The New Caledonian time warp
Whatever you do when you come to New Caledonia, expect blue skies, sunny weather, friendly people and palm trees. Do not come expecting life to be like what you find in Europe, the United States, Asia, Australia or New Zealand. Things are different on our little island – they just are (they’re different everywhere, you say; yes, I agree, but please humour me, just a little).
I’ve been here 7 weeks and I am still adjusting to some of those little South Pacific island differences. Someone told me today that if you’ve been here before, funnily enough, it will take you even longer to adjust. If you’ve been here before, you come back knowing that life is different (think time warp if you are looking for an angle).
Life is slower, things take longer: you enter a whole new slow-motion world. It’s like going from colour to black and white to colour and back to black and white. Or running in quicksand. This happens in phone conversations, visits to the bank, standing in line, reading newspapers, waiting in cars, just walking around. I’ve found myself asking what century or epoch I am in, honestly concerned that perhaps I dreamed up this whole other world on the other side of the planet where things are straightforward, make sense and well, work.
You know all this, coming back. It shouldn’t shock you. And it doesn’t. You are familiar with it. But when you come back, you expect life on this little island to have moved forward, just like life has where you just came from. Except it hasn’t. Not really. It hasn’t moved forward at the same pace, at least. And what you’ll find is is that moving forward isn’t necessarily important or valued. Life is good: why make things work better or faster? They’re good as they are, here on our little island.
Reputed to be 20 years behind France (and France 10 years behind the United States), you can imagine what it must feel like to be here as a Franco-American who loves efficiency, order and clarity …
Okay, let me give you an example. Here is a street in central Nouméa. They started work on it in July of this year (2012). If you look closely at the photo, you’ll note it’s not very long. Pretty tiny and straightforward (unlike the streets you’ll find in central Paris, San Francisco or Tokyo). In fact, you can see all the way to the end of the street – and the photo is taken from the beginning of the street.
Imagine my surprise at the full-page ad that appeared in the local newspaper last Friday. The full-page ad was about the work on this street and the surrounding Quartier Latin area. They’re modernising it, making it nice. The shops will stay open while they conduct roadworks on this street. That’s great. Now, who can find the date when the works will be completed on rue Auguste Brun?
Could it really be the end of 2013, as stated in this ad? I’ve since read other references to this roadwork, and indeed, it is planned for the end of 2013. 17 months. 17 months?!?!? How is this possible?
Apparently, roadworks take an extraordinarily long time here. But that’s not the only thing. I spotted another article about a local gym for sports clubs and a school opening after 6 years in the works. 6 years?!? Really?
So sometimes, things are slow. And other times, they make a different kind of sense.
I wanted to subscribe to a newspaper here. There is a monthly fee, and 3-month, 6-month and 12-month subscription fees. I did the math on the fees. That was my first mistake. Don’t do the math. But I did. I’ll have to stop that. Guess what: it’s more expensive to sign up for 3 months than it is to buy a subscription for 1 month, three months in a row. If you purchase a year-subscription up front (paying the whole year in advance), you pay more than if you buy it on a monthly basis for 12 months.
I spent 15 minutes on the phone with the subscription service trying to understand the logic. Here’s the logic: if you pay a year in advance, the newspaper has to contact you after a year to see if you’d like to subscribe again (extra costs for them, which they pass on to the client). If you pay on a monthly basis by automatic payment (which you can cancel at any time), there are no renewal costs for the newspaper (because they assume you will subscribe indefinitely), so they pass the savings onto you. Except that … there are no savings to you as your bank will charge you anywhere from 500 to 3000 francs CFP to set up the automatic payment. They don’t tell you this, of course. You just know this because you’ve been looking at all the other charges you’ve racked up with your other more efficient, but costly, automatic payments. Hmm.
Seems to me, as the newspaper, I’d take the clients paying a year in advance (and offer them a discount) over those who are signing up for monthly payments, who can back out at any time. I’d make the price far more attractive for long-term subscribers (as is the practice in other parts of the world). But call me crazy. I’m a writer and a techie, not a newspaper.
Last example for today from my time-warp world and I’ll let you go: I received a letter from our mobile phone service provider. Yes, a printed letter. They’re changing their general conditions. If you want to know the changes, you can go to their website, call them or visit them (but you won’t find them in the letter). I went to their website. Another mistake. I have to stop doing this. Alas. I can’t find any mention of changes to their general conditions. But they sent the letter a week ago.
Do I have time to go see them to find out about the changes? That’s another long line (for it seems most everything is done face to face here). So, no, not today. But they have the time, money and resources to send letters to all their mobile users (there is only 1 mobile provider on the island) telling them to visit their website to find out how their general conditions are changing. Will there be more services, more charges, more restrictions? Who knows. I guess I have to ring them. I have until 15 October and then they’re making the changes. Hmmm. Would it not have been easier to either signpost the changing conditions on their website or send the changes along with the letter? Oh yes, that’s right. That wouldn’t be easier for them; that would make it easier for the client. My mistake.
I won’t tell you about the automatic payment snaffle for our Internet access just yet (another fun story, I assure you) or the fact that our housecleaner called to say she wasn’t coming because it was raining this morning. I don’t want you to think life isn’t all rosy in New Caledonia. It is. When we close our eyes and thank our lucky stars for being here. Forgetting where we’ve come from, adapting day by day to these little, other-world differences.