And Now For Something Completely Different

Air New Zealand is fun. It starts with their safety video, this one staring Bare Giles, talking through oxygen masks and life jackets on the Routeburn Track. Their 777 Business Class is reverse herringbone, which means you’re facing towards the aisle and looking at everyone’s feet. When transformed into a bed, it’s very comfortable and secluded, with plenty of shoulder room. Unlike the flights known as “transpacs,” which spend much of their paths over Canada, Alaska, and Russia, this one is entirely over the Pacific.

I land in Auckland and follow a well-labeled footpath to the domestic terminal for the short flight to the South Island’s largest city, Christchurch. I was watching a Youtube video about English dialects, and it was explained that in New Zealand English, the words ‘pin’ and ‘pen’ sound like ‘pen’ and ‘pin.’ That’s one of the things I’m taking in as we quickly descend into a vast green and overcast farmlandscape, counting sheep in the fields on landing.

I meet up with my friend and we set off for the first adventure- making it out of the airport’s rental car hire parking lot car park without hitting oncoming traffic in our little stick shift Chevy Holden Spark. It all goes ok with some intense concentration. Left turns are easy; right turns are hard. I keep turning on the windshield wipers because they’re on the opposite side of the steering wheel.

The first sign that something’s not quite right comes when I’m trying to book a hotel, and find that the Holiday Inn on Avon I was looking at online was actually “scheduled for demolition in 2012.” We walk through Hagley Park, which feels wonderfully crisp and English, in a green, cool, slightly wet spring day. Past a school getting out for the day, with the kids off to rugby practise, we cross into the city centre.

Downtown Christchurch is one of the strangest, most heartening and depressing sights I have ever seen. It just feels as if pieces of it are missing, like paths were undrawn by the artist of the video game map. The 2010-2011 earthquakes have reduced churches, high rises, and what seems like entire blocks to condemned rubble, and construction abounds, but it’s not the hopeful sort, like a lively boomtown, but gray and sad.

Christchurch is a college town, hosting the University of Canterbury. We meet up with some students in the evening for dinner and pub trivia. Not all hope is lost in Christchurch- most of the interesting shops and restaurants have moved west across the park, and we stroll along the Riccarton before dinner. Our trivia team table is an eclectic and amusing mix southern hemisphere English accents- New Zealander, Australian, and South African along with us Americans. Here’s what I learned:

  • Islamabad is the only national capital that begins with an ‘I’.
  • Which camelid is the national animal of Peru? It’s not a Llama or Alpaca. It’s the Vicuña.

After a night in Christchurch, we set off in the morning for the West Coast, via Arthur’s Pass.