First of all: what is a car anyway? Is it a vehicle to get yourself from A to B, along with other people perhaps and some stuff too heavy to carry otherwise?
I guess that’s not the whole story. Not for a lot of people anyway.
Having lived in Germany most of my life so far, I am very much used to cars serving more than just the purpose of transport. Their significance for many spheres of life here is huge and cannot be overestimated, with economy, culture, sociology, psychology and identity (individual as well as collective) all inextricably linked to one another. And whether you want it or not, you will always convey a message about yourself to the rest of society through your own personal relationship to cars. Which car do you drive (or not)? Which car(s) do you own (or not)? Do you have a car at all? Do you see your car as a useful machine, or is it rather ‘a symbol in your driveway’, as Jack Johnson sings? The car as an artefact is so central to German culture that it cannot be ignored, and it is impossible not to communicate through it. Whichever way you go, you will always send out a message.
I didn’t think about these matters a lot before I travelled to New Caledonia at the end of last year. I hadn’t thought about them in advance, so I didn’t really have any questions or expectations. However, the longer I was in the country, the more obvious it became to me that some things with regard to cars are a bit different from Germany. And I like differences!
In the above picture you see a little Japanese car (or perhaps Korean) that I rented from Ferdinand (the guy in the red t-shirt) during my first few days on the island of Lifou. Not very new, not very comfortable, but it did its job. And none of the windows were broken, which was good. You see many cars like this in the rural areas. They are not remarkable in any way.
This blue Twingo was another car I rented on Lifou, because I had some problems with the first one. It falls into the same category. But okay, those were rented cars, so maybe not so representative.
Many people drive utility vehicles such as pick-up vans of various sizes. Some of them are obviously used for practical purposes, and not for prestige.
In other cases, however, I was less sure…
I can already hear you say: that’s nothing unusual! Cars serve a whole range of purposes everywhere. What was so special about New Caledonia then? Where is the difference to Germany?
Well, up until now I have shown you cars which can be operated more or less the way they should. I mean, they have got four wheels (and tyres) to start with. While travelling around the country, however, I also couldn’t help noticing quite a large number of, ummm, former cars.
They don’t look so bad at first sight, but only until you take a closer look. Then you realise: they won’t drive another mile. I guess most of them are kept as a kind of depot for spare parts. But maybe it’s just too much hassle to have them removed and disposed of. And nobody seems to mind. Personally, I wouldn’t want a disused vehicle to stand in front of my house, but my opinion is obviously irrelevant here.
Okay, and then there are those which are a sorry sight already from a distance.
The funny thing is the lack of a clear distinction between those cars that can still be driven and those that are definitely out of order. It happened to me more than once that I saw in a car park something I thought was a wreck. And I thought, hey, what a waste of parking space. Until someone came along, opened the door (if there was one) and drove off. Here are some examples.
I must say, I’m impressed by this attitude. A car should be able to drive, for which it requires four wheels (yes, with tyres), an engine and a steering wheel, and that’s basically it. On islands like Lifou or Ouvéa, there are no motorways, no mountains, the weather is mostly sunny and dry. And you’re advised not to drive at night anyway. So what should be the problem? I think it is safe to say that such cars are definitely not symbols in driveways. And that is something I can absolutely identify with.
There is one more category of cars, however, that I haven’t mentioned yet. It’s the most problematic one, and also the saddest.
In New Caledonia you see burnt car wrecks at the roadside. Not one, not two, but very many. Drive on a country road for an hour and you will see at least five cars in the ditch, maybe as many as ten. What happened to them? How did they get there?
I can tell you the explanation I heard several times, not knowing for sure if it’s true. It goes like this: young folks from the rural villages (mostly young men) go to Nouméa on the weekend. Some of them hitchhike, some take public transport. They take all kinds of substances. They want to get back to their village at some point, maybe in the middle of the night. They steal a car and drive back. Sometimes they end up having an accident, sometimes they stop the stolen car near their village and burn it right there on the spot. Clearly a case where the car is used as a means of transport, and not for its prestige…
What I never understood, though, was: why doesn’t anyone remove these wrecks from the roadside? Are they kept there on purpose, e.g. to serve as a kind of warning?
But let’s end on a funny note, shall we? I’ve got a really good example for the relaxed attitude which most New Caledonians seem to have vis-à-vis cars in general.
In case you’re wondering: yes, the dog was lying IN FRONT of the wheel. And no, I did NOT run right over it. And yes, of course I hope the creature is still alive…
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