Christchurch Revisited

Forget everything I ever said about Christchurch.

I did a bit of trash-talking about the city in the past, likening it to Auckland’s shoddy, bratty, little sister.  To be fair, my last foray with the South Island’s big city had me seeking out touristy, tacky places recommended by a pink-haired, Eminem-loving hostel worker.  This time around, I had the guidance of Andy and Holly who both had normal colored hair and liked dance music.  Andy was a friend of a friend that I ran around with at a wedding in the uber-posh Casino San Juan in Puerto Rico.  We had never met, though we went to the same university and have a sprinkling of friends in common.  He graduated a few years my prior, but a mutual Facebook message from the friend found Felipe and I at his house a few months later.  With a week in the city under his guidance I can now say I am a bon-a-fied ChCh fan.

Andy, after checking with the misses, invited us over to dinner for our first meal in town.  We chatted about our home state of Virginia, about our new Kiwi vocabularies and the art of adding “eh?” to the end of sentences.  Later, we went into more important subjects like missing Ketchup, what channel you can find South Park on, and where to find a good burrito on this side of the world.  Andy and Holly had lived in New Zealand for three years.  I had only been here five months, but it was nice to sit down and reminisce about the little things that make us quintessentially American.

Not to be left out, Andy and Holly were friends with a small Chileno community in Christchurch and promised to arrange a get together for Felipe a few nights later (making some slight adjustments to our growing the itinerary).

Andy and Holly knew all of Chrischurch’s dirty secrets.

Ten minutes into our first glass of wine together, I knew we were in for a crazy week.  The couple took it upon themselves to ensure that our time in the city was eventful and set us up with a schedule from the start.  First up, the next evening Felipe and I would meet them for Happy Hour at Dux de Lux, the multi-bar megapolis on the edge of the Art Center.

Most of our day was spent in that vicinity wondering through the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waiwhetu and gawking at Kiwi artist Christine Webster’s shocking photography in the premier exhibit.  The gallery’s other showcase exhibit “Observation/ Action/ Reflection,” by Kiwi Andrew Drummond, was meticulously technical and scientific (with little action observed to reflect on) so we ditched our guided gallery tour and went across the road to the Christchurch Farmers Market.

The crowning jewel of the Kiwi culinary experience – the item you are guaranteed to find in every town at any establishment that sells food, is the pie. Naturally, we found the pie stall at the market and ordered ourselves lunch.  Personal, puffy, savory pies can be chic or cheap in New Zealand. This curried green oyster pie from the gourmet pie vendor far surpassed the gas station mince and cheese typical of my late night cravings.  Oysters in a pie… you can’t get much more Kiwi than that.

The vibrant market had not only up-market food vendors, but also arts, crafts, wine and beer, and a string of quirky musicians.   The market was on the edge of the Art Center, a collection of forty specialty shops, fine art galleries, film, dance and theater venues, bars and restaurants all housed in stone buildings of the Gothic Revival style.  On the outer edge of the Centre was Dux de Lux where we met Andy, Holly, and a slew of their friends from the local swinger’s club for Happy Hour.

I had always imagined swingers to be an attractive group of busty woman and fit men, you know, the way the appear in avant-garde movies.  Not so.  The swingers at Dux could have easily passed for a West Virginia motorcycle gang, yet looks can be deceiving.  The Christchurch swingers were a lot friendlier than they appeared, but I guess being overly friendly was in their nature.

We got to talking with Steve, a burly, longhaired, middle-aged American clad in a tight, black leather jacket that busted at the seams over his expanding belly.  His partner was at home, but she had told him he didn’t need to be back until ten the next morning.  He stuck around long after the others left and we learned of his new forays into S&M and his day job as a counselor for violent sexual criminals.  Some people have a funny way of balancing work and play.

After using the “one drink at each bar” routine to explore the city’s nightlife with Andy and Holly, we awoke later than lunchtime and rested until after-dinner when we went to see the Free Theatre’s production of Doctor Faustus.  It was part of the two-week Platform Arts Festival sponsored by the University of Canterbury.  Like most theater I have seen in New Zealand, I was overly excited by the flashy marketing and completely disappointed by the production.

The following day, Felipe and I met up with some friends from Franz Josef, explored the Christchurch Cathedral, watched a Māori Haka dance in Cathedral Square, and ambled about in North Hagley Park.  On the edge of the park we entered the Canterbury Museum and went up to the third floor to check out the Antarctica exhibit.  Kiwi’s are really into Antarctica.  They are the smallest country to have a base there (Scott Base, near the American’s McMurdo) and have historically served as a point of departure for this last Earthly frontier.  The exhibit at the Canterbury Museum plainly displayed their enthusiasm and Kiwi pride.

After a failed trip to the only Borders Bookstore in the South Island (whose books and CDs cost twice that of their American counterparts), we met up with Andy and Holly back in the city at their Chilena friend Connie’s for a game of Cacho.  The rules for Cacho rest somewhere in the happy junction of Yaghtzee and Poker.  There are dice, a cup, and betting.  Beyond that, the goal of this popular South American dice game was a bit murky.  My team’s strategy was to stay unnoticed and it seemed to work.

Christchurch is the largest city on New Zealand’s South Island.  It is the second largest in the country, but perhaps I should clarify what is meant by a large city in New Zealand.  At 372,600 people, Christchurch is roughly the size of Omaha Nebraska.  Situated along the eastern coast about halfway down the South Island, Christchurch is at the edge of the Pac Man-shaped Banks Peninsula.

After almost a week in Christchurch, Felipe and I could not stop gushing about how much we loved the place.  I seriously contemplated ditching my job in Queenstown to move to the big city.  Playing devils advocate, I argued that Christchurch lacked the natural beauty found elsewhere on the South Island but, taking offense to my comment, Andy butted in and demanded we go to the Banks Peninsula.  Thus, we added the last item to our itinerary, modified the rest of our trip, and drove off from Christchurch the following morning into the center of Pacman’s mouth.

The Banks Peninsula was formed by violent eruptions of three volcanoes and their craters nurse the harbors of the peninsula’s major towns Lyttleton and Akaroa.  The Banks Peninsula is historically the sight of an old Māori settlement of the Ngai-Tahu tribe although it’s main town, Akaroa clings strongly to its French-colonial identity.  Akaroa, with its Rues, French Flags, and themed shops glared of a fabricated authenticity and reappropriated quaintness.

The head-spinning roads leading to Akaroa must have had superb views – the outstanding nature Andy had spoke of – but, all we saw was the same gray cloud we had seen for weeks.  Closer to the water, the limited view offered a murky brown mud that melted into blue/green pastels on the horizon.

Christchurch was a ray of sunshine.  The clouds parted for us just when we were ready to venture inside to the museums and shows.  As we drove back to the country, Mother Nature regained her fervor and the floodgates reopened.  The following day, with all roads to the south flooded and closed, we drove the only direction possible – west.

Everyone told us it wasn’t worth it – that the rain was so bad we would see nothing but the ten meters in front of our car.  As the Otago Daily Times splashed pictures of desperate, drowning sheep on its front page, we headed west through the clouds into the mountains.  My months in New Zealand were becoming a never-ending battle with nature.  I, the underdog, was losing sorely.  In twenty-four hours, I would be snowed in at an unheated hut below New Zealand’s highest mountain.  My sunny days in the city of Christchurch became a distant memory as the world around me turned a blinding white….

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