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Feeling weird in Alice Springs


“They belt the women for the grog” the guy said. Nearby was a group of aboriginal women. I had pointed out one of them who looked roughed up. His explanation right away tempered my feelings about being in Alice Springs.

We were in that remote town en-route to Uluru, sacred rock in the dead centre of Australia’s Red Heart. In Alice Springs, aborigines and Aussies live side by side but separately so. It seemed a bi-cultural kinda place to me, not multicultural in the sense I understand the word, of integration. The local tourist economy heavily leans upon wares made by the most authentic Australians of all; every second shop is an art gallery. Not even the creative neighbourhoods of London have so much art on sale. Today, Alice Springs might even owe its continuing viability to the big red rock being so popular. Everyone was rubbing along agreeably during our stay, but I wonder how enmeshed with one another other the Aboriginal and Aussie cultures are. Both are so distinctive.

I also wonder about the white guy’s explanation for the distressed-looking woman’s state. What it really means. He was making an assumption. His matter-of-factness was startling. Was he unwittingly revealing he’s okay with domestic violence? Or that he has prejudiced views about Aboriginal standards of behaviour? Is thumping your other half in fact how to get a drink in Alice Springs? I felt a funny atmosphere in that town in late 2015.

Aborigines hang about in groups or alone in public spaces, sitting on the grass, by the entrances of arcades. Meanwhile, tourists poke about inside shops or hang out at restaurants and bars. I never saw an aborigine and a foreigner in one at the same time. Maybe that’s because lagers and beers don’t agree with the Aboriginal palate – so an Aussie guide told me. They prefer a moonshine of some sort (which unfortunately I didn’t get to sample. Apparently it’s tough on western taste buds). I also didn’t see a single Aborigine queuing at the cinema for the latest Star Wars film, in the long line which snaked all the way out of the theatre on to the street. Things like this felt awkward to me. Wherefore art thou, integration.

I feel sympathy with the Aborigines. Putting myself in their shoes, I would be extremely narked at having my holy ancestral lands gathered up and enclosed by new arrivals, who also turned loose herds of marauding camels in to the natural habitat. All things considered, I believe Aboriginal society deserves credit for being so reasonable about what happened way back then (although not so long ago, really). I’m unaware of any armed insurgency to boot settlers off the land. Magnanimity like this is admirable. Aborigines are the guardians of the land, keepers of a sacred pact with the ancestors which they take seriously today. In this context, maybe western entertainments simply mean nothing. Respect is due, if so. Star Wars movies and pop culture also mean nothing to me. Except I have no important responsibilities with which to adorn my indifference; I’m just a contrary guy who enjoys doing the opposite of whatever the done thing is.

It’s a regret that I didn’t take the chance to chat with any Aborigines. Truth is, I wouldn’t have known where to begin. (I sure speak zero Aboriginal). I never felt such a gap between myself and indigenes, as I did in Alice Springs. Whatever’s happening below the surface there is a mystery to me. But a successful accommodation seems to have been struck between all the locals, so that they do okay milking the stream of tourists passing through. Mutual interests triumphant!

The photo of the straight road I took during the world’s longest day trip to Uluru from Alice Springs. The ride is hundreds of kilometres and they say the expedition really is the most lengthy on earth. We arrived home after midnight, so technically not a day trip. I let it go.