When I got paged over the intercom to the All Nippon Airways desk I was nervous, but figured it was something about a seat assignment on the flight from Narita to Auckland that I was about to board. When the woman from ANA handed me a cell phone and said that someone from New Zealand Immigration in Auckland wanted to talk to me, I was suddenly feeling fatalistic.
“Mr. Rovics, why are you coming to New Zealand?”
The immigration agent sounded like a miserable person who liked her job way too much. It was obvious why she wanted to know – because she already knew I was coming to play a few small gigs, and it wouldn't do for me to say I was just going to enjoy the winter weather, though in fact that was one of the main things I was looking forward to.
“I'm playing six small gigs.”
She already knew this, but she wanted to hear it from me. I learned from my problems entering Canada that lying is the thing they dislike the most.
“Will you be paid anything for these engagements?”
“Yes, I hope to make a little money while in New Zealand, though it's all very marginal,” I replied.
Which sure is the truth. In a country as remote from the rest of the world as New Zealand, people there tend to be very excited when anybody from the outside world shows up – and for good reason. It's extremely expensive to get there from anywhere other than Australia, and the whole country has only two urban areas that might remotely qualify as “cities” where a performer like me might stand to draw a decent audience.
Nobody tours New Zealand to make money, as far as I know. The people there who make the laws issuing work permits seem to know this – a work permit for New Zealand is free. The only charge involved is the permission you need to get from the musician's union. Which, last time I got one, was also free – they waived it since they heard I was singing at a labor rally in Dunedin.
“Do you have a work permit?”
She obviously also knew the answer to this question – she's an immigration agent, for Pete's sake.
“No,” I replied, “I was hoping I could get one when I arrived. I was under the impression it was a formality that could easily be taken care of when I got there.”
Which is true. Although I sure was wishing I had taken care of this formality a long time before. Which is what I had done before my three previous tours of Aotearoa, aka New Zealand. The problem is, unless you live near a city with a New Zealand consulate in it, which I don't, you have to mail your passport in to their embassy in Washington, DC, and be without a passport for several weeks, which is a logistical challenge for someone who tours as much as me. One I vainly hoped I could avoid, and one I've managed to avoid in Australia, where I have successfully gotten work visas after arriving on Australian soil twice before. (Which costs $895. Which is a hell of a lot of money, when you're paying thousands just to get there, and thousands more to traverse the vast distances in that massive, barely-populated continent. Another place where it's almost impossible to make any money touring, but I keep doing it anyway, for some reason.)
“Mr. Rovics, can you tell me what happened to you recently at the airport in Trondheim, Norway?”
I just wanted to tell her to get to the point, but I knew that I had to answer all of her questions if I wanted to have any chance of getting in to her lovely, stolen country of rolling hills, sheep, and imprisoned natives.
“I was strip-searched on suspicion of drug smuggling. But I wasn't smuggling drugs, I made that part up.”
Which I did make up, of course. Artistic license, as I said. Who would be stupid enough to blog about smuggling drugs? Who would be stupid enough to believe it if someone did that? Well, her, apparently, but it seemed like a moot point. Especially since I was already obviously stupid enough to be blogging about lots of things I shouldn't have been.
Why do I say I'm stupid? Because although most of my blog posts are only read by a few hundred people, some of those few hundred people are apparently working for the government of New Zealand.
“What happened to you in Canada?”
I told her what she already knew. I was banned from Canada for a year, because I tried to get in as a tourist when really I was planning to do a gig at the Railway Club in Vancouver, which I hadn't gotten a work permit for. I lied to Immigration Canada about it. I knew better than to do that this time, but it didn't help.
“How much money do you have to spend in New Zealand?”
“A thousand dollars in terms of what's available in the bank.”
“One thousand US dollars? You have to have three thousand dollars in order to enter New Zealand.”
“I could have three thousand dollars if I took cash advances on credit cards,” I replied, hopefully.
“Well, that would only be if you were coming in on a tourist visa.”
So why did she ask the question about how much money I had then? Who knows.
Then the shoe finally dropped.
“You can't board that flight tonight, and you can't come to New Zealand until you get a work permit.”
“Can I cancel all my gigs and come in on a tourist visa? If I don't fly to Auckland then I can't fly from there to Perth, or from Brisbane to Hong Kong, etc.”
It's a bit of a cascading, chain reaction clusterfuck sort of situation. Buying a new plane ticket to anywhere I need to go will cost thousands of dollars.
“You can't board that flight. You're not welcome in New Zealand.”
“I know it's none of my business,” I said, “but is it normal for immigration agents to read the blogs of people traveling to New Zealand?”
“I've read your blog,” was her answer to that question.
“Did someone tell you about my blog? Is there a reason you read my blog in particular?”
“I've read your blog,” she repeated. “Thank you,” she said, indicating she was done talking to me, and I handed the phone back to the ANA agent.
After the ANA agent got off the phone, she and all the rest of them looked shocked. Nothing like this had ever happened to them, it seemed. This guy is stuck in the airport, he can't board this flight to Auckland.
A nice man from Hong Kong who worked for ANA took me back through Japan Immigration. No problems getting back into Japan. (Technically I suppose I had left Japan when I went through Immigration earlier in the day at the airport, and they stamped my passport and all that, but in any case, it wasn't an issue.) The man said that in the three years he had been taking care of people on this flight from Narita to Auckland, this had never happened. He wasn't entirely sure what the procedure was at this point.
He helped me collect my luggage. He shared some of his own minor travel horror stories – he recently went hiking in Siberia, where the fact that he is fluent in Chinese, Japanese and English was of absolutely no use in trying to navigate Siberian society, which led to some travel complications for him.
He took me to the hotel reservation desk. They said all the hotels were full. He said I should try calling one in particular, the Narita Airport Rest House. He left and said he had to talk to his boss about my situation. He said I should wait there for him, and he'd be back in 15 or 20 minutes. An hour and a half later, he never came back.
The hotel had a free room, thankfully. Getting to this room, I felt like I was living in a travel anxiety dream, the kind of dream I have at least once every few nights. Except it was all very real. Still feeling that way. I called a friend who is a lawyer in Christchurch. Maybe she knows another lawyer who can help. Maybe. Seems unlikely at this point.
I think I'll be able to get a work permit before I land in Australia, anyway, so the rest of the tour should be OK. If I can figure out how to get to Australia without using the ticket that goes there via Auckland, which is the one I already bought.
Not sure what my next move is, but I know it's going to be costing me many thousands of dollars, whatever it is. And if I max out all of my credit cards completely, I guess I've got the money.
If you've got any to spare for a stupid musician who didn't get a work visa to do 6 lousy gigs in a country that has 3 million people and 60 million sheep and is located in the middle of nowhere, your donations are very, very, very welcome. Donations (just click on the "donate" link there) or subscriptions both put money directly in my bank account, and are both very, very welcome at this moment. If you live in Tokyo and have a guest room, that could also be very helpful. Now I'm going to get some sleep, and see if tomorrow is any better than today was.
Epilogue: Thanks to all of you who sent me messages of encouragement, and despite my idiocy in not lining up a work visa in advance, sent me financial support as well. It helped immensely, to offset my losses. Many of you said I'd get a song out of this, so I thought I'd better write one. Here it is: "The Spies Are Reading My Blog"