Sunday, April 24, 2011

Feeling at home in Dunedin

A few weeks ago, before Abe and I ventured to Christchurch, we stopped off in Dunedin--the southern most city on the South Island. I did not want to write about the city until now because I felt conflicted. I spent almost a week in Dunedin and loved the city, but I felt a bit guilty when I thought about why. Because I think the reason I liked it so much is because it reminded me of Brooklyn or of the blocks surrounding University of Columbia in New York. 
The first time I went to Brooklyn to visit my friend Ashley, I absolutely fell in love with it because of the stores and restaurants. I got a wonderful feeling I’d never had before: like a future déjà vu. When I would pop into a restaurant or store, I would think “This is the exact restaurant that I want to own!” or “everything I would ever buy is all in one place”. I felt the joy of being surrounded by strangers who must be kindred spirits. Store and cafe owners who liked the things I liked, and maybe in another life we’d great friends. Brooklyn and New York have felt to me like a kind of home to me, even though I’ve never lived there, because they house some of my favourite things in the world all in one place: independently-owned unique cafes, artsy shops, and loungy spots to see live music. These are all of the things I loved about Dunedin too, but I feel it’s unfair because I loved them about New York first.
In Dunedin, there were cafes and coffee spots on every corner, and each morning I felt overwhelmed at all of the terrific options for breakfast. Café and bar names were short and sleek like: Governor’s, Good Oil, The Fix, Ra, or Craic. The décor in almost all of the shops and restaurants were either modern and artistic—some even had university student work on the walls and most places had art for sale—or beautiful old buildings with stained glass windows, high arched ceilings, or exposed brick walls.
Since Dunedin is the host of the annual New Zealand Fashion Week, Dunedin does house some more expensive shops, but after about two blocks of those, you’re again passing “funk shops,” three second-hand bookstores piled floor to ceiling with beautiful old books, and a handful of pure Brooklyn shops. The stores that sell gorgeous, unique jewelry, art, home decorations, and knickknacks, a lot of which is handmade. The girls working in these shops are always helpful and artistic and sometimes mention asking the artists themselves if you have a question about a particular item.
My first day in Dunedin I got breakfast at Governor’s, a place recommended to me by my awesome co-worker, Rosie, who is from the city. She was actually so excited that I was visiting her town that she typed me up a list of things I needed to do. Governor's was one of the premier mentions on the list: “Their breakfast is AMAZING,” she gushed, and man, she wasn’t lying. While I was eating, I looked at the art bulletin board that covered one wall of the café, full of napkin art customers tacked up, and flyers advertising events. I leafed through the Otago Daily Times newspaper that was sitting on a nearby table and found out that a beatboxing champion was hosting a show at one of the bars that night. Uh oh, I was in love. 
When Abe and I walked around that evening, we found that not only was a beatboxer playing at one bar, but almost every other bar featured live music at least one night a week, and most had it more than one. The center of Dunedin is an octagon of stores and bars, and when we passed through it all of the bars had a different live band: some playing fantastic covers and others playing original music, but all of them had some people dancing. Other people were sitting on couches over coffees or cocktails, appearing deep in happy and stimulating conversations with friends.
The entire city had a romantic feel to it: the center of the city was in a small valley on the coast with the small hills lit up with houses surrounding it. My hostel was on one of these hills and it was in a tall, charming old building overlooking a stone cathedral, and it was named after the school in Harry Potter (Hogwartz). So clearly I have some kindred spirits in Dunedin too. Even though Brooklyn and New York City were where I had my first, “I want to drop everything and move here and make friends with all of MY people” experience, it does not mean I cannot have that experience again in a new city in a slightly different way. 
My newfound love for Dunedin will not cheapen my love of New York; I’ve decided not to be monogamous in my affairs with cities. I want to collect little homes all around the world where I can feel the joy of a few things I love most all in one place.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Christchurch in photos

Sometimes the photographs tell much more than words ever could. I wish I had a better camera here, and I wish I was a more practiced photographer, so I could do these places justice. Especially Christchurch. But no matter. The beauty and devastation of this city were eerie and moving, and I would like to share them.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A visit to Christchurch

We arrived in Christchurch about six weeks after the earthquake hit, devastating the city. It actually felt as if more time had passed since the disasters in Tokyo had long since taken over the news headlines, and Christchurch was the last natural stop on the north end of the South Island before Abe and I headed up to our jobs on the North Island. Neither of us had seen the city before the earthquake even though we had both wanted to visit. I wanted to visit the Arts Centre, a castle-like structure full of theatre, shops, and cinema, the town’s center Cathedral Square, and the town’s many café stops which were said to rival Wellington’s reputation as being the most “wired” city. Abe had his own list of things he wanted to see.
I knew a lot of the city had been badly damaged in the earthquakes and after-shocks, so I expected most of our tourist destinations could no longer be seen. The cathedral has fallen, after all. But I also knew that the city was no longer discouraging people from visiting, and Abe and I reasoned that our visit would help their economy.
It wasn’t until I arrived that I realized, this was my first time witnessing the aftermath of a natural disaster or some kind of war zone—because they must look awfully similar—with my own eyes.
Walking through the streets to our hostel, we passed what I knew were buildings now piles of rubble and a house with its walls crumpled beside it brick by brick to reveal a grotesque life-size dollhouse. When we were one street away we reached a big blue tent surrounded by construction cones and wire fencing, and I realized I was seeing my first ever military checkpoint. We walked up and showed ID and explained that we were staying in a hostel down the street through the yellow zone—which not surprisingly, is what they called the buildings surrounded the completely blocked off red zone in the center of the city.
They eyed us for a few minutes before letting us through with a warning to not try to pass through without a letter of residency in the future. It struck me odd that they needed to survey us so carefully.  I’m not sure what they were checking for? Are there really so many people trying to sneak into this area that they need it guarded? What would they sneak in to do? To loot? To enter their damaged houses to get their belongings so they can flee the city for good? Or to take pictures as we saw so many tourists and possibly citizens too do because really what else can you do when surrounded by so much awe-inspiring destruction?
We were greeted at the hostel by a smiling, blonde German girl who happily showed us around the warm, family-run place. But it too felt like a ghost town. There were three backpackers in the large kitchen, sitting drinking cider and talking quietly. We didn’t see any other guests that night. The German girl was talkative and helpful, showing us the spread of the hostel—which could clearly accommodate way more than 5 guests. Abe asked her if many people were coming to Christchurch lately. “No,” she said emphatically but quietly. “Christchurch used to be such a beautiful city. But there is nothing left.” She paused. “When people call to make a reservation with us at the hostel, and then we tell them about the cordone and passing through the military checkpoint, they never show up. Even though we have no damage here.”
It is hard doing business in a city ravaged by earthquakes.
As she showed us to our dorm room, (which turned out to be our private room since we were the only occupants) she told us there might be after-shocks. “We’re still getting them, but they’re not too bad. Don’t worry, this building is fine. The walls will move, but it is fine.”
The walls will move? I realized this was my first visit to an earthquake region too; I’ve never experienced any kind of natural disaster.
In my two days spent in Christchurch, I never did feel an earthquake, though it’s possible I slept through a small one. I tried to prepare by asking Abe what I should do if we felt one. I would hide under a bed, in a doorway, or if I was outside I’d find a clearing, he said.
Since I did not make it to Christchurch before the earthquake, I never saw its buildings when they were still standing. I missed out. Every place on my list to visit was closed, badly damaged, or at least partially blocked off for safety measures. Abe and I enjoyed a really nice day walking through Hagley Park, but even there on the corner of the city, we had to zigzag around cones and walk through blocks of crumbling buildings on our way home.
Visiting the city overwhelmed me with questions, and I think Abe had a similar reaction. Maybe you0 cannot see that kind of destruction and obvious change with your own eyes without wanting some answers.
Will Christchurch businesses be able to start back up again? Will people return to this city or decide to live somewhere they feel safer? Will Christchurch return to the city is once was? Will it be different? Better? Only time will tell, and our German hostess told us the red zone will not come down until “maybe December.” So only time will tell. The Christchurch I visited looked a lot like a ghost town.
The day before we left, a sign in the hostel said that the nearby Beat Street Café was open for business. Abe and I went and chatted with the friendly staff and ate delicious food and coffee. We played Dominoes in the outdoor patio of mismatched antique furniture and bumped along to the funk music playing from within. Other people came and went from the café as we sat there, smiling and enjoying their food. It left me with a good feeling about Christchurch. People there are living their lives, and slowly they will try to rebuild and reopen the places that were and maybe even make them better. Some people will leave—who can blame them? But there is still something special that is alive in that city. I hope I can visit again.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Photographs of my second Great Walk: Routeburn

Thankfully, I did not accidentally delete my pictures of my second Great Walk on the Routeburn Track. This walking track is also in Fiordland National Park, but it does not wind around Lake Te Anau like the Kepler Track did. The Routeburn track is through the moutains, but because it is not around the lake the views are very different. So, if any of you are considering hiking in Fiordland, expect that all three of the Great Walks there--Milford, Kepler, and Routeburn--look very different.

I am obsessed with all kinds of water: oceans, lakes, rivers, and waterfalls are always my favourite to photograph. The mountains and plants in New Zealand are amazing, so I have pictures of them too. But my heart is always with the water (I blame it on those 15 years of swimming back in my childhood). Since the Kepler Track wound around the lake, I mourned my lost photos and thought sourly, "The Routeburn track can never compare."

Luckily, I was wrong. The Routeburn track is very diverse. We walked through forests, crossed old and new bridges, crossed open streams, saw dozens of waterfalls, and had views of a lot of the other mountain tracks in Fiordland including the most challenging Rees-Dart Track, which is a range of gorgeous snow-capped mountains (and though I love photographing snow-capped mountains I will not be hiking this track because I do not hike through snow if I can help it!).

The beginning

 My beloved water. All of the rivers I've seen on the South Island look like this. What have we done to our rivers in the U.S. to make them look so unlike this gorgeous sea green color? 

The beech forest, draped in a neon green lichen called old man's beard

The Routeburn Track takes hikers through a bunch of different valleys and breaks in the forest line or "bush line" as the Kiwis say. It's nice because you get to see the mountain lakes and rivers up close, as opposed to the Kepler Track, where you were always looking down on the water from great heights.

Night one: in my mummy sleeping bag on my bunk

Day two: the day of waterfalls!

There were a few lakes like this up high in the mountains. It is so cool to see these; I fell in love with them. The hut we slept in on night two was right next to a lake like this called Lake Makenzie. Sadly, it was much too cold to swim.

Day three!

On the Kepler Track, Abe and I were too exhausted to do any of the side trips except one waterfall walk. But on Routeburn, we decided to climb Conical Hill summit. It was extremely icy, and we had to get down on our hands and knees to climb some of it, but we made it!

At a couple points on the track, we were so high up that we could see the Tasman Sea!

This is the "orchard." It is just a huge clearing with trees that look like fruit trees, but sadly, they aren't. I was amazed by how many different kind of shrubs and ferns could be in one valley!

We saw many waterfalls that day, but the largest and most spectacular waterfall was Earland Falls.

On Lost Photographs

When I finished writing my lengthy blog post about surviving my first Great Walk tramping trip, I felt good. I thought I had adequately described the challenge this walk was for me, and I was excited to share my accomplishment with the world. But as I scrolled through my picture folders to find a few of my favorite shots to add to the post, my stomach sank. The picture folder I had named "Kepler Track" was empty. I frantically searched through other folders hoping that the photos were dropped in the wrong one by mistake. But they were nowhere to be found. I checked my camera's memory card, but as I suspected, I had deleted the photos from the card and somehow forgotten to paste the pictures to any folder on my computer.

I gave myself a few days to get over the loss of about 300 pictures that I took over those amazing three days. But even now, I am crushed. I'm not just upset because I had some beautiful shots--which I did since I was 1400m or 4600ft high in the mountains above beautiful Lake Te Anau. I am upset because I lost all documentation of my great accomplishment: my first Great Walk and multi-day hiking trip. I walked 37 miles in three days, and as I mentioned in my post about the track, taking pictures on narrow paths through the mountains where I was so physically exhausted that I more closely resembled Frodo or Gandalf than myself was my favourite part of the trek. Those photos were my trophy, my reward, for surviving.

I know many other people who have lost treasured photographs on trips, and I feel a kind of solidarity with them now. It is devastating that I misplaced some of my trip photos because I learn so much more about different places and about myself when I am travelling. I feel like losing those pictures robbed me of the memory of myself in a period of significant growth. And yet, I know I will always have my memories, and the evidence that I have changed is right here for everyone to see.