Saturday, May 30, 2015

Tiki Touring Around New Caledonia

30 May 2015

For those new to our blog, we first heard the term "Tiki touring" in New Zealand.  A friendly woman explained that Tiki was the first man (in Maori legend), and he wandered the world looking for the first woman, as well as a land to call home.  So he wandered here and there, without a plan, just trying to go everywhere to find a woman and a home.  Thus the term Tiki touring has come to mean travelling without much of a plan or direction - travelling to enjoy the journey.

So yes, we are Tiki touring around New Caledonia.

As you can see, the scenery is gorgeous!  Very lush and green, with some tropical trees and flowers, but also evergreens, and maybe some eucalyptus or gum trees.  Huge hills, pretty close to mountain sized, run along the center of the island, with flatter areas along the coasts.

This map shows where New Caledonia is located, sort of between Australia and New Zealand.  Scientists theorize that Australia, NZ, and New Caledonia were once part of a giant continent, Gondwana, that eventually split up and became the separate continents and nations.  (Africa and South America are often included as part of Gondwana.  There's also the theory that it became part of Pangaea, which split to make most of the northern hemisphere continents.)  

 At any rate, there are similarities in Australian, New Caledonian, and New Zealand soil, rock, fossils, plant life, that support this theory.   

We don't know, we were just struck by the ways that the scenery reminded us of areas of New Zealand.  And being an island nation populated by Polynesian people and then European settlers, there are some cultural similarities as well.   

So - we spent our first twelve days here in Nouméa (pronounced NEW-may-a).  We enjoyed the city time as well as the beach area near our hotel, and especially appreciated the French food.  But this is a huge island, some 6000 square miles, so we headed off Tiki touring.   
We decided to head to Bouluparis, which is far enough out of the capital to be country.  (I think this is pronounced boo-loo-pa-REE - that's how it sounds when people here say it.)  We drove north (which is really northwest-ish, since the island is diagonal to latitude and longitude lines), through flat farmland surrounded by incredible hills.  Some are really conical, and look like volcanoes just waiting to erupt.  Other mountains look like piles of crushed and rumpled green velvet, separating the east and west coasts of Grande Terre.  
And of course the sky was bright blue, the sun shining, and puffy white clouds added artistic contrast.   

Yes, New Caledonians drive on the right.  Australians and New Zealanders drive on the left.  One suspects New Caledonia, being French, has insisted on doing things the French way.  Including importing cars from places farther away than their neighbors, who have the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car.

Once we made it past the airport, which is about 45 minutes outside Noumea, we figured we should look into finding a place for the night.  We consulted our handy dandy accommodations guide from the tourism center, and found a few possibilities.  Stopped at a gas station and shop for a bathroom and drink break.  I asked the woman at the counter if there was a phone, explained that we were travelling around, and that we needed to call for a hotel.  (It isn't quite that smooth in my French, but more halting and possibly not exactly grammatically correct.  But the gist of it is there.)  She called our first choice place, asked if anyone spoke English, and handed me the phone.  I got the information (availability and price), talked it over with Richard, made the reservation, and got direction.  Well, gas station lady (who later told me her name was Anita) thought we should check the hotel in town, because she didn't know anything about the B&B that we just booked.  So we called, she had me talk to the person, and the price was essentially the same, but without breakfast.  Plus it would be a big hotel, not a friendly B&B.  I thanked Anita for her help, she wanted to know where we were from, if we just arrived, how long we're travelling - all that.  Then she proceeded to tell me my French is very good.  I laughed and thanked her, because I know I take English words, give it a French pronunciation, and pretend I have it right.  (It only works about 50% of the time, but it gives me more vocabulary than I remember.  Really, reservation is "reh-ser-va-see-OHN" and Anita knew exactly what I meant!  Cracked me up.)

Anyway, off we went with rather vague directions - turn left at the sign for Port Ouenghi (yeah, pronounced WEN-ghee).  Turn left at the plage (beach) sign.  Turn left just before the beach.  Uh, what?

It worked - we found a delightful house with a French hostess, fortunately being visited by friends who are fluent in English because our hostess isn't.  But we have a comfortable room, an incredible view, a friendly dog, and speedy wifi.  What more does one need?

Oh, well, a neighbor whose property and house looks freshly painted by Andrew Wyeth.  The mangroves right below the lawn.  An orange flower that just had to blow into my photo.  Scenic farms and mountains just begging to be photographed.

Then sunset, when colors intensified and the almost full moon popped out.

We headed in to town for dinner, but cafés were closed by then (6 PM).  The grocery shops were open - we decided on Chez Henri, which was bigger than Chez Camille.  Dinner was a baguette, brie, and an apple.  (Richard had pate de foie gras on his baguette.)  Really, we're in a town that closes up by 6 PM, but they have pate, brie, baguettes in the mini market.  Oh, and Anita had croissants in her shop by the gas station.  I guess when there are French people, there is French food.

The stars are currently unbelievable.  Seriously, take all the metaphors and similes you've ever heard about starry skies and diamonds on velvet and points of light, put them together, multiply them by about 100, and that's the current night sky.  It's alive with stars.

Perfect spot for our first night of Tiki touring New Caledonia!

Friday, May 29, 2015

Polynesian Dancing in New Caledonia

29 May 2015

Our hotel has a Polynesian dance performance every Friday night - some people pay for the traditional food buffet, and get front row seats for the performance.  The rest of us just sit or stand around the sides, watching these athletic young Caledonians dance their feet off.  Or their hearts out.  Or something like that.

There are similarities in the traditional dance of many Polynesian countries, or at least it seems that way to those of us from other places. 

The women dance with mesmerizing hip swings and rolls, their tushes pulsing and twerking at lightening speed, doing that patented Beyonce move but in hyperdrive.  All while gently waving their hands to give the impression of water, or birds, or maybe flowers.  And barefoot.  I truly don't know how they do it.

The men kick, jump, swing their arms, looking strong and powerful and like warriors, also at agile lightening speed, showing off their fierce war moves and threatening the audience - all while smiling, because after all, this is a performance.  They sometimes dance with fiery batons, but with the recent wind the fire dancing is on hold.

It was a great performance and I really enjoyed it.  Not easy to get decent photos at night with dancers leaping and jumping - most of my photos of the three young men are blurred, because they really are in nonstop action throughout each dance!

There was also a seven-piece band who sang a few numbers before and after the dancing, and who provided the mostly percussive music for the dancers.  Imagine the John Mayer version of "Over The Rainbow," but singing more perky songs.  In French.  That's the best I can do to describe the music - several drums, a few guitar/ukelele sort of stringed instruments, a keyboard, and nicely harmonizing tenor voices.  In French.  No idea what the songs were about, other than one about eating.  (No, they didn't mention foods.  They just kept singing "mangez, mangez" - or maybe "manger, manger" - both pronounced the same in French.)

A lovely end to our first twelve days in New Caledonia!  Tomorrow, we pick up our little car and head north on our island exploration!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Wild Windy Days, Bluest Blue Skies

28 May 2015

We're having a great time in New Caledonia - we have the occasional grey or drizzly day, but most of the time the sun is shining brightly and the sky is the bluest blue we've seen in a long long time.  But at the same time, there seems to be a fairly constant wind, somewhere between 10 to 20 miles per hour - and it really churns up the seas!

So of course, the wind surfers and kite sailors are out in full force, especially during the mid day when the wind is strongest.  We're not talking breeze, but full on wind, blowing sea spray in the air, creating white caps, and pushing the wind surfers along at lightening speeds!  It was fascinating to watch the colorful sails come zooming in to shore, and at the last minute the surfer would somehow slip to the other side of the sail while turning the board, and they'd suddenly be flying off back out to sea!  Incredible!

I've tried wind surfing, and it can feel deceptively easy when the water is smooth and the breeze is light and constant.  Turning is difficult, and the first time I tried, I absolutely couldn't go in the opposite direction.  Seriously, I sailed comfortably across a small lake, and ended up swimming back dragging the board and sail in back of me.  Then I took a wind surfing class in college - I got really really good at climbing back on the board.  I learned I don't have much balance, the slightest wave makes me rock, and changes in wind pressure or direction necessitate changes in one's hold/lean/pull.  So I spent half the class in the water, climbing back on the board.

I say all of that to explain that these wind surfers really looked professional out there, zipping back and forth between the shore and the outer islands.  No one fell, no one tipped over, everyone seemed to be having a fabulous time zooming around and not worrying about sharks or sea snakes or even falling in.  They looked as if they were just standing on the board, not as if they were adjusting their balance while maneuvering the sails in the strong wind, straining their muscles to maintain their tack - which is why they all looked like totally buffed athletes out there!  Trust me, this is not an easy sport!

It was exciting to watch these shiny and bright triangles of color flying across the brilliant turquoise and ultramarine blue sea.  A physics question for my friends (I was terrible at physics) - if the wind is 20 mph, and the wind surfer is angling across the wind, how fast is that wind surfer sailing?  I truly have no idea.

There were children on the beach as well, possibly a school or camp group.  The kids all had yellow shirts, often under a jacket or hoodie, so we couldn't tell if there was a logo.  But the kids were having a wonderful time, and the chaperones seemed to also be enjoying the day on the beach.

We've enjoyed walking along the road that runs by the beach, Promenade Roger Laroque.  Great place to watch the wind surfing, and easier than walking on the sand.  There are occasional hotels surrounded by stores and cafés, and of course the boulangeries and patisseries.  So hard to not stop at each one, but the baguette sandwiches are huge, big enough to eat half for lunch and save the other half for dinner.  There are also quiches (my fave is the spinach quiche), crepes both savory and sweet, tartines (huge slice of bread smothered with layers of salad and fish or meat and then sprinkled with cheese) - we're enjoying the decidedly French food.  We haven't gone to a real restaurant yet, the café and bakery items are more than enough for every meal.

We originally came to New Caledonia planning to swim and dive.  We've both tested the water and jumped right out - even though this is the Coral Sea, and we're only 22 degrees south of the equator, the water is COLD!  Okay, not cold if you live in cold climates, you'd think the water is warm.  But for people who lived for 20-something years in the Caribbean, this water is cold cold cold.  So we've let go of our idea to dive.  We also considered a live-aboard dive boat, but, well, the water is cold.  Rather than staying in the capital city, Nouméa, and taking side trips, we're renting a car to explore the rest of this huge island.  We pick to car up on Saturday, and will have ten days to tour around and see the rivers, parks, and mountains of Grande Terre.  And hopefully find warmer beaches up north.  The island is roughly 230 miles long, and between 30-45 miles wide.  (That's something like 400 km by 50-70 km.)  We have a lot to see, including the cagou bird, which lives only on Grande Terre and absolutely nowhere else in the world!

There are several tributes to the American troops who made New Caledonia one of their central bases during WWII.  In our neighborhood, Anse Vata, the hospital established by the US military once stood.  There's a sign along the sidewalk, stating:

 "During the Second World War, the Americans established their South Pacific rear base in New Caledonia.  The wounded were brought back here to be treated in the different hospitals dotted over the island, at Tomo, Dumbea, Sarramea, Saint Louis, and at Anse Vata opposite the beach.  The complete medical service comprised eleven American hospitals, one New Zealand hospital, and several dispensaries, all of which were open to the general population.  Caledonians were able to take advantage of modern medical techniques and newly discovered antibiotics."

In the center of the city, referred to as Centreville (pronounced sohn-treh-VEE in proper French), near the Museum of New Caledonia, there's a very interesting sculpture that is a tribute to the role the US played in WWII and especially their presence in New Caledonia at that time.  There are eleven flat rectangular pillars, in varying combinations of stars and stripes, creating an abstract version of the US flag.  The pillars are in a semi-circle around a low domed globe, which somehow has New Caledonia in the center and all the other continents in, well, a rather unusual configuration around it.

It's a very interesting sculpture, with a huge sign in front saying in both French and English:  "In honor of the U.S. forces who by their presence during the Pacific War from March 1942 to February 1946 insured the freedom of New Caledonia.  Her people are deeply grateful."

Rather nice, isn't it?  There's so much anti-American sentiment around the world, it's nice to see a nation that, at one point, realized that another nation made a difference in the lives of the people that lingers to this day.

Last event of today - yes, the bank workers are on strike.  Six unions from all the banks in NC have united and are on strike, protesting low salaries for union workers, high salaries for management, you know, the same issues world wide.  I chatted a bit with the men working the grill - yes, the bank employees are striking and having a huge picnic out on the street.  It was great, very reminiscent of my school when the teachers were on strike territory-wide - we were out with picket signs and barbeque meals, dancing while blocking the driveway.  The striking workers here were partying on the street as well.  

Fortunately, the middle guy spoke English - my French is limited, and I can only discuss basic subjects.  Strikes and the importance of unions is beyond my French.  We had a nice chat, they were very friendly, and were happy to have their photo taken.  And they assured me that everyone was keeping the ATMs in cash, because they didn't want the public to not be able to get money.

So of course I gave them a "Power to the People!" and they gave me a unanimous thumbs up!

Ah yes, making friends around the world!