New Caledonia is one of those obscure, unknown, fascinating places hidden around the world. Really. It's located somewhere between Australia and New Zealand, close to the island nation of Vanuatu. The population in 2009 was just under 250,000, and is a mix of the original Melanesian inhabitants, the Polynesian immigrants, and descendants of the French who were once incarcerated here, as well as many French immigrants over the years.
The islands that comprise this archipelago were settled some 2500-4000 years ago by the Lapita people, a culture that has evolved into the various Pacific peoples we know today. Captain James Cook sailed through in 1774, the first European to arrive here, and he promptly named these tropical islands for an area of Scotland. (One wonders what he was thinking!) In 1853, under orders from Napoleon himself, the French navy took formal possession of New Caledonia, and was used as a French penal colony for many years.
The French flourished, the indigenous population was suppressed, and when the Vichy government collaborated with the Germans in 1940 the entire population of New Caledonia sided with the Free French - so the Vichy-appointed governor fled to French Indochina. With the help of Australia, New Caledonia became a base for the Allied forces during WWII; the fleet that repulsed the Japanese navy in the Battle of the Coral Sea was based in Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia.
Post WWII, the former French colonies mostly became independent nations; however, New Caledonia remains a "department" of France, as in a territory. There has been friction and a move toward independence, and a self-determination referendum is scheduled to take place by 2018.
Okay, so that's the background information on this gorgeous place. Really beautiful. It's located at about 22 degrees south and 166 east. This is autumn, and the weather is gorgeous - about 80 F (25 C) during the day, down to the high 60s F (14 or so C) at night. Sunny days, although sometimes overcast in the morning. Breezy much of the time, with stronger winds by the afternoons. And without a distinct rainy season, just off and on rain year round, but nothing torrential. Isn't that nice? It will be a bit chillier by July, but it never gets truly cold.
New Caledonia is surrounded by a huge coral reef, making this the second largest coral reef system in the world. And that, essentially, is why we're here. This is supposed to be wonderful scuba diving, with relatively warm water, incredible reefs, tons of fish, turtles, and hopefully very few sharks and sea snakes.
But we're not in the water yet. We haven't even tried the water. We've tasted wonderful French food, and spent most of our time dealing with a unique problem. One that we haven't encountered in our nearly three years of nonstop travel around Asia and the Pacific.
None of the ATMs here will accept our credit or debit cards. We can't get one centime (or CFP, Comptoirs Français du Pacifique) from the banks. We've tried. We've tried numerous machines at numerous banks. We've tried the bank that is listed as part of the global alliance network to which our bank belongs. To no avail. We have not been able to get cash from a bank in our first 3 days here.
Can you imagine being in a foreign location without any way to get the local currency? Zero cash in your pockets?
We were able to have our hotel run the debit card and give us cash for that. We can use our cards at most restaurants and cafés. But one needs cash for the bus. Or the restroom at the mall we stopped in, to use. I had to explain to the receptionist at a bank that we have no cash and I couldn't pay for the bathroom - so she sent us to the not-so-clean public restrooms. I mean, what could we do?
Our day today was literally spent going from bank to bank to bank, trying to solve this problem. We were finally able to speak with someone who was sympathetic, made some calls, and said yes, this is a problem, other travellers occasionally have the same problem, and that New Caledonia is sometimes 20 years behind the times. And that she knows of no way to fix things.
We'll try one more bank that we missed today, and then give up, staying with getting our cash from the hotel. This may limit our travelling around the main island (Grande Terre), but there really is no other way.
But hey, we found a wonderful patisserie to drown our sorrows. Well, I bought just one macaron, and the lady gave me a broken one in addition to the one I purchased. She also gave Richard a broken one - I'm not sure if they always do that, or if she was being sympathetic when I told her in my not-very-proper French that we're unable to get money from the banks. One man we met in a bank, who heard our tale of woe as he waited for assistance, offered to lend Richard some cash. People have mostly been very nice - so that's another plus for New Caledonia.
The money we have is pretty. Turtles, angel fish, bird of paradise flowers in beautiful colors - just lovely! We just need access to our retirement funds in CFPs!
But, well, how can we be anything but happy to be here, as frustrated as we are? The teller at one bank was just rude to me yesterday, and I was frustrated - but one look across the street and out to the blue blue blue sea, and I couldn't stay frustrated, it just wasn't possible. We bought baguette sandwiches and had a picnic by the beach, watching windsurfers and kite sailors and paddle boarders, and the incredible blue sea. And we were thrilled, despite zero cash at that point.
Plus there are parrots here! Parrots! Well, they probably are lorikeets, or something, but part of the parrot family. Mostly green bodies, with a purple head, purple and red chest, red under the wings, and everything else bright cheerful green. Chattering and squawking and noisily arguing as they walk around the tree tops looking for food, or flying around from tree to tree, somehow causing all the other birds to suddenly become equally noisy. Rainbow parrots! I am thrilled!
I always laugh at the way birds sound as they settle down for the night. I sat under a tree watching the sunset today, marvelling at the fact that we're here, even with the money hassles. The parrots were doing their usual noisy going home activities. The wrens, sparrows, starlings, and some other birds were also flying around, finding their friends and families as they looked for their roosting trees. What is all that noise about? To me, they sound like they're all arguing as well as gossiping about each other, and catching up on the news of the day: "Hey, did you see those new feathers on Giselle? Who does she think she is, the bird queen?" "Yo, Joe, whassup, did you get some good seeds today?" "Hey, Henri, move over, you're hogging the branches, my family always sits here!" "Did you hear that Fifi is cheating on Pierre, and has one in the nest already? Jean-Claude is livid! He's pulling out his feathers!"
Seriously, can't you just hear them?
So yes, we're frustrated, we're dealing with this problem that is pretty major, and we're trying to enjoy being here. In fact, we ARE enjoying being here. It truly is a gorgeous spot, the weather has been perfect thus far, and we found a chocolate fondant cake that is almost just like our chocolate decadence wedding cake. With little cash, we'll just have to walk more, which will get rid of the extra calories from things like le fondant chocolat.
And hopefully we'll get in that water really soon!