When work involves learning how to cook a goanna

Its like my heart has swollen, collected itself and set itself down into the red dust here with a satisfying flop. It’s a relief, and a giddy thrill to discover work I love this much.

Not all of it, of course. Some days in an empty office I feel so momentarily isolated I could cry. The days of hours in this heat, the long kilometers in the car, the bumpy, hot noisy flights add up, and I feel so tired. The endless reams of policy and paper work to be completed. The gap between rhetoric and service delivery. The minefield of words like ‘duty of care’ and an old Aboriginal man living in a remote community, falling, seizing, and no one to care for him who just wants to stay on his country. Translating a white mans law into a country whose heat and stark red rock press into your very skin the truth that this is land ruled by an ancient law whose language I don’t speak. A dark wrinkled face folds into laughter, hair a white frizzy mane, a hand reaches out to grab mine, and I’m all here. Embraced. Present.

Life moves slower here. The adrenalin slips out of my veins, and I’m just the white blond seven-year-old whose cheeks are being pinched pink by sari-clad Nepali women who chatter around in that language whose words are slowly becoming familiar. I sit here. With the women. They speak around me. They speak to me. In English. In Kriol. In eighteen different languages that trace their way back to a time when Australia had a name we’ll never know, and was many different nations. When I sit for long enough, they begin to tell me. Tell me what I need to know, what has always been missing from my history, from my eyes when I’ve stared at this landscape. They tell me of the people who came first. Of the Spirits who walked the land. They teach me how to give birth in the bush. How to cook a goanna. Who comes from where, and how we came and stole and tore. Its living history here: selves, parents, sisters, taken to missions, hundreds of kilometers from their home. There are stories of mustering cattle and cooking damper for camps. Of living in the desert and emerging to a world of missionaries.

I’m just learning. Seeing this country for the first time. Discovering lush oases soaked by monsoonal rains, with wallabies hopping through. Red ochre cliffs, seabeds upended into the sun, mountain ranges and tablelands, and endless horizons of wilderness.

As they take my measure, I see myself through different eyes. I throw off my ‘professional persona’ with a ready eagerness, and sit in the dirt. I talk about my life rambling around the globe. I talk about getting married soon. About wanting babies. Then after all of this, they ask me how to get to their specialist appointment. They share their concern that the removal of teeth will send them into cardiac arrest. Those clinical skills I’ve trained and honed and the system I’ve learnt to navigate suddenly feels like keys and tools that I can place in the hands of these brilliant women who a Western medical system leaves standing out in the heat wondering why they’ve missed the bus. I pick up their voices and walk them into clinics and hospitals and speak them louder, to the right people. I stare brazenly at the assumption that they missed appointments out of disrespect, or stupidity or sheer rudeness. I politely beg to differ.

Its hot here. Even the cold tap in my shower can run so hot it scolds me. Some days I swear I would fly somewhere just to get cold water out of a tap. The shopping leaves much to be desired, although I’ve discovered the toiletries aisle at Woolworths can offer interesting browsing. Sometimes I just feel miles from everything. Because I am. I’m 220 kilometers from Broome, which is nothing more than a tourist outpost. I’m 2020 kilometers from Perth, which gets described as either “the most isolated city on earth” or “an overgrown country town.” The communities I visit are not just hot. They are dusty, over run with feral dogs, and the local saying “cheeky dogs” is a nice away of saying “Will attack, and likely have rabies.” Cyclones, floods and bushfires are not just a possibility but a reality. Not only are there crocodiles and sharks that might eat you in the ocean up here, but half the year, just for good measure, there is also jellyfish that can kill you. The distances are awe inspiring. And at times, exhausting. The communities I love to visit are hard to get to, and to make it worth my while, to really sit, and connect, and laugh, and maybe, eventually, help, I have to stay over, away from home and the man I love. Its not easy.

Its just worth it. Worth it for that moment when an old lady will throw back her head and sing in her ancient language. Worth it, when I can get a woman who has spent the day trying to get someone to listen her, in a car, to her specialist appointment. Worth it, to sit at the feet of people who know and can tell me the secret history of my country. To be able to bring all of me to work, to throw away pretense and mask and sit down in the dirt and share my humanity with women whose life couldn’t have been more different than mine.


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