Friday, December 31, 2010

Day 46: The Dark Side of Alice

December 30, 2010

If you go into the ablution block at the Wintersun Caravan Park in Alice Springs, head into a cubicle and sit down on the toilet, what you’ll see in front of you, on the back of the door, is a sign that says, “Secure your valuables; thieves don’t take holidays” along with a cartoon character of a thief sneaking off with his booty. You’ll see this sign on the mirror as you’re washing your hands, this time in bright blue and laminated, and later again if you go to wash your clothes in the laundry. There’s obviously something fishy going on at the caravan park these days.

We wake up in a hot tent. Johan reaches over and pats my arm, then says, “Look at the bottom of the door.” I prop myself up and look down towards the tent door at floor level. There’s a strip of light coming through as the door is unzipped across the bottom and a few inches up the side. “Looks like you forgot to shut the door last night,” he chastises. Hardly. It’s true I was the last one in the tent, but my paranoia about mozzies, moths and gnats getting in the tent makes it highly unlikely I would be that forgetful.

I get up and look around at the assortment of stuff lying around the tent floor. Nothing’s amiss. I unzip the door and look around outside. Same. But it’s just not right. I wouldn’t have left the tent unzipped. I start searching around, looking for the wallets, phones, and other things of value. The computer and all its paraphernalia, all our other electronic gadgets, even bottles of rum and wine are all there. But where are the wallets? I look in the box that I have a vague memory of putting them in last night, underneath Johan’s hat. The camera’s in there – but where are the wallets?

Panic sets in. I look in and through everything, open the car and look through everything in there, back to the tent to look through everything again, and a third time. Our wallets are missing. And Johan’s mobile phone is nowhere to be found.

Unbelievable! How could anyone unzip the tent door, snoop around in our stuff in the dark without making any noise or mess, find the wallets and knick off – without our hearing a thing? I go down to the manager’s office. It’s 7am but he’s busy at his computer. “Oh no, not again,” he says when I tell him what’s happened. He tells me a few stories of other campers’ misfortunes, then a few of his own – he’s replaced the broken glass on his office three times in the last month. “They’re getting more brazen,” he grumbles, “because they know they can get away with it. Ninety-nine out of a hundred get away with it. The one percent that get caught get their hands slapped down at the court house and let go.” Hmm. It’s always about “them” in this town. Anything goes wrong, out of sorts – blame it on them.

He offers to go looking for the wallets in the bushes along the verge. Good idea. I head out the other direction, then cross the street and search a few hundred meters either side of the caravan park. But it’s the proverbial needle in a haystack – so many bushes – and there’s a whole field of grass and trees across the street they could have taken off into.

When I return to the caravan park the manager’s looking at some bits of paper in his hand. “She found these over next to that van,” he says pointing to his wife who’s snooping around the bushes next to an empty park van. I look at the familiar papers – receipts from my credit card transactions, a business card from the woman who cuts my hair back home, a Civic Video card from Bunbury. “Yeah, it’s all mine,” I say. But more searching through the bushes doesn’t produce any flung wallets. Time to go through the dreadful chore of cancelling all the cards.

There was less than a hundred dollars cash in my wallet, none in Johan’s. But there were four credit cards from four different banks, one in Holland. Luckily we have one phone left to start making calls with, but that one doesn’t always work the best and now keeps breaking up and cutting out as we’re trying to explain the situation to officious bank people who want all our details, pins and security questions answered correctly before they’ll do anything. Fortunately Johan’s written all the information down on a separate sheet of paper, so the process should go smoothly – if only the phone connection wouldn’t keep breaking off. Every time it does, we have to recall and start from the beginning again.

We go to the police station and fill out a form. The middle aged white cop has heard enough of these stories and, though friendly, isn’t too sympathetic. “They’re getting bolder out there,” he confirms. “We think one of them lives behind the caravan park because it happens to a lot of campers. Unfortunately we can’t nab ‘em because by the time we’re on to something, the campers have moved on and can’t make any positive identifications for us. They know they’re onto something.”

Hmm. Well, I guess that makes us just another statistic. Not that we really thought we’d get anywhere reporting the crime. But just in case the wallets get found and turned in, at least they can contact us.

I’m surprisingly unfettered by all this. The trouble is, as always, I too easily see the other side of the story: oppressed black people sitting on generations of anger, barred from the privileges white people take for granted, suffering onslaughts of racism in all its ignominious forms on a daily basis. I’d be pretty pissed at white people too. I’d have no scruples about whether preying upon them is OK or not. I’d just want my due. And a bit of extra cash to fund my addictive behaviours as a way of coping with all this shit.

It’s heating up in Alice. The morning is spent running through our chores brought on by the midnight heist in our tent. By mid-afternoon we’re spent and return to the caravan park to sit under the shade of a gum tree reading and sending emails.

After dinner I head out for a walk. It hasn’t cooled much but at least the sun isn’t beating down on us anymore. The empty field across from the caravan park is inviting, leading up to a rocky outcrop that would be fun to scramble up. But the field is full of black people, sitting, squatting and standing in circles – owning their territory. This is the inverse of the pub in town last night: white people are unofficially barred entry to this black man’s world. I stay on the footpath.

I cross the highway a kilometer down and head back towards the caravan park on the other side of the road. Dusk is settling in. Up ahead is a single black woman slumped on a grassy verge, her sandals sitting next to her and a bottle of something in her hand. It’s the kind of situation you’d want to make a beeline around if you were a lone white woman out walking in the early evening in a disreputable neighborhood. But I resolve to pass by her, not wanting to give into this ‘us and them’ environment so rife in Alice Springs.

“Hey you,” she calls out to me as I walk past. “Cannu he’p me?” Last time this happened, I smiled and walked on. I stop and turn towards the woman.

“What do you want?” I say, cautious but not unkindly. She mumbles something and rubs her belly. I squat down next to her. “What’s the matter?” Again, she mumbles incoherently and sticks her fingers into her abdomen. “Are you hungry?” I ask. “Can I get you some food?” She tries again to explain, but I can’t get what she’s trying to convey. I sit on the grass next to her. “Are you in pain?”

The woman rubs her left leg, her face grimacing while she tries to tell me what’s bothering her. She lies down on the grass, her face crumpled in pain. Yellowy phlegm comes to the corner of her mouth and she spits it on the grass a few centimeters away. She takes my hand – I resist the instinct to pull it away – places it on her belly and holds it there. I try again to enquire into her pain, but she’s gone dumb now, resting quietly on the grass clutching my hand. She moves it to another part of her abdomen, then another, then up to forehead, each time, holding it there as though I would have some special healing power over her.

I ask where she lives, what her name is, where her family is. The only thing I can gather from her muffled responses is that she has no one, no one cares for her. Eventually I give up the questioning and just sit with her, my hand on her belly. I start to massage it gently, the way I like my belly massaged when it hurts. She takes it in, then points to her leg. I rub that too. She takes my hand and holds it, curls towards me as though she wants to be held. “No one, no one…” she mutters. I stroke her face and her mat of grey hair. “Yes, I know,” is all I can think of to say.

A couple of young black men walk past. “Hey, do you know this woman?” I call out. They look over their shoulders, “Nah, sorry,” then walk on. It’s getting darker. What do I do? She lies on the grass, the Sleeping Woman, her unshapely breasts sagging to the sides of her body. She is so still, I wonder momentarily whether she’s died. But suddenly her eyes flick and open half way and she rolls over and spits another wad of yellow phlegm.

“Shall I take you to the hospital?” I prod. “They can give you something for your pain, make you feel better.” She doesn’t respond, clutching my hand. “Look, I’ll take you to the hospital. I’ll just go get my car and then I’ll drive you to the hospital. O.K? I’ll be right back.” She lets go my hand but says nothing. I get up and walk away, past a group of feisty youth hanging out in the shopping plaza parking lot. I look over my shoulder and in the twilight can just see that she’s sitting up again, clutching her drink bottle as she was when I met her.

What am I doing? What do I do now? What was that all about? I wrestle with my characteristic indecision in these rare situations that call for quick thinking and decisive action. The liberal white middle class do-gooder in me wants to help but I’m not altogether convinced I’m not being hoodwinked into a situation I’d rather not find myself in. And because of the religious bent in me I can’t help but ask, “What would Jesus do?” Jesus. He would just put his hands on the bloody woman and she’d walk away healed. Sorry, but that’s not me, lady. I’ve been trying that for years with my husband’s pain but there’s not a drop of healing magic in me. And to tell you the truth, I’m a bit spent with dealing with people’s pain, yours, his, my own.

I walk through the open gates at the caravan park where a man sits on top of a boom truck working on the security lights. Johan saunters towards me as I near the tent site. I can see in his gait a questioning worry. “I think I’ve got myself into a bit of a predicament,” I say and tell him about my encounter with the black woman. “See? This is what you get when you break the barriers between them and us. A situation you’d probably rather not be in.” But I’m resolved to follow through with my promise. Johan wants to come with me but the back seat of the car is down and loaded with stuff. And to be honest, I can only deal with one person’s pain at a time, if at all.

I drive onto the highway and towards the shopping plaza. As I near the corner where I sat with the woman, I slow down. But it’s dark now and hard to see. A police car is coming out of the plaza, turning in my direction. I veer over into the left lane, thinking it’ll pass me, wondering briefly whether I shouldn’t wave it down and get some help. But the police car stays behind me, then follows me as I switch to the right lane and turn right. I intend to make a u-turn back to where the woman was sitting, but the police have turned their flashing lights on and I pull over. I open the car door and get out. Three young white police officers come towards me. “Is there a problem?” one of them says. I launch into my story…a sick woman…on the side of the road…sat with her for a while…staying at the caravan park…thought I could help.

“You were driving a bit erratically,” another says.

“Yes, I thought I would stop and ask your advice about what I should do.”

“Don’t do anything,” one cop says emphatically. “Not in this town. People want to help them, but it’s not advised. It may be OK nine times out of ten, but it may also be a set-up to mug you. We’ll go check it out.”

“OK,” I concede. “It would be good if you could go and see if she needs any help.” And they let me get back in my car and drive away. As I pass by the spot where the woman sat, the grass is empty. I wonder if the cops believe my story. They follow me until I turn into the caravan park, then pull a u-turn and head back towards town.

I don’t doubt that the police are far more seasoned than I when it comes to dealing with Aboriginals. But perhaps they’re also more jaded by their daily wranglings with these petulant, unpredictable people. Maybe she did want to hurt me or to get something out of me in some way. The thought disturbs me far greater than the impudent thief who took our wallets last night.

Those cops probably enjoyed a good chuckle over this one – just another bleeding heart trying to do right by the black fellas of this country. But I truly can’t see that she wanted anything from me, other than a hand, to touch and to hold her.


  1. This is such an arresting story, I've had experiences like this myself, where I felt I'd been drawn close to some deep mystery about the indigenous people. But in the end I saw that I hadn't understood anything.

  2. Yes, I think that was the cause of my confusion -- I didn't understand anything. I still don't but a few days down the track I start to wonder whether she (albeit unconsciously) didn't have something to teach me -- about 'aboriginal mind' and just learning to be rather needing to do something.