Orange vests fill the city of Christchurch. Blaring radios, scaffolding, traffic cones and chain-link fences abound. “Don’t walk there,” they say, “Go this way. Watch out for this falling building.” I’ve never been to a city so devastated by a natural disaster.
On September 4, 2010 the city—at the time, the second most populated in the country—experienced an earthquake with an epicenter in the nearby Canterbury plains. The quake caused widespread damage and the government declared a state of emergency, called in the New Zealand army and instated a curfew to keep people out of the streets and out of harm from the damaged buildings.
Kiwis are a resilient bunch. Over the coming months they banded together to rebuild their crumbled city until February 22nd, 2011, just over five months later, an aftershock with a magnitude 6.3 of struck with an epicenter just 10 kilometres southeast of the city’s downtown core.
The devastation was immense. Downtown essentially became a pile of fallen rubble. 185 people lost their lives and Kiwis left the city in droves—what little of it there was left to leave.
Now, five years later, construction continues. The city has been offered a unique opportunity to rebuild from the ground up. The “Garden City” is still there, behind lines of fence and tape, willing itself forward.
I arrived in Christchurch with a soaking wet tent strapped under my bag and a dead cell phone battery. Since I’d been camping in the rain and hitched my way to the city, I hadn’t yet had an opportunity to figure out just what I was going to do there.
After numerous failed attempts at couchsurfing, I checked a map for the closest hostel and booked myself in for a night. The Dorset House turned out to be clean, bright and soothingly familiar. Wooden engraved signs told me where to find the kitchen, toilets and other rooms, while helpful posters around the place educated me on the water supply. There was something about the place that reminded me of Yasodhara.
I spent the next couple of days wandering around the disaster-etched town. I knew a friend I met travelling was stationed there, so we spent a day checking out the alternative bookshops and a café co-op. The botanic gardens beckoned me to explore, and the huge park, lined with enormous trees, offered respite from all the orange reflective material in the downtown core.
One of the most significant buildings damaged and subsequently condemned is the Anglican Cathedral in the city’s central square. Built between 1864 and 1904, it stood as an emblem for the city for over a century.
As I gazed upon it’s cordoned off rubble, I couldn’t help but relate to the loss of a sacred space. The June 2014 fire that resulted in the loss of Yasodhara’s Temple of Light is still acutely in my awareness. The feelings of relating were cemented when I walked through the maze of closed-off streets downtown to find the transitional Cathedral. That’s right, the Cathedral is housed in a structure using the same language as we call the Transitional Temple. Not only that, but—similarly to Yasodhara’s transitional space—it’s been constructed using atypical building materials. This Cathedral’s A-frame construction is made from PVC pipes, corrugated plastic and shipping containers. The latter being Christchurch’s building material of choice since the earthquakes.
I spent some time at the memorial across the street for the 185 people who lost their lives in the quakes and then made my way to the door of the Cathedral. Marigolds lined the flowerbeds, bursting with other New Zealand flowers I couldn’t identify.
I paused as I rounded the corner to the front. Awaiting me was a massive triangle of colourful stained glass. This may be a transitional Cathedral, but there is thought and quality put into it. Beauty is a generous form of grace offered when the human spirit endures disaster.
As with anything on New Zealand’s South Island, the place was crawling with tourists. Two elderly women stood behind the glass-topped counter of the gift shop, answering questions and joking with one another. Their lightness an inspiring response to tragedy.
After taking in the majesty of the place, I browsed the shop and picked out a postcard, pulling the ladies from their lively conversation.
With the high cost needed for reconstruction, there have been loose plans for the Cathedral’s rebuild, but so far nothing has been implemented.
I left the transitional Cathedral and made my way South. I instinctively knew it was south because I was facing away from the sun—just another miniscule way I’ve become used to life in the Southern Hemisphere.
The previous day I’d fallen into a heart-felt and spontaneous conversation with the owner of a newly opened organic shop. She told me about a café downtown I wanted to try and we talked about starting fresh, the vibrancy after disasters and brokenness.
Existing like a quiet hum under the city is a layer of brokenness. I’ve come to understand that it was one part of the place that I connected with, even though I don’t feel as though I’m in a particularly broken part of my life right now. Instead, I feel like I’m rebuilding.
The tenacious spirit of those who stayed in the city is inspiring. I feel a connection with the fragility and uncertain nature of the place. At any moment, everything could change—another earthquake could bring everything crashing down. That sort of knowledge creates an intense sort of appreciation for what already exists. I feel glimpses of how powerful it is to live my life that way.
Eventually, I made my way out of Christchurch. The friend I visited there has spoken to numerous people who see it as some type of vortex—it pulls people in who want to leave but just can’t. I could feel how people might experience the city that way, yet for me it reignited a sense of purpose.
I came up with all sorts of daydreams for yoga classes I could teach there to bring healing to a traumatized people, but ultimately, I left. For now.
I take the momentum of rebuilding with me with gratitude for the connection I formed to the city.
Om Namah Sivaya