The airplane door shut tight and all of a sudden, tout d'un coup, we were in France. It was quite bizarre, the announcements were in French, Antoine my neighbour on the plane, was keen to talk and tell me about his own life story and with the help of some good french wine did not stop to draw breathe once. I had to instantly think of my verb book and get my verbs in order. We were on our way to New Caledonia in the South Pacific. Unbeknown to me the island had first been discovered by James Cook in 1774 and named New Caledonia, as the north part of the island reminded him of Scotland!Nothing very Scottish in these southern coastlines I think.
We landed in Noumea, the capital of this long and lush island, which is surrounded by islets, mostly coral atolls with the most magical reefs around them. The roads were perfect, the driving was distinctly on the right and the signs all in French. We were on the southern most tip of the island. The natural harbours were what originally drew the attention of the French when they took over the island in 1853 under Napoleon III. They were initially used as a penal colony and once the convicts had served their terms they were given a parcel of land and allowed to settled. There was a huge shortage of women so the Empress Eugenie gave free trousseaus to girls who were willing to come over and settle. The island is also rich in nickel so mining became a source of income for the island and continues to be so.
The local Kanak population has been though some rough times and there are still issues of representation, self determination and employment for them. Nowadays they seem widely employed and ALL speak French. In fact the one thing that really surprised me is that I did not once here the local langauge spoken or one of them. The island is divided into eight different liguistic areas with 28 different languages. Perhaps French is the unifier.I travelled the south island on the bus. I sat there looking at the mamas around me in their traditional dresses and thinking of those French missionaries who all those years ago were determined to get rid of the nudity by introducing the missionary dress. A shapeless rather broad unflattering but comfortable floating cotton frock which all the women wear to this day- mutlicoloured and flouncy. I dont know if the style determined the shape or the shape the style - a lot of young girls are thin and dressed in western dress. They reach a critical age, not sure where this might actuallly lie in real years but they start growing ourtwards and I would say that the majority of women I saw were wide girthed and incredibly weighty. The place I stayed at was full of the art of Paul Gauguin though his women were mainly Tahitian. However the contrast was an interesting one.
The men - the young ones are mostly dressed in western shorts and t shirts, many with dreadlocks or long hair. There were enough of them in the central square to suggest that perhaps unemployment of these youths was an issue but I also loved the fact that the centre of the town was the Place de Cocotiers a leafy green park full of coconut trees where families, women and young things could hang out for the day or while waiting for the bus. Travelling on the bus women greeted me with wide smiles and friendliness. In the backround, the radio blared french ballads.
More on the Kanak art and life soon.