New Zealand got off to a pretty rocky start for us. We arrived exhausted from our travels, and we hit our first snag at immigration. We figured we’d rent a car and drive around the country’s North Island for a couple of weeks, then head on to Australia, but the last few days in Chile were so hectic that we hadn’t yet been able to fully plan it.
Our mistake was mentioning that to the immigration agent upon entry. She asked what we were going to see and misunderstanding it for polite banter, we answered that we weren’t sure yet. She paused, and then asked what we were doing here then. “We’re here to visit New Zealand,” I replied. “And you don’t have your trip planned?” she asked with suspicion. I realized she was evaluating us as visa overstay risk, and I wanted to respond with “Look, I’m sure your country is nice, but we really don’t want to be here for more than a couple of weeks, lest I go insane from an overdose of pastoral scenery.”
But you don’t say that to an immigration agent. Instead I told her with an exhausted sigh, “Look, we have a rough plan. We’re going to rent a car and drive around the North Island for two or three weeks. Then we’re going on to Australia. Did you want me to write out our rough itinerary?” “No, it’s fine,” she said. She stamped our passports and handed them back. “Most people arrive with a more detailed itinerary,” she added. Ouch.*
Eager to put the immigration agent behind us, we moved on to customs where we stood in line to declare that we had a tent. Most countries in the world take customs and introduction of invasive species seriously, but New Zealand takes this stuff very seriously. If you’ve got a tent or camping equipment that may have dirt on it, they ask that you declare it at customs so they can perform an examination and cleaning. When we got to the front, we opened our bag and pulled out or camping equipment, which all passed inspection as dirt-free. Our tent was the only thing that needed cleaning.
The customs agent took our tent, tagged it, and handed us a paper. “Go through the exit, then wait at the window outside. We’ll call the number on your tag when we’re done cleaning it.” That seemed super nice of them, and although we knew it was in New Zealand’s best interests to do these cleanings, I also appreciated it. “Wow, it’s so nice you give free tent cleanings,” I said cheerfully, “Thank you.” The agent didn’t smile or look up. “But it’s not free. It’s us taxpayers that pay for it, but really we should be charging you,” he replied. I didn’t try to make conversation again after that.
Everyone else at the airport following these interactions was absolutely lovely. A whole team of airport employees, including a couple of off-duty customs agents, helped us find some important medical documents we forgot while moving through customs. The young Maori guy who sold us bus tickets to get to the city had a warm smile and a great sense of humor. And our bus driver was the sweetest guy, making sure everyone got off at the stop they needed. But it’s hard to forget first impressions, and after all of the hype around New Zealand as one of the friendliest places on Earth, it was a surprise to find that not everyone here is friendly after all.
* I have since found a much easier way to handle immigration agents, whose primary goals are to determine if you’re a threat to their country or a visa overstay risk: tell them you’re on a trip around the world, and list a few countries you’ve been to and where you’ll go next. This gives them both the reason you’re visiting their country and confirmation that you’ll be leaving for a subsequent destination (assumedly before your visa expires). They’re also usually tickled by the idea of meeting a round-the-world traveler, so it spices up their day.