Christchurch Rising From The Ruins

This is a piece about a broken city where socialists are saints, where scaffolds are high and the church is made of toilet paper rolls.

My traveling compadre Javi and myself (aka Beauty & The Beast) get a 6-hour ride to Christchurch with Doug – a Kiwi Philosophy Major turned concrete truck driver and quad-lingual tour guide. We pass through the stunning McKenzie Country and behold the vast mountain-rimmed glacial plains while discussing ethical dilemmas and etymological theory. In true Kiwi style he puts us up for the night and after a lovely family pancake breakfast, we go busking in the streets.

Playing Up The Strip With Cliff Richard

City Mall is a vibrant oasis in a strangely desolate cityscape. Javi and I play our quirky music to hundreds of by-passers. Enough people smile to make us continue for hours, and enough people throw a coin or buy our CD to make it worth our while too. We sit in the improvised main street where brightly colored shipping containers make up a funky shopping environment and buskers on every corner vie for attention.

Now where did that image go?

Past meet present on high street Christchurch. In front of the spiced-up shipping containers, native plants like flax has been planted.

The old pop-singer Sir Cliff Richard (who obviously had a paid gig) also walked this strip recently, and remarked; “it looks fantastic. I think you should keep it that way.” Being the one and only place in town where there is some kind of business-as-usual feeling, the place attracts everyone out for a downtown stroll.

Eventually it is time for a picnic in the park. As we enjoy our lunch, Wiremu comes to the creek for a smoke. We offer him some tea but he’s alright. It is Sunday arvo and the weather is fine. His son is stoned on cheap wine and doesn’t say much, but father likes a yarn: “Wheah yu from den ae? Nut from around hia are yuz?” Maori English never fails to charm me. Especially when spoken by a friendly face like Wiremu’s.

On Shaky Ground

He is a scaffolder and proud of it. His work means safety for thousands of builders, hard at work – 6 days a week – to rebuild their city. Except for the wave of Irish construction workers, who are apparently only there long enough to cause a need for another STD clinic (so far).  Wiremu is much more interested in our instruments than going out on the town though, and with a bit of convincing he pulls out his own guitar and soulfully sings us an old Christian song.

Now where did that image go?

Christ’s Church is obviously a big deal in Christchurch. SO when the old cathedral partly collapsed, an interim cathedral was built after the design of a Japanese architect. The roof (and even the cross) is made of gigantic toilet paper rolls – I shit you not!

More than 2 years after the most disastrous New Zealand earthquake since 1931, Christchurch is still merely a semblance of a city. Pockmarked roads lead through the city center, where so many buildings have been bulldozed away that every second or third block looks like an overgrown parking lot. It is eerie enough to look at, but even more so when the ground suddenly jumps two foot to the left and then back again in the space of a second. We look puzzled at each other, not really ready to accept our first earthquake experience ever. No one around us seem to notice, but when we ask a man, he says; “oh that one, yeah, that was just a wee 2 on the richter, nothing to worry about, happens alle the time…”

The 2011 quake was a 6,3 on the exponential Richter scale. An old man told me about his policeman son who was on duty for 28 hours from the moment the earthquake hit the city. 185 people died that day and he had no way of contacting his wife and child while he frantically tore through concrete debris in search of strangers, trapped in the ruins. He still won’t talk about that day.

Now where did that image go?

The old cathedral is now off limits. Jesus on the left is secured with a heavy-duty strap and the gable has crumbled completely.

Nobody knows how many people left town in the weeks after. Too many water and gas pipes and electric cables had been torn apart underground, too many homes had been destroyed and too much nervous tension acquired. Some people still can’t receive good councelling because they are scared to enter unfamiliar buildings. But all shook up as Christchurch is, the people have now started to trickle back.

Picking Up The Pieces

Some never left, of course. People like Dr. Sue and Dr. Philip Bagshaw – our next hosts. We have been referred to them by the wonderfully cookie Leanne in Queenstown, who gave Javi and me a ride, a beer and a dinner at her house. Few nations can measure up to the hospitality of Kiwis. Leanne’s help thus extended to also include her friends having us at their house for two nights and showing us around their broken city.

Now where did that image go?

Phil in his second home, the operation theatre of Canterbury Charity Hospital. Knowing the trade inside out, Phil has kitted out his theatre with only the best equipment donated money can buy.

Sue and Phil are the kind of people who pick up the pieces; be it lost travellers, homeless street kids, traumatized victims of social/domestic injustice and patients with no means to pay for their medical treatment. Charity is the word and they are declared socialists. Sue runs a community youth hub with more than a dozen programs mostly to do with helping young people stay on the right track (or at least off the worse ones) and Phil runs New Zealand’s first and foremost charity hospital, treating thousands of people for free each year.

As a highly trained surgeon Phil saw New Zealand’s public health care fall from being one of the best in the world to a standard well below what he is prepared to accept. Major reforms in 1993 resulted in managerialism (yikes!) and privatizations which in turn meant significant cuts in actual patient care.

Shouldn’t All Hospitals Be Charitable?

Now, these guys are serious about their Hippocratic oath and so they set up the Canterbury Charity Hospital in 2007. Much to the annoyance of the Ministry of Heath, the Bagshaws are exposing their faulty policies simply by meeting the unmet needs of thousands of patients who should have been taken care of by the government.

Of course the hospital is a much heralded institution already and they enjoy staunch support from high and low – from the local Flower Society and Lion’s Club chapter to Sir Cliff Richard and the Governor General who has chosen to be the hospital’s protector – not to mention the hundreds of volunteers who make up the staff.

In fact, there is only one full-time employee and two part timers – the rest of the 40+ staff are all unpaid health professionals who volunteer their time for those who fall through the cracks of the system. I’m not sure if these numbers can do the trick, but I am trying to convey to you how I felt when Phil showed us around at the top-notch, ultra-modern hospital with its state-of-the-art operation theatres:

Here is millions of dollars worth of equipment and human investment, all in the name of altruism and community service. I mean, how often do you meet people who volunteer their lives to fight for others rights, who defy the tall-puppy norms, sue the government and stand up for common decency?

Some Things Never Change…

When Cliff Richard visited Christchurch after the earthquake, he commented on the many empty lots he saw and said: “If you didn’t know there used to be a building there, everything still looks wonderful.” But despite Sir Richard’s positive imagination, Christchurch is no doubt being rebuilt to be more than a stack of colorful containers.

Everywhere you go, you hear the clanging of hammers and the whizzing of drills. This is a city hard at work to revive itself. It is also a playground for street artists who have been invited to brighten up the naked walls and vacant spaces around the sadly scarred streets of Christchurch. It seems everybody is chipping in to make Christchurch a place worth living in again.

Now where did that image go?

This block in central Christchurch is in a so-called “red zone” where the ground underneath is deemed too unstable for anyone to live there. The dusty shop-signs tell their hard stories of lost livelihoods.

Not least my new friend Wiremu in the grass with his guitar and his one day off in a 60 hour week. As our relaxed conversation is frequently interrupted by him shouting greetings across the road to every single Maori person who walks by, I realize that there is a community here that goes before and beyond anything to do with churches of christ and charities fighting Western governments.

A Salute To You All!

The Maori spirit is just that little bit more hearty and soulful and I see it reflected in every Maori person I meet. And as we leave the park to play another set of songs, Wiremu underscores the friendliness of his people by gifting me a little local weed. Takes one to know one. A few days later I sit in a tree in another park in Wellington and wonder if I am as high as Wiremu on his scaffolding and I give a thought to a broken place that is being fixed by its people.

Sometimes, when nature strikes hard, people pick up the pieces and each other. Like dear old Cliff Richard said about his visit there recently (in his perfect BBC English): “We have seen no moaning faces and everywhere we have been (…) smiling faces, saying this is something we are going to get over. So, a salute to you all!” A salute indeed, ae!


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Teodora Koleva
    Jan 09, 2014 @ 05:38:47

    An in-depth fascinating study my friend! Would love love love to be exposed to Maori culture myself. I have seen their dances. So powerful!


  2. Marc Mollan
    Jan 09, 2014 @ 06:40:49

    Thanks Dogi-mon for sharing your life with us with such honesty and clarity. Love from the ❤ locally and universally


  3. Teodora
    Jan 09, 2014 @ 07:17:06

    Wow, the story about the church structure made out of toilet paper rolls is fascinating!


  4. Teodora
    Jan 09, 2014 @ 16:53:57

    By the way, health care is nowhere near perfect in the USA as well. It is a pattern. The government is trying now with Obamacare. But it is a business. It is for profit in a way. It’s not clear to understand where helping starts and profiting ends.
    You should get Instagram if you can!


    • cornelius
      Jan 09, 2014 @ 20:27:01

      Yes, when you buy travel insurance, for instance, you can choose “the world” with our without the US. If you choose with, the cost is way higher. If only we could all just forget about governments and help each other…

      Instagram looks interesting, but I’m still in the dumb-phone category. At least my parents just sent me a new camera, picking it up next week!

      Thanks for following me by the way, big love to your family ❤


      • Teodora
        Jan 10, 2014 @ 04:28:36

        Thanks for replying so quickly! 🙂 Yeah, I just got a smartphone for the first time in a year and have quickly become addicted to Instagram. It is such a visual way of communication! You a really good writer by the way! I have been making myself write- never my strong point- by blogging more often and trying to make my blog more of what I wanted it to be.
        Big love to you and your friends and traveling buddies and family! Hugs.

  5. Martin Kargaard Thomsen
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 01:17:08

    Okay, C-man, det er bare godt skrevet!!!


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