Monday, August 13, 2012

Adventures in the Pacific

   On the little islands of New Caledonia, found north of New Zealand, situated on a hill in Noumea stands a beautiful statue under the title of Notre Dame du Pacifique (Our Lady of the Pacific).  It was under her mantle and protection that I entrusted our first senior French class trip to New Caledonia during the month of May.  Two Sisters, our senior French teacher, and four pupils embarked on an unforgettable adventure of a lifetime to a place now known as my “Pacific Paradise”.  The main aim and objective of the trip was to fully immerse the teachers and students in the French language and culture.  Our other intention was to sing the proper for the Sunday Masses and the Ascension Thursday Mass for the faithful of New Caledonia.  We also learnt some polyphonic pieces to sing at the Offertory and Communion.
Much thought, preparation and fundraising went into the organization of this trip.  The idea of a trip to a French-speaking country is one I have had for quite some time but one which I was not able to work on due to other commitments and financial constraints.  Ideally, I would take the students to France and one day, God willing, I will - but for now this little paradise meets my requirements for the pupils’ advancement in French.   New Caledonia is serviced by our priests here in New Zealand and is a part of the Asian district.  As a priest is scheduled to go every 6 weeks to New Caledonia from New Zealand and his passage there for the month of May worked in perfectly with our school holidays, we were able to get a good deal for flights and the bookings were made.
The day before departure, as I was hurriedly doing last minute preparations and finishing off booklets of songs and prayers in French, I encountered difficulties with our computer and printer system at the convent and had to make many trips back and forth to the school office to use the computer and printer over there.  I was also told that day that I was very courageous to be taking the girls at that particular time to New Caledonia as the weather was terrible with continuing storms and rain.  I was a little bit perturbed and anxious about what to expect but I asked Father to offer a Mass for a safe and prosperous trip and fine weather, and from the moment we arrived to the day we left we had sunshine and fine weather, except on one occasion.
Setting off on Friday, May 11th with possibly bigger suitcases and more clothes than needed (one must remember there were 6 females travelling) we left our farewell committee of Father, Sisters and parents for a day of sightseeing.  We drove the scenic and longer route to Auckland via Lake Taupo and Rotorua.  We arrived in Auckland by 7pm in time for a 3 course meal provided by the couple who take care of the chapel in Auckland and discovered that one of our air mattresses had a hole in it.  No matter how many times we pumped it up it continued to deflate.  The girls arranged themselves though for the night on the other air mattress and the sofas provided and our alarms were set for a 4.30am rise.  
We were driven to the Auckland airport at 6am the next day and deposited with all of our baggage for the 8.30am flight to Noumea.  The line for checking in was quite long and by the time we got through to customs it was time to board the plane. 

After a very smooth flight and landing we disembarked the plane – we had to walk on the tarmac – to experience the heat of Noumea, quite a change from the New Zealand temperatures.  Not a drop of rain or a cloud was in sight.  As we cleared airport control and collected our baggage we met with our hosts and collected our rental cars.  We loaded into the vehicles and took in the beautiful scenery which surrounded us.  Palm trees, rolling hills and right hand driving – it took a little while to get used to driving on the 'wrong side' of the road and using my right hand to change the gears and to keep up with the car in front -  but we managed it.  We also remarked that people drive really fast in New Caledonia.  It was a lot to get used to all at once.
Upon arriving at our destination we were treated to the nicest steaks you have ever seen, served on the biggest plates imaginable. Our host was a retired chef and he certainly knew how to cook and present his food.  We were treated like royalty from day one with the most exquisite French cuisine you can imagine.  If you were to look through our photos, you would find that numerous of them include pictures of food and its presentation.  We even went so far as to eat snails, and oddly enough, really liked them.   
Our Saturday was spent settling in and on Sunday we were treated to fresh croissants – biggest ever seen - and pain au chocolat fresh from the local bakery.  Father arrived on Sunday afternoon and Mass was offered at 5.30 that evening.  After Mass we felt like Hollywood movie stars with nearly every member of the parish coming to shake our hands and introducing themselves.  It was the first time that the majority of them had ever seen religious sisters before.

Our weekend activities included a visit to the local fish and produce market - to teach the girls how to 'purchase' in French.  Being a seafood lover, I found this very interesting as they have a very different variety of fish in New Caledonia and fresh seafood in abundance.  It was rather fascinating looking at the different sorts of fruit and vegetables that can be purchased and comparing the prices with those of New Zealand.  It was very difficult to get used to the new currency too and to make the conversion in your head.  The girls had great fun buying jewellery and souvenirs for their friends and relations and just seeing what was on offer. 

Glorious oceanic views in this Pacific Paradise
We spent Monday in Noumea visiting the Cathedral of St Joseph and the statue of Our Lady of the Pacific. After lunch, Father drove us to a private swimming hole, which turned out to be most calm and peaceful.
On Tuesday we spent a day with a family from the parish. They live half an hour from the chapel in a private estate.  They practically have their own beach as only those residing in the estate have access to it.  The girls had great fun swimming out to see the coral and swimming amongst the tropical fish. 
It was a dream come true for one of the girls and it was her favourite day over all.  The only disadvantage was the cuts and grazes the girls had to their arms, feet and legs from the direct contact with the coral.  There were a few trips to the doctor on our return to New Zealand for antibiotics but everyone would do it again, only avoiding contact with the coral next time.                              
On Wednesday we went to the aquarium and zoo in Noumea.  The girls had their first experience of ordering food in French.  Next door to the aquarium was the fast food chain called “Quick”, opposition of McDonalds but with more reasonable prices.  I gave the girls 1000CPF to spend on lunch.  They were all rather scared, but the experience was great for them as they used their basic French to order and everyone was able to make themselves understood.
"I learnt many new words," wrote one of the pupils,
"and after 3-4 days, I began to think in French!"
Ascension Thursday was a very busy day with a very early rise.  We had to drive three hours for Father to offer Mass at Houailou.  After breakfast we set off in two vehicles. One and a half hours later we discovered that the tyre on the rental car was flat.  Father and Allan, our senior French teacher, tried to change the wheel but to no avail - one of the bolts was too tight to budge.  The road-help was phoned and in the meantime two natives drove in to give us a hand.  Within 10 minutes they had the tyre off and the spare put on and then we waited around for the road help who had apparently come in a 4WD but found that it was fixed and so left again without informing us who they were.  We then drove to the nearest petrol station and had the tyre repaired and replaced and sped off again for the chapel.     
We were two hours late for Mass but fortunately had the priest with us.  Lunch was served at 3pm.  A splendid feast had been prepared for us and faithful from all corners of New Caledonia had come to assist at Mass and partake in the festivities.  We were told that it was the 30th anniversary of the first Mass offered in New Caledonia, but Fr Laisney who said the first Mass, told us on our return that it was only 29 years - as he celebrates 30 years of ordination this June.  It was worth celebrating anyway.  We could not stay long with the tribe as Father was scheduled to say Mass at the Noumea chapel as well, in the evening.  We had to sing the evening Mass too, so we set off again at 4pm and got back just in time for Mass to begin.  Dinner was very late that night and so was lights out, but it was a day to remember.

The next day was spent in the south at La Riviere Bleue with a family from the parish.  We were fortunate in that everything was free that day.  We were able to catch the bus which took us on the tour and we were able to get off and on as we pleased.  It did rain quite a bit down there, unfortunately, but we were still able to do some walks and we also spotted the native bird known as the cagou.  It is a bird that has wings but does not fly.  It also barks. 

"What impressed me most," wrote one of the pupils afterwards, "was the beauty of the islands...sunny beaches, rolling hills, green forests... It was beautiful..."

We found a 1,000 year old tree to our immense delight

It was planned that Saturday would be spent with another family exploring the south, especially going to see the Madeleine Waterfalls but it had to be cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances.  Nevertheless, the girls had fun shopping all morning at the hypermarche and tasting crepes at the creperie.  In the afternoon we rested, as we were all very tired.
Mass was earlier on the second Sunday. It was also our host’s birthday so many parishioners were invited to celebrate the occasion - we had a wonderful time practicing our French with the visitors.  The festivities lasted the whole day – a typical French celebration!
Monday was a restful day with a visit to Noumea to do some last minute souvenir shopping.  Tuesday was an early rise as we were invited to spend the day at Bourail with a lovely couple on their 16 hectare property.  We visited the NZ cemetery, explored the property from the back of a utility, and went horseback riding.   The views of the coastline and mountains were breathtaking.  Wednesday was spent with some ladies of the parish, opening presents and enjoying a good laugh and a last minute visit to one of the families for a last peek at the coral whilst the tide was low.  We then spent the evening making crepes, cleaning and packing.

"I think that the cemetery for the New Zealand soldiers from WWII," wrote one of the girls after the trip,
"was well-maintained and shows a deep respect for the soldiers..."
Our final day in New Caledonia is one we will never forget.  With tears in our eyes, we said goodbye to our hosts and boarded the plane 5 minutes before takeoff as we experienced difficulties at the check in.  Our Fijian did not have a copy of her ticket and they would not let her check in.  Finally, they realized she was a New Zealand resident and it was no longer a problem.  We all rushed through to customs and had to quickly fill in our departure cards.  Then someone set off the beeper.  You can imagine my heart rate at this point.  The return trip went smoothly and we arrived safely in Wanganui in good time for everyone to have a good night’s sleep in preparation for school the next day. 

The success of this trip has inspired ideas of student exchange between New Zealand and New Caledonia.  At present, we have one young lady visiting for a month and attending our school, with two more coming later this year. 

Our first young lady from New Caledonia (right) to visit
New Zealand, with one of our pupils.

May the planting of seeds in our first trip continue to bear fruit for the future.  The Dominican friars were some of the first missionaries to the Asian/Pacific region and we, their little sisters, desire to continue to spread the flame, lighted by our Holy Father, Saint Dominic.
Notre Dame du Pacifique, priez pour nous!

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