I awoke this morning to pounding rain grateful I’d shut the window from the cold. The heavens had opened in the middle of the black and cloud-streaked night to add insult to injury on city that can barely contain its grief.
“What is there to see in Christchurch?” I had asked the Kiwi woman sitting next to me on the flight over.
“Nothing. The city is rubble,” she replied.
“Nothing?” I said.
“Well, you might find a café or something. I dunno. I lived there before the quake, and after for a bit. But I live in Melbourne now.”
That’s about all anyone would say to me on the matter. I asked the gent at the counter of my hotel/hostel about the city. He pointed me around the corner to a café for breakfast, but had no further input as to what I might do for fun. “You can fetch a sim card for your mobile at the market. It’s thataways,” he said, circling it on the sparse map. “It’s in a mall. The Re:Start mall is pretty cool too. It’s here.”
Armed with very little except a line-drawn map and a desire to get a sim card and some breakfast, I left for my single day sojourn into Christchurch.
I’m certain there’s more to the city than what I saw, but they were right about one thing: The city is rubble. There are orange cones dotting the sidewalks outlining things that once were whole. Bright yellow tape alerts passersby to gaping holes in the ground, in buildings, in lives. Piles of stones and bricks that used to be walls, now reduced back to their building-block origins, sit next to their parent structures, waiting to be taken seriously again. It’s like a Lego castle that got ruined after the dog ran through the playroom. All the people have cried themselves to sleep and woken from their naps, but no one quite feels like playing again.
Anytime we got into a conversation about earthquakes, I told people that I’d grown up in San Francisco and I’d been in the ’89 quake that knocked down the bridge. “That was the big one, eh?” They’d say. It seemed to make them feel better that I wasn’t just some interloper in their town; at least I knew what it felt like to have the earth turn against you for those precious, shattering seconds.
The woman who sold me the sim card had very little interest in being helpful. I finally settled on which one I wanted, bought it, and either didn’t hear her tell me how to set it up or she didn’t (I think it was the latter), so I wandered off to the Re:Start mall without understanding how the phone worked. When it didn’t start working after a reasonable amount of time had passed, I eventually wandered back and asked a different woman to help me set it up. Neither of them was particularly entertained by helping me, but they did it because they had to, or because they had nothing else to do, neither of those reasons cheering them up enough to smile except to laugh at me for not figuring it out on my own. I still can’t sort out why I can’t send a text to Tucker over in Brisbane but I can send one to my brother in California, but that’s okay I guess. I didn’t have the heart to ask them anything else about the phone, even though it was their jobs to help.
So far, Oz has been easier to figure out than NZ, but I’m not surprised by that. New Zealand fancies itself a unique, sheltered island and they are far less keen on visitors than Australia. They positively grill you when you enter the country for what you’re bringing with you, because one piece of fruit or random bit of dirt with a foreign disease or bug in it and their ecosystem will go completely haywire. I was charmed by the man at customs who had a sense of humor about his job. I heard him joking with the people before me about a jar of mayonnaise, much to my relief. He didn’t much care about the “muesli bars” I had with me from home, and was much more concerned that I might have hiking boots with shreds of foreign soil on them. My road-worn “trainers” weren’t an issue.
Before going through the grilling at customs, I was asked for proof that I am planning leaving the country by not one, but three different people. I assured them that I’m not trying to stay indefinitely, but they all still needed to see a flight number to be sure. One of the stray airport customs officers asked to see my papers as well, but I don’t know why. Amusingly, I think he may have just wanted to hear my California accent amongst all the Asian and German travellers. We had a nice chat.
The Re:Start mall is awesome; I really don’t know why people didn’t start there instead of throwing it in like an afterthought when I asked about what to do. The mall feels just like its name implies, like someone pressed Restart on a tiny part of the city, and a cluster of shipping container shops filled with designer clothing, souvenirs, jewelry, shoes, coffee houses, and other amusements popped up in response. There’s free wifi in the square, and there’s a bustle to the area that feels different and more alive than the rest of the city, certainly than the abandoned shops that dot the streets surrounding it. It reminded me of the tony part of Venice Beach. Particularly if they were to take my advice and shut down Abbot Kinney to cars and make it a walk street. Put some pop-up shipping container shops down the middle of the road, plant some trees, throw in a few coffee and juice kiosks and park benches, and now we’re cooking with fire. You can call me Julie, City Planner, if you like. Joking aside, I think that would be the best idea ever for Abbot Kinney. And if it turned out anything like the Christchurch Re:Start mall, it would be fantastic.
I’d gotten a late start to my day from the after midnight arrival of my flight and the extra two hour time difference on top of the 18 hours from Sydney. So by the time I looked at my watch to see what was what, it was almost 5pm and things were winding down at the mall. I went back to the hotel to use the wifi, a charming little hotel/hostel that was clean and serviceable, even if they couldn’t tell my anything about their fair city, and slipped into surfing mode as I looked for a good dinner option. I finally settled on a place about a mile away, and began walking over there. As I walked, I was inexplicably pulled off course and down a street that landed me at a very crowded Irish pub. That all would have been well and good, except that I forgot it was Saturday and consequently hadn’t changed into anything presentable, so I felt like a slob entering the place dressed like a time traveler when everyone else had at least thought about what they were wearing.
My shabby invisibility cloak worked like a charm. I fetched a pint of cider from the bar and took a seat on a stool and peered up at the giant screen showing a rugby game. I couldn’t tell you who was playing or what happened, but I watched the game for quite a while, hoping its rules would become clear to me as the game unfolded, but they never did. Eventually a couple of young guys sat down next to me and we got to chatting.
They were shy, and young, and couldn’t explain rugby to me either, but they were nice enough, and it was cool to have someone else to talk to besides the voices in my head. One of them bought me another pint, and we continued chatting until we realized that it was too late to order anything for dinner except chips and other random pub snacks, so we went to the casino next door to have some dinner because they serve late. The nice restaurant wouldn’t let us in because I was wearing trainers (running shoes) like the time-fogged traveler that I am, so we went upstairs to the bar and got pizzas and burgers. It was bright and unflattering, which is different than the parts of Vegas that I’ve frequented, but it still felt like Vegas all the same. Apparently gambling is frowned upon here, but that didn’t stop throngs of people from coming to the casino. When a city is depressed, people want to try their luck in any way they can.
After dinner we started walking back towards my hotel, and one of them got the bright idea to hop the fence into the botanical gardens. It felt like entering a cemetery at night, a little scary and a lot cool. On the way over the fence I banged my shin on one of the protruding fence posts, and now I have a ripe, painful bruise as evidence of our trespass.
We ran across a pool of light on the lawn and into the trees of the garden. The wind whispered secrets in the dark and showered us with raindrops leftover on the branches above. We skipped down the paths and talked about other countries and foreign accents, comparing the cadence of their lilting musical speech to my flat, California drawl. At one point, Ilya asked me how old I was, as only a young person can. I told him to guess, and he said 27, as you do when you’re young and everyone seems about as old as you are, unless there’s some obvious sign that they’re not.
I laughed, “How old are you?”
“22,” he replied.
“Oh, wow,” I said. “Okay, guess again.”
“30?” He said, unsure if he was guessing too high.
“Sure,” I said, “that’s close enough.”
“Well, you’re definitely not 40,” he said with a grin.
I smiled, and whispered under my breath, “Yet.”
I think he heard me, because he looked at me quizzically, like a puppy cocking his head to the side, like what I was saying was weird and impossible, and I just let it slide, not wanting to reveal myself to this stranger who had just complimented me without knowing it.
After another 10 minutes of goofing around in the garden, I announced I was heading back to my hotel. They followed, and we parted ways on the street as they headed towards a bus I couldn’t be sure existed, because that seemed like a sign from another time that used to be true but no longer was. I watched them punch each other in the arms as they ran and jumped down the street, laughing and hooting at the moon. Smiling, I turned and jumped over a cone on my way back to my newest temporary home.