The other day I lent my car to a friend who was visiting here from California and when he got back to the house he was chuckling about all the people that were waving at him as he drove by. Anyone who has lived or lives now in a small town would be familiar with this phenomenon. People know you from a distance on the road by your car and they wave because well, they are friendly, even if they are not sure who it is behind the wheel.
So you learn people’s cars and after a while you notice that people have characteristic waves as well. There is the one-finger wave from the top of the driving wheel, the hand flick with the arm hanging out the window, the immobile palm display, and of course many versions of the thumb-and-pinky-extended “hang loose” sign. Some people don’t wave but just nod, or do a reverse nod throwing their chin up, or do a local Tahitian nod, which is just to flash your eyebrows up and down once. There are always some odd ones too like the guy who just extends his hand like he is grasping for someone’s throat, or the one who goes by with arm and hand extended like the Pope giving his blessing to the multitudes.
The road in a place like this then is not just a conduit from one place to the next, but it is communal territory where you see friends and family in constant cycles of trips to the store, and ferry, and work, and the beach. As a guy who grew up driving the freeways and mean streets of Southern California, it took me a while to adjust to this pace and this sort of conviviality from behind the wheel.
The road around Moorea is 66 kilometers long, or about 41 miles. Up until the early 70’s it was made of what is locally called soupe de corail, which is coral gravel mixed with sand that is dredged out of the lagoon. Hinano tells me that as a kid she created a huge shell collection by hunting them on the road. Her and her pals also used to hold their marbles tournaments on the road since that was the only place that it was sufficiently flat. They weren’t bothered by traffic since they would only see a car once every few hours.
So it used to be a nice white sandy road that had a top speed not much faster than a horse cart, and a tour de l’isle, or an island tour, was a day-long haul and a major social event. Even though fast cars have replaced slow buggies and rusted out old trucks, the fraternity of the island road is still there. Several years ago after a particularly large birthday party, a bunch of us hired a le Truck, loaded up the rest of the drinks, some food, a few guitars and ukuleles, and did a tour de l’isle, stopping along the way whenever a nice beach caught our eye, or a shady spot with a view came along. We visited friends along the way as well, and some of them joined us on our journey. Our timing worked out well so that we were headed back towards Cook’s Bay with plenty of time to make it to the Club Bali Hai happy hour, which in those days was the best social scene on the island. As we were rumbling into Maharepa we spotted a friend, Dolly Higgins, standing on the side of the rode. Of course we stopped to say "hi" and she said that she was headed to happy hour as well. Dolly must have been in her seventies then, and as she climbed onboard I said that I was sort of surprised to see her hitchhiking. She just looked at me with a blank stare and said, “ I wasn’t hitchhiking. I was just waiting. I knew someone would pick me up.”
You can buy fresh fish along the road as well. Lagoon fish caught at night is on sale in the early morning – colorful strands of squirrel fish, rock bass, parrot fish, etc. In the late afternoons the guys that have been out on the open ocean all day come back and hang up their catch for sale, and you can pick up a whole tuna or mahi mahi. The afternoon fish sellers often form the nucleus for impromptu social events, as the revenue off the first fish goes for a case of beer, and friends stop by to have a cold one and talk about the day’s fishing. Then of course as you drive by, you slow to check out the fish, and the gang is all waving at you to stop and have a beer, and then next thing you know you are driving home feeling slightly better about the afternoon, with a five-foot mahi mahi in the back seat.
I walk to work many mornings these days, usually pretty early as the sunlight is sliding down the ridges of Mount Rotui. It is about 3.5 kilometers (2 miles) along the shore of Cook’s Bay and I enjoy having the time to let my mind wander and ponder things that need it. Not a morning goes by though that people don’t slow down to ask if I want a ride. Usually I politely decline, but sometimes the situation requires giving in. Last week, a car pulled over and stopped up ahead of me. It was a four-door truck and there were two elderly ladies in the front bench seat, neither of whom I’d ever seen before. The woman in the passenger seat was already getting out and moving to the back seat by the time I walked up, and the woman in the driver seat just waved to me to get in. I was so struck by the matter-of-fact manner that these two old ladies had pulled over to pick up a total stranger that I couldn’t say no. When I explained in my crummy French that I was going to the research station, they just nodded and smiled, and said, “ahhh Americain…” We chatted about the weather a bit and a few minutes down the road we stopped, repeated the passenger shuffle in reverse, and bid each other a bon journee. I had gotten to work a bit quicker, but more importantly I had a chance to share a few moments with a couple of very friendly members of the large extended megafamily of Moorea on our common property, the sinuous thoroughfare that connects us all - the road we live on.