It was September 2016, and I was vacationing for a month on the mountainous French Polynesian island of Moorea, eleven miles northwest of Tahiti. My morning routine included an early morning bicycle ride on a section of the twenty-two-mile road that encircled the perimeter of the island.
One day, I stopped alongside the road to take a photograph of the Catholic Church with the silhouette of Moorea's mountains in the background. It's a spectacular view: the white-steepled nineteenth-century church and the dense jungle of palm trees, ferns, gigantic chestnut trees, and dark green plants with round leaves eighteen inches in diameter.
Just then two bicyclist—a schoolboy and a man in his early forties—pedaled across my frame.
"You need to get a lot more sun," the man called out in a raw American accent. "You're way too white."
"Get out of town," I shouted back with a laugh, which was the first and only thing that came to mind.
I quickly snapped the photo, swung a leg over my mountain bike, and sprinted toward the two riders.
"Do you always ride this slow?" I quipped as I came alongside the audacious American.
"Ah, good one," he said with a laugh. "I deserved that."
I asked him where he was from. "Jersey," he told me and then corrected himself with "New Jersey."
I told him that I was born in Jersey City, which he liked, but then added that I was living in the State of Washington, which he liked even more.
"Ah," he said, "I'll call you 'Washington.'" And so he did.
"What's your name?"
"Charlie," he said, without sounding the "r."
"Hey, Cha'lie, how ya do'in?" I asked in my best east-coast gangster voice.
Charlie laughed. "Doin' just fine, Washin'ton."
I started firing questions at him, which is my style when traveling in a new land, and he was happy to oblige, once stopping to say, "It's not often that I get the chance to talk with an American."
Charlie was a lean six-footer with an athletic build. At one point he peeled off his tee-shirt and revealed a Polynesian tattoo that covered his entire chest. His hair was a thick mousey blond mat with soft waves--definitely home cut.
Twenty years earlier he had been a dirt-bike racer, winning a number of contests in New England. Then, crossing a street on a motorcycle, a motorist blew through a red light and slammed into him. (Charlie stopped to show me a long ugly scar on his right shin.)
"I took the little bit of money that I got from the insurance settlement and came here. That was eighteen years ago. Two years later I married a Tahitian woman."
I asked about the boy who rode behind us. "His name is Duke," Charlie said. "He's my son."
"Duke, huh? I see you're stickin' with the American tradition," I said, thinking about John Wayne.
Charlie liked the idea but said he had chosen "Duke" because his son was royalty or at least carried himself like royalty.
The boy was a handsome youngster with caramel skin, black hair, and straight white teeth. He wore nothing more than a pair of thongs and a motley pair of forest-green shorts. He was so beautiful I wanted to pick him up and give him a bear hug.
Charlie rolled to a stop. "My home's up there."
I followed Charlie's extended arm up the steep mountainside. All I could see were lush shades of green. There was no house in sight.
"I don't want to let you go," I said truthfully. "I want to know a lot more about your life."
"If you got time, why don't you come up to the house now?"
I thought for a moment. I had told my wife that I would be taking a long ride, so I figured she wouldn't be worried. "Okay," I said quickly. "What about the bikes?"
"We'll leave 'em here," he said, pointing to the side of the road. "They'll be safe. No one'll bother 'em."
When I sucked in air and said that the bike had been borrowed, Charlie suggested we stow them at a friend's home a few meters down the road.
I said that would be all right.
"Follow me," Charlie said.
We walked the bikes to a home that wasn't much more than a lean-to. Although it was only thirty feet from the road, it was engulfed by the encroaching jungle. Charlie said something to his friend in Tahitian who didn't bother to get up from a well-worn lawn chair. I parked the bike against the plywood siding and hoped it would still be there when I returned.
Charlie, Duke, and I marched back to the road, backtracked twenty yards, and then turned into the jungle. I couldn't figure out where his house could be.
"Hey, Washin'ton, you know Lord of the Rings?"
"My place is like the forest of giant Ents," Charlie said with a laugh.
We were on what was nothing more than a goat path—small goats at that. Then we turned left into a funneled canopy of trees and tendrilous vines that looked like a hidden passageway to a fantastic land. I stopped to take a photo.
"You ain't seen nothin' yet," Charlie said. Then he said something to Duke in Tahitian.
The boy scampered into the woods, quickly returned, and handed his father . . . a machete.
Holy shit, I thought to myself. What the hell am I getting myself into? Is Charlie going to chop me up into little pieces and feed me to his children? The pang of apprehension was real, but so was Charlie—there was something refreshingly genuine about him. I had known him for fifteen minutes, and I liked him already. And besides, Duke was so angelic; surely he would protect me.
The thicket of woods turned into a narrow path that climbed up the mountainside. "I set every one of these steps," Charlie said with pride. "Stand straight, lift with your legs, and go at your own pace. If you start breathin' too hard, slow down, man. I learned that from every piece of lumber I carried up this mountain. Well, what we carried up this mountain," he corrected, giving his son a nod.
The stepping stones were smooth, chocolate brown, and mostly well placed. It was not an elegant staircase—some of the steps were planted left or right to avoid gnarled roots—but they did make climbing the steep mountainside manageable.
At 150 meters I stopped to take another photo and catch my breath. "How much farther?"
"About fifty meters. We're almost there." Charlie waved his hands across the jungle. "This is my garden."
"Where?" All I could see was a wall of green.
"There. That mango tree; that's ours. That breadfruit tree; that's ours too. And the banana tree." Charlie's voice raised a tone and shimmered with excitement. "Ah, Washin'ton, you see that blackberry tree?"
I lied and said that I did.
"That's very rare. I'm proud of it."
Charlie's eyes flitted from one exotic plant to the other. "This is a pacaye tree," he said gleefully, scrambling to a tall tree with large dark-green leaves and lighter green fruit hanging like cucumbers. "The English call these 'ice cream beans.' You'll like this." He snapped off a low-hanging fruit, sliced it open--revealing some eight or ten seeds in the pod. The large fluffy seeds were perfectly white—like ten cotton balls aligned in a row. And, as I soon discovered, each "cotton ball" encapsulated a shiny black seed the size of the end of my thumb.
He handed me one of the white seeds, which I popped into my mouth. It was sweet, exceptionally sweet, almost like cotton candy. I sucked the candy off the black seed, savoring the nectar as I glided my tongue across my palate.
"That's amazing," I said, scooping out a second seed from the pod and poking it into my mouth. "Umm, that's good."
We climbed on until we finally reached a small plateau—something, I learned later, Charlie had shoveled out by hand. There it was, his home. It was, well, modest. If I had not already felt like a lifelong friend, I would have called it a ramshackle shanty. It was a home for Robinson Crusoe. It was not built to last. It was built to serve a purpose until a ten-year storm washed it off the mountainside, only to be rebuilt.
The footprint of the house was perhaps twelve by twenty-one feet--although Charlie assured me he had plans for additions. There were four mattresses—three leaning against the wall of a room separated by a dark drape, and the fourth planted on the floor in what Charlie called his family room. The floor was made of smooth wood planks, and the walls were a lightweight fiberboard, accented by two irregular holes. I imagined the holes were collateral damage from a friendly family wrestling match.
The roof was corrugated aluminum over a thin layer of shiny insulation. The open-air toilet flushed into a six-foot cube of stones. The water was delivered by a 1,500-foot stretch of PVC piping that drew from weeping stones high up the mountain. "It's good fresh water," Charlie declared with enthusiasm.
A small light bulb, no bigger than a Christmas tree light, was powered by a solar panel that charged two large batteries.
"You are a survivalist," I offered.
"That's exactly right," Charlie said, his head bobbing.
There were four children in all. The oldest was Charlie Junior, a sixteen-year-old boy who looked strong and healthy with a thick chest that angled down to narrow hips. The second child was their only daughter, Anita, a slender and lovely twelve-year-old who drew the neck of her blouse over her cinnamon shoulders. Duke and his five-year-old younger brother, Tupuna, were always smiling. Side by side, their faces beamed as if it were Christmas morning.
Then there was the mother, Faatiarau, who, wearing a light blue sleeveless dress, sat at the window that overlooked the jungle below and the turquoise sea beyond. Her skin was darker than that of her children. I noticed her blunted fingernails. I had the impression she was accustomed to working in the garden. She had a pleasant, welcoming smile. I was a total stranger, and yet she seemed perfectly at ease with me invading her home.
We all sat down on small wooden stools that measured eighteen inches high. Our discussion began—mostly in French, but occasionally drifting into English, or sentences that were half English, half French.
I asked Faatiarau if it was difficult for her to marry an American.
"Not for my mother," she said with a smile. "She accepted him immediately. But my father wanted a man for me who had the same color of skin." She brushed her hand down her long, dark arm. "But my father accepts my husband now."
"And they love your children, of course."
"And your life now? How would you compare it to the days of your childhood?"
"It was better in the past. In the past, we did what we wanted. We were free. Then the French came and made many rules."
"For example," Charlie said in English, "I can't walk down the road with a knife anymore. I do it anyway, but I'm not suppose'ta. It's stupid. We don't hurt nobody. We carry a knife to cut down a piece of ripe fruit or cut away the brush. Why should the French tell us how to live? It makes no damn sense."
That exchange was interesting, but it was not what I was after. I was wondering how she felt about living with so little. I turned to Faatiarau again. "I was thinking about the quality of your life," I said.
"We have very little, but we are happy," she said naturally, without hesitation or a wrinkled brow.
Charlie stood and walked to a two-shelf cupboard and opened the doors. The cupboard was bare with the exception of a can of something nondescript, an onion, a carton of dried milk, and a rag. "My wife's right: we got nothin', but we're happy. Somehow each new day provides what we need. Maybe we catch a fish. Or maybe I sell a plant."
"What kind of plants?"
"Maybe a wine root," he said reaching for a green plastic bucket. "Or this."
"And what's that?"
"What does it look like?" He asked with a smile.
It was the smile that gave it away. "Is that marijuana?"
That was when I noticed a bare-bone structure below the house with black netting to shade a dozen other plants. "Marijuana?" I asked, pointing at the structure.
Charlie was speaking to me without the slightest concern. For all he knew, I could have been a thief, but he was not the least concerned. He trusted me completely. He must have seen my eyes turn inquisitive. "I'll be honest with you," he said, waving his hand across his mountainside. "What you see was not always like this. We had a lot of marijuana, but the police found out, and they took all our plants."
"Did you go to jail?"
"You don't go to jail here," he chuckled. "They could come back ten times, and I would never go to jail."
"I see." I was trying to get my head around another kind of lifestyle—a life that depended upon the good fortunes of the day. It was a life that was entirely foreign to me, but not one I could berate. Finally, I asked, "Do you ever have to ask for money from your family?"
"It's the last resort," Charlie said off-handedly. "But it happens. Maybe even every other day, but only a thousand francs." (That's equivalent to ten American dollars—not a lot in a country where food is thirty percent higher than in the States.) "I'm always amazed by what I have," Charlie said. "My life turned out just the way I'd hoped."
"And how's that?"
"We're a family. We laugh, we dance, we exercise, we fish, we play games. We don't need nothin'." As Charlie spoke he leaned over and rolled a smoke.
"Are you rolling a joint?" I asked.
"Naw, this is just tobacco. Sometimes I smoke a cigarette to relax." He wagged his head. "Sure, sometimes it's a joint, but not so much."
We were silent for a moment as Charlie swiped his tongue across the cigarette. "It's like this. I can heat water for a shower with kerosene, but most of the time the kids want to save money, and so they find some dry wood, start a fire, heat the water, and dump the water in that." Charlie pointed out the doorless entrance at a blue plastic container the size of a pickle barrel.
To prove his dad's point, Duke ran outside and, with the help of his older brother, jumped into the barrel. "Like this," the boy said, peeling off his tee-shirt and sinking into the tub.
That's when I noticed a heavy, one-inch diameter length of rope with a loop on the end, hanging twenty feet from the branch of a massive tree. "And this?" I asked.
"Show him," Charlie said to Duke, who had already squirmed out of the pickle barrel. He dashed to the tree, snatched the rope, and disappeared into the green. The next thing I knew he flashed across the landscape, nearly swinging a full 180 degrees until he came to a dead stop—capping his spectacle by chinning up and down the line like a high-wire circus performer.
When it was time for me to leave, I said my goodbyes one by one. When I put my hand out to Charlie, he drew it into his chest and gave me a hug to one side and then the other. I could feel the grain of his three-day beard on my cheek. "That's the way it's done here," he said.
"What, no kisses?" I asked.
"Well, not on the mouth anyway," he said with a crooked smile.
I paused, thought a moment, and said, "If I came back unannounced to visit some more, you wouldn't pull out a shotgun and shoot me, right?"
"Course not, you're welcomed here. I'll look forward to seein' ya."
"You will see me again," I promised.
The boys guided me back down the trail, the five- and eight-year-olds scrambling barefooted like kid goats. Midway down, I asked Charlie Junior if he ever went to bed hungry.
He shrugged. "Sure. But hunger's in the past. I always know we'll find something good to eat the next day."
"Yeah," I said, "there's always tomorrow."
"That's right," Junior echoed. "There's always tomorrow."