Thursday, July 29, 2010

Noumea, New Caledonia: Accidental Paradise

It was hard leaving Minneapolis and even harder knowing my big adventure was over. It was like leaving a piece of myself behind - even though I'd grown so much more as a person.

After a long day of travelling (Minneapolis to Phoenix Arizona, to L.A.), I finally got on my Qantas flight back home to Australia... I was relieved that I'd made it as well as sad and overwhelmed all at the same time. However, I woke up during the flight (around 5am Australian time) to a P.A. announcement stating that we were going to land in Noumea to refuel due to a severe fog in Australia.

We glided down between beautiful mountains to what looked like the smallest little runway in the middle of nowhere. My plane buddy, Tim and I were looking out of the window and jokingly said how we've never been here and what a pity it was we couldn't get out... Then, as if the universe was listening, the captain comes back on the P.A. with another announcement - this time with a rather shaky and nervous voice: "Uhhh... It appears we have a slight problem... On inspection of the craft, it appears that one of our tyres was 'blown' during take off and has caused some superficial damage to the plane... We're going to have to a technician to look at this and get it fixed." The murmurs around the cabin all suddenly got a bit nervous, and I, still a bit sleepy, was rather confused what was happening. A few minutes later, the captain came once again, "Uhhh... It appears there are no Qantas staff here at the airport, or any staff who are really equipped for this sort of thing... So, we're going to fly someone over from Sydney - so please stay relaxed and we'll do our best to make you as comfortable as possible." More murmurs swarmed through the cabin, this time more agitated and angry at the delay. I was still rather dazed, and continued looking out of the window at the lack of civilisation and then went back to watching my movie...

A few minutes later, the captain came back on yet again, "Uhhh... it appears that all the staff in Sydney are incapacitated due to all the happenings with the fog in Australia, so we're going to have to stay here in Noumea - possibly overnight - but we'll make sure we all get you in a nice comfortable hotel so you can all rest while we get this problem fixed." He was endlessly apologetic and kept explaining how in all of his career, nothing like this had never happened. I thought it was all pretty exciting honestly! My only problem was that my American phone didn't work and I had no way of telling my family what had happened and that I was safe. But Tim, my plane buddy was nice enough to let me send a text message home on his phone, it stated: "I'm in Noumea, New Caledonia - all is well, might not be home till tomorrow." I would have loved to see the look on mum's face getting that.

Around the cabin, complaints were going ramped - however, there wasn’t as much stress as I would have expected in such a situation. A lot of people were also rather thrilled to be ‘stuck’ in such a beautiful place. A couple next to me were actually supposed to end up in Noumea, so they got home much quicker then expected! But, I did feel rather sorry for a really young boy travelling all by himself and had been sick the entire way from L.A. You didn't see him complaining once, although he was constantly surrounded by some quite pretty flight attendants. Or the guy in front of me who was in the U.S. Army and only had a few days with his wife and newborn in Australia. Others just thought it was all rather 'annoying' being stuck in paradise and tried every trick in the book to get on another flight home somehow - some even succeeded. But, I think most of us were just happy to be alive - knowing that the 'superficial damage' could have been so much worse!

After we finally got out of the plane, got some sort of weird visa stamped in our passport and collected all our baggage - we all (200 something passengers) lined up to get onboard three big buses to our hotel. Lots of people were mentioning how it seemed just like out of a Lost episode... I hadn't actually thought of that at the time, but the more time passed, the more it was almost exactly like that - except the plane hadn't crashed and there was no sexy doctor to save us all! But we all bonded since we were all 'in it together'. You could either feel frustrated - or just let it wash over you and enjoy it as an adventure, which I truly did.

The bus ride was about an hour or more - but since I had no way of measuring time, it felt like an eternity. The rolling mountians and green pastures were beautiful, but also just endless and all I could keep thinking was, "where the hell are we?" I was beginning to wonder if this was in fact an episode of Lost and if Qantas was going to make us all a big hut to sleep in. But finally we entered civilisation and some sort of city life - however dishevelled and poor it looked. But this assured me that we weren't lost (or in an episode of Lost) and we weren't in the middle of nowhere - we were... ummm... somewhere...?

The city did slowly became nicer and more beautiful as we entered the more 'up market’ and tourist area of Noumea. Thank god, as I wasn't really interested in another Downtown L.A. experience (see older blog entries)! Finally got to the hotel and to my amazement it was a beautiful 5-star hotel ON THE BEACH! All expenses were paid for, including the most amazing French gourmet meals and even short phone calls home to explain to our loved ones what had happened and the times we were expected home.

The phone call however served as a bit of a challenge for me: getting the phone to work. Being a French Colony, one of the main languages spoken on the island was of course French. Luckily, the front desk staff spoke beautiful English - unfortunately - no one else did. But my mum was a French language teacher, as I kept boasting to my plane buddy Tim and our little group of friends we had made... However, I failed to mention to them that I’d stopped learning the language when I was about 12 and really didn't remember much apart from "Je suis en stilo-abeia" Which isn't proper French at all - it translates to "I am a ball-point pen." So that really wasn't much help at all. However, I somehow managed to remember a couple of words here and there, like ‘I am lost’, ‘where is the food’, ‘where is the toilet’ and so on - along with some form of spastic sign-language I managed to get by and get the phone working... With a bit of laughter of course - yes, them at me.

After a quick change of clothes, a gorgeous buffet French cuisine and sitting around drinking New Caledonia beer with some of the other passengers, I decided to go on exploration. I walked along the beautiful beaches and spoke my spastic French to the children playing in the sand who kept saying "Bonjour" so excitedly to me. This may have also been due to my Sesame Street t-shirt I was wearing - but I didn't matter - everything was beautiful and I finally felt like I was on a real holiday and not trying to stressfully absorb everything puppets. When I got back to the hotel, I was so exhausted from everything, including all the travelling and lack of sleep, that I took a luxuriously long bubble bath in my beautifully luxurious hotel suite... Ahhhh... This was the life. This was exactly what I needed to decompress from my month-long puppet bender.

The coolest part of this little ‘mini adventure’ was becoming friends with all the people on the plane. At every meal we'd have great conversations about life and how we'd come to be here, stuck in Noumea together. Yes, of course, I had the weirdest stories out of everyone - but everyone loved my enthusiasm and put up with all my excitement and endless stories about my puppet adventures.

By the time we were all back in the little airport the next morning - we were all a little sad. We'd all come to know each other's stories and had became friends in such a special way, that it seemed surreal we were all finally going home. At this point I think a lot of us were actually pretty keen to stay a few more days, but somehow I don't think Qantas would have paid for that!

It was such a unique experience that left me stronger yet again. I'd conquered another hurdle - just after I'd thought I'd conquered them all back in America. It left me thinking, “what else could happen to me now,” and feeling a little indestructible and vulnerable all at the same time.

Noumea was a beautiful place with beautiful people. I think Qantas handled the whole ordeal with ‘flying’ colours and honestly, it made a loyal customer out of me! The whole adventure was a wonderfully welcomed little pause before I came home to normal life, and it’s definitely a place I would love to return some day, perhaps after I’d practiced my French a bit more!

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