18.01.2011 - 20.01.2011 43 °C
Finally after a week's interesting but increasingly uncomfortable travels in the desert we arrived into Alice springs. In a amusing book I recently read and highly recommend (Bill Bryson's “Downunder”) the author undertakes a road trip from Darwin to Alice Springs. He and a friend drive for several days through desert and stay at road houses that get odder and more basic as they travel. Some areas only got electricity in the 90's! Finally they reach Alice Springs, the icon of nowhereness, just to realize that Alice is a rather ordinary and civilized town who boasts to have not only McDonnalds, but also KFC and K-mart. They were terribly disappointed, having driven for that far to see the same American chains as they could back home! I, on the other hand, longed for a cold glass of water and a tomato (I know, I'm easily satisfied) and thought that Alice sounded like the modern miracle in the middle of the desert, thousands of kilometers from anything really.
Well Alice Springs is not your average town. Sure it does have the normal chains, and all the hings that a tourist destination would offer: internet cafes, souvenir shops, hostels etc. but it is NOT a normal place. For one thing, as Michele said: “what do you do when you are free? There is nothing here!” There is no beach, no city, the cinema only operates on certain days, and everything was very expensive. The isolation was tangible, our phones only had network in the very center, the internet was OK but very expensive and the whole place gave a mixed impression of tourist location and hick town with a lot of big muscular men, obviously locals, in singlets and hats. As we were looking around at the tourist office to see what there was to do in town I found an ad for ice skating in the city, “Ice skating at the conference center, all of January” it said. Ice skating! In Alice Springs, in Summer! This is a crazy world. But I guess that if Melbourne etc. can set up big Christmas trees in the city centers and eat plum pudding for Christmas lunch, Alice springs inhabitants can go ice skating. They want to be normal too, don't they? (I just hope, for the sake of global warming, that it wasn't real ice.)
Still the strongest impression that Alice Springs made on us was that of being a frontier town, not mainly in the sense of man against the wild, even though that was most certainly an aspect of it as well. No, Alice Springs is a divided town in the sense of white Australians and the Aboriginals, or blacks, as they said. It was strange and disturbing to see how there was a double society. There were loads of Aboriginals in the city, but they were mostly sleeping in the parks, drinking, or arguing loudly. The white Australians, or for that reason, Asians, Africans, or any other immigrants, seemed not to see them. They behaved towards the Aboriginals the way we do when we see drunks at the side of the road: they looked away and pretended neither to see nor hear. The Aboriginals selling paintings on the pavement were treated the same way. Though this was strange and sad, this was not the worst. I got an impression of a society that is not only divided, but also very discriminating. More than once I heard the word “apartheid” being used to try to capture the situation, though the term is not correct: there are no laws stopping the Aboriginals from getting education, jobs, or houses in the white areas. But there is rampant discrimination together with extreme social lapse. Just like with the native Americans, or the Greenlanders, drinking and drug addictions are so widespread that the whole society has collapsed. There are Aboriginal areas where they live semi traditional and where alcohol and drugs are forbidden. I don't know how it's there, but in the cities, the Aboriginals have become a large problem. Alice Springs has the largest crime rate in Australia, with burglary, rape and violence as the main features. According to our local journalist friend though, besides the burglary, the crimes were almost always directed “black on black”. The only time that white people would get involved was if they accidentally got in the way. The old history of white colonization, kidnappings of children to bring them up “civilized” and mass murder of Aboriginals make the situation very infected so that the police either try not to see what is happening, or treat the Aboriginals very racist. It is a problem that continues to the next generations. If you look at Australian health statistics the Aboriginals live in a third world country. Due to poverty, poor nutrition, unemployment etc. they have an average life length of 20 years less than white (and other ethnicities) Australians. I'm not going to dwell on the subject. I'm not an expert and don't know too much about it but it is obvious that there is a huge problem, and just as obvious that most white Australians don't want to talk about it,either because they don’t know too much about it (the problem is not visible in the most populated areas of Australia) or because they don't know what to do about it.
In Alice Springs Dana and I decided to spend the hottest part of the day indoors at the reptile center where we had the time of our life holding lizards, getting hugged by snakes and watching a thorny devil eat. On the way there we popped in to the botanical gardens, but just as the rest of the nature around the area it was very hostile and warm, with very little shade. We hurried out of it, but on the way out we stirred some bushes, and out jumps a big kangaroo. Just in front of us. He stopped a little bit away and looked at us and we got a good look at him before he jumped of. I think it was our day cause right after that an eagle flew right above us and scared up a flock of budgies that twittered away. We ended the afternoon with our travel mates at the pub where the big stubborn bartender claimed that a pilsner is not a lager and Dana argued with him until I asked for a stout instead. It had been a hot trip. A long and uncomfortable trip. Dusty and dirty. But it had also been a very good trip. Amazing perspectives, unbelievable distances, and views that we had not expected. We had learned about opals, felt the dessert heat, swam in gorgeous waterholes, and learned about the natives of Australia. It had been a good trip.
The Observation of the week:
See a report on living conditions for the aboriginals.