Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Stunning landscapes

The Grande Terre is the 3rd largest island of the Pacific and is known to have one of the largest lagoons in the World, with a well-conserved coral reef (at least in comparison to other places in the World), with over 1,000 fish recorded. So it’s a heaven for snorkeling! But beware!!- there are some nasty things under water, like the “tricot rayé,” a snake whose venom is deadly, same for the “Poisson Pierre” whose dorsal fin injects a deadly venom if one steps on it, the beautiful seashell “Cone” also has a deadly venom… I had always wanted to scuba dive, so I surpassed the initial fear of these deadly animals and put on a wet-suit, goggles, the tanks- and took an intro course in Noumea. And now I can say that I’m addicted!!! Being under water is such a wonderful feeling, time seems to go much slower, actually no, there is no time. Under water, life takes on so many different shapes and colors- the light pink anemones with long tentacules, brown sea cucumbers (which look like a loaf of bread), the red and white clown fish (Nemo is everywhere!), the multi-color parrot fish, the fan-corals, the peaceful and sleepy reef sharks, the remoras, ... it's really beautiful! Unfortunately, I have no pictures to show. And anyway, pictures just capture these shapes and colors, while there is so much more to it! The silence, or should I say, the sound of your own breathing, the reaction of the fish when they see you (some stare, others leave rapidly), the feeling of water- floating, i guess it would be a bit like in space. The first time I saw the drop, 20 meters underwater, where the coral reef stops and the ground is really really deep, I was strangely attracted to that deep seemingly infinite blue. It seemed so impenetrable, but I remember thinking that yeah, it wouldn't be such a horrible death (as people often talk of the divers' syndrome) to go deeper and deeper and deeper.... So I quickly went back to the group.

Since I don't have any pictures of the under water world, here are a few of the water from above:

Turquoise water in l'Ile des Pins

La Baie d'Upi in l'Ile des Pins

La Baie d'Upi in l'Ile des Pins

Baie de Kanumera in l'Ile des Pins (I was camping just next to that beach)

On land, the biodiversity is also very large, especially the flora with 3380 indigenous species, 80% of which are endemic! For example of the 19 araucaria species known in the world, 13 come from New Caledonia. One of them is the "pin colonaire" which is found profusely throughout the territory and more especially on l'Ile des Pins (hence the name!). And so there are huge possibilities to find new medicinal plants and for sure scents as well.

The famous pins colonaires, but that picture was taken in the Baie des Tortues in Bourail on the Grande Terre.

La "Roche Percee" in Bourail, a couple of hours north of Noumea.

La Poule (the hen) de Hienghene.

A sunset on the way to Hienghene.

I was personally amazed by all the flowers. Here are a few I liked (if you know what type they are, let me know and I'll add the names). Too bad I came after the flowering season of the famous flamboyants. I had a chance to see one of them, covered with its red flowers, it seemed that it had pulled on a bright red comforter.

A "salmon-colored" hibiscus- there are so many different colors of hibiscus in New Caledonia (white, red, pink, salmon, purple...)

A red one

In French we call it "Queue de chat", or "Cat-tail"

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Casse pas la tête…

… which literally translates from the French to “Don’t break your head!!” basically meaning “Don’t worry!” or “no rush!” It’s a motto by which the people live their lives by. And honestly, in a place as beautiful as their home, I don’t blame them! Coconuts to quench the thirst, a daily dive in the water to catch some fish (for those on the islands) or a walk in the forest to hunt a deer (although, they are becoming rarer now) and then a few yams (ok, those you do have to cultivate), Pandanus trees (a sort of palm) to make mats on which to sleep, sun, warm weather all year round, and delicious tropical fruits (mangoes, passion fruits known as “pomme liane”, “pomme cannelle” for which I don’t know the name in English). What more could one ask for?

La Baie de Jinek in Lifou, where the neighboring family regularly came to fish at dusk. It's a really cool place to snorkel too!

Kids in their playground- in Lifou

Grande Case in Lifou.

Decorations in the garden of the Grand Chef de l'Ile des Pins

The Kanak mentality is so different from the Western-capitalist-individualist one. It's no surprise there was so many clashes in the history of colonization. From my understanding and through my few encounters with the kanaks, most of them are happy with what they have and do not necessarily aspire for more. And so that's why they're not interested that much in tourism- I guess they don't want to be bothered by hordes of Australian, French or Japanese tourists, and they don't make much effort to please the few adventurous. Apparently, there is very little sense of ownership, because youngsters are to have devout respect for the elders (especially for their uncle, the maternal uncle if I remember correctly). So anything that belongs to you, also belongs to your uncle and the elders. Hence, if someone wants to start a business (say a petrol station) it is almost certainly doomed for bankruptcy, as there's nothing to say if elders from the tribe want to come and get petrol without paying. So people are having a hard time combining their traditions, where the tribe is a lot more importand than the individual, with the capitalistic system that was brought by the French.

Fete des ignames in l'Ile des Pins. Each year, at the beginning of the yam harvest, yams from the different tribes are combined, blessed and then redistributed among the tribes of the island.

The annoyed Caledoniens, Zoreilles, or Asians would say that half of the population is working for the other half. Because, while it is true the kanaks are happy living simply with fish, fruits and yams, most don't look very hard for a job so that they can receive government aid. Maybe it's a wrong assessment, but it's what I could sense in the 5-6 weeks I spent on the territory, talking to people and seeing the life in some tribes. At least one thing is sure, social dynamics in New Caledonia are extremely complex, and it would require a few years of living there to really understand what's going on.

I personally only had one somewhat uneasy encounter with a Kanak (and it actually didn't have anything to do with me being a tourist). Turned out he was the Chef (the chief) of one of the districts in Lifou. I was passing in front of his house when he saw me and told me to come and see him. I was a bit ashamed, because I hadn't done the "coutume" yet. Normally, when a visitor arrives in a village (or a tribe), he has to pay a visit to the chief and show his respect by giving him something (a manou which is a piece of cloth and tobacco are the usual gifts). So I excuse myself and do the coutume. The chief was completely drunk (and it was only 11 am!!!)... Really really drunk and he didn't make any sense. In me, I was thinking that this behaviour is definitely not worthy of a chief- it disgusted me. I obviously kept my feelings for myself and continued talking to him. Since it was lunch time, he told me to stay for lunch. I couldn't refuse- but seriously, I've never felt so uneasy. The whole way through I struggled to keep my mouth shut to not tell him what I thought and thus be disrespectful of the great chief of the district!!! Alcohol and marijuana are serious problems within the indigenous population. Many men are addicted, which makes them lazy and worse, very violent... Most 20-30 year olds in the North of the Grande Terre seem completely schizophrenic, because they've been smoking marijuana for so long that their neurons went completely "bizurk"!! It reminds me of the problems withing the aboriginal community in Australia.

All other interactions with the Kanaks were amazing!! For example with the women of the Tribu de Neami in the North of the Grande Terre near Kone, while they were collecting Niaouli leaves, with the workers of the sandalwood oil factory on l'Ile des Pins or with the Vanilla producers in Mucaweng and Hnathalo in Lifou.

The Women (and one guy) of the Tribu de Neami in Kone, after collecting Niaouli leaves.

One day, one of the elder women of Hnathalo decided to follow me in my investigation of the vanilla production system. She decided to introduce me to all the people that she knew grew vanilla in Hnathalo. So the whole day, we hitch-hiked together to visit different producers. She probably didn't have much else to do anyway. Many times I would tell her she should go to catch a ride before dark. To my concern, she would just answer "Ahh... Casse pas la tete!". When hitch-hiking, which is a common practice in NC, especially on the islands, people would always take me all the way to where I need to go, eventhough it may have been completely out of their way!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

New Caledonia: a restless paradise, struggling for independence

In Australia, most people opened round and surprised eyes as I told them my next destination was New Caledonia. I realized most non-francophones have no clue where this place is. So here’s a bit of geography: New Caledonia, a French territory soon (or maybe not) to be independent, is located in the South Pacific between Australia and Fiji, one of the farthest places I could be from home, literally at the opposite side of the globe. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had seen paradise-like postcards of the area, with turquoise and transparent waters, isolated beaches with fine white sand and of the lagoon around the Grande Terre, (the biggest of the 5 islands, the others being Ouvea, Lifou, Mare and L'ile des Pins) which is one of the largest in the world.

The lagoon upon arrival

I arrived in Noumea on a Sunday, and as all French cities, there wasn't a shop opened. The busy market place had shut down around noon and so I was left eating Ramen noodles... Even more depressing was the completely dead city center. And even though I was 20,000 km from home, it felt no different from one of the cities on the Cote D'Azur. The sweet and juicy mangoes as well as the flashing red flowers of the Flamboyant once in a while came as reminders of the Pacific. The youth hostel (the single one in New Caledonia) was filled with French expats, just out of university or a bit older, wanting to get away from France and trying their luck in this idyllic place! Many ended up staying at the hostel for a long time while trying to find a job or an appartment. So there were a lot of chill nights playing "belotte" or cooking together. A nice change from India where I ended up being alone with my book in my hotel rooms.

The view from my room in the youth hostel.

New Caledonia was first encountered by Europeans in the late 18th century by James Cook, who thought the coast line reminded him of Scotland, hence the name New Caledonia (Caledonia meaning Scotland in latin). I don't know where he got that impression from, maybe from the cliffs in Hienghene, because the turquoise-blue lagoon definitely did not remind me of Scotland. After this first encounter, the few Europeans that inhabited the island during the first half of the 19th century were sailors, whale traffickers, adventurers. And it is only around 1840 that a number of French catholic and English protestant missionaries came to convert the indigenous population, the Kanak tribes. Like always, the French and the British didn't agree, but this time the froggies won. And around 1860-1870 Napoleon III sent France's political prisoners from the Paris Commune and from the Kabyl insurrection in Algeria to New Caledonia. An Algerian woman I met in the plane from Noumea to the Ile des Pins actually made a very poignant documentary on the Algerians that had been deported. It's weird to think that this paradise-like island was such a hell for so many prisoners, so far away from their home and their families.

An example of this paradise, "la piscine naturelle" or "natural pool" gets filled up at high tide and when low tide comes, tropical fish are trapped- amazing snorkelling!

By 1900, the Bagne was terminated and the liberated prisoners were "encouraged," actuallyin many cases, they didn't have much choice but to stay in New Caledonia. Many French officials were also sent to act as a colonial administration... Asian immigrants came to provide the labor force needed for the mining of Nickel (still on-going to this day, with tremendous ecological damage). As a result, the population in New Caledonia is extremely diverse: Melanesians (including the indigenous Kanak population), whites (descendants of the colonizers, of the liberated prisoners that were forced to stay, les Caledoniens, who have lived in NC for 4, 5 or more generations; as well as French expatriates, commonly called les "Zoreilles", who came to New Caledonia in recent years, probably seeking a different life in the Pacific) Asians, Polynesians, Wallisians, Arabs, etc... A great mix!

But, I was quite surprised to see that there wasn't a lot of social "mixing" between the Caledoniens and the Kanaks. In Noumea, it was really clear which were the Kank hang-outs and which were the Caledonien or Zoreilles ones. "La Baie des Citrons" with all its bars and restaurants right on the beach front reminded me so much of Southern France. There, one would rarely see Kanaks (especially at night). The Place des cocotiers centre ville (completely deserted at night) is mostly a place where Kanaks hang-out. When I took the bus to go to the North of the island, to Kone, or even within Noumea to go to the Mont Dore (a bit outside town), I was always surprised to be one of the only white people, which definitely showed something about socio-economic disparities between the different ethnicities.

Place des Cocotiers

The Kanaks were actually always very vocal against the French colonization - not surprisingly. Throughout the 19th century, there were many revolts, and then again in the beginning of the 20th century. After WWII, during which NC was a military base for the Americans in the War in the Pacific, the Kanaks hoped to gain independence especially during France's decolonization movement (Indochina, West Africa and North Africa). But France is determined to keep the colony, and the Nickel boom in the 70s brings even more French immigrants to the territory. The 1980s were particularly violent years. In 1988 a group of independentists takes hostage of 22 policemen in Ouvea, which resulted in a bloody assault by the military in an attempt to free the hostages A year later, the president of the FLNKS (Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak Socialiste), Jean-Marie Tjibaou was assissinated by a radical who blamed him for signing the "Accords de Matignon" in 1988 with their opponents in the fight for independence.

So in 1998, the "Accords de Noumea" were signed. They gave the territory more autonomy and stated that a referendum for or against independence would be conducted in 2018. Right now, most of the products are imported and the only industry is Nickel mining (which, by the way, has had many negative impacts on the environment, both the forest and the coral reef). Aquaculture and the cultivation of fruits and vegetables are the biggest agricultural acrivities. Various efforts are made to develop agriculture on the islands like in the islands where Avocado (Mare), Coprah oil (Ouvea) and Vanilla beans (Lifou) production is encouraged. Will this be enough to provide for its population of 200,000? One wonders what will become of the territory if it choses to be independent- I think most "Zoreilles" will have to leave, for sure- and the acces to manufactured goods will be reduced. Maybe, people will go back to living simply, without any materialistic needs, which isn't that bad in the end, and any way, this is quite often the case outside of Noumea, in the bush.

Source: Wikipedia

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Australian Outback

Since most people I had contacted for my project had not given me any sign of life, I decided to limit my stay Down Under to a short two weeks. To maximize my time there, I decided to take part in a tour of the Outback- 8 days driving in the desert, 3200 km from Adelaide to Alice Springs, which is right in the middle of this huge country. At first, I was a bit reluctant to take part in a tour, I would have rather rented a car with some friends, but considering the short amount of time I had and also that I was alone, I had no real other choice. The trip turned out to be AMAZING!!!

I flew from Sydney to Adelaide, a day before the start of the trip. I had a whole day to stroll around this small town- very clean and with seemingly no great activity. The streets were very quiet probably due to the heat of the day. I did go to the main market- I was pleasantly surprised by the huge variety of fine quality foods available; fruits, vegetables, breads, but best of all (especially after all this cheese craving in India) there was loads and loads of really stinky cheese, so good!

Adelaide down town.

As I was strolling around, I bumped into a woman who was selling soaps and lotions she had made herself. Most of her products contained essential oils so I asked her where she had gotten them. I ended up spending the afternoon with a perfumer, talking about his job and how it differed from that of perfumers in India.

The next morning, our Wayward bus set out on its journey early one morning from the dormant cowboy town of Adelaide- 1st stop, a winery in the Clare Valley. I tried to put to use the little I remembered from what Barry Lydgate was trying to teach us about wine-tasting back in Wellesley. The wine wasn’t that great at all- especially since it was all bottled in those screw-cap types of bottles. The woman from the winery kept on telling us that it was much more reliable than bottling the wine with traditional corks. It’s maybe the French in me, but it didn’t convince me- because half of the pleasure of drinking wine (well, maybe not half, let’s say a ¼ of it, or at least some of it) is to hear the “plop,” as the cork is released from its glass prison. Anyway, a wine-tasting session as early as 11 am set the mood for the rest of the exploration in the Australian Outback.

Clare Valley Vineyards

As we left the picturesque vineyards, we drove through dry farmlands and slowly entered the desert. The landscapes I saw during this trip were absolutely breathtaking!! There was the rugged hike of Mt Ohlsen Bagge at Wilpena Pound, the dried salted Lake Eyre, hot water springs between Maree and William Creek the underground houses of the opal mine capital in Cooper Pedy, the moon-like landscapes on the way to Uluru. For hours we drove on flat land, seeing no tree, no house, and barely a few cars. In one such places, our bus broke down- of course!!! We stayed a few hours stranded in the middle of nowhere, hopefully waiting for the single car that had crossed our way to come back from the nearest town with the missing part.

An Emu strolling along the road

Apparently, in the center of Australia, there are huge underwater reserves. In some areas the pressure is just too great and little springs pop out here and there...

The "Red Center"

The unending road and the very flat horizon

Interesting geological formations.

At night, we camped in tents or swagged under the naked sky. The desert is definitely the best place to be star-gazing... or to be contemplating a moon rise. Those were probably the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets I have ever seen, when all of a sudden, the whole area surrounding you takes on a pink-orange shade and the birds start to sing almost all at once as the first rays of sunlight emerge on the horizon.

A sunset... speaks for itself.

One of the most stunning sights was the sun setting on Uluru, in a time span of only 10 minutes, the colors shifted from orange, to red, to pink, to purple and finally grey. Some people choose to fly to Alice Springs, drive for a couple of hours to spend one day in the Kata-Tjutu- Uluru National Park, then drive back to Alice Springs and fly out the next morning. I found that the magic of the place was in part compounded by the fact that we had spent so much time "struggling" on the road to get there. And the journey in itself was fabulous.

Sunset on Uluru

Uluru is a sacred place for the indigeneous population of the area. Different places around it are reserved for specific rituals, either for the men and the women. The actual rituals are kept secret from other clans but also from the other gender of the clan. The hike of the rock is one of the rituals young men do to reach adulthood. So people are asked, out of respect for the traditions of the indigenous population, not to climb the rock. So we walked around the rock, which took us about 3 hours. If anyone ever ends up in the dead middle of Australia, don't only go see Uluru but also go to King's Canyon- it's stunning!

King's Canyon

After this week away from big cities, I flew back to Sydney, but had the chance to stop in Melbourne to get enough of that cosmopolitan, european and laid back feel of the city- too bad I didn't have more time to explore!

Inside a building in Melbourne