Tribute to a life in New Caledonia

Photo by Julie Harris

Photo by Julie Harris

“Live life to the fullest! You’ll go far! Never change – always stay the same!”

These are the things I remember reading in my high school yearbooks over 30 years ago. Another phrase that knocks around in my skull at the moment is, “The little things are the big things.”

And they are.

Our time here is winding down and I find myself stopped in my tracks. It isn’t enough to say I have loved it here or that I will miss it. Words such as these seem but easy, empty, to mutter while smiling, as our friends start to stay goodbye.

Photo by Julie Harris

Photo by Julie Harris

Of course I have loved it in New Caledonia – and with this second stay of 3 years, I have come to love it even more. And I have hated some of it, too. With this last time here, I’ve seen a bit more of New Caledonia’s underbelly – bloated and putrid and needing a good clean. But it has made me love it no less.

Regular readers know I have grappled with the lack of efficiency, with the lack of a true vision, with the slowness of progression on this island. But having traveled to other islands this year (Vanuatu and French Polynesia), I can tell you that New Caledonia is developed, modern, and developing at a rapid rate, in comparison. I do wish it would consider its future in more than just depletion of its natural resources. I do wish it would see the true value of its indigent cultures, its pristine waters, its towering forests, its many endemic species, its talented youth and wise women – and thus its potential for true sustainability. I do hope it will never let itself be bought or raped or poisoned – that it helps us keep our foothold in good, clean living.

I do hope New Caledonia will find a way to peacefully resolve its disagreements over independence – that it will find a way to respect this nation’s people – the Kanaks, the Caldoches and the Metros. That this nation’s peoples will find a way to respect one another, work through their racism, work through their fear, and work through and change this country’s deepening inequality. Work must be done to lower the cost of living and to spread the wealth. Barring such work, I am afraid New Caledonia will see even greater educational and social disparities, greater crime and even greater fear. All of this can be avoided, but an inclusive, far-and-wide-reaching vision is needed.

Yes, I will miss New Caledonia. Some days I ask myself what I will miss more: New Caledonia or the life it afforded me.

New Caledonia has provided us with such an amazing life. If you’re here, you know how beautiful it is, especially as you get up north or off to its islands. If you’re not here, all you have to do is look at these photos. Having traveled a fair bit in recent years, I do think New Caledonia is still an unexplored and under-appreciated island. Its waters are clear, its coral are healthy, it is home to sea turtles, dugongs, tropical fish, sharks, dolphins and passing whales. Its “terre rouge” is just stunning. It is quiet. It is calm. And it is still healthy.

The life I’ve had here has been one of “no stress“. With views like these from my “office” (see below), with walks along the promenade, with dips in a warm, clean ocean, I’ve been able to think, to be and to create. Clown fish have kissed my snorkeling mask and brought me among life’s greatest happinesses. I have swum for hours, yes hours over the last 3 years, with sea turtles nearly my size. I have spent that time you lose track of underwater, just being, surrounded by tropical fish and marine life. I have known what it is like to slow down so much you feel the slowing of your pulse and the utter peace of mind that is always waiting for you to get there.

Photo by Julie Harris

Photo by Julie Harris

Life here has also meant that I’ve been able to live and work in peace, with palm trees, and crystal waters and long, happy beach walks. It’s also meant we’ve been able to:

  • Pet lions in New Zealand
  • Swim with a dolphin and dive into the Great Barrier Reef in Australia
  • See samurai and sumo in Japan
  • Hang out with wallabies, wombats and Tasmanian Devils in Tasmania
  • Witness the splendor of the Sydney Fireworks
  • Stand on the edge of a live volcano in Vanuatu
  • Swim with sharks and rays in French Polynesia

New Caledonia has served as a base from which we could jump, explore, grow bigger and more open, and return. Without our lives here, we would not have known such adventures, here and in other parts of the Pacific. It has been an entryway, a passage, into both a peaceful and exciting life.

Photo by Julie Harris

Photo by Julie Harris

In the end, it is the little things that are the big things, though. It’s the ice cream guy at the Baie des Citrons, it’s the smiling faces who know you by name in the post office, the shops. It’s the judo classes and the windsurfing lessons and the art classes and the walks by the bay. It’s the biggest shrimp you’ll ever see and the no tomatoes or onions for 3 months. It’s the tabloid newspaper and the island radio stations, the twinkling lights at nightfall and the scary drive to the airport. It’s the regular workouts with your friends and the coffees and the lunches at Ptit Café. It’s that turtle who just happens to be there and that day at Ilot Maitre. It’s those trips to Ile des Pins that are forever etched in your brain, in your heart, with Nouka and his family. It’s the “Tata bisous”, and the thought that we’ll always be here, doing what we’re doing, now and for always, no matter what.

Tata bisous, ma belle. I love you and will miss you.

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It’s been a while … at New Caledonia Today

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

What the heck happened? Several among you have sent me messages to know if I am still in New Caledonia. Where did I go? Why did I stop writing? The truth is, 2015 hit us with a wallop. In mid-January I found myself in the emergency room and then a few days in the hospital with every battery of heart and brain test you can imagine. If anyone wants to know what medical care is like – or my experience of it – in New Caledonia, shoot me a note and I’ll think about blogging about it. Yes, New Caledonia has trained medical staff and all the modern equipment (if perhaps in limited quantities). Yes, hygiene is good. Yes, the food is bad (but isn’t all hospital food bad?). Yes, it’s horrible waiting around all day in a hospital bed. But again, I think it’s the same everywhere. Would I want to spend a lot of time in the hospitals/clinics here? No. But then I wouldn’t want to do that anywhere. February saw a world school trip to Vanuatu which was out of this world – and just ahead of Cyclone Pam. We were extremely lucky to see and taste and smell the beauty Vanuatu has to offer before it experienced such destruction. We met and spent many an hour with the locals on several islands (Efate, Malekula, Santo, Tanna) – and our minds and hearts will be forever etched with their kindnesses, with their pure happiness with next to nothing. March and April have seen full-on work and school for Pablo and I, without a break. We’ve learned that we are moving to the south of France for August of this year. And so starts the return move machine. We’ve purchased our around-the-world return tickets (they feel like around-the-world, but as we’re not returning to New Caledonia, they aren’t really), started sorting our things to sell and to give, have met with movers, talked with the quarantine about moving our pet and are facing the inevitable end of our stay here. What has been happening in New Caledonia?

And of course we still have the car accidents and the road deaths, the random fights and the stolen vehicles. We have the high cost of living and problems with the nickel plants, the polluted beaches and the political disputes. On the bright side, we have leopard shark love in central Nouméa (see below), the most beautiful weather you can imagine, stunning views, a pristine lagoon, clean air and a high quality of life. We are free of much of the crime we see on TV in the United States and Europe, we live simply, unconsumed by consumerism, we live with the sun and spend much of our lives outside. Would you live here, if you could (and you don’t)? I guarantee you would miss it, having had it for a few weeks, months or years. I’ll do what I can to keep writing before we leave. If there are any topics you’d like to know more about before this chapter closes, shout, and I’ll see what I can do to accommodate you. Knowing you’re there keeps me thinking about all the best things there are to share about life in New Caledonia.

Overcoming shark fear in Happy New Caledonia

Juggling Cat in the HatHow do you spend your Saturday mornings? Cleaning? Sleeping in? Shopping for the week’s groceries? Or walk-dancing, happy-dancing (see below), speed-walking or windsurfing?

Of late, we’ve been spending our Saturday mornings watching our 7-year-old son windsurf with a great windsurfing school (Aloha Wind Surfing, who I’ve mentioned before). Pablo is the youngest and the smallest, and recently, perhaps the most concerned about sharks. Shark concern is not uncommon in children his age (or in adults of any age), but it has been exacerbated by an attack that occurred in Nouméa about 10 days ago, which left a 42-year-old kitesurfer with a 25 centimetre gash in his calf, alive, not kicking.

Unfortunately, the attack took place not too far away from where Pablo windsurfs at Anse Vata. His first time out after the attack, he was deeply concerned and did not feel comfortable windsurfing into deeper, darker waters (where he couldn’t see what was underneath his board). He came back crying, unable to continue. Though the instructor could see he was afraid, he wasn’t able to help him overcome his fear and frustration mounted on both sides.

This week, Pablo did not want to go back – and was adamant. His fear and trepidation was bigger than his capacity of manage “the worst that can happen – I’ll be attacked by a shark, but he’ll spit me out because I’m little and not very tasty”. Talking him down from the edge was no easy task.

When we got to his lesson, we explained to the staff at Aloha that Pablo was deeply afraid of sharks, which they had understood. As children are sensitive to raised voices and frustration, we suggested that maybe it would be best to avoid yelling. To the team’s immense credit, they suggested that maybe Pablo would like to go out in the boat today, and help the instructor. This suggestion brought a huge smile to Pablo’s face! They got him an oar, jokingly, so that he could swat any enemies, and got him laughing.

Photo by Laurent Guiader

Photo Laurent Guiader

Photo by Laurent Guiader

Photo Laurent Guiader

Suffice it to say, Pablo had a great time flying around in the boat, as he called it, rushing off at top speed with the “maitre” (instructor) to help other windsurfing students. He also went out with the maitre on a 2-metre sail and came back beaming. He did it! He’d gone out and there were no sharks. He’d had so much fun – and will be so much more likely to windsurf his next class. He then helped unscrew the bits on the boards and to clean up – involved in the behind-the-scenes work involved in windsurfing. Helping his other classmates, bringing their boards in, Pablo learned more than just windsurfing that day.

Photo by Laurent Guiader

Photo Laurent Guiader

So, hats off to Aloha and hats off to New Caledonia, where even we can join the masses and be “Happy” along with Pharrell Williams, sharks and all!

Island life

New Caledonia

Photo JH

It’s taken years, literally years, for me to get it. With a recent trip to New Zealand, thus leaving New Caledonia for the first time in 9 months – and with a recent study of the differences between island and mainland life – something clicked.

I’m guilty.

I’m guilty of projecting my mainland life onto my requests of island life. Dreams of choice, good prices, efficiency in government and administration; dreams of vision, order, healthy competition, a commitment to excellence. All those dreams frustrated on a regular basis that send me snorkeling, hiking, swimming to remember what I love most about island life.

When we arrived in New Zealand, it was “Christmas”, as our son termed it. Life was suddenly easy, possible, friendly, pleasant, wonderfully full. Gone were the complications in trying to book an excursion, or to find out what we would need for an excursion. Gone were the closed offices, the non-existent websites, the people whose job it wasn’t was. Here, suddenly, next to everything was do-able! Safety was a priority, order and cleanliness were priorities. The environment was a priority – and so were children! Oh my!

But it is unfair of me to request all this of an island of just over 200,000 people from varying backgrounds and cultures. Here, we have to wait for shipments of milk, meat, veg. Here, you can’t get everything (we don’t have 50 million sheep, nor as many dairy cattle) – and sometimes not much of anything. Here, we don’t seem to have enough trained individuals to provide all the services we see on a bigger island/country or on a mainland. Here we see monopolies, because monopolies can exist. Here we see closed offices and stores, because here they can be. The public adapts and gets used to less, and paying more for less.

Here we get used to receiving 5 free electric bikes for a university population of 540, to share on the weekends – but only 5 because they’re too dangerous to ride during the week (so it’s okay to risk 5 lives?). The public accepts a complete misunderstanding of International Women’s Day that turns into an event for ladies to sew, paint shells and get massages. Ripped up roads remain ripped up for a year in the middle of town and that’s normal. Children wear uniforms, learn from photocopies, are seated boy-girl-boy, and families are happy to call education modern. No bananas, no tomatoes, no wholewheat pasta, no organic markets. Who needs these things? Affordable technology, affordable books, affordable art supplies – who needs these? Reliable health care that doesn’t result in one too many operations, infection or an emergency trip to Australia? As I say, I am guilty. Guilty of projecting my mainland habits onto a small island’s limited resources.

There are simply not enough of us to create/force the demand or guarantee the supply on this tiny, idyllic island. Nor does there appear to be much of a desire to step into a world where things really could be easier. So most adapt, or travel to nearby New Zealand and Australia to seek what they are missing. Many go without, because they simply cannot afford any better.

We have enough for today. Why plan for tomorrow?

Time to go for that swim, time to dive into those pristine waters and reconnect with all that extraordinary underwater life – to remember what I love here, after and above all.

Arboviruses in season in New Caledonia: dengue, chikungunya and zika

ZikaVirusRashArm2014Newspaper reports, alerts and web articles are multiplying in number, almost as steadily as the subject of their reports. New Caledonia is seeing increasing cases of mosquito-born viruses, including dengue fever, chikungunya and the newly introduced zika virus. ‘Tis the season to empty all water-holding receptacles, don insect repellent, use fans to dissuade mosquitoes and sleep with mosquito nets when exposed to open windows, while camping, etc.

The dengue epidemic continues to rage

In New Caledonia between 1 September 2012 and 1 September 2013 , more than 11,000 cases of dengue were registered, including 5 deaths. Since 1 September 2013 , the number of cases has fallen due to the dry season. But despite a lack of rain this year, new cases have been identified, and the virus continues to circulate.

The zika virus was recently introduced

29 cases of the zika virus have recently been detected in travelers from French Polynesia where the epidemic is highest. But the first locally-transmitted cases have now been identified in and around Dumbea (2 cases). There is some concern among the medical community that we are on the verge of a new epidemic.

Other viruses threaten New Caledonia

Chikungunya recently reappeared in Noumea in 2013 from Asia, and other types of the dengue virus, not yet introduced in New Caledonia , are circulating in several other Pacific islands, including Vanuatu.

Similar symptoms, varying intensity

DengueThese diseases cause the following similar symptoms, but with varying intensity:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle and/or joint pain
  • Rash of red or pink spots on the skin
  • Conjunctivitis

If you have one or more of the above symptoms, you should consult a doctor immediately for testing. The test will be free if the doctor completes the DASS- NC form. You will also need to report the area you were in during the preceding 15 days (so authorities can track and work to eradicate the mosquitoes in the area).

All transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes

These disease-carrying mosquitoes live around houses and come to rest inside them. Their range is limited to a 100 meters or so. They reproduce by laying their eggs in receptacles containing stagnant water, usually from rain or irrigation. These eggs hatch larvae and grow adult mosquitoes in less than 2 weeks. Given their habitats and reproductive cycles, preventative measures could and should be taken.

The most common breeding sites are plant trays and buckets in gardens, clogged or broken gutters, empty cans/pots and tires in landfills, etc.

The recent return of rain will certainly mean more breeding grounds for the mosquitoes.

Preventative measures

RepelMosquitoesThere is currently no vaccine or specific treatment for these viral diseases. In this case, prevention really is the best medicine. Here is what is being suggested we do:

  • Systematically and regularly eliminate breeding sites around your home and work locations, which will have a direct impact on your long-term environment.
  • Protect yourself and your children/family from mosquito bites by applying insect repellents, using electronic or other (natural) mosquito repellents.
  • Consult a doctor in the case of the above-mentioned symptoms.

WARNING: Aerial spraying of insecticides is insufficient, because it only affects flying adult mosquitoes. It does not prevent the outbreak of new larvae in the hours that follow.

Related post: 150 contract dengue fever a day in New Caledonia

New Caledonia’s most expensive lunch

During the month of May, people took to the streets over the high cost of living in New Caledonia. Food is 65% more expensive here than in Europe and on the whole, we pay prices 34% higher than in France. This is a statistic I quote often, because it says a lot. Just to give you a sense, you can expect to pay 8 euros for cheese and 40 euros for a bottle of champagne. You will pay 15 euros for a children’s book and 654 euros on an iPad 4.

The high cost of living is not a new shock for us now.

But today’s lunch, well, that’s a different story. We took a friend out to lunch at a local restaurant to celebrate Father’s Day and to catch up. We were 3 adults and 1 child (with a child’s menu). We splurged and got a bottle of wine, and desserts for everyone, with coffee at the end. 2 steaks and a plate full of shrimp as the mains. A good meal, a celebration of sorts.

I was not prepared for what came next, however, when the cashier asked me to sign the credit card slip. Already, this is not the usual procedure. As our credit cards have chips in them, we usually tap in a code. I had already tapped in the code, trusting that all was well. This what I saw when she asked me to sign:

Photo JH

Photo JH

You can see the total charged to my card: 313,530 XPF. When you’re not familiar with the currency, it’s hard to know if we’re good. What does 313,530 mean, in the grand scheme of things?

2,627 euros is what it means (USD 3,506). That’s at least a round-trip ticket to Paris, my friends, and the hotel to boot!

As you can see from the receipt (which I pulled out of my wallet), lunch was supposed to cost 13,530 XPF (or 113 euros). So we were overcharged a mere 2,514 euros, that’s all. It’s an easy mistake to make. A 3 was tapped in front of the 13,530.

The cashier let out a small scream when I pointed out the discrepancy (which I may not have seen, if I had just put the receipt away) and called for her manager.

After a bit of running around and a few disappearances, the manager came back and told me they had the wrong card to cancel the transaction. So they couldn’t cancel it. Could I come back tomorrow at 8am? Would I mind?

Deep breath. What else can you do? It’s a Sunday. They don’t have the card. They can’t get the card. You live up the street. You’re not leaving on a cruise ship this afternoon. You can come back. Tomorrow. This is life in New Caledonia. Tomorrow.

So I’ll be back tomorrow, but in the meantime, a warning to locals and tourists alike. Mistakes are easy to make, and are often far from intentional. But be careful. This is not the first time this has happened. And it’s not likely to be the last.

As for that roundtrip ticket to Paris …

A (free) lunch with a view in Nouméa

Photo JH

Photo JH

Earlier this week, my son and I dined on a 3-course meal, complete with a cocktail, wine and coffee (okay, I had the cocktail, wine and coffee, while my son reorganised his Pokemon cards). The rooftop restaurant looked out onto the lagoon and my fellow diners were as quiet and as sophisticated as any self-respecting introvert would hope for. Participating in a real-world training exercise for the waiting staff, we enjoyed such atmosphere and fare for the price of “gratuit” (free). The only condition was that we spoke English.

English!

What in the world am I talking about, you ask? Well, I was as surprised as you may be to learn about a programme at a “pedagogical” restaurant, one of the professional training programmes in New Caledonia. This particular institution trains hotel and restaurant staff to become professional waiters and waitresses and young adults to become chefs and cooks. Every few weeks, the staff are put in real-life situations where they must prepare and serve 3-course meals to living and breathing English-speaking clients, as part of their programme. This exercise has been going on for the last 5 or so years (it made me wonder if they do this in Paris – if they aren’t, they should!).

Sounds a bit like interns and starter beauticians, right?

Even better. The only thing we were told before arriving was that we should speak English (this week they had to serve in English, next week they’ll have to serve in Japanese), that our waiters and waitresses would have to welcome us, present the menus and take our orders in English. And that it would take, all toll, about an hour.

We didn’t expect near the quality of the food, nor the ambiance that we received on the day. I took my 7-year-old son along as practice (seven is a great age for learning about eating “outside in”, when to place our cutlery in the centre of our plates, how to hold a wine glass) in a safe environment. Everyone would be “learning”. And indeed the staff was obliged to speak English the whole time, to attend to our every question and concern, to always serve on the right, to sweep away the bread crumbs before dessert, and so on. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought us in a starred restaurant. The greatest attention was made to each detail (as the director said more than once, “They’re not in a brasserie! Standards, people!”)

Photo JH

Photo JH

The food was excellent, I must say – with a starter of a raw tuna and cucumber salad (almost like a fish tartare) , followed by orange-roasted pork, potatoes and ratatouille, and a choice of desserts of one or more (puffed pastries, cherry tarte, fruit custard). I was offered a “Blue Lagoon” cocktail, wine and coffee (and a second coffee was offered on my way out).

All in all, it took 2 hours, as we were not rushed. I felt for the waitresses who, in some cases, were learning to serve wine and slice dessert pies for the first time in front of clients. They had their speaking notes tucked in their hands and at times, smiled and went to their English teacher for confirmation that they had understood my latest question. I kept being called “Missus”, which was a bit of a shock (had I been teleported to the Southern United States all of a sudden?), but as our waiting staff were Melanesians, and I know them to be timid and reserved, I did all I could to encourage them (rather than correct them, which seemed to be the incessant job of their director).

I was so happy to participate in this training event and hope to do so again. I was told that they’ll be opening the doors again in June and will be looking for 4 couples of 2 for a lunchtime service. I would definitely recommend going along – you’ll be doing them a great service and will spend an excellent 1-2 hours. If you would like to participate in June or another time (for those of you who know Nouméa, the restaurant is located above La Coupole), drop me a line in the comments below or by email, and I’ll put you in touch with the organiser.

We might just see you there one day!

Photo JH

Photo JH