I come from a long line of wavers. I also come from a long line of dysfunction, so I don’t really wave to anyone I’m blood-related to anymore, but that’s another story. The waving, on the other hand, persists.
I think the origin of the wave has something to do with extending your hand to show you are not carrying a weapon, and that, by extension, you come in peace. Intuitively, that explanation makes sense to me. But I wonder why I wave, when I am never given over to brandishing weapons and defending territory… So why do I do it? I often wonder this, especially when I am waving to complete strangers. This happens a lot more often than you might think. Take the ferry wave, a personal favourite of mine. Sitting outside on just about any ferry on Sydney Harbour means seeing several other craft passing in the opposite direction during the trip. Guaranteed. And when the boats pass each other, somebody waves. Always. Now, I don’t want you to think I am the wave initiator in these circumstances. I’m not. I was born and raised in Sydney, and I’m 34 years old. I’ve been on the harbour far too many times over far too many years to go getting carried away like those endearing first-timers. But if someone on the other boat waves, I wave back.
Sometimes I hold out in order to see if someone else is going to wave from my boat. In such instances, my own wave becomes somewhat redundant, so I abstain. I sit that one out. But if it looks like no one else is going to be doing any reciprocal waving, then up my arm shoots and from side to side does my hand merrily swing. It’s almost beyond my control at that point. Something inside me just can’t bear the thought of a friendly wave going unreturned.
This made travelling around PNG last year a cinch for me. They’re very big wavers. I felt immediately at home. I confess I did go in for a bit of wave initiation after a week or so there – after all their efforts, it seemed the least I could do. And I’ll never, ever, ever forget the most singular wave of my life, which happened on that trip. We were in a van going along the rickety Boluminski Highway, travelling from Namatanai to Kavieng. We’d been on a boat for a week travelling up the coast of New Ireland, and we were tired, thirsty, and in need of a hot shower and a comfortable bed. There was a slightly menacing atmosphere in Namatanai, that very specific low hum of resentment and anger that you get in areas where people are very poor and very exploited, so once we got back on the road, it was quite moving to see the school children and women running alongside the van, waving and smiling their megawatt smiles again. For people who ostensibly don’t have a lot to smile about, boy, do they know how to grin.
So the van rattled along the mainly dirt Boluminski, and I saw a little dwelling coming up by the side of the highway. There was a wizened old man sitting on a log outside his simple home. His hair was white, his skin was sagging, his shoulders were hunched, and he was naked but for a pair of faded shorts. He looked up at the sound of the van, and gave us all a contemptuous stare. I wondered in that second what he thought of us, this “whitey” carload passing by on our way to a resort with a pool. He did not look happy by any stretch of the imagination. My face fell, and I felt that horrible sinking feeling of knowing I don’t do enough to improve anyone else’s lot in life. But then for some reason I gave him an enormous wave out the window as we went by, and I flashed my pearly whites at him the way so many Papua New Guineans had flashed theirs at me. He sat there for a second confounded, and then a big smile began to creep across his old face. He was entirely toothless, and as he waved back at me, his grin just got wider and wider. We waved at each other until he was out of sight, and his was one of the most beautiful and unexpected smiles I have ever received in my life.
So I’m very pro-waving. It makes you feel good, and it connects you to other people in a surprisingly complex and positive way. Maybe if we went back to its origins a little more often, as a means of displaying that one does not bear arms but comes in peace, this violent world would not be in the sad state it’s in.