Welcome to New Zealand!

A joyous festival and amazing art in the southern city of Christchurch

Flipping through old notebooks recently, I found a list of “must see” countries that Melissa and I made back in 2008. One of my contributions to the list of dream destinations was New Zealand. Now, 15 years later, I’m finally here!

Melissa provided the impetus when she registered for an international conference of Urban Sketchers being held in Auckland, NZ, in mid-April. (Urban Sketchers is a worldwide society of outdoor artists. Melissa has participated in events with local chapters while house sitting in Malaysia, Canada, and France.)

For the month before the conference, we’ll be driving around New Zealand’s rugged, sparsely populated South Island, exploring its mountains, lakes, sea coasts, fjords(!), and small cities and towns. For the month after the conference, we’ll explore the North Island, which is home to bigger cities as well as to pretty beaches, volcanic landscapes, and centers of Maori culture. (The Maori are descendants of the Polynesian people who first settled New Zealand.)

With no housesits scheduled so far, we’re planning to stay mainly in youth hostels or with Servas hosts to reduce costs and meet people. Public transit is sparse on the south island, so we’ve rented a car to see as much of the scenery as possible. I’m thrilled to report that I’ve driven for several days now on the “wrong” side of the road with no mishaps.

After more than 19 hours in the air, we landed last week in Christchurch, the biggest city on the south island (pop. 380,000). A few hours after we arrived, the city gave us a buoyant welcome by kicking off its LGBTQ+ Pride Week with a rainbow celebration just a few blocks from our hostel. Mingling with the crowd, watching the performances, and feeling the joy of people reveling in being themselves wiped away our jet lag and left us with big smiles and happy tears.

The center of Christchurch, where we stayed, feels new and vibrant. There are modern apartments, international restaurants, and shopping arcades full of interesting boutiques. Part of the little river that meanders through Christchurch has been turned into a pretty place to stroll or sit by the water. Our appreciation for the city was helped by the fact that we had especially fine weather during our three days there, with bright sunshine and temperatures around 70F.

Downtown Christchurch feels very open for a city center. Most buildings are only a few stories high, and there are great empty spaces in the middle of some downtown blocks. The reason is a pair of earthquakes that decimated Christchurch in 2010 and 2011. In addition to killing 185 people, the 2011 quake and its aftershocks caused enormous property damage. Thousands of structures were condemned—including the city’s tallest residential and office buildings—and much of the central business district was cordoned off for two years. A Servas member who hosted us for dinner said that her three siblings who lived in the Christchurch area lost their homes in the earthquake, and her own house suffered major damage.

Since then, the city has been in a flurry of rebuilding and restoration. One of the most iconic rebuilding efforts involves Christchurch’s 19th-century stone cathedral, which sits on a large plaza in the center of the city. The cathedral suffered so much damage—including the collapse of its roof, spire, and rose window—that church authorities decided to demolish the building and replace it. A groundswell of public opposition stopped that plan, and money was raised to rebuild the cathedral. Work is still going on, with an estimated completion date of 2028.

In the meantime, parishioners are worshipping in an extraordinary structure known as the Cardboard Cathedral. It was built in just 12 months from timber, steel, and scores of enormous cardboard tubes that support a tall A-frame roof. The transitional cathedral was designed by a Japanese architect named Shigeru Ban, who specializes in post-disaster construction with recycled materials. The building has a feeling of lightness and simplicity that is very pleasing. Once the old cathedral has reopened, the Cardboard Cathedral will continue as a local parish church.  

We saw more extraordinary sights at another 19th-century building that is getting a new lease on life, the Canterbury Museum. The city’s natural and cultural history museum since 1867, the Canterbury Museum is about to close its doors for a multiyear modernization project. After clearing out the contents of the building, the curators turned it over to scores of local and international graffiti and mural artists to cover the bare walls, ceilings, and stairways with whatever they wanted. The result is an amazing five-story work of street art. Everything from the basement boiler room to the empty galleries, offices, conference rooms, and storage areas is covered in vibrant paint and multimedia installations.

We weren’t sure what to expect from the exhibition, but it blew us away. We learned so much about the shadowy, underground world of graffiti artists and marveled at their disparate styles. Later, as we walked around Christchurch, we made a beeline to every bit of street art we saw and had fun recognizing some of the tags from artists in the exhibition. There’s not much Melissa and I love more than learning about new things!

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