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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

So long Kiwis, Fiords, Buskers and Subways

The grey-haired woman in the middle seat of the row in front of me asked the Asian woman in the window seat to her left if she preferred Auckland or Christchurch.  I couldn’t hear her answer, but I did hear the grey-haired woman say that she preferred the latter.  And that was even with the earthquakes she said, or shakie-shakies as she referred to them with a chuckle.  It was a good time for me to consider how I would answer that as we took the one-hour flight between New Zealand’s two largest cities.  I probably don’t have an appropriate equal amount of information to answer that questions fairly.  Our time in New Zealand began with an entire week in Auckland, and closed with just one night and parts of two days in Christchurch.

While New Zealand at times seemed like a completely different world, there were many other times we could have been driving through almost any American city.  We saw Subway Restaurants almost everywhere, and plenty of McDonald’s and some Wendy’s and the occasional Burger King. 

No UPS trucks or Fedex vans, but DHL has a strong delivery and shipping presence in New Zealand.  As for the automobiles, the Toyota models we saw carried the familiar names of Camry and Corolla.  The most popular Ford SUV here is called the Territory and the sharp-looking Falcon appears to be a sporty mix of a Fusion and Taurus. 

Chevys were few and far between, but a brand called Holden offered some well-styled cars which we hope to have the chance to rent in Australia.  New Zealanders have a definite appreciation for kitschy small cars from the 50s and 60s.  I wish I had gotten to the chance to take pictures of all the unique models we saw during our nearly three thousand kilometers (almost 1900 miles) of driving on both the North and South Islands.

Due to the way our airline flights were scheduled around the best fares our ticket consolidator could find, our time in the land of the Kiwi would end with a flight from Christchurch to Auckland on Tuesday, followed by an early morning flight the next day to Melbourne.  Ever since we first got to New Zealand, whenever we would get into a conversation about Christchurch with a local, they would pause, not sure quite how to put into words their feelings about the largest city on the South Island.  Usually the tone was one frequently reserved to describe a distant cousin who got invited to most family functions but one who most hoped wouldn’t show up.  You know the type.  And when he did arrive at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, you would find yourself spending an unhealthy and unnatural amount of time and energy trying to avoid him.  Timing trips to the buffet table just after he had gotten a full plate of food, and making sure, God forbid, that you didn’t wander into the living room and find only him sitting there suddenly looking at you ready to engage you and a horribly long conversation of which there was no easy way out.

The problem of course is the earthquake that devasted Christchurch in February of 2011.  When we checked into our hotel in the Addington area of Christchurch, I asked the man who gave me my room key about places nearby to grab a bite to eat.  It was Monday afternoon and the AFC title game had just ended back in New England and we were hoping to catch some of the NFC title tilt as well as lunch.  He pointed out some places just west of the city center, and then I asked about any possibilities there.  He quickly said there were no places open there as the quake damage had forced many to close down or move to the suburbs.  The heart of the city center was still a Red Zone some 11 months after the quake.  After downing some lunch and seeing some of the Giants/49ers game at a restaurant just down the street that found the ESPN feed of the game, we decided how close in we could get to the red zone.  The quick answer: not very.  Tall chain link fences surrounding about a ten square block area of the city center kept us and everyone else away.  We could see some residual damage on buildings that we drove by on outlying streets.   

The most serious structural injury was to the many older churches we saw as we drove around.  Many had lost their steeples and others had suffered buttress damage, with steel beams diagonally securing what was still standing. 

The city is attempting to rebuild, but a series of aftershocks that intensified in late December and early January has most construction efforts on hold out of fear of suffering further damage. While standing in line at the grocery store in Lake Tekapo earlier in our trip, I struck up a conversation with a man from Christchurch who was in property management.  I asked him how things were going especially from an insurance standpoint and he said that was a big part of the problem.  Most insurers were reluctant to pay for repairs due to the ongoing aftershocks that threatened to create new piles of rubble.  Watching the TV news during our time in New Zealand, we saw more than one story about the aftershocks with experts predicting that they would last literally for years to come.  That didn’t stop the goofy mayor of Christchurch from appearing in interviews pretending nothing was wrong.  He would imply that tourists should be flocking to the city in part because, “who knows, you might even feel and earthquake, and wouldn’t that be something to tell your friends back home!”  He’s proof that electing nitwits to political office is something that is done in places other than just the United States.

The sobering earthquake forecast didn’t seem to be impacting the crowds at the World Busker Festival being held in Hanley Park just west of the downtown area.  Street performers took to the half-dozen or so stages that were set up, juggling or performing acrobatic or comedy shows.  Being that it was a Monday afternoon, it was fairly quiet, but we enjoyed the stroll through the festival grounds.  Marley and Ben were too timid to interact with the copper-covered performer who they gave a small contribution to.  However, of the many adjectives that apply to Annie, timid is not one of them so she bravely stepped out of the crowd to pause for a Kodak moment.   

We then coughed up the cash to allow the kids ten minutes each on a bungy machine that they enjoyed without reproducing their lunches.

The subdued mood in Christchurch will not be our longest-lasting memory of our 28 days in New Zealand.  The breathtaking flight to Milford Sound on our kids 12th birthday will top that list. 

The gorgeous drive down the west coast and the serene setting of Lake Wanaka are two other things we all enjoyed in our four weeks there.   

The one thing I know I will take with me on the rest of our trip is the kindness and generosity of every single person we asked for help from in New Zealand.  Not once did someone hesitate or give us less than their full attention.  That helpfulness is something we hope to pack up and carry on as we try to spread good travel karma over the next few months.  Hey Australia:  Incoming Bangerts!

1 comment:

  1. good on ya .. (you'll be hearing that lots in the weeks ahead)