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.
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.
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.
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.