Monday, July 26.
The novelty of the baguettes, brie and fine French wine is wearing off quickly. Although we’ve been in Lifou for less than 48 hours, I’m in culture shock. Life here is dramatically different from what we saw in Tanna, Vanuatu.
On our walk today into the village called “We”, we were approached by a group of local drunk men with bottles of beer in hand, cigarettes in their mouths. “How do you like our island?” one drunk man asks Kai, who doesn’t really know how to respond. Though harmless, I think that drinking Kava, like the men do in Vanuatu would be better. At least there wouldn’t be the empty bottles and cans that are negligently left on the street.
I remember laughing with Tim, when in Vanuatu, one man passed us on the beach walking barefoot and said proudly, “I’m walking to the village to drink some Kava.” It sounded so innocent and intimate, like he was a 10 year old announcing that he was going to go play with his friends. Kava might numb his body, but alcohol somehow seems worse. My critical Western eye and UC Berkeley liberal education is seething forth. I’m not trying to be Alexis de Tocqueville, but just wanted to share some impressions and I admit we only saw one small area in Vanuatu and we’ve only been in one small area in New Caledonia.
Talking about garbage – here, there seems to be a lack of pride of place that we saw in Vanuatu. There’s garbage and plastic all over the place, even sharp broken glass bottles at the exquisite white sand beach shown below.
On our walk, we passed five gendarmes – that’s French for police – and their white skin contrasted with the local islanders of Melanesian descent. I wonder about the affects of being a French colony. Does it make you a dependent child, unable to dress yourself and prepare your own meals? Does it take away your power and turn you into a spoiled brat?
Laurens, a French teacher living here, told us that most of the locals don’t work as there’s no work for them and they get money from their relatives as well as the French government. In contrast, in Vanuatu, it seemed like most of the Ni-Vans (that’s what they call themselves) were busy working in their fields, harvesting cassava, bananas and taro.
Stopping to savor sweet coconut.
And back at home, weaving mats and baskets.
Or shooting bow and arrows.
Another huge contrast is that everyone walks in Tanna or paddles his outrigger canoe.
We only saw three cars when we were there; here in Lifou, most people drive their Isuzu Troupers and Range Rovers back and forth from the grocery store, filled with expensive imported food. The roads are paved and there are fancy sidewalks compared to the bumpy dirt roads in Tanna. There are even street lights equipped to dim and brighten depending on when a car passes.
“When France has taken all the nickel it needs, then they will leave,” predicts Michel, our French neighbor in the marina. Mind you, this marina is the cleanest we’ve ever been in. It’s so clean that we ran our watermaker here. Can you see the clear water here in the photo? There's a school of Sergeant Majors nibbling under Kamaya and supposedly one of the guards roams the docks busting any boats for flushing their heads (that's what we call toilets).
Michelle warns us against going to the island of Ouvea where in 1988 there was a massacre between the local Kanak islanders and the French police. “They’re very rascist there.” Michelle surmises that if the people get independence, then they would have their big cars and no money to pay for fuel.
Maybe he is right. Indeed the relationship between France and New Caledonia is complicated. Vanuatu (you might know it as New Hebrides) achieved independence from both France and Britain in 1980 – both countries governed at the same time. Though considerably poorer, the Ni-Vans seem so much more content than the people we met today on our walk. In fact, in 2006, the Ni-Vans were voted the happiest people on earth. I wonder, whether it has anything to do with their independence and simpler lives, one without the material desires of cars, delicious cheese and fresh baguettes.
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