Tuesday, November 25, 2014

New Zealand trip diary - day 9

We left the hotel around 9, with the same cab driver who’d picked us up at the garden centre the other day – he once again spent almost the entire journey talking about Fergburgers. Ah well, it’s too late to try one now. Our flight was just slightly delayed, but once it got under way was exceptionally beautiful, flying at low altitude over monumental views, often barely touched by clouds.
Booking the Christchurch hotel had been an interesting exercise in navigating past Internet ghosts; for example, the Crowne Plaza came up in many searches, and at one point I was several steps through the online booking process, before it became evident that the hotel hadn’t reopened after the 2010/2011 earthquakes (I think I saw somewhere subsequently that they’re not currently planning to ever reopen). Several sources, like the New York Times and Lonely Planet, have cited the city as a top global travel destination since then, for the experience of visiting a place engaged in such extensive rebuilding (185 people died). When people in Queenstown asked us though about our next destination, they often seemed underwhelmed that the answer was Christchurch, the cab driver for example merely remarking disdainfully that the city is very flat…
From the sky, it seemed much like any other sprawling town, and the impression on the ride in, mostly through sunny residential neighborhoods, was much the same. But we weren’t at all prepared for what we saw at the centre. We’d both been imagining a city that would look basically “normal,” but with some pieces missing, as if with an unusually energetic construction sector. In fact though, over 70% of the buildings that were in the core before the earthquake are now gone; entire city blocks have literally nothing going on within them. Large patches have now been cleared, awaiting future redevelopment (and there’s an extensive plan in that regard); in other places, it’s as if it all happened yesterday - you look into mangled rooms, into abandoned restaurants where the plates fell onto the floor and were never picked up again. A few stretches are back to (one imagines) more or less what they used to be, but because they’re not linked to much of anything else, they feel almost lonelier than the devastated patches around them. The city has a fleet of restored trams that per the (pre-earthquake) guidebook takes passengers “on a 3-km route past many significant city centre sights” – now it has almost nothing to show those passengers, circling the same few blocks like an anxious zoo animal.

The cathedral is right by the hotel, one end of it looking fairly intact, the other entirely broken (its future is apparently under debate). A few blocks down the street is the temporary or “cardboard” cathedral, indeed built substantially of cardboard, but much more durable and beautiful than that implies. You come across little art exhibits everywhere, such as the “185 Empty Chairs”, each white chair representing someone who died, or (in a lighter vein, obviously) painted giraffes, part of a current “Christchurch Stand Tall” drive (Toronto did a similar thing with moose some years ago). There’s a Re:Start Mall, fifty or so businesses operating out of shipping containers (although again, you’d never know that's what they are); in such places, you might imagine you’re experiencing things ten years or so after a happy ending to The Walking Dead, as humans get things moving again. This feeling might have been all the greater today because it was hot and tiring to walk around, intensifying the sense of surveying the rubble at the end of a long desert war; the streets were largely deserted (most of the usual downtown commerce has necessarily moved elsewhere – Ally mentioned that you’ll never see a city where parking is less of a problem).

In one spot, there’s a wall filled with pictures of heritage buildings that are now gone, and you wonder if the city now being slowly rebuilt around state-of-the-art new development (a convention centre and so on) will necessarily have to survive without a part of its soul. Not that you sense anything other than optimism in the air though. It seemed to us at times rather unjust that back home we hear so little ongoing news about Christchurch, when (for example) it seems we’ll spend the rest of our lives marking 9/11 anniversaries. But Christchurch is surely better off that way, free of swaggering wars on real or imagined perpetrators; it can't take revenge on the ground below it, and it doesn't want to run away, so things move on. You walk past a row where (say) the first two buildings have reopened and the other two still sit empty for now (for now), and you feel the tenacious incrementalism we claim to honour in veterans.
Anyway, that was a major change from Queenstown obviously (and yes, it's true. much flatter), and entirely the right thing to do (up to now the trip has been entirely pleasant and wonderful, but today necessarily made us engage in a way we haven’t had to so far). We also walked through the enormous Hagley Park with its fine botanical gardens, and as is our style, covered most of the downtown city map (which must be revised frequently). Among other things, we came across a lonely arts cinema (currently showing Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall) and (not to seem preoccupied with this topic) a sturdy-looking strip club called Calendar Girls (with a big painted logo beaming at those who exit the cardboard cathedral) – perhaps rather poignantly, although CG is one of the few surviving businesses on the block, it’s being demolished by the city soon as part of its redevelopment plan, so it has to move. We didn’t find as many restaurants and bars as you’d expect in a city this size, but duh, as you might say.

We’re staying at the Novotel, which is where we ended up after the process I described. It’s not on the level of the previous two hotels, which shows itself in any number of little details, but then it’s not exactly a sleeping bag under a bridge either. We can see a lot from our window, and prominent in the middle of what we see is another hotel with a big Millennium logo on top. It’s currently closed, but apparently has been “assessed as repairable” and may reopen one day. But not in the next couple of years.

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