Darwin was big on so many fronts.
The city has totally transformed itself in the 14 years since I was there last and is now a city full of high rise condo blocks, glam waterfront developments and lots and lots of people. In fact I was constantly being confronted by the sense that the city was full. Bursting. Every restaurant, pub and cafe seemed to be crowded all the time and the many markets the city hosts were all just packed - here's Mindil beach market on a Sunday night (the quiet night so they say). Driving to the airport at 4.30am there were pedestrians everywhere. (Especially on the roads, drunk, but still...)
What remains the same is the gloriously relaxed life of the tropics. The fabulous beach side markets and bars, the open air venues, the louvred houses with big verandas. The gardens full of giant everythings turning suburban house blocks into micro jungles. And the air which smelled vaguely distantly of cooking fires and hot grass and dust, air that made D and I feel overwhelmingly like we were back in Laos a long time ago.
Darwin also has that weird Canberra like planned growth thing, with dense suburbs broken up by wide expanses of sort of nothingness in between, so you have to drive everywhere even though in theory nothing is very far away. And big signs on the main arterial roads telling you what suburb you are in. And miles of houses that look largely the same when compared with the variety we see in the South.
It is sometimes easy to forget in the big suburban malls or residential streets that Darwin is bloody far away from pretty much everything else in Australia (except when you get to the till and have to add the 'Darwin surcharge' to the cost of everything - that really brings the trucking miles home). It's most definitely not some little red neck outpost and wild frontier any more (if indeed it ever was beyond the myths of ocker folklore). It is now a vibrant and diverse city and it's proximity to Asia fills it with many of the things we'd normally be going overseas to experience (and eat. Oh the food...).
So being a tourist was fun, if a little expensive. And being a tourist without kids made me feel like I did a long time ago, back to the time when D and I spent months at a time roaming about, doing whatever we liked. Travel. Unencumbered.
(Strangely just like then too I found myself drawn to people in public places with small children - staring, playing peek a boo, giving sympathetic smiles to mums clearly feeling past their best. I even felt again that yearning, though this time not for some imagined child that might some day be in my life, but for my babies living their lives somewhere out of view.)
But the trip was about much more than just rubber necking and reliving our nomadic days. We headed up there primarily because D had work meetings and visits to make. I don't talk much about D's work here basically because it's his not mine. But on this trip I was drawn in and now I have my own little place in that landscape. I think I've already told you he's an architect (witness our fabulous home extension) and an academic, and that our time in Thailand was at least in part about his ongoing project in a village there.
In a slight deviation from his previous specialisation, he' started working with a couple of indigenous villages just out of Darwin. Again I'll say, it's not really my place to go on chapter and verse about what he's doing but it is really exciting stuff. Hands on, with students, with locals, with residents.
So I tagged along to meetings with other architects, with builders, with academics, with elders and people just hanging around. In part I was just the background pattern, watching and listening and getting an insight into the amazing contribution D makes. But the other part of me was engaging with the situation on a whole other level, on a level much closer to the work I do.
I'm still an ignorant Southerner with only a couple of days of observations under my belt, but already I have opinions. Strong ones. And it has been a while since I felt so strongly about matters of public policy, feeling as I do that most of the time the distance between good and bad is relatively slight in government activity.
I found myself wondering if there wasn't something I could do. Some way I could contribute.
The big plan is beginning to transform into something else for me.
You see my last post was about our other reason for going to Darwin - our reconnaissance mission to scout the location for our next big adventure. An adventure based on D's six month sabbatical to do research next year. Of course it was always intended to be a family thing too, another chance to experience the wonderful time we had living away from home in Thailand in 2005. But I was seeing myself playing a supporting role in it all, perhaps picking up some opportunistic work while I kept the domestic life bubbling and smoothed over the transition bumps.
Now I see scope for something in this for me. Something beyond the laid back lifestyle, the beers on the veranda and the adventure of being somewhere else. Something big and new and possibly quite exciting.
There's a few obstacles I'm not quite sure how we're going to overcome. Like finding a furnished, well located, elevated non-air con house in an almost zero vacancy rental market (perhaps something like this?), childcare for Wil, a tenant for our own home, the money to pay for it all (and all the travel we'll want to do while we're up that end of the country). How and what to craft up there (Do I have any Darwin readers?).
Luckily we've got a while to sort it out.