Like many great stories, the one about what I was doing when an earthquake struck New Zealand begins with a limbo competition. More specifically, a limbo contest in Franz Josef, a small town on the west coast of the country’s South Island. My friend Nikki and I had planned a visit because we wanted to stroll across the 12 km glacier just outside of town. But as the story goes, our excursion was unexpectedly canceled and we had to settle for Franz Josef’s second most popular attraction, which is basically a dark room with three live kiwi birds in it.
Needless to say, by the time the broomstick came out of the closet at 10 p.m., both of us were three cocktails deep and ready for some fun. And that’s the problem with the limbo: if you’re willing to play, then there’s a strong chance that you’ve already had too much to drink. At the same time, once you start playing, the only sensible thing to do is to keep drinking. And that chain of events is precisely how I mistook a 7.8 magnitude earthquake for a bad case of the spins shortly after midnight.
The earthquake kicked off a rough couple of days for everyone on the South Island. Nikki and I got off easy with a few blocked roads, some itinerary changes and a canceled ferry. It was disappointing as far as vacations go, but hardly worth complaining about given the billions of dollars of damage the earthquake caused to peoples’ homes, businesses and the island’s infrastructure.
It could have been much worse, too. When a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch in 2011 – one that was at least 30 times less powerful than Sunday’s – 185 people died. The devastation was so bad that scientists actually suggested abandoning what was left of the city’s business district and starting over somewhere else. Relocating an entire town sounds like a drastic step to take, but I assume the geologists know what they’re talking about. For instance, I suspect they can tell the difference between a tremor and a dizzy spell even after a few glasses of wine.
The earthquake didn’t leave me with a lot of options for leaving Picton, the coastal town where Nikki and I headed in the days following our stay at Franz Josef. The road to Christchurch was blocked, the train through the Southern Alps wasn’t running and the ferry to Wellington was cancelled.
The only way out of town was by plane, so I booked a last-minute flight on a 12-passenger jet from Wellington to Picton. That would have been a perfectly reasonable thing to do except for the fact that I was in Picton and traveling to Wellington. It was a mistake that I didn’t even realize I made until I called the airline’s shuttle service to arrange a pickup in town.
“We don’t have a 12:30 to Wellington,” the woman told me. “Do you mean the 12:30 from Wellington?”
I did not. But I checked my itinerary again and, sure enough, that’s the route I had selected.
“Oh fuck,” I muttered into the receiver. “I booked this backwards.”
Then, because I still have some semblance of manners, I apologized for cursing and asked if it was possible to rebook the flight. Incredibly, it was. And even more surprising, the woman did it on the spot without even charging me a fee.
Nikki, who was listening to this mess unfold as she packed her bag, closed her eyes and shook her head. After spending the better part of a week together, none of it seemed to phase her. In fact, when I hung up a few minutes later, she skipped all the basic questions and simply asked, “What kind of taxi company did you call that could rebook a flight? Because it usually doesn’t work that way.”
“Oh, it wasn’t a taxi,” I said. “I was calling the airline for a ride to the airport.”
She paused, then replied, “It still doesn’t work that way.”
She’s right. Airlines generally do not offer taxi services in and out of town. And even when they do, the person arranging the pickups usually isn’t able to make real-time changes to a passenger’s flight details. But I guess I found one that does.