Chilling Out in Noumea

I appear to have spoken a little too soon about my progress battling my little fever.  It has hung on for four more days that we have spent mostly in Noumea, capital of New Caledonia, another French territory.  It is quite a bit further west than Tahiti (three time zones, and across the International Date Line), and it’s further south as well (making the winter just a bit more wintry, that is, having completely comfortable 70-ish days and 60-ish evenings instead of Tahiti’s 80-degree temps around the clock).  Actually, it’s pretty close to Australia — we saw it from the plane when we flew home from there in Jan 2003.  It’s surrounded by a reef and its lagoon is recognized as a World Heritage site.

I was thrilled to be able to connect with my doctor via e-mail (I’m here, he’s in Vienna right now) who assured me that it was nothing to worry about.  It’s your basic minor viral infection, but it’s hit me in the form of headache, aching jaw, and mild fever; I noticed that it actually came with an incredibly slight scratchy throat; a runny nose I had to blow twice total in the past few days; and about three coughs worth of phlegm.  All the normal stuff in vastly different proportions.

So we haven’t been doing as much.  The day we arrived (leaving Tahiti on Friday, getting here on Saturday three hours later) I just rested, after a six-hour flight, an hour-long bus ride into town, and another twenty-minute bus ride to our hotel.  Sunday and Monday were spent going to one museum each day, and this wore me out to an extent.  Today we rented a car and toured the south end of the island, including an hourlong walk, and I’ve felt reasonably good all day.  So now perhaps it’s finally fading.

The museum we went to on Sunday, the Tjibaou Cultural Center, was stunning.  It was designed by Renzo Piano, the architect who designed the Pompidou Center in Paris.  There’s a long building, and along the length of it are a dozen or so tall structures which echo the way a Kanak (Native New Caledonian) chief’s house is put together.  The first room we went into had totem poles carved by sculptors from all of the island groups in the area.  The pole from Papua New Guinea was carved by two of the same sculptors who came to Stanford fourteen years ago to carve a sculpture garden.  There was a great display of contemporary art by Kanak artists.  The center was dedicated to Jean-Marie Tjibaou, who fought for and won more rights and recognition for Kanak people in New Caledonia, and who pressed for New Caledonian independence from France, but who was ultimately assassinated by natives who thought he was selling out.

Our hotel is a block from the beach, in a section of town which looks like Fort Lauderdale.  We spent Monday downtown, which is a much more modest neighborhood.  Noumea might have Parisian restaurants, but the feel of the city is quite a bit more island-nation.  The Museum of New Caledonia provided a great education on traditional Kanak artifacts both from New Caledonia and other nearby Kanak island groups (Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Irian Jaya).  There was a small exhibit on the remarkable hats woven by a Polynesian woman, with diagrams showing each of the 60 folds that are necessary to create a particular pattern.  Another temporary exhibit displayed engraved bamboo poles with analyses of the engravings.

Today we rented a car.  Our efforts to shop around for better deals resulted in the cars that were available getting rented by others, and we ended up with a worse deal.  Oh well.  Gotta be more decisive.  Since I haven’t felt up to snorkeling, we stopped at the Aquarium of the Lagoon for an hour or so.  There were asymmetrical fiddler crabs, “rhinoceros” starfish which are whitish with red and black “horns”, hundreds of species of tropical lagoon fish, and lots of coral.  Some strange orange-spiked fingered creature which Ray had seen snorkeling turned out to be a starfish called Crown of Thorns, and it is especially reviled for its ravenous fondness for coral.

We drove out of Noumea and towards the south end of the island.  It was actually pretty bleak-looking — the forests were clearcut, there was an enormous nickel mine.  Vast areas without many trees.  We turned into the Blue River Provincial Park just after 2 PM, which is too bad because that’s when they stop letting people in for the day.  They let us look at the exhibits in the visitor center, but we couldn’t go further into the park.  They’re proud of their population of cagou, a threatened native white bird.  We listened to their calls on a little DVD exhibit, and after stopping the DVD I noticed that I heard exactly the same calls coming from outside.  Afterwards we went and saw a tiny waterfall, and walked through a tiny forest where we were taller than most of the trees.

We haven’t really made any pretense of eating native food here — there will be plenty of chances for that in Vanuatu and Solomon.  We’ve pretty much concentrated on French food, and have had three wonderful meals.  One night we tried a Vietnamese place, and it really made me miss San Jose.

Tomorrow we head to Vanuatu, and getting to the airport will be much easier with a car.  I’m not so sure we’ll have quite as good an Internet connection as we’ve had here in France, I mean New Caledonia.