– Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand

Written 18 March: Our pre-quake routine has not yet returned, and is not likely to for some time. Our post-quake routine is becoming well-established, and almost seems ‘normal’ now.

I sometimes car-pool with a colleague, and on our way home the other day we spoke about how we have a new, new normal. We had developed one after September, and now we are developing another. It’s incredible how quickly you adapt, and how quickly things that would have knocked you for six a few weeks earlier now seem as if they have always been.

Some of this is because this is our second round in the ring. Post-September, we’d lived through thousands of aftershocks, had driven past uncountable cordons, and detoured around countless road closures. We’d seen damage on so many buildings that it no longer surprised or shocked us. It is different this time, in that we’d thought we were on the road to recovery, and now have to start all over again, but on a much larger scale.

But, piles of rubble no longer surprise us. Saddens us, yes. Surprises us, no.

Finding that another beloved building has fallen, or been pulled down, or has been red-stickered as unsafe no longer surprises us, though it does break our hearts. Increasingly, too, we are frustrated and angered by the flattening of our central city, often without notice to the owners or tenants of buildings. The city’s heritage and history are being pulled down without a chance to salvage what is salvageable.

Cordons are commonplace. So are the tanks and military personnel and police officers patrolling the roads in and out of the central city. By now we’d be more surprised by their absence than we are by their presence.

And the signs! Prior to the earthquake, I’d complained for the last few months that Christchurch was becoming Sign City in preparation for the Rugby World Cup which was to have been partly held here in about six months. Not all signs were related to the RWC, but many were in preparation for the thousands of visitors the games would have brought us. Now, there are more signs than ever, but of a very different nature.

Signs advertising free water, or reminding us to boil all water, or urging us to sanitize our hands prior to touching the taps on the water tank. Signs advertising welfare centres, hot showers, laundry centres, and places to charge cell phones or laptops. Signs offering free food. Signs posted by bereaved pet owners looking for Fido or Kitty. Signs telling all passersby that WE ARE OPEN. Signs alerting drivers of closed roads and detours or of work crews. Signs asking drivers to PLEASE SLOW DOWN.

And the most unnecessary sign of all, perhaps: Uneven Surface. Is there anywhere that the surface isn’t uneven?!

It’s been just over 3 weeks now since the big shake, and the amount of work that has happened in that time period has been nothing short of incredible. We are no longer surprised at the number of work crews on our streets; they have worked night and day to make our roller coasters – er, roads – or at least the main routes – passable again. By ‘passable’, I mean just that – quick fixes and patchwork to make the roads passable; a year ago we’d be raising the roof with the shape the roads are currently in; now, we are impressed with how much the crews have accomplished to get them to this standard.

Water is restored to nearly all the city; we got ours yesterday (Thursday 17 March), although we then lost it again for a short while, and will not have hot water til next week as our cylinder has to be replaced. Our neighbour’s hot water cylinder survived, and as they’re going out of town this weekend we have a key to their home, in order to have hot showers. It feels to us that we’re incredibly lucky, as we are no longer enslaved by the ritual of sourcing water every day; do you have any idea how much water it takes to brush your teeth? Flush a toilet? Fill a sink to do dishes? Water houseplants? We do.

Getting the water back on was such a big deal that my husband texted me at work to tell me, and I told the people with whom I was in a meeting. Yay! To get home and find that it had gone off (briefly, thankfully) was heart-wrenching, as it was then the start of a 3-day weekend and we knew it’d likely be at least Saturday before the work crew returned, as they had certainly earned a day off to attend the memorial service.

It’s not surprising to find water pooled on the side of the road, or streaming downhill, a burst pipe making itself known. Although most of us now have water – and power – we are reminded regularly to conserve it, as supply lines are fragile. Those in the eastern suburbs whose water supplies have been back on for a while, know this all too well, and the flow trickles to a stop from time to time; even those in the western suburbs are not totally unaffected, and getting a plumber within a week is considered ‘lucky’.

Traffic remains a bother, especially at peak travel times at the start and end of the workday. Many people have altered their work hours, to avoid the worst of it. Leave home at 7am and travel through a ghost town. Leave at 730am and take 2+ hours to do what would normally take 30 minutes. You travel far out of your way in order to make better time, cutting down this back road and that one, never sure where you’ll be blocked or detoured by a road closure.

Everything has changed. Something as simple as wanting to go to the shop to purchase a few items leaves you scratching your head, wondering who is open, travelling first to this place and that, and typically ending up on the western side of town as so much on the eastern side is just closed. Four weeks ago, we had 3 grocery stores within 10 minutes of home; now, we have only the one just down the hill, with its limited supplies and higher prices. To buy groceries, everyone in these three or four suburbs must travel at least as far as the Moorhouse Pak-n-Save or Countdown, which is normally a 20-minute drive but can be doubled now.

That’s another thing! Speed! I doubt many have come close to touching the speed limit for over three weeks now. You’d be pretty foolish to even try. Even the more passable roads suddenly drop or rise, or have a bump or a crack you just can’t see til you’re on it. How can roads develop such big humps or hollows in them without breaking? Typically, you travel at about 20kph, maybe 30kph if you’re on a very familiar road – and by familiar, I mean one you’ve travelled many times in recent days – and even then you have to come to nearly a stop quite often. That’s on the main routes; venture off the main routes onto side roads and you realise that the work crews haven’t been able to devote as much time or resources to these roads yet. It’s impossible to drive them without wanting to engage 4WD.

But yeah, shops are a big thing. I know we’re lucky in that we can even get to a shop less than a month after a quake, and that we were pretty much able to within a couple days of the quake; it could have been a lot, lot worse. But, barring an even greater disaster, you are still left wanting the familiar, wanting to be able to buy your groceries in the same shop as always, wanting to go down to the pub quiz on a Wednesday, wanting to go to a favourite restaurant. Everything you want to access is pretty much closed, with only a few exceptions – mostly on the western side of town. The talk is that for many of the closed businesses, it may be months before they reopen – if ever.

There are so many things I could write, which I keep thinking about and then forgetting as I go off on one tangent or another. I could write, for example, about how the Hotel Grand Chancellor seems to be on just a bit more of a lean every time I see it; it’s one of the most identifiable buildings on our skyline, and it just looks like it’s going to someday topple over.

I could write about our new vocabulary. The term ‘munted’ had been around a while, but it’s suddenly become ‘the’ word for describing something that’s been absolutely devastated. You don’t have to ask the meaning when someone says something such as ‘my house is totally munted’. You just know.

And if you never thought portaloos and chemical toilets could ever be an acceptable topic of conversation, try going into a disaster zone. Not only are they acceptable topics, they are widely spoken about, wished for, decorated, and stolen. For those digging holes in the garden, there is even a website where creative sorts can show off their outdoor toilet. One of our most popular ‘jokes’ these days is along the lines of ‘You know you’re in Christchurch when you and the cat fight over the best hole in the garden.’
And terms like liquefaction have entered our daily vocabulary. I can’t imagine a soul in Christchurch who hasn’t come face to face with it in one form or another – as liquid, as mud, as silt. More than 200,000 tonnes of it – at least 7 or 8 times more than in September – has been shovelled out of gardens, out of homes, out of parks, and off streets. The Student Volunteer Army and Farmy Army are owed debts of gratitude we can never repay.

I could write about how good it feels to look across the mouth of the river and see the lights on in New Brighton; for many days, they weren’t. I could write about how our friend told me he felt like a kid with a new toy when he finally had his power restored late last week, or about how dark the roads still are as many lights have not been replaced, or how dark the hill is as many homeowners have vacated their properties.

Or about the day last week when I ventured down to the public pool’s changing rooms to have a shower. I later joked that you have to leave your modesty or a guard at the door, as there was absolutely no privacy within the changing room. I had gone down in the early afternoon and was the only person present, and frankly just didn’t care if anyone walked in on me; I was having a SHOWER. Even better, I was having a WARM shower, as some kind of rigging had been set up to allow local residents this luxury, once taken for granted. My husband and I have been very lucky, in that we can shower at my workplace; I have also been able to do the laundry there, and dishes a time or two. Otherwise, we’d have had to go to one of the communal shower or laundry facilities that have been set up.

Or about really wanting to buy a burger and fountain coke at McDonalds or Burger King. BK is pretty much not an option at the moment, as only one or two of its stores are open. McD is open in some places, but for a while were only serving bottled drinks. One of my staff stopped at McD for me yesterday and – hey, here’s a surprise! – brought me back a coke on ice when I had expected a bottle. Woo hoo! He told me that they had a tank set up outside their restaurant, presumably to service the drinks machine and ice-maker, but at that point I didn’t really care; I drank with wild abandonment. :-D

Ah yes, in this ‘new normal’ world, one can also go down a hill and shake hands with the future King of England, Prince William. How crazy is that? Of course, yesterday I was more excited about having water than about possibly having a chance to get a glimpse of Wills! But, today, having water is now ‘old news’, and I have shaken the hand of the man who will be king! Of course, I would rather have my city back; I would rather he have not had a reason to walk through our street, or attend a memorial service for our lost.

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