An early morning message to alert me of a cancelled flight was the beginning of a beautiful example of sliding doors. Initially I was a little baffled, but the thought of spending an extra day with new found friends wouldn’t be taxing. It also meant that I could taste the local sushi once more! What I didn’t realise in this moment however, was that my afternoon would bring strangers together to shed light on the issues of Australia. Issues that were in the limelight from week one of my arrival here, yet my perception on the situation was a little off. I’m talking about the issue of alcohol.
Up until this point my interaction with Aboriginal people had been minimal. I’d attempted conversation, but felt let down when I realised it was only welcome if there was a possibility I would give money or buy a painting from them. The attitude of many white folk had been that ‘they’ sit around all day doing nothing but drinking, ‘they’ should be avoided, especially at night time. I’d struggled to make eye contact when passing on the street and felt a real sense of apartheid in certain towns. It left me feeling really shit.
Yes, I had noticed the custodians sitting under trees at all times of the day, sometimes with plastic bottles disguising cheap wine, sometimes not. I’d witnessed arguments in the street between aboriginal families and people begging. But I had also noticed the behaviour of white Australians: avoidance of the indigenous and entire streets dedicated to watering holes. It left me questioning who, if anyone, was the cause of so much cultural tension in Australia?
Cue a most welcome conversation with a man named Armin. This 70+ Austrian gentleman has been living in Australia since he was a young lad, spending significant time living in Aboriginal communities, cooking up bush tucker and is father to a mixed-race son. It was the perfect opportunity to quiz him about his experiences and views on the evident issues.
“The issue is is that they have no where to go. Sure, there are communities for them, but most don’t want to stay there because there is no alcohol. Instead, they choose to sleep on the street and let their dirty washing hang out*. White people have pubs and houses to hide their drinking problem, that’s the only difference.”
His words really hit the nail on the head.
The strong resentment felt from white Aussies against the Aborigines drinking problem is unjust. As I’ve moved between states, for me the most obvious enjoyment for (a lot of) people here is drinking. Hostels have their own licensed bar. At least one street in each city is crammed full of pubs. Advertisement billboards highlight beer offers. Supermarkets provide eternal sales on booze. It’s considered normal – perhaps expected – to drink during the day because it is hot outside. Hell, there are even drive-through bottlers!
You get the point.
But as Armin pointed out, we as white people have the privilege to shut ourselves out of sight and hide the issues that come with heavy drinking; anger, physical and mental abuse. We have the money that allows for comfortable seating, air-con and social acceptance.
Soon we were joined by a smiling chap named Maxwell, a tribesman from the Northern Territory. He had been sitting on a bench nearby with some friends, seemingly (from the average passerby) with nothing to do.
“I hope that we can enjoy talking together. If you were sticking around longer I could have taught you my local dialect.”
Maxwell was in town for a few days whilst his sister gave birth. He is father to 10 children, has upcoming music festivals with his band, is a keen painter and is extremely charismatic. We were also informed that his uncle co-produced the film Rabbit Proof Fence – an incredible story if you have never read/seen it.
I wondered; how many people take the time to sit and talk to this man? To sit long enough to be approached, without the distraction of food or a phone. So easily can he, and many others be mistaken for ‘no-good-layabouts’ instead of warm people with stories and genuine enjoyment for the land.
Armin touched upon the physical abuse he has witnessed over the years. Women are bound to their men, and unfortunately “cop a flogging” from their drunk, drug-induced partners on a regular basis. But as we know, this is also common problem amongst the white community (although well hidden); the issue at hand are the substances on offer, not the culture or the people involved.
Alcohol has become such a norm in human society. It has got to the point that if you go to a bar and order a soft drink, people will question and/or judge you. In my experience here in Australia, alcohol is a big problem. Hard drugs are most definitely a close second. The accessibility to both is shocking.
When the oldest living culture on earth is suffering from substance abuse, and one of the richest communities are denying their shared situation, I think we have a real problem.
My short time with these people was truly special. Our encounter was really nothing more than conversation and laughter. Normal human interaction.
Set aside the alcohol, the drugs, the begging, the colour of skin, the anger and what are we really left with?
Just another person with a story.