One of the necessary first steps when visiting a new country is figuring out How Things Work Here. You would think that would be obvious, but I assure you it isn’t. No matter where you go, things are at least a little different than back home. Store hours. Public transit. Just buying a cold six-pack is surely a mystery for visitors to Ontario, because how could you possibly guess that you have to visit a state-operated outfit called The Beer Store? When you grow up there, it’s normal. Otherwise, it is a puzzle to be solved.
Such simple tasks as buying food or disposing of your garbage can take a fair bit of study before you figure out the right way. By “right” I mean “easy”, and, more often than not, I mean the way the locals do things. It is funny to watch cruisers greet their newly-arrived comrades, because the conversation invariably starts with a 30-second info dump about where to buy food, do laundry, refuel, and get clean water. You will impart this information to all newcomers, whether you have ever met them before or not. Thus the community thrives.
When we arrived in New Zealand, I knew things would be a little different from home. But Canada is also a small British Commonwealth country, so I figured the differences would be fairly minor. And they are… but they are there.
My first adventure came when I wanted to special order a Christmas present for the girls. I did my research online (first shock: the internet is a prepaid system, with ridiculously high costs and low bandwidth limits. I’ll have to take up a collection if I want to post photos again any time soon.). I traded emails with the shop, and received an invoice. Great. I tried to pay online. Nope. You need an Australian or an NZ credit card. Fine. No, they wouldn’t accept paypal. Okay. I was told to do a bank transfer.
Now, there isn’t a bank in Opua. This place is petit. Luckily, I caught a ride with some other cruisers to Kerikeri, a town about 30 km away. Problem solved, I thought. I strolled down the main street and found a bank. I walked in, explained what I needed to the teller, and showed her my invoice.
She glanced at it for the briefest of moments. “You need to go to National Bank.”
“National Bank,” I said. “Right. Where is that?”
As luck had it, it was only a couple of blocks away. I strolled back down the street. My invoice didn’t mention National Bank, but maybe there was some sort of routing code on there I just didn’t know. Or maybe National Bank handled all this stuff. Or maybe the teller just didn’t like the look of me. Whatever. I was still confident that I could make this work.
Attempt #2. I walked into National Bank, and repeated my earlier explanation. This teller was more interested in my invoice. I felt confident enough to proceed to step two, and explain that I did not have a New Zealand bank account.
“No problem,” said Friendly Teller. “We can do that in cash.”
Hooray! I drew out my bank card.
She waved her hand in a shielding gesture, as though I were trying to hand her a grenade. “Oh! No! I can’t give you money here.”
I looked at her. I looked at the many clues indicating this was, indeed a bank. I looked at her little sign which read, “Teller.” Then I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I just didn’t know How Things Work Here.
I smiled at Friendly Teller. “Shall I use the ATM, then?”
She gave me a relieved smile. “That would be lovely. It’s just over there.”
So I walked fifteen paces across the room. I withdrew the relevant amount. And I walked back to Friendly Teller and handed her my cash.
The transaction was simple after that. But now I know – if I want money in New Zealand, I’d better find an ATM, otherwise I will make the human tellers cry.
Not long after, I found that I needed to call my bank back home to check something. My bank has a special number for collect calls, so I tried to call the operator. No luck. I tried another number for the operator. No luck. So I called the good people at Vodaphone.
“Hi, there,” I said. “I am trying to make a collect call from my mobile phone to Canada. Could you give me the correct number for the international operator, please?”
“I’m sorry, we don’t offer that service.”
“You don’t… I can’t connect to the international operator from my phone?”
“Well, then, how do people make collect calls out of country?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, we don’t offer that service.”
“Well then, how about the regular operator?”
“We don’t offer that service.”
“You don’t offer the operator? How is that possible?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am.”
I hung up. Erik took the phone and called back. I hate to pass on the problem, but the fact is, Erik is a master of these things, and I was sure he would figure it out.
The conversation began just as mine had, but Erik was not going to give up so easily. He moved on to a supervisor. That also went nowhere. Then he decided this must be a vocabulary issue. He established that the supervisor did not know what a collect call was, so he started to explain. I expected any moment for the lights to go on, and for the poor man to say, “Oh! You mean a Bounce-back Ringer!” and we would say, “Yes, how foolish of us. Of course we meant a Bounce-back Ringer,” and then we would move on to the meat of the issue, which was, of course, someone ringing our bank and having them accept the charges for our call.
Except, it didn’t happen that way. Because this man, a supervisor at a telephone company, had no idea what we were talking about. Reversing the charges on a phone call was just about the craziest concept he had ever heard, and I suspect he thought we were making it up. And he wouldn’t even admit there was such a thing as an operator in New Zealand.
Is there really no such thing as a collect call in New Zealand? I have a hard time believing it. Surely a Kiwi has, at some time in human history, managed to reverse the charges on a telephone call. Tell me your secrets, friends, because this one has me stumped, and I have no idea How Things Work Here for collect calls.