A new challenge – learning to drive a right-hand drive car, on the opposite side of the road, all while extremely sleep deprived. This is our introduction to the land of the Kiwi.
The trick is to pick a spot on the windshield – make one if you have to – and have that line up consistently with the line on the road (this helps with placement of the car) and remember that left turns are easy, it’s the right ones you have to watch out for.
There is also the instance of math – translating gallons to liters and miles to kilometers and dollars to dollars and then trying to figure out how much gas you’re actually buying. In my first go, I managed to fill an 1/8th of a tank. When it comes to something as simple as driving there is a lot of rewiring to consider.
Mercifully, it is a simple drive between the airport and our first night’s stay. We park and walk about ten blocks into Downtown Christchurch. Yet we manage to meander through 25 blocks to get there – a maddeningly disoriented journey through streets that were closed off, collapsed, flat out destroyed, or in some status of repair. Nothing is labeled. Buildings that used to hold businesses and people behind counters that could help us stood starkly vacant. This is the kind of thing you see in a town on the decline. Fortunately, it’s also the kind of thing you see in a town that is experiencing a rebirth, a renaissance. A ReStart.
I’m reminded of the rebirth at home. Denver isn’t terribly old looking. The buildings stand as hallmarks to the periods of economic booms – the gold rush, the expansion of oil, and today’s influx of the young and trendy and tech savvy. Design and decoration is from the 50s, from the 70s, and now from some future, ugly decade we haven’t even dreamed of yet. Where Denver intentionally knocks down buildings to bring up something new, Christchurch is forced to rebuild everything from the ground up. The very same ground which outright failed them a few years ago.
The 2011 earthquake rocked the city. The aftershock was even worse. Entire blocks of buildings fell over, streets and homes left in such bad shape the only word to describe it was “decimation”. When the dust settled and all of the damage was accounted for everyone looked at the ruin of their city and had to ask “what now?” For those with their lives buried in the rubble it meant packing a bag and taking off to Aukland or beyond where buildings were still standing and jobs were still available. For others it meant an opportunity to rebuild. To look at the Christchurch that had fallen over and see how it can be rebuilt into the city that would sustain itself for the next hundred or thousand years.
Firstly, the parks and public spaces were re-established. An outdoor walking mall composed entirely of stores inside of shipping containers was established. A new church was built out of cardboard to replace the decimated, centuries old Canterbury church. Businesses came back, parks were established, tourism returned. During our time here New Zealand was hosting the Cricket world cup across all of its cities, Christchurch being one of them. The idea was to establish public areas as safe spaces, to get people out of their homes and thinking in the mindset of a “community” again. And even though the city has come a long way in the last few years entire blocks of buildings stand empty as insurances are figured out, as future plans are established, all before the wrecking ball it down.
We take it all in, adding booze and coffee and sunburn to the mix of airline exhaustion. By the time we’re hungry for dinner we actually don’t know what time it is. Grabbing food from the area supermarket – enough to constitute a cheese and cracker dinner, we finally let ourselves relax at Pomeroy’s on Kilmore, fight over who gets the shower first, and the crash into the twilight hours of the late evening.
The next day I’m awake at 4 AM as my clock thinks it’s closer to 8. Slept and refreshed I’m ready to be a fully responsible tourist again. We wander out again to find breakfast at a cafe (of which there are many) centered right in an area that is in a transitional moment of either falling down or going up. C2 cafe is in an old bank building. Pneumatic tubes stretch across everything. Here, I am introduced to a fresh challenge of New Zealand coffee. Unsurprisingly – there are no Americanos or Lattes on these menus. Plain old drip coffee, it seems, isn’t a style they prefer. Short and long blacks, flat whites – these are the standard fares and the seemingly familiar lattes or mochas will be delivered as a sugary mess.
Long black ends up being my go-to for he next few weeks. Two shots of espresso and enough hot water to make up not quite 10 ounces of caffeinated black. The sun hits the streets early as we sit on the reclaimed patio of the cafe. It’s a lone building that still functions on this block. Around us empty lots have been turned into community gardens and parks where sustainability ideas are proposed and experimented with. Along the sidewalks shipping containers, of which there are plenty of in this port city, stack two-high to support the old facades of buildings that mostly collapsed in the quake.
We wander back into the downtown area to join a few others for a bicycle tour of the area to get the full history of the Canterbury region. The guide talks a lot about the earthquake and all of the damage it caused. The centerpeice of the destruction is the ChristChurch Cathedral. Once the crown jewel of this city, erected in 1864, didn’t stand a chance against the earthquake or the aftershocks that made short work of even the most modern buildings in the city. Now the Cathedral half stands in ruin as one of any number of agencies – from the church to the historic society to the city council – decides exactly what should be done with this monument. In the short term, blocks away, the Christchurch Transitional Cathedral – built on a foundation of cardboard and plastics – is home to the displaced congregation.
Looking at the ruins again I can’t help but be reminded of the American Fantasy and what happens when it falls into ruin. Places like Detroit that used to be economic powerhouses fall into neglect. Detroit is relying on a renaissance of artisans to get the city back online. Christchurch is brute forcing it with a master plan and a ministry funded stampede of bulldozers. Yes, there are small businesses here but few people to run them. A lot of the people we meet are actually Australians down here for the rebuilding work. A few cashiers and waiters are folks who are traveling and stopping over to work for a few weeks before moving on. Christchurch, and most of New Zealand in general, has a problem with young. After the quake the young people moved to anywhere they could get that still had a social element to it. Places with schools or ground-floor careers they could get started on. Most of these people didn’t have an attachment to the city, nor did they have time to rebuild one – they had lives to live damnit, and they were going to head off to wherever they could.
For those who stayed, the conversation was something else entirely – how can Christchurch be rebuilt in a way that is socially and sustainably responsible, in a way that is just as useful for residents 10 years from now was it will be 100 years from now? It is a refreshing conversation that one doesn’t hear too often in the States where town after town turns rapidly into cities by floods of people coming to look for work, or to take advantage of industry, or following a dream. Governments and local industry reacts by throwing up apartments and roads and services to handle the issue of now and never really considering what will be left for the next few decades.
There is also a different conversation happening in tandem with this one. While there are those looking at everything in a sense of optimism and rebuilding, it’s not hard to become depressed when everything you’ve known is in ruins. We see many billboards, bus ads, and park benches asking, essentially, “how are you holding up?” A government sponsored campaign to ensure that the population of Christchurch wouldn’t be lost to despair.
A few days from now, long after we’re gone, Christchurch will be hosting a stop on the Cricket World Cup. The very same park that provided sanctuary to this city after the earthquake is now being mowed flat, installed with bleachers and concessions, and readying for the matchup. I know just enough about Cricket to know that it is not a sport any sane American has any place with. It’s not a sport to watch while drinking (some matches have been known to go on for days). As we settle into Pomeroy’s the bar adjacent to our hotel, for an evening meal and a few drinks the bartender attempts to explain the sport to me. I try to put it in terms of something familiar – like baseball – and he begs me not to do that.
I drink 3 beers at Pomeroy’s, which puts me well over the driving limit for anywhere in New Zealand. I order the 8% ABVs – a common strength at home, but the highest the scale goes here – only after convincing the bartender that I have nowhere to drive, and that I can even point to my backpack through the window of the B&B immediately next door.
I guess they aren’t drinkers here. I still wake up somewhat refreshed for the morning where we start the first driving tour of New Zealand – on our way to the Marlborough region.
Read On: Marlborough