2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 4,200 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 7 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.


Adventurers, grab your garb!

Little did I know, but within 15 minutes of central Nouméa, at the very top of a peninsula, you can explore a fort built in 1877-78. What in the world New Caledonia needed a fort for in 1878 is beyond me.  It appears that it was built in anticipation of a Franco-German war …

What is amazing to me about Fort Téréka is that you can walk right on in, around and through it. You can visit the sleeping areas or prison areas (imagined Pablo), you can climb the canons, you can be a 6-year-old boy to your heart’s content! There are no ropes to stop you going in, no lines, no staff.  It is a little boy’s heaven!

To get to this fort at the very top of a small mountain, however, you have to park your car near Kuendu Beach and climb to the top. Thanks to this site, I was able to figure out how to get there and where to go to find another bit we were after: a pedagogical walk through one of Nouméa’s only dry forests. This site has some very good pictures of the fort, the canons and the quarters, to give you an idea of what you will see when you get to the top.

In addition to this magnificent hideaway for children enamoured of pirates, treasure, prisoners and forts, Fort Téréka also has a nature path back down the mountain, created in 2007 by a local environmental group. They have been planting hundreds of trees endemic to New Caledonia, restoring the forest and educating visitors with a path complete with instructive panels, good signage and incredible views from treetop platforms.

We spent 2 hours total walking up to the summit, through the fort and back down along the nature path, watching the birds, the butterflies and admiring the views. As light began to fade at 5pm, we hurried back down through the forest, alone on the paths. For a short time, we thought we were lost (something that has happened to us before in New Caledonia, something we apparently are quite talented at), but I was somehow convinced we would get out before it was too dark. The last photo below shows the worry in my husband’s eyes, contrasted with the beauty of our incredible surroundings.

Suffice it to say, we lived to tell the tale and will be back!

Sea snakes, turtles and Napoleon fish in Nouméa

One of the best things about living in the South Pacific is the marine life. The marine life, the plants, the flowers and the colours that are found nowhere else in the world.

Another wonderful part of living in New Caledonia in particular is the amount of stuff you can get done before noon. I mentioned in a previous post that life starts early here, and early it does. For example, I was working at 7am this morning. By 10am, Pablo and I were at the local aquarium. By 12 noon, lunch was consumed and the day had only just begun!

With today’s second visit to Nouméa’s Aquarium des Lagons in 2 months, we were even more enchanted.

This time we purchased one of the aquarium activity booklets for 3-6 year olds for just over 1€ and away we went. We spent nearly 2 hours in what we consider to be a fairly small aquarium (compared to those found in Paris, Brest and Monterey), observing the fish and crabs and nautiluses very, very closely, drawing them, studying them and discovering extraordinary facts about them. We happen to love aquariums, but this visit outdid many of our other aquarium visits, by a long shot.

We solved the mangrove crab mystery we’d been pondering; spied an enormous, sleeping leopard shark, hidden from all of the other visitors; oooed and ahhhhed, stumbling in the dark, upon fluorescent coral and flashlight fish; and photographed and drew again and again the Napoleon fish, the Picasso fish and the marine angel fish (among goodness knows how many others!).

But our favourite part? The turtle (who seemed to want to escape the tank and follow us home) and the sea snakes! The aquarium had just released 45 turtles into the sea earlier that week (who will be tracked thanks to tracking technology), and this last one seemed to be at odds. We’d never seen a turtle so clearly and up close. It swam unceasingly along the side of the tank, watching our every move. We watched its eyes open and close as it came up to the surface, we observed its beak-like mouth and the way it swam and dove through the water.

We were also fascinated by the sea snakes (tricot rayés), which though extremely lethal, are very beautiful. We watched them on land and in water (they live on both and can swim underwater for 1 hour with just 1 breath), twisting and turning, swimming with grace, at times with the turtle, at times on their own. Their heads are indeed tiny (which makes them hard to bite you and thus kill you; this being said, their mouths are quite wide) and they are very easily spotted. Quite common here, the locals leave them alone, which is best (there is no antidote for their venom). Pablo spotted one in the sea here within weeks of arriving and was so thrilled to see one in the wild. I’ve promised to take him to Phare Amédée, where he will see many, many more.

If you are at all interested in marine life found only here in New Caledonia, we recommend a visit to this aquarium. We’ll most likely be back again and again, for life is so very interesting here!

Citizens of the world

By order of Napoleon III, France took possession of New Caledonia on 24 September 1853. Treated as a day of grief by the local Melanesian population for many years, the day has more recently been transformed into a national holiday, “Citizenship Day”. This day is meant to include all New Caledonian citizens, including the Melanesians (or Kanaks), the Caldoches (or Europeans) and the Metros (those from metropolitan France).

This year’s festivities have been bereft of pre-event stress and tension.

In Bourail, just days before the event, Citizenship Day was cancelled after 6 months of planning. 8 million francs (67,000 EUR) had been budgeted for the host of conferences, debates, dances, sporting events and tastings lined up with participation from all over the island. It was cancelled due to a request from the local Kanak population to raise the Kanak flag over the town hall for Citizenship Day. Debate has been bubbling on this issue – some feel that the Kanaky flag does not represent all of New Caledonia, but a part. As the name and flag of the country is a controversial issue at the moment, the mayor felt it best to cancel the event and to discuss these issues calmly and outside the context of Citizenship Day.

Meanwhile in Nouméa, again just days before the event, the town hall informed the organisers of a project called “Tribe in the City” that their project had been rejected. The 150 Years Committee had planned to build 9 huts in the city centre, next to an important Kanak monument, Mwa Ka; to bring the tribes to the city, if you will. Though the project had been previously accepted, the town hall reversed their decision just 1 week before the huts were to be ready, on grounds of security and urbanism regulations.

“The hut, that’s at the (heart of) the Kanak Constitution. To tell us there will be no huts, is to tell us they don’t want Kanaks in the city.”

You can imagine the tension in the air that day. After a few more days of negotiations, it was decided last Friday that the project could go ahead, under certain conditions (that the huts would come down at the end of September rather than remain permanent fixtures; that security and urbanism rules would be respected; that no alcohol would be sold on the premises, etc.).

Huts in the cityAs it turns out, the huts are just down the hill from us. We were able to watch their day-to-day progress as they went from piles of logs to skeletal structures to habitable huts in just a few days. Melanesians worked through the night, starting on Friday afternoon.

On the left, you’ll see their progress on Sunday.

By this afternoon (Monday), we counted 8 of the 9 huts more or less ready (8 representing the 8 aires coutumieres and 1 representing the communal house). Though they were delayed by the town hall decision (and many said they wouldn’t be ready), they were!

The final touches were going up on the roofs of a few and the walls were going up on another, as we visited this afternoon. Women worked on weaving the palms and men built the rooftops. Workers were surrounded by Melanesians singing and cheering them on. Children running in and out of legs, adults seeking food from the many booths, it was a welcoming, warm and festive air.

To get a feeling for the tribes in the city today, watch this short video:

We asked ourselves where the other Europeans were, why they weren’t here, participating in this rare cultural exchange. Pablo, our 6-year-old also asked about the Kanaky flag, which was flying from almost all of the huts. Wasn’t that the issue in Bourail, he asked. We later read that the mayor was to raise the French flag in the square with the huts as well. I suppose a compromise had been reached, and both flags flew.

As we visited Mwa Ka, the Kanak monument pictured at the top of this post, we stopped and spoke with one of the Melanesians and her 9-year-old son. She explained some of the imagery in the totems and remarked that the Europeans never came to experience their culture – only the foreigners did. She said her son was hoping his school friends would come by, but his friends are European, and they hadn’t come, she explained. I could tell that he wanted to play with his friends (though there were many other children there) and though proud of his culture, was disappointed. I realised today, again, looking into his eyes, that it starts young, the “invisible barriers“. So many divisions in schools, both primary and university; so many divisions in the streets, in homes, in lives.

And yet, we are citizens of the world, mixed and mixing, moving across continents and cultures. She asked our nationalities. When she learned that my husband was French and that I was American, she smiled and said New Caledonia was the meeting place, the middle ground, where our New Caledonian son had been born. Yes, I nodded my head. We are citizens, all, of this place, and the point, she said, was to “vivre ensemble”  (live together).

If you look carefully at the visual history painted on the pirogue/boat at Mwa Ka, you’ll find at the end of the Kanak history, “vivre ensemble”. It seemed to me, today, spending just a little bit of time with the Kanaks (kanaka means “human being” in Hawaiian), that they are much, much wiser than they are being given credit for.

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.

A different kind of zoo in Nouméa

Some 10 days ago, Pablo and I ventured to the Parc zoologique et forestier Michel-Corbasson, a wonderful 36-hectare location full of animals and plants you’ll only find here in New Caledonia. Accessible via a very bumpy, pot-hole-riddled road of 2 kilometres perched on the  very tippy top of a hill minutes from Nouméa’s city centre, it is home to a dry forest; kagus (cagou in French), the national bird living in the semi-wild; flying foxes; birds of all sorts (including the New Caledonian crow and the New Caeldonian parakeet); monkeys and peacocks. You will not find elephants or lions or bears here, but you will be enchanted by the expanse, the tree canopies, the foliage, the views and the exhibits. There is a playground for kids tired of looking at forests and animals, picnic benches and a friendly staff.

Our first stop was the kagus, found only here in New Caledonia. When we were here in 2005, there was only 1. Now they have 5 and you can walk through their space (quietly). Fascinating birds (for they both bark and are flightless), they are monogamous breeders, live in pairs and raise their offspring together for a few years before their young leave the proverbial nest. Since 1978 they have been bred in captivity here in the park. They are in danger of extinction from deforestation and predation by mammals introduced to the island (dogs, pigs and rats) and since 1977 are a protected species. The breeding in the park has led to the birth and growth of 100 kagus, which have been partially re-introduced into their natural habitat in the Blue River Park.

And now for some other mystery animals. One may be new, the other most certainly not (but it is displaying a behaviour Pablo and I had never seen before). Take a look at the following 2 photos. What are they of? You can click on the images to get a closer look.










Answers in the comments section below, please! The person who gets both photos right will get a special call out from New Caledonia Today and a visit to the park to see the animals in person (if he/she can manage to get to Nouméa, that is). Answers will be revealed in any upcoming post.

Finally, Pablo and I were very happy to find that New Caledonia has butterflies, several species of which are only found here. The one we saw at the Parc zoologique seems to be a Montrouzier butterfly (or a Blue Mountain Swallowtail), the blue of which we have never before seen in nature. I normally write down the names of things, but we were nearing the end of our visit. We’ll have to go back – and next time see the monkeys and other parts of the zoo (yes, it is that big)! Anyone want to join us?

A mangrove forest in the inner city

When people hear of Nouméa, the descriptor that generally follows is “the Paris of the South Pacific”. As in Nouméa being French, somewhat chic (having spent 20 years in Paris, I question chic as a description of Nouméa, but there you go) and located in the South Pacific. No one tells you that in addition to breathtaking bay views, palm trees, incredible weather, boutiques and restaurants, you’ll see a plethora of endemic flora and fauna, will witness traditions and customs that belong to an intriguing Melanesian culture or see banyan trees, fish poison trees and a mangrove forest within the city itself.

Last weekend we decided to follow up on a suggestion from a friend to visit the mangroves in Ouemo, one of the neighbourhoods in Nouméa. I had heard that we could see crabs, birds and the aerial roots of this particular species of mangroves. So off to Ouemo we went, expectations high. 15 minutes in the car later, we landed at a path across from a school that led down to the mangroves. 15 minutes. This is an experience you cannot get in Paris, I assure you.

Free and open to the public nearly every day of the year, the path leads down to the mangroves, which is a is a formation of several species of mangrove with an intricate intertwined root system and other trees adapted to the environment, all growing in a bed of mud. They serve as incredibly complex ecosystems, home to birds, crustaceans and fish and protect the land from marine erosion. I’d seen mangroves from a boat on a 2006 visit to Northern New Caledonia and on the Loyalty Islands, but to walk among them was another experience altogether. We tried to imagine what it would be like to be trapped in them at night – shudder!

Visitors explore the mangrove forest on a raised platform, you’ll be pleased to note. Perfect for a Sunday stroll alone or with family and friends, I was struck by the sounds of the birds (which I recorded – now I only have to find a way to add the audio to your reading!), the expanse of the forest and the rich collection of life living there. And the peace.

Our son, though, was on the look out for the crabs I’d told him about. I’d read you could find mud crabs in mangrove forests and a friend had told me she’d seen all kinds of crabs with her daughter just a week before.

We looked and looked and looked. We retraced our steps and tried different parts of the walk.

No luck.

We wondered if we were there too early or too late in the day. We wondered if the noise of six feet tip tapping on the wood was scaring them away. We wondered if they’d eaten enough for the day and no longer needed to come out of their holes (and holes there were, a plenty).

We eventually came to a bridge in the forest, and while sitting on a bench, we looked down, having given up. There, in the shadows we caught sight of an iridescent something or other. That moved. Horror!  We looked closer and began to notice 2 crabs here, 3 crabs there. Only these were dark with red underbellies or red eyes or red claws – we couldn’t tell which part was red. But thanks to the red underbits, we started spotting dozens of them. Sure enough, they quickly scurried away when they heard the slightest noise or felt a vibration.

To this day, we don’t know if they were mud crabs or mangrove crabs or some other kind of crab. Apparently only hermit crabs and mangrove crabs can climb trees as a defense mechanism – which makes me think these little critters (also root climbers) were mangrove crabs. But I need the advice of a true expert! Anyone?