Walking down Todd Mall, Alice Spring’s pedestrian precinct, the heat is almost unbearable. The previously chilled bottle of water has turned into a lukewarm liquid. I can taste the added minerals. Sweat beads underneath my hat trickle down my forehead. From lunch a residual film of Thai food still coats my mouth.
About me everyone’s movements appear listless, whether they be strolling or sitting down. And as I pass an art gallery’s front window, I see a sole figure seated behind a desk inside looking over the Aboriginal art on display. His gaze appears weary. Mere metres away, seated on a grassy patch in front of a building signposted ‘Aboriginal Employment Strategy’, are groups of women and young children. Some have canvases spread out in front of them.
One lady offers to explain the significance, the dreaming, elaborated on the surface of her canvas in exchange for ‘money for feed’. She gestures towards her mouth. I politely decline but give her some tobacco instead and continue down to the end of the mall. I am in need of a cold drink before heading off to Uluru. And as I round the corner, as I encounter the stretch of cars lined up at the drive-thru bottleshop, as I see the police officers parked outside checking the contents of each exiting car, I am struck by this brief encounter. I end up drinking a cider inside the air-conditioned pub.
Perhaps T.S Eliot was correct when he stated ‘humankind cannot bear too much reality.’ Sometimes I find myself in agreement with Eliot, sometimes I wonder what specific reality is he alluding to, other times I find it difficult enough to understand my own cultural reality let alone the ‘reality of humankind’. Either way I find contemporary affirmations of Australia’s multiculturalism to be of much greater interest than the words of a poet taken out of context.
For affirming multiculturalism involves choosing sides in a conflictual realm, a realm of competing visions of how different cultures can and should coexist and of the rules and social practices cultures have to share if they are to coexist.
Furthermore, when an individual or group speaks on behalf of a cultural ‘other’ (out of compassion, solidarity, friendship etc), the act of speaking lends itself to a space of disquietude: what aspects of another’s culture do I choose to recognise? How do other cultures, other human beings, fit into my own sphere of understanding, my own cultural framework?
It is not only the searing heat of Alice Springs that I find enveloping and palpable. A certain tension also swims in the air. Put simply, it is as if two distinct realities are at play, one indigenous and the other non-indigenous. As I leave the pub a lady calls out ‘Hey brother!’ – she is after some money to buy alcohol. I admire her honesty.
The drive from Alice Springs to Uluru ended up taking almost four hours. After checking in, after stowing away my luggage in a non-descript room, on the way to a pool riddled with tourists, I come across an old man seated alone on a bench not far from the bar. We make eye contact. He calls me over to come have a yarn.
His name was Tim, an elder within his community, a painter, a fountain of knowledge, and a gifted raconteur. He suggests taking me out on a tour of the surrounding land.
We traded many stories. Tim would delight in repeating the Walpirri words for ‘crazy white people’, each time breaking into a mirthful chuckle. He also provided an interesting historical account of white settlement in Uluru. More than anything else he was adamant I learn about the Dreaming of his mob.
As we sat together in front of Kata Tjuta watching a crimson sunset slowly descend behind the mass of ochre rock I remember him pointing to his head and telling me ‘it’s all up here’.
Even though I couldn’t understand everything he said I do think I had a brief, maybe somewhat superficial, exposure to a whole reality so deliberately neglected.