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."
Me: "The women and children."
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.