There are few things more heartbreaking than seeing your home town devastated by over eleven thousand earthquakes. In a special kind of irony, Lonely Planet named Christchurch number six out of ten top cities to visit in 2013, while the mayor himself has admitted that Christchurch is “munted”.
There are whole suburbs of Christchurch that were almost untouched by the earthquakes-there’s an occasional crack in the road or a fence that still needs to be repaired. If you stayed in one of those neighborhoods you’d be forgiven for thinking the destruction isn’t too bad.
Closer to the central city and the Eastern suburbs are the abandoned houses covered in spray paint, and streets in such disrepair it looks almost like a war zone. For months after the earthquakes a fine layer of dust coated everything, traveling with residents in their cars, getting under nails, and up noses, while the constant roar of bulldozers was always in the background.
We drive around the outskirts of the central city, along the Avon River and past the Botanic Gardens. Where there were once buildings there are now empty shells, debris, or somehow even worse; massive empty spaces. In the middle of the city was the CCTV building, where 115 people died. The rubble has been removed, and it’s now just a large concrete square. Flowers and pictures of loved ones lost hang off the surrounding gate, and the silence is eerie.
Across from the CCTV building are 185 empty white chairs, a memorial to the people that were taken that day. Each chair is different, from stools, to armchairs, and perhaps most heart wrenching, a tiny baby capsule. I shed a tear here. Seeing the empty chairs is confronting, as it’s so easy to imagine them filled with people, each as different as the chairs in front of me.
Many have fled, refusing to live with the constant aftershocks, or sick of sharing a port-a-potty with their neighbors. However the ones who are left are the most resilient refusing to uproot their families, and determined to stay no matter what Mother Nature throws at them. Those who had their houses red-stickered were at least given an option to cut their losses and leave, while those with a yellow sticker can’t. Two years on they’re living in limbo, staying in campgrounds or with relatives while they wait for their house to be repaired.
We visit the Restart Village, a shopping center made from shipping containers in the central city. I wander around, amused and impressed with the ingenuity of the people here. Brightly painted containers look like Lego blocks, and they house coffee shops, banks, clothing stores and souvenir shops, where you can find merino wool and just about anything with a kiwi bird on it.
I’m forced to admit that I should have visited before now, and when I did visit I should have taken the time to explore the city instead of avoiding it. Watching the news prepared me for the destruction, but it wasn’t until I spent a few days here that I was able to experience some closure, and see friends and family “getting on with it”. Lonely Planet named Christchurch a Top Ten City for 2013 due to its “breathtaking mix of spirit, determination and flair”. Maybe they got it right.