About a year ago, while vacationing on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia, we decided that it would be perfect for our retirement home.
An American couple introduced us to a French businessman, who also is a licensed real-estate salesman. He showed us a parcel of a beautiful beachfront property and even offered to act as our agent -- getting permission from the local chief; permission from French government officials (Tahiti is a French protectorate); the necessary building permits; and all the other legal things.
All we had to do was give him the money for the land and a down payment for a building contractor -- then go back to America and wait.
Sound fishy? That's what we thought, too. But there was something about the man that made us trust him. So in our eagerness to fulfill our dream, we agreed.
A few months later an airmail request for more funds to finance building materials arrived, and the word that a different builder had been hired. We sent the money.
No receipts are issued -- no legal-looking papers, with the exception of a document showing we had title to the land for a certain number of years.
Then early in January a colored picture of a half-completed Tahitian-style house arrived in the mail. We breathed a sigh of relief until a nagging suspicion was planted by a friend, who laughed and asked: "And what if it's not your house -- just a picture of any house?"
Early in May we flew to Polynesia. There to meet us was our French friend, the builder and others we had met in years past. A caravan of cars wove along the island's only road and then we pulled up in front of the "dream." It was everything we had imagined -- the good things.
The final payment was made to the builder and he drove away happy. Friends brought tools for clearing the jungle-like growth on the property and bolts of brilliant Tahitian cloth to make curtains, and they offered help and hospitality.
Then there was the problem of furniture and appliances. Importing household goods from the United States is very expensive. Freight charges and added duty make it impractical. So it was back to the eightseater shuttle plane that crosses hourly from Moorea and Papeete (Polynesia's only large town). Our loyal friend accompanied us as a translator, since our French was the "me, Tarzan, you, Jane" variety.
We found the butane cooking stove we would need -- a product of Italy (products sold by Common Market countries are far more reasonable there). Our friend haggled for, and got us, a 5 percent discount for paying cash. We laid down the cash, got a receipt, and told them that our house was in the Haapiti District and that we would tie a colored cloth on the tree out front. (There are no house numbers, of course.) Then we left.
Tahitian merchants will deliver your goods to Papeete's dock. They're put on a small freighter for the 1 1/2-hour trip to Moorea, then set off at another dock. A truck picks them up and starts the circle around the island until the driver spots your signal cloth.
This process can take one day or one week, and no one seems to be concerned with which it will be. Should something go wrong -- the boat hits a reef, the truck driver puts the merchandise off along someone else's driveway, or whatever -- that's just too bad. There's no insurance on the cargo. No refunds. No assurances of any kind.
It was the same with a table and chairs, mattresses, bicycles, a refrigerator and other household goods. Blind faith in a stranger's word. Happily their word is their blood. Though they have no concern for time, Tahitians are honest.
As we hacked down the jungle we located 25 cocunut trees and 8 papaya trees already growing. When that was done, it was time to think of planting the trees and shrubs that grows so profusely -- giant green grapefruits, green-skinned though sweet-meated oranges, mangoes, bananas and limes.
We headed for the government agricultural station to buy the trees. There are no handy nurseries. Along the way we made a brief stop at a friend's home and drove off with a gift of two banana trees. Another friend flagged us down and offered to ride along, since the man we were to see was a friend of hers.
Unfortunately, the fruit trees we wanted were too small (transplanting is done when the trees are man-high). We were disappointed, because we had to return to the States in two weeks and wanted everything planted before we left so that when we returned they would be established. Bananas and papayas bear fruit in less than one year from planting.
"No problem!" -- a favorite saying in Tabiti. "When the trees are tall enough we will plant them in your garden. You pay when you return."
There are no supermarkets on Moorea, just a small store in each of the eight districts. They usually are owned by Chinese. The best policy is to stop at each one you come to. What one doesn't have the other will.
Most food is expensive because it must be imported -- butter and beef from New Zealand, canned meats from Denmark and Argentina, pork and beans from the United States, and so forth. But then there are fabulous French cheeses -- all French products are duty-free, naturally, and thus are reasonable.
The little store in our district had just about everything we needed, including frozen chickens from Arkansas and beef. When we requested local fruits they stepped outside and picked them from a tree. When we dug into the purseful of strange-looking coins they protested: "No! No money! We give."
A similiar Tahitian neighbor returning from spear-fishing in the lagoon offered us part of his catch, even though we could not exchange a word.
Services are most uncommon as well. Every Tuesday and Saturday morning a propane gas truck circles the island. You simply deposit your empty tank on the roadside. The driver stops, sets off a full tank, then beeps his horn for his money.
Warm loaves of crusty French bread are delivered every morning and deposited in a box or tube you've erected for that purpose. They resemble the familiar American newspaper tubes. Payment is made monthly, also at the beep of a horn.
If you need diesel fuel for your generator (there are no power plants on Moorea), you tie a blue cloth on your tree out front. if you need to do some banking, you tie a red cloth on the tree and the mobile banker stops and beeps. b
The village fishermen who occasionally spread giant nets and catch more fish than the villagers can use also peddle the excess fish along the roadway. Driving very slowly, they blow into a conch shell -- an eerie sound that can be heard a mile away. You run to the roadside and pick out what you want.