Paradise Prison

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Prony, New Caledonia – March 2005

The locals of New Caledonia often refer to their island as “the island closest to paradise”. I find it ironic that many of the people who use this phrase, those who call themselves Caldoches, are descendants of people brought here by force. Exiled to a faraway land to serve out their debt to society. One of my friends, a Caldoche, once told me that she grew up believing that her ancestors were sent here for stealing a piece of bread. Boatloads of Jean Valjeans victimized by the unjust French system. For that is what the elders say. As an adult, she was disappointed to learn that, in fact, the worst criminals were sent here. Murderers, rapists, political agitators from the Paris Commune. Women criminals were sent here as incentive for the men to settle the territory after they were freed. These women were convicted of infanticide, prostitution, or other crimes. Over the generations they intermarried with each others’ offspring. The attachment to this far flung archipelago grew fiercer with each generation. What was once a prison became a paradise.

One individual’s paradise is another individual’s prison.

Here, where the rust-colored dirt road meets the sea, we have come upon the deserted village of Prony. This excursion is a temporary balm for my hysteria. Please, let’s just drive somewhere. Anywhere new, I asked my husband, who understands my disposition. Since I’ve lived on this island, I’ve rationed those precious few lines on the map. Much of the island is inaccessible by road. It’s going on six years now. The supply has dwindled to dregs.

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New Caledonia was supposed to be my escape from the tedium of nine to five and one-hour commutes on packed freeways. From a hamster wheel existence without end. I stopped spinning all right. However, isolation and inertia has not stilled my turbulent mind. I never knew how much of my identity was based upon that action and noise. On this distant rock, time is sluggish, elongated. I feel as if I am lying flat on my back, a boot pressed firmly on my sternum.

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We walk around the tiny village. We are alone, except for the meaty, fist-sized spiders that dangle from the trees like ominous fruit. Their massive webs undulate in the soft breeze. Most of the structures have been totally shackled by banyan roots. A prison imprisoned.

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I stand at the edge of the earth. This sand under my feet is the color of corrosion. Some of those long ago convicts managed to escape. Those who had no writing instruments used charts scrawled in blood.

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55 thoughts on “Paradise Prison

    • Thank you kindly. It was seven loooong years on that rock. Seems like so long ago. By comparison, seven years in Europe has flown by.

      Wishing you a fantastic 2015 as well!

    • One is either an island person or they aren’t. I found out quite fast that I wasn’t, but most of the people I met there loved it. I’ve been away from there for more than 7 years and I’m thankful for it every day.

  1. I always get the feeling that paradise is full of mischief and what a fascinating perspective you have provided of your time there. So impressed that you managed seven years! Gorgeous shots!

  2. A great piece, Julie. I was immediately drawn in by the contrast of those ‘reds’ within your photos. In the end, with the bloodied history of the place and of those sent there, the pictures really set up the theme well. It is all a good reminder you provide at the inherent contradiction if not just the whitewashed history of places, that the peace of and beauty of a place is sometimes built on screams and terror (I’m thinking of my visits to Auschwitz as an example), subjugation and war (parts of North America), or your example here. Truth that every place has a story and the world is a complex palimpsest of lives lived and lost. Happy New Year to you. 🙂

      • You’re welcome. No, they don’t look ‘enhanced’ at all. Very natural. Not ‘brilliant’ so much as they are distinct. Do you know what flora created those reds in the pictures?

        • Do you mean the red earth? It’s from the minerals. New Caledonia is one huge chunk of nickel, chrome, cobalt, iron, etc. The flora that grow there are very strange, but the photos don’t show any, except for the banyon roots and trees.

          • Yes, now that you say it, that explains it. When I first looked at them and then again on my phone (and its smaller screen) I thought the red earth was actually a lichen or something. It reminded me of the red that I saw in the arctic and whose colour came from lichen and the small bushes and ground berries … and I thought the picture on the water might have been seaweed. Now, all the morning stunning for the minerality of the terrain. Very cool. 🙂

  3. ” isolation and inertia has not stilled my turbulent mind.” An amazing observation. I always suspected that about myself as well. Unlike most, dreams of a tropical paradise are so far from my reality. I don’t know how your survived so many years. I need the noise and confusion. When we lived in somewhat rural areas, we vacationed in major cities, just for the energy. Beautiful pics. Happy New Year !

    • I think many people need noise and confusion. Silence is intimidating. Since I’ve been in Europe, my mind has calmed down a lot. I think it has to do with feeling at home. A wonderful 2015 to you, too!

  4. I wonder how big the island needs to be to lose that claustrophobic atmosphere of natural imprisonment? I don’t like to be on island any longer than a week or so, either, but then I remember the UK, which consists wholly of islands, and being there didn’t bother me a bit. Perhaps it has something to do with that notion of being able to “just drive somewhere. Anywhere new,” as you put it. As long as there is something unexplored, a road not taken, it doesn’t feel as if the shores are furling up around you….

    • I spent a few months in the UK and never once felt that claustrophobia. It’s probably because it’s so close to a continent. Australia is an island continent, but I think I’d have a hard time there. Lots of places to drive, but it’s so far from everywhere else.

  5. Dear Julie, for years I’ve been saying that I would like to emigrate to New Caledonia, because of it’s peaceful surrounding and have realized now that there is no place on this world, where I can run away from the humand condition! All the same your images are great and your personal experiences of real value to me. I wish you to find to discover many more very big islands. Thank you for this impressive post.:)

    • Hi Martina – Sorry to burst your bubble. It took me a long time to realize it, but there is definitely no place to hide. Now I live in a Europe that seems to have more turmoil every day, but I feel much more at peace than when I was in New Caledonia. (Anyway, there’s a lot of tension there, too) We all have a place where we feel truly at home.

  6. Never really stopped to think how this part of the world was the same to the French as it was to the English (a dumping ground for their felons).

    So close to home, yet a place neither cheap nor as easy to get to as I’d have expected.

    Still, can’t wait to get there all the same…

    As usual, written in such a poetic manner!

    • It’s not a cheap place to travel to for sure. Second most expensive destination in the Pacific behind French Polynesia. It’s definitely worth a visit, though. It’s a strange place compared to the other Pacific islands I’ve visited.

      If you ever do go, feel free to contact me for ideas on where to go. I can also ask our friends what the current situation is. Certain areas (mainly near the mining operations) can get volatile really quickly. You need to pass through the hot zones to get to the most interesting stuff…such as this Prony village and the surrounding landscape.

  7. A great post, Julie. (And a Happy New year to you). No idea you were in Nouvelle-Calédonie!
    I used to have a bunch of Caldoche friends in Junior College. They have a very funny slang!
    Take care.
    Brian

    • Hi Brian – Yep. Seven years on Le Caillou. Let me guess…you heard a lot of “L’engin. C’est valable” from your Caldoche friends. Spoken in their nasally, leaden-tongued drawl. The French language is the only thing left of the French in them. Their culture has evolved to something completey different. It’s interesting and amusing to observe. Happy New Year to you, too!

  8. The red earth must be a strong and bright tinge of brown due to the iron content; the Andaman Islands off India is similarly beautiful and, not similarly, very tranquil, almost like a paradise; yet this was once an island to where criminals and convicts were dumped by the British in the colonial era. Lovely pics of prony village and enchanting narrative, Julie… Look forward to yet another rewarding year with you…best wishes.. Raj.

    • Thank you, Raj. One thing I’ve learned from visiting so many islands is that they are all different. Maybe they have similar scenery, but their histories shape the ambiance.

  9. Your ability to articulate your memories and emotional responses is truly remarkable. (This is my third time reading your post). There are so many stories hidden in the folds of history, the details of which pass through many iterations as time moves forward. We see the past with the eyes of the present. I often wonder how history will view our time, our actions, our closely held value systems. Did you read the research that came out last summer that suggested that people do not like to left alone with their thoughts. We seem to thrive on action. I especially appreciated your insight, “However, isolation and inertia has not stilled my turbulent mind. I never knew how much of my identity was based upon that action and noise,”

    http://news.sciencemag.org/brain-behavior/2014/07/people-would-rather-be-electrically-shocked-left-alone-their-thoughts

    • Thank you. I will never forget that feeling, that suffocation. It also had to do with being physically unwell. I’m allergic to nickel and the island is one big chunk of it. This is the first time I’ve read about research on that theory, but I’m not surprised by the results. North American (and some other) cultures glorify “busy”. Since I’ve been away, 16 years now, I’ve learned to be okay with just being myself and not someone who does a particular job. Thoughts that arise from the stillness are not a threat. I still get a lot of passive aggressive comments from family and friends. How shameful to have free time! Gotta keep that hamster wheel moving until your little legs just can’t move anymore.

      • I know exactly how you felt. When I am not in the right place, I feel physically unwell. Somehow our bodies, without the assistance of our brain functions, alert us that something out of place, that things are not right for us. As for busyness! I agree wholeheartedly. We cannot benchmark our value or importance by how busy we are or by our supposed accomplishments. Love our conversations! 🙂

  10. I always want to go to New Caledonia to visit, but I must say that i didn’t know anything about the dark story you tell. However, it still has a lot of attractive to me. For sure, is not a cheap destination, i know.

  11. Hi J! Glad to be reading missed posts here. 🙂
    I’ve read about the place’s history sometime so many years ago and never thought it was for real. I was thinking it was part of the fiction. And uhhmm… I don’t I’d ever want to step on that reddish beach sand. 😀 hahah my mind is so imagining so many things just by looking at it on this photo. 😀

    Happy New Year btw! your blog is going strong ever.

    xo,
    P

  12. New Caledonia’s history and its residents mirror something of Australia, another country where convicts were transported to begin a new life. I acutely understood your images of suffocation on the tiny island. It is so difficult to let go of our cultural perceptions.

  13. Hi Julie. Kind of having some thought with out much weight, taking some time away from work here at the moment, but I always love listening to your experiences, like stories and poetry all rolled up into one, but unwrapped at the same time. Some random slices drifting to mind while reading.

    The island looks to be untamed (scared in others) and reclaiming in places a sense of weathered liberty. Each bay in the first photograph, maybe a pool of different stories, moments shared over time. I’ve not read too much of the history about New Caledonia, another place a nation transported its people they wished to forget and have far from sight, determined to be the hardest of criminals.Why do such a thing to the far-side of the world? Down here we are so far from most other places, like chains and anvils surrounded by ocean and seas, our societies corrode in such strange and foreign ways to how they once were in another time, to how they were as original nations.

    Thinking in verse like prose, or am I just distracting my mind from the rain here today..
    Such can be the slavery inside wage/salary on a horizontal walled paradise. More intense, magnified than one might imagine with less accustomed distractions when experienced the lifestyle first hand. Perhaps island life is better suited to a more subsistence and gathering existence, one, one less destructive than before what can sometimes be termed invasion and exploitation. Every island has its challenges as the weather changes from time to time. Or perhaps humanity was never meant to stand still for too long in one place, but to be vagabonds and nomads in a world, worlds in constant motion, continuous unforced change, maybe..

    Cheers, and hope 2015 has started well for you and yours…

    • Some of us were meant to be nomads, and others were meant to stay put. I think that nowadays there’s too much emphasis on “global” and forcing cultures to mix when they aren’t ready or willing. It will happen in its own time, has been happening in its own time up until recent history.

      A fantastic 2015 to you, too, Sean. Thanks for adding your voice to my posts over the last year. Each and every one of your comments is an opus.

      • Sometimes, Julie, I close my eyes and your posts, places one right at the heart to the travel tale, a writer can never forget such places shared.

        May every new travel moment, place you journey into and beyond, welcome one inside each new hour’s flower and time’s heart.

  14. Must be a shock to suddenly realise your ancestors were not bread thieves but a murderer and a prostitute.

    I’m reminded of the Hotel California – this could be heaven, this could be hell.

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