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In Christchurch

Posted on by Philip

When I first touched down last Tuesday into the Christchurch airport, nearly three years since my last trip, there wasn’t the usual surge of overwhelming excitement. I was glad to arrive, absolutely, but the giddy sensation was absent. It wasn’t apprehension at seeing a place I’ve lived in and come to love in a ruinous state, or that I hadn’t secured a ride from the airport. It was all so normal.

Even if my friend hadn’t received my note with flight details (he hadn’t) to come pick me up I wasn’t worried. I wasn’t coming into a foreign city that I didn’t know. I’ve become very nonchalant about my travel, but am even more so here in a way. Not apathetically, but comfortably. I know what road from the airport to take to get into town, how to avoid the central business district and what alternate routes to use to get to my friend’s house.

I call New Zealand home. It’s part tongue-in-cheek and part how I really feel about it. That doesn’t mean that Oregon isn’t home to me also, but just to explain how comfortable I feel here, even when I find more and more cultural differences the longer I stay. The first time I came here, a wet-behind-the-ears traveler a mere 18 years old, I felt oddly at peace, welcome, and, well, home when I stepped off the plane. For someone who’d never been away from home or family for more than a week or two, that was significant and memorable.

Why am I reiterating all of this? It’s nothing I haven’t expressed before: friends expect me to stay each trip – even my banker thought it wise to add a few extra weeks to my accounts’ travel notice and the immigration officer asked me when I was moving permanently.

Maybe it’s to emphasize what I felt the first few days walking and driving around Christchurch. I was glued to the #eqnz Twitter stream and online media news sources the week of the February earthquake. I saw all the footage and photos. I read all the stories. I knew more about the city’s situation and plans than my local friend when I arrived. But I hadn’t seen it all myself. It feels a bit surreal.

When I bussed from the airport to the mall where my friend was to pick me up, I went right through my old neighborhood. Aside from a boost in traffic, it was fine. Maybe one roof with a removed chimney. Then we drove across town, around the CBD and to the east side. Buildings missing facades, second story rooms exposed where roofs and walls had fallen away, potholes and protrusions all along the roads where liquefaction had sucked down or pushed up the pavement. Previously familiar areas unrecognizable through the damage. You think you know a place and discover that you may no longer. It feels a bit surreal.

The next day I spent the morning walking along the east side of the cordoned off downtown. Initially the entire central portion of the city was closed. Roughly 100 blocks by my estimate. A month later there is much more open and many inroads pushing towards the interior red zone. As I walked along cracked pavement and gaping earth, looking at destroyed businesses and leaning houses next door to seemingly intact buildings, I noticed that everyone who could was going about their day. Yes, it’s been a month, but this is how it’s been since the initial shock (and aftershocks) wore off: life goes on.

I had the opportunity to meet with a handful of businessmen who had previously worked in the CBD. While they expressed frustration at not being able to access their buildings, even if they were okay, the biggest topic was how they were managing to continue running their businesses and how different companies were coping. Listening to people talk at a local pub’s trivia night you wouldn’t hear anything about the quake. Church groups still meet, though possibly (like my old church) in a different building. My friend and I were talking, he said that life is still moving on for most people, things just take a bit longer. Water needs to be boiled before drinking. Driving somewhere may require slower speeds and alternate routes.

For all of that, there is still a tension, a disturbance, under the surface. The second and third nights I was woken by aftershocks. In the nine days I’ve been here I’ve noticed five aftershocks, a couple of them strong enough of long enough to be a little disturbing, though not dangerous. Compound that number by months and that will start to cause strain. And of course there is everything else, it’s foolish to play like there are no residual effects. There are lives lost, property damaged, jobs gone, landscape changed. Schools are still only partially open. Christchurch won’t be a “normal” city for several years, if it ever really is again. The natural need to continue life will cause a shift in where hot spots are in the city for recreation. That makes it weird to see a place I have contemplated living long term be in such a state.

* * * * *

I’m having a hard time knowing how to end this post. I didn’t have much of a point when I started writing outside of explaining how odd it is to come to a familiar place that is striving to rebuild and return to normalcy.  Perhaps this is a DIY. Draw your own point, lesson, conclusion. For me, understanding what New Zealand is to me is an ongoing process – it’s just that it got a little more complicated.

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