Pico Iyer Journeys

Rain in the Desert

Just before I’d boarded my plane in Sydney, for the three-and-a-half-hour flight in, Nicolas had added, in a casual postscript, that we might meet his companion Alison, itself a surprise from the most intensely solitary and self-contained soul I had ever met. Now we were driving through the torrential rain to an office in town that had “Alison Anderson” written all over it. Alison turned out to be the rare Aboriginal who spoke six indigenous languages and was fluent in “mainstream culture” as well, and now worked to try to mediate between the two. Until five months before, she had actually been a minister in the Northern Territory government in Darwin and now, while looking after Aboriginal concerns in Alice, she was still speaking out passionately against a welfare system that, she said, encouraged her people to keep themselves in a state of lazy dependency.

“As soon as `self-determination’ came in,” she said–her eyes were bright and she spoke directly, without hesitation–“the whitefella jumped off the seesaw, and we went sliding off into the pond. To a place of poverty, a place of despair. Some of us had to claw our way up again.” Once, forty years ago, there had been a balance, she suggested, between the recent arrivals to the country, from Europe and elsewhere, and the lands’ oldest descendants, each group observing its own laws, in its own country. Now that tribal people were trying to lead a modern urban life, and whites hoping to go back to their Aboriginal roots, there was confusion all over.

We had taken shelter in a little restaurant where a friendly, fresh-faced Kyle was serving up kangaroo tacos with a Greek word tattooed on his arm (“The first word of the Iliad,” said Nicolas casually. “It means `wrath’ ” “Yeah,” said Kyle, “It’s my favourite book. But most people aren’t interested”). Alison was talking about going hunting, as a girl, for emu and kangaroo and lizards, her pockets stuffed with prickles, or spine-covered seed casings, that she would throw at her deaf cousin when she was straying too far and light was growing scarce. She was talking about indigenous people who wouldn’t eat camels—they were sacred now because they had brought the Magi to Jesus. She was showing me the hand-signs she used, with fellow Aboriginals, to keep communications even further from the interloper, and I was thinking of the single boulder that sat atop a rock outside of town, hauntingly, in memory of John Flynn, the minister who had set up the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

Then we were in the car again, and driving out across the huge emptiness, past ghost gums and river gums, their thin, speckled barks silver in the golden light, with kite-hawks wheeling overhead. A large sign in the middle of the desert–aimed, my friends told me, at Aboriginals–said, “NO LIQUOR. NO PORNOGRAPHY,” and across it someone had scrawled, “Racist government policy.” We stopped at a little shed in the desert where some “old ladies,” who sat at the top of their Aboriginal communities, were sitting on the ground, dabbing dots onto huge canvasses, while a white patron barbecued kangaroo tails for them to eat. Some of these wild-eyed elders–“like the Queen Mother,” Alison had explained, “in terms of their authority”–pull down half a million dollars a year from their art.

“There’s a dingo Dreaming,” said Alison, calmly, as we drove back across the red emptiness, past corkwoods and ironwoods, with a few trailers and half-junked cars scattered among the bare-branched trees, under the blue, blue sky. “Where the dingo ate the caterpillar and got separated.”

“It’s like mythology?” I asked.

“Yes. But deeper. Because it’s part of you. It’s part of you.”

In the Aboriginal vision, I was learning, slowly, everything is connected; the land is in you and you are in the land, which is why to be separated from it is to lose your ground, your being.

Back in Alice, kids were jumping around in the overflowing river–a “banker” in local parlance (because it floods over the dry river-bed’s banks)–and buckets had been set up along the hotel’s corridors to catch the downpour. “Due to leek in ceiling,” a sign said, “the gym is currently out of order” (and I imagined a vegetable launching a terrorist attack, with Uzi-carrying tomatoes and vengeful pieces of capsicum behind it).

Mushrooms started coming up around the pool, and a long trail of ants began traipsing across my desk (“Flying ants?” enquired Alison. “Those ants have wings”). Frogs appeared in the desert, like portents from the Bible, and when I picked up the local paper, the Centralian Advocate (“The Arrival,” its headline had shouted, of the rains), I read of two men swept away by the waters, apparently to their deaths. In Alice a girl had almost drowned until a stranger jumped in, fully clothed, to save her. In a typical piece of Outback drollery, he had then gone to a local pub to collect himself—he’d lost his cell-phone and fifty dollars in the rescue, after all–only for another customer to start pummelling him and punching him till he was escorted, bleeding, home by the police.

“Ours is an uncut diamond,” Alison said, the next day, over lunch. “Uncut, unpolished, unshaped. And it has to be kept that way. It’s a jewel of identity, a jewel of presence. Exploit it, and the power will go, and we will break into a thousand pieces.” At night I dreamed about more journeys and conversations, all night, until I got up from my bed, feeling as if I hadn’t slept at all. Or else was still asleep as I walked out into the fresh silence, where the waters were now subsiding and the desert was returning to itself.

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