Walking in the Pacific’s Little Paris

Weekender

By THOMAS HUKAHU
HAVE you walked along a street in another town or country and seen a beautiful house, with a nice garden, and wished your own was designed like that?
Well, that was more-or-less the thought I had when I visited one of the most beautiful cities in our backyard, here in the Pacific islands.
The streets there are nicely paved, the planning of the city’s centre is awesome and the bus service is reliable, clean and safe, as well as accessible by all types of people – the young and old, as well as the abled and disabled.
I am referring to the city that people usually call Little Paris, a place where a taste of the French culture and atmosphere can be enjoyed right here in the Pacific.
Yes, I am talking about the city of Nouméa, in New Caledonia, one of the three French territories here in the Pacific.
People call it Little Paris because Nouméa represents a little of the best of what France offers.
It is not just the language, you will find vehicles manufactured in Europe there and even the education system is modelled after the French system in the continent.
Of the three French territories in the Pacific, Nouméa is the largest French metropolitan centre in the region and of the about 100,000 people living there, many originate from Wallis and Futuna as well as French Polynesia (Tahiti).
 
Getting to Little Paris
I have been to New Caledonia twice.
The first time, I was attending a language immersion programme for two weeks in the city of Nouméa itself in August of 2012. I was given that privilege by Alliance Française de Port Moresby, the institute that I learned the language with for a number of years.
The immersion programme gave me a chance to travel there and soak in the atmosphere of a French city, while learning about the people and how they lived.
The second time was in 2013, when I escorted a senior sporting official. We spent a night at the hotel near Tontouta, the international airport which is the entry point for any international visitor.
The next morning, we boarded another flight to Wallis and Futuna, to the northeast, to set up camp for Team PNG which would be travelling up a week later to participate in the 2013 Mini Pacific Games. The official and I were the advance party of the contingent.
Those two instances have caused me to appreciate how a city should be organised to attract visitors, locals and foreigners, who want to relax, or look for other opportunities, as in doing business or studying.
 
First impressions
In 2012, I caught a Sunday flight down to Brisbane and arrived there in the afternoon.
I then waited for an Aircalin flight later in the evening to take me to Nouméa. It was quite cold at that time in Brisbane.
The flight from Brisbane took more than two hours and with Nouméa being an hour ahead of Brisbane and Australia, we arrived at about midnight.
The moment we arrived in Tontouta International Airport, I handed my passport over to the young Polynesian (possibly a Wallisian) near a counter.
He looked at the passport and realised that it was a PNG passport.
He looked over to an older white man sitting in a chair behind the counter, and asked in French: “PNG? Does he need a visa?”
The man said no and the young man took a stamp and inked it on one of the pages of my passport and then looked at me and smiled: “Bienvenue á Nouvelle Calédonie (Welcome to New Caledonia)!”
As I was getting my travel documents ready in Port Moresby, I was told by my French tutor that although I would need a visa to pass through Australia, I did not need one to enter New Caledonia. That is an arrangement that the Melanesian states in the Pacific had agreed on some time ago.
Incidentally, during the 2015 Pacific Games, I asked a Wallisian sports official if that kind of arrangement was present among Polynesian nations.
The official said as far as he was concerned, there was no arrangement like that among Polynesian states.
In that sense, I appreciated our Melanesian countries for that policy. It would make travel very convenient for us in PNG to travel to another Melanesian country like Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji as well as New Caledonia.
Tontouta is 37.8 km from Nouméa, so by the time we arrived in the city, it was about 2am, and – for someone used to the humid weather of Port Moresby – it was quite frigid there. (I am of the view that Nouméa is located further south of the Equator, hence it was as cold as Brisbane in the evenings in August.)
I spent the night in Marina Beach Hotel, a hotel next to Citrons Bay, and the next morning was picked up by the director of Centre de Rencontres et d’Échanges Internationaux du Pacifique (Creipac), the institute that I would be learning at for the two weeks.
The institute was situated at Nouville to the south of the city, just opposite the University of New Caledonia.
My class had Australian professionals and a university student, a Japanese volunteer worker and a Kiwi retiree.
After lessons at midday each day, we were free to roam the city and visit the museums, parks and shops soak in the atmosphere and sounds, as well as communicating with locals.
On that first afternoon though, I did not visit the shops. I had to organise my stuff at the hotel because my host for the two weeks, who lived with her family outside of the city, was going to come pick me up at about 4pm. (They were living further out of the city so my first night was spent in a hotel, not with them.)

A short walk by the beach
After arriving back at the hotel and freshening up on that first afternoon, I decided to take a walk down to the beach at Citrons, just to see the place.
The sun was out and the wind was blowing relatively strong as I descended from the hotel.
I found the beach then was full of people, mostly white people. Many of them were young people enjoying a swim, while a few older people were lying on a mat and looking out to the sea or reading a book. A few teenagers were jogging along the sidewalk.
I walked further along the sidewalk towards a stall where drinks and ice cream were sold.
I bought a soft drink and sat at one of the tables set near the stand and sipped my drink while updating notes in my notebook, a book that I would use to detail happenings of each day of my two-week stay.
As I sat there writing, I noticed parents and their small children stopping by after school at the stand and buying drinks or ice cream.
It seemed the place was a favourite. Of course, every conversation heard around me was in French. It was awesome.
At 4pm, my host, a mixed-race local woman married to a man originally from French Guyana, turned up at the hotel in her 4×4 station wagon.
As soon as I had my bag and knapsack placed in the vehicle and us riding out of the city to the north, I said a few things in English but observed that she did not understand what I was saying.
When I asked if she spoke a little English, she smiled and said no. It so happened that her husband too spoke no English, however their son, an 18-year-old boy, was quite good with English and was the translator when there was a problem in the conversations between their parents and me.
That was seven years ago but I treasure that learning experience.
 
The walk around the city centre
Every day after our classes ended at Creipac, I would do one of two things, or both.
Firstly, I would go over the other side of the road to the University of New Caledonia’s library, find an empty table and fix up my lesson notes and other stuff for an hour or so.
The library there is not very big but it is well-furnished with the latest books, journals and magazines, all in French of course, except for the section on languages.
The second thing I did was to roam the shops and offices at Centre Ville (the City Centre), which is the central business district, where I picked up some stuff, including a pullover to keep me warm in the afternoons when it grew a bit chilly.
I was impressed by the layout of Centre Ville. The main parking area is a kilometre out of the main part of the CBD. People leave their vehicles there and walk into the CBD.
The streets are clean and the traffic within the CBD is not congested.
Also, it was normal to see groups of two or three men and women, in full uniform, walking the streets and doing the job of the auxiliary police officers.
They were armed with walkie-talkies and batons – they did not have guns with them.
Moreover, there were no police officers with M16s or shotguns patrolling Centre Ville, only those uniformed men and women.
Right in the centre of the CBD was the famous Place des Cocotiers (Coconut Palm Square). The main path through it is nicely paved and surrounded with grassy areas, trees as well as coconut palms and the square stretches out over four hectares. The square is where locals sold their handicraft and there were spots where bands could play to entertain the people.
There were a lot of shops, stalls and cafeteria nearby where you can get a sandwich or spring roll and a drink and sit around the square area and enjoy your snack, alone or with friends.
The walks and conversations I have had with people in Little Paris will be remembered for a long time yet.
 
Shaping our environment for the better
Let me now end this article with some thoughts, things I touched on at the very beginning of this item.
If you admired a house or place in a state or province you visited, would it not be logical that you would want to change your own locality to make it appealing like the features of the place you have been too?
Well, those were thoughts I had when I saw how the services were like in Little Paris, the reliable bus service run by a single firm which accommodated for older and younger people, as well as the disabled, as those on wheelchairs.
Nouméa’s CBD is well-planned and well-policed and is inviting to locals as well as foreign visitors like me.
That is something that we all should all work on, where we are – to change our towns and cities and make them inviting and appealing to anyone.
It is my view that people must feel free to move about any town or city in PNG too – to enjoy a drink or coffee with snacks in a nicely-kept square perhaps, while out shopping or just enjoying a morning on a weekend.
We all can learn from Little Paris, which is a favourite destination for many in the region, including New Zealand and Australia.

  • Next week: Walking through Kavieng. Thomas Hukahu is a freelance writer.

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