Today, the balancing act that is life, highlighted by poignant examples of the strength, and resilience of the human spirit, is happening on opposite ends of our earth.
The people of North Africa and the Middle East continue to mass, and protest for basic democratic reforms that I take for granted. Beginning with the action of Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself alight in early January, the domino effect of popular protest movements has taken down entrenched regimes in both Tunisia and Egypt, and currently has another multi-decade old despot in Libya hanging from the precipice. All of North Africa from Morocco to Sudan have felt the tremors, and governments from Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, all the way to Gulf states like Bahrain, Yemen and Oman are having to deal with the aftershocks fomented by their own people. Today, hundreds of thousands of protesters are reported to be in the streets of Yemen alone.
These people are fighting against worsening economic conditions, corruption and political repression. A half world away, the people of Christchurch New Zealand, beneficiaries of a democratic system designed to protect its people from all of the above, observed two minutes of silence for those killed in a devastating earthquake at 12:51 p.m. local time, exactly one week ago. Jack hammers and rescue efforts ceased for the first time in seven days, traffic came to a halt, residents emptied into the streets, joined together while pondering the ground and the sky, as church bells rang, and for all intents and purposes Christchurch came to a standstill.
The little island nation of New Zealand has always impressed me. “Aotearoa”, the land of the long white cloud, as it is referred to by the Maori indigenous people, continues to punch above its weight class with regards to managing its affairs in a progressive and democratic manner. New Zealand isn’t perfect. But, this isolated island nation with a population less than the Greater Toronto Area, has always managed to keep its domestic house in order, whether it be social programs, indigenous people’s issues, or the environment. New Zealanders’ energy and joie de vivre is not only epitomized in their physical pursuits, because, after all, this is the home of Sir Edmund Hillary, incredible multi-day hikes, ocean paddles, and the out-of-body experience of bungy jumping. But, it is the nation of taking things one step further, of seeing how many physical activities they can string together to quench a constantly increasing thirst for challenge. New Zealand is the birthplace of epic multi-sport adventure races such as the Southern Traverse, and the Speight’s Coast to Coast.
On February 22, 2011, the physical embodiment of their democracy came crashing down around the 350,000 residents of Christchurch, leaving hundreds dead and leveling, or severely damaging many of the city centre’s most recognizable buildings, including the iconic Christchurch Cathedral. According to engineers, roughly one-third of all the buildings in central Christchurch will need to be demolished.
I think about my Kiwi friends, former work colleagues, as well as individuals I’ve met in far-flung corners of the world. I think of the Blenheim-based, rudy-hued river guide Peter Bruce, a.k.a. Wild Wally, the young Christchurch couple whom I shared a game of Yahtzee with in the spartan Mountain Refuge Hotel in Sust, Northern Pakistan, and the wandering, hotel-working couple my life-partner Andrea and I met in a wind-swept campground while bicycle touring on the outskirts of Spain’s Cabo de Gata – Nijar Natural Park.
Christchurch will rebuild. I am sure of that. I am also confident that the fight for basic human rights in all parts of the world will succeed. It may not all happen in my lifetime. But, it will succeed because, despite all our failings, our greatest resource and attribute is the thing that authoritarian regimes and natural disasters cannot take away, the strength and resilience of our human spirit.