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.

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 …

Food 65% more expensive in New Caledonia

Life on a desert island in the South Pacific. A dream come true, right? Palm trees, blue skies, light warm breezes. Sunny weather all year ’round, clear waters, white sands. Utter bliss.

Cut.

A report released yesterday shows just how much a life such as this will cost you – above and beyond life in France, for example. The most expensive of France’s territories, prices here are, on average, 34% higher than in France. The second most expensive French territory is French Polynesia (Tahiti), at 26% higher. The cheapest French overseas territory is Reunion Island, with a price difference of  just 6% higher.

Let’s take a look at the price comparisons from the report:

Price comparisons: New Caledonia vs. France

Cost in New Caledonia
Food products

+65.4%

Leisure activities

+43.4%

Restaurants and hotels

+42.8%

Alcoholic beverages and tobacco

+42.5%

Housing, water, electricity

+38.9%

Clothing and shoes

+38.6%

Furniture and appliances

+38.3%

Communications

+35.6%

Health

+34.4%

Other products and services

+27.0%

Transport

+0.9%

Total average

+34.0%

I’ve mentioned the exorbitant prices before, but it is something else to see it confirmed in black and white. The high cost of living has been in the press recently and last year, 20,000 people in New Caledonia took to the streets over it.

A local shop-owner explained to me that everything is taxed at at 45% (meaning business owners are paying 45% on imported goods to the government), which accounts for the high prices (but how do we explain high rents, high communication costs, etc.?). He explained that it is next to impossible to pass on savings to customers with such a high overhead. Another person explained that as there is so little competition here (there is a monopoly on mobile and phone communications, for example), the consumer has no choice and is at the will and the whim of the provider.

But my question is how those on low incomes manage (including not only the working, but students and the elderly).

I read today that only 3% of the local majority population (Kanaks) complete higher education and 38% of young Kanaks are unemployed. Very few of them have much of an opportunity to manage, preside over or run a business or work in “knowledge worker” or decision-making positions. Those who are working appear to be doing so in low-paid, low-skilled jobs.

So how much does one earn in a low-paid, low-skilled job in New Caledonia? The minimum wage here is 888 CFP an hour, or 150,000 CFP a month (169 hours) – which works out to €1,257 per month (USD 1,639). (This assumes that the low-paid wage earner is being paid at least minimum wage.)

The net minimum wage in France (four 35-hour work weeks) is €1,426 –  €169 more than in New Caledonia. Yet low wage earners in New Caledonia are paying 65% more for food (which is said to make up 18% of a household budget) than their French counterparts. How?

Clearly they are making do with less.

Another article today highlighted that there are potential gender issues when it comes to high cost of living. High prices affect women differently from men suggests the Union of French and Pacific Women (UFFO), which is trying to sensitize the public to the fact that women who live in tribes far from the city centre are deprived employment opportunities and education. Thus, a high cost of living hits them harder and potentially puts them at much greater risk for poverty than men. This being said, nearly one in five (17%) live below the poverty line here.

All of this gives one pause.

What are the answers?

  • Take a closer look at importation taxes?
  • Encourage competition?
  • Encourage (higher) education for all?
  • Create incentives for upskilling?
  • Create better jobs?

Answers in the comments section, please! I’m curious to hear what you think.