Sunday, November 30, 2014

Recently overheard at a yard sale

me: (sorting through a pile of books at a yard sale) wow, this book is huge!
yard owner: yeah, it is huge.  My kids liked that book when they were in school.  They thought it was fun.  It helped them learn history.
me: Oh!  This is a history book?
yard owner: yes, but it is done so that the history events look like newspaper articles.  It is full of pictures and catchy headlines!
me: This book is huge though!
yard owner: well, it covers all of world history even into ancient times!  Look, it even has headlines from what might have happened 10,000 years ago!
yard owner: (suddenly pauses and looks at me for fear that he may have offended me)
yard owner: 10,000 years ago .. uh… .unless you love Jesus.
me: (laughing until nearly wetting myself)
It was the best laugh I have had all week.  I am sure he thought I was mad.  I bought the book.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Racism in the Outback

I am finally home in El Paso to enjoy Thanksgiving with my family.  After almost a year away from home, I spent the last month in the tropical savannah of northern Australia.  Upon coming home, I had many stories to tell my family from this amazing place on the other side of the world.  But for this blog, I will share a story that I have not yet shared with anybody.

I was picking up supplies in Darwin before heading back into the outback for field work.  This meant a trip to LiquorLand for a crate of delicious and expensive Carlton Draught.  The liquor store was crowded, and I was standing in line with a case of beer and a credit card.  Suddenly I heard a ruckus behind me.  I spun around and saw a young white LiquorLand cashier scold a young black Aboriginal Australian.

“Why are you doing that?!?  Why are you waving your arms around?!?”  The cashier thrust his face inches from the black man and stared him dead in the eye. “Answer me!!”

The Aborigine mumbled something I could not hear.

“That is not an answer!!  Why are you waving your arms around?!!?  Are you trying to cause trouble?!!?”

Without saying another word, the Aborigine immediately walked out of the liquor store.  I only noticed the customers in line paying any attention.  All others continued scanning the shelves for their favorite brew.  After chasing the black man out of the store, the cashier went back to his register and faced the young woman waiting at the front of the line.  She was another black Aboriginal.

The cashier’s eyes glared at the woman with razor concentration.  “Are you with him?!!?  What did he do?!!?  Why was he waving his arms?!!? “

 The Aborigine mumbled something I could not hear.

“ ‘nah’ is not an answer!!  Answer me!!  Why was he waving his arms like that?!!?  What trouble is he causing!!”

 The Aboriginal woman mumbled.  “He is not with me.”

“Now that is an answer.  That is better.  When you see him, tell him to stay out of this store!!” 

 I have seen small hints of racism in my travels this year.  I felt uncomfortable when my Slovene friends made degrading racial jokes against Serbians.  But this encounter left me dumbfounded.  Worse yet was the reaction, or rather inaction, of all the other customers in the store.  Judging by their casual attitude to unwarranted interrogation of two Aborigines, I figure this scene is still common between the two races of Australia.  I did not know what to do as I stood in line.  When my turn came up to purchase the beer, the cashier was perfectly pleasant and professional.  It is such a dichotomy in my mind when an otherwise likable young man was a blatant, unapologetic racist at the flick of a switch.  How can these two personalities exist under the same skin?  I can just imagine such a scene occurring here in a local El Paso liquor store between a White cashier and a black customer.  All customers would protest and scream bloody hell!  The cashier would be lucky to get away with just a firing but would more likely get a couple of good fists to the face behind the store alley.  The complacency of the Australian customers was what unnerved me the most about the whole episode.

I got the impression that the relation between Whites and Aboriginals in Australia was one of mere toleration and not complete acceptance.  They got along because they had to get along.  While I was escorted by my Australian hosts deep in the Outback, we passed a group of Aboriginal people, including men, women and children, trying to flag us down by their parked car by the road.  The engine hood was up; a sure sign of car trouble.  Although we had a toolbox and an emergency satellite phone, we passed them by.  I have lived in rural regions of New Mexico most of my life, and a rule of hospitality is to stop and help if you are able when you see a person in distress by the road.  There are too many sparsely populated areas up there and car trouble could be more danger for the driver than the car.  

As he drove past them, my host turned to me and said, “Some advice – when you see them trying to flag you down, don’t stop.  Just keep driving.”

I understood the rationale.  It could be a trap.  They could be armed.  They may rob us of our cash!  But  as the days passed, I traveled that same stretch of road numerous times, and while the Aboriginal family had long since left the scene, their abandoned car never left that spot on the side of the road.  Each day we passed, the car lost a little more value due to human scavengers and vandals.  If this were a trap, the thieves were certainly dedicated to keeping up the front, even at the expense of their own vehicle. 

I only stayed in northern Australia for a month, and never spoke to a single Aborigine, so I have a very biased, ignorant and myopic view of the race relations that I witnessed there.   But I do know that the British first colonized southern Australia around 1800, and the northern Darwin region of Australia around 1830 or so.  The invasion of White colonists is extremely recent in the history of the ancient Aboriginal culture.  It is only 200 years or so, give or take, that they have had to share the same land.  At only 200 years of relations, I suspect that the current relation between Australian Whites and Australian Aborigines is about the same relation that existed in the United States say about the year 1830 between American Whites and American Aborigines.  Just a hunch …

With all the traveling I did this year, Rosemary suggested I get a gig on TV like Anthony Bourdain.  Nah, that would not work for me.  My travel show would be too much like my blog articles: instead of writing about the amazing tropical wildlife that I saw, I instead write about what made me nervous and uncomfortable.  Who wants to watch that?  Besides, I can’t eat all the food that he does in his show. 

I am glad to be back home.  Happy Thanksgiving everybody.