It was the middle of May 2014—three months after being accepted to study in Christchurch, NZ and two months before I was set to embark on my journey down south—when I realized a devastating fact about the city I was set for. In February of 2011, Christchurch, NZ was shaken by a 6.3 magnitude Earthquake that truly shattered the heart of the city. Due to several previous, though less powerful, earthquakes, the region of Canterbury was already somewhat fragile; thus, allowing this event to cause extensive damage. As I read the article regarding this event, a regrettable thought of, “I should have researched more,” flashed through my brain. However, I read a little more about the earthquake and brushed it off under the assumption that if it were truly that bad the program wouldn’t let me go.
Upon arrival, I stood by this reassurance. When I touched down in Christchurch I was so set on looking for the beautifully famous New Zealand scenery that would become my everyday view, that I was oblivious to any subtle abnormalities or indicators of distress that might have been visible on the drive from the airport to campus. There were areas with construction like any city, but nothing out of the usual, and the campus looked structurally sound to me.
For the first week or two of my time there, this remained true. Then came school. I enrolled myself in the class, “Christchurch 101”—it was said to be easy and a good class for abroad students to learn about the city, and it was. But it was also a portal into the underlying pain that was deeply felt by every resident of the city. This class unveiled the devastating obstacles that so many people in Lyttleton and Christchurch were facing. We spent days fixing the lawns, rebuilding driveways, and paving sidewalks of destroyed homes. The most fascinating concept that I observed from these fieldtrips was that at each location, even if it was essentially rubble, we were greeted with a radiant family standing in front of their home. The artifacts and disaster that surrounded where they live were pieces and memories from their past life. And no matter how much progress they had made—either totally rebuilt or still in shambles—these locations were indeed their homes. These families and communities did not for one second let this disaster crush their lives or slow down their ambitions. Instead, as a community, they addressed the damage and worked together to rebuild their city. Each and every member, child or adult, went from house to house helping starting with those with the most damage and working their way to the minor fixes. Slowly, these communities are being put back together.
People always rave about the sense of community that follows a natural disaster and how amazed they are with the help and selflessness that emerges during times of need. I have always agreed, as a bystander, that it is incredible. However, seeing this first hand is a completely different experience. Being able to listen to the horrific stories, see a house with a 5ft in diameter boulder in the living room, feel the immense gratitude from the hug of a stranger who you have just helped, and absorb the resilience of a city that has not and will not accept defeat, is truly unbelievable.
I did not come to Christchurch, New Zealand—Garden city of the world—to live in a devastated, earthquake-ridden town. I went to Christchurch, New Zealand to see natural beauty unlike anything I had seen before, to be adventurous and daring, to push myself to places that I never thought I was capable of going, and to truly grow as a person. But had I not been in Christchurch, New Zealand: Garden city of the world, the devastated, earthquake-ridden town, I would not have been able to accomplish nor appreciate any of the things I set out to do. I would not have been able to feel so connected and so at home. And I would not have had the incredible life changing experience that I did.