Tuesday, 20 October 2009
Going to Darwin is like entering a parallel universe. I've thought that each time I've landed, whether it has been from Noosa, from Melbourne, or after a very long time living out of a backpack in South East Asia.
You see, coming from another country, it has so many Australian hallmarks. All the reliable national things you see no matter where you are like familiar post boxes and road signs and supermarkets and beer. Public phones plastered with the Telstra logo. And the accents of the people you deal with over counters and on the phone, and the behaviour in the pubs and the cars and so many other invisible details that let you know you are back home. And a certain suburban layout and sprawl that can seem a bit Canberra and a bit like somewhere else you've driven through but can't recall the name of. A bit city, a bit town, a bit country. A bit of lots of things you've seen before.
And yet somewhere along the road I notice things that are entirely not of my Australia. The pegged out town perimeter and its red dust surrounds could not be further from the urban Australianism that has traditionally been my home. The enormous distances from here to, well, anywhere. The searing tropical heat. The apparent lack of class order in suburbs and the generally run down and disordered state of most homes and yards. Given that Darwin has the second most expensive real estate in the entire country there is an astonishingly lack of not just fancy pants houses but of suburbs of middle class aspirations - all those cyclone wire fences covered in black plastic! All that trash stacked around outside! All those completely nothing gardens! There is a flat barren droopiness like Canberra at the end of a really hot and dry season that is in stark contrast to the lushness of so much of the local tropical vegetation. Everyone still smokes everywhere in public just like in Melbourne back in the early 80s and everyone drinks alcohol all the time everywhere. I went to the poolside 'snack bar' at a large resort hotel at 11am and when the guy asked me what I wanted and when all I could see in the fridge were beer bottles I asked what non-alcoholic drinks he had and he was temporarily stumped. Seriously he went um...um...and I said you got coke? and he said oh! yeah! coke! You want, like just a plain coke? as though no one ever in his time working there had ever asked for a non alcoholic bevvy ever.
And there's a certain kind of edginess, a wild frontierness, that means I almost never quite feel totally relaxed. It's not that the place scares me, I'm just not quite sure what might happen next or how I should best respond to it. I can't read the social cues very accurately and I don't think consequences are necessarily going to be as I expect. Once I would have characterised that as a degree of lawlessness, the healthy disrespect for authority that people have when they have had to do so much more for themselves than those who live in big and old cities. But now I suspect it is less about the law and more about an absence of binding social mores and institutions. There are so many elements in the mix and none of them have enough weight in them to sink to the bottom and solidify into some kind of foundation.
(On the lawlessness thing - when I first went to Darwin in the early 90s I was amazed to spend weeks driving through the Territory and never see a cop. There was in those days no official speed limit on the open roads and the process for getting our second hand dodgy car registered was laughable - I had to sign a stat dec that I had bought it because it had no papers and the only road worthy they did was to check it had working brakes and headlights! On this last trip despite lots of signs announcing that there were in fact speed limits in the Territory and that these were enforced through speed and red light cameras - a daily announcement in the press and on radio gave everyone their locations - the locals were still telling the old joke that if you saw a car with it's indicator on it must have been on when the owner bought the car and they never bothered turning it off.)
In Darwin, like in Alice Springs, I sometimes feel more like I am part of an expat community than a native. A visitor and explorer. I am sure this is more than a little a reflection of who I get to meet and talk to but the reality is that an awful lot of people who live there come from somewhere else. And most of them it seems have come with clear reasons. Whether they are running away or running towards, Darwin is a place that holds the promise of a departure. Because with that ambiguity, that unexplored and undetermined social context comes a freedom to be do and be in a new kind of way - for individuals as well as communities. And that is exciting.
But the other reason, the really big reason for people like me who come from the big cities is that Darwin is a place in which contemporary white culture sits side by side with traditional and not so traditional aboriginal culture. When you have been raised to see traditional, and often less traditional aboriginal culture as a kind of theoretical proposition, seeing it played out at large is quite confronting. Sorting through such an enormous number of beliefs and stereotypes and differences and issues and basic areas of total ignorance tends to knock you flat at least some of the time.
And add to that the number of conversations you have with Territorians about aboriginal people and policy and what the government is doing or failing to do or what the real problems are and who is to blame and the evidence you see with your own eyes as you walk down any street about who is struggling (believe me there's way plenty of badly pickled and fucked up whites as well as blacks) and if you happen to have some kind of access into a community of aboriginal people and you see for real those kinds of images that play on the evening news about the 'gap' - the health problems, the violence, the despondency, the seemingly bottomless sink hole into which government money falls and yet fails to in any way impact the underlying fundamental problem that for most Aboriginal people life is much harder according to conventional measures than it is for white people - and somehow the problem is both disassociated from you (like it is still just on the TV screen or in the newspaper) and yet right there on your skin at the same time because it is all happening right in front of you and all around you (no changing channels here).
I can't help but keep switching hats. I put on my work hat and look it like a social policy project. From this perspective it seems hard to believe that so little has changed in the last 30 years, that no one has ever really gone further into our base policy assumptions and shifted the ground. Well, I mean, on one level this is happening all the time and the intervention is a classic example of someone just like me screaming in frustration enough! and setting out to change the rules to see if something can't be done. And yet it doesn't seem like any of these forays have really resulted in much difference. It is very hard not to see that white culture has been a cancer on traditional black culture, and that black culture has utterly failed to effectively fight that - either through adaptation, strategy or coercion.
My experiential hat, the basically me just checking things out and listening to people hat feels that the daily reality for people is enormously diverse. There are pockets, communities, families in which essential parts of black culture survive and thrive, where people are happy and healthy and living a kind of life I will never be able to have access to. Some of the aboriginal kids I saw were so ethereally beautiful, so divine I could not take my eyes off them and every moment around them was filled with a pure and uncomplicated joy. In some invisible way they have sidestepped the ultimate dilemma of coexistence and have simply gone about their business. And while they remain vulnerable, they go on and adapt.
And the terrible disadvantage, the 'problems' are well evidenced in the white community too, and imagine if they weren't so well camouflaged how much greater they might seem! And that's the problem with totalising policy and problem definition and the search for solutions - it utterly fails to be able to see this level on which life, for individuals, really takes place and it seems to be that solutions occur here and not somewhere higher up the conceptual chain.
And I have a sort of community hat, the one I wear when I get to meet D's colleagues and other 'expats' who have come to make a difference, and for whom managing the interface between these two cultures is a job and a calling. And I get to hear about the things they do, and how much they know and how complicated it all is and how there is room for good stuff to happen. Or at least for some of the bad stuff to be held at bay. And their sense of purpose and camaraderie, and their warmth towards us is comforting and captivating and exciting.
And then, and perhaps I shouldn't even admit to this, but then I have my mummy hat and really I am haunted by this one. In a completely unintellectual and instinctive way I just can't get past how wrong and messed up it all is. That while I am kicking back with beers on the lawn at sunset in the sailing club, there are scores and scores of people for whom there are no other life choices than the really shitty ones they have. It doesn't matter whether it is their fault or someone else's, or whether that someone else is another black person or a stupid white bureaucrat like me. Bottom line is their lives are way way harder than they should be. So so many black people look like they have been beaten in every sense of the word and I don't care how much of it can be explained away or how much I don't know, I feel an incredible sadness, a sense of injustice and disgust and anger and frustration and despondency about how things could ever have gotten to be this horribly horrible wrong. About the diseases these people get and the diets they have to live on and what happens to their kids and the houses they live in and the ways traditional cultural contracts have been overlaid on crazily different times so that nothing works and yet everything is constrained.
And people, it makes me cry. D says he sees it all the time when he takes new people to the community, that first day when they can't believe that it's really happening for real and that they are somehow expected to bear witness to it. Everyone has their own weak spot, the moment that drives it home for them. For D it was when he realised one family would be bringing their newborn baby home to live in one of the worst houses in the community (and I use the term house loosely here) and he said all he could think, knowing all too well what a newborn is all about and knowing all too well what housing is all about, was that you just can't bring a newborn there. And yeah, I guess for me too it is the babies and children it is hardest to categorise and simply parcel out. No matter what I may think about evolution and the over arching issues, I just can't get over the sheer numbers of kids whose lives seem to be largely fucked up before they have even had the chance to start making their own mistakes.
I am aware that I know a lot less than a lot of people about all this and many voyeurs and dilettantes have preceded me in these sentiments, but a simple drive through the city raises all these things. I love it there. I find the lifestyle, the climate, the sensibility and the family inclusive sense of engagement in the public spaces absolutely thrilling. I love the diversity and the excitement and the unknown that makes every day feel new and worthwhile and I spent a lot of time while we were there wondering how it would have been to be hanging out up there for six months instead of four days. I'm sad I am not up there. But there are other things I am all too aware I am glad I don't have to navigate on a daily basis (and I'm not just talking about Casuarina shopping centre).
American Wife may not have been a good choice of relaxing read while I was there, driving home as it did the complicity of standing in the shadow of privilege while others pay the price. I'm left with a kind of hangover even though I don't remember getting drunk and I find the comparisons I make between myself and those of my type and Laura Bush and those of her type more than a little uncomfortable. Now I just want to say, you know, la de da, don't worry, everything is alright, sorry, really, I am being melodramatic, I did have a good time too! And it's true that perhaps the most complex part of it is how conflicted I feel, that I oscillate wildly between these different states of mind.
So, yeah, Darwin.
all photo credits aside from the first and last go to D.