Auckland to Christchurch

Greetings from Christchurch on the South Island!

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A couple of days ago I was browsing a clothing shop on Karangahape Road in Auckland, and chatting with the friendly young guy who worked there, a slim, long-lashed man with intense eyes and vivid neon red-orange hair. I mentioned that we were going to the South Island. He said, “I’ve never been there. But I hear it’s like a different country, almost.”

Definitely it’s going to be a different kind of travel for us, because usually we stay in one place for weeks at a time, and work as we go, meaning we spend a lot of time at home. But from here on out, we’ll be road-tripping; before we leave Christchurch, we’ll rent a car, and after that it will be freewheeling drives and short stays (3-4 days).

Here’s a last glimpse of the Auckland area: Coyle Park in Point Chevalier, around sunset on the evening before we left. We walked to the park and then into town for an unexpectedly delicious dinner at a wine bar that also had a children’s playroom. It was the perfect end to a low-key two weeks.

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Coolest playground ever.

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And there’s the Skytower in the distance.

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The next morning we parted from our lovely hosts, and a few hours later we landed in Christchurch.

At a stoplight in the city centre, the driver of the airport shuttle turned in his seat to say, “You’ve never been here? Well, this is what you call a trashed city.”

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He gestured at the rubble-strewn blocks around us. “This used to be five thousand businesses, thirty thousand people working in this area. Now,” he pointed at one or another high-rise, “this building has to come down, and this one. It’s all got to come down and be rebuilt, but it’s slow because of the insurance.”

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When my sister and her husband visited New Zealand in 2011, the earthquakes had just happened. After their return they described Christchurch as a kind of ghost city: a wrecked cathedral, vacant storefronts, empty streets. Rather naïvely and without really thinking about it, I imagined things would be back up and running now. Well, some things are, but — as a native of earthquake country myself, as someone who spent weeks and months planning and assembling my own home disaster kit — I should have realized it takes more than a couple of years to rebuild from massive damage.

“It wasn’t even that big a quake,” the shuttle driver told us, only 6.3 magnitude. But the waves were shallow, and “no one thought, of all the cities in the country, that it was Christchurch that would be hit so badly.” It was simultaneously impossible and all too easy to imagine this happening to one of our own cities, some well-known, well-loved place in the Bay Area or in LA.

“This address you’re going to,” said the driver, “it’s not a hotel, is it?” “No,” we told him, “it’s a private home.” “Good,” he said, “‘cos there was a hotel right around there, but it’s not there anymore.”

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As we reached the apartment and stowed our things inside, we felt somber. And hungry. I looked up a nearby café, and off we went in search of lunch. Though the streets still felt mostly deserted, with ample evidence of the quake — we passed the demolished Latimer Hotel the driver mentioned — we also saw life continuing as usual. And the café itself proved vibrant and busy, with friendly and efficient service and very yummy food and drink.

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Raspberry lamington milkshake, its chocolate splashes matching the décor:

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My Vege Deluxe:

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After lunch we headed into the city centre. Amid the broken buildings and other signs of transition, the city-in-progress gave hints of the same funky, eclectic vibe we’d found in the café. The colors and energy — both the deliberate creations of local artists and activists, and the inherent momentum of recovery — reminded me of the street art in Reykjavík. I had the sense of a place being rebuilt from the bottom up as well as from the top down.

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Remembrance poppies:
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 My sketch of the cathedral:

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Unexpected, poignant “art” on the side of a building, leftover from another building that no longer exists:

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With so much of the CBD (Central Business District) cordoned off as under-construction Red Zone, the river Avon seemed the best way to navigate, so we walked along it. There are punting tours with guides in Edwardian dress:

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And autumn leaves, and paradise shelducks.

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Along the river you can almost forget the city has anything lacking — until you look up to see the shuttered businesses and chain-link fencing.

Soon we found Re:START, a post-quake outdoor shopping mall created from shipping containers. We first heard of it from our Auckland host, an architect. There were coffee shops, food vendors, a bookstore, and gift and clothing stores — many (if not all) of them relocated from other storefronts that had been destroyed or blocked off.

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On one wall, an evocative Emily Dickinson poem:

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In one of the many planter boxes adorning the site:

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We finished our day at a bar/pizzeria (after visiting the pub and learning there were no tables):

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We’ve been here only 24 hours but the city has already captured my imagination. It’s hard not to feel we are in a unique intersection of time and place, with its colliding strands of continuation and rebirth, conflict and generation.