When deciding to travel somewhere, we should always ask ourselves 4 questions:
1. Why do we want to go there?
2. What do we want to see/ learn?
3. Where do we want to go within our destination?
4. Who do we want to meet?
I realise the answers will be quite, quite different, when asked before travel, and then if we ask ourselves the same question, when we return from travel. We also have an underlying ethic to leave the place better for us having been there. Sounds a huge mission, but not really. If we collect litter when we walk, we save turtles from plastic ingestion, if we take a suitcase of needed items to a school or kindergarten or even if it means taking 225 bamboo toothbrushes to a low decile school, we feel we have contributed rather than just consumed!
Our last holiday took us to New Caledonia. Before heading off to New Caledonia, we decided to prepare ourselves for the task ahead: Learn French! So when we received a Helpx request from a French-speaking fella, we put the phrase book away and we jumped on the chance to learn basic French from a real teacher. Thibaut arrived, prepared for a lesser challenge than we presented: for starters, we took several attempts just to pronounce his name correctly!!
It was downhill from there……. the basics took forever, simply because the English tongue is not used to all the softly rolled r’s and petulant mouth shapes required to emit some of the romantic-sounds of le petite Francais. However, after a week of daunting challenge, belly-felt laughs and endless repetition, Thibaut left and we felt smugly in control of the basics. We could say hello (bonjour), good bye (au revoir), baguette (bread) and fromage (cheese). Mike also had a phrase which indicated we could not eat egg, due to his egg allergy. Right! We were ready to conquer Napolean Bonaparte himself, with our command of basic French!
We were wholly and woefully unprepared for landing in a geographical area fiercely, patriotically, well…. FRENCH! What were we thinking??? We had booked a car for the 4 days we were due to stay in a little AirBnB in Noumea but imagine our horror when we realised that the car’s steering wheel was on the left side of the car! And that we were to drive on the right! It was truly crazy, the brain defaults always to it’s patterns of old, ingrained, over 40-odd years of driving on the left, so it only took 5 minutes till we turned into the wrong lane, headed straight into oncoming traffic!!! This happened several times over those first four days. Scary!
Driving was hair-raising, spine-chilling and downright terrifying, kinda like being in a roller-coaster ride, with no seat-belt! My butt was constantly clenched tightly in fear, after four days it felt firmer than doing rigorous aerobic workout classes! Anyway, we eventually arrived at our destination, sans GPS, only with a map, and a compass. A what?? Yes, you heard right! A compass!! My beloved decided to leave his iPhone behind, and take a compass instead, so we could figure where we were headed! Only, neither him nor I know how to actually use a compass accurately!! But miraculously, after stopping to ask a couple of people along the way (both times, neither could speak English but pointed us in the right direction), we got to our first destination. We also never knew how big the mainland was!
We go to discover where all the Boulangeries (Bakery) were; French breads and pastries – wow!! One day we set off to explore the north to La Foa. The area is dry, scrubby and Cowboy Country. Yep, there are real French cowboys, with Stetsons, pointy boots and cattle. And horses. Big dry horse Ranches. Very interesting. It was so hot that we didn’t dare venture further than La Foa, and no-one could speak much, if any English, on any of our stops. It felt like we were Earthlings landed on Mars, where all the road-signs, shops signs and language was Martian, and we were the only ones not speaking it!! Now I know what it must feel like for other travelers who have limited English, and arrive in English-speaking countries!! Even in places like India and Thailand, I never felt quite so out of my depth!
But herein lies the jewel in the crown; in our first four days in Noumea, we had (of course) gotten horribly lost trying to find the local fresh produce market, so in sheer desperation, Mike had stopped the car, gotten out and rushed over to a group of people gathered outside a supermarket. Apparently he’d blurted out (forget our hard-learned French), “I’m a New Zealand tourist! We’re Lost!” We later learned that the two older women were just about to meet each other for the first time, and before they could even introduce themselves, this harassed tourist had burst in on their group, and they both, having been to New Zealand, had come to the rescue to explain (in English) how to get back onto the highway. Seeing Mike was not keeping up with directions, one of the women had generously offered to drive there ahead of us, so we could follow her. Once there, she gave us her email and phone number in case we became lost again. She also proceeded to buy a bracelet at the market and gift it to me as a welcome gift!
The rest of the story is the History of Newness. New Zealand. New Caledonia. New Friends. A few days later we arranged to meet up with both women who Mike had pleaded with for directions, and their husbands. We struck up one of those precious friendships where lack of time forces the constraints of propriety apart, and allows for a kind of thrilling speed-dating-type-relationship to unfold at blinding speed!
We spent the rest of our 4 days in the company of our new friends, as they enfolded us in their arms and transported us safely through a foreign world, making sense of everything unfamiliar for us. Offering such generosity that we were totally blown away. We ate lovingly prepared vegetarian meals (with no aloef – egg, in French), drank teas and coffees in their homes, chatted, shared ideas and were chauffeur-driven everywhere our hearts desired and more! We were taken to the highest vantage points in the city, shown the immense nickel factories, the crazy lunar-like landscape of the South, a penal colony settlement from the 1800’s, picnicked in a shady glade beside a waterfall = all things that we would never, ever have experienced or discovered on our own! So when answering the original four questions of what, why, who and where, indeed the answers are very different, having returned home; we saw so much much more than we could have dreamed of, met people we resonated with and felt drawn into an instant family connection, a powerful and lasting memory of our time in New Caledonia. We were honoured and blessed to have experienced Nouvelle Caledonie from a French perspective, while still speaking English!! And if my Google translator is any good, below is written what I would love to be able to say in French:
Nous avons laissé nos coeurs en Nouvelle-Caledonie! (We left our hearts in New Caledonia!)
So in conclusion, I would like to invite people to forget their iPads, iPhones, Google and GPS and other devices that allow us to be totally self-sufficient in a strange new place. The old way of travelling, is stopping and asking for directions, for help, and allows us to connect to other people we meet along the way. A great way to meet new friends.