Anendra Singh gets a warm welcome in paradise.
Resplendent in a crimson T-shirt and a contrasting pair of black tights, Zerena Vama stood grinning at the gateway to the carpark of the municipal airport of Moue on the Isle of Pines in New Caledonia. We had arrived 30 minutes late on the domestic Air Caledonie flight with the promise of one of the best pockets of swimming beaches in the country.
She grinned and shuffled from side to side in a pair of well-worn, weather-beaten jandals. "I hope one of you can drive?" she asks as we saunter towards a compact silver car, windows down to let it breathe in the tropical humidity.
Caught unawares by the prospect of driving on right-hand-side roads threading through the island, I volunteer to break the uncomfortable silence: "I can, if you wish."
Vama breaks out into an ebullient smile and replies: "Just kidding."
A Vau clan member of the Kere tribe before her marriage, Vama typifies the laid-back island approach to life, laced with humour and devoid of stress.
She seamlessly replotted our schedule to sneak in a sumptuous bougna (pronounced "boonyah" and akin to hangi) lunch that one of her countless "sisters", Marie Eustache Cagnewa, served at her roadside stall. Another sister, Noelie Wemana, had calmly unearthed the banana leaf-wrapped feast minutes before in the backyard of her home nearby.
It seems Vama is related to almost all of the island's 3000 inhabitants. Pretty much everyone she encountered got a "bonjour!" and the ritual exchange of the double-cheek kiss.
"Everyone on this island knows everyone else," she says of the place, which goes by the nickname of l'ile la plus proche du paradis ("the closest island to paradise"). According to Vama, the eight local tribes fiercely want autonomy from France.
The chicken, kumara, plantain, pumpkin, taro and carrot, all wrapped in banana leaves and lathered in coconut milk before they were baked on hot rocks, were a stark contrast to the French fare in the capital city of Noumea and the outskirts of Bourail.
The gregarious grandmother was anticipating a torrent of visitors from the impending arrival of the cruise liner which hovered near the Kuto Bay coastline, but she found time, along with her husband, clad in a cotton wrap-around cloth (akin to lavalava), to show us their vegetable garden that boasted family-sized avocados.
We turned the hot lunch into island brunch at Cagnewa's corrugated iron-and-wooden roadside corner. Soon the starch-heavy lunch had me visualising hammocks in the humidity.
Later we waded through the ankle-deep, low-tide water to the nearby protected Oro Natural Pool. As we approached the white sand-fringed turquoise lagoon, teeming with marine life, we noticed dead blue bottle jellyfish floating downstream.
Having sidestepped the Aussie cousins of the Portuguese man-of-war in Sydney and Queensland in January, I was gung-ho about our chances, assuring my travel companions we would be fine. I was horribly wrong.
Three of them stung me — on my left bicep and across the chest — leaving red rash-like, pimpled scars. The pain resembled a searing wasp sting.
The next day I resisted the temptation to scratch the threaded scars. A duty-free bottle of Tamanu (herbal antiseptic) I had bought at La Tontouta International Airport had worked wonders. Urban working women swear the oil is an essential part of their makeup kit.
An Upi Bay (named after Kanak landowner Upe, according to Vama, but changed to suit the French, who have difficulties pronouncing it) outrigger cruise was next on the agenda. It started with an impromptu shower and ended majestically with a signature rainbow on the horizon.
Vama interpreted our questions to the elderly Kanak skipper, who has been at the helm of the business for 40 years.
Weather-chiselled corals protruded into the bay, where we spotted countless turtles poking out their heads, a shadowy stingray as well as an airborne needlefish.
But the 90-minute-long sail was drawn out. On the return voyage, Vama told us how she was lost overnight as a sobbing and hungry 9-year-old with two male teenage cousins while gathering shellfish. Uncles rescued them. It's a beautiful place, but it can be tough.
A 25-minute drive to Kuto Bay beach was magical. Despite the torrential downpour late afternoon that sent cruise liner passengers scurrying offshore, we weren't going to miss a fresh swim on carpet-soft white sand.
With some time to spare at the end of the day, Vama whisked us away to the Saint Maurice Park where some of the totem poles had a Māori-carving look about them and where a Roman Catholic procession takes place every year.
A place that's familiar and foreign all at once.