Saturday, May 23, 2015

A Little Slice of Life in New Caledonia

23 May 2015


First, we finally found a bank with ATMs that will accept our cards, so we now have cash.  We are THRILLED!  It was pretty rough to not even have cash for pay toilets.  However, now there’s a rumor (somewhat substantiated, since we heard this from a bank employee) that the banks may go on strike next week.  Plus Monday is a government holiday here, so the banks will be closed anyway (Pentecost, or Shavuot, depending on your religious leanings). 

Always something exciting while traveling!

Just a few more facts about New Caledonia: 
New Caledonia is located roughly 1,200 km (720 miles) east of Australia, and 1,500 km (900 miles) north-northwest of New Zealand.  The main island, Grande Terre, is 16,372 km sq or 6,321 sq miles - just under twice the size of Puerto Rico, and six times of Rhode Island.  Bigger than Connecticut.  Similar in size to all the Hawaiian islands combined - or the State of Palestine.

The lagoon is about the size of West Virginia - right between the size of Djibouti or Belize, and Macedonia
The New Caledonia Barrier Reef encloses some 24,000 sq km (or 9,300 sq mi) of lagoon, making this the largest lagoon in the world, as well as the second largest barrier reef.  UNESCO has placed the area on the World Heritage list for its reef diversity and associated ecosystems:
As I said in the previous blog, New Caledonia is part of French Polynesia, and the original people here are part of the Melanesian group.  However, there was an influx of Polynesian people, and then of course the Europeans,
primarily French.  The culture, arts, and in fact the language of the indigenous people all show influences and similarities to the Maori of New Zealand, as well as the communities in the neighboring countries from Vanuatu all the way to Samoa.

I spent a few hours at the Museum of New Caledonia, or la Musée de Nouvelle-Caledonia.  It really was fascinating!  The museum has a wonderful view of the Baie de la Moselle (Bay of Moselle), and is near the main post office. 
The entrance fee is all of $2, but children, students, and seniors all get in for 50 cents.  Free brochures are available in French, English, and several other languages.

Much of the artwork of the indigenous people, referred to as the Kanak peoples, is wood carving.  And most of the carvings were used in the great
houses, homes of the village or clan chief as well as the meeting center.  There would be a large carved central pole, with various carved figures used as posts inside the circular structure.  Ornately carved panels would serve at the door posts, entrance step, and lintel.  The entire building would be covered with thatch, and then a specially carved spear would be inserted into the hole at the top of the roof.  Most of the carvings included fierce faces of humans, possibly to scare off enemies, or to keep the spirits of the ancestors as protection.

The display exhibited a
series of these carved architectural elements.  But what use is it to see a series of roof spears, or door posts?  You don’t get the entire picture.

So in addition to the posters and placards, there’s a full-size great house inside the museum.  All 20 or 30 feet (7 to 9 meters) all. 
Complete with all the carved wood door posts, internal posts, thatch all over the exterior, broken beach rocks and coral for the cooking area inside, and mats around the rest of the floor for sitting and sleeping.  Shoes are taken off before entering, of course.  Above the fire there are slatted shelves and hanging baskets for smoking meat and fish, the traditional way of preserving perishable items.  It was just wonderful to walk around inside the great house and actually be able to interact with the exhibit, to really understand how the different components came together to form this building.

Some of the Great Houses were up to 20 meters (60 feet) tall - all the people under the protection of the head chief or the oldest chief would assist in the building.  This house stood at the top end of an alley created by various plantings and buildings along the sides, with the chief's youngest brother having the house at the lowest end of the alley.  The central space within the alley was used for festivities and ritual ceremonies central to the people's lives - harvest festivals, rites of passage, and such.

Other exhibits included wood carving tools, fishing implements and a full size catamaran (but no climbing on the boat), tools of war ("a warrior's most important tool was his club"), and my favorite, ceramic pottery.

The women made pottery to be used in cooking, complete with vent holes around the mouth; the pot would be balanced on rocks over a fire or hot coals, food and liquid inside, and a heavy leaf or a small board would be used as the cover.  Steam could escape through the vents while the food continued to cook. 

Men made smaller ceramic vessels used for medicine (meaning both medical as well as sacred rituals), and these were often decorated with either incised designs or appliquéd clay ornaments.  Additional holes were sometimes cut into the clay and, after firing, the vessel would have feathers or shells attached as decoration.

There was also a huge exhibit about weaving baskets, mats, and clothing from a variety of materials.  I also liked the little carving of a baby in a basket or cradle.

The upper floor had artifacts from other Oceania cultures, comparing and contrasting the materials, styles, and decorations.  

Outside, there was another wonderful Great House, which was more ornate as well as easier to see.

There was also a school class working on an art project, maybe 30 or so students ages 8 or 9, busily creating small masks out of clay.  I chatted a little with the adult chaperones and a few students, but they spoke less English than I speak French, and my French is quite limited.  (Trying to explain our banking problems in French led to some dramatic explanations and gestures, where the only way I could explain was to say the bank automatique, he doesn't like our cards, no money, nothing, nothing, never!!!  One lady actually smiled at my overly dramatic description of the problem.  Un problem plus grande!  (More big!)  Anyway....)

So I definitely recommend this museum, it was great fun!  I spent two hours there, but I'd guess most people could see everything in an hour.

We've been enjoying walking around our neighborhood - the Promenade Roger Laroque runs along the beach and is wonderful, with shady tree-lined walkways, views of the water, plenty of people to watch, and exotic flowers.  The water taxi is available for a quick run out to one of the tiny islands nearby, and the shop for cold drinks looks like a modern Great House, complete with the ornamental wooden spear piercing the shingled roof.

There are also park benches along the promenade, as well as picnic tables.  Travellers and locals sit and read, or enjoy an al fresco lunch - we had a lovely meal our first full day here, just savoring the sunlight and this glorious blue sky, which seems untouched by pollution of any kind.

Today, Saturday, has turned grey and rainy.  The wind was wild, churning up the shallow waters of the lagoon into a frothy grey and white mix, foam and fog blown around in the chilly air.  Not quite stormy but more than just a little rain.  

And we'll see what next week brings in this little slice of French paradise.

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