I was wearing a bucket of chicken on my head in the middle of a downpour. Stranger still, I was dead sober.
Truth be told, I was confused about many things. Like why my face was slathered with enough blue and white paint to drown a marmoset. Or why I was at "the rugby" in the first place.
I guess the answer can be summed up by the phrase "curiosity killed the cat."
I was just praying the cat wasn't me.
Let me set the scene: It was a typical autumn evening in Auckland, the weather changing more times in 15 minutes than Lady Gaga on stage at a concert. Some co-workers had free tickets to the Blues-Chiefs Super Rugby clash, and asked if I wanted to come along. Of course I said yes. After all, what better way to spend a Friday than to learn about a sport that's such an important part of national identity that it's considered religion?
Anyway, it was already rather dark and stormy by the time we jumped out of a taxi in the middle of the road outside Eden Park. Thousands of other jaywalkers were gathering like ants milling around a piece of chocolate left out in the hot sun, or zombies doing whatever it is zombies do aside from looking for brains to eat.
Things only got weirder from there. Everyone taller than about four feet had at least a six pack of Speight's in their hands. The lines for the bathrooms stretched out the door. The stench of stale beer, greasy chips, smoked meat, ketchup and body odour was enough to trigger a gag reflex. Blech.
The other thing that struck me was how, well, male the crowd looked. A lot of these people were huge, too, like doors that had developed arms and sentience. As someone not huge and who does not identify as male, it was a bit intimidating; the last time I was in such an environment I was stuck on a cargo ship in the most pirate-infested waters on the planet, praying I wouldn't find myself in a remake of Captain Phillips.
Before I could gather my bearings, I was face-to-face with a woman wielding a paintbrush like a sword.
"Blues or Chiefs?"
"Umm..." I was struggling for words. "Who's the home team?"
I prayed no-one else heard me.
"BLUES." Everyone in a 50-metre radius could've heard that. Great.
Icy-cold, viscous liquid was plastered on to my cheeks with great slashing motions. Stumbling away in confusion, the next thing I knew I was accosted by a large fellow who thrust an empty fried chicken bucket into my hands without asking, and instructed that I put it on my head. Uh, okay.
Confusion took hold. What, exactly, was going on? Was this "the rugby?" Was this normal? And, more pressing: was I going to get out of this alive?
This would normally be the part where I share some deep wisdom, some learning about New Zealand culture and how "life is what you make of it" or some other advice you can read on the side of a coffee cup. But I've got nothing. Other than to say I had a blast.
I don't know why, but as soon as the match started, it was like a switch flipped in my mind. The raucous atmosphere reminded me of the American football games I used to go to at uni; really, nothing says "bonding" like painting your shirtless body blue and orange and hanging out with 35,000 of your best mates in a snowstorm while screaming "BOISE!" and "STATE!" for three-and-a-half hours nonstop at decibels louder than a jet engine at takeoff.
I hooted. I hollered. I wished for bad luck to befall the Chiefs' fullback. I wondered aloud whether the officials had visited an eye doctor recently. Heck, I even speculated that the Chiefs coming back to tie things up was more than a coincidence.
There was the social aspect, too. I made dozens of new friends whom I shared nothing in common with, other than the fact that we disliked a group of people because of the colour of their shirts. It was all so ... tribalistic.
Now that I think about this, I'm conflicted. Sure, it was a great way to meet Kiwis (and a relief to not hear any misogynist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist or anti-immigrant slurs, as I was afraid I would), but hating another group of people for who they are? It breaks my feminist heart.
Clearly, further investigation into this sports-induced mob mentality phenomenon is needed.
But can I do that again without succumbing to Blues-holm Syndrome (similar to Stockholm Syndrome)?
After my experiences at "the rugby," it's a risk I'm more than willing to take.