Skip to main content

I’m not sure what anybody else thinks about Downtown Backpackers. It’s not the kind of place for idle chat. Or any chat at all, for that matter.

I could, of course, strike up conversation with somebody in the lounge, ask the question directly, but it seems better to stay under the radar. Like everybody else, I’d rather not admit to staying here, even to fellow guests.

An agreement, unspoken, limits social communication to quick glances, snatched smiles (corrected immediately) and the odd functional query. “Is this the only saucepan?” “Has anyone worked out where the showers are?” That kind of thing.

Other than that, everybody has ‘just arrived’, they ‘leave first thing tomorrow’ and are ‘not staying long’.

But tonight is New Year’s Eve. Regardless of covert lies, everybody here will be seeing in 2011. Here. For each singular bottle of cheap wine there is a lone owner, drinker, watching the clock tick. 7:30pm here. 1:30pm Bangkok, and 5:00am London. At least, that’s what the plastic clocks say adorning each wall in the cavernously beige lounge. No, ‘adorn’ is the wrong word. The don’t adorn the decrepit and peeling walls they hang to, they further detract from their appeal as if to say:

“Look at all the places you could be enjoying the new year. All the places you could be that aren’t here.”

The clocks are probably wrong anyway.

Still, time doesn’t matter much here. This New Year, in all likelihood, will mean as little as the last. The place fell out of fashion long ago. What wasn’t worth rectifying then is surely no more deserving now than it ever was. The lift, for example, chugs up and down clunkily as ever. It’s thickly carpeted walls are only briefly endured by its passengers before the door drags open to expel them – the passengers, that is, usually. The thing works, at least. At least.

According to the leaflet, Queen Elizabeth once stayed here. “Enjoy a Royal stay”, it says. But I guess it must have been different back then. Room 209, I feel sure, would not at the time have housed 20 screeching steel bunk beds. And, similarly, I doubt that her Majesty would have snubbed the coffee shop in favour of her own instant brew in the guest kitchen.

And yet, despite obviously enormous differences, somehow nothing has changed. Nothing is new. The carpets, for sure, cannot be. Their vile grey murkiness outdates even Queenie. As do the frayed sofas, oak veneered doors and dodgy ceiling lampshades. In fact, if there is anything new here at all, it doesn’t notice. Perhaps it just blends in. The building’s musty aura is enough to swallow all that lies within it. Guests included.

Not that any of this matters too much.

Downtown Backpackers is a city crash pad, designed – or, rather, destined – to exist as a cheap base for cheap travellers to explore expensive surroundings. If they can get through a night under crispy bedsheets and find the showers, Wellington city welcomes their awakening. They, like I did, can tour parliament, slurp a coffee then wander through cropped gardens.

But at the end of the day you have to come back. And nothing has changed.

Leave a Reply