As I stepped off the plane into Christchurch yesterday I was surprised at first by the gentle hum of conversation, the clink of coffee spoons, by smiles even. I don’t know why but I expected silence and grim reality etched on the faces of those I passed. But the airport was in full swing, uniformed staff walking around as if it was just another day of departures and arrivals.
It took a while to spot the small things wrong with the picture. The small café where I like to pick up soup had shelves empty of nearly everything except, oddly, cake. There were a lot more uniforms than usual. I realised that the friendly chatter around me had a tone of enforced calm. And Gate 1, at the arse-end of the airport, which is usually empty except for the few who are scheduled to take small ‘cigar planes’ to exotic destinations like Hokitika or Timaru, was packed. There were people on the floor, kids cartwheeling in the aisles, luggage spread all over the carpet.
I realised as I arrived to wait for my plane that everyone had their faces turned to the window, watching as an air ambulance landed. Two land ambulances pulled up, policemen strolled around in casual conversation with a blonde airport attendant, there was some activity involving old ladies and wheelchairs. The ambulances loaded up and departed and everyone turned their attention back to the TV, which was showing a live feed from the CBD. The electronic board showed a roll of departures – suddenly places like Hamilton or Tauranga felt like another country. Even though there were no announcements about when the delayed flights would depart, no one bugged the service desk people, who had clearly been at work for a very long time. Not even when the scanner failed and they had to board everyone manually and slowly.
As my plane finally left the tarmac I remember feeling a great sense of relief, followed by a sense of irony that I would find a small plane often dubbed the “flying coffin” safer than being on the ground. Yet being in transit in Christchurch for just one hour felt stressful. I have no idea how the people who live there can cope, seeing as they’ve been dealing with this threat since September. Everyone on the plane glued their faces to the window, trying to see if they could spot the cracks in the earth. My co-passenger later said he could identify the Hotel Grand Chancellor, which even from that distance had a visible lean.
Ferrying us to Greymouth, the taxi driver cheerfully rattled off his experiences: everyone on the West Coast felt the quake, of course they did, and they were all dead scared. The supermarkets had been cleaned out of bread and milk the last few days. Some people had taken off over the Hill to look after their rellies; the rest didn’t want to go anywhere near. But they all felt it, oh yes they all felt it alright.
In the hospital today, it’s impossible to escape the reality, even though my patients are the usual stream of wheezers and coughers mixed in with the chronically unwell kids. The nurse unit manager tells me that several doctors from Christchurch were doing a clinic here, and when the quake was felt they said it was a small one, comparatively. Then as it became evident what the news was they loaded up, six doctors in a four person car, and set off over the infamous hill road through Arthur's Pass. Luckily there were no slips and the road was not damaged.
Later in the morning one of the Christchurch paediatricians rings me to check I’m ok and to hand over a few patients. They usually cover the Greymouth services, in person or by remote – I’m only covering for the weekend. He cheerily assures me that they are all fine, their families are fine and in fact they are still happy to take transfers should I need to. I think of the months of overtime and stress ahead of them.
The TV is on and once more we are transfixed, swallowing the stories of desperation, of despair, of hopes dashed, as if there is no other diet. But there isn’t. Everything else seems shallow by comparison. The whole world seems trivial compared to what we are going through. And yet we are the trivial ones – glued to the TV while at least half the people who the earthquake affects don’t have access to power, let alone a TV, and they probably wouldn’t be inclined to watch it anyway. For them, cellphones and radio are their link to the world. And while we gasp in guiltily perverted horror at the scenes of devastation rolling across our screens, for some it will be weeks before they see the full images.
It’s still sunny as I step outside to go back to the hotel. The ground feels solid under my feet, but I breathe in the smell of fresh grass, just to make sure. I’m alone this weekend – my husband is back in Auckland – but I don’t feel isolated. I feel part of this great weed mat of humanity which has been pulled up by its roots in the last few days and is still trying to find a place to anchor. Piece by small piece, we grab onto the familiar things. We are beginning to joke again. And – even though it feels a little bad – we are beginning to smile.