A place never the same on the next visit, for you have changed. The place in question was a backpacker’s hostel in Dunedin, New Zealand. But it could have any of the many places in which I have tarried for a while over long years of travel.
On my first visit to this particular hostel, many years ago, it was a glorious relief. We had travelled the length and (admittedly limited) breadth of New Zealand, working our way slowly towards the south of the south island. With one place after another offering adrenalin tourism for people a good deal younger than me, this place offered some reflective peace. Here we found no bungie jumping, no parachuting, no base jumping, no white-water canoeing, no jet-boat leaping, not even alcohol-fuelled and heaving nightclubs. Instead, it was happy being itself. So we stayed longer than planned, soaking up some winter sun, long sleeps and restful days.
On my next visit, after a long day of travel, the hostel was a welcome sight – evoking old memories. It beckoned to me with its deep red bricks, quirky structure, layers of windows and balconies. My room was a cosy corner, with plenty of windows and views over the harbour and town. I seemed to be taken yet again, relishing being in a place that seemed the same.
But it was not the same. Now paint was peeling on sagging balcony rails. No-one seemed to use the kitchen any more. The chairs were stained and rickety. The windows had trouble staying attached to their framed. There was no buzz in the common spaces. At reception, I had to press the call button repeatedly before a surly woman emerged from a back room and showed distinct disinterest in being helpful. To be sure, most of the signs around the place were the same, but they had faded, with the occasional irrelevant word scratched out.
There was one new sign, a tell-tale sign: ‘No refund after you have paid for room’. Initially the sign seemed unremarkable, so I ignored it. But later I realised: it meant that people had been requesting refunds, in order to go to a better place. If they could find one. At the time I was there, it was actually difficult to find accommodation at all, for a university graduation had filled the town to overflowing with visitors from afar. So people seemed to stay here only because they could not find a bed for the night elsewhere. Even so, the fact that it was half-empty spoke volumes.
Had the place really changed? Initially, I thought the place itself had changed and I could find the magic once again somewhere else. But then it struck that it had not changed all that much, for it was largely the same, albeit a little faded and worn. A few touches here and there would easily have restored its former feel.
Instead, I had changed over the years. My thoughts dwelt long on what had once attracted me to the place, about its magic and peace and relief while journeying. That may have been the case then, but things change, don’t they? I realised that I was simply not drawn to the place any more.