When I was eleven I went to New Caledonia. It was the first time I had been overseas and it still remains with me as a vivid dream. As is the way with dreams and memories, as you get older each remembering finds new meanings. Perhaps a childhood holiday in 1984 to a Pacific island could be yet another way to look longingly toward the past, or maybe it has some connection to the present or suggests something about the future. Increasingly I suspect that every story contains within in it all possible stories and all possible lessons if only we take the time to tell it well, and linger.
We spent the first part of that holiday in 1984 on a tiny island you could walk around in about half an hour; the second part of the holiday in Noumea and visiting nearby touristy islands; and the third part on a tour in a Landrover that took us around the whole main island. Each part of the overall holiday is very clear in my mind, and each part was wonderful in its own way, but of the three probably the final part – the tour around the island – was the best.
The guide and driver was a Frenchman with long blonde hair and a beard. There were a couple of other people on the tour and it was fairly basic as guided tours go. Sometimes we slept in tents at night, and meals were usually on a blanket with a French stick and some cheese and fruit. Most of the trip has fallen out of my memory, but I remember the Frenchman very well, and the orange coloured Landrovers, and the ferocious ants that bit you at the tent sites.
The far side of the main island of New Caledonia is not really French. Nature has more of a hold, and the native people predominate. One day we came to a series of limestone caves which were up a muddy track and through the dense and dripping trees. After the surreal, lunar interiors of the stalactites and stalagmites, we wandered back down the muddy track and out into a village. There were fales about, and in the fales the enormous shells of turtles hanging from the posts that supported the thatch roofs. Mainly I remember the strangeness of the place where the plants seemed so lush they almost grew before you, and the flowers stunned your eyes with their painful, beautiful colours. Most of all though I noticed that there was no one there. All the fales were empty. It made me feel like an interloper. As if I were in someone’s bedroom, going through their things, anxious that they would return and spring me.
A bell rang and we looked across the village and up to a hill where we noticed for the first time a church. It was large and painted white, and as the bells rang the double front doors opened and streams of brown skinned people came out. It at once explained everything about the emptiness of the village (it was Sunday morning), and heightened my sense of isolation for I am not and have never been seeking the guidance of Christ. I don’t think we lingered long after that. I have no memory of us talking with any of the locals or buying any souvenirs there, although it whetted our appetite for such things, and at an unmanned roadside stall with an honesty box my mother later bought a small native axe and a small statue made of a smooth soapy rock.
After that I remember that there was a day of heavy rain, and crossing a bridge over a river that had transformed itself into a roaring torrent of rage lashing the river banks in a snaking wall of energy. But we were able to cross the bridge, and the weather cleared and we made it back to Noumea where I was anxious not to try my pitifully small vocabulary of French (I practised asking for a Coca Cola over and over in my head, but never did). I don’t think that I ever noticed that French people didn’t really belong on that island until that day at the village. That day at the village I had a strong sense of being an outsider. An outsider to the landscape, and the people, and the language, and the culture and the religion. It’s the reaction to the religion that is perhaps the most perplexing, because it was the religion of my culture, and yet if failed to make any kind of sense.
On one of our last nights in New Caledonia my mother went to a casino, and I stayed in and watched a movie on TV. There were no casinos in New Zealand at that time, and the prospect of going to a French casino seemed quite glamorous and James Bond (rather than Las Vegas and strippers). By chance the movie they were playing on the hotel’s video channel was Gallipoli by Peter Weir. It was the first time I had seen this movie and its emotional impact on me was tremendous. It is probably in fact one of the main forces that shaped my views on war, and the final, awful minutes still have a capacity to fill me with sickening dread. It leaves you with the question: how can this happen? How this waste? How this capacity for man to do this to man?
On a less serious note, the movie Gallipoli also introduced me to Jean Michel Jarre.