We were lucky enough to meet and talk with some of the locals in Maré (Maréans) - not so in Ouvéa (which was where we went next). We found them to be very warm and welcoming - but not warm and welcoming in the touristy kind of way. They were genuinely open and willing to share their culture, not for money but out of pride for their island and their way of life. Unlike on the main island (Grande terre) of New Caledonia, the Maréans (largely Melanesian) control how things are run on the island (which is also true on the other Loyalty Islands and Ile des Pins). Only about 2% of the population on this island are French - so you really feel as if you are in direct contact with the locals, the minute you arrive.
On our tour day of the island, we spent a morning with our Kanak guide above (click on the photo for a larger image). Not only did he take us all over the island, but he talked about what his life was like. As it was the holiday season, and Santa Claus had arrived by boat the night before, and there had been fireworks and parties into the night and early morning, he was a little worse for the wear. (Kanaks like to party in a big way - we saw a number of them flat out from all the partying during our tour and our guide explained that all the shops were closed, because after they had been drinking, they could get aggressive and either walk out with the shops' merchandise or get into nasty fights ...)
In the photo above, our guide had just taken us down into an enormous cavity that led to an underground water hole. He explained that the names we saw on the cave walls were the result of competitions - the men like to climb the walls (as high as they can go) and then carve their names in the walls. Mind you, our guide was about 35 years old. When I asked if women and children came down into the water hole, he said that they all do. They all love to swim there - and that the more women there are, the higher the men climb.
Throughout our tour, we saw children playing in the dirt roads. We are accustomed to seeing them bare foot (you often see them running and playing soccer bare foot in Nouméa), but due to the heat, they were also entirely naked. Smiling, laughing, they would continue their games in the street despite the approach of a dusty Peugot 206 and look after us with a vague (and passing) curiosity. They made me hanker after their total simplicity and unshakable "joie de vivre".