New Zealand Part One: the glass island

Don’t bring food to New Zealand. There’s a cute beagle in the airport with a nose ten billion times more sensitive than yours, anxiously awaiting your arrival. He and the man on the other end of the leash love to greet travelers and sniff their bags, the former with a wagging tail, the latter with a big friendly Kiwi smile. Don’t be fooled.

Before you get to meet this amicable duo, however, you will have heard announcements, read forms, and seen numerous signs warning you not to bring food into this island nation. They even have amnesty bins you can use to dispose of your “forgotten” foodstuffs before you get to customs.

Get rid of the evidence!

When we arrived – I hate to say it – we had food in our packs. A fair bit actually. We’d stocked up due to our late arrival. Kids would get hungry. It was never a problem before, in other countries. Then we saw the amnesty bin with a sign above it pleading in bright colours and friendly prose that we dispose of our illegal cargo. Oh, and, by the way, Travelers, there is a $400 fine when we catch you. When. The tone was vaguely familiar . . . oh, right, it’s the tone I use with raised eyebrows and a deadpan stare at my kids when I’m giving them one . . . last . . . warning. Right before the smack-down.

Suddenly, our frugal, don’t-waste-perfectly-good-food selves were in conflict with our respect-the-rules-of-the-country-we’re-in selves. We didn’t know about the beagle at this point and didn’t have an appreciation for the rationale behind the rule. In hindsight it’s a little ridiculous, but at the time we were tempted to be sneaky. Linds was tired and left the final decision (and responsibility!) up to me.

“It’s not worth the stress. Let’s just throw it all out,” I muttered.

“Yeah, it’s New Zealand. It should be easy to find a grocery store.”

The interrogation

Sheepishly, we unloaded our stockpile of contraband into the bin as our fellow passengers walked by us on the ramp. Then we passed through security and arrived at our customs agent, a middle-aged brunette with a face that said, “I’m smiling, but don’t mess with me.” After checking our passports, she looked up.

“Any food in those bags?”
She leaned in. “You sure?”
Holy crap. These Kiwis are serious.
“Yes. We used your bins back there.” I pointed a thumb back over my shoulder, composed my tired self, and tried to seize an educational opportunity. “By the way, do you mind explaining to the kids why that rule exists?”

She locked eyes with Eli. “Well, New Zealand is an island far away from any other countries – and it’s been that way for millions of years. So, all our plants and animals have become very unique and special. They know how to get along with each other but sometimes food from other places can bring in new plants or animals that can cause a lot of damage here. You probably came to New Zealand because it’s beautiful, right?”
Vigorous head nodding.
“We want to keep it that way so your kids can come back and it will still be beautiful. Isn’t that what you would want?” Her hard stare was answered with more vigorous head nodding.

Through customs, then . . .

I thought we were in the clear. Then I saw the beagle.

“Hello, sir. Do you mind just stopping here for a minute?”

Not a bomb-sniffer. A food-sniffer. Oh god. Did we forget something?

The little beagle made the rounds between us, going up on its hind legs to get its black super-nose right up to our packs.

The cute little canine lingered on Owen. I started to sweat. Owen is the biggest dog lover of all of us – could the beagle tell? Oh, right, Owen was carrying the snacks.

What about the trail mix?! I don’t remember that going in the bin. I started to sweat.

“Any food in there guys?” The handler was smiling. All blue eyes, white teeth and confidence that he had the world’s greatest lie-detector on the end of his leash.

“We did, but we got rid of it all in the bins before customs,” I answered, meeting his stare with a look of jet-lagged remorse.

“You sure?” His smile changed a little. Muscle fatigue? Heightened suspicion? A sadistic love of torturing new arrivals?


Pause. “OK, then. Sorry to bother you. Have a great trip, guys!”

And that was it. We were through.

The glass island

What we were to learn in the coming weeks was just how reasonable and justified this level of security is. New Zealand is a treasure. Unique. Valuable beyond measure.

My science teacher in grade school had a five gallon glass carboy (jug) that had apparently been sealed from the outside world for years. Despite never being watered or receiving fresh air, a tiny jungle of plants and compost thrived inside – a real self-contained ecosystem. It was magical. I wanted to crawl inside.

Image result for DIY ecosystem

New Zealand is like that – only better by dizzying orders of magnitude. A beautiful and slightly bizarre self-contained ecosystem that developed independently from the rest of the world for millions of years. Gorgeous landscapes of glaciers and fjords, volcanoes and beaches; home to strange and wonderful creatures like kiwis and glow-worms that have evolved independently of mammalian life. That’s how long ago this glass bottle was sealed.


Conscientious New Zealanders understand this. They are stewards of this glass island. Protectors. Invasive species like rats, rabbits and over one hundred plant species have already caused massive damage. The smiles we received at the airport were genuine – Kiwis love to share their treasure with travelers like us – but they would defend it even more fiercely. New Zealand is not a resource to be used; it is a delicate ecological masterpiece.

How do you safeguard a masterpiece? If you ever visit the Louvre in Paris, you’ll see the Mona Lisa is protected by a thick piece of glass.

New Zealand has a well-trained beagle.


  1. Very interesting. I would have made the same choice with our snacks, after seeing those kinds of signs. Arriving in Hong Kong made me more nervous than any prior border crossing:
    travelers must declare rice, meat, poultry, eggs (ok, so far so good…), any ozone-depleting sprays (eh?), medicine of any type (even a single dose of antibiotics for personal use), baby formula, any good containing milk, and then: ***any*** junk food (!!)…
    So we basically had to eat or toss every single edible thing we were carrying. We had a 1030pm junk food party. There are plenty of horror stories about people who didn’t declare, or who went through the red channel without knowing what to declare, then
    got busted. We destroyed all the evidence (with our teeth) before getting processed. I’ll make a mental note not to bring our own food if we go to New Zealand, thanks!

    1. Yikes – that is restrictive. Kids must have loved the late night junk food party though 🙂

      In New Zealand’s case, I understand the scientific rationale. Some of Hong Kong’s restrictions make me wonder how much of the policy is based on an exercise of authority vs. science. In any case, as travelers we are guests, so obliged to follow the rules of our hosts.

  2. Processed food usually is ok. If you have any doubt what you have, you can always ask the customs guys about it. ie. chocolate or cereal bars.

    Safe trip!

  3. As a New Zealander, would love to hear your overall impressions of New Zealand . What was the highlight of your time here?

    1. It’s coming! One month in New Zealand deserves several blog posts 🙂 But I will say that the morning we drove from Te Anau to Milford sound was astoundingly beautiful . . . the frost and mist in the valleys, waiting for the sun to erupt over the mountains . . . that will stick with me for a long time.

  4. We were there a few weeks after you and that drive certainly is breathtakingly beautiful. A sight not to be missed. Really looking forward to the blogs.

  5. Wonderful rendering of the cultural charm, scientific rationale, and traveler’s fear of breaking the law all wrapped into a tidy cohesive package. I’m envious of your gifts as a writer!

    We were once taken to the interrogation room as a family at customs because I failed to declare homemade veggie sandwiches on a return flight from Canada to the US. Not my best travel moment, but the agents took pity figuring the irate looks on my wife and kids’ faces would provide far greater punishment and future disincentive for me than any government could inflict. The agents were right.

    1. Ooooo, you’re lucky. I hear there’s a special place at Guantanamo for sandwich smugglers.


    2. The veggie sandwich tale reminded me of returning from Wales to the US. Upon arrival a small drug dog went absolutely nuts for my duffel bag. I was perplexed. The agent got very stiff and in a commanding voice asked me if I would mind opening the bag. She found something very suspicious, all wrapped in tin foil. Inside we found a chicken sandwich that I had jammed in there at the last second the previous day, planning to eat on the plane, and had totally forgotten about. She and the dog were both very disappointed.

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