Here’s a handy tip for you folks. If you are traveling to New Zealand, on your customs form where it asks "Reason For Trip" don’t write "To throw my ring into the fires of Mordor."
The actual reason for my trip was to speak at a training conferance so as I bounced off the plane and into the waiting cab I must admit I was a bundle of nerves.
My nerves only increased when I jumped into the front seat next to the driver, a big burly bloke sporting what looked less like a beard, and more like I had interrupted him halfway through eating a live sheep.
He turned to me and barked: "Your first time in New Zealand luv?"
I explained that I had been many times, but that I had lived in Clayton for five years so I was used to being surrounded by them. "It’s finally nice to meet one that has a job though," I joked.
Or so I thought. Instead it seemed like I had accidentally grabbed a big can marked "worms" and a tin-opener.
"Don’t talk to me about bloody Aussies luv," he said. "Mean country. Refugees float through the ocean on boats, they get to your country and you tell them to go away, but we… we take them in!"
Now to be honest I’m no great fan of Australia’s hard-line policy on asylum-seekers but instead I said:
"Well you need them, don’t you? You have to replace all the New Zealanders who have moved to Australia."
Deafening silence. The sort of silence you can hear. Finally punctured by him asking: "Do you know who invented bungee jumping?"
"Um, someone who was sick of their Dad saying ‘if your best friend jumped off a bridge, would you?’"
He ignored me. "It was a New Zealander!"
Impressive, I said, not actually impressed at all.
"You know a New Zealander also invented jogging?" he asked.
I chuckled slightly, assuming he was joking, but the look on his face told me he was deadly serious.
"Bu- bu- but surely people have jogged since the beginning of time, right?" I stammered.
"I mean I’m pretty sure the first person who had a large angry animal run towards them probably invented jogging… and sprinting… and swearing I imagine?"
"No," he said having none of my seeming flawless argument, "it was invented by a New Zealander. A bloke called Arthur Lydiard invented jogging as a method of keeping fit."
I was about to ask if he was pulling my leg, but then thought better of it as I thought it might lead to an entire conversation about how a bloke from Auckland had invented leg-pulling.
Instead I countered with: "So what you are saying is that he named jogging really, aren’t you?"
All I heard from under his beard was a grunt, which I took as meaning either: "I see your point and I will think on it some more and get back to you at another time" or "I know places I could bury you where they will never find the body."
We both decided it was time to move on. I started to fumble with my phone as a distraction, but he ignored the hint.
"Did you know New Zealand is part of the pacific rim of fire?" he continued.
No, I did not. In fact I didn’t (and still don’t) know what that is. It sounded to me like the side-effect of a particularly spicy curry.
I put my phone to my ear wondering if I was going to have to pretend it had rung just to break the awkwardness.
"Did you know you can get you driver’s license at 15 in New Zealand?" he asked.
I put my phone back down.
"Wow," I breathed as it seemed like the reaction he was looking for and to be honest he was starting to slightly scare me. "I guess that means when you see a Baby On Board sticker they might be talking about the driver."
"Did you know that NZ is the youngest country in the entire world?" he beamed.
"I did not," I admitted. "But it does explain why when sometimes it wants to go to a nightclub it has to borrow some fake ID and pretend it is Australia."
"Do you know why they call us the Land Of The Long White Cloud?" he asked.
"No," I tried again, "but it must make reporting the weather easy. Today, cloudy again!"
"Did you know in the 1908s in New Zealand there were 20 sheep to every person, but now the ratio is only 9 to 1?"
I knew it was probably time to bite my tongue, but I couldn’t resist: "Maybe they all just shaved their fleece into mullets and moved to Australia.
It was at this point my cabbie really started to freak me out as he moved closer to me and whispered slightly more aggressively than I would have expected: "Do you pee?"
I was slightly freaked out. Was he going to ask for a sample, because if he continued like this there might soon be one on the floor of his cab. I nodded nervously.
"You shouldn’t do it," he snapped. "We have a big problem with pee in this country!"
WTF? Did he expect me to hold on? And what was their big problem? It was at this point the cab driver seemed to realize my confusion and explain to me that P (rather than pee) was a drug that was currently causing many problems in New Zealand society.
I tried to laugh my mistake off: "P? Wow, I have been out of the loop. I stopped at E. I didn’t know they had kept going. I would like to try some Q!"
He went on to explain that P was the local term for crystal meth - what we would call "ice" here - and like here it was causing a range of problems in society.
(Although to be honest I’m not sure you why people from NZ would take a drug that means you don’t sleep. I mean there’s not that much to do there, and you can only watch the Lord Of The Rings films in a row so many times.)
Finally we seemed to be bonding, and yet for some reason I felt my lips continue to move.
"Well of course people like to get high in this country," I countered. "It’s the home of Sir Edmund Hillary and he got higher than anyone in the world. Although I guess when most people here get high they don’t take a Sherpa along for company, do they?"
The air was suddenly thinner and colder than it would be at the top of the summit, but like those adventurers I felt the need to push on despite the danger.
"Do you know why he had to climb Everest?" I asked. He grunted at me angrily, but I was unstoppable now. "It was the only place he could find on the planet where people wouldn’t come up to him and say ‘Ha ha… Hillary is a girl’s name.’"
I could tell I was starting to get a reaction of sorts. He looked at me and said: "You know he climbed it again, don’t you?"
"Yes," I replied. "But he had too. A lot of people don’t know this but he left his wallet up there the first time and it had his Video Ezy card in there and they wouldn’t let him hire without it."
As he started another rant and rave about how the country was being ruined by too many teenagers smoking pot, we finally pulled up my hotel.
I opened the door, grabbed my bags, and threw some money on the seat and tried one last time: "Well maybe that’s why they call it the Land Of Long White Cloud!"
And as he drove off I swear I saw him laugh. Either that or he was eating the rest of that sheep.