10 March 2011


Earthquake photos by Lizzie Whitman. Dunedin photos by me.  All rights reserved.

Following the earthquake in Christchurch, we were left to our own ends. Our hostel had been damaged, with its front collapsing and the rear sundered open by its falling chimney. We'd fixed it up and were living relatively comfortably, those of us left: the hostel owner, Peter, a local woman named Katherine, a German backpacker whose name was (maybe) Svenya, and us.

We were safe, and we got power after a couple of days. Given a few weeks, we might even eventually get water service again - although we weren't counting on it. While the inspectors and road service were out and working hard, and certainly we weren't in any serious need, there seemed to be little efforts actually on the ground anyplace outside of the city center. That makes sense - all the businesses and most of the injured people were there - but nonetheless it was frustrating.

My school, the University of Canterbury, had taken damage in all of its buildings, although none had collapsed. It was closed down for at least three weeks - maybe longer. No one could tell me much of anything.

Food was getting easier to come by, but after the initial re-opening of stores they were fairly cleaned out, and their resupplies were slow and scanty.

People were still missing. Still dying.

It was time to go, to wait somewhere else for school to restart.

Peter at the hostel was wonderful, and - of course - said we could stay as long as we'd like. And we probably could have - he was that kind of man. But when we told him we were getting ready to get out of Dodge, he was glad. He just wanted to lock the place up and go and stay with his daughter. I can't blame him.

We weren't sure where to go, and I'll be frank: we basically just picked a place off the map. Lizzie and I didn't know much about New Zealand, had few connections anywhere, had no plans - we just looked at the map and chose a place that sounded nice. Then on the bus, and off.  We would be away from this chaos and misery, at least.

On the bus.  South, to the bottom of the world, near the end of the South Island.

It's weird how things sometimes just work out.

They didn't work out right away, of course. At first we got off the bus and into a rough-edged, jam-packed hostel called Central Backpackers. It was crowded to the brim with people fleeing the quake.  There were people on mattresses on the floor and sleeping on couches in the lounge.

The hostel was nice enough - clean and friendly - but it was right on the central part of Dunedin: the Octagon.  It got noisy.

Dunedin is a college town, and the Octagon is a busy place come nightfall.  Kids just into university roam the sidewalks, laughing and jeering at each other.  They're not really very raucous (by American standards), with little violence or fighting, but a liquored-up teenager hollering across the street is annoying no matter where you are in the world.  Combine this noise with the overcrowding - filling the hostel near-bursting with tired backpackers with hollow eyes - and the problems with the gas line that deprived the whole building of hot water, and the cost of $60 a night... after two evenings in Central Backpackers, we wanted out.

Thus began a humiliating series of phone calls.

"Hello, I'm a student from the University of Canterbury, displaced by the earthquake.  I am just down here in Dunedin, and I was looking for a place where my wife and I could work for accommodations.  I was wondering if you had anything like that?  ....ah, well, maybe you know of a place where I could- okay, thank you anyway."

I'd hang up, cross the place off the BBH list of local hostels, and then call up the next place.  Sometimes they were brusque, sometimes they were rude, mostly they were sympathetic.  But without exception, they were unhelpful.

I'm not an overly proud man, but it's a hard thing to be almost begging.

But though I exercised my humility, I found nothing.  There were just too many people around Dunedin, all trying to get the same position.

We were starting to see no real way out of this, unless we got back on a bus and tried another town.  We'd barely had a chance to look around Dunedin, but it didn't seem like there was room here for us to stay while we waited for word from the University in Christchurch.

As sort of a last resort, we stopped by the iSite, a little office for tourism and newcomers.  Amongst the racks of brochures and posters advertising the DUNEDIN UNDERBELLY CRIME TOUR and EXPERIENCE THE ALBATROSS BOAT TOUR was a counter for people from Christchurch.  A trio of smiling women stood behind it.

"Need help?", a sign asked.

We did.  Enter Greg and Sue.

From Wikipedia:
Dunedin /dəˈniːdɨn/ (Māori: Ōtepoti) is the second-largest city in the South Island of New Zealand, and the principal city of the Otago Region. ... The Dunedin urban area lies on the central-eastern coast of Otago, surrounding the head of Otago Harbour. The harbour and hills around Dunedin are the remnants of an extinct volcano. The city suburbs extend out into the surrounding valleys and hills, onto the isthmus of the Otago Peninsula, and along the shores of the Otago Harbour and the Pacific Ocean.
Sue's a forty-ish woman with seemingly inexhaustible energy and a wide range of interests.  Her home is littered with evidence: on her patio is a stone sculpture in the process of being shaped; in her closet hangs a coat she sewed from a thick blanket; and many shelves are bent under the weight of books - all this in addition to her days spent as CEO of a local business.  On the day that Lizzie and I showed up looking for help, she was volunteering at the iSite, just trying to lend a hand.  On hearing that a couple were looking for someplace to work for accommodation, she rushed over to help with a big smile on her face.

Sue and her husband Greg are pretty amazing.  He owns his own business, golfs regularly and is a stolid member of the local Rotary, and plays chess weekly.  He peppers conversations with wry humor, always softened with his ready grin.

These two work hard and take care of their teenage son, but they still found the time to take in two Americans who found themselves in a tight spot.  And they did it with such ease and pleasure - almost before we knew it, Lizzie and I were up looking at their house, high up on the hills over the city.  And by the next afternoon, they'd installed us in their spare bedroom - putting together two twin beds for us - and done everything they could imagine to make us comfortable for the two weeks or so we were going to stay to wait on my school.

In the days since, we've felt more like family than a charity case.  We take turns making dinner and cleaning up the house, but they have without hesitation offered all the time to drop us off where we need to go, show us around to the sites, and give us advice about Dunedin.  We know that in a very real way, we can count on them.  And all they ask is, "Pay it forward."

We've had time to explore a little now.  And Dunedin, as it turns out, is gorgeous.

The town is heavily influenced by its early Scottish settlers, memorializing Scottish poet Robert Burns with a large statue and calling itself the "Edinburgh of the South."  Situated alongside the narrow Otago Harbor, Dunedin's a fairly dense city at its center surrounded by a belt of trees and some scattered suburbs.  It has only 100,000 residents (a third that of Jeju) but because of the many different ethnicities in New Zealand and a brisk trade in tourism, it has a lot of amenities only a larger city would ordinarily have - like a big variety of ethnic restaurants and club activities.

Among the commonly-cited attractions here are the world's steepest street, the Cadbury chocolate factory, New Zealand's only castle (Larnach Castle), Speight's brewery, and the Dunedin Railway Station.  But in the time I've been here, it seems to me that they barely deserve a mention next to the simple but spectacular beauty of the city and landscape itself.  A twenty-minute walk is sufficient to bring you up a steep hill in most directions, up above the generally flat city.  The view is amazing - perched up so high that you feel as if you might stir the clouds with a finger - you can see the harbor and the ocean, and down below, nestled in amongst the hills, is the city.  It's bright and clean and friendly, and at night it looks like a palmful of stars in the hollow of some great god's hand.

The wildlife is plentiful and pretty.  For a decent price, you can go out on a boat ride and see squawking local birds like the shag or garret, little swimming penguins hunting for fish, and thick rubbery seals lolloming on the rocks in the sun.  And sometimes, if you go late in the day, you can see the magnificent albatross.  Truly a royal bird, it slices through the wind like a broad white knife, steering with imperceptible motions of its black wingtips.  If you are as lucky as us, you can see two albatross curve in for long swooping arcs around a rocky promontory, matching their speed and bringing their wings in line as they size each other up as possible mates.

But we saw the beautiful city with the knowledge that it was temporary, and eventually we'd be going back to Christchurch.

From the University of Otago:
The University of Otago is New Zealand’s first university and a vibrant international centre of learning. It was established in 1869 by Scottish settlers with a strong conviction in the transforming power of education. Today the University has about 20,000 students, from all over New Zealand and from nearly 100 countries around the world. ...

As a research university, we also emphasise postgraduate study. Otago has a higher proportion of PhD students than any other university in New Zealand. In 2008 we opened Abbey College, New Zealand’s first residential college for postgraduates.
The day after Lizzie and I came to stay with Greg and Sue, I made an attempt at looking into my schooling options.  I didn't hold out much hope at this late date, but it seemed possible that given the circumstances I might be able to transfer to a local school like the University of Otago.  I placed a call over there and spoke to a laconic woman in the English Department, who soberly told me that she wasn't sure it would be feasible to transfer to Otago to complete my Bachelor with Honors there, instead of Canterbury.  I took her at her word: I didn't really know anything about the system here.  I'd never heard of a Bachelor with Honors one-year degree before I came to New Zealand, after all.

But Lizzie and I spent a couple more days in Dunedin.  And at least once a day, we'd be standing looking over a hill at the crashing waves and proud bluffs of the city, and Lizzie would turn to me with an appeal in her eyes.  "Look at this," her eyes said.  "And tell me you want to leave."

I went down to Otago in person.

As it turns out, they don't really know what a Bachelor with Honors one-year degree is, either.  They call it a Postgraduate Diploma in Arts.  No wonder they didn't think I could transfer; I had been asking about a degree they didn't even award!

I had a few days before the extended deadline to apply - I could get in, if I hustled.  Time to go to work!

Financial aid.  Visa office.  English Department.  Registrar.  International Office.  Accommodations Office.  And then back to all of them again.  Call Christchurch.  Call the government visa office.  Emails back and forth.  A desperate race across town to fabricate a "signed" copy of an authorization.  Run, run, run.  And I had to get copies of all the things I'd submitted to Canterbury, of course.

Things got going in short order, and I overcome most every obstacle.  Even the redundant documents were no problem.  As an aside, though: getting a transcript out of my undergraduate school (University of Tampa) taught me a lesson in what true incompetence can be.

True incompetence lies in getting an email and failing to understand any one single piece of information within the email.  It lies in managing to completely fail to understand the problem, much less solve it.  It lies in getting everything possible wrong, while still maintaining the outward appearance of functioning normality.

The University of Tampa tech support helpdesk is the worst helpdesk in an ocean of bad helpdesks.  It is bad and I hate it.


But.  I got it done.

We've bought a car, a cheap but sturdy Nissan Pulsar.

We've rented a flat, a one-bedroom near the beach.

I'm going into my second week of classes, learning Old English and post-colonial criticism and contemporary Shakespearean stagecraft.

Sometimes we stop and have a beer near the Octagon, smiling as we pass Central Backpackers on the way to the pub.

We volunteer a few shifts a week at the Christchurch Embassy in town, giving advice and help to newly-arrived refugees like we once were.

And sometimes at night I look down at the city, and it looks like a palmful of stars.

1 comment:

  1. If you ever in Wellington let me know, I got a spare room, a big television and lots of wine