It’s more important for a bike to have a basket than gears.
Look, I said to the soldier. Those civil defense guys, with their hard hats and axes? That’s my apartment they’re about to go into. He relented and escorted me to my own door, in time for me to greet the team searching my home for bodies. I apologised for not being able to make them a cup of tea; there was no water or power.
This was February 24, 2011, two days after 185 people had died in the Christchurch earthquake.
Getting a car through the central city at that point was a nightmare (and was for many months to come). Roads were buckled and potholed, the biggest hummocks and cracks marked with spray paint and maybe a road cone. Immediately after the quake, recycling wheelie bins with bright yellow lids served as impromptu hazard markers. It was impossible, from my apartment, to drive north without going south and west.
I lived in Cashel Street, near the Arts Centre, just inside a Red Zone cordon staffed by police and soldiers. You had to pick your moment. The police were older guys, usually serious and not open to negotiation. The army were younger, more relaxed, and multinational – many countries had sent Search and Rescue teams to help clear buildings, leaving cryptic sigils in fluorescent paint on the front of each. The Army’s transport was light armoured vehicles (LAVs) draped with camouflage netting. In the months to come, I had a couple of particularly eerie experiences when these rumbled past at night on darkened streets.
I’d been camped at a friend’s for a couple of days, and this morning thought I would try my luck at getting back into my flat. It was a solid Art Deco block, probably built after the Napier earthquake. There were some minor cracks in the walls, but Civil Defense had just green-stickered it, so I felt safe being in there. I carefully emptied fridge and freezer, and propped them open with towels, assuming I wouldn’t be back in my home for a couple of months. What could go on my bike? In the end, I packed a backpack of clothes, filled the basket and carrier with food including a frozen rabbit, slung one of my ukuleles and carried the other. Gumboots were the fashion footwear of #eqnz, so I wore mine. And so, biking one-handed, I wobbled carefully back through the cordon towards St Albans. The sentry was trying to suppress a smirk, I think.
The rabbit was from Waimate, bought from a farmer at the tiny French Market in central Christchurch, in a brick lane that’s almost certainly now a levelled empty lot, filled with parked cars.I wish I’d biked to work the day of the quake. Trying to get home in the confusion, I got stuck in the interminable snarl and had to ditch the car; a bike proved to be the transportation mode best suited to a broken city, able to navigate kerbs, slip through fence gaps, and weave around cracks in the road. Mine was a used Japanese mamachari with no gears but a sensible chain guard, basket, and pannier.
When my grandmother was little, her family escaped the WWI German invasion of the Netherlands by bicycle. As I wobbled away from my apartment, with two ukuleles and a defrosting rabbit, I imagine them all neatly dressed, ties and overcoats, on sensible black Dutch bicycles. As Marx said, history repeats – the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.