My final day at McMurdo, after finishing work (yes, I had to work), vacuuming my room a final time and packing a sandwich for the plane, I headed out to Hut Point. This was back on Thursday, Ice-time (Wednesday in the States), and the skies had finally cleared.
Antarctica gave me a final gift on that walk. As I turned the corner, I saw the sun, the actual sun, setting gloriously on the northwest horizon. I hadn’t seen the sun since sometime in early April, but aside from that novelty, the sky itself was another stunner, a beautiful expanse of color and light.
It moved me, knowing this was the last Antarctic sky I’d see. It moved me so much I began to compose some poetry in my head which, given that I generally despise poetry, is saying something.
After sitting out at Hut Point for a while, I headed back to catch transport–in the Ice-iconic Ivan the Terra Bus–out to the airfield. By the time we arrived, it was night, and bitterly cold but clear and more or less calm.
After days of storms–with another big system moving in later that night–the C17 was able to land in a brief window of opportunity. Watching its lights materialize out of the ink of an Antarctic night, I admit I felt a little too tired to think big thoughts. By the time it touched down, I’d been up for about 18 hours and was not relishing the five-hour flight and early morning arrival in Christchurch.
We waited outside in what felt like minus 40 territory for several minutes as puffy red parkas emerged from the plane, more than a hundred of them. Then it was time to board. In the last hundred feet or so, I realized this was it, I really was leaving, and I pulled down my gaiter to take in a few last big lungfuls of Antarctic air, cold and dry but so wonderful.
And then we flew away, and it was over.
The flight was alarmingly bumpy for the first hour but otherwise uneventful. Two years ago getting on a C17 for the first time was a big deal to me, but now it’s just another plane. We got to our hotel in Christchurch around 2:30 am. I was up again four hours later to run some errands, mailing some things to myself so I wouldn’t have to carry them and picking up my travel itinerary for the long journey back to the States.
Due to the numerous weather delays getting out of McMurdo, I ended up having to stay an extra day in Christchurch before they could book a flight for me. But I’ve got no complaints. After feasting on fresh mango and passionfruit, I rented a car and drove to Hanmer Springs, about 100 miles outside of town. There, in the warm-but-not-too-warm alpine air, I sat for an hour in the spring-fed, mineral-infused “therapy pool.” In the shade, of course, my face half-hidden behind my enormous Posh Spice sunglasses.
Curiously, I didn’t feel odd being in my swimsuit in the open air. It was earlier in the day that I’d had a couple re-entry freakouts.
The first happened when I took the stairs from my fourth-floor hotel room down to reception, then to the breakfast room on the third floor. I haven’t been in a building with more than two levels since February and it was kind of exciting: look! I can go up a flight, and then another flight, then down a flight and up two flights…hoo boy, I went wild on those stairs!
I am totally not making that up. For reals, yo.
The second freakout happened as I was driving to Hanmer. I was all cool and experienced world travelery about booking a car, picking it up, heading out on the left side of the road through a city I feel I know as well as any other. I love driving in New Zealand. I just find the roads very logical and pleasant, and there’s never an insane amount of traffic. Generally speaking, New Zealand drivers tend to be assertive and confident but not aggressive, illogical or prone to road rage. And, perhaps because I’m left-handed, I prefer driving on the left.
In any case, things were going smoothly until my brain kind of shrieked and went “Aah! I’m on a road! I’m driving a car on a road! There’s grass and sheep on either side of me! Good God, what’s happened?”
I recovered before swerving off the road, but it was a shock.
After soaking at Hanmer, I had my face sandblasted. Okay, the spa there calls it a “Resurfacing Peel Facial” but we all know what’s going on. I drove back to Christchurch and got a Limbo, my favorite pizza from Hell (as in Hell Pizza, the most awesomest pizza chain ever. I wish they were in the States).
Sadly, I failed to stay awake long enough to see the All Blacks thump Australia in rugby, but the next morning I was up early and headed to the Red Zone.
Christchurch is still recovering from the series of big quakes that have struck the city over the past two years. The one in February 2011 was not the largest, seismically-speaking, but it was the most devastating. It was extremely shallow and, unfortunately, located not only close to the city’s center but in a spot that meant all of its energy was directed right at Christchurch.
As I understood from a special exhibit at the Canterbury Museum, the quake happened south of the city with more quake-resistant, for want of a better term, volcanic rock to the south, east and west of its epicenter. The energy released took the path of least resistance and went rolling right into the city’s soft soils and sands and high water table. Liquefaction was rampant and, according to the exhibit, the actual shaking produced by the quake on the surface was the most violent ever recorded anywhere.
This was my fourth time in Christchurch since the February 2011 quake, and each time I’ve watched the Red Zone shrink. The Red Zone is basically what was the center of the city. It is where most of the 185 victims of the quake lost their lives as multi-story office buildings pancaked and caught fire and facades fell off shops and on top of people and vehicles.
The Red Zone includes many of the city’s most iconic and Heritage-listed buildings, including the Cathedral, which was almost completely destroyed in the February quake.
As buildings have been demolished, including the 22-story Grand Chancellor, Christchurch’s tallest building, the Red Zone has been reduced to something like a tenth of its size. Access to the zone is controlled by the military and casual traffic is prohibited.
The local bus company recently started offering “Beyond the Cordon” tours, however, and you bet I made sure I was on one. Unfortunately, the tour itself was just driving through the Red Zone, never getting out, and our tour guide was, well, she was not the best person for the job. (Other Icepeeps took the tour at another time and had a different tour guide, who was much more positive and informative, so it’s hit-or-miss and I’d still encourage you to take the tour if you have the chance.)
The tour guide I had represented a curious phenomenon I’ve noticed during my post-quake visits to the city. I’m making a gross generalization here, of course, but this is what I’ve found, anecdotally: post-menopausal women are total downers.
Wait, let me explain.
I’ve talked to a number of people–shop owners, Kiwi employees of the US Antarctic Program, hotel workers, random folks on the bus–about the quake. I realize it was a horrible and largely unforeseen tragedy–although New Zealand is one of the world’s most seismically active countries, this particular fault was not known at the start of all this trouble and also, once they started studying it, was not expected to throw such a hissyfit. But most of the Kiwis I’ve talked to have taken a “well, what can ya do, mate, it’s a bit tough now but we’ll get back on our feet” attitude.
But…not the biddies. I have run into a number of older women who seem, for want of a better way to describe it, stuck in quakemode and, many of them, anyway, kind of relishing it. There’s the woman who no longer blow dries her hair because the power went out while she was doing that during the quake and she fears it will happen again. There was the woman who followed me from pool to pool when I was at Hanmer last year, telling me in tedious detail about how she was her husband’s caretaker since his stroke but couldn’t get him out of the house during the quake (he and the house survived, by the way, unscathed). Then there was the utterly insane bus driver who ignored people signalling for her to stop and floored it well over the speed limit as she regaled me, her only passenger, with tales of how many different sleeping pills and antidepressants she was on since the quake.
I mean, seriously.
It made me wonder if it was just by chance that I’ve run into the crazy quake ladies or if there is something about women of that age, either in general or from that particular generation, that makes them so, well, unable to cope with change or find the positive in bad situations. I dunno. But our tour guide was a member of Tribe Eeyore.
She was a bit mumbly and hard to hear and unrelentingly glum. She was constantly making asides such as “This street was where we would come for a nice meal. We can’t do that anymore.” At one point she said “there’s a tribute to the victims but I can’t bear to point it out.” I was one of seven people on the tour and the only one taking photos, and every time I did, she glared at me.
Look, lady, I’m truly sorry Christchurch, a rather nice city, has been devastated. I’m sorry people were killed and injured. I’m sorry for the massive economic losses suffered throughout the region. I’m sorry your flat was near two homes wiped out in the Port Hills. But…let’s face it. You are leading a tour. You are a representative of Christchurch and how the city is coping in the aftermath of the quake. As someone who has worked as a tour guide, I know damn well your job is to guide the tour, not to elict pity for your problems. The microphone is not a license to vent. I don’t expect you to be perky or to take any joy from what’s happened, but I do expect you to provide information in an engaging and elucidating manner.
I didn’t say anything–my experience with quake biddies has taught me it’s pointless, and the other six people on my tour were older couples who dutifully clucked their tongues in sympathy over her every grumble. In any case, it was a bit of a disappointment but I’m still glad I got to see the streets I know so well, and that the mighty and much loved Hotel So (officially the Christchurch-Cashel All Seasons Hotel since being sold in late 2010 but always the So in my heart) is still standing and unscathed, despite being right next to the Grand Chancellor.
After touring the Red Zone and checking out the new earthquake exhibit at the musuem (fun fact: Christchurch has experienced more than 11,000 aftershocks from the initial September 2010 quake), I walked to the bus station and grabbed a ride out to the beach resort of Sumner, another spot hard hit by the quake.
It was low, low, low tide, the water a long walk out, but it felt fantastic to walk barefoot in the sand, splash in the surf, pet a curious pug (the many other dogs on the beach were too focused on fetching tennis balls, but he ran right over to me) and smell the briny air.
After getting back to my hotel, I took a deliciously long bath in bright violaceous, cassia-scented water courtesy of the Phoenix Rising bath ballistic I’d bought earlier in the day at Lush. I tried to finish the selection of New Zealand cheeses that I’d bought but failed and ended up leaving a good amount in my hotel room fridge. Oh well. The whole eyes-bigger-than-the-stomach thing.
Then I….thought about packing. Yup. Gave it a good long think and had another piece of cheese. Around midnight I finally started to try to organize myself. The shuttle to the airport came at 3:45 and I was just ready.
From there it was a long cycle of boarding and disembarking, with tight squeezes and leg cramps in between–every seat of every single flight I was on was full. Christchurch to Melbourne was unremarkable. Melbourne to Los Angeles, alas, was a miserably long flight, memorable mostly for a flight attendant foisting a mushroom and cheese pizza on me, claiming “it is refreshment!” (Okay, English was not her first language but still…pizza is many things, but “refreshing” really isn’t one of them).
Los Angeles was the usual nightmare, but at least I had free WiFi and a Starbucks before getting on the plane to Chicago. I had to dash from the far end of Concourse H to the far end of Concourse G at O’Hare with 15 minutes to catch my puddle-jumper to Milwaukee. My friends the Dread Pirate Iron Bluebird and her Cabin Boy and their boy-child, Admiral Smallpants, were waiting for me. After filing a claim for my lost luggage (finally delivered a couple hours ago), we were off, crusing past Lake Michigan over the Hoan Bridge.
So here I am. I have a long list of to-dos, most of which are of the no fun at all variety, and it feels like Antarctica was a dream, that it’s a place I’ve only imagined. Then I look at my photos and remember, oh yeah. I was there. I did that.
And, while I can’t bring myself to write down my “poem” (too embarrassing), here it is distilled into more palatable prose:
The snow is new. It stretches before me, a smooth and pale periwinkle in winter twilight, when this world colors in shades of gray and blue and purple. In places the snow curves in tall drifts or lies rumpled over an outcropping of black volcanic rock, hidden until the wind decides to resculpt the landscape and reveal it.
My boots crunch and squeak on the dry powder, leaving a trail of perfect imprints behind me in the emptiness. Ahead of me, the sun hides behind a low cloud. As it emerges, I catch sight of it for the first time in months, and find that, like an old and true friend, I did not miss it while we were apart but am glad to see it again.
The sun colors the sky in brilliant shades of flame, crimson and orange and yellow, but it is waging a losing battle against the darkness that seeps from the south with its own palette. The ice and snow turn lavender, cornflower, violet and lilac—at twilight this world blooms with colors named for flowers that will never grow here.
As the light fades, the landscape loses a dimension, flattening like a canvas awaiting brushstrokes of the imagination.
I sit beside a hut built a century ago, where men patched sweaters with clumsy stitches by seal oil lamplight, not knowing if they would ever see the masts of a ship rising from the north horizon, promising rescue.
I do not need rescue, but it is coming for me anyway, a great metal brute of a bird determined to pluck me from this place like a skua stealing a sandwich out of your hands.
But not yet. So I sit and watch the sun as it slides down to rest beneath the pale sea ice. It is the same sun that sets over sand dunes and dark stretches of taiga, over skyscrapers and apple orchards, over places so far from here that they surely must be imagined.
When the sun at last is gone, I know it is time for me to go, too. So I start the long walk back, leaving another set of bootprints in the snow. In days, or hours, or minutes, the wind will sweep across my tracks like a determined old woman with a broom, scouring them down to the very rock, or hiding them beneath new snow, wiping all trace of me away and clearing the canvas for the next set of boots and dreams.
Soon, only the wind and I will know that I was here.