May 17th 2008 02:53
I have a friend called Butros. He is a smart guy, very funny, and he is the most absent minded person I have ever met. He is forever leaving wallets, glasses, keys, or pants at home and having to double back in a mad rush to get them. In preparation for one excursion out of the flat, we muddled around for 3 quarters of an hour getting ready and for once, Butros was ready in record time, half an hour before anyone else. We were all prepared, set, when someone uttered the fateful and familiar words, ĎWhereís Butros?í just as the tinkle of the water and the melodic notes of shower signing reached our ears.
One of the many reasons for the signing of the Treaty back in 1840 was the British fear of French occupation. It was a common held belief that if the British didnít pee on the carpet in the corner to mark their territory, the French soon would. It appears, from the sneaky way theyíd landed at Akaroa and obliquely tried to claim sovereignty by setting up patisseries, they were right.
So I ask: what if Captain Hobson had been as absent minded as Butros? What would have happened if theyíd been 10 days out of Sydney and heíd slapped his forehead and made them turn around to pick up his wallet left on the bedside table?
The answer is New Zealandís closest neighbour that you canít throw a cricket ball from one end to another, New Caledonia. Thatís right, not Australia according to the 1978 Jacaranda Complete School Atlas. The Overseas Territory is 4 millimetres closer. That makes France NZ's nearest neighbour.
Right now Kiwis could all be bi-lingual (not in a Judy Bailey greeting at the start of the news way either, properly so). We would still be smoking not just in bars, but on buses, in offices, and while going for jogs in very small pants and blue singlets. Our economy would be better. The French wouldnít have abandoned our butter in the 70s to please the EEC. They wouldíve bought more just to spite it.
I sat at the Bais des Citroens on a pontoon 50 metres off the beige sand beach swirling my hand in Toilet Duck blue water while tropical fish debated whether to nibble my fingers and the sun tried to strip all the skin from my back in under 5 minutes. Not a Nu Zilinder in sight. Why? Itís doesnít make sense. The closest overseas city to New Zealand has a tropical climate, two beautiful beaches - the jaw of Anse Vata and the crescent of Bais des Citroens - and yet, take out the standard school group French trips and thereís the distinct feeling that, in our kiwi minds, the Noumea Leprosy Colony is still thriving and taking part in all aspects of food preparation.
Sure, not everything about Noumea is as easily digestible as the wine and baguettes.
The people are friendly and obliging but you wonít get the same tourism worship as in Fiji or Vanuatu.
Also, if you want to wipe down your sandy feet to go more cultural there isnít much more than a couple of not particularly enthralling museums, an Aquarium, and the Zoo whose star attraction is the white and grey breasted, delicious looking, native bird, the Cagou.
Itís pricey. The basics of cuisine are difficult to grow and standard restaurant or take away food is regularly double the New Zealand price. Venture into French gastronome and youíll be needing to take out mortgages.
And itís a time warp. With the exception of the Port Plaisance marina for rich guys to park their boats while cruising the pacific, thereís been little development since the late 50s. Itís a little slice of Gaullist colonialism with itís white washed, convict constructed buildings and that secure demeanour that comes from knowing the imperialists will always massage it with just enough cash to keep the society a healthy pink. Itís a pre-Elvis world and the French Resistance cross of Lorraine even still dominates the hill behind the Latin quarter.
In themselves theyíre not big problems. These quirks, if anything, are quite intriguing. They spice up the trip.
The cool tourist relationship is actually a combination of all of these things. Sitting three floors up in the trusty Nouvata Hotel, itself a gem of post-war colonial France, sipping on duty free vodka and juice with the beautiful scientist glowing and a relatively cheap Vietnamese feed we watched the seafood buffet and Tahitian dancers at the poolside restaurant below, the reason became clear.
We had been intending to attend the banquet ourselves. The notion of eating creatures of the lagoon until we felt sick was an alluring one. Until we found out the price. $115 dollars each for the all you can eat. One hundred and fifteen!
And then it became clear. They donít want us. We arenít welcome. The rich Australians, ex-pat Frenchmen, and Japanese honeymooners that sat clapping at ground level and pretending to be reluctant when the Tahitian vixen pulled them up to dance in front of everyone was their target. For them, $115 NZD is not much at all. The prices, the time warp, the beaches, the token nature of the museums and the zoos all make it in to a little French Pacific Disneyland for them.
We treat it like a mildly amusing miniput and noone spends large amounts of money at miniputs except at that Taupo one. They wonít kick us out, but they donít greet us with open arms and a pat either. Theyíre completely ambivalent to the presence of young New Zealanders.
Something about that made me like New Caledonia more. It appealed to a fundamental element of my psyche. It followed the treat em mean, keep em keen rule of dating. There were occasions when the prices of food and other goods around the Anse Vata area crossed into the realms of malicious but the rest of the time I was happy to stroll around and mind my own business as a second class tourist.
Essentially, I like Noumea and recommend it even if it doesnít really have any feelings for me. I will go into bat for the place even if their marketing people wonít. Itís close, amusing, convenient, different, tropical, efficient, and relatively undiscovered.
Perhaps it would not have been a bad thing if Captain Hobson hadíve been a Butros. We could have a bigger version of New Caledonia instead of a small brother to Australia.
First published Lucid
subscribe to this blog