How Rhys Darby Got the Army Lost

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During his travels, the New Zealand comedian has got an army lost and discovered the joys of banana beer.

Where are you right now?

I’m in Los Angeles. I live here. For now.

Have you ever experienced culture shock?

Any language barrier is hard because I feel like I’m on the back foot and wish I’d gone to a better school. But I’ve been to many Third World countries and I embraced it all. You feel privileged but you also realise that, in some ways, these places have it better than we do. The people work together as a community. In the highest reaches of the Western world, where we’re demanding certain types of coffees, we’re on our own.

Which destination surprised you?

I was lucky enough to visit a developing part of Cuba recently. It took four hours to drive from Havana in a tiny car with the wife [Rosie], the two kids [Finn, 12, and Theo, eight] and a Cuban guy who couldn’t speak English. I wasn’t expecting to be truly launched back in time but this little town, Trinidad, has mainly horses and carts and hasn’t adjusted to the modern world in any way. There was a man who woke up everyone in the morning by whistling; he was essentially the village’s alarm clock.

Has your family taken other road trips?

We drove for five hours through the wilderness to a remote village in Zambia to visit a child we’d been sponsoring. The boy, his mum, his dad and the chief of the village showed us around. I gave them a frisbee – they hadn’t seen one before – and showed them how to use it. They were very thankful and said they would use the frisbee to defend themselves from the hippos. 

How did the boy respond to your visit?

He was nervous but he smiled the entire time we were there because he was the star of the day. He showed us the goat and the various chickens we’d given them then he showed us the crops. He has a job: to guard the crops from hippos. That’s why the frisbee was going to come in handy.

Have you ever been lost on your travels?

Many times – mainly in New Zealand while I was in the army. [Darby trained as a signaller in Morse code.] Once, we were in a convoy and I was driving the lead Land Rover. My corporal said to turn left into Oamaru then he fell asleep. About an hour later, I was turning left into Timaru and he woke up and said, “That’s the wrong town!” I’d got the army lost and we had to turn around. But we weren’t in the middle of a war or anything.

What was your typical childhood holiday?

Not much. Mum would take me and one mate an hour north of Auckland. We’d stay in a motel on the beach and go swimming while Mum hung out with one of her man friends.

That sounds a bit grim. Was it fun at the time?

When you’re 10... there were probably elements. Other school breaks, I’d be shipped off to camps to get me out of Mum’s hair. That also sounds a bit grim.

Do you remember the camps fondly?

Not really. I’ve always been a bit socially awkward and I probably would have rather stayed at home.

When you travel now, do you prefer to go rustic or resort?

After staying in so many hotels over the years, like it or not, you do get a bit snobby. If you have to be away from your family, you want soft towels. But as long as I’ve got a comfy bed, a coffee machine and internet – I want to Skype my kids – I don’t mind if there’s no view.

Is there a destination that you could have given a miss?

I think I can find charm even in the worst places. But we wouldn’t go back to Cuba in a hurry because there was nothing for the children, apart from playing in some forts. It was all about cigars, bars where Ernest Hemingway drank and buildings that could possibly fall down. The place smelt like gas and, while the dirtiness gave it a charm that adults like, kids want good internet and a pool. But then what do they learn? They learn nothing. Life isn’t just resorts with free ice-cream. If they’re given an amazing opportunity to see the world, they might as well really see it.

Have you ever gone completely off the grid?

I went to Rwanda with a TV crew to search for mountain gorillas for a show called Intrepid Journeys. It was intrepid – we trekked into the hills and through the forest and stayed in a hut. I drank banana beer with the chief and he showed me his big bed. All the men in the village would drink banana beer and try to outdo one another with stories about how many animals they’d hunted or how many women they’d slept with. We just sat there, going, “What is this?” It felt like an Eminem rap battle.

Did you share stories, too?

No. But if I’d stayed another night, I would have jumped up and told a few of my own. You don’t need to drink much banana beer to feel its effect. 

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