Tag Archives: Cook Island

A Driver’s License Economy

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.

My Official Cook Island Driver’s License

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.)

On My Own Dime, This Time

My wife and I recently returned from a glorious, six-week Pacific odyssey during which we visited the Cook Islands (see Relaxation, Island Style), Sydney, Tasmania (A Tasmanian Toilet Tale), Laos (The Beauty of Travel; The Ugliness of War), China, and Korea.  Unlike virtually every other destinations discussed in this blog, this trip was on my own dime.  Yes, dear reader, I hate to admit it, but I paid for this rather lengthy holiday myself!  Before leaving I joked with friends not to tell anyone as it could ruin my carefully cultivated reputation as a world-class schnorrer–Yiddish for freeloader.

March of the Monks in Luang Prabang

However, even though I like to poke fun at myself for our many no-cost overseas jaunts,  I still enjoy a non-working holiday to an exotic locale as much as the next guy.  On this trip we lazed on the pristine beaches of the Cook Islands, sampled the theater and restaurant scene of Sydney, motored through the mountains and forests of Tasmania, marveled at the historical beauty of Luang Prabang, cruised the Mekong on a small riverboat; spent a few days in the lovely canal city of Suzhou, China, and were wowed by the massive urban chaos of Shanghai and Seoul–all without working a single day to pay the freight.  It was a superb trip that only confirmed my decision to take early retirement.  As long as there are no financial constraints, why would you ever postpone the joys of retirement until you are too old and infirm to enjoy them?  I am sure you have heard the truism voiced by Sen. Paul Tsongas: “No man ever said on his deathbed, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’”

The Lovely Canal City of Suzhou, China

However, as much as I loved our time in Asia there are many differences between a family holiday (even one as long as six weeks) and the short-term overseas postings called working vacations I have been espousing on this blog for the last two years and in my most recent travel book, On The Other Guy’s Dime.  Most family vacations have amusement, entertainment, and personal pleasure as their primary goals–you take a holiday to relax, eat well, see sights, both natural and man-made, and enjoy time away from your regular routine.  By contrast, a working vacation, while enjoyable, is meant for personal, professional, and cultural growth.  You take a working vacation not only to see sights but to become part of a different culture, make friends, learn new ways of doing things, expose your children to the world around them, and use your professional skills in new and different ways.  These are very different goals.

The Soaring, Neon-Lit Skyline of Shanghai

For example, during our stay in the Cook Islands I never made close friends with any local Polynesians.  In Laos, I did not have the opportunity to celebrate Buddhist life cycle events with neighbors or colleagues.  Not having a job in Shanghai meant I did not get a sense of what it must be like living in a booming metropolis of 20 million that is changing on an almost daily basis.  Staying in a tourist hotel in Seoul prevented us from having the chance to live, play, and shop in one of the fascinating neighborhoods scattered around the city.  Our trip to Asia was a wonderful way to see these countries but not to experience them.

So, go ahead and enjoy those family vacations as much as you want and as much as your wallet will allow.  However, please don’t use the excuse that you don’t need a working vacation because you and the wife just returned from a cruise to Alaska, a week in Florence, or ten days diving in the Caymans.  Holidays and working vacations are totally different beasts that have totally different purposes.  Being a tourist and living as part of an overseas community serve very different roles, and you really should experience both.

Relaxation, Island Style

The Cook Islands, an independent nation in the South Pacific near French Polynesia, is a unique place–quite unlike any island where we have lived or worked. It is what tropical travel used to be like before the arrival of infinity pools, big dollar casinos, Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses, and slickly

View From The Patio of Our Beach Bungalow in the Cook Islands.

packaged lounge shows. The place is so low key the largest hotel is only two stories high and most people, ourselves included, prefer to stay in modest bungalows or cottages situated on the oceanfront.

In the Cook Islands you drag yourself out of bed in the morning, put on a bathing suit and flip-flops, and walk (or motorbike) to one of the little mom-and-pop food shacks on the beach. You eat at picnic tables on the sand, enjoying fish brought in on boats just that morning, while sharing stories with others at the table, and those others are often locals as there are not a large number of tourists. The locals are of Polynesian descent. They are extremely proud of their heritage and culture and are trying to maintain it in the presence of powerful Western influences—rock music, cable TV, and the ubiquitous Internet.

For example, many women dress in sarongs, men still wear those flowery short-sleeve shirts you see for sale all over Hawaii, and they prefer to speak their traditional Polynesian language–Cook Island Maori—rather than English even though everyone is fluent in both. Boys and young men still climb palm trees to harvest coconuts and make them into food, baskets, and fishing nets, and they still fish on foot in the shallow, clear blue lagoons. The things we often associate with high-end tropical island resorts are mostly absent–no parasailing, no jet skis, no tennis courts, no golf, no swim-up bars–just lazing on the beach, sitting on the porch reading, going out to eat, and (there is a lot of this) enjoying beer and rum drinks in the evening.

We did a lot of snorkeling–good coral, lots of colorful tropical fish–and we did go to the Cook Island equivalent of a luau with dancing, singing, and fish barbecued over an open flame. We also did a lot of hiking since the center of the island is mountainous and filled with scenic jungle walks–it looks a bit like the site where they filmed the movie Jurassic Park.

The Cook Islands today are what Hawaii must have been like 50 or 60 years ago before the arrival of Sheraton, Hilton, and the Intercontinental. I do not doubt it will change dramatically in the coming years (as I am sure it already has) because of the dominance of Western culture and the financial lure of large-scale tourism. But, right now, the Cook Islands is certainly is one of the least stressful, most enjoyable, and most beautiful places we have ever been.

(Read more about our travels to the South Pacific in my travel book, On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide to Traveling Without Paying.)