Friday, September 05, 2008

HM, Pt. 7.5: The Rest of the Long Rant

We went back to the campground, packed up the rest of our gear and got on the road to Coober Pedy, the opal-mining town where we would meet Stuart, the man who made my engagement ring and provided the opal for my wedding ring. The drive is surreal. There's a gas station about every 150 km, and you fill up at each one.

There are hundreds, and I mean, HUNDREDS of dead kangaroos on the road. The dingos and the raptors pick them clean. There's no need to remove the carcasses. Every single skeleton (among fresher examples) made me sad. After, like, the 50th dead kangaroo, Joel was like, "Really? EVERY single one makes you sad?" Yes. They do. Each and every one. Leave me alone.

Now, to say that relations between miners and the indigenous people in the region are tense is an understatement. The name of the town Coober Pedy comes from the aboringal phrase "kupa-piti," which means "white man in a hole." We knew the miner wasn't the most liberal guy in the world because he made a somewhat disparaging remark in an email about how Ayers Rock is NOT called Uluru.

Oh, my, were we in for an interesting ride. To be fair, the miner doesn't like a lot of things. The high price of water. The way his wife drives. The way all women drive. Most Yanks and "the Hungarian" who runs the B&B where we were staying with "that Canadian." He was a lovely gentleman from Serbia, not Hungary, and "That Canadian" is A., the awesome innkeeper who is an expat Yank, actually. But Stuart really, really hates "aboriginals."

So... okay. I had promised Joel I wouldn't have a psychadelic freakout during dinner and call the man a racist. I spent most of the meal talking to his wife who told me 10 minutes into the meal that they no longer speak to their oldest son. Um, okay? Anyone want the last piece of bread? No? SOMEBODY. HELP. ME.

Meanwhile, we couldn't get him off the topic of "aboriginals" and welfare and how "they're only 20 years of of the Stone Age". Now, here's the thing. He kept saying, "You're just visitors. You don't know."

What could I say to that? "Well, sir. You may have been living the last 45 years of your life in the Australian Outback interacting directly with this community of which you speak so rudely, but I read a book that I got at the Cultural Centre bookstore yesterday that cited the Western Australian Aborigines Act of 1905 with one of its stated claims being to 'ease the passing of the Aborigine into extinction.' How is that not GENOCIDE, good sir?!?! NOW PASS ME THE BUTTER!"

We DID try, gently, to pose a different viewpoint by talking about Native American history. "Well, Native Americans," he said, "I feel bad for them. At least they have some pride! These drunks are a waste of space!" And then we really tried, not so gently, AGAIN to change the subject. The Olympics? Dead kangaroos? 9/11? Anyone?

His wife asked him to get off the subject when Joel got up to go to the bathroom. "It's a bit of a sore subject with us," she apologized. "Oh, you disagree?" I asked, with more hope than I should have had for this fragile, weepy woman. "No," she said, but she turned to her husband. "Enough."

When we got back to the B&B that night, we had a long talk with A., the owner. She is a progressive Unitarian liberal who- were she not running a bed and breakfast in the Outback- could easily pass for a women's studies professor at the major liberal arts college of your choice. We had a long talk. She wanted to know if we confronted him on his racism. We wanted to know if the disenfranchisement and racism government acts oppressing the aboriginal people compared to her understanding of Native American history.

She didn't think so, actually. She described her transition as a "very concerned" expat who strongly advocated for the indigenous people to a somewhat skeptical Australian who sees a lot of government money has been spent to ease the issues of poverty, lack of education, and addiction with little change. It's not working, and it's heartbreaking.

I told her about another book I had read by Donna Meehan, a member of the "stolen generation" who was taken from her large aboriginal family without warning (or her mothers consent) and adopted by a loving white family in Newcastle. "There were what? Like 100,000 children who were taken from their families as recently as when? 1971? Isn't that horrible? "

She told us that after 1971, the knee-jerk reaction led the policy that NO children of aboriginal descent should be taken from their families, and she can't deny the fact that sometimes children DO need to be taken into foster care when there are real issues of addiction, food insecurity and sexual abuse. Apparently, in run up to the 2007 election, Prime Minister John Howard proposed a dramatic intervention and "compulsory health checks for all Aboriginal children." It's seen as a good thing, but also as a political stunt. Aboriginal leaders decried the intervention as racist and- wait for it- threatened to refuse to let tourists climb Ayers Rock. Howard was voted out of office.

We told her about the women we met in the stranded vehicle. She was stricken. She told us that lots of tourists have ended up in" very, very bad situations" when they've encountered hostile men on aboriginal land. Some of these very, very bad situations began with a allegedly broken down car. It all left me feeling confused, uncertain and sad in that way that all bleeding heart liberals feel sad about such things.

The next day Joel went down into the opal mines, as planned, while I walked around town shooting. Let me say here that Coober Pedy is unlike anywhere I've ever been. It's a small mining town, with a ton of "character" if by character you mean, "there's something really cool, but really unnerving about this place." That's actually exactly how I feel about Coney Island, come to think of it.

Let me show you some pictures.

And then, sitting outside the liquor store, I saw the people Stuart told us about. There was such an air of devastation about them, sitting in front of a crumbling mural depicting an idyllic rendition of THEIR LAND- splashed with an ad for opals and internet access- that I couldn't *not* shoot it.

I decided to approach them, this time with a pack of cigarettes as a gesture of goodwill. It went over well with the women, but one man became pretty aggressive. He demanded money. Then he demanded liquor. I told him I wouldn't buy hiim alcohol, but I would spring for lunch. What were they hungry for? Pizza, he said. No, two pizzas. Coke. No, two cokes.

Then he wanted to follow me to my car.

I told him, "No, absolutely not." I told him I am from New York, and women there don't let men they don't know follow them to their cars. He got agitated, again, and two of the women jumped to my defense. That was a real surprise, actually. They got in his face on my behalf. I went to order the pizza. I was told I could pick it up in 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, I went back to deliver the Coke.

The police had shown up to move them along for loitering.

One man refused to surrender his bottle of alcohol, and they arrested him.

The others just moved down the street to the gas station, past the cheery multicultural center, which was neither cheery nor multicultural.

We bonded over their dog.

His name was "Old Man."

I me up with Joel, who was back from the opal mine. We delivered their pizza. They said thank you, and we got back in the car. We drove all the way back to Ayers Rock, the home of their ancestors, their holiest of holy sights, four and a half hours away, a place they will probably never have the money, ability or reliable transportation to see.

We drove for hours. All along the way, we talked about what we had seen in Coober Pedy, as well as the women we met by the side of the road the day before that. We wondered if the broken down car was the kind of scam that the B&B owner said leads to so many crimes, if we nearly escaped something really bad. We couldn't help but feel the those women and children really did need help. We wondered if they were still out there, waiting for the park ranger.

We were still talking about it when we stopped for gas at the crossroads between the only two highways. The campground and national park were still 200 km away. I got out to stretch my legs, saying I just hoped the stranded motorists were okay. As I closed the door to the rental car, a little dog ran up to me and sat down. "Joel," I said. "I think they're here."

Joel: "Who?"
Me: "The women and children."
Joel: "What?"
Me: "I think... I think this is Little One."

With that, they all walked out of the convenience store part of the service station. We greeted them like old friends. "Hi! You made it!" They smiled at us. They were surprised as we were and introduced us to their brother, who had driven out from Adeleide to pick them up. They no longer had their van. Their brother thanked us for taking care of his family, and we shook hands.

We drove away, feeling like we just experienced a miracle.

Meanwhile, the sun had set. We drove off into the night, dodging ten kangaroos (they reminded us of deer, coming out at night, but they run out in front of your car like squirrels, frantically changing direction) one enormous cow and an imaginary moose that turned out to be some tire tracks and a trick of the headlights. I insisted Joel take a break from driving after that, and we laid back across the hood of the car to look at the night sky.

There were no lights of any kind, no cars for hundreds of miles. We stared up at thousands of stars, and one long freckled arm of the Milky Way. The moon had not yet risen, but we could see each other. "Where is this light coming from?" Joel asked me. "There's no moon."

We were illuminated by starlight. Starlight, and only starlight. It was life-changing.

Then I heard a weird noise, which turned out to be the car cooling down under the hood, but Joel said, "It's a huge kangaroo with glowing red eyes right behind you," and I screamed and dove back in the car. He teased me about that for the rest of the trip.


steve said...

I really couldn't ascetain by reading your blog as to whether you actually enjoyed your time in Coober Pedy. I really hope that you did. It is always interesting to listen to the views of people that visit our town, and the region, especially when it comes to their views on the aboriginal people that frequent the area and the associated problems that are caused to locals and visitors alike. Stuart may not have been the best person to talk to about the issue but he probably does give some indication as to the frustration experienced by some of the residents of Coober Pedy who are forced to live with the constant problems that these people cause. Let me just clarify at this point that the majority of the people that you refer to in your text and photos are not from this area nor are they from the area in or around Ayers Rock. They are visitors to Coober Pedy and as such are expected, just like everyone else, to obey the rules and laws of our town.
The majority of the frustration comes due to the vast amounts of money and resources that is expended on these people, people who consistanly refuse to help themselves or each other, while local residents constantly bang their heads against a brick wall trying to obtain funding from the government that would improve the way of life for themselves, their children, and the 130,000 visitors to the town each year.
The begging, drinking, and anti-social behaviour displayed by these people is a concern, and is not made any better by tourists who have read a couple of books and think they know better,falling into the trap of accomodating these people by buying them food and drink, or succoming to their intimidation and aggressive behaviour and giving them smokes or money. These tourists then leave the town the next day and leave us, as locals, to pick up the pieces. What you don't read in the books stocked by the Cultural Centre Bookstore and other places, is that there are endless resources available in places such as Coober Pedy to assist and support them. As the saying goes though, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.
The people I feel sorry for the most are the local aboriginal people, many who are personel friends of mine, who are trying to live a law abiding life and want to become a normal part of our community and give their children the oppertunity to go to school and have a better life than themselves and their ancestors. These are the people who are effected most by the behaviour of visitors such as those that you experienced. Those who come into our town and move into the local houses and force them out. Those that drink and fight and demolish the houses that are not theirs to even inhabit, those that hang around the main street of Coober Pedy intimidating tourists,drinking and fighting. Those to give legitimate visitors to our town the feeling of insecurity, and undo all the good work done by the different orginizations in the town and region to attract tourists here in the first place.
I am sorry for going on, but you do not live here, you do not see the problems that we experience on a daily basis every single day of the year, you base your views on a one day visit and a couple of books that you have read.
You are entitled to your view, I would have it no other way, but please spare a thought for us that now have to live with the problems that you have left behind.
I really hope you enjoy the rest of your visit to our fantastic country and that as you travel further north and experience the same issues and people that you did here, you might realise that all is not always as it seems.
All the best

Chunky Photojournalist Barbie said...

Dear Steve,

Thank you so much for your impassioned response. I really appreciate your taking all the time to share your views. To address the very first thing you said, YES! I did enjoy my time in Coober Pedy.

As you can see, I've written hundreds of words on the subject, and seeing as this is an online journal whose visitors spend an average of 2.5 minutes per visit reading the latest entry, I didn't not write a blog entry cataloguing every thought and feeling that crossed my mind, and this entry only focuses on one aspect of our visit. Perhaps I should have written more about the positive experiences I have.

I didn't take the time to go on and on about the interesting museums I visited, the stark and striking views of the Breakaways, the beauty of the underground churches, or the spiritual experience of wearing my wedding ring, a Coober Pedy opal, and feeling like, in some small way, the stones had come home.

I'm sure it's difficult to read something about your hometown that you perceive as negative when it's written by a stranger. I know I didn't like it when the Australians we met assumed that the only wildlife we have in New York are rats. (Yes, someone said that to me.)

I do want to take the same amount of time to respond to you as you spent sharing your opinion of what I wrote. You made a lot of good points, and I concede that you're right on several accounts. Oh the other hand, I feel like you genuinely misunderstood what I was trying to say here. Please allow me to apologize and clarify.

You wrote, "You do not live here, you do not see the problems that we experience on a daily basis every single day of the year, you base your views on a one day visit and a couple of books that you have read."

First of all, I never ever claimed to be an expert or an authority on Coober Pedy. Second, I'm only guessing that this is your first visit to my blog, so you're not familiar with the tone of my writing. This is a pretty self-deprecating place. It's called "Idiosyncratic Life." On this page alone, I make fun of the size of my butt, my driving skills, and the fact that I got punched in the face by a camel because I was stupid.

However, when I wrote, 'What could I say to that? Well, sir. You may have been living the last 45 years of your life in the Australian Outback .... but I read a book that I got at the Cultural Centre bookstore yesterday" et al... I was being self-deprecating. I was trying to explain that I didn't SAY that to him and express that it would have been astonishingly arrogant and obnoxious if I had.

Yes, I read a book. I read quite a few, in fact. NO, I *didn't* tell the man we visited that I read them, nor did I claim to understand the situation better than he did because of that. It would have been astonishingly arrogant and obnoxious if I had. In fact, I fully admit that I don't have a full grasp on the scope of these problems and even wrote: "I just didn't know. I'm not sure I even really know now" in the first half of this entry.

Furthermore, I'm not saying that the police were unjustified in by moving along the loitering people, nor were they wrong for arresting the man who was breaking the law and drinking alcohol on the street. I was explaining what I saw happen. While I agree that Stuart wasn't the ideal person to talk to about this, and my description of the things he said to us WAS very critical of him, I don't think the aboriginal people I depict in this entry come off looking very good, either.

In the interest of keeping my entries about Coober Pedy from going on and on longer than they already were, I decided not to devote a bunch of paragraphs to the fact that there were more aboriginal people on the streets of Coober Pedy that day because it was a Tuesday, the day that people from all over the region come to this town to pick up welfare checks.

At the same time, I also omitted my praise for the Coober Pedy ordinance that tracks people who purchase large amounts of alcohol in order to find lawbreakers who then turn around and sell it to aboriginal people in places where alcohol is prohibited altogether.

One of my goals in this entry was to try to contrast our dinner with the very frustrated (in part justifiably so) miner with the thoughtful discourse we had later with the woman who provided our accommodation. She very politely educated us and explained about PM Howard's intervention. She set me straight and helped me to think about the injustice of "stolen generation" in a different light vis a vis the very real need to advocate for children in poverty.

Of course I know that the things available at the cultural centre bookstore don't tell both sides of the story. That's what I was trying to convey when I said that we learned a lot from our hostess, and when I described her as someone "who sees a lot of government money has been spent to ease the issues of poverty, lack of education, and addiction with little change."

As for what you said about traveling "further north and experiencing the same issues and people that [I] did here, I would never suggest that these problems are isolated to Coober Pedy, nor do I deny that these issues exist not only in other parts of Australia, but in the United States (and many other countries with indigenous communities that were colonized by Europeans) as well.

I haven't even gotten to the part of our trip where we go to Cairns. I met someone who devoted two years of his life to building homes on aboriginal missions. When he returned to the first places he helped construct, he found that within two years, the buildings were utterly destroyed, as floorboards and wall studs were ripped out and used as firewood.

As for "falling into the trap of accomodating these people by buying them food and drink," I approached THEM as a documentary photographer. I personally do not consider buying a less fortunate person a meal a trap, and I will always- perhaps at the expense of my personal safety- stop and help stranded motorists by the side of the road. I know the vast social, cultural, economic troubles in this community can not be solved by my act of charity, but they aren't created by a free pizza and a liter of Coke, either. If the solutions were easy, SOMEONE would have thought of them already.

As for whether or not I enjoyed the rest of my visit to your fantastic country- oh my goodness! OF COURSE I did. I hope when and if you have a little more time, you'll scroll through the other entries, see the work I did as a nature photographer, how I tried to capture the awe-inspiring landscapes. Please don't forget how I describe the view of the moonless night sky and being illuminated by starlight as "life-changing."

I know I'm just a visitor who was there for one day. I never claimed to be anything but that, and I'm sure you meet lots of visitors who think they know better than the locals.

I do ask that you please give me at least a *little* credit. I researched acts of Parliament, read up on the subject, spent time in nature, and created art celebrating Australia while trying not to damage the fragile ecosystem. At least I didn't roll into town in a gas-guzzling caravan, take a 30-minute shower in a place where water is a precious commodity, shoot the obligatory snaps of myself in front of sacred places without any thought to their meaning, buy a boomerang and walk around saying, "G-day, mate!" in a terrible impression of an Australian accent. I talked to all kinds of people: frustrated and angry people, thoughtful and instructive people, and yes, poor and anti-social people. I photographed one or two "slices of life" in a single day, and yes, then I left.

Should you ever come to New York City, you might have a similar experience. You might see the lights of Time Square, the amazing architecture and pulsing life, and yes, you would probably also encounter aggressive homeless people who ask you for money, booze and smokes. I hope you would know that that's not all there is to the place were I live, and that not everything is all that it seems anywhere that we travel in the world. However, if you do come to NYC, leave a comment here. We'll get a pizza and Cokes from the very best place in Queens- my treat.

All the best, right back at ya,
Angie a.k.a. "Chunky Photojournalist Barbie"

Goddess Leonie * said...

I know. I really know...
and felt exactly the same way about the poverty, pain and tension when we were there.