A long day. A good day. A day of perfect weather. A day that thwacked me repeatedly to remind me that gluten is everywhere no matter how you endeavour to avoid it.
I hired a car! It was manual, because automatics cost more. I drove on the other side of the road – for the first time. This was all because I needed to get boatcat quarantine papers to a place called Paita. I chanted a mantra to myself;
This served me pretty well. My only issue was some difficulty remembering to keep good clearance between the right side of the vehicle and the edge of the road. I navigated roundabouts, freeways and roadworks. I had been told by two different people to use maps.me instead of google, and this was good advice.
Over the weeks leading up to my car hire adventure (as it became increasingly obvious that this was the only way to get out to Paita), M became increasingly twitchy. “I don’t want,” he said, out of the blue one morning, “I don’t want the Smalls coming in the car with us. Too dangerous.”
A Small free adventure being something of a treat, I agreed, presuming that we would leave them on a kidboat while we took in the sights. I imagined a soft top Sunbeam Alpine, open to the sky, travelling gaily along picturesque New Caledonian roads. Sunglasses on, my scarf rippling in the wind, M tanned and relaxed, steering with the lightest of touches, pulling over at roadside stalls to buy paper bags full of passionfruit. /end scene.
However. A few days prior to car hire day I had a sense that the aforementioned scenario might not be quite realistic. “M,” I said. “I think I will just do the car hire thing on my own.” Before I even launched into how then he could look after the Smalls and get boat things done in my absence, I saw his whole body sag with relief. 🙄 I could see plans of how he would live as a cool single dad after I was obliterated by going the wrong way around a roundabout.
The day before the car hire, he actually requested that I write his contact details in permanent marker SOMEWHERE ON MY BODY, in preparation for my imminent demise. His contact details. It’s not like he has a phone. I imagined my lifeless body draped over the side of a road, surrounded by emergency service people, one of them typing laboriously on the tiny keyboard of her phone. My t-shirt has been pulled up, revealing M’s email address – incorporating my belly button as the @ symbol.
I made it to the quarantine centre without a hiccup, handed over my papers and waited for a few minutes. It had all been almost too straightforward. Thankfully, reality kicked in – they asked me for payment, which I was prepared for – having withdrawn some cash. But as it transpired, they didn’t take cash, or card. They. Only. Take. Cheques.
Yet again I found myself at the great cheque impasse. The way I could produce a cheque at that point, was to drive all the way back to the marina and beg one of the women in the office to write me one in return for some cash. Thankfully, because I didn’t need a boatcat import permit for Vanuatu, after a brief adrenaline fuelled few minutes, the quarantine people said they would waive the payment.
Back out at the car, surrounded by spectacular scenery I did some deep, soothing breathing, and then pondered whether to drive another 18km to the airport in search of Vatu – the currency of Vanuatu. M had stipulated that I should go there. I wasn’t keen – we had heard that Vatu are only given to people with an areoplane boarding pass.
I weighed up the issues. M’s displeasure on finding out I hadn’t tried the airport, versus another 20 minutes on the freeway probably for nothing. The importance of good diplomatic relations won out. I drove to the airport, which was very nice, but a complete ghost-town as the only flight for the rest of the day wasn’t until the evening. No Vatu for me. Airport staff suggested I try a nearby bank…
Meanwhile I was so hungry I was about to chew off my own leg. Hooray for being coeliac in a country where I don’t speak the language and thus am unable to interrogate cafe staff about the possibility of cross-contamination. The nearby bank – which had no Vatu – was next door to a supermarket. There I found the first packet of GF sweet biscuits I had seen since arriving in the country. There was ONE packet and I ninja-tackled it, before anyone else could.
I was so hungry by this point that I was getting irrational. All I wanted was some bread with which I could make a sandwich. Being on my own, I didn’t have to worry about there not being enough bread for four people. But there was no bread. All the salami I looked at had “may contain traces of gluten”. In the end, my lunch was two green apples and some pre-sliced Gouda. For some reason I felt hard done by.
I sat in the car, chopped up the apple with my pocket knife and ate bits of it topped with the cheese, reproaching myself for being angst-ridden. It was a beautiful day, I was a free agent, and the next destination on the agenda was a bakery supplies shop, from which I intended to purchase two 5kg bags of buckwheat flour.
Ducos is the industrial area outside Noumea. I threaded my way along thin streets that had cars parked on both sides, getting lost twice before finding the place I was looking for. I had been given the address by a woman at the market who makes buckwheat gallettes – we had been so excited to find something COOKED that we could eat – and I presumed that she bought her flour in bulk from somewhere. This was the place.
Inside there were huge bags of cooking chocolate and icing sugar. Boxes of edible cake decorations, packets of yeast and glucose powder, large and insanely expensive bottles of vanilla essence. I asked the woman there about ‘sarrasin’ and she nodded. We agreed I would require two 5kg bags. I don’t know what made me ask – except that the tiny bags of buckwheat flour I’ve seen in the supermarket here have all had “traces of gluten”, which is not something I have ever encountered in Australia.
“Sans gluten?” I asked her. She didn’t understand what I meant, but the one other customer in the shop translated for me. “I am coeliac – is there any gluten in the buckwheat flour?” She raised a hand to ask me to wait a moment, busied herself at the computer and then printed out a page of what seemed to be manufacturing details for the sarrasin. She shook her head and pointed to the words “dsjfldsjdljfslfjd”. I could have kicked a hole in the counter. Instead I spent $30AU on a 1kg bag of dark chocolate chips – which were gluten free – to console myself. A normal block of Lindt dark chocolate here is about $8AU, so I felt that the purchase was justified. But the BUCKWHEAT FLOUR – 😩
I felt so frustrated. Why hadn’t I brought more from Australia?! Now our fallback would have to be grinding up rice to use as flour, and then mixing through some tapioca or cassava flour. Basically, white pap. GAAAAAAAH.
Back in the car I drove humourlessly into the city, went and lined up in four different banks to try and get Vatu, without success. I bought a multitude of rice cakes (i.e. edible polystyrene) at Casino Johnson, found more small bags of buckwheat that contained traces of gluten, and finished up at the Carrefours supermarket on the other side of town.
For some reason, my card does not work in the supermarkets here, and I was out of cash. Before I went into Carrefour, I headed over to an ATM machine in a nearby building. There, after getting some money, I saw a woman come out of a security door that seemed to be part of the bank. “Excusè moi. Parle vous Anglaise?”
“Oui, yes. A little bit,” she said, holding her thumb and forefinger an inch apart.
“Do you know where I might get some Vatu? I’ve been to four different banks, and the airport.”
Unbelievably, she nodded. “Come up to my office, I will print you a map of where to get Vatu.”
It was like I’d conjured her out of a dream – although if I had done so, she would have been holding a 5kg bag of buckwheat flour. Up in her very fancy office she not only printed out a colour map of the bank I needed to go to – she telephoned them and confirmed that, yes, they did indeed have Vatu. I would just need turn up in the morning with my passport.
I was agog. SO GRATEFUL. I used up all my French, telling her about the catamaran, the two Smalls, M and the bloody boatcat – that we were anchored in Baie des Citron. At the end we shook hands and I thanked her profusely. Went and did more provisioning in Carrefour – the only place with tolerably priced tinned tuna, and then met M at Baie des Citron, unloaded all the shopping which he dinghied back to Bella Luna and then went to fuel up the car before dropping it off.
Somehow, after paying for the petrol, I managed to lose the car keys. In the car. For 15 humiliating minutes I looked under seats, emptied my bag, pawed under the mats in the footwells. The car was only marginally bigger than the car keys – and the service station people kept glancing over, obviously wondering why the tiniest white car in the world was home to a thrashing ramora (me) sitting stationary in front of a petrol bowser.
Finally I found the keys – they’d slid down the side of the front passenger seat near the door. In the time it had taken me to find them I could have pushed the bloody car back to the hire place – it was only 100m down the road. After all that, having been given the all clear by the Hertz people, I walked the 2km back to Baie des Citron – taking the long way so I would end up passing Barca – where I knew it was happy hour.
I required a a celebratory drink – I had survived! Just to make sure, I checked with one of the wait staff about which drinks were half price during happy hour. Just beer, I was told. And soft drinks. Gluten strikes again. I ground my teeth gently and continued on my way, stopping only to chat with Gemma and Andy from Paws who intend to head for Tanna at the same time as us.
Back at Bella Luna M had dinner ready. He did not appear stunned at my longevity, but said he had bought me a present. Given that I had just been thwarted by happy hour, I was more than happy that he presented me with some gluten free beer. HUZZAH! Then I looked closer at the bottle. And very nearly threw it at him. It was not gluten free. It was SPELT beer. Then I had to watch him, the poor thing, drink the uber expensive faux GF beer he had bought me. And it was at that point I thanked god, my mothership and T for the presence of the Mental Health Gin I had been saving for Vanuatu.