Flowers for Christchurch

It was an early morning out of Mt. Cook. We left the famous peak still shrouded in mist with the faintest hint of a rainbow glittering in the valleys. It was a full little rental bus that trundled through the roads. The real large Stray bus was undergoing maintenance. So we crammed together friends with friends.

Relationships are formed quickly while traveling. I’ve known these people for less than a week and yet the ease and conversation hinted of a longer connection. The woes and excitement of traveling forms bonds like little else. (Will these bonds last? Only time will tell…)

We drove back down the coast of Lake Pukaki, the vibrant blues of the water blinding us in the early morning sun. Next stop, the shores of Lake Tekapo. The equally vibrant waters were complimented by a small field of Russell lupins (technically classified as a weed by the government because of its nonnative status), the purple stocks forming peaks that mimicked the snowy outline of the Southern Alps in the background. Tourists were roaming around the area like hungry little bees, their cameras desperate to soak up the beauty as their nose captured the lupin’s heady fragrance. We left when we got our fill.

Back on the bus, the landscape morphed as we moved closer to Christchurch. The mountains sank back into the land as the field were stretched flat and were monopolized by tractors, cattle, and sheep. Flashbacks to the American Midwest filled my head as our group in the back of the bus chatted and sang along to the 90s hits blasting out of the speakers. (They almost all were 8+ years older than me.)

It was a long trip to Christchurch and we kept getting tripped up by the traffic. Originally Stray wasn’t going to stop in the city but outside it instead, at this little town off the map. But since the earthquake had dismantled the only road heading directly north out of Christchurch, in order to make the timing work for the new, longer route, the bus had to move a little farther north and stop in Christchurch. Since none of us had planned to see the city anyway, and this was now our chance, we weren’t too disappointed in the change in destination.

Our driver began to give us an account of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes that had devastated Christchurch, killing 185 people and leaving hundreds homeless. We all looked out of the window out of morbid curiosity, hoping to see some of the lingering damage or at least the approaching city. But all we saw were newer houses, all characteristically short and flat. Where was the city? The tall buildings? The people?

When we arrived at our hostel, the clouds were creeping in, covering the brilliant sun that had followed us all day. But the warmth remained and the resulting humidity plagued us as we went out to explore the city. It looked like we were out in the middle of suburban isolation, with uniform(ish) houses and tree lined streets, but one look at the map told us we were only 10-15 minutes away from the city center.

I had been warned about Christchurch, particularly by one of my roommates who did a road trip around the South Island during Spring Break. She said the city center is a bit lifeless and everything is very spread out, so it can be hard to navigate on foot. She said it wasn’t worth the effort (a thought Stray seemingly also shared if their original route is anything to go by). Yet the Lonely Planet guide book had pages on the city and there was certainly a lot to see on the tourist map they gave us at the hostel.

When we got closer into the city center, the construction fences and phosphorescent orange cones began to pop up like mushrooms. Murals brought color into the concrete buildings and empty lots that began to replace the houses.

As Rosie and I stopped for pictures, the kiwi and fellow Stray passenger we were with, Chris, began to point out sights and things he knew about from the news and stories and his previous trips here. That lot there was the building that collapsed and killed 100+ people. There’s another still damaged office block. Turn here if you want to go to Quake City.

Quake City is the small but poignant museum dedicated to documenting and sharing the stories of the 2011 earthquake. Rosie read about it in her Lonely Planet and had put it on the top of our sightseeing list. We managed to get there 30 minutes before closing time and were only just able to convince them to let us in (they ended up giving us a discount in the process for our limited time).

Pictures mounted on wooden boards and the occasional television screen displayed the destruction before, during, and after the quake. There were also documentaries conveying accounts of eyewitnesses and clean up volunteers, bringing a voice to the natural disaster. The voices carried into the various rooms where artifacts from the rubble sat, giving the event an even more emotional presence. Something stirred in my chest at the sight of the cross of the damaged cathedral trapped in a glass case, surrounded by a wall-sized photo of the rubble. The museum then ended on a light note, however, with plans for the new Christchurch, giving one a message of healing and hope. I only wish I could’ve stayed longer to linger.

We then wandered through the now famous shipping container mall Re:Start, and then over to the cathedral. We hung around the square as we waited to meet up with another Stray passenger (an American named Phil). Chris and Rosie roamed as I tried to capture the gapping maw of the half-destroyed church, watching other tourists attempt to do the same. It felt weird, especially after coming out of the emotional weight of Quake City, that something so painful to the residents of the city could become a tourist attraction. But I guess if it’s unusual or pretty and can be photographed it will eventually attract tourists like flies to honey.

Phil finally joined us and we began strolling around again, picking up some gelato before checking out the Botanical Gardens. Rosie and Chris left us in the blooming rose garden, having other plans. So Phil and I roamed around the flowers for a bit before heading back out on the streets, talking of Austin and Trump and future plans.

As we were exploring the nearly empty streets, hints of emerging modern architecture and the occasional murals/graffiti bringing life to the grey world under the golden light of the setting sun, I began to feel a deep respect and sympathy for the city. Holes, figurative and literal, are still present in the city and there is more construction orange and builders’ banging than should be possible in such a relatively small place. But the city is clearly trying to bring itself up again. The murals/graffiti are signs of that, so is the shipping container mall and the replacement cathedral made out of cardboard and recycled materials. They might’ve been half destroyed and might not have much going on because of it (in those few hours I spent on the streets, I saw the majority of the city), but the city is healing and trying to make the most of it.

Alongside the Art Gallery is a neon instillation with the words: “Everything is Going to be Alright.”

I tried to keep that in mind as I headed off to eat my last dinner in New Zealand.

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