02.03.2009 - 03.03.2009 18 °C
Now I think about it, I've slept in some funny places since leaving east London.
From a Soviet-era concrete slab of a hotel in Siberia where I had to shower in the sink, to an incredibly toasty yurt in the frosty and desolate Mongolian countryside where meal preparation was a constant family affair, to a Buddhist temple high up on Koya-san mountain where I was encouraged to take part in morning meditation, to an ex-hippy's caravan in Coromandel that doubled as an insect-lovers paradise, to a stream-side sleeping bag deep in Tongariro National Park (more on this last one soon).
And that's not to mention umpteen nights spent struggling to sleep on clanky trains, cramped planes and wobbly boats.
None of these temporary abodes, however, had as much surreal appeal as the night I found lodging in a Christchurch jail.
Before I let you start thinking that I cut a deal with the screws and managed to swap the traditional one allowed phone call for one blog update, or that I'm somehow typing this from incarceration, I'd better explain that this jail is actually a totally legitimate backpackers called Jailhouse and I paid for the privilege of being here.
When the previous owners, the Corrections Department of New Zealand, decided at the turn of the century to close the facility and move it's tenants elsewhere, the jail was mothballed. It remained dormant until a couple of years ago when a Christchurch couple bought the place and set about transforming the sparse surroundings into a dwelling of appeal to travellers.
The basic prison shell is intact, the shower rooms, cells and kitchen are all in their original locations, but they've been significantly softened and made (much) more comfortable.
As a reminder of the buildings past, and perhaps to also show off how much they've improved the décor, the current owners have kept one cell in original convict condition. As you can probably imagine, it's a pretty cramped and dank space, the bare bricks decorated with various sketches of voluptuous women courtesy of the last resident artist.
Jailhouse can't quite resist playing up to it's previous notoriety, with various references to those who stay there as “inmates”, advice on local amenities listed under the heading “ways to escape”, and the proudly ironic boast that they've been “accommodating people for 130 years”, but all in all it's an efficiently run and well-kept place.
I just got the feeling that nobody who stayed there was ever fully relaxed. As novel a one-night stop as Jailhouse undoubtedly is, perhaps it'll never be able to escape the fact that fundamentally it's a (nicely scrubbed up) jail, and repeat offenders are not meant to be encouraged.