Saturday, May 20, 2006

New worlds

I left Ngukurr in a hurry when I realised all of a sudden the river wasn't going to go down quick enough for me to drive out and there were very few options other than to hitch-hike out in a plane. Luckily that all went smoothly- though the pilot warned me before I go on that if they turned out to have extra passengers waiting in the next community (Minyerri) they would have to leave me there. I was relieved to not be trying to find a way out of Minyerri.

Katherine always seems like a luxurious oasis after Ngukurr and I spent a whole after noon just enjoying drinking nice water from the tap and considering all the things I would buy in the supermarket! It was a culture shock I knew it would be and I tried to take it very slowly, it was made easy by all the wonderful linguist (and other) mob there. It took me a few days to be able to ring everyone up and talk and tell them I had arrived. I suppose it took me a few days to arrive back. At first I missed Ngukurr and everyone terribly, but I have been on a few adventures since then that have kept me busy..

After a day or so lying by a pool in Darwin I flew to Sydney, had breakfast with Nic, Ruben and Marlo bought the most beautiful dress ever then flew to Armidale- went to uni unpacked all my gear said hello, fell asleep for 13hours and then got up and flew to Brisbane (via Sydney) where I stayed a a big beautiful hotel in the city and spent a day at an 'orientation' seminar with the 20 or so other Fulbright scholars. It was actually much more relaxed and comfortable than I though it would be. The main message seemed to be that they were there to give administrative and cultural support and could everyone please give some media attention to the Fulbright commission and raise it's profile, but other than that the scholarship is completely no strings attached, we are free to change our research focus at any time... The other students were (of course) extremely interesting and interested people.

Thursday night was the awards night and my parents and supervisors and I put on our finery and had a wonderful evening, eating fantastic food, watching some good performances and being substantially photographed with all kinds of VC's (vice chancellors), ministers and important diplomats. And I spent most of the time feeling well cherished, honoured and slightly overwhelmed by the company I was in. I stayed up very late talking and drinking and winding down...

Since I arrived back in Armidale I have had a good 15 hour sleep and slowly expanding my sense of self back into my own home. Feeling everything out carefully and considering everything slowly. It is good to be home.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Today, being Thursday, is the day I pay language 'informants' (someone should think up a better word than that! clients?) I have worked with in the last week. Now that I have been here for a while I can see some people have started to depend on the income it brings them working with me.

This was made very clear today when I was transcribing a telephone conversation that I had opportunistically ( and actually accidently) recorded, I was sitting there as usual with Yapang ( my sister) and my two sons, and every one started laughing (actually this happens to me a lot) explaining to me what had been said in the phone call, basically : ' I have given away my keycard to 'long-grass' somebody and I have to wait for my language money na- I don't know who has my keycard, maybe they are spending all of my pension, but I have language money now to buy food, luckily I can still buy food with the language money'. Pobala. It makes me feel bad when I say really have to transcribe and check today I can't keep recording everyday, but I am running out of my grant money myself... Everyday I go to the shop and buy something/anything so that I can withdraw the maximum cash allowed from eftpos, I do this everyday and then by the end of the week I have accumulated enough to pay everyone I have worked with.

The exchange of money is usually a clandestine affair- the worst possible thing would be to call to someone across the shop- tell them you have money to give them and then wave it and hand it over. Anyone who has lived/worked in a community will laugh just considering this. Today I had to go into the (council) office, a minute or so later my friend followed me, he signs the form, I scrunch up the money and hand it to him so none is showing, and then we leave separately.

It is done in this way because here in Ngukurr, family (and pretty much everyone is family in some capacity), or actually anyone asking for money if they need something and see you have more than them, or some to spare is perfectly acceptable, and what is even more surprising to whitefellas is that people most often give whatever they have ( or at least some of it). And this, of course is exactly what happens. Some munanga find it disconcerting and confusing in two ways, why everyone is always asking everyone else for money ( or food, or a lift in your car, or whatever else) - and secondly why everyone ( except for munanga) always give it (or almost always). And since munanga almost always have more than everyone else (money food cars etc.) it is especially confusing and exhausting, until maybe you realise this 'humbug' is a form of interaction.

I have been thinking about the idea of giving away everything you have all the time, it certainly gives you incredible freedom because anywhere you go you can ask for the things you need from the people around you and you don't have to be constantly concerned with gathering all your stuff and taking it everywhere and guarding it, actually it cuts out a lot of complications.

I have been thinking all sorts of things about this, about family and maybe 'spiritual' relationships being even more important than actually staying alive and healthy , being well fed and comfortable yourself... Which of course is my way of thinking. If my family ask me for money of course I will give it to them, but I would be surprised if they asked me everyday, or greeted me often by saying 'anything?' ( you got anything to give?)- but then I suppose I believe that if they asked me for it they had considered and that I would have considered the importance of looking after myself first ( and my family)- so asking me for money if I subsist on a pension and care for many kids, would seem unlikely unless you really really need it.

This has happened to me once, and that once changed a lot of things. This trip to Garma that had many interesting points, one of them being on the way back finally arriving at Mataranka after a bit of an ordeal (with the broken car)- anyway being very tired and very hungry and not up to unpacking the car to find some money, I asked my Mami ( an old lady on the pension) for some money to buy some food. I tell you she was very very very pleased, first she handed me ten dollars, then took it back and gave me fifty... and she squished up my face and told me to buy myself lots of things. My mami I am sure is a generally very generous person, but I think in this act I understood something important- namely that taking is a reciprocal action, it really solidified our relationship in that she finally had an opportunity to support and protect me in a way I that I had been able to do for her for a long time (anyany main mami).

It is such a good feeling being able to share what you have with someone else you care about when they have little or nothing, and up until this point I had maintained my 'individual' little bubble of a world, taking care of myself all of the time, never needing 'things' from other people, ( except of course love and interaction), but no material things, like food, money or a place to sleep. And in this way I had cut myself out of the loop. Now I had some more clues about how to build more reciprocity into my relationship with my mami and other Ngukurr family.

I have just been thinking about that book the 'City of Joy' when starving people spend their money on rice to offer to the Gods and new clothes to dance at a festival that honours those Gods. That some sort of spiritual union is more important that actually subsisting and being nourished; that living is more important than life.

Let me just reiterate that I don't think munanga culture is better or worse than blakbala culture, but it is interesting to think about differences, but put in perspective the differences are few compared to the vast amount that we all together share.

May Already...

After all the excitement I am finally feeling like I have found my feet- and now it is time to start pulling everything together, double checking and getting ready to go back. Of course, now it is so close, I really want to stay for a while longer, spend a bit more time with some of the Old people, get a car across the river so we can go on some trips ( that one to Kookaburra Creek is the only time I have left Ngukurr for this whole time!). Actually I am coming up to the longest stretch of time I have ever stayed in Ngukurr without going into Katherine, apart from getting used to 'Ngukurr store food', (where you can only buy flour in ten kilo sacks, a box of cereal is nearly nine dollars, and when they get eggs or fresh milk in everyone talks about it for days!), it is not too bad. The main problem is going to be the culture shock of leaving. The suddenness of cars everywhere, people everywhere, mobile phones broadband internet, media and 'stuff', everywhere! Talking of leaving I really don't know how I am going to get out! The river is still up too high to drive across, though I could catch the store boat across, but then I will be stuck at Roper Bar with no car (and a 300k drive to Katherine). Or maybe there will be a plane flying ( though they seem harder to come across now)....

All the pressure of going to live so far away is heavy at the moment, I can't really justify a twenty thousand k round trip back here when I find 'oops! I forgot to elicit such and such' or 'did he mean this or this??'. I have been showing some Old people where I am going on the world map, and they purse their lips and say 'tut-tut too far!', 'how long will it take you in a plane?'.. but then when I explain how big the plane is- this is no three seater plane with one propeller and windows that open ( I can't imagine 14 hours in that!), everyone apart from my mami F doesn't like the sound of it. My mami on the other hand, I can see it in her eyes- she is an adventurer and I bet she would love to come with me if she could, just to have a look, you know? She tells me stories sometimes about when she was young, canoeing down the river in a dug-out canoe (I wish I could do that with her)...

It is such a challenge to really enjoy what you are doing in the moment and not be anticipating the future, I feel like everything until I submit my thesis, is already kind of determined, I just have to follow through and breathe life into it. But then again (as my baba N would say)- you just never know what adventures lie around the corner...