PORT HILLS, N.Z. – All I’d done was order a boysenberry ice cream cone.
“I like your accent,” said the dark-haired young woman at Sign of the Kiwi Teahouse, built in 1916 as part of the vision of environmental conservationist Harry Ell.
“I like yours, too,” I replied.
New Zealanders, we are finding, are a friendly lot, and she had soon asked where we were from, when we’d arrived and how long we were staying. Then, the conversation turned to what seems to be on everyone’s mind these days in and near Christchurch.
“You know we had an earthquake here the other day,” she said.
“We heard,” I said. (My cousin had told Kathy and me of the Dec. 26, Boxing Day, quake minutes before we boarded our plane in Boston.) “It was smaller than the first one, right?”
“Smaller, yes,” she said, “but the damage in Christchurch was worse.”
I can only hope she’s got that wrong. Because two days before that second quake, a sharp, shallow 7-second ripple somewhere near the city’s center, The Press, the local newspaper, reported that damage from the huge, 7.1 quake on Sept. 4 could exceed $500 million.
Signs of damage are everywhere, though it’s not always easy to tell what is new and what is old.
The cracked façade of the Baptist Church, dating to 1881, looks to be among the old. The church is fenced off, its fractured front columns partially pinned in place by steel I-beams. Hand-made scenes of the Christmas crèche adorn the chain links that keep the public at bay.
In contrast, damage to the stone cross atop the Christchurch Cathedral is clearly new. We watched this morning as workmen, lifted by crane, removed the cross, lowered it and drove it off in a pickup truck. The second quake, called an aftershock in the newspaper, measured 4.9 on the Richter Scale, normally an unnerving but modest shaker. But large swaths of Christchurch, a city of about 375.000, are cordoned off by fence or yellow police tape. The Cathedral and Arts Centre are closed, as are scores of shops and restaurants. Piles of brick still sit beside back-alley dumpsters. The newspaper reported today that residents and businesses had filed nearly 500 claims of damage from the Dec. 26 rattler with the region’s Earthquake Commission, 128 for damage moderate or serious.
To add to the pain, wind and rain whipped through the city on Tuesday, hours after we arrived, splitting huge limbs off at least two trees on the walkway along the Avon River, which cuts a green swath through the center of a place that calls itself the Garden City.
The combination of rain, exhaustion and a city so scarred that our hotel’s bellhop/driver confided that plenty of people had sought the therapist’s couch worked together on our first day to leave us wondering what had possessed us to fly halfway around the world to visit this country. We didn’t have to wait long for an answer.
Today the sky dawned blue. In the morning we walked to a city center transformed from ghost town to bustling hub. Cathedral Square filled with people, watching and being watched. A saxaphonist doubled as soul singer. Five girls, step dancers, clicked and tapped, raising money for a competition in Ireland. Chess players moved human-sized pieces around the board painted on the sidewalk. And a crowd gathered to watch the crew remove the Cathedral’s cross.
At Johnson’s Grocery, a store stocked floor to ceiling with English specialties, from Twining’s Teas to Toffee Crisp, the proprietor posed for pictures taken by a couple who seemed to be regulars.
“We thought we’d find you buried beneath cans with your toes sticking out the door,” the woman said. It turned out he had been driving back from a “spot of tea with mum” when the latest quake hit. The store was a mess, cans and tins scattered everywhere. But only one jar broke, he said.
Count the people here down, but certainly not out. We could measure that in the hikers, joggers and bikers on Sugarloaf Mountain, across from the Signs of the Kiwi Teahouse, and in the pluck of the young woman behind the counter who told us she’d been “in beed (bed)” when the quake hit.
“Tell the people in Boston how friendly we are,” she told us after bringing a pitcher of water and two glasses to quench our post-ice-cream thirst.
If our first day in New Zealand hovered near a lowly 1 on a 10 to 1 scale – the fender I scraped on our new rental car didn’t help – the spectacular views on Sugarloaf Mountain helped make Day 2 a 10. Disney Productions couldn’t have written a more perfect script: sunshine, 70 degrees, song birds, the faint smell of what I believe was eucalyptus, and panoramic views of a green salt water cove to the East and the city of Christchurch and snow-covered mountains, faintly in the distance, to the West.
This much I’ve already gleaned. Nature lives on a grand scale in this country, even as it from time to time reminds those living here how fragile their existence is. With their rugged sweep and command, the Port Hills felt a bit like foothills near San Francisco’s Bay Area on steroids. And the seriously spectacular stuff on this country’s South Island is still ahead of us.