, while the entire Lyttleton block of that sweet pub has been leveled.
Christchurch is a small town in a big city’s hat. The comingling of old and new – modern buildings with an iconic cathedral and cheeky little trams, picturesque gardens and confidant entrepreneurs – seems the heart of the city we explored. Yeah, they’d taken a hit last September, but they were quick to show us they were back and ready for business, ready for the Rugby Cup this fall, ready to get on with life. Twenty-four hours later, it tumbled down again.
Timing. Fate. Karma. We all know it and think we understand it. The car accident that happens just ahead, the one we might have been part of had we not taken that last call or gotten caught at that last light.
For us, however, this one seems a big bullet to dodge. We keep thinking through it, how we would have been just beneath that spire as it toppled, or would have been separated on the Avon, or between Christchurch and Lyttleton. Like everything in our travels, we talk it through. We discuss emergency procedures, self-reliance, how and what to do. And we answer the questions as they come, admitting we don’t know all the answers. None of us ever do.
Yet, like other travelers, we keep going. These moments, however frightening, are a vivid reminder that life doesn’t wait. It’s a big world, and bad things sometimes happen. We are so touched by this earthquake because we were there; we feel in our own way we know this quaint little town, and we’re pulling for it to recover yet again. When Thailand’s king celebrated his 83rd birthday before Christmas, we celebrated too, picturing the festivals in Bangkok and around the country, our friends there laughing and celebrating until all hours. When floods and cyclones ravaged Queensland Australia, we cried too, fearing for the safety of friends up and down the coast and mourning the secret treasures we discovered during our journeys there.
It’s our world – not just our street, our town, our state, or our country – and these are our local events. Just as we plug into our local community back home, so must we plug into our world. That’s why we travel. It just took Christchurch to make me realize it.