Last year my wife and I had the good fortune to visit the Cook Islands, a South Pacific paradise untouched by the ravages of large-scale Western tourism. It is a tiny nation (population < 20,000) with no five-star hotels, championship golf courses, casinos, or expensive restaurants. Instead, it is a laid back place where visitors stay in beach bungalows, eat at locally owned mom-and-pop restaurants, enjoy the white sand and turquoise waters, and retire not long after the sun sets. Its residents lead a traditional Polynesian lifestyle where women dress in flowered sarong, men still fish by hand in the lagoons, and people prefer their local language, Cook Island Maori, to English. I imagine this is what Hawaii was like in the 1920s and 30s, before the appearance of Sheraton, Hilton, and Hyatt.
When we arrived (on a once-a-week flight from Los Angeles) we decided to rent a car rather than rely on the lone bus that circles the main island. However, when I went to the rental office and showed them my Minnesota license the clerk smiled and said “Sorry, we don’t accept this.” I was ready, though, and pulled out the International License I had purchased before departure. He again smiled and repeated “Sorry, we don’t accept this.” Now out of licenses, I could only stare blankly and ask “what am I supposed to do?” at which point he told me I had to apply for a Cook Island permit at the police post down the street. I drove there (they let me take the rental car even though I was technically “illegal”) and took a road test–my first in over fifty years. I nervously drove the officer up and down the highway going ever so slowly, carefully signaling turns, and staying well clear of all other traffic. When we returned and he told me I had passed I could not have been any happier than when I got my first license at age 16. I was photographed and documented, paid the $25 fee (in U.S. dollars), and was handed an official license from my new Pacific home.
A week later, as Ruth and I waited for our flight to Sydney, Australia, I was chatting with one of the clerks about how this small island nation, with so little in the way of natural resources and population, could generate enough income to support itself. He replied that they export mangos, coconuts, and fish and generate a small amount of foreign income from tourism. But then he smiled and told me that, surprisingly, one of their most reliable sources of hard currency came from the sale of Cook Island driver’s licenses! The reason for my road test a week earlier had suddenly become much clearer.
Oh, well, that little piece of plastic has become one of my favorite travel souvenirs, and if I get stopped by a local cop (at least before 2013) I plan to hand him my perfectly valid Cook Island license just to see the look on his face.
(Read more vignettes about our life overseas in my book On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.)