Many years ago, I would sit outside my childhood seaside home in the south of the Philippines, and imagine islands beyond the horizon. Often, I’d believe I can see the shores of those islands from afar. Always, I’d wonder if they could see me too.
I arrived in New Caledonia as a tourist from a cruise ship. My body was that of a city folk, herded to a marked tour bus, led by a flag-waving local. But as soon as I caught a whiff of brine in the air, my soul leapt upon the recognition of home.
A Noumea Welcome
The recognition began in Noumea, with the woman who greeted tourists at the end of the archway by the pier. She spoke little English, and was liaising welcome activities with the village choir. Her skin, bronzed and sweaty, was of the same shade as the fisherman’s wife who used to sell freshly-caught Tulingan door-to-door on Sundays. ‘Nang Turang, I remember, was her name.
Then came the boy who led our bus on a tour around the city, to a hill lullabying an unused cannon from the first world war, and finally to the white sand strip of Anse Vata. Wearing a crown of dreadlocks, he had a Reggae chill with a bit of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air swag. He was also every other boy in my village— eternally in a good mood, strong, and despite being cheeky in so many ways, responsible.
The Warriors in the Isle of Pines
Isle of Pines was just as arresting. The ship’s arrival, and consequently, mine, was graced by a tribal war dance of young warriors, paint-laden and commanding of positive attention.
After the performance, a female elder offered to place a handmade crown from coconut leaf and bougainvillea flowers on my head. I fixed my crown, proud that I knew what it’s made of. After all, I used to weave pretend tennis balls from coconut leaf and chopped cupfuls of bougainvillea for pretend carinderia.
“You are beautiful,” the elder confidently said in English. “You are too, “ I bowed, offering a page of my passport for a fake two-dollar stamp.
Lifou’s Tale of the Pine and the Coconut
The village chieftain of Lifou Isle called the shots while the rest of the community was more than happy to oblige. They set-up a complex of sari-sari stores, hair-braiding stalls and open-air massage mats before a swarm of white tourist vans and buses. It was reminiscent of the fiesta peryas in my hometown.
I hopped on a bus with a glowing tour guide. Wearing a long-sleeved plain purple top against amber skin, he also had the brightest smile in the world. Tired from a well-worn travel spiel, he told my group a love story instead:
A long, long time ago, the villagers planted a pine tree for every male and a coconut tree for every female. As soon as that was said, everyone in the bus began scanning the surrounding for pine and coconut trees.
Usually, the trees stood in groups: the Pine wolf pack and the Coconut bathroom herd. Until I spotted pine and coconut trees planted next to each other, usually along the water’s edge.
The tour guide probably saw what I saw and as soon as I looked his way to supposedly ask,
he nodded in anticipation:
“Yes, those trees were of lovers.”
My Mare Family
In Mare, I saw my Papa Ramon in the moustached man tending chicken barbecue on a charcoal grill.
“Don’t you have fish?” I asked.
His answer was wise, “Plenty. But you people don’t know how to eat fish with bones.”
“But uncle, I am your people,” I protested, placing my forearm near his. “Look, brown too!”
With that, I won his smile; so big that the sparkle reached the corners of his eyes.
“Are we friends now?” I validated.
“No, no, “ he continued fanning his now charring skewers, “Family, Miss. Family.”
Many years ago, I read a series of books called Griffin and Sabine. It was a story of snail mail correspondence between a boy from England and a girl from the South Pacific. It was a story very close to my heart, as if Sabine’s Sicmon are the same group of islands I imagined to be beyond the skyline from my childhood seaside home.
When New Caledonia revealed itself to me more than two decades later, I kind of knew I found Sabine’s home. My heart, at once, recognised the likeness through the island nation’s people.
Once again, I was the little girl sitting by the seashore. Only this time, I was on the other side of the horizon.