Off the cuff: An international trafficker of tea bags

May 13, 2019 15:15 Mick O’Reilly

New Zealand is a long way away — it’s like travelling to the end of the Earth. It’s 11 hours on a plane from Hong Kong, and even that’s another 11 hours on a plane from London.

Between jet lag and changing time zones, it turns what used to be my regular 12 midnight into high noon. You can watch football over breakfast live from the night before — and the result can be enough to put you off your cornflakes or leave you in a bad humour for the rest of the day.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like when Captain Cook “discovered” it, claiming it for Great Britain. Let’s put it this way, the Brits considered New Zealand so far away that they didn’t send their deported felons there to set up a colony — they opted for Botany Bay instead.

When you’re on a plane travelling to this insular and isolated nation, you are required to fill in a very comprehensive customs’ declaration form — detailed and with little wiggle room.

Visited a farm recently? Yes or No. Have any foodstuffs? Yes or No. Any botanical samples? Yes or No. Monetary instruments over $10,000? Yes or No. It seemed to go on forever. It was so detailed, it wanted to know my flight number, which is pretty standard — but even asked what seat I was sitting in. For the record, it was 56H, had extra legroom and the person in 56J snored, woke me up twice to use the toilet and the person in 57H poked me a few times when he was stowing his table away.

My daughter has made New Zealand her home for now. And when you’re so far away from home, or the place you grew up, there are little things you miss. One of those is Barry’s tea bags, another purple chocolate-covered shortcake biscuit snacks as her WhatsApp chat asked. That was all fine, but when I went to the shop to buy them, the blue packets looked kinda purple and the purple packets looked kinda blue, so I bought twice as many of both just to be on the safe side.

That New Zealand customs form didn’t ask me about Barry’s tea bags or purple snacks, so I didn’t tick that box. Besides, tea isn’t technically a foodstuff — it’s a liquid in powder form.

The customs lady in her all black uniform — now I know how the Kiwi rugby team got its name — was polite but firm. Any food products? I melted and confessed to Barry’s tea bags and chocolate snacks. She smiled. That didn’t phase her.

“Any hiking boots?” she asks. That wasn’t on the form. Yes, I admit sheepishly, then she diverts me to an X-ray machine to check all of my luggage. I wasn’t alone. Three quarters of CX113 seemed to be in the X-ray line, even 56J and 57H too. Serves them right, I thought.

“Excuse me, Sir” another customs lady says. Ok, I’m sweating. “Could you put this in you pocket. We’re testing our sniffer dog.” She hands me a packet of fresh thyme. I go to stuff it down my trousers, like a real smuggler would, I think. I don’t know. I only have chocolate and tea, not narcotics. I’m sweating and nervous.

“No, Sir. In your pocket.”

My suitcases pass the machine, and I head for the doors, contraband in pocket.

A beagle and handler give me the sniff test. It didn’t react to the cases or the thyme. Its handlers are disappointed and thank me for helping. I just became a mule of tea bags and chocolate.

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