Noumea. Monday, 5.40pm
Slinking past the door where a sign reads ‘Cannabis interdit’ (Cannabis prohibited) and crouching under the windows so as not to be seen from inside, a bloke creeps to a table tucked away in a corner of the deck. He sits down.
At other tables on the deck sit Kanaks, the original people of New Caledonia. They are all men, all wearing branded sportswear. Some have dreadlocks. One bloke has a single dreadlock sprouting from the side of his head. On the table are packets of Gauloises cigarettes and jugs of Manta beer. The conversation is lively and French.
Inside the bar are Kanak women. No sportswear here; instead, they sport colourful mission dresses nearly as bright as their smiles. Some of the women drink beer, some coffee.
Behind the bar a Kanak woman pours beers, brews coffee and continues a conversation with the group of women. Her rapid-fire French is peppered with laughter which cuts across the kaneka music which seems to pump from the hand-painted murals on the walls (Kaneka is the music of the Kanaks: a sort of reggae with added percussive rhythms from traditional Kanak music.)
Welcome to Chez Oscar in Noumea.
I’m sitting at a table on the deck with my travelling companion, sipping Manta beer – my second glass. Or maybe third. We are the only non-Kanaks here, but I feel right at home. It’s a bit like Nimbin. Or maybe Kingston…
The creeper takes a small packet from one pocket, a lighter from another. His eyes dart everywhere like the parrots that flit through the nearby giant figs whose roots crack the concrete footpaths. Past the trees is a forest of expensive masts waving goodbye to a tide. Past the masts, the sea glints blue.
The creeper sees me looking at him. I nod and mouth ‘Bonjour’. He nods back, no smile.
In the sea past the figs is a huge coral reef (second in size only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef) encircling the largest lagoon in the world. Set in that lagoon, like gems in a necklace, are the islands of New Caledonia, home of the Kanaks. The Kanaks are now a minority in their own home, their country annexed by France in the mid 1800s.
I became interested in New Caledonia when, in 2014, it created the world’s largest protected area: Le Parc Naturel de la Mer de Corail (The Natural Park of the Coral Sea). This happened when Australia was relaxing its environmental protection of its Great Barrier Reef to facilitate quick coal bucks for the already rich. And I was depressed by that.
I haven’t been in Noumea long, and soon I will be leaving to explore the more remote parts of New Caledonia (I have a Peugeot, a tent and a comfy sleeping mat) but I’m loving the vibe here in the capital. The local beer is good, and…
The creeper lights a joint, and sucks deeply. A cloud hangs briefly above the deck before being swept away by salty Pacific zephyrs. Cannabis mixes with Gauloises to make a most delicious smell.
The bar lady comes out with two beers and places them on my table. I say ‘merci’ and she smiles. She sniffs… and turns quickly to the creeper. He is holding the joint under the table, but the smoke billows up between his legs.
The bar lady barks something to him and raises her arms at him to show her displeasure.
The creeper sits expressionless, the cannabis smoke wrapping around him.
She turns back to me, smiles, and returns inside, taking empties from the tables with her.
The creeper resurrects his joint and, by raising an eyebrow, offers it to me.