Napier is a coastal town on the east side of the North Island of New Zealand, known for its excellent wine production and Art Deco architecture. But what I will forever remember most about the city is my night spent in a Napier Prison.
This small town on the edge of Hawke’s Bay was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1931. The terrible tragedy had an upside however as the entire city was rebuilt in Art Deco style, making Napier the second-best collection of the architectural style after Miami.
Napier is also nestled in one of the premier grape-growing regions of New Zealand; tastings have no bouquet of chi-chi here as vintners often come straight from the fields with muddy boots and purple stains on their fingers to pour you sips of their product.
I must have had a few sips too many, for I woke up in a prison with a bursting bladder and knew that my only recourse was to make my way through the empty halls to the ladies’ room, located across the yard in solitary confinement.
New Zealand has a thing about weird hostels. So far on my road trip around the country I had stayed in a converted bakery, an insane asylum, an old train, a teepee, a surfing school and a spiritual retreat. I had had booked a night at Napier Prison to continue the trend.
This prison was built in 1862 and was a working jail all the way up until 1993. The sturdy stone building is right next to the ocean, whose crashing waves could have been either torture or soothing relief for the inmates trapped inside the walls. The hanging yard was a big negatory no doubt, although today the only thing hanging is backpackers’ drying laundry and a basketball hoop.
It was the middle of the night and I did not want to leave the relative comfort of my cell, complete with light switch on the outside of the door that only pulled closed with the help of a chain and hook. This room was never meant to be locked from the inside, and the hostel owners had to improvise.
My bladder had other ideas however and I shimmied out through the eerily quiet hallways, for once wishing my lodging was filled with the shouts of drunken hostellers. Through the outside rec yard and into the bathroom I went; the toilets being even scarier than the hallways thanks to the graffiti on the walls, scrawled by prisoners who were once segregated in solitary confinement in these very rooms.
I finished my bladder business and was about to make a quick walk back to my cozy cell when I noticed one name in all capital letters scratched into the back of the cell door: SHILO.
That is my name. And it is not a common one. Quick walk nothing, I RAN back to my cell, pulled my sleeping bag up over my head and didn’t move until the morning light broke through the windows, stripes of bar shadows hitting my face.