Archive | October, 2011

We got our luggage back!

20 Oct

Early this year, me and my husband were stuck in the Christchurch (New Zealand) earthquake. 22 February, 2011 was the date. Apart from all our luggage (including 2 suitcases) and passports, we inadvertently ended up losing our hearts to the city of warmth and lucid beauty. The fact that after 8 whole months, our luggage containing valuables and lots of cash has been retrieved from our hotel room on 17th floor of the shaky Grand Chancellor hotel and is on its way home, simply reminds us of the reason we had fell in love with the unpretentious country and its people.

Here’s the story which I had penned sitting at the Auckland airport; trying to secure a ticket on overbooked flights to India, luggageless, worn-to-the-stump and in awe of country , after three days of alternating between purgatory and paradise.
Also, check out the link of the story published in The Times of India.

Me and my brand new husband are adrenaline junkies. Even after jumping off the planes, swimming with sharks and biking on the mountains, we couldn’t have enough of extreme adventure. Till we had the ‘real adventure’!

On February 22nd, the city of Christchurch in South island of New Zealand suffered a disparaging and deadly earthquake. Measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale, the quake wreaked more havoc than ever before because it was shallow and close to the city center. It was the second major earthquake to have hit Christchurch in five months.

We had left our hotel room for the day, with our cameras, boots and some cash to explore the city on foot. A little help from the maps and the extremely warm and ever smiling Kiwis, we treaded through the cobbled pathways and gardens, along the humpbacked-bridges across Avon river while passing the stunning contrast of the fairly new glass, cement and metal skyscrapers against the backdrop of neo-Gothic historical structures…and all of a sudden we saw, just like a mirage, there it was…the Christchurch Cathedral.

I’m not a very religious person, but this cathedral with a jaw dropping Gothic style facade had an odd sense of peace about it. A place where many prayers were asked, many answered and most just ended up finding peace with destiny. I simply sat in a pew. Afterwards, I lit a candle, stuck a colourful prayer note on the wall, little realising perhaps it was one of the last ones to put up in this house of God.

It was then it happened. We left the cathedral to visit the Christchurch Art Gallery, an old university precinct converted into a network of galleries and restaurants. My husband Vivek sat in Dux le Lux looking at the lunch menu, while I got up to order. And then the earth shook and oh boy it did it shake.

The cutlery clattered about like a pocketful of coins and the crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling started to move very fast making circles and then crashed onto the floor, shattering into pieces. Emergency gates were opened up and we tumbled our way out to the exit, but fortuitously all the inmates of the restaurant escaped unscathed.

We laughed in relief, held our hands tightly in each other’s and started walking towards our hotel to retrieve our passports in case of emergency, not knowing that our adventure was far from over. We came to the central city and it looked like a bomb had hit it. There was dust and smoke in the air and bits of glass and rubble falling from the tops of buildings. People were walking around covered in blood and in tears. Roads had split open, some almost a metre deep and bridges had fallen.

We took a turn onto Colombo Street towards our hotel and suddenly the earth shook again. It was a massive aftershock. A whole three storied building collapsed a few feet away from us. As we attempted to run back, a cop screamed, “Gas leak, do not come this side”. It felt like ‘the end’. My feet went numb. Vivek tugged at my hand, pulled his red sweater up to cover his nose and pulled me through the leak. We made to the other side of the road, and once again, unscathed. Twice lucky.

More than 1500 people had started assembling at welfare centre set up at Hagley Park as the entire central city got evacuated. Within a couple of hours of the earthquake,wooden boards were handed out to sit on and food vans were arranged. As the death toll rose, thousands of students and volunteers poured out onto the street to help the city’s residents deal with the suburban cleanup and assist the search and rescue operation teams which flew in from all over the world. But the testing times were far from over for the ever benevolent Kiwis. It rained the whole evening, and we heard it was pouring incessantly for days after the earthquake.

Holding the tarpaulin sheets on our heads, we wondered then what would happen to us. Our passports and luggage of our 22 days long trip was on the 19th floor of the now swaying, second tallest building of Christchurch, Hotel Grand Chancellor. An old Kiwi man, limping on his fractured leg, came up to us, put a hand on our shoulders and said, “I am sorry this happened to you in our country.”

My eyes had filled with tears and I smiled in awe at the old man’s selfless remark.The intensity of what we were going through paled when compared to what they would have to face in the coming months. More than eighty percent of the city was without power and electricity, and most of the city had crashed onto the ground. The drainage system had ruptured and liquefaction caused many houses to sink into the earth. Millions were left homeless, thousands jobless and hundreds had lost their family members. Many had already begun to leave the city. The ground beneath their feet was no longer safe.
While many would stock up their supplies given the circumstances, Kiwis whose homes were intact went out of their way to offer refuge to the tourists who had collected at Hagley park. Angie Smit, an Olympic representative of NZ took us home and eight others, gave us food and a warm duvet. We couldn’t sleep that night. Aftershocks, measuring around 5 on Richter scale, occurred every 15 minutes. Our nerves rattled every time there was an aftershock; each time wondering – ‘Is this a big one’?

Perhaps time would soon fade away our fears and it would become just another tale for our grandchildren. But I doubt we’ll ever forget the people of Christchurch and its fortitude. Nowhere else on this globe does the laid back, no worries outlook on life permeate all aspects of humanity like it does in New Zealand. It’s an addictive aspect of this country and the New Zealanders themselves are reason enough that we will visit the country again.
While Angie drove us to the re-opened airport the next day, we saw the cathedral amongst many other buildings that had fallen. The beautiful facade was gone and all that was remaining was the statue of Christ peeking through the ruins.

One building that did survive unscathed in the centre of Christchurch was the Christchurch Art Gallery where we were about to have lunch. Perhaps my prayer was among those few which were answered.