By Anita Krishan
As Arvind and I step out of the exit door of the Christchurch International Airport in New Zealand in the wee hours of November 2014, a cold draught hits my face like a sharp razor. My sleep-deprived eyes are instantly wide open and alert. In the approaching summers of the Southern Hemisphere, the temperature outside is not more than 4 degrees Celsius.
The absolutely deserted surroundings take me by surprise. Unlike my boarding port, the T3 Terminal of the Indira Gandhi International Airport at Delhi, there is no rush of humanity and no continuous flow of honking taxis and cars, constantly picking and dropping passengers. I spot a sole van a distance away and my heart sinks, wondering and anxious as to how we would reach the place of our stay.
“Our tour operators have overlooked telling us where to find a cab outside the airport,” Arvind grumbles. The driver of the van alights from his vehicle and approaches us. “Krishans?” he asks. I heave a sigh of relief and hurry into the warm interiors of the vehicle. There are a few more passengers inside, patiently waiting for us.
Within half an hour we are at the Airport Gateway Motor Lodge, and inside a comfortable suite consisting of a large bedroom, living-room, bath and kitchen. A few hours of sleep and we are ready to explore the second largest city of New Zealand, and the largest of its South Island. Only 23% of New Zealand’s 4.6 million inhabitants inhabit this region, with the original name of The Waipounamu. This Canterbury country saw major European migration during the 1860s gold rush.
We have just a day to explore the city before we move on further south of the island. A quick shower, a cup of complimentary coffee and we slip into our walking shoes. Although a tram is available for our round-the-city tour, nothing can replace the experience of absorbing the sights and cultural delights as you walk through them. Christchurch is presently trying to limp back to normalcy after the devastation caused by the two major earthquakes of September 2010 and February 2011, in which 185 people lost their lives and many buildings and time-worn churches crumbled like packs of cards. The after-effects are still visible everywhere.
On 4 September, 2010, the Darfield earthquake hit the region with a magnitude of 7.1 on the Richter scale. It occurred on a fault of which no activity had previously been recorded based on paleo-seismological observations for the last 16,000 years. There were a series of aftershocks, and subsequently a main shock with a magnitude of 6.3 occurred on 22 February, 2011. This event was considered a direct hit on the city of Christchurch since its epicentre was located close to the suburb port town of Lyttelton at a depth of 5 Km and at about 9 Km distance from Christchurch. It caused massive destruction of life and property. The city required about 26 billion dollars for its restoration out of which $6.7 billions have been spent on core projects like the fixing of roads and sewers, repairing schools and hospitals.
Visiting it, as it’s being rebuilt and reborn, is both interesting and inspiring. There are earth-breakers, diggers, cranes and men in construction outfits almost everywhere, witnesses to how Christchurch has come up since the earth shook so violently at lunchtime on a warm summer day.
“The new buildings are being designed and constructed earthquake proof,” informs my professor architect husband. “At the ground level there are foundations that can move with an earthquake as they are rested on huge ball bearings that move with the shaking earth, thus preventing the building from tumbling down.”
A punter, narrow boat rowed by the boatman dressed in traditional Edwardian costume, passes by. He’s apprising his clients of the geographical history of the city. If we had had time, I would have loved to take a similar boat ride along the enchanting river. We leisurely stroll along the bank of the Avon river, absorbing the breathtaking beauty of the grassy meadows, the overhanging wispy willows lining the banks, aquatic creatures swimming in the crystal clear waters, tiny ducklings wobbling in the slow flowing cold water and trying to keep pace with the mother duck.
We amble through the thematic gardens and sprawling lawns despite the day being cloudy and chilly. We can spend only limited time here, or we’d miss the other attractions we have on our list. The cold wind has slowly chilled me to my bones despite a warm jacket, and gives me a headache. It prompts me on the remedial mission. We head straight to the makeshift famous mall of the city.
The shopping centre is aptly named Re: START mall. This is a shopping mall with a difference – all the shops, cafes etc.. are housed in brightly coloured shipping containers, which can’t be destroyed easily in an intensive earthquake.
Fashion, souvenirs, bars, toilets and a few food trucks are housed in this outdoor mall. It is situated right next to the devastated down-town area of Christchurch and is testament to a city trying to get back on its feet and rebuild after the earthquakes.
A thoughtful design, it has bright open spaces and interesting outdoor cafeterias for relaxed afternoons.
A super soft possum fur and Marino wool beanie protecting my head from freezing, a hot cup of coffee and I am ready for souvenir shopping. The spectacular molluscs revered by the Maori tribal, and found only in the cold waters of New Zealand, catch my immediate attention. The Paua shells are perfect gifts and the exquisite jewellery made out if it, a must for my collection. I also choose a few carvings and paintings in traditional Maori artwork.
Arvind is keen on visiting the world-renowned Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban’s Cardboard Cathedral. Ban specializes in emergency architecture — designing temporary structures in disaster zones around the world. He created a similar structure for the people of Kobe after a massive earthquake devastated their city in 1995. “It’s an example of uniqueness and ingenuity, and we can’t miss it at any cost.” Arvind thus puts a halt on my shopping spree to visit the current replacement for the destroyed Christchurch cathedral.
With the city map as our guide, we trudge to the other end of the city, crossing numerous tree lined avenues and public gardens. On the way we come across amazing murals and graffiti walls; the creativity emerging is absolutely mind blowing. Innovative ideas, interesting projects and dedication are ostensible everywhere.
In the city of about 3,82000 people, the roads are quite deserted in the late afternoon. The sun is playing hide and seek with the clouds, and the chill is once again on the rise. We sit on a bench under a blossom-laden tree to rest our aching feet and soak our bodies in the little warmth that the sun has decided to briefly bestow on us.
“Ban was asked to design a large church that could be quickly erected to help compose the shaken community. The triangular roof is made from locally produced cardboard tubes of equal lengths that are set at gradually changing angles to add interest to the roof-line. The entrance is filled with stained glass windows, which were fabricated by the local artists. The base of the building is, once again, composed of shipping containers.” Arvind continues the commentary as we stand in front of the cathedral in awe and grasp the inimitability of the design.
There is serene silence inside the church. I sit on a bench and silently thank God for the unbroken spirit of us humans, who have become not only adept at overcoming tragedies with fortitude, but of quickly bouncing back.
Just a day was too short for this beautiful spirited city. Maybe another time…….